In early 1969, the Kinks were in a bit of a bind, as their most recent LP, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, was met with both majorly positive reviews and majorly poor sales. Mastermind Ray Davies later called it “the most successful flop of all time”. Granted, it has sold plenty in the decades since and is now revered beyond measure. Yet that setback—coupled with the fact that founding bassist Pete Quaife suddenly quit and was replaced by John Dalton—meant that their seventh album had to be something exceptional.
Thankfully, the result, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), certainly is. Written as the soundtrack to a never-aired Granada Television programme, it’s inspired by Ray and Dave Davies’ sister and brother-in-law, Rose and Arthur Anning, respectively, emigrating to Australia in 1964. Of course, the Kinks previously tapped into that topic via “Rosy Won’t You Please Come Home” on 1966’s Face to Face, but they wanted to develop it fully. Specifically, Arthur follows Arthur Morgan, a carpet layer who wrestles with classism, family life, the turmoil of post-war England, and the presumed prosperity of a new life in Australia.
It’s considered one of the first narrative records in popular music. While it lacks the gritty edge and subtle motifs of the Pretty Things’ 1968 opus, S.F. Sorrow, as well as the ingenious scope and density of the Who’s 1969 staple, Tommy, Arthur is nonetheless a damn fine collection of catchy yet contemplative songs. It’s no wonder, then, why it fared far better than Village Green internationally, although it still didn’t do well in Britain. Likewise, the glowing critical responses from back then—and the subsequent veneration it’s earned since—is certainly warranted. A spectacular 50th Anniversary box set was just released to commemorate how special Arthur is, and its myriad memorabilia and bonus music makes it a must-own package for fans.
Before tackling all of those extras, it’s worth talking about the album itself a bit more. While the lack of repeated themes—which even the aforementioned two other conceptual LPs feature—does make it seem less substantial and ambitious in hindsight, it’s undoubtedly one of the Kinks’ best efforts. For one thing, Ray Davies’ typically punchy and sentimental songwriting is on full display via the irresistible opener, “Victoria”, which was also the record’s hugely successful lead single. With lyrics like “Though I’m poor, I am free / When I grow, I shall fight / For this land, I shall die / Let her sun never set”, the tune endearingly sets the stage for the story that follows. Beyond that, it’s super catchy, with a fairly straightforward yet lovingly bright—and slightly psychedelic—arrangement bouncing along the whole way.
Arthur continues to delight with every track that follows. In particular, “Yes Sir, No Sir” is poppy and orchestral, yet also sharply politically conscious and self-evaluative, whereas “Brainwashed” hits hard, with an almost proto-punk edge surrounding the perkier parts. Elsewhere, “Drivin'” and “Australia” are luscious and light—at least sonically.
Meanwhile, the side two starter “Shangri-La” is a captivating multipart social evaluation that’s surely one of the best songs Ray Davies ever wrote. As the sequence closes, “Mr. Churchill Says” provides some feisty, almost danceable rock gravitas before the whimsical “She’s Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina” and extravagant “Young and Innocent Days”, both of which make great use of harpsichord. “Nothing to Say” is full of lovely harmonies and varied instrumentation as it faintly evokes the verse melody of “Yes Sir, No Sir”. From there, the title track is a direct rock and roll wrap-up. Arthur isn’t the best concept album of its era, but its weight as an emblematic Kinks gem means that it holds up greatly all of these years later.
To that end, the 50th Anniversary box set does an immaculate job of gifting devotees plenty to mull over. In addition to stereo and mono mixes of Arthur, you get a ton of bonus selections (such as roughly 30 unreleased tracks and versions), plus four 7″ single reproductions. Perhaps most importantly, though, on the audio-end is The Great Lost Dave Davies Album. Recorded alongside Arthur—and planned since his 1967 hit “Death of a Clown”—it never saw completion for various reasons. Luckily, it’s here now, and it’s quite good, with his high-pitched timbre giving the familiar style a new flavor.
Standouts include the Byrds-esque “This Man He Weeps Tonight”, the pleading “Hold My Hand”, the acoustic desperation of “Are You Ready”, the Dylan-esque “Mr. Shoemaker’s Daughter”, and the quirky “Mr. Reporter”. Outside of that, the physical ornaments include a Kinks metal pin badge, reproduced photos and posters, and a priceless deluxe book with rare pictures, essays, interviews, and the like. House in a sturdy container, it’s an essential bundle for Arthur fanatics.
Fifty years later, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) is as charming, compelling, and characteristic as ever. The story and music do a fine job of simultaneously providing lighthearted surfaces and more serious undercurrents amidst the cumulative feat of capturing the Kinks at the height of their creative prowess. As one of the greatest works by one of the greatest British bands of the time, Arthur is also a chief example of what made mid-to-late 1960s pop/rock so magnetic and distinctive. Thankfully, this new 50th Anniversary box set goes above and beyond to capture that magic—and its surrounding niceties—in one bountiful place.