“Dead End Street” marked a shift in Ray Davies’ songwriting. His songs began to take on a more UK-specific focus. And if not political, it was at least more socially pointed, as he sings about an out-of-work, impoverished couple who wonder, “What are we living for?” 50+ years on, many still ask that same question.
“Dead End Street” (Ray Davies) Copyright 1966 Davray Music Limited. Carlin Music Corporation.
— Hey, now would be a great time to check out some of the other great Rock Podcasts on the Pantheon Podcasts network!
Greetings to all of you dedicated followers of fashion, my name is Brad Page, host of the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast, here on the Pantheon Network of Podcasts. Each episode of this show, I pick one of my favorite songs and we explore it together, on our quest to understand what makes a song great. You don’t have to be a musical expert or know anything about music theory. We don’t get that technical here. We just use our ears to do some “forensic listening” and see what we discover. On this episode, we’re digging into an all-time classic song by one of the all-time classic bands: this is The Kinks with “Dead End Street”.
The Kinks are indeed a legendary band, one of the most important and influential bands to come out of the 60’s. But in some ways, I think they’re overlooked. Although in recent history they’ve been viewed in a new light, I don’t think they ever received commercial success that’s commensurate with their influence.
The Kinks formed in 1963 in an area of north London called Muswell Hill. Two brothers, Ray and Dave Davies, were the nucleus of the band. Now, I’ve heard that their last name should actually be pronounced “Davis”, but here in America, for literally decades, it’s been pronounced “Davies”. And if I said “Davis”, no one would even know who I was talking about. And I’ve been saying “Davies” for almost 50 years. And honestly, if I tried to change it now, I’m sure I would slip up somewhere along the line in this podcast, which would just make it more confusing. So, I’m going to continue pronouncing it “Davies”, and I apologize to anyone who’s annoyed by that.
Ray Davies was the primary singer and songwriter, and he played guitar. His younger brother, Dave Davies, played lead guitar and would occasionally sing a lead vocal. The original lineup of the band that became The Kinks included Pete Quaife on bass and Mick Avery on drums. Working with producer Shell Talmy, they signed a record deal with Pye Records in early 1964. The band was persuaded to cut a version of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and release that as their first single. To be honest, I don’t think it’s a great version. From what I understand, it was a song that they’d never even played before, and it doesn’t feel to me like their hearts were really in it. Not surprisingly, the song failed to make much of a dent on the charts.
Their second single was an original written by Ray Davies called “You Still Want Me”, which sold even less than that first single. It didn’t even make the charts, but at least it was one of their own compositions.
But their third single, that was a different story.
Written by Ray Davies, “You Really Got Me” was released in August 1964 and was a number one hit in the UK. It was a top ten hit in the US. But beyond being a hit, this song earned its place in history based on their performance and the sound alone. As legend tells it, guitarist Dave Davies slashed his speaker with a razor to get that gnarly guitar sound. As opposed to blues or 50’s rock and roll, this was the sound of Rock music, arguably the first real Rock Guitar riff. It set the template for all the hard rock and, yes, heavy metal that would come. You cannot underestimate the importance of this song.
They followed that with a string of incredible singles. Most of them have become classics, including “All Day And All Of The Night”, “Tired Of Waiting”, “See My Friends”, “A Well Respected Man”, “Till The End Of The Day”, “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” and “Sunny Afternoon”. Just an amazing run of songs.
And in November 1966, they released their 15th single– at least I believe it was their 15th single in the UK—“Dead End Street”, once again written by Ray Davies.
Ray had been continually improving and evolving as a writer, and “Dead End Street” is, I think, somewhat of a milestone in he Kinks catalog. In previous songs, Ray had explored topics like class, fashion and wealth, all with a satirical bent. But he was tackling something a little more serious here. This is a song about poverty. It’s been said that this is the song where Ray’s lyrics moved from social observation to social commentary.
Ray started with a backstory for this song: it was about a couple that wants to emigrate to Australia under what was known as the Assisted Passage Migration scheme, which was instituted to increase the population of Australia. But the couple in this song can’t find a job in Australia, so the plans fall through and they are stuck in England with no work there either.
Ray and Dave’s sister Rose had actually emigrated to Australia, so that was a source of inspiration. And in fact, a few years later, Ray would write a whole concept album based on Rose and her husband—“Arthur”.
