The Kinks’ Music – Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire)

A revised version of this essay appears in Preservation: The Kinks’ Music 1964-1974, available in paperback , hardback, Kindle (US), Kindle (UK) , and for all non-Kindle devices from Smashwords.

And so we come to the first Kinks album that could reasonably be considered to be worse than its predecessor.

Which is not to say that Arthur is in any way a bad album — in fact its best songs are considerably better than the best material on Village Green Preservation Society — but rather that there are just the occasional signs here of an incipient flabbiness, a tendency to extend songs beyond their natural length with instrumental jams (the longest song the band had recorded in their entire career previously had been four minutes ten seconds long, but on this album there are four songs that are longer than that, with Australia being nearly seven minutes long).

However, this is still a truly great album, and it’s all the more astonishing then that it did so poorly with the listening public. Not only did the album fail to chart, but of the three singles released from it the first two didn’t chart at all and the third only reached number 33. For a band that only recently had had an unbroken run of eight top ten singles to do so poorly suggests that something, somewhere, was very, very wrong.

It could have been very different — Arthur was conceived as a series of songs for a Granada TV special, co-written by Ray Davies and the playwright Julian Mitchell, which would have looked at the history of Britain in the twentieth century through the life of a character, Arthur Morgan, based loosely on Arthur Anning, Davies’ brother-in-law.

Unfortunately for the Kinks, the TV show was cancelled fairly close to production, and the Who released their own concept album, also named after its central character, Tommy, while the Kinks were still finishing recording. This was partly because there was still a general lack of focus around the band at the time, with several projects in various states of completion — while recording and writing Arthur and writing the TV show, Ray Davies was also producing Turtle Soup [FOOTNOTE: An absolutely astonishing album by US pop group The Turtles, which manages to combine their witty LA pop sensibility with the gentle wistfulness of Village Green Preservation Society. Anyone who likes the Kinks’ music must listen to it.] in the USA, while the band were also recording a Dave Davies ‘solo’ album (which would remain unreleased, although versions of it have appeared on archival releases) and the band were also getting used to new bass player John Dalton.

The recordings with the Turtles, however, had a longer-term impact — while in LA, Davies negotiated an end to the ban on the Kinks performing in the US that the US musicians’ union had brought in in 1965. As the band’s career in the UK ground to a halt, they were slowly able to build themselves a new career in the US.

The Album

Victoria
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The opening track, and third single from the album, this reached number thirty-three. Lyrically, it’s a return to the themes of Village Green Preservation Society, but less conflicted — it seems a fairly straightforward paen to the glories of Empire and to Queen Victoria, with only the line “for this land I shall die” hinting at the darker themes to come. The lyrics even specifically mention “croquet lawns, village greens”.

Musically, however, it’s as different from Village Green as the Kinks ever got — thudding, heavy, riff-driven rock, extremely bass-heavy and hitting one like a punch in the gut rather than being light, elegant and intellectual. Which is not to say there’s no subtlety here — the horn arrangement on the middle eight, in particular, is very well done — but this is the Kinks becoming a rock band, as opposed to a pop group.

The concept of ‘rock’ as opposed to ‘pop’ only really started to be seen as a distinction worth making in the late 60s, when most of the bands who wanted to be seen as ‘serious artists’ started concentrating on albums, making records more heavily influenced by the blues, and turning up their amplification. The Kinks were one of a number of wonderful bands who got left behind (albeit temporarily) by this change — perceived by the hippies as a pop group, while being seen as past it by the younger-skewing singles-buying audience, they could create wonderful records like this and be more or less ignored by both groups of listeners.

Victoria is, though, one of the Kinks’ more well-loved singles in retrospect, having been covered by bands as diverse as The Fall and The Kooks over the years.

This is also the first Kinks song to be more listenable in stereo than in mono. The mono mix of this (and of much of the album) is oppressive and bass-heavy. The stereo mix is lighter, more open, and has overall a better balance of instruments.

Yes Sir, No Sir
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This track is one of the most extraordinary things in the Kinks’ catalogue, a mini-suite in which Davies takes on a number of characters in order to express his anger at authority, using World War I as an excuse.

To the extent Davies’ songwriting has any coherent politics at all, it is against all forms of authority and conformity and for the individual, and here he lets that out in a way that he’s never previously been able to. He was almost certainly inspired here by the film Oh! What A Lovely War, which came out during the early stages of planning of the album, and which combined music-hall songs with a depiction of the horror of World War I.

While World War I had always been controversial, its role in the national myth of Britain had until fairly recently been that of ‘The Great War’, a war that the country could be proud of. However, as the 60s drew on, and as feeling against war in general was on the increase, the consensus changed to the one that now dominates discussion of the subject — the ‘lions led by donkeys’ who sacrificed themselves for no good reason. Even the Doctor Who story broadcast at the time Arthur was being recorded took this line, so common had that view become [FOOTNOTE And I am indebted to Gavin Burrows and Gavin Robinson, in the discussions for a blog post I wrote about that Doctor Who story, at http://mindlessones.com/2012/02/11/doctor-who-fifty-stories-for-fifty-years-1969/, for the slightly more nuanced view of that consensus I present here.].

Yes Sir, No Sir conveys that sense all too well. It starts with a simple military bass and snare-drum pattern, and a simple four-chord guitar part, over which Davies sings as an infantryman asking for ‘permission to speak’ and ‘permission to breathe’.

