Classic Music Review: Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks

arthur

This review caused quite a firestorm, as hundreds of Kinks fans descended on my blog to give me hell or express the wish that I would burn in hell. Most people were angry and disgusted by my obvious stupidity; a few were genuinely emotionally distraught that anyone could write such a sacrilegious review. It was a curious and somewhat frightening experience, and for a while I felt I was face to face (pun intended) by a virtual mob of torch-carriers determined to burn the heretic. 

None of the arguments swayed me even a tiny bit, but the experience did cause me to write one of my favorite Chick Riffs, “The Truth about Beets,” which you can find in the Chick Riffs section of this site.

Many fans of The Kinks consider Arthur to be the band’s crowning glory, one of the great concept albums of all time.

Not me!

Of all the albums from The Kinks’ acknowledged golden period from 1966 to 1972, Arthur is my least favorite. I think it has some strong pieces, some weak pieces and a whole lot of filler.

The reason why Arthur has so much filler is because it was designed to be the soundtrack for a television program. Now, unlike the American version of The Beatles’ Help! album, where the filler is clearly identified in the form of separate tracks that you can skip, the filler in Arthur is embedded in the tracks themselves. The purpose of the filler was probably to give the director space to include supporting shots to enhance the meaning of a particular sequence. Unfortunately, this leads to several tracks that are extended beyond their natural lives. The worst offender is “Australia,” where a pointless, inept jam is added to the song proper, probably to allow the director to insert shots of happy Australians surfing or hopping around on their kangaroos. Other songs chock full of wasted space include “Mr. Churchill Says,” “Shangri-La” and the title track itself. Instead of the EXPLICIT tag, each of these tracks should be clearly labeled WARNING: CONTAINS FILLER.

If filler were the only problem with Arthur, we could forgive Ray Davies for just doing his job and sympathize with his frustration that the television program was never produced. Unfortunately, Ray is not on top of his game, either. Some of the lyrics to the songs on Arthur are filler themselves. The lyrics to “Australia” could have been lifted from a travel brochure, and “Mr. Churchill Says” senselessly repeats lines from Churchill’s “finest hour” speech. Ray also beats his themes to death, particularly the theme that the lower classes are “conditioned” to believe in jolly olde England and what a great place it is even when they’re getting fucked by the uppers. After he hammers away on the theme in “Brainwashed,” he repeats it again on “Shangri-La,” causing me to want to shout, “Hey, I get it! I’m not fucking stupid, you know!” On Arthur, for some reason, Ray felt the need to spell everything out for us instead of having some confidence in the intelligence of his listening audience. Perhaps he felt the need to dumb it down for the average British television viewer, but whatever the reason, the man who wrote “Waterloo Sunset” took a holiday when writing the songs on Arthur.

I also think that Ray Davies’ typically stand-up orientation to the working classes is inconsistent at best on Arthur, ranging from harsh judgment (“Shangri-La”) to noblesse oblige (“Arthur”) and delayed-reaction empathy (“Brainwashed,” which begins like an attack on the stupidity of the working class but switches to an understanding that they’ve been pushed around by the powers that be). There are times in Arthur where I really don’t know whose side he’s on. I find “Arthur” the most offensive song of the lot, and the line “Arthur, we like you and want to help you” as astonishingly arrogant. Ray knows best, Arthur! You’re all fucked up and we’re here to help! Puh-leeze!

Weaknesses aside, The Kinks never opened an album with a stronger track than “Victoria.” A natural toe-tapping, leg-shaking mover, it sounds like The Kinks are having the most fun they’d had in years. The lyrics are simple, full of accessible imagery and fun to sing. The extended “oh” on the word “Victoria” with the descending bass line in the chorus following the lead guitar solo is one of the great moments in rock ‘n’ roll. It never fails to give me the chills, and Dave Davies’ “Yeah!” captures the feeling of excitement perfectly. Although people think of it as a song full of nostalgia for the past, the lyrics don’t support that perception, for they describe both the massive chasm between the classes and blind loyalty to the nation. “Victoria loved them all,” is an intensely ironic line.

The harsh realities are given even more visibility in “Yes Sir, No Sir,” a song about both military discipline and class distinction. Although I think the laughter at the end of the passage “sung” by the men in charge is superfluous (we get it, Ray!), the message that class distinction and separation did not end when Hitler attacked is both illuminating and insightful.

Now we come to “Some Mother’s Son,” which some have proclaimed as one of the great anti-war songs ever written. I beg to differ. Compared to June Tabor’s versions of “The Band Played Waltzin’ Matilda” and “No Man’s Land/Flowers of the Forest,” this song hardly moves the needle. The first verse emphasizes the impersonal nature of war’s meat grinder, and is probably the strongest verse in the song. After that, the lyrics tend to get maudlin, supported in that effort by dreadful harmonies and way, way too much instrumentation designed to make us feel sad instead of letting us feel things for ourselves. “Some Mother’s Son” would have been much better with a stark, empty arrangement and no harmony whatsoever, allowing the audience to supply the emotion. We can do it, Ray!

I have nothing good to say about “Drivin’,” a song far too light and jolly for my tastes. “Brainwashed” is generally a strong track, even with the lyrical limitations noted above, and the live version on Everybody’s in Show-Biz is even better. The harmonies supplied by the horn section on “Brainwashed” are particularly sharp and sweet. As you might have guessed, I have nothing good to say about “Australia” either and even worse, it’s six minutes and forty-two seconds too long.

“Shangri-La” is the most frustrating track of all on Arthur. It begins beautifully, sadly with a relatively empty soundscape that supports one of Ray’s better vocals on the album, a vocal that at first is full of both empathy and frustration with the lot of the “little man who gets the train.” Then he spoils it all with the line, “But he’s too scared to complain/’Cause he’s conditioned that way.” Argggh! Did you have to be so fucking obvious, Ray? The song also goes on too long and the arrangement becomes too grand, as if to say, “We’re really making a statement here!” Just make the fucking statement and move on!

