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Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Kinks – Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

Year: 1969
Record Rating = 10
Overall Rating = 15


As much as I love Village Green Preservation Society, this album pretty much beats it for me. In fact, if I had heard this album first, I'm not sure they would both get a 15. Even if this album wasn't a big success, it was a definite step in the right direction in combining accessibility with Ray's artistic vision; it was good timing too, since the band's ban in the United States was soon to be lifted. Anyways, as the title of the album implies, there's not just one concept, but two thanks to the contrasting parenthetical subtitle. The original intent was for the album to be a soundtrack to a TV film, and while that secondary project fell through the cracks, the album manages to keep that film-like vibe without sounding filler-ish. As a matter of fact, I would say there's not a single filler track amongst the album's twelve. Like I did with the Who's Tommy, the year's other major story-based album with a titular character, I'll go through the songs one by one to describe anything of musical interest and how the different tracks fit with the concept.

The opening "Victoria", the album's minor hit single, often gets the accolade of being an example of Victorian punk, although that stylistic mishmash makes more sense for the album globally in its combination of Ray's old-time music loves with rock music, or maybe it's just a pun on the title. Anyways, as a composition its too clever for real punk; it starts with an up-tempo, folky acoustic guitar riff, some thick bluesy lead guitar from Dave that either follows along with the main riff or the vocal melody (until the solo where he plays some sloppy fun garage licks for the first time in 3 years), which is sung by Ray in a goofy voice (this album's equivalent of Bob Dylan's stereotypical whine on Blonde on Blonde) to classic lines like "Long ago, grass was green/Sex was bad, an obscene" that both extol the virtues of the Victorian era and mock them with subtle irony (of which my favourite is when he lists various British colonies and concludes "Victoria bought them all"), the refrain is an anthemic sing-along that just repeats the title in a simple, yet effective way, made all the more hypnotic with the thick, yet clean-toned arpeggios, and the bridge, where Ray goes into his normal voice, does bare a certain resemblance to the previous three albums, with an even more anthemic line "Land of hope and glory-a/Land of my Victoria" built up by beautifully cascading horns. In terms of the concept, aside from showing the British Empire at its peak with Queen Victoria, the lavishing praise for the female name gives me the impression on the Arthur side of the plot, it's Arthur himself meeting the love of his life (even if the liner notes state her name is Rose).

Next is "Yes Sir, No Sir", which as the title suggests has a military feel. And indeed, Mick Avory's drums are a particular highlight, alternating a marching military beat with more rock 'n' roll-like drumming, which in this case means plenty of bombastic fills that seem to take a page from the Keith Moon handbook. As for the melodic content (not just vocals, but melodic instruments as well), the main melody (a refrain of sorts) has Ray dippily and brain-deadly sing the title line and other military commands in the role of a submissive soldier to the British Empire, accompanied by some rocking counter melodies from Dave's lead guitar, which is followed by a faster, secondary melody layered in descending horn lines where the concept seems to shift gears as life subtly condemns any ambitions young Arthur might half (the lines opening this section "So you think that you've got ambition/Stop your dreamin' and your idle wishin'") and the final verse has a third melody that's somewhat more funereal, from the vocal tone Ray uses, to the words he sings (the quasi-existential "Doesn't matter who you are/You're there and there you are"), to the way the horn parts whine.

"Some Mother's Son", probably my second favourite song on the LP, is another song chock-full of military references, although this one doesn't seem to have as much to do with the Arthur side of the concept as the British Empire side, although that seems to be an advantage: the song is basically a ballad setting aside all political reasons for war and gets down to the essential yet oft ignored point that these soldiers once were children and their deaths sadden their mothers just as much as if they still were their young lads. In that regard, the music is especially poignant, with soft, pensive harpsichord arpeggios, slick, rootsy guitar fills, a subtle, yet pretty string arrangement and drums that go from soft shuffling to something a bit more grabbing and explosive as the emotions expressed in the vocals and consequently the lyrics become more tense. And part of the reason I love this song so much is how expressive Ray's vocal is on it, from the shaky delivery of those first lines to the powerful conclusive lines, though the imagery he wrote meant to make you sympathize with these poor, caring mothers is no slouch either, especially the entire second verse where the soldier daydreams of childhood war games seconds before he's gunned down.

The mood lightens up substantially just in time with "Drivin'", one song on here that could not only have fit in perfectly on Village Green Preservation Society, but that would also have been a highlight on that LP. Not only is one of the main hooks a light, vaudeville/pop-like "do do do" creation of Ray's (similar to the "scooby-dooby-doos" and suchlike on "Picture Book"), but the rest of the song's melody is simply adorable, from the somewhat worried first half of each verse with descend harmonies down to the youthful "We're going dri-i-i-i-ivin'" refrain whose melody just joyfully spins around you, made even more hypnotic by the rising harmonies. Musically it's a bit more rocking than the average VGPS tune, but of course that's to its advantage as the playful jazzy drums become huge-sounding fills and Ray throws in some boogying piano fills as the refrain comes around. In terms of concept, this is the reverse of the last track, mostly focusing on Arthur as he and his girlfriend (or wife, it's not quite clear) decide to ignore the troubles the world is facing by just driving to the countryside, inspired by the Davies' family's own drives to rural England.