We then get the addition of a horn section, and a return of the old favourite technique of holding a chord while the bassline plays a descending scale, as an officer tells the soldier “you’re outside and there ain’t no admission to our play”, and in a parody of the popular World War I song, to “pack up your ambition in your old kit bag/And you’ll be happy with a packet of fags”.

We then get to the chilling heart of the song, when Davies takes on the persona of an aristocrat, concerned more with maintaining authority than anything else. The last few lines of this section — “Give the scum a gun and make the buggers fight/Just be sure to have deserters shot on sight/If he dies we’ll send a medal to his wife”, followed by a braying laugh — are among the best things Davies has ever done.

We then return to the trooper for one last verse before…

Some Mother’s Son
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Easily the best album track the band ever did, this exquisite little ballad uses many of the techniques from Village Green Preservation Society, both musical (harpsichord arpeggios, played by Ray Davies, who did provide all the keyboard parts on this album, and descending scales) and lyrical (the motif of the photograph again) to totally different effect — the nostalgia here is a mother’s memory of her son, shot in the war.

While this song gets much of its power from its generality — the details of the soldier are deliberately kept vague, he’s an Unknown Soldier figure rather than a person with a sketched out life history — the real key line here is the seemingly unbearably callous, but simultaneously heartbreaking, line about the mother framing his picture on the wall, “but all dead soldiers look the same”. Like so many of Davies’ best lines, this has many, many possible interpretations — the way the military makes people conform, the way photographs are framed to look the same way for everyone, but the most touching reading of the line, I think, is the implication that the soldiers killed in the war were not yet fully formed.

Boys of eighteen and nineteen for the most part, they hadn’t yet had time to develop as distinct individuals, before that opportunity was denied them — which is why it’s possible to sing about them so generally.

A heartbreaking song on its own, when listened to in context after Yes Sir, No Sir this becomes one of the most effective anti-war songs ever written.

Drivin’
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This was the lead-off single from the album, and the first Kinks single not to get into the Top 40 since 1964. In retrospect, it was an insane choice, as it’s one of the very weakest songs on the album. It’s not bad, just rather substance-free.

Even on here, though, there’s still some bite — while it sounds like a purely escapist piece of fluff, the lyrics show why escapism was needed, in the between-wars time in which this is set, “seems like all the world is fighting/they’re even talking of a war”, and when the characters go for a drive and picnic they’ll be followed by debt collectors and rent collectors.

Brainwashed
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

Another of the weaker songs on the album, this is one of those songs where Davies’ vaguely libertarian politics take a fairly nasty turn, and his individualism becomes a contempt for anyone who lives a normal life, with lines like “Look like a real human being but you don’t have a mind of your own”.

In particular, Davies here blames the “bureaucrats” who give the character to whom he’s singing “social security/tax saving benefits” for brainwashing people — a typical libertarian critique of the state, and one which has some validity, but a critique that it’s much, much easier to make when, like Davies, you’ve grown up with those safety nets and also managed to become very wealthy.

Which wouldn’t be so bad in itself — there is nothing that says that pop music should be politically ‘progressive’ (whatever that word actually means) and a critique of social democracy from a right-libertarian perspective, at a time when the revolutionary rhetoric of much of the New Left was starting to fall apart, would be a fair idea for a song, even if I’d disagree with that critique, but here Davies is talking to someone who is a victim of this supposed brainwashing, but seeing that victimhood as a moral failing in the victim.

This kind of arrogant right-libertarian victim-blaming is something we also see a lot of in the works of Frank Zappa, whose attitudes are closer to those of Davies than most critics acknowledge, but except at his early 80s nadir Zappa never wrote anything as musically dull as this.

Australia
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A much better song finishes the first side of the album. In the late 50s and early 60s there was a mass wave of emigration from the UK to Australia, which at the time was advertising widely for (white) Commonwealth immigrants, as opposed to its extremely restrictive immigration laws today, and the Davies brothers’ sister Rose, and her husband Arthur, had moved over there.

Davies here outlines a dream of a mythical utopian Australia much like the California of the Beach Boys (who he references on the line “we’ll surf like they do in the USA”, with some very competent Wilsonesque falsetto in the backing), an open, free society very different from the closed, decaying Britain still in thrall to the memory of Queen Victoria, and would have made for a great single.

However, they then choose to spoil the track somewhat (though it’s still, on balance, an enjoyable record) by adding onto the three-minute actual song a near four-minute instrumental jam which has little to recommend it (other than the humorous touch of playing the wobble-board, an instrument invented by Australian TV personality and singer Rolf Harris, which would conjure up images of Australia instantly to anyone in the UK, even though it was invented and popularised over here).

I sometimes sound rather harsher on these freeform instrumental outros than I perhaps should — they are very much an aspect of the time when they were recorded, when the discipline of the three minute pop song was being deprecated in favour of the ability to stretch out and extend songs — but the looser and less disciplined the Kinks’ music got, in general, the less successful it seems in retrospect. A band who were recently singing the praises of timeless traditions were now attempting to follow the herd, and it’s precisely those points where they do that that the music is at its least successful.

