The Kinks - Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Kinks - Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

by Bill Golembeski Rating:10 Release Date:1969-10-10
The Kinks - Arthur
The Kinks - Arthur

Sing along, if you know the melody. (This kind of works.)

We are The Kinks Admiration Society

God save Ray and Dave and the mixed-up muddled up British class system

We are the Kinks Adulation Confraternity

God Save The Village Green, Arthur, and all the gold records never awarded them.

Well, to (almost) quote Winston Churchill, it is true that Never was so much owed by so many to the crazy Davies boys from Muswell Hill.

But the problem was, way back in 1969, how exactly does a band make a better record than The Village Green Preservation Society? Of course, it flopped in the sales market as American youth were keen to love Led Zeppelin’s hard blues because The Vietnam War introduced that suburbia youth to the machinations of The Man, The Man who was out to get you, The Man who wanted, as John Fogerty sang, to “send you off to war.”

So, for many of us who were blinded by the blues, The Village Green album that wanted to preserve “Donald Duck, china cups and (yikes!)1 virginity,” well, just didn1’t pass the protest muster. And that’s a shame because it’s a rock ‘n’ roll album which boasts a song about a “Phenomenal Cat,” a witch named “Wicked Annabella,” Monica the prostitute, and the topper most of the popper most “Scooby-do-be-do” I have ever heard cut into old-fashioned vinyl grooves.

But, for what it’s worth, I think Arthur is even better than the now-acknowledged masterpiece Village Green Preservation Society.

Some say the album is a rock opera, even claiming it’s a poor man's Tommy. That’s not true. Ray Davies said it is “a documentary.” Well, that has to be true because he wrote the darn thing. But I also see it as a Greek drama, with at least three voices sounding against each other.

There’s Arthur Morgan, the common British guy who is confused because everything he knows is changing. Not only that, but his son Derek is emigrating to Australia—and taking wife, Liz, and their “two very nice kids,” Terry and Marilyn, with him. (And that’s only half the story!)

And there’s the voice of the upper-class gentle folk (as Dickens’ Pip calls them). The David Watts, I suppose, of the world who are rather mean and laugh at people like Arthur because they think he’s too stupid to understand he is being exploited by the very people he respects (namely themselves).

Of course, there’s Ray, Dave, Mick, and (new bassist) John, who serves as the Greek Chorus, whose function talks to the characters, comment upon events, and sort of be in control of everything.

By the way, Arthur Morgan has a wife named Rose, and he lays carpet for a living (so he’s symbolically on his knees a lot.)

And by the way (again), the official title of the album is actually Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. Now, that Plutarch-inspired title may have put off the less academically-inclined punters who would have preferred yet another sublime and blistering "You Really Got Me" guitar solo by brother Dave. And, who knows? If, perhaps, Tommy had the added appendage of The Decline and Fall of a Pinball Playing Deaf Dumb and Blind Kid Who Eventually Is Destroyed by the Very Same People Who Once Deemed Him Their Pinball Playing Messiah, well, that album may have stiffed in the shops, too.

But, of course, you never know, because the very first of these concept albums (often dubbed rock operas) was the brilliant S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things, an album (with no Decline or Fall of Anything in its title), which sadly, isn't even footnoted in the official Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tour guide booklet. 

The very first tune, “Victoria,” has all of the above. The Greek Chorus enthusiastically sings a proud (and probably ironic) glorious anthem about the greatest queen Arthur has ever known, while Arthur himself sings to the empire (in the most dotard of voices) “I was born, lucky me/In the land that I love.” The poor guy really doesn’t have a clue. But as the song swells in its great grooves, brother Dave is heard yelping with an excitement that would certainly have been considered bad manners (way back then) while discussing the glory of the British monarchy.

So, the three worlds collide in a fusion of wonderful music.

You see, the problem with Victorian England was the idea that brave Englishmen should scour the empire (which was pretty much the whole wide world) kill stuff and then stuff that stuff that they found and bring it back to a museum non-life existence for the British public to enjoy. And that’s reflected in the song “Yes Sir, No Sir,” which is again, the voice of the compliant spiritually dead Englishman who asks permission to “breath.” And then all those nasty posh people lay out the truth: “You’re outside and there’s no admission/To our play.”

Ah, and those are the words of (now) Sir Raymond Douglas Davies!