I’ve no idea what “Mr. Churchill Says” is supposed to be. Is he poking fun at propaganda or attempting to dramatize the blitz? Whatever he’s doing, it doesn’t work for me. Far superior is “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina,” where Ray describes with great poignancy the silly indulgences of the lower classes as they try in vain to raise their status and make themselves feel important. I’m not so sure about the hyper-speed ending, though, which I think diminishes the power of the song. They avoid any such distractions on “Young and Innocent Days,” with a gentle and lovely weaving of acoustic guitars supplying a perfect background to the sad, age-old wish to relive one’s youth. “Nothing to Say” is an enthusiastically played but rather dull song about the typical disconnection between kids who have grown up and can no longer relate to their parents. Trite at best.

Arthur ends with the supremely annoying and supremely long title track. On top of its awful lyrics, it’s such a sing-songy childish tune that it irritates the shit out of me. Haven’t we heard this melody before? It sounds awfully familiar . . . and it goes on forever, with lots and lots of filler so they can run the credits at the end of the movie that was never made.

The Kinks certainly give one of their most enthusiastic performances on Arthur, so much so that sometimes their cup runneth over. The writing simply isn’t as strong as it is on Village Green Preservation Society, Lola vs. The Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, or even Muswell Hillbillies for that matter (Muswell Hillbillies has other issues that I’ll discuss in that review). All in all, I think Arthur is somewhat inflated, and once you let the air out, there really isn’t much in the way of substance.

 

73 responses

  1. Michael Chaney | Reply

    Once again, I agree completely with the ARC. I bought the album the day it came out and remember being floored by “Victoria” and being massively let down by the remainder of the album. I still feel that way. Only “Victoria” is in my personal Best of the Kinks folder. The rest I dismissed long ago.

    The Arthur album was a huge turning point for me in my appreciation of the Kinks. The previous three albums knocked me out; nearly every track was terrific in some way. Then we got an album with only one ass-kicker. Ray did come back very strongly with the next two albums(Lola & Muswell), and then, in my view–then and now–The Kinks permanently became a band with albums with one, maybe two great songs and the rest not meriting a second listen. There were some albums with nothing that really grabbed me. I still bought them, though, in those pre-sampling days. From ’72 on, over 20 years, the “keepers,” for me, boiled down to Celluloid Heroes, I’m In Disgrace & The Hard Way, Catch Me Now I’m Falling, Superman, and Living On A Thin Line. Then we got UK Jive, where about half the album is terrific.

    Nevertheless, based on his output between ’65 and ’71, I put Ray Davies in the group with Dylan, Lennon-McCartney, and Jagger-Richards — the only writers to have written 100 (or close to 100) terrific songs.

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    1. Pretty close to my view. I do agree that Ray Davies belongs in the elite class. I think I appreciate his work during the “theatrical period” a bit more, but I don’t compare those albums to the others because they really fall into a different genre (they’re more like musicals than song albums). That said, I have no intention of reviewing “Everybody’s in Show Biz” because the disc of originals is “Celluloid Heroes” and a bunch of crap, and there are very few songs during the theatrical period that can stand up on their own without the link to the “libretto.”

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      1. Tony Crawford | Reply

        Correction: “Celluloid Heroes”, “Sitting in my Hotel” and a bunch of crap 🙂

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  2. I’m on the other side as Arthur is one of my favourite albums by the Kinks, I will say though I do have a strong dislike for the Australia track and always skip that one. However Shangri-La is one of the truly great Kinks songs, not sure how anyone could dislike it but each to our own I guess.

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    1. Yes, I’m definitely in the minority here, so I’m glad you provided a different point of view. Thanks!

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    2. Michelle Pedretti | Reply

      I was unable to finish reading all of this review, I suppose my stomach was turning – let’s just say I was slightly irked – and I’m too sleepy. But I hope to return to it and would like to dissect it piece by piece (I’m no expert of music course, but can appreciate lyrics and disagreed strongly with almost all of the remarks). Alas I’m always so busy and fear it would be a waste of my time… in my view it is not Ray who is superficial and obvious, it’s the author who does not seem to understand or appreciate the insights and innovations of Arthur and hence bashes it. Fillers indeed. But of course everyone is entitled to their opinion. Yes, I’m not crazy about the title song either but overall find the songs and the concept brilliant and completely unique, nothing I’d expect from a “rock band” (I only recently discovered the Kinks BTW, in 2009). Shangri-la is my all-time favourite and I find nothing trite about it. Actually, it always makes me reflect on my own middle-class existence and complacency, which, given the current economic situation, may soon end. Nor about the the fact that Ray makes certain observations about British class society, which I find very insightful…plain, simple and yet insightful, often cynical but sympathetic at the same time and humorous. Arthur is like a condensed “musical” history of Britain from the glorious days of Victorian Imperialism through the two world wars and the post-war period, and of course there’s the emigration to Australia … the decline of the British empire portrayed concisely in a few songs (and there’s more to it than that, such as in Nothing To Say, generation gap and loss of communication between parents and children). I think the album stands alone proudly, despite the unfortunate cancellation of the project by Granada. I still hope Arthur will be staged one day as a rock musical. I visited the Imperial War Museum in London a couple of years ago and seeing all those war posters conjured up Mr. Churchill Says, Ray perfectly conveyed the idea of the sacrifice being asked of the population and the war propaganda (and why not quote speeches?…the Beatles’ supposed masterpiece A Day In The Life – which is one of my favourites – was in large part lifted from newspaper articles, I cannot see anything wrong with quoting speeches, it’s common in literature). As for She’s Bought a Hat like Princess Marina’s, I completely agree with Kitts on this (though not on everything else), it’s a statement of how the British lower classes/poor seek to emulate and worship the aristocracy. My mind has wandered to A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens. The French used to chop off their heads (good for them, I’d be tempted to say…just kidding, though)… not much fear of that in Britain then or now. What more moving war song than Some Mother’s Son? I can just envision the trenches, and Yes Sir, No Sir is such a succinct, biting comment on how “inferiors” were treated by officers. Ray’s changes of voice convey that perfectly, too. Last October during the Ray Davies tour I saw a play in Haymarket written by Michael Morpurgo, a sad World War I story … I was reminded both of Some Mother’s Son and Yes Sir, No Sir …poor soldier executed because he disobeyed orders in an attempt to save his injured brother’s life. In conclusion, I think Arthur is a brilliant album 🙂 Evidently I read more into it than others.

