What does it sound like?:
Dysfunctional brothers, once making hits in their sleep, and in the late sixties/early seventies still making great music. Not that anyone cared at the time. Representing something quintessential about their country. Could be The Beach Boys, could be The Kinks.
The Kinks´ Arthur Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire now gets a fiftieth anniversary box. So yes. Nostalgia. Ray Davies once wrote a song, barely out of his teens, called Where Have All The Good Times Gone. In 1969 the good times had gone for The Kinks, at least commercially. This album failed to chart in England and peaked at 105 in the US, despite rave reviews. The previous year´s The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society had failed to chart too, but is now considered the band´s greatest effort and Ray´s masterpiece. Go figure.
Somewhere in between those two albums, the band´s US tour ban was lifted. To this day no one quite knows why they were banned in 1965. No one quite knows why the ban was suddenly lifted four years later, either.
Arthur was, and still is, a concept album (but of course, this is Ray Davies) intended as the soundtrack to a tv play developed by Ray and novelist Julian Mitchell, who would later write some episodes of Inspector Morse. Arthur was based on Ray and Dave´s brother-in-law Arthur Anning, husband of their sister Rose. They, with son Terry in tow, had moved to Australia. The play was, possibly due to budget issues, never finished. It deals with the emotional aftermath of moving across the planet, what it does to a person and Arthur´s – partly fictional – life in the aftermath of the Great War. Ray thought of the project as great. The subject matter was personal for him. Up until the age of five he called Rose mum, and Terry, only one year younger than Ray, felt more like a brother to him than Dave.
The best known songs on Arthur would be Victoria, a minor hit in the US and written shortly after the birth of Ray´s daughter of the same name, and the beautiful Shangri-La. Drivin´ was released as a single before the album came out, but didn´t do anything on the charts. Well, it sounds like it deserved to be a hit. So does the whole album, actually. It´s a bouncy listen, full of big acoustic guitars and horn arrangements, performed by a band seemingly full of confidence.
And is it possible Mick Avory is the most underrated drummer in pop? (I´m assuming people realise by now Ringo was great, surely that debate is over.) Original bassist Pete Quaife had left to be replaced by John Dalton. But Ray, being Ray, wasn´t happy with the finished result. “If they had given me the freedom they had promised me in the beginning, I could have done it,” he has said, probably lamenting the never realised play. To him the play was just as important, not to mention as personal, as the music.
She´s Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina (another catchy title there) sounds like at least three different songs squeezed into three minutes. It ends as a jug-band knees up. It´s hard to tell if it´s a great song lacking focus or if it´s a great song BECAUSE it´s lacking focus.
Speaking of which: This is almost a great album. Not quite, but almost. Could it have been great rather than “just” very very good with a producer to fight Ray in the studio? Someone to tell him to perhaps spend some more time on an arrangement or two, spend less time on another arrangement or two? Someone to bounce ideas off?
This, I think, is the fourth time Arthur gets a re-release. It´s gone from one to two and now four CDs. CD 1: Arthur remastered in stereo plus bonus tracks. CD 2: Arthur in mono plus bonus tracks. The bonus track are alternate stereo and mono mixes. CD 3: the so called Great Lost Dave Davies Album, plus more bonus tracks from its sessions. It may not be great, but possibly better than you – or at least I – expected, especially as a fan of The Faces and The Byrds. Younger brother Dave is more to the point than Ray, writing and singing from his heart. The music is confident and not as doubtful and questioning as the lyrics. The album was recorded around the time of Arthur´s release. Dave has since claimed managers and record company really wanted the album, but that his heart wasn´t in it. If this is the sound of Dave´s heart not being in it, it should be not in it more often. He sings great. Roughly half the album has been previously released, even if this is its first proper sequencing. Mindless Child Of Motherhood would have been a highlight on any classic Kink album. Rod Stewart should have recorded Do You Wish To Be A Man in his prime. CD 4: For the most nerdy of nerds. Home demos, rehearsals and BBC takes. Enjoyable, but probably not something I´ll return to.
Eighty tracks all in all, from the second best British sixties band, and indeed their last as a band in the sixties. This is where they started to rebuild their audience in the US, at the time being largely abandoned and ignored by the record buying public at home. With the help of new label RCA they would slowly but surely become an arena band in the States, later in the seventies and eighties releasing albums that haven´t necessarily aged that well, but at least securing bank accounts in the process. One of those albums was titled Give The People What They Want. Unlike Arthur, it sold gold.
One could nitpick regarding this or that outtake, this or that bonus track, but the keepers are the stereo Arthur and The Great Lost Dave Davies Album. I´m usually a mono person, but the stereo Arthur kicks harder, and hard kicking is good as it´s mostly a rocking album – possibly as a reaction to the pastoral, acoustic arrangements on Village Green.
What does it all *mean*?
If your relationship with The Kinks is on a Greatest Hits level, this box set obviously isn´t for you. Though you should give Arthur Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire an honest chance.
Next year´s Lola Vs Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One would contain big hit Lola. Another year, and most likely another box set.
Goes well with…
Tea and toast, fish and chips, a pint, reminiscing, sunny afternoons and Waterloo sunsets. Wondering where all the good times went. Being British. Possibly moving to Australia as well.
25th of October
Might suit people who like…
The Kinks. Like, a LOT.