- 31 Oct 19
The Other Kinks Masterpiece
Concept albums. Dodgy territory at the best of times. For every Ziggy Stardust or Quadrophenia – a masterpiece that also celebrated an anniversary recently – you get a thousand albums by the likes of Yes or The Moody Blues that would be better off recycled into tyres. But then there’s The Kinks. The Davies brothers’ band occupy that second tier of the great British groups of the sixties, alongside The Who and The Small Faces, just below The Beatles and The Stones, having released some of the very best singles of the era - ‘Sunny Afternoon’, ‘See My Friends’, the monumentally great ‘Waterloo Sunset’, any of them really. Their 1968 album, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, is quite rightly considered a masterpiece, and sticks closely to its concept, looking back to the olden days of Ray Davies’ childhood, a world of virginity, steam trains, and fishing – an imagined Englishness. It’s surprising it’s not playing on every radio in a modern Britain where half the citizens – by the last count – wish to return to some dreamed for past.
Listening to it now – last year’s stereo remaster is particularly sparkling - it’s still hard to believe that, despite critical praise, it sold like last week’s lotto tickets, taking approximately fifty years to go gold in the UK. Still, for those in the know, it remains one of the vinyl highpoints of a decade that had plenty of them, and it regularly shows up at the business end of those ‘greatest albums of all time’ polls, “the most successful ever flop” as Davies himself described it to Mojo. Things, then, were at a low ebb for the band in early 1969, a situation that wasn’t helped by the departure of original bassist Pete Quaife, who had finally had enough of the internal friction that seems part and parcel of any band with a couple of brothers in it.
The last thing Quaife was to play on was a deliberate stab at a hit single in the form of ‘Plastic Man’ which was released in March of that year. There’s nothing wrong with it, Davies giving it a bit of accent over a jaunty backing, but it does owe a debt to the superior ‘Dedicated Follower Of Fashion’ and, thanks to the ill-judged use of the word “bum”, the BBC wouldn’t play it, causing it to stall in the charts’ lower reaches. Turning over the single for ‘King Kong’ – a droney rocker and a favourite of Dave Davies – was a much better bet.
Around this time Granada TV approached Ray with the idea of working on a project for television with the playwright Julian Mitchell, who is perhaps now best known for Another Country and his screen play for Robert Altman’s Vincent & Theo. Although the teleplay would eventually be scuppered by a lack of money, Davies fired ahead with the songs, built around the concept of one Arthur Morgan, based on Davies’ brother in law, who emigrated to Australia with Rose Davies in 1964.
Now, unlike some concept records like, say, The Who Sell Out - as great as at least some of that records is – The Kinks do not abandon the idea half way through but carry it from kick-off ‘til final whistle. Arthur is born into poverty during the reign of ‘Victoria’ - a celebratory knees up looking back to a time when sex was obscene, and there were croquet lawns, and, again, village greens. Arthur knows that “when I grow, I shall fight, for this land, I shall die” which leads on to the drone following orders in ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’, put in his place by the toffs who tell ordinary Joes to stick their chest out and promise to send a medal to the wife if they get shot. Arthur witnesses this first hand in the minor Davies masterpiece ‘Some Mother’s Son’, a song detailing the effect of war and loss on those back home.
Arthur gets a bit of respite in ‘Drivin’ – a celebration of freedom in the sunshine, while the fighting rages elsewhere – but what was the suffering and sacrifice for if all we get is the social stagnation of ‘Brainwashed’? Arthur’s son isn’t having it and decides to take a chance on a new life in ‘Australia.’ Side two of the original album finds Arthur in his ‘Shangri-La’ but only because he’s up to his neck in higher-purchase agreements, in hock for this new freedom, the kind of social climbing captured in ‘She’s Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina’. Arthur looks back in ‘Mr. Churchill Says’ and most particularly ‘Young and Innocent Days’ but as the closing title track puts it “Arthur, the world’s gone and passed you by.”
That’s the story, it’s a good one, and it’s well told although it wouldn’t be much good to us if the record itself wasn’t any cop, but it most assuredly is. As Dave Davies recounts in the excellent sleeve notes that accompany this release “Arthur was great from a recording point of view because Pye were gracious enough to let us use the bigger No. 1 studio. There was more power in the bottom end and they had proper speakers.” You can hear that extra power right from the off, Davies’ ringing guitars on ‘Victoria’ which gives way to the song’s big chorus and then breaks down to the “land of hope and Gloria” section complete with brass. New/old bass player John Dalton, who had briefly stepped in with the band back in 1966, even gets a turn to shine.
There are plenty of other great moments – Davies punk guitar break during the descending brass of ‘Brainwashed’, the Beach Boys/surfing harmonies on ‘Australia’ and its extended coda complete with wobble board, and the guitar riff in the middle of ‘Shangri-La’, actually scratch that, the whole song is an essential Davies masterwork. If you’re deep of pocket and plump for the big box with four CDs and various 7 inches, you’ll get both mono and stereo remasters. The stereo one might be the winner here, the space in the mix emphasising all the arrangement bits and bobs going on in the background.
The various formats are rounded out by single mixes, BBC versions, demos and the rather good ‘Great Lost Dave Davies Album’ – a proposed solo record that came about in the light of his ‘Death of A Clown’ becoming a hit, but was abandoned mainly because Dave himself just didn’t want to do it. A lot of these tracks, like ‘The Man He Weeps Tonight’ and ‘Creeping Jean’ have turned up on various compilations and reissues over the years but hearing them arranged as an “album” makes you wonder if Davies made the right choice.
When Arthur emerged, it sadly failed to set the world on fire despite some strong critical acclaim, especially in America. Why is still a bit of a mystery but its influence would be felt years later in the work of everyone from XTC to Blur, most especially in their knees-up-mother-brown period. This fine edition allows us to fully appreciate a really great record that remains a band favourite and – whisper it - is very nearly the equal of Village Green. And it sticks to the plan.