Shangri-La
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This, on the other hand, earns every second of its five minutes and twenty seven seconds. This portrait of a retired (or close to retirement) middle-class suburbanite living in a small house [FOOTNOTE: Note for Americans — many houses in the UK are known by names, rather than numbers, and Shangri-La would be a typical example of such a name (the cliched example would be Dunroamin). Merely stating that a house is named this would, for a British person, mean they would be willing to give near-certain odds that the owners are over 55, have a doorbell that plays a snatch of a sentimental tune, a sticker in their window saying “no cold callers”, some form of garden gnome, quite possibly holding a sign saying “gran lives here”, and own a small dog, probably a terrier of some kind. The point being that this is a detail which implies a great deal to Davies’ intended audience. The song would be very different were the house named “Spunker’s Squalor” like the house Mick Avory and Dave Davies had shared a couple of years previously.] is a far more sympathetic look at the life of the kind of person Davies criticised in Brainwashed.

Starting with two verses based on picking around an Am chord on an acoustic guitar, which would nowadays conjure up Stairway To Heaven for most people, but came out first by several years, and with a gentle brass backing coming in in the second verse, we have a description of the protagonist’s (presumably Arthur’s) contentment in his own little kingdom, with undreamed-of luxuries like a car and indoor toilets. It’s gentle, and understanding, and quite lovely.

We then have a few bars in D, with a I-Imaj7-I7 change (a very common way of implying stasis and movement simultaneously in music, used in for example the first line of the Beatles’ Something), before the song goes into another of Davies’ descending scalar bassline sections, but here a harpsichord has come in, and this suits the baroque feeling very well. All of this gives a feeling of movement while staying in almost exactly the same place, which fits the lyric perfectly.

This section’s lyric manages the wonderful trick of simultaneously evoking a feeling of security and of being trapped — the protagonist has “reached the top and just can’t get any higher”, “you’re in your place and you know who you are”, and most damningly “you need not worry, you need not care/You can’t go anywhere”. The protagonist here is in the same situation as the singer in Autumn Almanac, living exactly the life he’s chosen, in exactly the place he wants to be, but trapped by that very perfection — he knows that any change he makes to his life would make it worse, so he can’t change it.

We then have a description of the protagonist’s earlier, working life with “a mortgage hanging over his head, but he’s too scared to complain, ’cause he’s conditioned that way” — the protagonist gets rid of these financial insecurities, he pays off his debts, but he still lives in a state of insecurity.

In the next, rockier, section — almost all built on one chord, again with a descending bass to disguise the fundamentally stationary nature, he’s “Too scared to think about how insecure you are” precisely because of the security he’s in now — having lived a poorer life he knows how fragile it is. Meanwhile, “all the houses on the street all look the same”, and the protagonist is suffering an almost schizoid detachment — when the neighbours visit “they say their lines, they drink their tea and then they go”, like actors in a play or film rather than real people.

After this, the reprise of the earlier “sit back in your old rocking chair” section, with its brass band backing, sounds absolutely triumphal, the Dm of the rocky section resolving into D major, and the middle-aged man sat in his chair is a figure who has overcome real difficulty to get this eggshell-fragile comfort, and can justly be proud of it.

Shangri-La is one of the best things the Kinks ever recorded, and in the way it uses its epic length to take the listener on an emotional journey it deserves comparison with A Day In The Life by the Beatles, Surf’s Up by the Beach Boys and (the closest resemblance musically) You Set The Scene by Love. For all that parts of this album are bloated compared to the band’s earlier work, this track shows what they could do with the longer song lengths that were now being allowed.

The only problem with this is that it was released as a single, when it’s an utterly unsuitable choice. It’s an absolute masterpiece, but it sank without trace, becoming the band’s second single in a row not even to make the top forty.

Mr. Churchill Said
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

This is one of the lesser songs on the album, but a necessary breather after the intensity of Shangri-La. A fairly simple song, this just lists pretty much every cliche about the “Blitz spirit” that was (and still is) the principal way the Second World War is viewed in British culture. In the context of the album, a slight satiric edge might be perceived here — everything is portrayed in terms of speeches from Churchill, or Mountbatten, or editorials from Beaverbrook, all of them the kind of authority figure that the rest of the album spends so much time attacking — but I think the song is fundamentally sincere.

She’s Bought A Hat Like Princess Marina
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

One of the most effective songs on the album, this is a look at a particular type of respectable poverty, where people will go hungry in order to keep up the appearance of respectable middle-class living. Both the characters in the song have bought hats that resemble those of the ultra-rich upper-classes — Princess Marina was the Queen’s aunt and a member of the royal families of two countries, while Anthony Eden (later the Earl of Avon) was Prime Minister in the 1950s.

The song is presumably set in the mid-1930s, when Britain was still suffering the effects of the Depression, but when Eden was a dashing young politician who was so popular for his looks and fashion sense that Homburg hats were renamed in his honour and he was known as one of “the glamour boys”, while Marina had only recently married into the British Royal Family.

We get two verses played relatively straight, over a harpsichord backing, with the pathos of the situation mostly left implicit, before everything breaks down in the middle eight, and the previously tight-laced singer starts bellowing “buddy can you spare me a dime?”, referencing the popular Depression-era protest song, before the last verse is done almost in the style of the Bonzo Dog Band, uptempo in a mock-Dixieland style with out-of-tune horns and banjo.

Young And Innocent Days
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A rather lovely waltz-time baroque pastiche, once again based around a descending scalar bassline, from the perspective of someone looking back at better times both for the singer and for his lover. One of Davies’ best melodies, the lyric is merely serviceable, leading to a song which manages to be unmemorable when one is not listening to it, but enrapturing when it’s playing. The instrumental middle eight is particularly beautiful.

