Around the time Dave Davies scored a hit in 1967 with “Death of a Clown,” he had a spiritual awakening and began questioning mortality. The lyrics of the song, which he co-wrote with his brother and Kinks bandmate Ray Davies, tells of a performer who has lost his spark but must go on with the show anyway. “We all wear masks, pretending to be something we’re not,” he says now. “‘Death of a Clown’ was kind of a trigger point saying, ‘What the hell am I doing? Am I just a clown, dancing and making people laugh? Is that all I am?’ Of course, I realized I’m not. But questions were coming at me thick and fast.”
They continued well into the next decade, as he began to experiment more with writing songs by himself. At the time, though, he wasn’t ready to put them out.
A new compilation, Decade, collects just over a dozen tunes Dave cut between 1971 and 1979 and shows all the different existential quandaries he explored before releasing his first true solo LP, 1980’s AFL1-3603. There’s the freewheeling “From the Cradle to the Grave,” whose chorus goes, “I’m running from the cradle to the grave,” and the bluesy “If You Are Leaving,” on which he sings, “How can I love you when I’ve got no shoes on my feet?” And then there are instrumentals like “This Precious Time (Long Lonely Road)” on which he works through everything he’s feeling in one dramatic guitar solo. It’s a fascinating look at where his head was at during a time when only a couple of his songs made it onto Kinks records.
Ask Davies why he didn’t release these songs at the time – songs, it should be noted, like “Islands” that he wrote about in his autobiography, Kink, but nevertheless held onto – and he says it was a symptom of the time. “I didn’t know what to do with the songs,” he says. “Ray was going in one direction and my creativity was turning inwards.” Still it’s been 40 years since he recorded some of these. “Has it been 40 years?” he asks, sounding amazed. “It’s a bit of a relief for me to get these songs out because they’ve been nagging at me for all these years.”
The project is a sequel of sorts to Dave’s 2011 Hidden Treasures comp, which focused on his songs from the Sixties. His sons, Simon and Martin, began excavating for his lost recordings and found the tapes in attics, storage and in random places like under beds. When Dave heard them, they made him feel too emotional, so he asked his son, Simon, to finish up its production. When he heard the finished record, it moved him.
“It’s funny, you do something that long ago,” he says, “but the feelings stay with you.” When he listens to the songs, he’s most struck by the spiritual and emotional searching he was going through at the time. One that stands out, the folky ballad “Web of Time” with its dual-harmony guitar solo and cosmic effects, reminded him of how he felt the human race was battling away with the “same old demons.” “We are going through changes, we share the land beneath the stars,” he sings. “And while we’re silently watching, the web of time will steal us away.” It has even more gravity for him now since it could have been written today. “I thought in the future there would be some kind of unity in humanity and there would be peace and things would change for the better,” he says. “I listened to ‘Web of Time’ and it seems like we’re exactly at a similar point we were at all those years ago.”
Another song that seems to mean the same thing to him now is “Cradle to the Grave,” the album’s lead single. “I know now what our fate will be,” he sings, his voice sounding ragged amid mushy guitars and organ. “It’s how I felt at the time,” he says now. “I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I felt very passionately and deeply about moving forward and how we should all move forward as a human race. It’s not just about me. So when I’m singing about the man with his head in his hand, I was looking at me. But the man is looking at me or people in a similar emotional, spiritual situation as me.”
He was also moved by hearing “Midnight Sun,” an easy-rocking tune about chasing the horizon again. It’s one he’d written about George Harris, a childhood friend who would skip class with Davies, listen to Lead Belly records and figure out with the musician how to play the blues on guitar. They’d considered forming a band, but then the Kinks got together, with Harris traveling the world and losing touch with Davies. When Davies got back from a tour of America, he tried to hook up with him and asked his mother where he was. “She broke down and told me about him dying of a drug overdose and how he’d been living in the street,” he says. “It really disturbed me in many ways. So I carried these thoughts with me. ‘Midnight Sun’ is about me and George’s dreams.”
Davies has a run of dates scheduled for the U.S. in 2019 and hopes to revive some of these Decade tunes for the tour. “We can’t do them exactly the same onstage, but we think there are three or four songs we can work on,” he says.
When he ponders whether the Seventies were a happy time for him, after reliving it through Decade, he says, “Yes and no. It’s both.” By his estimation, he was having a nervous breakdown in the early Seventies but just kept functioning the best he could. “It was quite a lonely time,” he says. “You can absolutely crash and be with people and still be very lonely. I was struggling through, just making my way. These days, [making music] is such a fabulous way of working through psychological, spiritual and creative problems. Music helped save me many, many times when I look back.”