Dave Davies on the Beauty and Meaning of “Strangers”
RNR Globe exclusive interview with the legendary Kinks guitarist about one of the band’s most enduring tunes and also gives a reunion update
I had a deep conversation with Dave Davies about one single song: “Strangers,” his superb, elegiac song about the power of addressing uncertainty and how we find companions on the open road to fearlessness.
The song (the second track on the Kinks magnificent 1970 album, Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One) has had a joyous second life both as an autumnal and profound accompaniment to film and TV soundtracks, and as an intense and credible cover song, performed by artists like Norah Jones, Wye Oak, and Lucius. “Strangers” has truly grown in stature over the years, and emerged as one of the major Kinks songs of that era.
“I think it took a long time. It took a long time for people to even understand the song,” notes Dave Davies, in a soft, kind, but certain voice. “Perhaps people originally thought it was some kind of hippy shit. And, of course, Ray being the dominant writer, it kind of got lost.”
Like “Mindless Child of Motherhood,” “Love Me Till the Sun Shines,” or “Trust Your Heart” (arguably the best song on the Kinks’ Misfits album), “Strangers” displays that Dave Davies, one of the most powerful and emotive singers and songwriters of his era, was hiding in plain sight in one of the greatest bands of all time.
The extraordinary depth, skill, and consistency of Dave Davies is in full evidence on Decade, a 2018 collection of previously unreleased Dave Davies songs, all written and recorded (mostly) in the 1970s. As I wrote in The Rock and Roll Globe at the time of its release, Decade “not only re-writes the story of the Kinks, it re-writes the story of British rock… It reveals that throughout the 1970s, David Russell Gordon Davies was doing unreleased work that was as good or better than what brother Ray was recording and releasing.
These tracks, this secret history, reveal that Dave was writing and recording some of the most evocative and emotionally rich work of any artist of the entire decade.”
On top of that, Dave Davies is absolutely one of my very favorite people to interview: He is open, kind, introspective, and always willing to investigate new angles of his heart, his music, and the universe around him.
VIDEO: Truth Be Told TV trailer
Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see “Strangers” used prominently in the new Apple TV+ original series, Truth Be Told. In fact, the song is not just dropped in the soundtrack; it is an actual factor of the plot. I explained to Dave that I was rather startled at the prominent placement of “Strangers” in the series, which stars Octavia Spencer, Aaron Paul, Lizzy Caplan and Elizabeth Perkins.
“When you contacted me, I wasn’t even sure what the show was!” Dave notes, in an early morning phone call. “I remember getting a request for a few things through the publisher sometime last year. They send you a little synopsis of something, and if it sounds reasonably okay you’ll say, ‘Okay, we’ll do a deal on this one, let’s do it.’ It was probably one of those. So they used it in a good way?”
Our interview begins….
Yeh, it’s used in a brilliant way. In an earlier episode they had shown a favorite aunt driving these twin girls around in a van, and she was playing them “Strangers” and obviously there was a real connection the family had with the song. Then the climax of the fourth episode is the funeral of that same aunt; and the twins, who are now not only adults but estranged, stand up and sing the song in the church.
Wow. I got a chill when you said that! That sounds pretty powerful.
A lot of filmmakers have used “Strangers,” and lots of artists have covered it. Why are people are so attracted to it?
Well, the original idea behind the song was that we have to dispense with the normal ideas about society, and we have to tune into some higher collection between our souls, as family members or just as partners in humanity. We have to train our minds to look at the terrain from a higher point of view. That’s really what the song is hopefully trying to trigger. When I first wrote it, it was about rising up towards a higher plane of perception.
When I was a teenager, I probably presumed “Strangers” meant one thing, but then as I grew older, a different meaning – perhaps the real meaning – emerged. As I aged, it occurred to me that “Strangers” was about connecting, in a very positive way, with helplessness, and about the acceptance of helplessness and fear.
Yes. I like that word ‘helplessness.’ Many times during our lives we go through all kinds of emotions, and this involves, many times, being confronted by feelings of helplessness. But I do think that we all have the capacity to rise above our helplessness, and we can avoid the pain by sharing what is going on.
It occurs to me that the lyrics to “Strangers” anticipate the personal, artistic, and astral voyages you took in the 1970s and ‘80s when you made a real effort to establish that a major part of your life and journey was going to be about interacting with something that was not immediately visible in this realm.