Nothing To Say
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

A filler track in the context of the album, though one suspects it would have been a powerful moment in the TV show, here one of Arthur’s children, grown with kids of his own, tells the old man that he won’t be spending any more time with him and it’s best they go their separate ways (presumably the son is the one who will emigrate to Australia), because while he’s fond of the memories of his childhood, the two of them have nothing in common any more.

It’s a good and interesting subject for a song, but the musical material doesn’t really live up to the topic, just being a straightforward three-chord rocker. It’s certainly not a bad track, but nor is it up to the standards of the best material on the album.

Arthur
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray and Dave Davies

And we finish with a country-rock song that points the way to the sound the band would go for on Muswell Hillbillies, that tells the whole story of Arthur’s life, allowing us to put the rest of the songs into their proper context. And happily, for an album that at times has shown a callous indifference to Arthur and his middle-class conformist type, here the band sing “Arthur, could be that the world was wrong…Arthur, could be you were right all along” before ending on a unison chorus of “Oh we love you and want to help you/Somebody loves you don’t you know it?”

By ending on this note, and with a song that ties together the previously disparate songs into some sort of coherent narrative, the band manage to make the album better than the sum of its parts. While it has songs which contain misjudgements, either musically or lyrically, the album as a whole, and in its closing statement, is fundamentally on the side of decency and empathy. There might be an element of contempt in their attitude to Arthur at times (as no doubt there always is when those in their twenties consider those two generations older) but this is still the same band who gave us Village Green Preservation Society, a band that can see something noble in the tiny triumphs and failures that make up a normal life. It’s not glamorous — not the story of an extraordinary character, there are no pinball wizards or acid queens here — but it’s an honest attempt at depicting ordinary life with sympathy and good humour, and as such Arthur is almost certainly the best concept album ever recorded.

Bonus Tracks

Plastic Man
Writer: Ray Davies
Lead Vocalist: Ray Davies

The last track that Pete Quaife, the original bass player for the band, ever played on before his acrimonious departure first from the Kinks and shortly thereafter from the music business altogether, was this, the single that almost destroyed the band’s career.

It’s sad that this was Quaife’s swansong, as he deserved better than this. This is Davies attempting, and failing, to write a Kinks song — specifically a song from their commercial high-point a couple of years earlier. Musically, it’s fine — a competent enough pastiche of their sound ca. Dedicated Follower Of Fashion — if unmemorable, but lyrically it’s horrible. An attempt at the earlier satirical style Davies had used in songs like Well-Respected Man, it is aimed not at any real person, but at the kind of fantasy of what a conformist middle-class person might be like that an arrogant eighteen-year-old might come up with. It shows no sympathy for the character, and dehumanises him so completely that the song detaches from all reference to reality and becomes about nothing at all.

The attempt at getting more commercial backfired. Up to this point, every single they’d released since 1964 had got to at least number 12. This was banned from the radio for using the word ‘bum’, and so only scraped to number 33. The next two singles (Driving and Shangri-La) didn’t chart at all. The Kinks would have the very occasional hit single from this point on, but their golden touch for singles success departed with Quaife.

This Man He Weeps Tonight

Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

The B-side for Shangri-La, and one of several tracks recorded around the time of Arthur for Dave Davies’ unreleased solo album A Hole In The Sock Of, this Byrds-like jangly folk-rock record would probably have been a better choice for the A-side. Despite not being as good a song as its A-side, this is undoubtedly the more commercial song — it’s a straightforward verse/chorus song with a catchy riff and good harmonies, while still having an up-to-date heavy rock sound.

Lyrically, it’s a simple song about the break-up of a relationship and regret for plans made that will never now be put into action. The most interesting line is “I thought our thing would last, ’cause it said so in my horoscope”, which is the first indication in any of his songs of Dave Davies’ interest in astrology, which would soon broaden to include occultism and the ‘magick’ of the Golden Dawn, and be the most important influence on him for most of his life.

Mindless Child Of Motherhood
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

Another Dave Davies solo track, this time the B-side to Driving, this is almost painful to listen to because of the sheer weight of emotion behind it. A howl of pain about the end of his teenage relationship and the child he had never seen, this has none of the ambiguity or metaphor of the earlier songs he had written, instead containing lines like “I know that it’s unfair to bear a bastard son, but why do you hide, babe, when we could have shared a love?”

The song’s construction is extraordinary, barely staying in the same time signature for two bars straight, and having a chorus that alternates bars of sixes and sevens, while following perfectly the emotional logic of the confused, disoriented lyric. This would definitely not have made a good single, but is the best thing Dave Davies had written to this point.

Creeping Jean
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

The B-side to Dave Davies’ solo single Hold My Hand, this has almost exactly the same melody as Ray’s earlier Rainy Day In June. Lyrically, it’s a rather nasty, misogynist rant against a girlfriend leaving him, but musically it’s a powerful band performance. Just a shame they’d already recorded the tune with better lyrics.

Lincoln County
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

A 1968 solo Dave Davies single (and thus featuring Pete Quaife on bass), this is very unusual for Dave Davies, as it sounds musically for all the world like a Ray Davies song, descending bass-line, harpsichord and all. While it’s a little harder in tone than most of the Village Green Preservation Society material, it’s no more so than Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains and with its theme of returning home it would have fit the earlier album nicely.