I would say the first side's penultimate track "Brainwashed" would be more deserving of the Victorian punk title, if there were some sort of Victorian musical angle, unless you take it to mean the era to which the lyrics refer. The subtle menacing bassline that starts off the tune is only a hint of the musical storm Ray had a-brewing here, as the horn blasts that lead to the verses prove. The verses themselves have Ray shout about how people mindlessly follow what their country leaders tell them, which isn't just something that can be applied to the album's two concepts, but to pretty much any period of time, and to either wing of the political spectrum, I might add. The bluesy melody he sings this condemnation to only adds to the feel, as do Dave's angst-filled lead guitar perfectly emulating said melody, but my favourite part, other than the brief melodic twist in the speedily delivered line "All you're life they've kicked you around and pushed you around 'till you can't take anymore" (complemented by some juicy horn parts), is basically any moment where Ray – or is it Dave's – ultra-distorted power-chord riffage takes center stage and basically rocks your socks off more powerfully than the Kinks ever had. Anyone in a punk band take note: this is how you tackle the genre without being a completely generic two-to-three-chord, anarchist hack.

The nearly seven-minute side closer "Australia" tends to get a lot of flack and is often considered a more dismissible track on the album, but I actually really enjoy it. The main part of the song is probably not the focus of the track's poorer reputation; essentially, it's a commercial for the nation of Australia mimicking the way the United States were touted in the 1800s as "the place to be", and just like the Who did on The Who Sell Out, Ray masters the advertising within a song genre pretty damn well, basically repeating the same message to a number of melodies, from the opening quasi-a cappella intro to the danceable Motown pop-esque guitar riff-based verses, a doo-wop section (complete with gorgeous "sha-la-la-la" backup vocals from Dave and nasally cartoon-ish spoken vocals from Ray) and even a quieter ballad section that slows the tempo down to a crawl and features uplifting horns and "Waterloo Sunset"-style harmonies, which in the conceptual context, seems to be Arthur's son Derek humming the advert to himself as he takes its advice. A good half of the song, and the reason for its diminished credibility, is the lengthy jam section, but it works perfectly as the background music to Derek's flight to Australia, with soaring bluesy guitar soloing, messy horns, jazzy, sprawling piano fills and almost psychedelic, droning harmonies, not to mention the goofy bubbling sound effects that the Who used to imitate Australia in their travelogue song several years later.

With the first five songs on side one being winners for most (and the closer being a winner for me), initial listens might make side two seem a bit weaker, and indeed, I once considered it a pretty big step down – the opening track aside – to the point that the album was only worth a 14. Since then, I've warmed up greatly to the end of the album, especially with a greater understanding of their conceptual purpose, but that opening track is still my favourite, not just of the side but of the album (despite the strong contenders on either side of it). Yes indeed, I'm referring to "Shangri-La", tied with "Waterloo Sunset" as my favourite Kinks' song. It's a central focal point on the album, where we see an aged Arthur having gotten nowhere in life, and while he has a decent living, with indoor plumbing and a comfortable rocking chair, he's not where he wanted to be, a lyrical theme of pity and sadness over the mediocrity in the average man's life that makes its purpose extend beyond the context of Ray's narrative.

What's interesting is how, formally, the song is somewhat structured like a power ballad, starting soft and growing into a huge anthemic sound, but for those of you who cringe at the thought of such songs from the '80s with the fake emotional singing, "powerful" screaming and generic pseudo-cathartic guitar soloing, don't worry, because this is a far more cleverly structured crescendo, with elements of all of Ray's big influences as well as his own unique qualities. The first musical section – where Arthur melancholically muses about the minimal advantages of his average lifestyle – contains moody acoustic guitar arpeggios and a lovely melody that has British and/or Scottish folk influence, then the harpsichord comes in and the melody brightens up, with Dave harmonizing in just the right places, and it explodes into a couple of rocking sections, where the harpsichord no longer twinkles but attacks with a barrage of somewhat distorted chords, complemented by speedy, harsh acoustic strumming and militant horns with one of Ray's most commandeering performances, though the best of these more rocking sections is where the acoustic guitar gets to riff along in Who-like fashion (it reminds me of the rocking acoustic playing on Tommy, as a matter of fact), concluding in an anthemic chanting of the title.