Yes it does. It grows out of those feelings of oh, I’m tired of all this bullshit, and lying, and people having contempt for each other. What is the point of all that? And you go through a process of going beyond all these basic emotions, trying to reach a place that is more – oh, transcendental is a big word – but more finding these other ways. I do find we all have this profound connection with each other. You cannot intellectualize this. It is beyond that. It’s like when you write a piece of music – it drives you insane because you can’t explain it, but it just moves you.
“Strangers” has a very prominent place on the Lola vs. Powerman album – it’s the second cut on the record — though on the surface the song doesn’t necessarily appear to fit into the overall concept of the record.
If you stand back and look at the whole album, a lot of it is about Ray and the Kinks’ problems with the music industry. I’d seen Ray go through very tormenting reflections about why the hell this was all going on, and why people were doing the things to him that they were doing, and by way of help, as a way of helping him, “Strangers” just came out. It was my way of helping him through this confusion, this torment he was having with the music industry. Maybe it was a suggestion of how we could work at an alternative plan.
AUDIO: The Kinks perform “A Long Way From Home” live in 1970
On the same album, “Long Way From Home” feels like a companion to “Strangers.” Was this deliberate? It almost feels like “Long Way from Home” was Ray was trying to write a song from your perspective.
It’s one of my favorite Ray songs. Many, many times during our lives, me and Ray, a lot of these feelings mutually crop up about how we are lost, but c’mon, together we can do this! We can find another route, another route back to home, to one-ness, to safety. “
Strangers” and “Long Way From Home” are similar songs. There is a lot of wonderful music on that album. “Long Way From Home” and “Powerman” are magnificent, those are my two favorite cuts from that album. “Powerman” goes back to the original angst of the band, the driving motivation, when people were trying to put us down and shit on us. We had to fight the world. When we were kids growing up, Ray, Pete Quaife, and me even though we had great times, exciting times, it was still like a fight. “Powerman” reflects that.
At the time of Lola vs. Powerman, the band had just been through some transitions. In a purely musical sense, “Strangers” makes great use of the new band: the old band, the band featuring Pete Quaife on bass, played on top of the beat, whereas the Lola vs. Powerman group – with John Dalton on bass and John Gosling on organ—tends to play behind the beat.
That’s an interesting observation. I like that. Often when you try to write, and when you record, the most rewarding feeling comes from that pause, that weight, that you sometimes sense after the beat. Sometimes that shifting rhythmic sense helps a lyric come out, an idea come out. So it’s terribly interesting you mention that. I think John Gosling was – is – a very sensitive guy.
Sometimes in the Pete Quaife era, there’s this wonderful sense that you are chasing him, like his rhythm is really leading the band. But when Dalton replaced Quaife, he is generally sitting behind the beat, he’s following the band, he’s waiting to see where you go. He’s not running a race with you, as Pete often was. That changes everything, in my opinion.
That’s pretty true. But that’s one of the fascinating things about being in a band: Locking into different people’s feelings. John Gosling was hugely sensitive to the feeling of a song. Now, the whole thing about Pete is, I grew up with him and went to school with him, we were mates and we never questioned each other’s musicality, it was unspoken, we just did it; it was very instinctive, me and Pete. He added so much attention and individuality to Kinks’ music. It changes when you get new people.
I must ask…what are you up to now?
Well, I’ve been trying to work with Ray on some ideas, maybe new, maybe refurbished Kinks stuff…and I am also trying to work on an album with Russell (Davies), Open Road Two, if you like. Russell is really amazing – he landscapes – you feed him some ideas and he just places them in a landscape.
As we’ve discussed before, I’m fairly vocal about the fact that I think a reunion doesn’t necessarily add anything to your legacy. It’s courageous of you to resist that temptation to just go for the easy money and head out on the road with the Kinks.
That newness, that feeling of newness and discovery, that is really powerful within me. If I feel like I am just treading water I find it really depressing. That’s just the way I am made. I am very proud of my musical past – immensely proud – but I think the real joy is discovering what’s around the corner. I am always looking, always searching for something. Sometimes you find a puzzle piece hiding in the future, sometimes you find it hiding in the past. And sometimes it is right in front of you. The journey is continuous.
AUDIO: The Kinks “Strangers”
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3 thoughts on “Dave Davies on the Beauty and Meaning of “Strangers””
A thoroughly beautiful (and insightful) interview. Thanks.
Dave Davies is a very rare deep sensitive mystical soul and very under rated in the music world – his kind ambiance and willingness to communicate and remain adventurous is very inspiring and refreshing – love and his brother Ray
Dave Davies is a very rare deep sensitive mystical soul and very under rated in the music world – his kind ambiance and willingness to communicate and remain adventurous is very inspiring and refreshing – love him and his brother Ray