The result was the Kinks’ 1969 masterpiece Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), in which Ray Davies mined the family split for witty, evocative songs touching on British identity (“Victoria”), class struggle (“Brainwashed,” “Shangri-La”) and the consequences of war (“Some Mother’s Son”). On Friday (Oct. 25), Arthur gets a four-disc deluxe edition featuring a 2019 remaster of the album, unheard demos and BBC recordings and a lost solo album by Dave.
At the time, the Kinks had their own travel problems. In 1965, they toured the United States in rowdy fashion, leading to a show in which Dave and drummer Mick Avory resorted to fisticuffs onstage. Avory was jailed, Dave was hospitalized, and the Kinks were banned stateside by the American Federation of Musicians for four years. They crafted increasingly elaborate studio albums and hardly played live.
“I felt frustration not doing the roadwork,” Avory says. “I wanted to go out and do as many gigs as they could throw at me; when you’re young and want to go out and about and play your instrument.”
While stuck at home, the band released 1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, an exquisite song cycle that pondered the fading English countryside. “Village Green was set in a pastoral dreamscape, whereas Arthur has a hard documentary-style edge to it,” Ray said in the Arthur box set booklet. “I wanted to... take my audience on a journey from fantasy to realism.”
Village Green was a commercial flop, but it caught the ears of Jo Durden-Smith, a television producer who approached Ray to create a pop opera for the small screen. Davies first put his Arthur concept on paper as a TV script in which Arthur Morgan, a character inspired by Anning, flails through his unfamiliar new Australian environment.
As Ray put it, he drew from “fiction made out of fact” to skewer Anning. Inspired by a story Anning told about his father laying the carpets for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, he wrote Arthur Morgan as a lowly carpet layer. “The men came back from the war and lots of them couldn’t find work,” he said in the booklet. “I got the impression that Arthur felt he had to accept work that was beneath him.”
Ray set the Arthur story during World War I, inspired by the war-torn experiences of his parents and those of Anning’s real-life hero pilot brother, Stuart. “Arthur wanted to be like Stuart,” he says in the booklet. “But Arthur had bad eyesight, so he worked in the ground crew.” Tragically, Stuart died on his way back from the war; the fictional Arthur’s brother, Eddie, dies in the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
While working with screenwriter Julian Mitchell, Ray had second thoughts about his family story becoming popcorn entertainment. “I wasn’t entirely comfortable because it was about my family and felt personal,” he said in the booklet. “So I held back.”
Despite the wealth of personal material, the Arthur teleplay ended up falling through. “The negotiations fell down. It never happened,” Avory says. “Ray sort of converted it into an album for the Kinks, so we did it as an album.”
Instead of driving a TV plot, Arthur’s biography lent itself to funny, harrowing Kinks songs. Ray’s depiction of Arthur Morgan as a carpet layer grew into “Brainwashed,” about a supplicant ham-and-egger kicked down by the class system. “Be happy to be where you are,” Ray crows in the chorus. “Get down on your knees.”
And “Some Mother’s Son” is an unflinching WWI ballad about a young man lying slain on the battlefield, “head blown up by some soldier’s gun,” and his bereaved parents who keep his picture framed with flowers on the wall. “I get chills even talking about it,” Dave says. “It’s probably one of the most powerful anti-war songs around.”
As a counterweight to Arthur’s darkness, Ray included lighter songs that were no less mordant. “Drivin’” is a jaunty ode to letting “the Russians and the Chinese and the Spanish do their fighting” and blissfully speeding down the road. “Australia” is a sarcastic advertisement for the perks of the country (“No class distinction/ No drug addiction!”) made woozy and nauseous by way of a wobble board played by new bassist John Dalton, who had recently replaced Pete Quaife.
“Shangri-La” is the show-stopper, a pensive ballad about hanging up your gloves and kicking up your feet in suburbia -- and it quickly becomes a different beast. “We were working class Kinks,” Dave says about the song. “I kind of felt uncomfortable with the idea of becoming middle class.” In the chorus, “Shangri-La” explodes into clattering percussion and pained harmonies, making complacency sound scarier than death.
And the acoustic ballad “Young and Innocent Days” recalls the Davies brothers’ childhood years. “There’s a particular poignancy because of the fact that Ray and I have an up-and-down relationship over the years,” Dave says of the song. “There have been so many times over the years [where] he’s thinking that I’m mad, and I’m thinking that he’s mad.” (He still performs the touching song in 2019 -- with a shout out to Ray.)
In the end, Arthur was more of a critical success than a commercial hit; while it peaked at No. 105 on the Billboard 200, Rolling Stone called it “by all odds the best British album of 1969” and boldly declared that “Pete Townshend still has worlds to conquer, and the Beatles have a lot of catching up to do” (The same year as Tommy and Abbey Road, no less).
Eventually, Ray grew to be loving and accepting of Anning’s decision. “Making the record was a healing experience,” he says in the booklet. “Eventually, I understood [Arthur’s] feelings and I regret that I couldn’t handle my own frustrations as he did. We had no idea at the time, but looking back, Arthur was like a mentor or life coach inspiring us boys to strive for something better.”
But what of poor Anning when he learned that an entire concept album had been written about him? Two years after the release of Arthur, the Kinks toured Australia, and Ray and Dave visited Rose, Arthur and Terry, who were still living Down Under.
“I know you made that album about me,” Anning told Ray. He grew defensive about moving to Australia back in 1964. “It was the best decision I ever made, mate.”
“He said that,” Ray recalls in the booklet. “But there was a hint of irony.”