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A conversation with Dave Clark

Elton John spelled it out pretty succinctly during The Dave Clark Five and Beyond—Glad All Over, the two-hour documentary that premiered last night on PBS and will be rebroadcast Friday.

The Dave Clark Five
Dave Clark International

In the 1960s in England, he said, there were The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Dave Clark Five. But Bruce Springsteen distinguished the DC5 from the other two: Their records, he said, were bigger sounding that both The Beatles’ and Stones’, and sounded as if they were “ripped out of the radio.”

The ironically soft-spoken Clark graciously took time prior to a PBS screening Monday night in New York to talk about the documentary, and his extraordinary career:

Mike Smith [the DC5's lead singer and keyboardist who died in 2008] performed here at B.B. King’s, and for those who were lucky enough to be there, it was a transcendent experience.

I wanted him to carry on when we finished [in 1970, when Clark disbanded the group] and he didn’t want to perform at all. He enjoyed it when I was there.

It probably couldn’t have been the same. You made such monster records. In the documentary, Steve Van Zandt calls them “the most powerful records ever made.” The legendary rock ‘n’ roll DJ in Madison, Wisconsin, Rockin’ John McDonald—whose Saturday evening show on WORT-FM, incidentally, is called I Like It Like That, which you did a hit cover of—recently played “Glad All Over” and said how your records were recorded loud.

We did, because I was independent. Record companies told other artists what to record and how to do it. You had to see that the needles on the meters didn’t go beyond so many decibels. But I went all the way to the top, and the songs jumped out of the grooves! As long as [the volume] didn’t distort, they couldn’t complain.

What was it like back then?

They all played by the book, in those days. It was all very regimented. The reason I turned down the first deal I was offered was because they wanted to pick the songs, and in those days it was quite corrupt. They actually got backhand fees for artists recording their songs! I put up with a lot of crap because it was my first record.

But you’re legend, not only for your music, but for your business savvy.

The only person I took on was the greatest publicist, Leslie Perrin. I thought that was the most important thing. We were playing to 6,000 people a night at the [premiere North London dancehall and the DC5’s home base] Tottenham Royal, and were voted the best live band in England and playing ballrooms all over the country.

Was it unusual to name the band after yourself?

When I brought out the first record, they said, “Dave. You cannot put out your name on it.” I said, “Why? I produced it.” They said, “Radio won’t play it,” because the music publishers were all up in arms. So the first few records came out as Adrian Clark. People asked if it was my brother, and it wasn’t until “Glad All Over” hit so big that I told the truth and said, "It’s me." But there was a lot of animosity toward us because we were doing it on our own. They could see what would happen: George Martin was working with The Beatles, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Cilla Black and Billy J. Kramer, and he was only getting 30 pounds a week! Then he went out on his own and was a huge success.

What else did the record companies do?

Looking back, if they had a huge artist with big success, to break a new artist, they’d give distributors lorry loads of records for nothing to play the new artist. Makes you wonder how many records we and The Beatles really did sell, had they not given so many away in lorry loads.

Anything else?

We were in Chicago at a meet-and-greet signing autographs, and someone gave me our album to sign, and of course it had been reproduced in stereo—but it wasn’t stereo, but the mono on one channel and its echo on the other. That happened a lot.

When CDs came, you kept your records out of the market.

I saw CDs coming in, and thought I’d run the vinyl [album copies] down and the CD market would pick up, and then I’d bring them out on CD. If it had been a monetary thing I’d have kept them out there because they were always earning from sales and publishing. But it was never a monetary thing: We wanted our music to be played on record as it was recorded.

How did you feel in relation to The Beatles and the Stones?

The Beatles and the Stones were making great records, but I was surprised that a lot of people said we were clean-cut, which was only because of our white shirts and all that. The funniest thing was Rick Nielsen from Cheap Trick said that watching one of our concerts in Chicago was like being on drugs before drugs were invented!

A lot of your early hits were covers of American hits.

Those songs, like [The Contours’] “Do You Love Me” and [Bobby Day’s] “Over and Over”--or [Chris Kenner's] "I Like It Like That"--we’d picked out of the jukeboxes at the American military bases we played early on. Singers in England like Cilla Black would copy every Dionne Warwick song note-for-note, and as an Englishman, I thought that was wrong: If we do it, we make our own interpretation—we actually tried to make all our songs our own, and that was important. But we never thought a heavy metal group would be into us and not The Beatles--even The Ramones did a whole interview for my book and were totally into it, from the very last song they ever recorded, “Any Way You Want It.”

