The Dave Clark Five, along with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, led the “British Invasion” of the ‘60s that transformed popular music in the US and beyond. Between 1964 and 1967 the band charted 17 Top 40 singles in the US, and toured incessantly and profitably. All the more remarkable given that no other self-managed, self-produced band achieved this level of achievement—before or since.
But the DC5 never sustained their breakthrough success. Clark broke up the band in 1970 and their music disappeared for nearly two decades. As the “owner” of the band, Clark withheld their music catalog for years. The band has also been dogged by its share of controversies. Some of them trivial, like the claim that not all the band members, including Clark himself, performed on their records. Some of them not so trivial, like the allegation that Clark didn’t write the songs he said he did, especially the hits written by his old friend, Ron Ryan.
I was an early fan of the band and of Dave Clark himself, whose crisp snare-drum sound—especially on hits like “Bits and Pieces” and “Catch Us If You Can”—was often the most dominant element of their sound. As a teen drummer, I began my rock & roll career in part because of my infatuation with the backbeat of The Dave Clark Five, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. Later I came to appreciate that the DC5 also featured one of Britain’s top rock vocalists in Mike Smith.
But over the years the DC5 music went missing and I was hearing rumors about Clark’s mismanagement of the band. As I wrote in a blog post in 2014 (“Not Feeling Glad All Over”) my doubts increased after watching a PBS program on the band—a puff piece that ignored the intellectual property disputes and the total control of band members by Clark. (Pop music author Richie Unterberger had the same reaction to the PBS show which he mentions here.)
In subsequent years, commentators on this blog have weighed in with similar concerns about Clark and the band, culminating in a request that I interview Ron Ryan, the self-proclaimed author of many of the band's early hits. The protection of intellectual property has been a recurring theme on this blog so I knew I had to reach out to Ryan. I finally did this month and was pleasantly surprised how thoroughly he answered my many questions. He described in detail how he wrote songs for the DC5. I've left those passages unedited because they add considerable credibility to his claims.
Me: How did you come to know Dave Clark? Your brother was an early member of the band, right?
RR: Back in the mid-1950's many kids around the country formed skiffle groups, including The Beatles, Stones, Dave Clark, and me! My brother Mick was in mine. Our group played alongside others at local venues and as time went by the skiffle groups turned into rock and roll bands. Now and then we played venues with other bands on the bill, like the Dave Clark Combo. Dave saw how good my brother was and wanted him in his band.
My brother told me about the offer and I advised him to go with Dave, as he had better-paying jobs than I did. So he joined the band and they started getting lots of jobs. See the photo with Mick standing next to the sax player. My brother did not have a car, so Dave used to come over to my parents’ house to pick him up to go to the gig. My brother was never ready, so I would make Dave a cup of tea and we would talk and became friends.
Me: I’ve read that you gave Clark ideas for how his fledgling band could be more successful. Can you explain how you did that?
RR: The band was doing well at local gigs and had started playing US Air Force bases. After a while my brother left the band, other changes in members were made, and Rick Huxley went onto bass. They made some recordings but nothing came of them. Dave could not understand why he could not get their records played on radio. I said, “Times are changing, British bands with a few exceptions are just covering American hits, and you need new material.” He said, “Could you write something for the band?” So I took an old nursery rhyme, “The Mulberry Bush,” and put new lyrics to it. The band recorded it and it not only got plays on the radio it actually got the band on TV.
While on a gig with my band I heard a DJ play a great record by Doug Sheldon called “Your Ma' Said You Cried In Your Sleep Last Week.” The next day I bought the record and took it to Dave saying, “This sound is great, and it would be easy with the band's lineup to get this sound.” Dave did as I said and so the “Tottenham Sound”—which really is the “Hackney sound,” because Doug was from there—was born!
Me: Many fans may be surprised to hear that Bobby Graham—a respected British “session drummer”— did the drumming on many or most of the DC5 recordings, sometimes with and sometimes without Clark. Yet this was never officially confirmed by Dave Clark though many, including Graham himself, have confirmed it. But when Mike Smith, the lead singer and keyboardist, was asked about it, his cryptic response was “I don’t wish to speak about that.” I guess he didn’t want to upset Clark by commenting on it. Can you state this as a fact that Graham was involved?
RR: Short and sweet—I have heard that Bobby Graham played the drums on all the band’s hit records. I was not there on the sessions, so I can't say, but I will say that Dave was an OK drummer. What sounds good on a live gig may not sound so good in a recording studio, and I’ll leave it there. Also, I have been informed that Erich Ford played bass on all the hit records, but again I was not, there so I don't know. [Editor’s note: many others have confirmed this.] But Rick Huxley had only been playing bass a short time, and he told me himself that he was “learning on the job,” so it could well be true.
Me: I heard The Dave Clark Five at The Boston Garden in 1965 and I can attest to the fact that Clark was more than competent as a live drummer. I was a drummer then, so I paid close attention. If in fact Graham did the drumming on most of the recordings, I’m guessing that was because Clark could focus on producing the records?
