By 1969 there were not many lives left for The Kinks, despite piles of critical acclaim for their previous release; The Village Green Preservation Society was sadly a commercial disaster in 1968, similary the life boat single of Plastic Man also fell far short of record label expectations and to make matters worse, the peace envoy for the two feuding brothers, childhood friend and founder band member, bassist Peter Quaife, had decided to call it a day with the band. As backdrops go, the preparation for The Kinks' 1969 outing were not ideal, but instead of playing it say and trying to consolidate the band's position, some could say fighting for the bands very existence infact, Ray Davies typically came up with an outlandish and ambitious project for the release instead, the stakes could not have been greater.
Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) released in October 1969 on Reprise/Pye, was not your typical album, it was actually destined to be so much more than that. On its own, this album is a full on concept, telling the story of Arthur and his struggles in Post Empire Britain. But this album was not just that, this album actually was set to be the perfect accompaniment to a film or TV feature, in fact so close was this to happening that a production team had already been assembled to make the film happen. For whatever reason this plan never came off, ultimately ensuring the album never scaled the heights of Tommy by The Who from the same year.
As with their masterpiece from 1968, Arthur was written and produced by Ray Davies, and like with the release from the previous year, it was warmly received by critics and heralded as a masterpiece in its own right, thanks in no way shape or form to the unbelievable amount of quality material recorded by The Kinks in Pye Studios in 1969.
The album begins with Mark E Smith favourite, Victoria, a song which marked a return to form for The Kinks, not that their form had really gone away; a single from the album it still failed to set the world alight, but all the same it is marvellously upbeat and Kinkish, this is perhaps the only time during this LP that Davies is in any mood for playing it safe. In contrast the follow up is much more in line with values of Arthur, Yes Sir, No Sir is split into three parts, maybe even four, a marked departure from anything that The Kinks had produced before, even taking into account The Village Green Preservation Society.
Track 3 is the anti war song Some Mother's Son, I think it's a given that Ray Davies' take on any issue is not your typical one, anyone else would write of peace like it was some kind of buzz word going out of fashion and thus is rather tiresome, here Davies tackles the subject of war through the eyes of mothers waiting for their children to come home from school, a truly Ray Davies twist on a tricky, and easily overblown subject. This quaint way of writing is also apparent for Drivin', track number four, a song basically about ignoring all the issues of the Cold War and astronomical income tax rates by simply driving a loved one away for a picnic in the country, what a beautiful idea. The song itself is actually rather good, with an excellent role for a demented sounding piano.
In the middle of the album are two exceptionally long songs, nearly as long as The Kinks' new love for long album titles. Joking aside, the ambition of The Kinks for this concept album can be found in all its glory with Australia and Shangri-La. Starting with Australia, at nearly seven minutes I think this could be the longest song that The Kinks did during the 1960's, but it honestly doesn't feel that long, it goes from a jolly homage vibe to all things Australia right through to a splendid instrumental at the end, Rolf Harris style saw playing included.
There is however no doubting the crowning moment on this album; in Shangri-La we have the best Kinks song of any album let alone this one, even perhaps one of the best songs ever written. I could never do this song justice with words but we'll give it a go, it basically goes from a beautiful ballad type affair with horns to a much heavier number, building and building to a dazzling crescendo. That's just the music however, the lyrics of this song are just sheer brilliance, cutting and bittersweet, but you really should not take my word for the gloriousness of it, just give this song in particular a listen, my word, what a song!
Other brilliant songs include the fabulous She's Bought a Hat like Princess Marina and the closing rouser, Arthur. As always, this album has been reissued to include some of the other crowning moments from The Kinks from 1969, including the single meant to save The Kinks, Plastic Man and the tremendous B-Side to that single, King Kong.
Born under the darkest and heaviest cloud possible, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) probably did not hit the mark expected by the record label. Like the 68 release, it was however met with the warmth and joy from the critics, most noticeably in this case from America. Sure in 1969 the band had lost a vital member, sure there was no hit single in sight, and certainly the film idea for the album fell through at the last minute, but 1969 ended with that illusive tour of America and lets not forget, the band had just produced the grandest of all musical projects and came out the other side in tact and in glory. They would live to fight another day after this releases, a definite equal to The Village Green Preservation Society.