Review: The Kinks – Arthur (Deluxe Edition)
Published on July 7th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Following on from our reviews of the recently-issued “Deluxe Editions” of Face to Face and Something Else, Rocksucker will now delve with wick dipped into the sprawling, storied recesses of The Kinks’ 1969 album Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire).
In a year which saw the release of The Who’s celebrated rock opera Tommy and The Beatles’ verging-on-conceptual Abbey Road, it should have come as little surprise to see Ray Davies cooking up a grand artistic vision of his own, especially after the loosely thematic artistic triumph of the previous year’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society LP.
1969, eh? Well, this writer was some way off having even been born then but its reams of classic records – Trout Mask Replica, Four Sail, In a Silent Way, Let it Bleed, Velvet Underground, Hot Rats, Five Leaves Left etc – are still very much loved amongst my generation. However, in typically Kinks fashion, Arthur has never quite garnered the kudos afforded to so many of its peers and it’s tempting to speculate on how different this could have been had the accompanying screenplay – co-written by Ray and playwright Julian Mitchell – come to fruition. Tempting, but futile, so let’s quickly set the scene and then get down to analysing the music.
Arthur was to be a play for Granada Television set in post-war Britain and centred around fictional carpet-layer Arthur Morgan, a character roughly based on Ray’s brother-in-law Arthur Anning, and had been roughly a year in the offing until it was aborted due to a lack of funding. Mitchell later explained: “Arthur had a most unhappy history. It was originally meant to be a … sort of rock opera, and we got as far as casting (excellent director and actors) and finding locations and were about to go when the producer went to a production meeting without a proper budget, tried to flannel his way through it, was immediately sussed and the production pulled. I have never been able to forgive the man.”
What’s more, bassist and founder member Pete Quaife had departed to form his own (ultimately short-lived) group Mapleoak, to be replaced by understudy John Dalton. Uncertain times, then, for The Kinks as well as the world at large, yadda yadda yadda. Right, bring on the songs…
The first thing to say is that, having advised you to stick with the mono versions of Face to Face and Something Else, we are going to break this trend and recommend that you absorb Arthur in the stereo format available on the second disc. There is simply too much going on in the mix, too many layers to the arrangements, that the muddying together of sounds so suited to prior releases is merely obtrusive this time around. It’s time to embrace The Kinks in widescreen, as this is a different proposition altogether from its predecessors: the sounds are thicker, meatier, and as such each individual component requires more space to itself.
Opener ‘Victoria’, probably the most well-known song on the record, wastes no time in establishing the moods of unquestioned oppression (“I was born, lucky me”) and foolhardy patriotism (“for this land I will die”) which permeate the album. “Long ago, life was green / Sex was bad and obscene / And the rich were so mean / Stately homes for the lords / Croquet lawns, village greens / Victoria was my queen” – aside from the obvious self-reference contained within, Ray’s deep and hitherto unfamiliar croon is harking back to the ‘golden age’ of the British Empire (“Canada to India / Austalia to Cornwall / Singapore to Hong Kong…Victoria loved them all”) but it’s such an evocative piece of rush-pop that it could have a powerfully nostalgic and energising impact even if Ray was singing about buttering scones.
Dave’s lead work in the chorus is sensational, his confidence boosted perhaps by the contemporaneous focus placed by the band on his ultimately unreleased solo album A Hole in the Sock of Dave Davies. Indeed, he is on fire on this album, weaving jangly yet chunky harmony as naturally and precisely as a spider spins a web. You might say he’s like an Arthur-pod. (Sorry.)
From that blast of sunset wistfulness, ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ trudges in comparatively slowly but it’s still just about lively and curious enough to capture the essence of a conquered but not-yet-crushed spirit. Rather than adhere to any traditional song-writing structure, ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ betrays the ambitious concept informing it by constantly shifting from section to section, character to character (face to face?), ably assisted by Mick Avory’s firecracker drum fills. Although we cannot be certain of the story at this point, it seems to be about our protagonist’s army days and how they plunged him into the materialistic conformity of his later life.