Lyrically, it’s less strong — it’s a ‘coming home from jail’ song built up out of cliches from country songs, and doesn’t seem to have been written with any real conviction — but musically it’s one of Dave Davies’ best songs from this time. Unfortunately it didn’t chart.

Hold My Hand
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

Another non-charting single by Dave Davies, again featuring Quaife on bass rather than Dalton, this one is an obvious attempt at sounding like Bob Dylan, right down to impersonating Dylan’s voice (it actually comes spookily close to the sound Dylan was getting on the Nashville Skyline album, which was being recorded when this was released). Even more than that, though, it sounds like the ramshackle boozy soul-folk that Rod Stewart (a former schoolmate of the Davies brothers and Quaife) would come out with towards the end of the year.

It’s an odd choice for a single, having odd time signatures in the chorus, which breaks down as far as I can tell into two bars of seven, two of four, one of six and one of four, though it could be written in a variety of other ways — the pulses are all over the place. The chorus also, with its seven-beat bars and “three blind mice” melody bears a very slight resemblance to a countrified version of All You Need Is Love.

Not Davies’ best work, it was a brave song to go with as a single, and deserved to do better than it did.

Mr Shoemaker’s Daughter
Writer: Dave Davies
Lead Vocalist: Dave Davies

A perfectly pleasant, but derivative track that seems to have been built up out of bits of Ray Davies’ songs Mr Reporter and Mr Pleasant, along with a brief statement of the riff from the Searchers’ Needles And Pins by a horn section, the lyrics to this are the kind of fluff that would have been a minor hit for Herman’s Hermits four or five years earlier. This was intended for Dave Davies’ solo album, but remained unreleased until a 1980s Japanese-only compilation of Dave Davies solo tracks.

This entry was posted in music and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

32 Responses to The Kinks’ Music – Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire)

  1. Hal says:

    Excellent. I remember being disappointed when I heard this album, it definitely seemed as if the Kinks were trying for a different sound on some of the tracks, a perhaps more *American* approach which fits in with the rise of heaviness that you mention, the ascent of the “Rock” sound. As with Tommy (another album that’s lop-sided, with some of the tracks not working well as *songs* but instead there to perform a narrative function – though how much of a coherent narrative can be detected through simply listening to the songs in Tommy is, perhaps, a moot point! – or to provide “feel” tho’ the instrumentals Sparks and Amazing Journey are two of the best things on Tommy) there’s a sense that, quite apart from the concept album side of things, Arthur is a halfling album part-keeping-up-with-the-joneses Rock part- nuanced structured British narrative rock/pop. That said the better songs are, as you write, great; it’s just that *as an album* it’s less satisfactory than the previous two and maybe that’s because the new sound is rather forced at times in comparison with what came before. I seem to recall the late Ian Macdonald writing something to the effect that post-1968 Kinks bore the influence of Canned Heat (or was it Hot Tuna? Not Canned Tuna!) and that this didn’t always sit well with their sound, which I think is an astute point. Canned Heat or no, 1969-74ish (after which I think the wheels come off more or less totally) the Kinks/Ray Davies in this period seem to increasingly take on styles that don’t always suit the songs. I’m not doing a good job of elucidating unfortunately.
    When Arthur works, it *really* works. Victoria and Shangri-La are the obvious examples of greatness but your appreciation of the album really nails its strengths and weaknesses. I suspect I’ll have more to say later, perhaps about the use of horns and brass. Be afraid, the Boring will return.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I do know what you mean, don’t worry, and I agree with almost all of this. As for the Boring, surely that’s my job?

  2. S. Barrios says:

    excellent information! when i first heard this recording around a decade ago, my first attraction was to some of the “bonus” tracks, Dave’s “Mindless Child” and “This Man Weeping.” you have certainly provided an occasion for a considered re.listening. Also: manythanks for the Turtle Soup tip !

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      You’ll like Turtle Soup a lot, I think. It’s been issued a few times, with different sequencing (same tracks, different order) and mixes — the best version I’ve heard as a listening experience is the 1980s vinyl version from Rhino records, which was radically remixed and far better balanced than the current CD version. No matter what, though, it’s one of those great little albums, like Ram, and does manage to capture the best aspects of both the Turtles and Davies.

      • S. Barrios says:

        oh yes! was pleased to find this on Spotify / gave it a cursory listen this morning (and looking forward to hearing it again tomorrow !). an unexpected mix of ROCK and something not wholly dissimilar to the finer moments of Odessey and Oracle. a most pleasant an’ welcome surprise !

  3. The lions led by donkeys thing is maybe a bit less dominant now than it was in the 80s, partly because of academic revisionism and partly because controversies over Iraq and Afghanistan have made remembrance more politicised and militaristic than it used to be. (Did I say that before?)

    “have deserters shot on sight”

    This is an example of an annoying tendency to go slightly too far when making reasonable criticisms of genuinely bad things, allowing reactionaries to dismiss the whole critique as completely wrong and dodge the real issues (see also The Monocled Mutineer and Robert Newman’s History of Oil). When the British Army shot deserters, it was after a court martial. This wasn’t a fair trial by modern liberal standards as there was no jury and the judges were all army officers who obviously had vested interests. There are persistent rumours of “battle police” shooting deserters on sight, but no-one has managed to prove it. I’m sceptical because during a battle there would have been lots of soldiers going backwards and forwards for officially sanctioned reasons (going to aid posts, taking messages to and from HQs, bringing up supplies or going back for more supplies, relieved units pulling out of the line) that it would be impossible to tell by sight who was and wasn’t a deserter. Traffic jams were a much bigger problem than desertion, so the Military Police spent a lot of time directing traffic.