Speaking of heavy metal, Gene Simmons—in full Kiss regalia--actually comes off better in The Dave Clark Five and Beyond—Glad All Over than most everyone else!

That blew me away! I had nothing to do with the interviews, though I’d asked the people to do them—like Tom Hanks, because he’s a big fan. I didn’t want anyone to get up there and bluff it through, but get up there because they wanted to do it. But I wanted Gene to be in makeup because of the yin and yang [compared] against Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen. He analyzed the songs, which surprised me.

And Kiss, of course, did a great cover of “Any Way You Want It,” so it made perfect sense. But you mentioned a book?

I started the [documentary] film and started a book. I thought it would take six months, and it’s taken two years! I felt the film should be entertaining and take young people who weren’t particularly of that era, and take them back to how much fun it was. I didn’t get too much into the ups and downs, because we didn’t have that as a band.

Sharon Osbourne was also particularly knowledgeable in the film.

Sharon I’d known since the early years. She really knows the business, and I thought she was super-intelligent, and when the DVD [of the documentary] comes out she’ll get into things that weren’t in the main show. She was living in the States when all that happened. And Ozzy was great, too.

He said he wanted to be in the Dave Clark Five!

He meant what he said.

What was so interesting about the second half of the documentary was the parts of your career that aren’t so well known in America, like your sci-fi musical Time, which was very successful in England. The concept album version had an outstanding lineup including Olivier and Freddie Mercury and Ashford & Simpson.

Ashford & Simpson had a great passion for it and were wonderful to work with. Think of the songs they wrote [like] “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” They were amazing and lovely people to work with and helped make Time very special. But it had no exposure in the States, because of problems that will all be in the book. The album and singles did over 12 million copies, and the show played to 1.5 million people. There’s a very funny interview with Mercury and Olivier on the DVD that has never been seen.

You said that American records influenced your music.

My influences were all American, no question. When Elton first heard us, he thought we were an American group! But that was not our intention. We were just playing American air bases, and the commanders were getting us to learn American records, which we weren’t aware of.

In the documentary, Simmons and Bruce Springsteen and others talk about your powerful drum sound, and how unusual it was for a drummer to be the band leader.

You left yourself wide open. Nobody had a drummer sitting in front. It was always the singer. But it just happened, and it wasn’t planned—we did it and it worked.

And the band had such great stage moves!

We never had any choreography, but we did have a lights crew and were the first group to use ultraviolet and strobe lights. Again, Rick Nielsen saw us in Chicago and when pyschedelic lighting came around three years later, he said the Dave Clark Five had already done it. But I always believed that you should not just stand there and perform but give a visual show and create excitement.

It’s interesting that you seemed to come out the same time as The Beatles and disband the same time as The Beatles.

The Beatles went on in the studio, and we never had the luxury or time to do it. All our songs were written on the plane going from one gig to another.

And you had your own plane!

Our first three-week tour of America in May, 1964 was so dangerous and frightening that I said to the guys, ‘We’re not doing it [that way] again, but doing it in style,’ and I got the plane.

The documentary shows how athletic you guys were—boxing, football, water-skiing.

Some saw it as just a big press thing, which as you can see, was bulls—t.

And like The Beatles, who famously had their picture taken in 1964 with Muhammad Ali when he was Cassius Clay and training in Miami Beach for his first fight with Sonny Liston, you had your picture taken with Ali and his hero, Sam Cooke.

That was a week after he beat Sonny, and we were on Ed Sullivan. The first concert I ever saw was Sam Cooke. We were being interviewed on the radio, and he phoned in and invited me to lunch, and who should be there but Muhammad Ali! He was an amazing person--very funny. We were all having lunch and it was really great, and someone tipped off the press and they came and he winked at me and said, “I’m too pretty to be a boxer! I want to be rock star.” To this day we’re friends, and I hear from him now and then. Going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [in 2008], he sent me a signed photo that said, “I remember you. Do you remember me?” I got it framed! How can you forget him? You can forget me….”

And again, The Beatles and Dave Clark Five broke up around the same time.

It wasn’t fun for them, and people started burning their records. We also stopped because the fun was going out of it. We always wanted to go and give 110 percent, which we did. But you never really saw anything—the top floor of the hotel and the kitchen, and then you’re locked away and arrive at the arena before the show and do the show and get taken out and that’s it. Our only escape was getting on the plane, and if we played a cold area like Chicago and the next day were in Florida, we’d take off and go to a lake with a hotel with good security and chill out and ski or whatever. I made it a point to only work five days a week--otherwise you burn yourself on it.

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