Sunday, November 29, 2009
ARTHUR (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)
"You're gonna find out just how powerful America is, you Limey bastard!!"
Following backstage fist fight with a union official prior to taping one of Dick Clark's TV specials back in 1965, Raymond Douglas Davies would soon find his opponent's shouted threat to be all too prophetic. The Kinks would be banned from performing in the States for several years as a direct result of this incident and general bad behavior during their visit.
What type of shit do you have to cause to warrant such a decree? Watch this clip.
Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Kinks missed out on a golden opportunity to cash in on the lucrative US touring market. They played venues in Europe, while other acts rode the crest of the "British Invasion" marketing tsunami that roared ashore in America.
Fate would then steer Davies down an incredibly creative avenue.
Taking inspiration from his own backyard, he began to write from a decidedly "English" point of view and set the group up with a string of classic singles. With regard to his craft, I believe that he was without peer during this period as the quality of the work was nothing short of stunning. "Sunny Afternoon", "See My Friends", "A Well Respected Man", "Dedicated Follower of Fashion", "Waterloo Sunset" and "Autumn Almanac" are but a few examples of the truly fantastic output that poured forth from Davies in the mid-sixties.
If you do not know or own these songs, you are missing out on true works of art. I could not give more effusive praise to any of his contemporaries. His masterpiece, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society album, consolidated many of his pet subjects and presented several characters that populated his imaginary, ideal and very British locale.
Under-exposure, poor marketing and Davies determination not to cop out and distort his vision by co-opting the day-glo bullshit that was commonplace in the era of psychedelic rock almost finished off the KInks as a commercial entity. 1969 brought a series of seismic shifts in circumstance as charter member/bassist Pete Quaife quit the group and Ray, with screenwriter Julian Mitchell, embarked on writing material that would form the basis of a combination album/made for TV film, loosely based on the real life departure of his older sister, Rosie, who emigrated to Australia some years before with her husband Arthur. The production never made it past the preliminary stages.
Fortunately, the album did not meet the same fate. Beating Pete Townshend's Tommy to the stores by a month as the first "rock opera" (though the Pretty Things S.F. Sorrow pre-dates both), the premise is that Arthur’s children are planning to emigrate to "the promised land" of Australia. He sits by the fire, thinks back on where he and his country went wrong, argues with his son, and realizes that the world has passed him by.
In the midst of creating his masterwork, Ray found time to head to LA and produce Turtle Soup for the Turtles. While there, he helped broker a deal with the musicians union that would allow the Kinks to play live in America again.
Things were looking up.
"Victoria" could very well be the quintessential Kinks song. Setting up the listener for the things that the main character sees as an ideal, now lost, the tune itself sees Davies, in a rather dichotomous fashion, aping the stylings of American group Canned Heat, while singing the praises of the British monarch for whom an era was named.
In devising his paean to long gone traditions, Davies almost comes off as Evelyn Waugh in reverse. Waugh wrote one of my favorite novels, "A Handful of Dust" and was known for his dark, satiric take on landed gentry. (Tony Last, the main character in the book is a man out of time, preoccupied with the upkeep of Hetton Abbey, a sprawling, Victorian Gothic dwelling. Things quickly degenerate for the hapless protagonist, though who am I to ruin a good story.)
The point here is that, through Arthur's eyes, we look wistfully at an England that was, without any dark punchlines attached. "Victoria" is the sum total of everything that Davies had been writing about in the years leading up to its release. Driving the rhythm section with a pumping bass line was new recruit, John Dalton. He had stood in with the group briefly in 1966, when Quaife took leave due to an accident (and an intention to bail for good, though he came back). Dalton and drummer Mick Avory gel quite well on each track, leaving the Davies brothers a solid foundation upon which to layer guitars. Brass arrangements also add a regal touch to the mix.
Arthur represents an extremely beneficial leap forward in terms of engineering and the final mixes. Despite the brilliance of Ray's songs, the finished product had always left little to be desired when it came to balance of sound. It seemed, at times, that certain basics were not adhered to in getting instrumental parts to tape. No such issues are present with this disc.
Drawing the listener so deftly into another world that you almost breathe in time with the characters presented, every line is thoughtfully integrated into the bigger picture, though the songs stand on their own outside of the concept. "Shangri-La" is the best example of this, another outstanding creation whose theme transcends the era in which it was constructed. In class-conscious England, climbing beyond your social standing, sitting contentedly in relative comfort is given an edgy lyrical treatment
The little man who gets the train, got a mortgage hanging over his head
But he's too scared to complain, cause he's conditioned that way
Time goes by and he pays off his debts
Got a TV set and a radio, for seven shillings a week
It is by far the best song on the record.
Elsewhere, there are a couple of clumsy moments. On "Australia" they shift into "jam band" mode toward the end and fail spectacularly due to lack of structure. Similarly, the reading of Winston Churchill's speeches ("Mr. Churchill Said") drives home the point in a less than subtle fashion. Davies usual flair for cloaking his messages smartly eludes him here, though as an integral part of the "plot" it remains. He also picks his own pocket for the main melody on "Drivin'", cribbing a bit from Village Green's "Picture Book". The chord structure is phenomenal, though it went nowhere when issued as a single.
"Brainwashed" marks the return of Dave Davies' patented distorted guitar, which had been muted somewhat over the course of recent albums and sees Ray hurling invective at the masses, calling them out for their complacency.
The aristocrats and bureaucrats
Are dirty rats
For making you what you are
They're up there and you re down here
You're on the ground and they're up with the stars
All your life they've kicked you around and pushed you around
Till you can't take any more
To them you're just a speck of dirt
But you don't want to get up off the floor
Mister you're just brainwashed
"She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina" may be one of the album's saddest pieces, once again illustrating the tendency of the poorer classes to emulate those in the upper crust. Redolent of the music hall stylings that would soon become a trademark of the Kinks' sound in the early to mid seventies, it is another display of the versatility that made it tough for the trendy taste-makers to pin down and define from a marketing perspective. Overall, this is work that simply needs to be heard. The playing is superb, with all of the elements that made them great firmly in place. All that was missing was a receptive audience. Sadly, the massive success of the Who's Tommy relegated this disc to the cut-out bins before it even had a chance to be evaluated.
Without the massive support that was thrown behind their contemporaries, the greatest crime to befall any band of this calibre saw little or no chart action for Arthur (# 105 was its highest placement) and weak sales. It is with conviction that I would urge anyone who has an appreciation for music to investigate this great lost treasure. Conceptually, Arthur does not grab the would-be listener, forcefully, demanding immediate attention. Rather, it charms with melody, ease of expression and takes you on a journey through the mental landscape of one of the greatest song writers of our time.