RR: I have lost count of the times in the past on DC5 websites I have defended Dave as a drummer. Some even got rather heated as there was always a strong rumour that on live shows Dave had another drummer behind the curtain who did all the real drumming. If only they knew how hard this would be to pull off. Anyone who was the slightest bit musical would see through that in a heartbeat. I have stood in the wings a few feet away from the band when they were famous, and there was no drummer behind the curtain. Dave wanted the recordings to sound as perfect as possible, so he changed the two weak links in the studio—himself and Rick—and got musicians in who could really play well. Although I was not there I know how Dave thinks, and that would make perfect sense.
Me: To get to the main point of this interview, you claim you wrote many songs for The Dave Clark Five including the hits “Bits and Pieces,” “Because,” and “Anyway You Want It,” correct?
RR: Also, “Thinking of You, Baby” is a song of mine, which I based on Muddy Waters’ “I Got My Mojo Working.” When I had a new song ready for Dave and Mike Smith to listen to, I would phone Dave and he would bring Mike around to my home. I would then play and sing the new song to them both. Dave would say yes or no (he always said yes) and then leave Mike alone while he went about his day for a few hours. He did not stick around as he said Mike and I would start speaking in a strange language: “music.”
When I write a song I write mainly in the key of C as it suits my voice, but Mike would sing in a higher key such as F, G, or A. So we would sit at my old piano sharing the stool and I would find a key suitable for Mike to sing in. This did not take long so we had a couple of hours to kill before Dave came back to pick Mike up, so we would “jam” with me playing the left hand and Mike the right. And I would always start off with this song I wrote that I called “Thinking of You, Baby.” As it was just a simple blues I never offered it to Dave for the band to record. After I had stopped writing for the band they eventually recorded it and it was a hit! Mike had remembered it and recorded it!
Me: But Clark took credit for these songs, though I’ve read several sources that support your claim including here and here. The last fan club president of the band, John Briggs, has even pointed out, “No one seems to question why Clark’s career as a solo writer ended the minute Ron left!” But Mike Smith, when asked about Clark taking songwriting credit, dodged that question too and said, “I don’t wish to speak about that.” Are there people still alive who can attest to the truth of your claim?
RR: Yes. First there's my wife who heard most of the songs I wrote—like “Because”—before anyone else. In fact when she heard “Because” her reaction was “It's a good song, but not as good as “Sometimes.” That’s a song I wrote that was recorded by the DC5 and also by Oliver Reed And there are members of my old band, The Walkers, whom I used sometimes to test a new song out that I had written for the DC5.
Me: You’ve said that Dave Clark didn’t write any of the band’s hits, right?
RR: I said, “To my knowledge Dave Clark did not write or co-write any songs.” I always write alone, it never works if I try to work with anyone, and the few times I have tried I always ended up doing all the writing!
Me: What about Clark claiming to write songs with other band members? John Briggs says the other band members have said, on tape, that Clark didn’t actually co-write any of those songs either.
RR: I thought Dave was very unmusical and apart from business he did not have a creative mind. But what Dave did with the others—writing or not writing—I cannot say.
Me: For the reader who might still be skeptical of your claims, can you provide some more detail to how you went about composing some of those DC5 songs, like “Bits and Pieces” and “Because”?
RR: “Bits and Pieces” was really two of my songs turned into one. I thought it would be a good idea for the DC5 to record a Country song. They had three good singers, so the harmonies would suit Country. The first “Bits and Pieces” was a Country song! Dave did not like Country, but he loved the title. At the same time I played him and Mike another song I had written called “Keep on Stompin.’” What Mike did was to mix the two songs together—the music from “Keep on Stomping”' and the lyrics from “Bits and Pieces”—and it worked!!
“Because” was just a simple love song I wrote about my feelings for my wife. “Can I Trust You,” an album track, was my take on writing an Everly Brothers-type song. The idea for a song can come from anywhere—something someone says, a phrase I might read, a street sign. Anything may inspire a song.
I could add more to that answer, but it would take forever. Take the last song I wrote for the DC5, “Anyway You Want It.” I played it to Dave and Mike just as the band eventually recorded it. But how I heard it in my head was a Black Gospel choir doing the backing singing, a Black church band with Hammond organ, drums, bass, guitar, etc. doing the playing, and Aretha Franklin doing the lead singing! What I heard playing in my head is the best I have ever heard the song out of all the versions that have been done, and there have been some great versions done!
Me: What instrument do you usually write on? And do you usually write the music or the lyrics first?
RR: I mainly write in my head, where I have all the instrument and singers I need. So by the time I sit down and pick up my guitar or go to the piano I know what I want. If it's a simple song I will work it out on guitar. For a more complicated chord structure like “Because” I will use the piano.
Me: I understand that you were willing to give up half the songwriting share if that’s what it would take to get your songs recorded. I believe it’s an unseemly practice for publishers, producers, or artists (in this case Dave Clark) to claim a songwriting share for a song they didn’t write, especially if they’re going to collect a share as the song publisher. But it wasn’t illegal or unprecedented. Yet it’s a whole other thing for you to not get ANY songwriting share and not get ANY credit for the songs. That’s the gist of your complaint, right?
RR: Yes. We had an agreement, and Dave went back on it.
End of Part One
In Part Two—which will be published later this month—Ron Ryan discusses the handshake agreement he made with Dave Clark and Clark's betrayal of it. He has an interesting answer when I ask what he would say to Clark if they were to meet again. And we discuss income lost and lessons learned.