First things first: if you've never heard the Kinks' album “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire),” stop reading this, go listen to that record once or twice or 10 times, and then come back here.
Pretty good record, eh? Maybe even a great one? Maybe even one of the best rock long-players in the history of the form? If this is your takeaway, you're not alone — in the five decades since its release, “Arthur” has gained a reputation as one of the great underappreciated masterpieces in popular music. Or, since it's The Kinks we're talking about, here, “unpopular music” might be the better term.
It might seem strange to talk about The Kinks as an underdog band, but it's the truth. Sure, they had “You Really Got Me” and “Lola” and “Come Dancing,” and they may have been an arena act in the late '70s and early '80s, but The Kinks' career is marked by missed opportunities, violent infighting, long creative slumps, and a general inability to truly break through. They never — at least in America — reached that upper echelon that The Who or The Beatles or even Black Sabbath reached, where their music and image becomes a kind of folk tale. For many, The Kinks are just a band with a couple of hits a long time ago, and that's about it.
But the big secret is that their discography is one of the most rewarding in all of rock music, and Ray Davies is a songwriter who, on a good day, could rival Lennon and McCartney or even surpass them. Records like “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One” and “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society” are astounding pieces of work that mix intense self-examination with deeply satirical, biting lyrics and stick-like-glue melodies, making for track after track of gold-standard pop-rock. But, for this writer's money, no Kinks album is better than “Arthur,” which has now been reissued with three discs of bonus material in honor of its 50th birthday.
To hear the songs on “Arthur” is to behold a master at work. Ray Davies, at this point, was churning out perfection every time someone hit “record” around him. In 1969, he was batting a thousand. Put on “Arthur,” and the hits just keep coming. There's “Victoria,” the how-British-can-you-get song about the queen, with its indelible, winding melody and jutting rhythm — a tune that manages to seem insular while also feeling triumphant. There's “Yes Sir, No Sir,” the catchiest ditty about giving up one's individuality to ever be written. There's “Some Mother's Son,” one of the most heartbreaking songs about war that a rock 'n' roll band ever made, and a song with a piercing, emotive vocal by Ray Davies that prefigured Neutral Milk Hotel by 30 years.
The list goes on. “Brainwashed” is basically punk rock before punk rock, and the whole song is acidic in the way it skewers conformity and the acceptance of mediocrity. “Shangri-La” is simply a psychedelic masterpiece. “Young and Innocent Days” uses Dave Davies' perfect high-harmony voice to great effect.
This 50th-anniversary edition is stuffed with great bonus bits, including the usual B-sides and alternate takes and mono mixes that often populate anniversary editions. There are a few modern-day recordings that are somewhat nonsensically included, but it's a small annoyance on an otherwise marvelous collection.
If you've never heard “Arthur,” you're not alone. But if you've never heard “Arthur,” you're also lucky. Because you still have your first listen of “Arthur” to look forward to in this life. Don't delay.
Artist: The Kinks
Album: "Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire): 50th Anniversary Edition”
Produced by: Ray Davies
Personnel: Ray Davies (vocals, guitar, piano), Dave Davies (guitar, vocals), Mick Avory (drums), John Dalton (bass, vocals), Pete Quaife (bass)