    “Boys of eighteen and nineteen for the most part”

    During WW1 the British Army’s official minimum age for overseas service was 19. Younger boys lied about their age to join up: some were found out and sent home but others weren’t. From the service records I’ve seen (only a very small sample) lots of soldiers were in their 20s or even 30s, and it wasn’t that unusual to be married with children. The balance probably shifted in the later years of the war when boys who had just reached the minimum age were a major source of new conscripts, but overall I’d be very surprised if teenagers were a majority. Maybe the idea of 18 and 19 year olds fighting comes more from the Americans in Vietnam, which would make it more topical. Paul Hardcastle was careful to point out that 19 was specific to Vietnam and that the average age in WW2 was higher, although that’s the boring bit that n-n-n-nobody remembers.

    “but all dead soldiers look the same” might also reference the standard headstones provided by the War Graves Commission for all British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies were recovered.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, I suspected the current consensus was rather more nuanced than what I learned at school (which was that someone shot Archie Duke so the evil aristocrats on both sides decided to kill tens of millions of people for no reason, then one lot wrote the Treaty Of Versailles, which said “You must have a Hitler within fifteen years”, the end.), though you didn’t mention that earlier.

      I’ll correct the eighteen and nineteen year-old thing in the revised draft, and might ask you to read the revised version of this essay (and the one on The War Games) before I publish them as books, if you don’t mind…

      • Outside academia it isn’t necessarily more nuanced, just more polarized between opposite extremes, whereas there was almost consensus in the 80s (apart from a few academics). Sadly I suspect that the revisionist view has got some acceptance in the mainstream not because it’s more nuanced or factually correct or because Gary Sheffield is a good writer (although I think all of these things are true) but because the right needs to believe in it. Given the bloody messes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the learning curve model has an obvious attraction for warmongers because it says that something that looks like interminable futile slaughter for no good reason might get better or might not be as bad as it looks or might be worthwhile anyway (see also Daily Mail readers getting aggressively sentimental about “our boys”, especially in November). This is just as bad an analogy as saying that Saddam Hussein was the same as Hitler. In the 80s, Thatcherites, liberals and socialists all needed to believe in the donkeys for different reasons. The left being opposed to war and generals is business as usual, so I think the crucial change was when the right started buying into it, which is one of the reasons why Alan Clarke is so significant.

        Dan Todman said somewhere that when he started teaching his students a more nuanced revisionist view they thought he was feeding them right-wing propaganda, but now he has a hard time getting them to believe that anyone was ever opposed to the war!

        (btw the Mindless Ones link is broken)

  4. Hal says:

    Ah, Andrew I think you’ll find I’m more Boring than you ;).
    Arthur(or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) sees, as you say, the unwelcome intrusion of a little flab and sloppiness into the Kinks’ sound, some perhaps extemporisational elements that don’t generally gel with their record style. Drivin’ and a couple of other pieces are rather ill-fitting but point the way to the increasingly fragmentary nature of the Kinks’ and Ray Davie’s work.
    Interestingly, Arthur was very well-received critically in the U.S. and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was because of a more American, looser and harder-rocking feel to parts of the album. In fact the some of the album’s better moments embody a fusion of the 1966-68 English Art Pop and a sort of punchy, harder-edged Rock sound (which sounds like quite a good description of the following year’s hit single, Lola, as well). Certainly one of the triumphal aspects of Arthur is the fuller, richer sound with Shangri-La being a good example – the use of horns really lends a different, *powerful*, quality to that song among others enhancing the melancholy exuberance. “Melancholy Exuberance” seems a distinctive Kinksian quality but the arrangement of Shangri-La and its particular *sound* seems to owe something to the Beatles even if it’s not imitative of any specific Beatles song (and Ray Davies attitude is idiosyncratically *his own*, it’s certainly not Lennon *or* McCartney tho’ it’s like a combination of disparate elements of Lennon and McCartney with some Harrison bunged in and much anomalous material).
    On the First World War references, I always thought that the “Great” in Great War wasn’t a synonym for “Brilliant” but for er “Very Big”. Obviously, the likes of Oh, What a Lovely War and, later, Blackadder Goes Forth helped to solidify a certain image of the High Command in place and of course it lacked nuance but it isn’t completely without foundation. That said too often there’s a modern misunderstanding of the attitudes of the “common man” of the time which can Cont’d

  5. Hal says:

    Cont’d lead to sentimentality. What isn’t debateable is that the things working-class and middle-class men and women encountered in that war and around it did serve to radicalize some of them and change the thinking of others to the extent that the dissatisfaction with the way things were would only increase. The effect of World War I was such that the idea of going to war again a mere two decades later was so horrific that the threat of Nazi Germany was down-played because who in their right mind would want that Hell repeated? Unfortunately the idea that war was unavoidable was a fantasy, and with Hitler and the Nazis Hell had already come again for many people.
    One of the most interesting things about the best of the Kinks is that there is a multifariousness of aspect. There’s the story that the lyrics are telling, the story that the music is telling, the story of the performance and there’s the story that the listener tells him- or her- self through the way that he or she hears or feels the song. It’s a fantastic achievement in that, say, Shangri-La (yes, that song again, it’s magnificent) manages to be heartbreakingly sad, exciting, down-to-earth, soaringly emotional, visceral, epic, and intimate. Few bands and writers can do that.