Now, in June 1966, before they recorded this track, Pete Quaife was injured in a car accident and decided to leave the band. John Dalton joined the band on bass and he plays on this track. However, shortly after the song was recorded, Pete Quaife returned to the band. So Quaife appears in the promo film for this song. It’s kind of a proto-MTV video. You can find it on YouTube, but it is John Dalton who actually plays on this track.
The band recorded two versions of “Dead End Street”. They initially recorded it with their regular producer at the time, Shell Talmy. Talmy added an organ and a French horn to the song, but the band was unhappy with that version. So when Talmy left for the day at 05:00, the band decided to rerecord it on their own, this time bringing in the great Nicky Hopkins on piano. And Ray decided that he wanted a trombone instead of a French horn. So they went down to the local pub, where a lot of the session musicians would hang out. And they found a trombone player named John Matthews, and they dragged him back to the studio to add a trombone part.
So, the song features Ray Davies on lead vocals, Dave Davies on backing vocals, acoustic guitar and bass, John Dalton on backing vocals and bass, and Mick Avery on drums, with Nicky Hopkins on piano and John Matthews on trombone.
Now, you may have noticed that I credited both Dave Davies and John Dalton with playing bass, and that’s because there are actually two bass parts on this song. One is played on a typical Fender bass, while another part is played on a Danelectro bass, which has a brighter, twangier sound. When the song begins, you can hear both bass parts with that twangy Danelectro sound right up front.
And let’s hear a little of that trombone part. And that short intro will take us right into the first verse.
At this point, Ray was writing songs so rapidly that he was pulling ideas and inspiration wherever he could find them. He was living in an old house at that time. That had a crack in the ceiling and he used that to kick off this first verse.
On the second part of the verse, Ray doubles his vocals.
The instrumental backing also follows that vocal line, which reinforces the melody. Let’s hear that all together now.
That section there that leads us into the chorus that takes advantage of the woozy but mournful sound of the trombone, and there’s a nice simple snare drum fill that kicks off that part.
Really nice use of gang vocals here. Leading into the chorus, Ray sings, “We’re strictly second class and we don’t understand.” And then the crowd chants “Dead End” like they’re voicing their anger and frustration.
Then the call and response pattern switches. Instead of the crowd chanting first, they respond to Ray’s call of “Dead End Street” with a defiant “yeah”.
And that brings us directly into the second verse.
And that trombone plays a pretty prominent part in this verse.
Let’s listen to that.
And here’s the part of this song where he talks about losing the chance to emigrate to Australia and not being able to work.
“People live on Dead End Street, people are dying on Dead End Street, I’m going to die on Dead End Street”. You know, a lot of Ray’s songs are satirical, sardonic, farcical, but this song, lyrically, this song can be straight up bleak. I think Ray saw himself as kind of a champion for these people. The working class. He would mock those of us who were pompous, spoiled and greedy. But at this point anyway, he sympathized with the common man.
Mick Avery does some tasty little drum fills during the chorus, so let’s go back and listen to that.
That brings us to a short instrumental section that features the trombone. You can also hear that twangy Danelectro bass here. And they also add in some hand claps.
Let’s bring up the vocals again on this chorus.
There’s some terrific bar-room style piano under the chorus, played by the great Nicky Hopkins. Nicky was the go-to guy at the time. He must have been the busiest piano player in England all through the into the 70’s, he played on so many records. Let’s see if we can bring up his piano in the mix.
As the song approaches the final fade out, the hand claps return and the trombone takes a solo on the way out.
The Kinks – “Dead End Street”
As I mentioned before, The Kinks shot a promotional film for this song. It’s one of a number of films that could claim to be the first music video; it’s always a fuzzy science to determine the first of anything like this, but the clip for “Dead End Street” was definitely a very early precursor to the MTV style video. Instead of lip syncing to the song, the film shows the band acting out a scene where they’re dressed as undertakers carrying a coffin. Eventually the body, or the ghost from the body, jumps out of the coffin and escapes.
Of course, the BBC refused to show it, they said it was in bad taste. But you can watch it on YouTube now.
Thanks for joining me for this episode. If you enjoyed this one, there’s plenty more like it. You can find all of our previous shows on our website, lovethatsongpodcast.com. Or just search for the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast on Amazon, Google, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere that you can find podcasts, you’ll find this show.
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YouTube (Dead End Street Promo Film)