Fifty years ago: The Kinks release Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

By John Ruberry

Fifty Octobers ago a brilliant musical work was released that Rolling Stone called, “By all odds the best British album of 1969,” adding, “It shows that Pete Townshend still has worlds to conquer, and that the Beatles have a lot of catching up to do.”

The Who issued Tommy that spring and the Beatles’ last recorded album, Abbey Road, was released in September.

What was that “best British album?” Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by the Kinks, written and produced by Ray Davies.

To celebrate, the Kinks, who broke up in 1996, but the surviving original members appear to have re-formed, last week released a twelve disc vinyl collector’s edition filled with remixes, demos, mono versions, new songs, and a never-released Dave Davies solo album.

There’s shorter version also available too. On Friday I downloaded the 1 hour 22 minute edition on Apple Music, with mono versions (why?), some alternative cuts, and one new song, “The Future,” credited to Arthur and the Emigrants (with Ray Davies).

Arthur is a great as I remembered. But the album was released at a troubled time for the Kinks. Fed up with the band’s lack of success, bassist Peter Quaife left. In 1965 the Kinks were banned by performing in the United States by the American Federation of Musicians. The ban, which to this date was never explained, was lifted in 1969, but much had changed by the end of the 1960s. The Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Beatles had expanded their fan base–it was always large for the Beatles–and they also expanded the breadth of their music.

Meanwhile, the Kinks were in a way marooned in England. Like children forbidden by their parents from playing outside after a blizzard and the usual resultant bitter cold temperatures, Ray Davies and the Kinks were locked inside and forced to rely on what they could find at home musically to entertain themselves. Much of their mid-1960s output owed much to British Musical Hall, the tunes of their parents. Music Hall in Britain is what Vaudeville was to America, only it spawned a distinct musical style that centered on spirited singing and catchy melodies that begged for sing-alongs. Famous, or used-to-be famous Music Hall songs include “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay,” “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag,” and “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am.” That last one was a 1960s hit for Herman’s Hermits. That band scored another hit with “Dandy,” a Kinks song.

The Kinks first American hit was “You Really Got Me” in 1964, that tune and similar early Kinks aural assaults inspired two genres, punk rock and heavy metal. In 1967, the Music Hall-inspired “Mr. Pleasant” was the last Kinks single to break the Billboard Hot 100 until “Victoria,” the opening track of Arthur.

The Kinks clearly were back as hard rockers with “Victoria,” but there are still are Music Hall influences on Arthur. This is a concept album meant to be the soundtrack to a television play that never aired. Even in success they failed. When introducing a song on their last album, the (mostly) live To The Bone, Ray laments, “It kind of summarizes everything we’re about, the Kinks. Because everyone is expecting us to do wonderful things and we mess it all up, usually.”

The Arthur narrative centers on an elderly English suburbanite who symbolizes the disappointment that in 1969, Britain was not a classless society, as was hoped for after World War II ended.

From the album’s liner notes (courtesy of the Kinda Kinks site):

Arthur? Oh, of course–England and knights and round tables, Excalibur, Camelot, “So all day long the noise of battle roll’d among the mountains by the winter sea.” Sorry, no. This is Arthur Morgan, who 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. His son, Ronnie, is a student and he thinks the world’s got to change one hell of a lot before it’s going to be good enough for him. Derek thinks it’s changed a bloody sight too much–he can’t stand England any more, all these bloody bureaucrats everywhere, bloody hell, he’s getting out. Ronnie and Derek don’t exactly get on.

Families split along political lines? You mean like now? Brexit versus EU? Donald Trump versus Elizabeth Warren?

Derek and family’s move to Australia mirrors the Davies’ sister Rosie and her husband, Arthur, relocation to Down Under a few years earlier, which inspired the 1966 Kinks’ song, “Rosie Won’t You Please Come Home.” That tune, as with many Kinks songs, is also a story. While watching Ken Burns’ Country Music series on PBS, one of the commentators mentioned that many of the greatest country songs involve stories, sometimes dramas. Which deep down is why I love the work of the Kinks. Their music is compelling. The tales they tell even more so.

One story from Arthur, a Music Hall romp, is “She Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina.”

She’s bought a hat like Princess Marina’s
To wear at all her social affairs
She wears it when she’s cleaning the windows
She wears it when she’s scrubbing the stairs
But you will never see her at Ascot
She can’t afford the time or the fare
But she’s bought a hat like Princess Marina’s
So she don’t care.

He’s bought a hat like Anthony Eden’s
Because it makes him feel like a Lord
But he can’t afford a Rolls or a Bentley
He has to buy a secondhand Ford
He tries to feed his wife and his family
And buy them clothes and shoes they can wear
But he’s bought a hat like Anthony Eden’s
So he don’t care.

The saddest song I know of, from anyone, is another story from Arthur, “Some Mother’s Son.”

Two soldiers fighting in a trench
One soldier glances up to see the sun
And dreams of games he played when he was young
And then his friend calls out his name
It stops his dream and as he turns his head
A second later he is dead.

Some mother’s son lies in a field
Back home they put his picture in a frame
But all dead soldiers look the same
While all the parents stand and wait
To meet their children coming home from school
Some mother’s son is lying dead.

The music on Arthur rises to the occasion too. Unlike many late 1960s efforts, the horns compliment, not dominate, the songs. And the Kinks, led by lead guitarist Dave Davies, are at the top of their instrumental game here.

Arthur was not a hit but it enjoyed modest sales, unlike its pastoral predecessor The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, which wasn’t able to crack Billboard’s Hot 200 Albums chart. The stage was set for the Kinks’ return to well-deserved prominence one year later with Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One. That album of course contained “Lola,” their biggest American hit since 1965’s “Tired of Waiting for You.”

The Kinks were back.

But then it was time to “mess it all up” again. There wasn’t a Part Two of the Lola album. The next year the Kinks released a country rock collection, Muswell Hillbillies which began another decline in popularity. Only this time their time in the wilderness would last much longer.

Oh, one more item. After 50 years, the play Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire will finally be performed. That will happen later this year on BBC Radio.

God Save The Kinks!

John Ruberry blogs at Marathon Pundit.