Of the rest of side two, the next two are particular favourites of mine. While "Mr. Churchill Says" partially bases its two main melodies on those of "Yes Sir, No Sir" and "Brainwashed" respectively, but fortunately it doesn't take them in stupidly explicit ways, and it at least serves somewhat of a purpose; for instance, the main melody of "Yes Sir, No Sir" loses all of its most prominent military rhythm aspects, and instead gets a lazy bluesy tone, with every nonchalantly-sung vocal line receiving a reply from a similar lead guitar line, fitting the verses' lyrical topic of various politicians conning people into buying their ideas and slogans as the people lazily follow along (not my opinion of all politicians, but one I understand and that is conveyed perfectly well here), and the punk riffage-based section might follow the lyrical theme of the first side's equivalent track, and while the rhythm guitar tone might not be quite as sharp, Ray's vocals sure are, especially as he howls his way up to a sneering falsetto "because we wanna be free", and both the air-raid sirens that transition into the riffage and Dave's fabulous Spanish/Eastern-influenced soloing add to the desired war-like mood. And on the more analytical side, I guess the cross-influence of side one's tracks could potentially represent the near-complete fall of the British Empire, or how the brainwashing attempted on side one has fully taken effect on Arthur.

As for "She's Bough a Hat Like Princess Marina", it would probably me favourite song on this side if not for "Shangri-La". After all, it's in the vaudeville territory that Ray is most comfortable in, so the intentionally pseudo-intellectual harpsichord and piano dual melody and the playful vocal melody are among his finest creations in the genre, and they perfectly fit the (still relevant) lyrical matter as well, where Ray mocks the poor and middle class who try to make themselves feel better by buying unnecessary luxuries – like various articles of clothing resembling those of celebrities – which is made all the more satisfying thanks to the large contradiction between Ray's straight-laced vocal tone and the incredibly ironic lyrics as well as the occasional sound effects (my favourite being the bicycle horns following a line about Rolls Royce and Bentley vehicles). And just for the hell of it, the song concludes with a sped-up tempo as it becomes a silly ragtime romp, with the piano and harpsichord bouncing around, Ray and Dave (and possibly new bass player John Dalton) contributing some inebriated shouted vocals, someone playing a sloppy kazoo line and others playing toy-like horns, not to mention Mick Avory playing all kinds of flashy snare-central fills trying to follow the arrhythmic chaos of it all.

The next two tracks are a bit more filler-ish, and even now that I've grown to love almost everything, I still only like these, but that doesn't stop me from liking them a lot. "Young and Innocent Days" is Arthur's final look at the opportunities gone by – and the British Empire's final look at their conquest-filled peak – and it perfectly conveys that emotion with soft guitars, twinkling harpsichords and really soothing vocal part from Ray. It may seem boring at first, since in its 3:20 running time there are only two verses, but the slow tempo only makes the mood that much more significant, and certain vocal and melodic twists, however lethargic they may be, are definitely touching. And "Nothing to Say", which can represent Arthur's kids pretty much avoiding him as they build their own lives and the various British colonies gaining independence from the once-great empire (emphasized by the line "How's your independence?" that works far better in that context), is a jaunty little tune with a rising ragtime piano riff, delectable bluesy guitar licks and a charming call-and-response between Ray's goofy voice and fun harmonies.

Finally, there's the closing title track, one last highlight that rounds out the story in a still vague but satisfying manner, where Ray sums up most of the themes brought up like nostalgia and regret on one hand or lazy, idle satisfaction on the other, in a way where he both mocks and teases Arthur while offering him his pitying hand as he points out that passive people like Arthur are necessary, maybe even better off than those whose ambitions are successful, and not everyone can be a big-shot or a hero. It's kind of an odd conclusion to a rock opera (which it technically is, even if not to the extent that the Who's albums with said definition are), but it's a clever self-deflating one. And the music works perfectly, because something pompous would just be ridiculous in this context, so instead we have a fun, lightweight roots rocker, with all kinds of dueting between Ray's dippy vocals, Dave's guitar leads that half emulate the vocal melody, a quarter that match a certain blues scheme and another quarter that match a country picking style, and it has an absurdly unforgettable and catchy sing-along with the simple, pleasant message "Arthur we like you and want to help you/Don't you know it" and suchlike (actually, I don't think this two lines are ever directly connected, but you get the idea).

I can say with unequivocal certainty that this is the best Kinks' album money can buy, narrowly edging out the best of the handful of records surrounding it, because there's some vaudeville, there's some rock, there's some conceptuality, there are great vocals, riffs, and playing, and it's one of the more instantly accessible concept albums out there, and in my opinion, even more so than the world's most popular concept album (Dark Side of the Moon, that is). Not only that, after years of listening to this little record, I can say it's unquestionably worthy of a 15 rating, putting it squarely in my top 20 albums of all time, if not my top 15, guaranteeing the Kinks' five-star status gained from VGPS was more than a one-album schtick (even if it's a valid way to achieve that status). One thing I'm uncertain about is which edition of the LP is best. I think mine's a vinyl-to-CD transfer, because all CD reissues that I know of have bonus tracks, and while they consist of strong (yet unfortunately failed) single material, they don't fit the concept of the album, though sound-wise I can assume they would be better, and would help make this an even stronger 15, since great production on a greatly written album can only add to the resonance, but I'll stick to this version for now.

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