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      1. Michelle: I don’t think you’re reading too much into things; I’m thrilled that you’ve found so much value in Arthur, as have many other people. As far as my inadequacy as a reviewer is concerned, I don’t know how to respond to that! I don’t think artistic perception is subject to “proof.” We all have different personalities and experiences that shape our aesthetic perceptions, and there are certain artists and art works that move me but leave others cold. For example, I love Dickens and Thomas Hardy, but my partner thinks they’re ridiculously wordy and prefers Hemingway, whom I loathe. Her opinions do not invalidate my experience, and vice versa. Arthur doesn’t move me, but Lola, VGPS, “Waterloo Sunset” and “Celluloid Heroes” move me to tears at times. As I said at the beginning, I’m very happy you’ve had such a wonderful experience with Arthur and I respect your perceptions and opinions. Thank you SO much for taking the time to share!

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        1. I always thought Arthur had insightful things to say about the English working class and as I slowly recover from the recent Britex decision the lyrics just confirm the deep nostalgia that runs through the baby boomers.

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  3. AOTDFBE is one of those rare gemsthat really should not be compared to any other rock album [concept or other wise]. It was defined and delivered as you say for TV. But what seems to be missing in your blog critique is the full intent of the lyrics in defining a lost generation of soles who believed in doing whatever the British government told them to do. Reviewing this piece of work with a 21st Century lense is like comparing a Corvette to a Model A.

    I, personally, like to read the lyrics of this album then listen to the music with the lyrics. It gives you a completely different perspective. And as songs for a TV product, these ‘song stories’ really are brilliant and go far beyond what you would expect for a TV soundtrack, whether it is front of the dialog or behind it.

    So, with all respect, I think the Arthur album is brilliant for its representation of a terrible world and generation gone by. And I do understand where your coming from. There are certainly strong tracks, less strong tracks, and items of interest tracks that make up the entire Arthur property.

    AOTDFBE is truly one of the great Kinks albums. And playing it today is as much fun as it was back in 1969. And listening to SirusXM classic rock just play Australia, it even sounds bright and crisp on satellite radio.

    GSTK.

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    1. Fair points! Thank you for responding and for the intelligence of your argument!

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  4. I don’t think I could disagree more with the general thrust and specific negative comments in this piece. I think the objections to the instrumental section ending Arthur, while fair comment, are pure conjecture when suggesting that they were included as a kind of cinematography “stage direction.” I think it’s a very strong, moving and well-balanced record containing superb songs and performances.

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    1. Most people would agree with you! Thanks for the alt-perspective!

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      1. Thank you for the alt-reply. Curtis

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  5. Michael Hanratty | Reply

    Shangri-la is a fantastic song Arthur is one of my favourite albums but everyone has their own opinion

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    1. Thank you, Michael. Many people feel the way you do and I appreciate you taking the time to say so.

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  6. Agree with most of your criticisms, especially of Australia, but Shangri-La is a perfect song!

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    1. I know I’m an outlier, and I love the song until that one line that just hits my hot buttons! Thanks for commenting!

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  7. […] deepest appreciation to Kinks fans, especially Dave Emlen at KindaKinks.net! Dave posted a link to my review of Arthur, noting that the review was “mostly negative.” In a world full of spin where many […]

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  8. When I list my favorites Kinks albums, Arthur is always right up there with VGPS, Schoolboys in Disgrace and Great Lost Kinks Album…its highly melodic, intelligently written and features lovely harmonies…what else do you want?

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  9. To quote Ray in another song: ‘Everybody got the right to speak their mind’. So here it goes: Really loved your ‘We are getting it Ray!’ Having said that, the snob-laughter in ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’ gives me every time goosebumps and i think it’s essential for the song.

    Maybe ‘Australia’ is a bit long, but that long guitar-solo emphasis for me the wild and freedom of that country. I think with the last part of ‘She Bought A Hat’ Ray was trying out Music Hall stuff, i love Mick’s drumming on it. The alarms on Mr. Churchill Says followed by Dave’s guitar are magnificent and equals for me the start of War Pigs of Black Sabbath.

    I won’t discuss every song, but will end with not being too fond of the song Arthur myself, so I do agree with you it can be shortened. Anyway, I liked your review even though quiet different from my view on the album. It was thought provoking! Cheers and GSTK!

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    1. Thank you! Love your different take on the laughter on “Some Mother’s Son,” proving that there are many ways an artist can evoke feelings in different listeners.

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  10. Dear Mrs. Chick,

    Although I disagree with most of your opinions on the Arthur album, I acknowledge that, at the very least, you did her homework and listened to the album more than once and attentively – which is more than we can say of most professional music critics… As the dictum says, there are three types of critics: those who love, those who hate and those who listen.

    On one hand, on the Arthur album Ray may have been a little too heavy-handed and obvious in order to reach the average public; on the other hand, no other mainstream pop artist of the time, apart from Frank Zappa maybe, was addressing the subject in music with so much eloquence and insistence. Sure, John Lennon started doing the same when the Beatles started to fall apart (“Give Peace A Chance”, “Revolution”) and blossomed as a musical activist in the 1970s, but ultimately he was little more than a boutique leftist, and his political songs have little of the melody flair of his more lyrical work.

    I find Arthur more uneven than the precedent (Village Green) and following (Lola Vs. Powerman) albums, but agree in “Victoria”, “Yes Sir No Sir” and all the other songs you mentioned as being highlights. As for “Drivin'” being too light and jolly, I love it for these very same reasons; it, along with “Princess Marina”, it brings comic relief to an album which features very serious songs like “Some Mother’s Son” and “Mr. Churchill Says” (yes, Ray’s being ironic in this one).

    I like the jam session part of “Australia” – it’s what “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)” should be, a modal improvisation but disciplined enough to funciton as a pop song. Not to mention that it was in this album that Dave Davies came into his own as a musician, soloing as a virtuoso but unobtrusively. (I’m a musician myself, not claiming to be as good as Dave Davies, but enough to be able to hear music like “one of them”.)