    • Not wanting another war like that was at least half of the reason for appeasing Hitler, but there was also a fear that new technology (especially bombers) would make the next war much worse than the last one. Brett Holman has done some good work on this. His day by day blogging of what the papers said about the Sudeten crisis and Munich agreement is especially worth reading, and available as a free e-book.

      The war did radicalize men, but at the same time it arguably undermined feminism. The suffragette movement was split between pro- and anti-war factions, civil disobedience was less viable, and patriarchy was able to spin giving (some) women the vote in 1918 as a reward for war work instead of a right which they should have had long before.

      The “Great” in Great War has lots of possible meanings. One of them is that it was the biggest war that had happened (and for a while it was expected to be the biggest that ever would happen). But it also implies that there was something important or admirable about fighting it. The allied Victory Medal described the war as “THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILISATION”, which is overstating it a bit!

  6. Tilt Araiza says:

    According to Wikipedia, Granada’s Arthur was cast and was at the stage of location scouting when it got canned. Do any Kinks books reveal who was cast or is there a breakdown of the script somewhere?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      There might be something about the cast in All Day And All Of The Night, but I don’t think so (can’t find my copy right now). There’s certainly nothing in any of the other Kinks books (there are only about five of them in total) unless I’m forgetting something. As for the script, Granada destroyed their copies, though apparently Davies and Mitchell have copies, and all that appears to be known is the synopsis Mitchell wrote for the album cover.

  7. Lynn White says:

    re Brainwashed.

    I find it strange to hear Ray Davies described as a right wing libertarian (though it’s not the first time I’ve heard him described in this way). Libertarian certainly but right wing – the writer of Dead End St, Slum Kids, Father Christmas etc, up to the present day. He realises that the Welfare State has it’s downsides as his own experiences in childhood re education NHS would suggest. I am most definitely of the Left but would agree with him. Most people are rather less critical unfortunately. I might qualify the negative by pointing up some of the positives but that’s down largely again to my experiences and may not make a good song! He writes from his experiences and observations and perhaps saw less pluses – though he levels similar criticisms at US society. Similarly his view of Trade Unions is biased again you can see his own experiences here. But right wing? Can’t buy that.

  8. Hal says:

    @Gavin, agreed about the Victory Medal though I’d argue that once again it’s about magnitude and also another example of “spin” – “Look *here’s* what the Great War was all about, all of those deaths were *necessary*, and even if it was terrible well you are *heroes*”.
    I didn’t make a good job of explaining myself above, I am aware that certain attitudes still prevailed and would for decades (as we know, some of them linger today, depressingly), obviously belief in suffrage wasn’t necessarily a bar to supporting the war after all one can be extremely vociferous in one’s support of specific positive social changes while being just as extremely conservative or worse in regards to other matters. Ack, my grasp of grammar and the english language is not strong tonight. I apologize if that made little to no sense, I’m *tired*!

  9. plok says:

    This is the one I was waiting for — not my favourite Kinks album, but the one I find the most interesting by far, perhaps for the excellent point Hal brings up: the music tells a certain kind of story/has a certain kind of approach, and the vocals have their own which is consonant but not quite identical, and the two tracks swerve together and swerve apart at different times, and it’s DAMN INTERESTING. And maybe also, just a bit to do with the idea (Hal, it’s you again, isn’t it!) of the still-emerging thing known as “rock”, and its antecedents, and the band’s own propensity to innovate based on an acquisition of both kinds of influence. “Rock” being a thing which, in the hands of groups like the Kinks, isn’t merely a received influence but an intensively-feedbacked one? I dunno, that’s a bit more than just “speculation” I guess, but the swerving closer-and-farther is something I feel strongly in this one. “Victoria” and “Young And Innocent Days” you could hold up as two songs where singing and playing fold perfectly together in intent — two songs I can listen to (and have listened to) over and over a million times in a row without ever getting tired of them — while I’ll nominate “Shangri-La” and “Mr. Churchill Says” as songs where intentions and effects are more variable. Such a schizoid couple of songs! Each seems like at least two songs welded to one another along a common edge…actually “Shangri-La” sounds like three songs to these ears, if not four. Such a distinction from Village Green, which sounds (again, to my ears) like songs of just the same calibre, just the same confluence of personality, subject, and virtuosity…yet on Village Green every song is just one thing, and in “Mr. Churchill Says”, e.g., you have bits like the whatever-the-musical-name-for-it-is hanging notes of “gonna make us wi-i-i-i-in” coming out of this really eloquent, ironic nostalgic thing…and I’d hang a whole song on that myself, I’d say “oh yeah, THAT’S the hook guys!”, and I’d return to it over and over in “Please Please Me” style, but MCS doesn’t even leave you wanting more before it veers off into some RAP, for heaven’s sake. It’s a sort of nothing song I guess, maybe something Ray Davies could write in his sleep, but…”Shangri-La”, which I can’t imagine anybody writing in their sleep, jumps gears in the same way…I think.

    I shouldn’t say it, because so many people have been so annoyed by having their work screwed with, but I really love these frustrated, incomplete, never-wholly-seen works. Who knows what epiphenomenal unity might’ve been produced if the thing had ever come to completion? But it’s almost better just to imagine it.

