When casual fans consider the division of labor in The Kinks, they likely think of Ray Davies as the songwriter and frontman and brother Dave as the flamethrower on lead guitar. But close followers of the band can easily find several times throughout the band’s storied career when Dave Davies took over lead duties, as both songwriter and vocalist, and triumphed. “Death Of A Clown,” listed originally as a solo tune by Dave but included on the band’s wonderful Something Else album, and “Living On A Thin Line,” a moody 80’s anthem, are just two standout examples of many.
Perhaps Dave Davies’ most poignant moment out in front of the band came with his sweetly sorrowful ballad “Strangers,” which can be found on 1970’s Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. While “Lola” got most of the attention as the hit single and an example of Ray’s clever subversion of societal mores, “Strangers” has endured as one of The Kinks’ most heartfelt ballads.
As Dave explained in a 2010 interview with Stay Thirsty magazine, a thwarted friendship was the impetus for the lyrics. “We were dear friends,” Davies said, talking about his pre-Kinks buddy George Harris. “Actually, George and I were going to start a band, but he got too heavily into drugs and it kind of pulled us apart. The drug thing was like a three-way affair. He died of a methamphetamine overdose. They found him departed … he was young. I always felt it was going to be me and him. I didn’t think at that age that it was going to be me and Ray. So I really kind of wrote it to him; ‘Strangers on this road we are on, we are not two we are one.’ It was like, what might of been if he hadn’t died so tragically.”
“Strangers” acts a kind of companion piece to Ray’s “Days,” another acoustic track that vacillates somewhere between tribute and lament. The narrator of this song addresses a friend who seems to have separated from him on life’s journey. What emerges is not just a portrait of the lost pal but also of the person who’s searching for him.
The repeated line “If I live too long I’m afraid I’ll die” is Davies’ homage to Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive,” and it’s also a telling admission of the narrator’s fear of what lies ahead. It’s why he keeps reaching out to his friend for reassurance, asking him questions and promising him fidelity even in the face of a void between them which can’t be breached. “So I will follow you wherever you go,” Davies sings. “If your offered hand is still open to me.”
The narrator tells how he is beset by company he doesn’t want to keep (“I see many people coming after me”), and promises to shed all burdens just to be reunited with his true companion: “And if I feel tomorrow like I feel today/ We’ll take what we want and give the rest away.” Yet they paths fail to intersect, one always a little bit behind the other: “So you’ve been where I’ve just come.”
For all this frustration and torment (“And my mind is proud but it aches with rage”), the warmth of the song’s sentiment eventually wins the day, especially when we get to the simple, lovely refrain: “We are not two, we are one.” It promises a bond that can’t be torn apart by circumstance, time, even death. These two are “Strangers” to all but each other, and, in this poignant example of Dave Davies’ underrated songwriting opportunities with The Kinks, that’s good enough for them.