After the initial bout of “what do I do sir?” subservience, also delivered in that unfamiliar not-quite-baritone, we get a string-laden not-quite-chorus which seems to be directed at Arthur and all others like him: “So you think that you’ve got ambition / Stop your dreaming and your idle wishin’ / You’re outside and there ain’t no admission to our play”. Another of the album’s prominent themes – that of an uncaring upper hierarchy – becomes established here, especially when a malevolently squawky voice pipes up with “Doesn’t matter who you are / You’re there and there you are / …Authority must be maintained”.
An ominously militaristic brass section then provides the backdrop for a softly-spoken, noble-sounding general’s instructions to a high-ranking subordinate on how to keep his men motivated – “Let them know 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” – before the same section reveals the contempt in which this subordinate (or perhaps it’s the general’s inner monologue?) holds these soldiers, reverting to the squawk that sounds unsettlingly like an evil Eric Idle: “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”…followed by a round of crocodile tears and out-of-tune “la la la”s just for good measure.
‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ – yes, we’re still on the same song – then comes back full circle to the opening section, this time suggesting through the line “Please let me die, sir / I think this life is affecting my brain” that Arthur’s spirit has now been crushed. It’s easy to overlook a track so hard to peg down, especially when it follows the far more defined ‘Victoria’, but by gum is this masterful stuff. No wonder the budget was ultimately unforthcoming: it would have required some serious production values to keep up with an epic like this.
Right, onto track three. ‘Some Mother’s Son’ supposedly concerns itself with the death of Arthur’s brother in battle but, with Ray wielding lines like “all dead soldiers look the same”, it’s clear that it could apply across the board. Riding a wave of choral harmonies and Ray’s suddenly soaring voice, a beautifully elegiac melody builds into strangely triumphant (given the dark subject matter) crescendos which, when aligned to lyrics such as “Some mother’s son ain’t coming home today / Some mother’s son ain’t got no grave”, have the capacity to leave the listener well and truly floored.
Ray’s wide-eyed delivery and Dave’s chiming lead lines are as lovely as the imagery of “One soldier glances up to see the sun / And dreams of games he played when he was young”, yet as heartbreaking as the ensuing “And then his friend calls out his name / It stops his dream and as he turns his head / A second later, he is dead”. It’s almost as if Ray was challenging himself to see how many different powerful emotions he could elicit in the same song and, despite the grim picture that’s painted, the musical backdrop is magical enough to come from a vintage Disney animation.
‘Drivin” comes straight in with “doo doo doo”s bouncing off more chords in its intro alone than are used in some artists’ entire back catalogues, yet the effect is so breezy, bouncy and light-hearted that it sounds completely effortless: all in all, it’s a tremendous example of just how deceptively sophisticated Ray’s song-writing had become by this point. Personally, I’d always liked the idea that ‘Drivin” was sung from the perspective of someone who was fleeing his military duty and escaping merrily into the English countryside while the rest of the world blew up around him, making himself at once despicably uncaring and thrillingly on-edge, given that his bubble of calm could be brought to an abrupt end at any second.
However, lines such as “We won’t be home late / It’s not very far” expose this to be a fanciful notion. Perhaps this is an older Arthur whose army days were in the First and not the Second World War? Or, given the absence of the deep croon, it is another character altogether? Whatever it is, it is also a compositional master class, verging on twee but reined in by the darkness of the context. “And all the troubled world around us seems an eternity away / And all the debt collectors, rent collectors all will be behind us / But they’ll never find us” – it’s a carefree scene set against the backdrop of a planet in turmoil, yet further evidence of Ray’s contrarian genius. Lovely ascending arpeggios from Dave in the chorus, too.
