Featured Album – Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) – The Kinks

Melody Maker – “Ray Davies’ finest hour … beautifully British to the core.”

Allmusic – It’s a detailed and loving song cycle, capturing the minutiae of suburban life, the numbing effect of bureaucracy, and the horrors of war.

I’ve dug The Kinks for a long time. They are on my “My Favorite Bands” list. And sooner rather than later, I’m going to do a series on them. But in the meantime, let’s dip into this classic album from 1969. I know a lot of people prefer Village Green Preservation Society. But Arthur is my favorite of theirs. How many albums do you know that talk about Lord Beaverbrook, Queen Victoria, Vera Lynn, Churchill, Ascot, Anthony Eden, AND Princess Marina? (Whoever SHE was.) 

This album was supposed to be the soundtrack to a TV show in Britain that, per Dave Davies, “fell apart.” (Rumor has it that a producer “mismanaged” the funds.) But the band had a clutch of great songs and so, plowed ahead with the album. The theme is in the title and Arthur was a real guy. He was the husband of Ray and Dave Davies’ sister Rosie.

His emigration to Australia in 1964 devastated the Davies’ brothers, not to mention pretty much everybody but Arthur (and it eventually caught up with him). It wasn’t anything about Australia per se so much as the fact that they were now 10,000 miles away from everyone and everything they loved. (The Davies clan is pretty large and very close.)

In fact this wasn’t the first time the band recorded a song about this situation. In 1966 they did a song called, “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home.” “I started screaming,” Ray Davies said. “A part of my family had left, possibly forever. I collapsed in a heap on the sandy beach and wept like a pathetic child.”

But the album is, I think, brilliant as it details not only what Ray Davies sees as the decline of the British Empire but also how it affects working-class guys like Arthur and his family. From the liner notes:

Arthur Morgan … lives in a London suburb in a house called Shangri-La, with a garden and a car and a wife called Rose and a son called Derek who’s married to Liz, and they have these two very nice kids, Terry and Marilyn. Derek and Liz and Terry and Marilyn are emigrating to Australia. Arthur did have another son, called Eddie. He was named for Arthur’s brother, who was killed in the battle of the Somme. Arthur’s Eddie was killed, too—in Korea.

The album kicks off with one of my very favorite Kinks songs of all time, “Victoria.” This, of course, refers to the woman who reigned as queen for 63 years. (Also Ray’s daughter’s name). It was the 19th century and the Queen oversaw the expansion of the British Empire. The Kinks here exuberantly celebrate (sort of) her life and those times. This song is a rave-up to the max, capped off by Dave Davies’ exuberant yelps. This is rock and roll:

Long ago life was clean
Sex was bad and obscene

And the rich were so mean
Stately homes for the Lords
Croquet lawns, village greens
Victoria was my queen

As per the AllMusic quote, mentioned in the intro, the album has a strong anti-war, anti-military bureaucracy tilt. This song, “Yes Sir, No Sir,” has lyrics that make Roger Waters sound like a fucking optimist:

Let them feel that they’re important to the cause
But let them know that they are fighting for their homes

Just be sure that they’re contributing their all
Give the scum a gun and make the bugger fight
And be sure to have deserters shot on sight
If he dies we’ll send a medal to his wife

So many good songs on Side Two. One of the best songs on the album is the tune, “Shangri-La.” This song was inspired in part by the Davies’ visit to their sister in Australia and their view of the comfortable suburban life in England.

The band caught some criticism for this song as it was perceived as mocking the common man. I think frankly it does to some extent. But the band felt it also showed some compassion. Let’s not forget that Dave said if it wasn’t for music he’d essentially be Arthur. Judge for yourself:

Now that you’ve found your paradise
This is your Kingdom to command
You can go outside and polish your car
Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-la

Here is your reward for working so hard
Gone are the lavatories in the back yard
Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car
You just want to sit in your Shangri-la

I’ve always had this strange fondness for the goofy “She’s Bought a Hat like Princess Marina.” As mentioned, when I first heard it, I had no idea what Ascot was or who Anthony Eden or for that matter, Princess Marina were. But I say old chap, the song is so very, very British! And you just knew these were people that the woman in this song aspires to be, for good or ill. And they were, in all likelihood, upper-class twits.

