The Kinks’ “Come Dancing” (1982) is a bouncy, catchy, almost silly little song with one of the saddest back-stories I’ve ever heard.
Ray Davies, the leader and songwriter of the Kinks, grew up in a large and eccentric working-class family in north London. He was the seventh of eight children, a somewhat shy and easily frightened child whose chief comforter was his sister Rene, who was eighteen years older than him. (Davies spells her name that way, without an accent or a second “e.”) During the Second World War, when Ray was just an infant, Rene had fallen in love with a Canadian soldier posted in London, married him, and moved to Canada.
But their marriage was unhappy. Rene’s husband drank heavily and sometimes beat her; they argued constantly, and to escape him she would frequently return to the family home in Muswell Hill for extended stays, at first alone, later with her son. Like all of the Davieses she was musical, and enjoyed playing show tunes on the piano; the family tended to sing and play its way through hard times, of which they had plenty.
Rene was making one of her visits home when her kid brother turned thirteen, which she believed to be a special birthday deserving of a special present: she bought him a Spanish guitar he had been coveting for some time. She sat at the piano and they played a song together.
That evening, Rene decided to go dancing with friends at the Lyceum Ballroom in the West End. This was not, in the opinion of her doctor or her mother, a good idea: Rene had had rheumatic fever as a child, and it had weakened her heart. But, as Ray would write later in his autobiography, she had always loved to dance, and her life was hard and her violent husband very far away; she was not inclined to deny herself a cherished pleasure. On the dance floor of the Lyceum that evening Rene collapsed and died, as the big band played a tune from Oklahoma!
Only a quarter-century later did Ray Davies write the lively song that celebrated his sister’s love of dancing: a song that gave her a longer, and happier, life than had been her actual lot. The song may not be your cup of tea — it’s not quite mine — but ever since I learned what lies behind it, it has touched me.
Come on sister, have yourself a ball,
Dont be afraid to come dancing,
Its only natural.
Just like the Palais on a Saturday,
And all her friends will come dancing
Where the big bands used to play.