Great Albums- The Kinks’ Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

The Kinks are, in my opinion, the most criminally underrated band from the 60s.  They weren’t the best, they weren’t most ground-breaking, but the fact that they have such an amazing songbook and that people remember maybe four songs of their whole catalog is a shame.

If I had to guess I’d say the problem for them is that Ray Davies isn’t a dynamic frontman like Jagger, or a great singer like Lennon.  The band isn’t a rock and roll machine like the Who or a kickass gang of pirates like the Rolling Stones.  They don’t have anyone who would be notable on their own, no Ginger Baker type drummer and Dave Davies is no Jimi Hendrix.  They don’t particularly have grit like the Doors or Janis.  They never managed to reinvent the pop song like The Beach Boys or the Beatles.

What could they do?  Well, they could rock about as hard as anyone, when they wanted to, which was not that often, at least in the 60s.  They were funny and irreverent and Ray Davies was a great story-teller.  And they wrote great songs.  Mostly it was Ray writing them, but every now and then Dave would come along with a classic of his own.

That’s really the heart of them for me.  Other than Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, no one wrote so many good songs, that were so good, in so many different ways as the Kinks.

They could caveman proto-punk- You Really Got Me, Til the End of the Day.  They could do funny social satire- Sunny Afternoon, A Well Respected Man, Village Green Preservation Society.  They could do hard rock, either anthemic- Lola or groovy- Powerman.  They could do great, sad songs like Dave Davies’ classic – Strangers. or the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Alcohol.  Or just cute songs- Act Nice And Gentle.  They put together some of the most beautiful ballads ever recorded- Days, Waterloo Sunset.

They experimented with a variety of styles, and probably in a smart move, didn’t do a ton of psychedelic rock (they weren’t very good at when they tried), but were really all over the map.

Perhaps most amazingly, the Kinks did something none of their contemporaries managed to do… record a good song in the 80s:

But I wanted to focus on my personal favorite album by them- Arthur:

Arthur was intended to be a concept album to accompany a television special that never got off the ground.  I don’t know if knowing that makes the album better.  You could just as easily think of it as a series of character studies.  It’s about a family, Arthur being the father.  He’s got some kids:

One of them goes off to war:

And dies:

Part of what I like about this album is how much it’s grown with me over the years.  This was always a terribly sad song about a young man trying to be brave and leaving his mother behind.  Having become a parent it’s just devastating.  It’s amazing to me that a young man could have written a song with such empathy.

Arthur also has a son who is a hectoring leftist of some kind:

And some other kids who are looking for a new life in Australia:

The Kinks did a great job of giving the listener a varied emotional experience.  If the whole album were versions of Some Mother’s Son, it would be a real drag.  If you listen to this on LP, this is the last song on the first side, and if it weren’t for the preceding songs, the long, kind of repetitive jam at the end would seem kind of lame, but it lets my brain unwind.  This is one of the sad things about losing the concept of the LP- you can’t really take the listener on the same sort of journey in 3 minutes.

So Arthur’s kids have all gone away and he’s left at home alone.

Sometimes it’s impossible to know whether Ray Davies is making fun of the character in his song, when there’s also clearly so much love for his subject.  I don’t know if he’s criticizing Arthur for accepting his place in society, or if he’s admiring his finding it.  Sometimes I listen to this song and want to be Arthur.

I shouldn’t say Arthur is alone, his wife is with him

I love this song.  This is a song I used to think was kind of stupid, and again, I wasn’t sure if Ray was mocking Arthur and his wife or not.

It wasn’t until I was poor myself that I understood why poor or working class people place so much value in things.   I grew up in a reformed hippie, middle class household and it was considered in poor taste to want to buy luxury items, or brand name items.  That was just tacky.

But I had a rough time for a while when my son was just a baby and now I get it.  Being poor is hard.  Every day is tough, because if you’re close enough to the edge you never know what’s going to cause you to really get stuck- stuck with recurring bills, and debt you can’t pay off.  It’s scary and demoralizing.  But sometimes just having a little something nice makes it tolerable.  Yeah, maybe it shouldn’t matter if you have a nice hat, like the one Arthur is presumably wearing, because who cares, it’s a hat and you’re still poor.  But sometimes having a nice thing to point to, when everything else sucks, can make you want to go on.

Music can sometimes teach you things like that.

Maybe some day this song will grow on me.  So far it hasn’t yet:

The album ends with a great rocker

This is at heart maybe a sad song, but it always brings a smile to my face.  It’s a song that laughs in the face of pain, sadness and disappointment.

I didn’t cover all the songs on the album.  There are a few more, and they’re worth listening to, if not my favorites.  Like I said before, I’ve enjoyed this album for close to twenty years now, but it’s grown with me in a way that few others have.  It’s taught me lessons that took me years to understand.  It’s helped me put myself in the shoes of people who don’t even exist, but I feel better for having done that.  The best music can do this and this is some of the best.

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2 comments

  1. Hey Bros,

    Nice tribute to Ray and Dave and the rest of the boys. They were definitely part of the British invasion and proved that they had some serious staying power. My little story comes from 1971 when I was in London during the spring. I had, of course, heard and liked “Lola” on the radio maybe a year or so earlier. It was a surprise. My local culture was extremely hostile to gays and the only guys that we knew about were totally closeted. It’s like the Kinks were doing a public service. You remember that the big gay demonstrations and raids on bars in New York had occurred in 1969.

    But I was in London, at a record store, and I would be damned if I didn’t buy a record or two. There wasn’t a whole lot of music that I was familiar with, but I scored two winners. Hendrix in the West, I cradled that British release all the way back home. And something like the Best of the Kinks. At that point in time, Lola was actually a comeback hit as they were considered to be apart of the early days and had done nothing else since that made it over to the U.S.A. It turned out to be a fairly entertaining album. The best cut was, All Day and All of the Night. I was happy to realize again what an incredible song that really was. I jammed on it a couple of times with my best musician friend at the time, Carlos, who was a total Stones head. It had “Lola,” which was cool, and maybe the only reason I bought it. But it had some fairly obscured stuff from the 1960s for a Yank. Dedicated Follower of Fashion and one more come to mind. I don’t know the name of the second song, but the lyrics, melody and rocknroll chords were unforgettable. “And he’s oh, so helpful; And he’s oh, so good! And he’s oh so healthy, in his body and his mind! He’s a well-respected man about town, doing the right things so conservatively!” A fucking scream. Love those guys.

    1. Thanks! You know, I have sometimes wondered about how Lola was taken back when it was released. It’s kind of like an early glam rock tune in terms of subject matter, but part of what the glam rock bands were doing was trying to shock. Dave Davies was bi-sexual, so maybe that was part of the story.

      The song’s called Well Respected Man- that’s a great one. They just did so many good songs- just year after year putting them out. London in that time must have been pretty cool!

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