The song starts out slow then goes all dance hall with more exuberant shrieking from brother Dave:

Let’s end our look at this fine album with our protagonist. This song pulls the whole thing together. Arthur’s a working-class guy who went looking for a Shangri-La and found that well, maybe it doesn’t exist. Or perhaps that it’s in your own back yard. “Don’t go looking for Paradise in that home across the road,” Dylan advises.

“I remember singing the choruses to this song with tears in my eyes,” says Dave Davies. “Even Ray, who had always been much better at concealing his true emotions, couldn’t hold back his pain.”

Arthur we know and we sympathize
Don’t ya know it, don’t ya know it
Arthur we like you and want to help you
Somebody loves you don’t you know it

Ray apologized to Arthur before he died about using him for inspiration. But Arthur – whom Dave described as looking like a young Alan Ladd – said he was flattered.

Arthur is included in the list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.

God Save the Kinks!

 

22 thoughts on “Featured Album – Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) – The Kinks

  1. Cracking post. I do enjoy a fair bit of the Kinks but am unfamiliar with this one (my money went to Lola vs The Powerman) so will check it out.
    FYI: Princess Marina (born in Greece) was the Duchess of Kent, she was widowed when the Duke was killed during WW2 but became on of those ‘fashionable Royals’ like the Princess Grace of Monaco. One of her sons is the current Duke of Kent. I tell you this not as a Royalist, of course, but as a Man of Kent.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, a Kentish man. So in addition to being a Royal she was also a fashion symbol. That’s as I suspected. Makes sense that the woman in the song would try to be her. I would love to here your comments on this album as a Brit. It certainly seems to these American ears to speak to the core of Modern Britain. But I’m hearing it through a lot of filters and don’t know how much Ray separates fact from fantasy.

      Like

      1. Oddly – not that I attach anything to it – there’s a difference between a Man of Kent and a Kentish Man and which you are depends on the side of the Medway you were born on.
        There is something very British about the Kinks’ music – far more than the more universal of the Beatles – that few bands do so well (Pink Floyd are certainly way up top of that list). I’ll give it a whirl.

        Like

        1. Thanks for that, that did make me chuckle. For my money both Swanley and Chatham are both what you’d call “shit holes”, though I was pleased that, with the clarification on where the division lies, my son is also a Man of Kent – I’d misplaced the Medway’s course in my mind – and therefore not ‘inferior’

          Like

  2. OK, that’s interesting. You learn something new every day. I’ll have to read up on that whole Kent thing. Yes, the Kinks are not only a great band but also give us Yanks a window into that whole British way of life. The problem is we don’t know how much is real, how much stereotype. But like Downtown Abbey, we just want it all to be true. 😀

    Like

  3. Really good piece on a really good record! I could put ‘Victoria’ on repeat and listen until someone hit the stop button. I’ll be giving this a spin tomorrow. Thanks for the nudge. Man, did The Kinks pump out some great music for a long time.

    Like

      1. Yes, Mark E Smith certainly is an acquired taste. The Fall came out of the 70s punk era and remarkably enough have been going (in one form or another) pretty much ever since. They are very loud and jarring live. Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea.

        Like

    1. Yeah, I think that’s to some extent true. Recall that I did a piece on XTC a little while ago. In his book, their main guy, Andy Partridge says the Kinks were a fantastic singles band. Asked to name a favorite album, he said he preferred the singles and the only album he could remember was ‘Arthur.’

      Liked by 1 person

  4. talk about an in depth post about music. This is well written Jim. I enjoy The Kinks too but surely not as much as you. I noticed that you love jazz music as well in the description. Just to share with you, we’re a start up travel company and we have a package for a jazz festival in East Malaysia. Do check out our blog for more information. It’s an annual event and its a jazz festival that’s being held on the beach. 🙂 https://qrovadoblog.wordpress.com/

    Like

Comments welcomed/encouraged.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s