The brass section-flaunting ‘Brainwashed’ could barely be more groovy and sinister in the same stroke. “You look like a real human being but you don’t have a mind of your own” – lyrically, it seems initially to be a reprise of ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ but closer examination reveals the context to be more social than military. “You’ve got a job and a house / And a wife and your kids and a car”…”They give you social security / Tax saving benefits that grow at maturity / Yeah, you’re content just to be what they want you to be” – yep, it would appear that we’ve reached the part of the story where it becomes apparent that Arthur is no less oppressed in his everyday life than he was as a young soldier. Pretty tragic, really, but what a rocking great tune!The instrumental punctuation of the midsection – Bang bang! Bang bang! – shows a band in a rich vein of confidence, which is mightily impressive having had to not only undergo a change of bassist but also endure a few years’ worth of flagging commercial success. ‘Brainwashed’ also emphasises the strength of Arthur in relation to Tommy insomuch as pretty much every track works just fine in isolation from its overarching concept. In this sense, it can be seen as being more in line with Village Green than any ‘rock opera’.
Much like ‘Drivin”, ‘Australia’ grabs you by the hand and implores you to join it in an adventure, a very musical theatre-like device in itself; indeed, you can almost envision one character leading another from one side of the stage to another, face beaming with wonder and discovery. Also like ‘Drivin”, its teeming with subtly complex goofiness and the allure of dropping everything for the promise of pastures new. “Opportunities are available in all walks of life in Australia / So if you’re young and if you’re healthy why not get a boat and come to Australia?” – it reads like a brochure and, sadly for poor old Arthur, it was sufficiently attractive to lead his offspring to the other side of the world.
Real life brother-in-law of the Davies’ Arthur Anning had emigrated to Australia with their sister Rose – hence ‘Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home’ off Face to Face – but his fictional namesake gets left behind while his children go off to reap the benefits of the promised land. The sadness of this scenario is revisited later in the album but, for now, life Down Under is celebrated and put on a pedestal for its “no class distinction” and “no drug addiction”. Surfy “woo ooh”s and luxurious “sha la la”s supplement the jollity and, even though the line “sunny Christmas day” comes pretty close to mimicking “people often change” from Village Green’s ‘Do You Remember Walter?’, it’s another multidimensional wondersong to add to this glittering array.
What does the extended psychedelic outro represent? The withering Australian sun, the dreamlike quality of an unknown land, Arthur’s world melting away before his very eyes? Whatever, the parping, staccato sax, Dave and John’s funk work out, jazzily-tinkled ivories and Ray’s ghostly regurgitations (Ray-gurgitations?) of key phrases like “chance of a lifetime” combine to quite majestic effect, showing that The Kinks could have been a great jam band as well if they’d been so inclined.
“Now that you’ve found your paradise…” – it’s time for monumental centrepiece ‘Shangri-La’, which doubles up as the name of Arthur’s home (albeit his house his apparently indistinguishable from all of the others on his street). Minor key finger-picking establishes a brooding, faintly ‘House of the Rising Sun’-like atmosphere while Ray’s acerbic lyrics detail the banal life of semi-luxury which constitutes Arthur’s “reward for working so hard”: “Gone are the lavatories in the back yard / Gone are the days when you dream of that car”.
A prettily creeping pre-chorus instructs Arthur – and indeed everyone else on the street with the “same chimney pots, same little cars, same window panes” – to enjoy the pipe and slippers lifestyle as that’s all that’s left, before the sheer bombast of the chorus blows the cosy imagery away and looms large over its preceding sections, making a sufficiently foreboding impression to suggest that all is not well in this would-be idyllic scenario. (Great bass lick by Dalton, too.) The sudden bluster of the chorus may be off-putting to some but, yet again, the whole thing ties together so naturally that it could quite conceivably have arrived fully-formed in Ray’s unique mind.
‘Shangri-La’ sees Arthur casting aspersions over his regimented and unfulfilling existence at a stage of his life where it’s too late to do anything about it; that he’s “reached the top and can’t get any higher” has more to do with the systems in place to keep him down as opposed to any tangible success on his part. Just like “the little man who gets the train”, Arthur is “too scared to complain / ‘Cause he’s conditioned that way”. Brainwashed, yes sir.