Life, indeed, like any Ray Davies song, is ironic, clever, and ultimately, exactly uncertain, or as Ray himself said, a definite maybe.

Oh my! “Some Mother’s Son” is a conflagration of the most tender rock ’n’ roll song about the utterly sad humanity of a soldier’s death and a mother’s intense musical sorrow, yet it is juxtaposed to the previous song which included cruel laughs from those posh folks who sing “if he dies will send a medal to his wife.” The song is pathos personified.

Yes, this is a concept album artistic statement from Ray Davies, the man who gave us Misfits, yet another concept album that had the unifying theme of no song having anything in common with any other song, hence the title.

Now, “Drivin’,” “Brainwashed,” and” Australia” all have a commonality: It’s all sort of like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s theme that permeates The Great Gatsby (and just about everything he wrote). The rich throw the rest of us crumbs, and we suck on those crumbs in hopes of being accepted by the very people who laugh at us with contempt because we adore those crumbs.

Fast forward to the song “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina.” The gist of the tune is that we are lemmings who simply rush toward the cliff’s edge because, well, some famous person said we should jump, with the silly promise that we can “smile just like a real millionaire.”

Yeah, as long as we get to drive in a car, we’re all right. Sure, we’re all “Brainwashed.” And that’s all right, too. And, oh my (again) “Australia” is this mythical place where Arthur’s son Derek (with his wife and kids) are emigrating, where “Everyone walks around with a perpetual smile across their face” and “We surf like they do in the U.S.A.”

Anyone for Disneyland?

By the way, “Australia” is the rare bird of a Kinks’ actual jam, giving brother Dave (who didn’t write or sing any of the songs) a chance to rock out.

Two songs, the beautiful “Young and Innocent Days,” and the more urgent “Nothing to Say,” express a longing for better days of “Sunday dinners” and “white dreams with sugar coated outside.” Not only is the Village Green gone, but anything that was ever important to say, even to the once beloved Papa, who knew, and perhaps even worked on The Last of the Steam Powered Trains.

Now, this review is getting pretty long. Sorry! But thankfully, it’s not as long as those six vinyl sides of Ray’s Preservation Act 1 & 2.

And speaking of the tune “Shangri-La,” John Mendelssohn (creator of the God Save the Kinks campaign and author of the great book The Kinks Kronikles) says, “If ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is The Kinks’ most beautiful track, this, surely, is their most powerful.” ‘Nuff said, I suppose, except this song, once again, understands dear Arthur because that chorus sings, “Here is your reward for working so hard/Gone are the lavatories in the backyard.” (And living through Wisconsin winters, I sort of side with the guy with that one). But he lives in a dreary world with “the same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes.” And the music, just like the opening salvo of “Victoria,” is filled with beautiful and dramatic power, of perhaps, Arthurs’s memory of times long ago. Oh, and John Mendelssohn says that Ray “sings as though his heart is exploding.”

The tune has all the pathos of a Thomas Hardy novel—and then some.

But it is that Greek Chorus (aka The Kinks themselves) who get the final word. The last song and title track, “Arthur,” is upbeat, extremely melodic, and, I believe without a trace of Lola-like irony, that says, “we sympathize” and “we read you and understand you.” And ultimately, those Davies boys, with the help of Mick Avery and John Dalton, simply proclaim to the listening world and Arthur himself, that “we love you,” and truly, “want to help you.”

The final word on this masterpiece goes to Sir Raymond Douglas Davies. He told us all (and I am quoting from The Kinks Kronikles), “They think we’re running people down, …when, in fact, we are just trying to state a few little things—if anything, taking the side of those people. That’s the way I always do it. I always try to take the side of the person I’m writing about. But a lot of people still see it as us taking a swipe at them.”

And I agree. So, let’s just say Raymond Douglas Davies wrote a really great play, perhaps like a Greek drama, to which everyone is, and will always be, welcomed as an invited guest to the Kinks Village Green Preservation world, a world in which Animal Farm is a perfect childhood place, and Tom and Daisy will always own the perfect grocery store.

 

1The ejaculation2 yikes and exclamation point (!) can be easily explained by simply reading a few early chapters in Dave Davies’ great autobiography, Kink.

2I understand that this is the archaic use of the noun which simply means to utter suddenly and passionately (and, trust me as an American Literature teacher, it is way too often used in Hawthorne’s A Scarlet Letter), but it just seemed to be the appropriate choice in this context.

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