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


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 that 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 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 in “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 when 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, 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 Muswell Hillbillies for that matter. All in all, I think Arthur is somewhat inflated, and once you let the air out, there isn’t much in the way of substance.


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