Another multi-faceted track – and, for what it’s worth, the third on the album after ‘Victoria’ and ‘Drivin” to have its chorus lyric comprised only of its title – the midsection comes complete with the sucker-punch line “The gas bills and the water rates and payments on the car / Too scared to think about how insecure you are / Life ain’t so happy in your little Shangri-La”. We suspected as much.
From a solely musical perspective, ‘Shangri-La’ is arguably Ray’s single most successful dalliance with grand ambition: it’s big and it’s very, very clever. Had The Beatles come out with this, it would be universally regarded as a classic fit to take its place alongside ‘A Day in the Life’ or ‘Strawberry Fields’. As it was The Kinks, it bombed when it was released as a single and might only stir pangs of recognition amongst the general public these days because it sounds too much like a classic for them not to have heard it. ‘Shangri-La’: a microcosm of Arthur and of The Kinks as a whole.’Mr Churchill Says’ starts out as a similarly sly and lyrically deferential march to ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ with absolutely exquisite resolutions at the end of each line, before a “we’ll fight them on the landing grounds” spoken word section which demonstrates Ray’s confidence and versatility quite splendidly. This relatively laid-back introduction soon gives way to loud sirens and a rather threatening chord progression over which lyrical bombs are dropped – “Did you hear that plane flying overhead? / There’s a house on fire and there’s someone lying dead” – but it’s okay because Mr Churchill said “we’ve gotta fight this bloody battle ’til the very end”.
As with ‘Some Mother’s Son’, ‘Mr Churchill Says’ shines a light on the inequality and inhumanity of war – some are more equal than others, and all that – but it does so in a more passive, and consequently less meditative, manner. It even moves on to a chant of “Mr Churchill says we gotta hold up our chins / Gotta show some courage and discipline / Gotta black up the windows and nail up the doors / And keep right on ’til the end of the war”, which feels like the song getting back up and dusting itself down in true British ‘stiff upper lip’ fashion after the setback of the aforementioned bombing.
And, just as ‘Some Mother’s Son’ segued into the care-free ‘Drivin”, so ‘Mr Churchill Says’ leads into the barrelhouse larks of ‘She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina’s’, which may be as musically frivolous as the purchase of its titular hat but comes across as rather more barbed when the lyrics reveal it to be a luxury item she can scarcely afford. Quite what the juxtaposition of feigned wealth and lyrics such as “buddy can you spare me a dime?” is supposed to represent may well rest on what’s happening in the story by this point, but the kazoos and background revelry of the final verse make it sound like the most fun and energetic drunken singalong ever conducted.
‘She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina’s’ will irritate those who hold similar disdain for Village Green knees-up ‘All of My Friends Were There’ – which lyrically was also somewhat less than ebullient – but it’s dripping with Noel Coward-like sophistication and shows in lines such as “To look at her you’d think she was wealthy / ‘Cause she smiles like a real millionaire / ‘Cause she’s bought a hat like Princess Marina’s / So she don’t care” that, even in times of forced frugality, we can all be a little bit selfish sometimes.
‘Young and Innocent Days’ showcases beautifully tender harmonies between Ray and Dave which not only feels like a loved-up truce from their typically warring ways but also as if they’re pining for their own childhoods rather that of Arthur or whichever of the story’s characters takes first person in this instance. A simple song about simpler times, ‘Young and Innocent Days’ is simply gorgeous. That’s about it, really, but that’s no bad thing. Oh and is that a certain Nicky Hopkins on harpsichord?
‘Nothing to Say’ draws a line under Arthur’s sense of self-worthlessness with the realisation that he has as little to offer the world in his twilight years as he did when he was a young soldier: he had no mind of his own back then and he has no mind of his own now, a parallel which is emphasised by the fact that the music even sounds quite similar to ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’. A sort of reflective reprise, perhaps?Ostensibly addressing his own father (“Remember walking with you by my side / You were my papa and I was your pride / Now I’ve got children and I’m going grey / No time for talking, I got nothing to say”), the song’s perversely fun call-and-response sections reveal Arthur to have “nothing to say” on a range of topics including his life insurance, his rheumatism, his trade union and Aunty Mable.
