The Kinks are the quintessential English rock band. More ideologically diverse than The Beatles, more musically inventive than The Who; Ray Davies has shown himself to be the only contemporaneous songwriting equal to Brian Wilson.
Their 1969 concept album Arthur: or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire, manages to capture and encapsulate the entire history of a nation in less than an hour. From the rollicking opening track “Victora,” about the height of Imperial power (…from Canada to India, Australia to Cornwall, Singapore to Hong Kong…) spanning a rapidly shrinking globe, we are drawn to what Davies understands as the end game of his society: White colonialism providing treasure and adventure, with a heaping scoop of civilization.
The album focuses on the late run of expeditionary wars in “Yes Sir, No Sir” and the harrowing “Some Mother’s Son,” chronicling the Boer, Anglo-Afghan war period, and the Great War, illuminating the mindlessness of upper class British authority sending tens of thousands of Englishmen and colonial conscripts to fight and die for lines drawn on a map.
The first postwar period, inclusive of the Great Depression, is covered in what is best described as a suite involving “Driving,” “Brainwashed,” and “Australia.” These songs work to provide a panoramic menagerie of scenes of either idyllic pastoral UK transplantation — living the dream in sunny Australia, free from cold weather and polluted factory towns, free to pioneer a new life with a wife and children. Opening chemist’s shops and building brick row houses, only to realize that no matter where you go, the elites in London still control your life. Eventually, even Europe’s wars come to you directly.
From that we come to “Mr. Churchill Says,” a hyper-patriotic soundscape, wrapped in a driving beat and blaring air-raid siren. Selflessness, tenaciousness, and resolve to help and provide for kin and countrymen, something that didn’t help to fill the gap before now become the most essential part of living. Of all the songs relating to war the Kinks have done, this one stands out as a genuine ode to holding down the fort, the need to preserve your way of life, no matter how precarious your standing was in the pre-war milieu.
The war ends and the second postwar period begins. In America, troops came home to raucous parades, college scholarships, home loans, and a vast industrial infrastructure desperate for further growth. British troops come home to a country falling to pieces, besot with rationing, failing infrastructure, depravation, and a socialist government incapable of rebuilding with the same vigor as their defeated enemies, the Germans. The dream of peace left the nation poor, and its expansive empire crumbling into a weak Commonwealth.
The final tracks, “Nothing to Say” and “Arthur” illustrate the generational divide of those born in the glory days of the empire (with false memories of plenty and power) versus their children, born into the remnants of bombed out neighborhoods, boiling over with resentment and imported American rock and roll. What does a long-haired electric guitar player talk to his aging veteran father about? How can the ideals of a “liberated” generation compare with the ones who fought and died to secure that liberation? Is the ideal of England worth the price of England? What does a neo-socialist society do with millions of disaffected youth that want to create a better life in spite of the roadblocks placed in their paths? The Kinks realized this in 1969, and today’s Millennials and Generation Z’ers are also fighting to re-erect a world where place and kin are sacred, and liberty is more than an ideal. Perhaps if they put this record on, they may get the inspiration they need to see it come to pass.