For reasons I don’t quite understand, I woke up with the Kinks’ ‘Come Dancing’ in my head yesterday. It’s a catchy little ditty, but it really can’t hold weight versus the rest of the band’s oeuvre. But it did introduce the band to a new generation of fans, and I was at the tail end of that generation when ‘Come Dancing’ shot up the pop charts in 1983. I don’t think I’d heard the song in close to 20 or 25 years. Listening to it yesterday, I was struck by how different the track is from the classic Kinks oeuvre. It’s very much a 1980s song, driven by a horrible keyboard riff. But it is also heavily influenced by ska and reggae, in the beat, and in the way Davies delivers the lyrics. The horns that are meant to reflect the Big Band era sound more like they come from Specials, by design, of course.
Anyway. As I listened to the lyrics, I thought about how nostalgia works. For those not familiar with the song, Ray Davies, the Kinks’ frontman, is singing about the new parking lot on the piece of land where the supermarket used to stand. Before that, they put up a bowling alley, on the site that used to be the local palais. You see, as Ray was growing up in the 40s and 50s, his big sister used to go there on a Saturday, where the big bands used to come and play. And a series of dates would all ask her to come dancing. And so on.
In a lot of ways, ‘Come Dancing’ is just more of the 1980s nostalgia of the 1950s, which dominated pop culture in a lot of ways that decade, as the oldest baby boomers were hitting their 40s and seeking to hold onto their youth. Davies himself was 38 when he recorded the song. But it is this nostalgia, mixed with the new forms of British music, that I found so fascinating as I listened to the song four times in a row, trying to parse its meaning, its music, and its message.
At the core, Davies is engaged in that nostalgia, mostly his sister’s experience (he has six sisters), as a teenager/young adult in the 1950s. It was a chaste time, as all these poor lads who took her out blew their week’s wages for a ‘cuddle and a peck on the cheek.’ It’s a harmless little ditty in that sense.
But what got me was the line:
The day they knocked down the palais
My sister stood and cried
The day they knocked down the palais
Part of my childhood died, just died
Indeed. The late Svetlana Boym, the foremost thinker on nostalgia of our time, says nostalgia is a very real sentiment. It should not be dismissed as kitsch. It is a very real display and affect of a form of psychological trauma. And while we all experience this, it is a quotidian trauma, it doesn’t make it any less real. So, it is entirely possible that Davies and his sister stood in front of the palais, her crying and he thinking a part of his childhood had died.
But, of course, one of the reasons why that palais was knocked down was because it was a dinosaur. The big bands no longer roamed the earth. They had been replaced by rock’n’roll. And how did Ray, and his younger brother, Dave, Davies get famous? They fronted one of the most important rock bands in history, the Kinks. In other words, Ray and Dave Davies, and other rockers like them, they led a new culture that replaced the one their older sisters grew up in.
The song is actually a tribute to his older sister, René. She was living in Canada with an abusive husband, when she came home in 1957, and bought Ray a Spanish guitar he had wanted for his 13th birthday. On that same visit, René, who had a weak heart, died of a heart attack on the dance floor of the Lyceum in London. But we are remarkably complex beings, and certainly, René’s death remained traumatic for him, even 20-something years on. But, as Davies also notes, he wrote the song to commemorate the 50s, to try to get the Kinks closer to their roots after their stadium rock era of the 1970s.
And so nostalgia works in complex ways. Despite being at the forefront of the movement that killed the big bands, Davies also got his first guitar from his older sister who lived to dance, and died on the dancefloor. And so, now, 25 years on, the end of the palais was indeed the day part of his childhood died. And the late 30s Davies saw something the 20-something Davies did not.
Now, if only someone would rescue this track and properly cover it, getting rid of those horrible keyboards.