Expanding on one of Ray’s pet themes, Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) explores the significance and symbolism of the village green from the point of view of a central character. We haven’t found confirmation of this, but that could be why Ray sings much of the album in a character voice, approximating a dullard. When the choruses or Dave’s guitar kicks in, then it sounds like the Kinks.
The teleplay has never been published, so we can only guess at the plot based on the liner notes and the lyrics. “Victoria” is a jaunty opener and easy singalong, an ode to the old days when “life was clean, sex was bad and obscene… Victoria was my queen.” Lest we think he’s stuck in the past, two songs could apply as anti-way protests in the height of the Vietnam era. “Yes Sir No Sir” spoofs the rigors of military life, then “Some Mother’s Son” laments the inevitable deaths of these young boys. This is sung in his more familiar voice, echoing some of the sentiments from the last album, and it’s heartbreaking. “Drivin’” is mildly reminiscent of the non-album single “Autumn Almanac”; it’s a trifle of a song, and that’s the point: to escape the pressures of the day, as such horrible memories. Those pressures are made explicit in “Brainwashed”, which details how society has marginalized the greatest generation with some pretty nasty electric guitar. Another kind of mind control comes forth in “Australia”, basically a travel advert for the country where so many people had emigrated. It strangely descends into a lengthy one-chord jam, more like what the Stones might have done. There’s even some Nicky Hopkins-style piano pounding in the mix, although it’s not him, and even a wobble board as a nod to the continent.
“Shangri-La” is at once one of Ray’s best and bleakest songs, from the slowly picked acoustic at the beginning to the mocking lyrics. By the time the meter picks up and hammers out all the shallow comforts, the effect is chilling. We go back in time to hear accounts of life during the second World War. The patriotic attitudes in “Mr. Churchill Says” jar with the modern rock backing, though the air raid siren is a nice touch. “She Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina” descends into goofy musical hall, mocking the lengths people will go for fashion when they’re dead broke. Quiet and sad, “Young And Innocent Days” works well outside the concept, covering the well-worn Davies theme of regret, but “Nothing To Say” more directly addresses the generation gap in the story, with that voice again. Finally, the title track echoes the jolly effect of “Victoria” by addressing the main character directly, reassuring him a la “Nowhere Man” or “Happy Jack”. It works as a singalong, but not as substance.
Because of holdups with the TV show, Arthur wasn’t released until after a kid named Tommy had captured wide attention (helped along by that album’s recurring themes and the Who’s numerous live performances to promote it). It’s a difficult album to take in, partially because of the dense story, and then because of the depressing subject matter once you’re in. But as ever, it’s a grower. (The expanded double CD offers the album in both mono and stereo, along with some contemporary Dave Davies singles, each of which feature the Kinks and would have made up the solo album he never completed.)
The Kinks Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) (1969)—3½