Given Arthur’s supposed age, one might imagine his father to have passed on by now so this one-way conversation could be seen as being directed heavenwards in a sort of wry display of how much he has and how little it means. As could only be done in a musical setting, this insignificance is celebrated with riotously good-time music, bringing the curtain up in the most satisfyingly Ray Davies way imaginable: that is, in a blaze of contrariness. A sad ending that sounds deliriously happy: would he have had it any other way?
And so we come to the end of this remarkable album with its title track which, in summarising Arthur’s life over a jangly sort of hoedown, does an exceedingly good job of recreating the feel of the credits rolling up, leaving you emotionally drained yet buzzing off the journey in the way that great films do. As the lyrics – sung by Dave but written by Ray – point out so bluntly, the world has gone and passed Arthur by and the refrain of “Arthur we like you and want to help you” sounds rather hollow when repeated.
“If only life were easy it would be such fun / Things would be more equal and be plenty for everyone” – a lovely (if grammatically incorrect) note to go out on, even if the world has passed Arthur by while his offspring venture to the other side of the world to prosper in the promised land. Stylistically, ‘Arthur’ hints – as did ‘Act Nice and Gentle’ before it – at the Americana that was to follow on Muswell Hillbillies and parts of Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround.
As for the bonus material available on this release, I’m afraid that Rocksucker is going to have to side Andy Miller [author of the excellent Village Green Preservation Society book from the equally excellent 33 1/3 series) with regards ‘Plastic Man’: frankly, it’s just a pale imitation of songs like ‘A Well Respected Man’ and ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. What’s more, during an era of so many truly great compositions from both Davies brothers, it makes for an exceptionally odd choice of single.
What are the lyrics trying to say, other than just portray someone or other as a bit of a phoney? Either that or this ‘Plastic Man’ is just a character from a would-be children’s story, something which was done a lot more endearingly on Something Else‘s ‘Tin Soldier Man’. Avoid.
After that borderline monstrosity, we are treated to a batch of material from A Hole in the Sock of Dave Davies. ‘This Man He Weeps Tonight’ and ‘Mindless Child of Motherhood’ are both wonderful songs featuring the kind of Ray/Dave harmonies which were so affecting on ‘Young and Innocent Days’; however, both songs are mixed pretty horrendously. Are these the finished versions? If not, can we have them?
‘This Man He Weeps Tonight’ and ‘Mindless Child of Motherhood’ may not be as well-defined as a typical Ray composition – or indeed as Dave’s ‘Love Me Till the Sun Shines’ or ‘Funny Face’ off Something Else – but they’re beautiful things to have around nonetheless and well worthy off their place in the Kinks Kanon.
Elsewhere, ‘Lincoln County’ and ‘Creeping Jean’ are both tremendous fun and show Dave to be a pretty great front man in his own right, while ‘Mr Shoemaker’s Daughter’ is pleasant enough as an album track. ‘Hold My Hand’, though, is a fairly forgettable lesser version of ‘Strangers’ from Lola Versus Powerman, while ‘Mr Reporter’ – though admittedly very catchy – just has a big, fat chip on its shoulder. It’s fair to say that Dave’s album would have been a bit of a mixed bag but there would have been enough great songs on it to make it genuinely worthwhile.
The following year’s Lola Versus Powerman album would have its high points, while Muswell Hillbillies was genius in its crazy way, but it is the run of albums from Face to Face through to Arthur which defines The Kinks in this writer’s rather uncontroversial opinion. The “Deluxe Version” of Village Green Preservation Society was released years ago so has not been covered here but, such is the strength of its bonus material, perhaps we’ll revisit it on these pages sometime for good measure.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading these; and, if you’re a newcomer, get these albums in your life pronto!
Rocksucker says: Five Quails out of Five!
Arthur by The Kinks (Deluxe Version) is out now on Sanctuary Records. For all the very latest on The Kinks and Ray Davies, please visit the unofficial yet comprehensive fan site kindakinks.net – it also has the best collection of Kinks chords and tabs out there by a country mile!