    Part of the fun of the Arthur album – as with all Kinks albums – is that no one plagiarises as creatively as Ray Davies. “Mr. Churchill Says” refurbishes the Animals’s “I’m Crying” (which in turn recycles “Wake Up Little Susie”); some of “Shangri-La” resembles some of “Summer In The City”; “Princess Marina” reminds me of “Those Hazy, Crazy, Lazy Days Of Summer”, a latterday hit sung by the late, great Nat King Cole; the chorus to “Drivin'” is lifted from their own “Mr. Pleasant”. But so what? Only God can create something from nothing, and Ray Davies’s plagiarisms are more creative than many “creative” artistes.

    I n short, I respect your opinion on Arthur, even agree with a bit of it. And one of the very principles of democracy is to allow for different opinions. Don’t you know it, don’t you know it…

    Cheerio,

    Ayrton

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    1. Oops, “you did your homework”.

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    2. Thank you! I probably should have given Ray a bit of a break because he was writing for a medium that appealed to a more general audience, and that in the context of the times, Ray was miles ahead of everyone else in rock in terms of social consciousness (I had to laugh at your description of Lennon, whose solo work is not particularly appealing to me). Funny you should mention plagiarism, as in my upcoming review of Face to Face, I point out that The Stones likely plagiarized one of The Kinks’ songs on that album, and achieved better results. I never thought of the Nat King Cole connection, though! I agree with the “so what” response: for me, it’s all about the stories and the way Ray presents them. Thank you for noticing I did my homework, because I spend far more time researching and listening than writing. Cheers!

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      1. I’d also add that “If I Needed Someone” and The Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better” share eerie similarities. But you’re right—the core of the genre has limited possibilities and songwriters are going to bump into familiar musical patterns. Lyrics, delivery and commitment come to the rescue. Sorry for the split messages but I suck at iPhone tapping, especially in airports.

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        1. Dear ARC,

          only now I had time to visit you again… But I noticed that my latest comment was hijacked by some evil electrons which, sacre bleu, bypassed Air France’s security.

          I read that you are writing a review of the Face To Face album (one of my all-time favourites BTW – to me, it is the second best – tied with Revolver – pop album of 1966, Pet Sounds being the winner), then I commented about many songs on it having been nicked from and by others. One is “Party Line”, which inspired the Stones’ “Connection” . Others include “I’ll Remember”, a fine punkish rewrite of “If I Needed Someone”; “Fancy”, whose guitar opening resembles the one to Simon & Garfunkel’s “A Most Peculiar Man” (written and released earlier); “Too Much On My Mind”, ditto for Neil Diamond’s “I Am… I Said” (written and released later), “Dandy” (a splendid pasticcio that includes even the Kinks’ own “A Well Respected Man”)… Well, popular music is 90% lyrics anyway.

          There’s also my “ping-pong theory”: A can influence B and be influenced by B too. “So Mistifying”, from the Kinks’ first album, owes something to Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” via the Stones; well, the chorus to “So Mistifying”, at least to my ears, turns up on the Stones’ “Please Go Home” from Between The Buttons. Yes, I know rock and roll is not meant to be thought about, but Im cntrary that I am, love to think about rock and roll.

          And besides Face’s, I’m waiting for your reviews of Something Else, Preservation and other Kinks albums! I like to know opinions different to mine, which when well-based can be very enlightening.

          Cheerio,

          Ayrton

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  11. Michael Chaney | Reply

    George admitted that he stole If I Needed Someone from The Byrds, that it was an homage to their sound, but said it was The Bells of Rhymney that he’d based it on.

    From Wikipedia: <>

    As for the Party Line vs. Connection issue, I don’t remember ever having put two and two together before the above comment led me to listen again to Party Line…Which blows my mind since I played the grooves out of Face to Face and Between the Buttons when each came out, and since. So thanks to the person who posted the comment.

    An interesting side note, in Party LIne, Ray foreshadows the Lola theme when he sings, “Is she big, is she tall, is she a she at all?”

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  12. Michael Chaney | Reply

    The Wiki quote was omitted from my comment so I’ll try again.

    George admitted that he stole If I Needed Someone from The Byrds, that it was an homage to their sound, but said it was The Bells of Rhymney that he’d based it on.

    From Wikipedia: In a 2004 radio interview with the BBC in London, Roger McGuinn confirmed that Harrison had sent a tape recording of the song to him in Los Angeles before it was released on record. Harrison did this to show McGuinn that the guitar riff he had used in “If I Needed Someone” was based on McGuinn’s own riff in “The Bells of Rhymney.” “George was very open about it,” said McGuinn, who was then going by his given name, Jim. “He sent [the record] to us in advance and said, ‘This is for Jim’ — because of that lick.”

    As for the Party Line vs. Connection issue, I don’t remember ever having put two and two together before the above comment led me to listen again to Party Line…Which blows my mind since I played the grooves out of Face to Face and Between the Buttons when each came out, and since. So thanks to the person who posted the comment.

    An interesting side note, in Party LIne, Ray foreshadows the Lola theme when he sings, “Is she big, is she tall, is she a she at all?”

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    1. I’m in the air on Air France’s beta Wi-Fi, so I hope this gets to you. I think it’s nice that George fessed up. What was his response when he was sued for “My Sweet Lord?” I never liked that song anyway, so I never looked up the history of the legal battle. Cheers!

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      1. Michael Chaney | Reply

        I think you can report to Air France that its beta wifi works well. From what I can see, all your responses came through without a problem.

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  13. I am a very big Kinks fan, and Arthur was their first album I really listened to ( I was 9 years old when it came out). I have a lot of affection for the album and the Kinks’ music in general, so I am not a very reliable critic in this case. I’ve also taken the time to read some of your other reviews since I found your site through the Arthur review, and I must say I agree with a lot of your opinions on music; clearly, you don’t pull your punches when you think something is amiss, regardless of the group.

    Arthur is an odd album. You couldn’t just play it for someone, like the Lola album, and expect people to get it. Even Victoria, my favorite Kinks song ever, starts off with Ray singing in a weird kind of voice and the record takes a minute to really take off. Yes, even if you take the aborted TV show angle into account, Arthur is a very idiosyncratic record (can you name another major rock group that used a kazoo?).

