The Kinks, “Come Dancing”

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Videos by American Songwriter

Many of the leading lights of British rock and roll from the ’60s and ’70s found themselves at sea in the early ’80s. In some cases, these artists tried to modernize their sound to fit the MTV era and lost their identities in the process. Others pretended as if nothing had changed and sounded completely out of touch.

The Kinks were able to sidestep these issues for the most part because Ray Davies has always been a malleable songwriter, just as comfortable writing a vaudevillian ditty as he is churning out a thunderous rocker. There are bits of both of those extremes in their biggest 80’s smash, 1983’s Top 10 U.S. hit “Come Dancing.” The bright, buoyant sound the band conjured wouldn’t have sounded at all out of place at a 50’s dance hall, but Dave Davies’ thunderous guitar break showed all the nascent hair metal bands just how it was done.

Found on the 1983 album State Of Confusion, “Come Dancing” freely indulges in nostalgia, somewhat bittersweet but ultimately uplifting. Yet the song was born from a tragic incident in the life of Ray Davies: the death of his older sister Rene of a heart attack at age 31 on the same day she gave Ray a memorable 13th birthday present.

“She also gave me my first guitar on my birthday as a present,” he told NPR in 2014. “We played it. It was quite a surreal scene, almost. It was a sunny day. I was born on a mid-summer day, so the 21st of June. And she was told she had severe heart problems, but she loved to dance and the doctors told her if she walked down the road, she’d probably have a heart attack. So she bought me this not very expensive Spanish guitar [and] gave it to me on my birthday. We played a few songs. She played a song on the piano and I tried to play with her and she said she was going out now and I watched my sister go out. It was a sunny afternoon. She walked down the road and my mother stood at the gate and that was it. The next morning we got a call from the police. She had died dancing in a ballroom in London in the arms of a stranger.”

In the first verse, Davies lets us know just how much time has passed since his sister would dance the night away at the Palais, as a bowling alley, a supermarket, and a parking lot have all taken their turns occupying the land where the dance hall once stood. In the second verse, he looks back with admiration at how his sister would handle her suitors: “In the hallway in anticipation/ He didn’t know the night would end up in frustration/ He’d end up blowing all his wages for the week/ All for a cuddle and a peck on the cheek.”

The bridge shows a young Davies watching both his sister’s battles with his mother when she comes home too late and, in a brief spoken-word section, her sweet partings from her paramours. In the final verse, he reveals matter-of-factly his own fate in life (“Now I’m grown up and playing in a band”) and that the roles have been reversed; his sister now watches her own daughters heading out to dance at night.

Of course, that’s not how things really turned out for Davies’ sister, but the songwriter has the power to provide a more benevolent ending than fate sometimes offers. When Ray Davies heads into the last refrain of The Kinks’ “Come Dancing”, it’s easy to imagine he’s calling out to her in the afterlife: “And if I asked her, I wonder if she would/ Come dancing/ Come on sister have yourself a ball/ Don’t be afraid to come dancing/It’s only natural.”

Read the lyrics. 

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