The Kinks - Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)
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What can you possibly say about a rock opera that tells the tale of the decline of the British Empire as seen through the eyes of an old man named Arthur? Well, for one, it was the first full length rock opera ever, beating Tommy (possibly the most overrated album in the history of mankind) to the record store shelves by a month or so. Not only that, but it’s probably the best rock opera ever...not exactly a great accomplishment. Let’s face it, releasing the best rock opera ever is like being the valedictorian at reform school.
Arthur was originally conceived by Ray Davies and screenwriter Julian Mitchell as a combination album/made for TV film, loosely based on the life of Davies’ uncle. The story takes place sometime in the late sixties as 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 passed him by.
The story opens with "Victoria", the strongest song on the album and one of the five best songs of the Kinks’ career. A tribute to the "Golden Age of the British Empire" when "life was clean/sex was bad, or obscene/ and the rich were so mean". Queen Victoria acting as a benevolent mother figure plays the title role.
Next we find Arthur on his way to the trenches of World War I, blindly following his officer’s orders in "Yes Sir, No Sir", quickly being broken down by the system he trusted (a constant theme in Ray Davies’ work). This leads into "Some Mother’s Son", (the first song that Ray sings outside of the Arthur character) a condemnation of war and what it does to families back home. It’s hard not to be moved/saddened as Ray delivers lyrics such as "some mother’s son ain’t coming home today/some mother’s son ain’t got no grave" or "all dead soldiers look the same". The war theme continues later in the album with "Mr. Churchill Says", which quotes some of Winston Churchill’s more famous speeches and serves as the World War II portion of the album.
In the epic "Shangri-La" we find Arthur in his little house that looks the same as his neighbors. He’s "reached the top and just can’t get any higher". Well, if you consider having indoor plumbing, a car, a TV, and a radio "the top". The song comes very close to the quality of "Victoria" and their other greats, but falls flat somewhere. Probably in the chorus which is just "Shangri- laaaaaaa, shangri-laaaaaaa, shangri-la la ah ah". Actually, "Victoria"’s chorus is pretty much the same, but for reasons which I can’t explain it works better in that song. We've all been there, right?
Finally, on the the title track we find Arthur watching his kids sail away to Australia. Life has passed him by, all of the goals he set as a young man have gone down the drain, his country has gone the same way, and all of his hard work was for naught. Not exactly the happiest ending, but then again would Ray Davies ever write a happy ending?
By: Matt Golden
Published on: 2003-09-01