    I can’t disagree with the points you make, but I find Arthur a very serious work that comes straight from Ray Davies’ heart. I think it is anchored in emotions about his own family that makes his criticisms of the “little man” filled with pain rather than venom. I don’t want to get too psychoanalytical here, but I think Arthur is a real attempt to show the Arthur’s of the world that someone from the younger generation understood the sacrifices and raw deals they endured AND sympathized and loved them for it. Maybe I am the only one, but I find the song, Arthur, very moving and raw in its emotions. “Arthur could be that the world was wrong” is a signature lyric for Ray Davies’ philosophy of life, as much as “I’m not like everybody else.’ Strange Dave sings both of those songs, huh?

    As much as Village Green takes a number of listens before its genius emerges, Arthur is even more difficult to access. I think of all of the songs the Kinks thought were going to be a hit that didn’t pan out, Shangrila was the hardest for them to swallow, even more than Celluloid Heroes. I know you take offense at some of Shangrila’s lyrics, but there really is something to that song that can raise the hairs on the back of my neck. Have you heard the instrumental-only version of Shangrila on the recent Arthur reissue? Maybe try again listening to the song without the words, and you will hear the frustration, pain and rage in the song unleashed without the burden of words.

    Oh well, I think you are a great reviewer and you do nail Arthur’s weaknesses. I believe the album is redeemed and elevated by the obvious care and concern Ray Davies has for the subject, as well as my own well-earned affection for the Kinks.

    Best wishes with your move!

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    1. I hope this works. I’m in the air and Air France is “testing” a new WI-FI system. It took me 15 minutes to connect, so if you get this reply in pieces, that’s why.
      I think I’m more polite with newer artists because I don’t want to discourage them. With established artists, sometimes arrogance creeps into their music and I do let them have it. I’ve never felt that way about The Kinks, though. I think they always give an honest effort; most of the time it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I appreciate the risks they have taken.
      I have heard the instrumental “Shangri-La” and I see your point. I think what influences my perception of the song is a preference for subtlety in poetry in general. I certainly don’t mind blatant references in a kick-ass rock song, but in the more poetic songs, I do prefer a touch of ambiguity that leaves the listener/reader room for interpretation. As you’ll see in my review of Something Else, Ray nails that on “David Watts” and “Waterloo Sunset.” One commentator pointed out that he had to adjust his approach for the expected television audience, and that’s a fair point, but even then I think that line is a bit too obvious. On “Arthur,” I think the problem is when they shift from a third-person narrative to direct discourse (“Arthur we love you and want to help you.”) If you read my review on Sinead O’Connor’s last release, I talk about the value of “negative capability” espoused by Keats in more depth, and that’s what’s missing for me in this song, especially when they make that shift.
      Love your comments and your passion! It’s so nice to discuss the things that really matter in life! Thank you for reading some of my other posts and I hope Air France Wi-Fi sends you this message!

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      1. Reply from 35,000 feet? Very Impressive! Negative capability aside, the older I get the more I appreciate the fact that the Kinks spent a good two+ minutes telling an old codger that they loved him to end this album. At the risk of sounding sappy, you just have to love the Kinks for this because you know they mean it. I’ll keep checking for more of your posts. I kind of lost interest in Rock after the 90’s, but I’ll try out some of your current music reviews.

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        1. The Wi-Fi seems to wink out from time to time, but it hasn’t been too bad. I will give The Kinks credit for sincerity! As far as newer releases are concerned, while I think there are some very promising artists out there, the truth is that my generation has been unable to match the level of quality produced in the 1960’s and early-to-mid 1970’s. I remember last year I went two months without finding a single piece of new music worth reviewing. This year has been better, but except for a few pieces by Admiral Fallow and Amanda Palmer, the lyrics simply aren’t what they used to be. There’s a reason I do so many Classic Music Reviews!

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  14. All who love music are critical of her in some way. I like the Kinks because they are minimalist, dadaist, environmentalist and because they have a sense of humor, addictive rhythms and intelligent lyrics. Not all of them went smoothly, which is understandable in any rock band. I do not know if they are the best, but for me they are the most endearing. Arthur is an album that has received an average rating of 9.1 for ten major rock pages. Village Green has 9.3 rating by the same critics. Arthur is second in the disk set the Kinks. I agree with several views on the value of the songs of Arthur, including that Victoria is the best. Mr. Churchill says is just a joke to a British symbol of young irreverent but some believe that it is disengaged from the whole work. In conclusion, Arthur is despite its flaws the first concept album the Kinks and it has great importance for the evolution of rock.

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    1. Thank you for the comments. I realize that my view is a minority view, but I appreciate the discussion and debate that has ensued. You’ve made some good points that I’m happy to post on the blog!

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  15. I appreciate well thought out viewpoints that may not always agree with mine. You had me on board with the obvious filler in Australia. But, having listened to the song Shangri-La continuously for the past 40 or so years, I fail to hear anything even remotely resembling filler in that song! I’d say the same about the song Arthur.

    For me, to qualify as filler it would have to detract from the excellence of the song. Nothing detracts from the excellence of Shangri-La and Arthur. I never get sick of them.

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    1. Thank you for the comment. I think most people would agree with you. I think both the songs mentioned go on too long and dilute any power they may have, but most take exception to that view. I’m glad you find them enriching experiences!

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  16. Bless you for taking the time to review one of the greatest albums of The Kinks. I’m a fan of their entire volume of work. My favorites aren’t other fan’s favorites. I like Preservation 1 & 2 the most. Arthur is right behind those not just in good…but in perfection…

    Ray, what can ya say? If he writes it, it’s cool. If you don’t think it’s cool, then it’s even cooler 🙂 I have to admit…I almost cursed aloud when I read your comment about Mr Churchill Says. OMGOMGOMG…how can you not like the Winston Churchill speech?

    And Drivin’….holy hell…you have to list that in the greatest greatest list of kink songs.

    Australia? It’s goofiness is why it’s so awesome. Some of Ray’s lyric strings in that song just make you laugh and shake your head:
    “No one hesitates at life or beats around the bush in Australia So if you’re young and if you’re healthy Why not get a boat and come to Australia” I mean srsly…

    It’s a coy, sly joke…and that’s why we love The Kinks. If ya want perfect bubble gum there is a band called The Beatles who were heavily influenced by the Kinks. 🙂

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    1. I love The Beatles, but I would agree that when it comes to lyrical excellence, Ray Davies has a better track record. I’m working on my Preservation review right now (it will be a long one) and I view it far more favorably than most critics. We’ll have to agree to disagree on some of the Arthur songs, though. Cheers!

