Vinyl Frontier: Retro Reviews The Kinks - Arthur or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire
The Kinks - Arthur or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire
By Andrew David James
1969 was a career defining year for The Kinks. They had ridden the waves of success then failure commercially, suffered some major setbacks and the line up had changed. After the commercial non entity that was the artistically majestic Village Green, Ray Davies went about his greatest challenge yet: A rock opera.
But they were undoubtedly haunted by the events of 1965 when several nasty internal scuffles led to the band being banned from touring the US for four years. Although the work during the ban has been hailed as their golden years, the inability to tap into the US market led to a steady decline in record sales and exposure. Arthur would ultimately be another lost gem like its predecessor as other bands such as The Who filled the gap left by them.
Originally there was to be a musical film, commissioned by ITV and Ray wrote this album as the soundtrack and narrative for it. But the usual bad luck waited in the wings and the film never happened thus leaving Arthur adrift whilst Tommy went from strength to strength, eventually culminating in a plush movie in the 1970’s.
At the end of the 1960’s The Kinks stared obscurity in the face. Fortunately Arthur can stand happily alone without the intended film, perhaps unlike the other aforementioned rock opera which was reliant on the imagery to make sense of it. Unlike Pete Townsend, Ray was an adept story teller on record and his rich narrative makes this album arguably one of their finest.
Victoria is a shuffling, staunch opener, the band honing their rock sound with a polished production from Ray plus a regal, flag waving brass band. Building up the British Empire by using one of its most provocative motifs as the subject matter, very little seems awry. But the celebratory tone is quickly besmirched by the militaristic drums and Ray’s monotone, almost cowering vocals on Yes Sir, No Sir which illustrates the subservience of not only the military parade ground but also the working class employee, doffinga his cap to his upper class paymasters.
The band, with new bassist John Dalton, are in top form, switching effortlessly into the intermission where the plight of the low level soldier acquires an even more cynical edge as Ray takes the class struggle to the battlefield; the working classes simply pawns in the games of the upper class officers.
The tear jerking Some Mother’s Son is one of Ray’s most emotive moments. Telling of young troops dying in the battlefield, his vocals are once again evocative and outstanding having filled his lungs with sadness after they rang rather hollow on the previous track. This song is timeless; the theme applies to the fallen sons of any generation; whether they fell in Ypres, at Dunkirk or Basra.
The tone lightens up on Drivin which is a hearty sing-a-long capturing family drives into the countryside on a Sunday. The narrative being that the title character went to war out of patriotism to return and indulge in the weekend pleasures of the working class family. A feat of escapism thus ensuring “all the debt collectors, rent collectors will be behind us”.
The bright and breezy air rapidly evaporates on the beast like chords of Brainwashed. Ray spits into the microphone on this delicious rock number backed once more by a brass band. The middle eight in particular is a highlight; unrelenting and subversive, definitely one to play again and again. Arthur and his family head to the Southern hemisphere, the popular migration during the 1960’s and their pilgrimage is expertly and beguilingly framed on Australia, the country portrayed as their saviour and the good life.
The shifting tempo and progressive rock influences so prevalent at the time thankfully don’t spiral out of control as the band flirt with pop, gospel and surf rock. Shangri La opens confidently but quietly, musical intent waiting beneath the surface and when the chorus bursts up, another hidden gem in the body of their work sparkles. Perhaps a fraction too long, it completes the narrative job it was employed to do well.
The last of the prog rock comes along in the multi dimensional Mr Churchill Says which displays the impressive dexterity of the band with new bass player John Dalton. Presumably intended as a flash back sequence for Arthur on the film, it stands defiantly independent from whatever was envisaged for the ill fated production on camera. From the sumptuous sliding guitar chords of the verses to the jive of the final refrain, this is the apex of the album.
She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina tells of immigrant prosperity in their new land of hope and glory as they imitate the very people who sent the working classes through their trials and tribulations. A misguided loyalty to the monarchy remains in the psyche of the title character and his family. Ray is unusually saccharine in the wistful Young and Innocent Days but nevertheless, the spellbinding harpsichord gets the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end. Lovely stuff.
After what has been a fascinating bunch of songs both musically and conceptually, Nothing to Say throws in everything and the kitchen sink but just gets away with it thus evoking nostalgia with a punch. Clearly designed for the intended television project, so to is the final title track which acts as the synopsis of the narrative.
For once, the musical dexterity is rather lacking and the rushed tune can make for annoying fare. Tragically the ban on touring combined with Ray and Dave’s fractious relationship made them an unpalatable commercial prospect. Ray’s concepts being ahead of their time but out of step with the pomp and outlandishness of his peers meant that the failure of Arthur to be filmed was perhaps the final nail in the coffin as far as their long term future was concerned.
There was a brief march to glory in 1970 when Lola topped the charts in the UK but the death knell had already sounded. They would have credible and commercially modest success past 1971 and Muswell Hillbillies however, after this, the brand was simply not strong enough to withstand the changing times.
Their peers (the ones who were still going that is) cemented their reputations well into the next decade but The Kinks became the forgotten cult heroes of the 1960’s, synonymous with singles such as You Really Got Me and A Dedicated Follower of Fashion. Ironic as the public never really got The Kinks and Ray was certainly no follower of fashion.