“You look like a real human being but…”
“He got feet/Down/below his knees/Hold you in his arms, yeah you can feel his disease…”
It’s all over for England. They’ve had their history and it’s been written in books; they’ve fought their wars and buried their heroes. The English have owned the world and jettisoned their empire, and all that’s left is—rock and roll. “England has got all the bad points of Nazi Germany, all the pompous pride of France, all the old fashioned patriotism of the old Order Of The Empire. It’s got everything that’s got nothing to do with music… the poxy little shit-stained island.” So said Pete Townshend.
And the Kinks’ answer, like the Band’s answer to the American questions, is that a band makes its music out of whatever history has to offer. Arthur has the same guts as the Band’s new album, that same reach back into the past, the same sense of age—like the Band, the Kinks can play the role of man near the end of his life when they themselves are merely in their twenties. Arthur is more fun, more cutting, and in the end simply hilarious because whatever England was, it isn’t any more, and the Kinks are set free of all responsibilities. Christine Keeler died for their sins.
The Kinks are fun. Ray belts out “Victoria,” and manages to sound pompous and fat—just like the girl herself—while doing so. The band drops off all restraints and finally performs like a real rock and roll band instead of like a bunch of old ladies. Dave Davies takes solos with delightful horns as a back-up, not to display virtuosity (which he has) but because the songs are too much fun to stop. On “Mr. Churchill Says” the band moves effortlessly into a three- or four-part number, changing the tempo, the mood, and the melody while never losing a superb dancing beat. Many of the songs display that sort of genius: “Shangri-la,” “Australia,” and more. The complexity of the compositions doesn’t intrude because these delights are composed, not constructed, as were “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” “A Day in the Life,” or the collages on Abbey Road. The music’s like a verbal and instrumental jam session with divine inspiration as a rhythm section.
The music will move anyone who listens, because there is such an enormous amount of pathos in what Ray Davies has done. He’s presented the last hundred years of English history through the eyes of one little man who never meant a thing to the rest of the world—as if Sinclair Lewis had followed Babbitt from birth to death and then made it into a musical comedy.
Less ambitious than Tommy, and far more musical—no fillers, no waste tracks, not a matter of ideas but of perceptions worked out by bass, drums, voices, horns and guitars—Arthur is by all odds the best British album of 1969. It shows that Pete Townshend still has worlds to conquer, and that the Beatles have a lot of catching up to do.
“The band drops off all restraints and finally performs like a real rock and roll band instead of like a bunch of old ladies.” The precious old ladies studio ornateness of Village Green is part of its eccentric charm. And, besides, the Kinks rock much harder on the next one, Lola, right?
Ray Davies via Arthur, “as if Sinclair Lewis had followed Babbitt from birth to death and then made it into a musical comedy.” Great analogy.
So Townsend’s response to the Arthur gauntlet was Who’s Next and the Beatles’ Let It Be? Definitely moves away from old ladies pop and towards more real rock and roll band live music machismo.
That’s what I love about the Kinks. They didn’t care about the world market. Most critics across the pond (bless ’em) who thought they understood Arthur or Village Green really didn’t. However Greil has hit the nail on the head that the Kinks in fact left the overly pretentious Who flailing behind and the overly perfectionist Beatles gasping for air. The best concept album yet made.
“Victoria” is nothing short of the greatest tribute song to one’s homeland ever. Ray has written many great songs about England (“Village Green”, etc., etc.). This one is the best. It’s hilarious and touching at the same time. And when he sings about the breadth of the British empire at its peak, and the love that the Queen’s subjects believed she felt for them all — Wow.