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  17. but Arthur has lost a bit of it’s charm with me. I’ve moved on to other Kink albums. Still it tells such a wonderful story. And it’s the only album that comes to mind where there is any jamming. It’s nice that Ray got out the way and left Dave do his piece at the end of Australia and Mr Churchill…

    Also in Mr Churchill and in many of Ray’s songs, look up all the names you hear name checked in the lyrics. I’ve learned a lot of about history, British pop culture, etc… All fascinating stuffs

    Love your blog…

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    1. Thank you! I have Something Else and Muswell Hillbillies coming up this month, so stand by!

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  18. Here’s Something Else:

    Alt Rock Chick is an interesting name and I suppose it tells something about your point of view and attitude. Or I could suppose wrongly.

    While it’s true that The Kinks were one of the founders of heavy metal, art rock, rock opera, Brit pop and — most importantly, punk rock — they don’t fit neatly into any of those categories. It’s for that reason only they could be called alternative. But it’s hardly intentional. Arthur is a difficult album to pin down. It was supposedly the first “rock opera” — predating Tommy by a few months although it wasn’t released until after. Arthur was one of the Kinks commercial failures that was critically acclaimed when it came out.

    Here’s why. There was simply nothing like it before. Now it seems full of cliches. However, no one had been as blunt, forceful, satirical, epic or poetic in a rock album prior to this. And all at once. If you disagree, give me one example. I defy you. True, it’s not as good as Sgt Pepper or Tommy musically and vocally. But it’s almost as good or better in every other respect.

    One reason why Alt Rock Chick misses it, is that she hasn’t really ever entered Davies-land. She’s a distant observer from Alternative Rock land. The Kinks is not an alternative rock band except by default. They were ad hoc alternative rockers because Ray Davies commercial vision sometimes missed the market place due to bad timing or lack of proper promotion. Sometimes they were simply ahead of their time by just a few months or a couple of decades.

    So who is Ray Davies? First, although he’s ironic, he’s rarely sarcastic. He’s not looking down on any of these characters, but rather celebrating them. I remember a roommate, hearing “Mr. Churchill Says,” saying he hated it because Ray was “mocking” Churchill. Now you can interpret it that way, but what we find nearly all of Davies compositions during this time is a lot of affection for all things English. This is not Lola v. the Powerman and the MGR, which is neither ironic nor sarcastic, but rather an open rant at the music business. It is not Muswell Hillbillies, which is a more muted — and I would say — a better attempt to capture the “Preservation” theme Davies was obsessed with at the time. Arthur is a picture book story of the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. It is what it is. Each song is a snapshot of a decade of British history from the 1900s to the 1960s. The songs are out of order, but you can assign a decade to each. So it’s not a rock opera, but more of a concept album. Actually it defies description. What rock opera gives you a hundred year history lesson of the decline of the most powerful empire on earth? Davies tried to do this later on in “Nobody Gives” on Preservation Acts 2&3, but Arthur is like no other album ever.

    Ray Davies is very sympathetic toward nearly everyone, even his villains. Many of the worst characters in his stories could be Ray himself. He’s refreshingly honest. You are mistaking naivetee and innocence for satire and sarcasm here. There is SOME irony in every Ray Davies song, but most of his lyrics say what they mean. There are very few double meanings (with a few notable exceptions of course, such as Lola). But you are overstating his intentions here . Maybe that is your viewpoint and you are reading into the text rather than interpreting what is literally means.

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    1. Excellent description and comprehension of Davie’s and Arthur. What would be interesting is if there was a History Lession CD put out that took Ray’s vision of the past decade and placed all of the songs in their rightful order as you mentioned. Would be a very interesting and quite an enjoyable listen. It certainly would put those selected songs in a new perspective for sure.

      As for why The Kinks concept/vision/alternative/opera albums from RCA did not chart well is that the brand really did not have strong management. Had they really had leadership who knew how to take the day to day, year to year and really get the right engagement for the band and its audiences, they could have been “huge”. But in our minds they are huge and will continue to be.

      The first and longest band leadership really was Clive Davis. He would not just put out a single unless it had real potential to chart. Thus the Arista years of the ’70’s and ’80’s give then ‘rock god’ status to play multiple sell-out arenas. And Ray still got to produce songs with amazing introspect that also had great commercial appeal and see them get major radio and listener attention.

      Lots of brilliant songs on “Sleepwalker”, “Misfits”, “Word of Mouth”, “Give The People What They Want”, and certainly “Low Budget” to name just a few during the Arista period.

      So thanks Jay for the great interpretation. I whole heartily agree!

      GSTK

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    2. I would suggest you read the About Me /a propos de moi section before making assumptions about what “alt rock” means to me and why I chose it, because you’re 180 degrees from the truth.

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      1. Michelle Pedretti | Reply

        Compliments to both Jay and Joshua for their insights. I myself had pointed out how Arthur is like a condensed history of Britain (with plenty of understanding about British class differences, among other things), and also that he is always sympathetic to his characters even when apparently caricaturing them. Not to mention the fondness for all things English, and humour blended with a good dose of irony. And I perfectly agree with the “timing” observation. Many have said the Kinks (or Ray) were “out of tune” with the times, and they certainly enjoyed more critical than commercial success, but indeed I think it was largely because they were ahead of their time, not simply out of synch. Many who they influenced have recognized this, including Pete Townshend. It must have been frustrating for Ray that when Arthur finally came out, after the aborted Granada TV project, the Who had already released Tommy and there were suggestions that the Kinks were jumping on the bandwagon, when they were actually the innovators. I’ve read somewhere that the Kinks even anticipated MTV with their videos, certainly Dead End Street was out of the ordinary for its times (and promptly banned by the BBC as “distasteful”)
        Speaking of history, I know of a young Kinks fan who a few years ago did a school history project based on Arthur, and it worked out very well, his teacher was quite enthusiastic. Hopefully there will someday be a production of Arthur – we have plenty of “fillers” of course (ahem…musically perhaps, though I love those musical shifts in Shangri-la, the sound effects in Mr. Churchill, etc.), but I would say more substance than filler at least as far as lyrical content is concerned.

