Emotional events in someone’s life impact them in different ways. Some become depressed beyond belief, some eat their pain away, and some will make spontaneous decisions. In the Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies’ case, emotional events drove him to write one of the band’s most celebrated albums.
Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) revolves around the fictional man Arthur Morgan, who is based on the real-life brother-in-law of Davies. When Davies was about 20 years old, his sister Rose moved to Australia with her husband Arthur Anning. His sister Rene had died of a heart attack 7 years prior, so needless to say the emigration of his sister to Australia did not settle well.
His brother Dave remembers the day they left quite well, quoting that on a visit to a beach, Ray “ran to the sea screaming and crying.” The departure of his sister had already inspired him to write “Rosy Won’t You Please Come Home” in 1966, and on this day (May 1st, 2020 as of writing) 51 years ago, Ray was inspired to record an album centered around the England that Arthur Anning remembered before he left.
The songs are nostalgic in feeling such as in the song and lead single “Victoria” which contrasts the true environment of Britain in the 19th century with the “beautiful growth” of England during the Victorian era. The nation grew stronger and wealthier every day while the working class was merely ignored and oppressed.
“Victoria” was also the most “marketable” as far as mainstream chart-topping singles. The three-note motif at the beginning paired with Davies’ vocals led to a catchy song more in rhythm than in lyricism. This is, in my opinion, an example of a song that would only market well because it has a catchy chorus.
The album continues these sentiments in “Yes Sir, No Sir”, an almost upbeat song about the unthinking obedience of the soldiers committed to the British cause. The song suddenly shifts in tone and speed and breaks to an authoritative figure detailing how he’ll convince the people that they’re important to the war. This song and “Some Mother’s Son” really put the somber reality of war in perspective. Arthur Anning’s brother Eddie died in World War I, which inspired the songs. He named his son Eddie after his brother, only to have him die in the Korean War.
“Drivin'” was another single released from Arthur but did not make the charts. This could be expected of the song—it has the feel of a lazy drive across the country. While creative in regards to Dave Davies’ ability to truly make it feel like a carefree adventure, it felt underwhelming and overall did not have as much of an impact as other tracks.
Some of the vocals of the tracks felt a bit blurry at times, such as in “Brainwashed”, a “revolutionary” styled track focused on the brainwashing of citizens by their governments. The guitar chords and powerful drumming make the song feel exciting aside from the fact that they overpower the lyrics.
What I do love however is the rise and fall of feelings regarding Arthur’s emigration. The inspirational and hopeful mood of the song “Australia” is an advertisement symbolic of why Arthur moved to the country in the first place. This mood is quickly resolved in a depressing (yet exciting and happy-feeling in performance) message detailed in “Shangri-Li”. Arthur despises Australia now, as the tone of the song shifts from downcast to an angry outburst against the superficial lifestyle he has developed there.
Personally, “Mr. Churchill Says” is a highlight on the album. Great Britain’s feelings during World War II are reflected in the song as many lines are inspired by Winston Churchill’s speeches encouraging the people of Britain to “hold up” their chins. About 95 seconds into the song, it makes a change in pace with an air raid siren used during World War II. The song even asks rhetorically, “did you hear that plane flying overhead” and then describing how they must work through the pain and suffering (caused by the air raid) because Churchill tells them to.
The rest of Arthur continues with the theme of regret and hard times in Arthur’s lives and of the lives of people who shared the same fate as this fictional character. “Young and Innocent Days” was another personal choice off of Arthur; it is a heart-wrenching song in which the narrator has not come to terms with the days of his past and the place he used to know. “Nothing to Say” discusses how life changes and becomes more self-centered and less caring of others. At least in my interpretation, the narrator moves on from some parts of his past to make way for a more depressing part of life that is covered up with small talk that “add up to nothin'”.
A new narrator takes over for the ending track “Arthur”. In a nearly five-and-a-half-minute track, these narrators tell Arthur, who is now in a melancholy state, that they’re here for him. However, they do this in quite a blunt way, basically telling Arthur to suck it up because they knew this would happen and they know why he’s ignoring the world.
Arthur manages to take dark messages and turn them into upbeat and buoyant tracks. While a lot of the songs on the albums do not have too much replay value, the album as a cohesive piece leaves a positive impression each time I listened.
- “Yes Sir, No Sir”
- “Some Mother’s Son”
- “Mr. Churchill Says”
- “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina”
- “Young and Innocent Days”
- “Nothing to Say”
Bolded are my favorites.