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      2. I said I could “suppose wrongly.” That was part of my point.

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      3. “I write music reviews covering alternative rock, punk, classic rock, R&B, folk and whatever tickles my fancy. I look great in leather, too. ” – Alt Rock Chick

        Sure. That’s about what I would have thought. It’s a perfect moniker.

        But I still think you view Ray Davies from Alternative Rock land with a . It’s sort of like the person who watches a classic film like “On the Wsterfront” (I could have been a contendah!”) for the first time and laughs at all the cliches — and says what a ridiculous and unimaginative film it is — not realizing that she only knows those lines because Marlon Brando made them famous. Compare Arthur to any other rock album in the 1960s. You don’t see lyrics like these anywhere else in rock music. You have to go to folk musicians (Dylan, Simon, etc.) to find that. Of course, a few years later a lot of people were doing that.

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        1. Fascinating hypothesis; silly conclusion. I believe that once my entire set of reviews on Ray Davies’ work is published online, you will see very clearly that I believe he was far ahead of his contemporaries in terms of both lyrical excellence and artistic courage. I simply don’t believe Arthur represents his best work. That opinion has little to do with an “alternative” filter as you suggest, since I have praised his other work in the period from 1966-1971 and, as my other reviews of 60’s music have demonstrated, I am sensitive to historical context. BTW, I love “On the Waterfront” and I’ve done far more reviews of 60’s-70’s music than current music because I believe the 60’s and 70’s produced better music!

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          1. Well, I had a feeling you had seen “On The Waterfront.” It’s so obvious. What about the “Wild One”?

            I don’t think Arthur is Ray Davies best work either.

            I’d put Muswell Hillbillies first.

            Then Lola v. PM & MGR,

            Then either Arthur or VGPS. (It’s a toss-up, but I go with Arthur simply for the chronological factor.)

            Something Else would be close fifth behind those.

            Then Face to Face is sixth.

            Lyrically, Arthur stands up. IMHO.

            I still think where you are missing it is that you read sarcasm and condescension into some lyrics where none exists. That’s a common fallacy. I thought that too at one point and had to change my interpretation. Most of Ray’s songs are highly personal and he’s writing about people close to him — family members, band mates, managers, peer musicians, etc. — people he has a deep affection for.

            The same is true of Dave Davies.

            Of course, Ray matured as a lyricists in later albums, but that was the Golden Era of the Kinks and Arthur was smack in the middle of that time of creative synergy.

            Unlike some Kinks purists, I like most of the later albums too. They are full of gems, but they are very uneven. Ray could write a song that made you wonder how a human being was capable of such insight. He’d have a few excellent tunes on each album. Then you’d have songs like “Ducks on the Wall” and “Hayfever” on the next cut. Ray is an enigma and has become more so as he has aged.

            God Save The Kinks.

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          2. Amen! My general ratings are very close to yours. Loved The Wild Ones, too, but my favorite 50’s flick is Rebel Without a Cause. Cheers!

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  19. Reading all these comments got me thinking. When I first heard Arthur I was at a particular point in my life that wasn’t very happy. Just started High School. Thinking a lot about getting drafted into the Vietnam war. My eventual draft number was something like 6, but the draft was ended just before my time came.

    A song like Some Mothers Son hit me particularly hard. I think I can understand why it doesn’t appeal to everyone, but the song had a very profound affect on me. I guess that’s why there can never be agreement on what’s best. It all depends on how it touches you personally. Arthur became my friend at a time when I felt I had no others.

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    1. Thank you; that’s a beautiful thought.

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  20. Oops. Hit the send button trying to stop the iPhone from autocorrecting French. Anyway, Face to Face was published Monday, Something Else next week, Muswell Hillbillies later this month. I’ve written the intro for Preservation, so look for that mid-June.

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  21. […] Classic Music Review: Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks (altrockchick.com) […]

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  22. […] Classic Music Review: Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks […]

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  23. […] Classic Music Review: Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks (altrockchick.com) […]

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  24. Michelle Pedretti | Reply

    Glad to see this discussion is still ongoing and have just scrolled quickly through a number of insightful posts…seen much I agree with – the comments regarding British history, the Kinks being out of sync with, i.e. ahead of, the times, Ray’s cynicism mistaken for sarcasm, and his sympathy toward his “characters” – and found much food for thought. I love the Preservation albums, too, and look forward to seeing that discussion as well. I returned a couple of weeks ago from the U.S. where I saw six Dave Davies’ performances (I have seen Ray close to two dozen times in Europe, GB and the US). I saw Ray’s performances during the London Meltdown Festival he was curator of in 2011 and also attended others. It was a prestigious appointment in his beloved London (and the Southbank Centre is a hop, skip and a jump from Waterloo bridge and Waterloo Station, how fitting I thought!). This has nothing to do with the quality of the studio albums of the Kinks, but it is heartwarming to see such a strong, loyal fan base, perhaps not numerous but unique.

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  25. […] Classic Music Review: Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks (altrockchick.com) […]

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  26. […] Classic Music Review: Arthur (or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) by The Kinks (altrockchick.com) […]

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  27. Finally got round to reading this “controversial” review and the only controversial thing about it for me is that it doesn’t subscribe to the general belief that this album is one of The Kinks’ best and dares to say so. And guess what? I’m in full agreement.

    I find this a largely dull rambling affair that plods along. Only tracks I like are “Victoria” – pure joy and class… “Drivin'” because here it’s jolliness stands out and is disarmingly catchy, “Brainwashed” because it rocks in style and that horn arrangement works well and last but not least, “Shangri La” – true, it is a little overlong but it’s biting bitter observations resonate well down the decades to the degree I can relate to it all very well. Ray admitted it was overblown and bombastic but essentially he was singing about a tragedy there, the fate that befell a great many people who just accept their lot and cease to think for themselves or have any real interests in anything. I’ve known and know of many such people of the sort Ray was writing about so for me it’s one of his most damning and daring slices of social observation.

    The rest of the album… no thanks. Bores me stupid and gets a bit too monotonous. It is a pity the TV special was never made since Ray clearly was writing with that in mind and had all manner of ideas and visions which might had worked well with the music onscreen. It’s a bit like the “Soap Opera” album – when those songs are seen and heard as part of the infamous “Starmaker” TV special, they take on a better life than just being songs on an album. The Dave Davies’ penned B sides from this era are way better than most of what’s on this album. He seemed to be making good progress but of course the elder brother was in control so those songs didn’t fit or could be part of “Arthur.”

    Notice how quite a few of our fave 60’s acts felt they had to get REALLY ambitious during 1969 – The Who, The Kinks, The Beatles, The Doors etc and pretty much fell flat on their faces with overblown (yep, that word again) drivel that is critically rated and respected but do very little for me. Credit then to the Rolling Stones… I’m not a fan of “Let It Bleed” but I can respect and understand why it’s so highly rated and it does have some strong stuff on there and isn’t as pompous as what some of their rivals were coming out with. Though it was released in January or February 1970, for me, The Move’s “Shazam” is technically a 1969 album and I’ll take that over almost everything else from that year for inspiration, ambition and enjoyability!

    Thankfully, “Arthur” was just a brief dip in the Kinks’ long strange path, a strange farewell to the 60’s. Thankfully they returned to form swiftly and then along came the so called “difficult” RCA era which I’ll gladly listen to instead of “Arthur” and derive much enjoyment.

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    1. Whew! Whenever I see “Comment on Classic Music Review: Arthur . . . ” I feel a terrifying sense of foreboding. I wrote that one relatively early in The Kinks cycle and after listening to so much of their other work, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s not even close to their best work.

      Amen on “Shazam.” It gets better and better every time I hear it.

      I’m thinking of doing a series of reviews on overrated albums, but that means I’ll have to listen to them, and I really don’t want to hear “Tommy” or “Astral Weeks” again. I’ll have to wait for a slow period . . . perhaps replace my annual blues jag with albums that give me the blues.

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      1. >I’m thinking of doing a series of reviews on overrated albums<

        Good, I'm waiting. But I think "overrated" doesn't necessarily mean "bad", although I concede that there are albums that are WAY overrated – not the case of Tommy or Astral Weeks IMHO.

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        1. I’m a huge Who and Van Morrison fan. Neither Tommy or Astral Weeks are close to being favorites for me. So, I am thinking maybe they both do qualify as overrated when you consider the hype, acclaim and admiration that has been bestowed upon both over the years. Perhaps exceeding their quality?

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          1. I’m with you on both Tommy and Astral Weeks; both The Who and Morrison did better. I think generational influences have a lot to do with a person’s biases because music takes on great significance in our formative years. I was ironically lucky to hit my teens when the music was crap, so the attachment is not as strong as it was for the Baby Boomers, who had a lot of great music but also tend to think that nearly everything that went down during that time was magic, especially “firsts,” like “first rock opera.” The first anything usually isn’t very good, from plays to poems to music. I listen to albums like Tommy and Pet Sounds and I can see more value in the effort than in the execution . . . but as standalone musical experiences they leave much to be desired. Pet Sounds was influential, but when the reviewer on iTunes says it was the greatest rock record ever made, puh-leeze!

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          2. Even as a baby boomer growing up in the time where some great music was created, as I look back and re-assess some of this music I have reconsidered some of my earlier impressions over the subsequent years. So, I do get your point and think its valid one.

            I actually just listened to Pet Sounds in its entirety recently and was somewhat underwhelmed. Inspiration and innovation is strong, but when all is said it done it comes down to the songs. There are many excellent songs on Pet Sounds, but some not so good. Overall, a very good record especially for its time, but not something I’d want to listen to many times over today.

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          3. Ah, but at least you had so much great music to choose from! Every time I go back and research a year or a month in the 1966-1972 period, I’m amazed at the sheer quantity of quality.

            I think I’ll have to put Pet Sounds on my to-do list, though I would like to start with a Beach Boys album I actually like. Stand by.

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  28. Thank you for this review. I can’t stand Arthur either. In fact, I like it even less than you do. The one exception is “Shangri-La,” which I like a lot, although maybe that has something to do with it being one of the first non-hit Kinks songs I ever heard. A friend put it on a mix tape, and it made me realize that I had to start buying Kinks albums. I discovered a treasure trove of great music but found that the album with “Shangri-La” on it was the only one I didn’t like from their classic period.

    I agree that “Victoria” is a great song. You gave much higher marks to some of the other songs than I would. “Princess Marina,” for example, annoys the hell out of me, especially when it speeds up at the end. I can’t stand “Brainwashed” either, not even the music. In general, I agree that the lyrics on Arthur are too obvious. You like the theatrical albums that came later, which I don’t, and to me Arthur is an unfortunate preview of those albums. Theme-based albums are better when they are more open-ended, which allows the music to breathe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you—after the beating I took for this review, it’s nice to know I’m not alone in the world. I think I like “Brainwashed” because of the live version on Everybody’s in Show Biz, which lightens the dogmatic aspects of the song. I have to agree with you about the speed-up on “Princess Marina” as well—it is rather corny. I do like the theatrical albums very much, and I realize that I’m definitely in the minority there. The operetta format demands some kind of conclusion to the narrative, so while the albums are not open-ended, they do explore core social and political issues while avoiding the patronizing tone of Arthur.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah… the behemoth that is “Arthur” raises it’s head again! I revisited it again a few months ago and my original opinion still stands and if anything, I found it even more boring than I remembered. Nice to read Greg’s thoughts and jeez, I can’t stand “Princess Marina” either – that’s next to alleged klassics like “Harry Rag” and “Tin Soldier Man” as Ray at his absolute worst and twee.

        Sod the almighty “Village Green Preservation Society” – lets form “The Arthur Depreciation Society!” 😉

        As for the RCA theatrical albums… well… ARC and I have a mutual love of those but I also think we know and respect they are rather idiosyncratic and not easy for most to digest or like… when I read her reviews of those, it was almost like a “Eureka!” moment – actually finding somebody else who liked and understood them. And now with what’s happened with Donald Trump maybe now is the time for those “Preservation” albums to be fully rediscovered and re-evaluated.

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