    I could stand at least two pages on every song, Andrew! But then I always say that, don’t I.

    Nice to be talking about Arthur!

  10. Hal says:

    Thanks for the kind acknowledgment Mr Plok, I thought I recognized your nom de plume but couldn’t remember from where – of course it’s A Trout in the Milk! I found that again and ended up reading a couple of the posts on Canada, interesting and amusing stuff – I especially liked the reference to a politico’s “Muppetty Head” – I like Canada despite my references tending to be actors/comedians, SCTV, X-Files Seasons 1-5, and er Alpha Flight not to mention the more beautiful scenery, yes I *am* weird ;). Kudos on your site, I have bookmarked it, I’m expanding my consciousness…
    I think the time away from the USA helped the Kinks become what they might otherwise not have been, with Arthur they recorded an album that I *think* leans closer to an american sound in places than for some time – perhaps a reaction to the music of the time from the Stones’ revival to Creedence – but that’s offset by the *incredibly* specific Englishness of the concept, the story of what Ray Davies sees as the betrayal of the working man and the decline of Britain. Victoria leads the album into battle with a euphoria that is almost painful, a vision of apparently uncomplicated nostalgia for an imperial past but then…but then… Yes Sir, No Sir and Some Mother’s Son kick the concept of glory to death yet later in the album we get Shangri-La and Arthur that seem to embody different things depending on the angle from which you look at them. You are right, it’s a very interesting album.
    I suppose you could compare Shangri-La to Happiness is a Warm Gun in structural terms but the Kinks’ song isn’t fragmentary, it’s somehow unified in its variousness and the aching contrast between the shifting lyric and music gives it real emotional punch. Erm, in my opinion.

  11. cruth01 says:

    I’m not sure how you could think Victoria is “a fairly straightforward paen to the glories of Empire and to Queen Victoria” with lyrics like “Sex was bad, thought obscene/and the rich were so mean”. I think you have a tendency to take Ray Davies too literally as far as his purported political views go, considering there is always a twist to it (so that even if he is the libertarian conservative you say he is his lyrics are rarely reducible to advocacy) or a reason to think he’s playing a role–especially in the context of an album that seems to lampooning staid British virtues and middle class complacency.

    I’m not knocking you, by the way, I enjoy your writing, sorry to chime in with a negative comment about it but this seems like a gross misreading of the song.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I did say it ‘seems’ that way rather than actually being that way — I was trying to build a picture of the album as it would sound on first listen. But you’re right, that ambiguity in my writing doesn’t really work, and it ends up looking like I do misread the song. I’ll rewrite that bit when I publish these as a book in a few weeks.

  12. cruth01 says:

    Oh, I see. I guess my comment was hasty. Although I think even out of context “Victoria” comes off as sarcastic (except musically, it’s really celebratory on a strictly musical level).

    I read “Mr. Churchill Says” as, in part, contrasting the heroic rhetoric and dire tasks of war with the banality of the style of life that is being fought for (the two meet in a kind of drab resolve) and the undifferentiated lack of heroism or sacrifice in everyday English life for Arthur. I’m not sure if the story would have Arthur actually fighting in WWII or just collecting tin (Does anybody know the answer to this? My only source for the story is Wikipedia and the bits and pieces I’ve read on the internet).

    By the way, I agree that “Brainwashed” is a little sub-par, mostly because of the phoned-in lyrics, but I rate “Drivin'” more highly than you, and it’s the only thing that could almost be on the previous album–it reminds me a little of “Picture Book” or something.

    “Some Mother’s Son” is kind of weird, it’s universally lauded and I agree it’s affecting, but the sweeping ascending melody is kind of counter-intuitive. It almost reminds me of something from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” in the way that it is sort of a musically bombastic embodiment of an idea more than it is the kind of thing one goes around humming.

    • No, your comment wasn’t hasty at all — that paragraph doesn’t work, and doesn’t say what I wanted it to say.

      I see what you mean about Some Mother’s Son — for me, the ascending melody is more like something like You Still Believe In Me by The Beach Boys, but I can definitely see The Wall in there.

  13. cruth01 says:

    I disagree that the best songs here are considerably better than the best on VGPS, especially the “considerably” part but probably not at all. But it is a great album, agreed.

    I also had a hard time swallowing Brainwashed, not because it’s disagreeable but because it’s too one-dimensional and obvious, and at the same time vague because, as you say, it is focused more on the character of the “victim” than on any specific motives for brainwashing on the part of the system or whatever.

    However I think the context may redeem the song a bit–in the liner notes, Julian Mitchell says “The Grenada TV story in which [the songs] are set all takes place on Derek and Liz’s last day in England. Nothing happens very much–everyone has Sunday dinner together, then Ronnie turns up and the men go to the pub where Ronnie gets all worked up about the System…”

    It seems clear, then, that the voice in the song is Ronnie’s, at the pub getting worked up, as Mitchell sort of condescendingly puts it. In other words, the song is conveying a character as much as it’s reporting the views of the character. Even if these views are reflective of Davies’ own in his less nuanced moments, setting the song in this way, I think, does redeem it from its own cartoonishness.

    Admittedly this is a bit of a conjecture, but I think it’s a pretty likely conjecture, given that the trip to the pub seems the most likely context for the song. If I am right, the song isn’t sung by a kind of Greek chorus commenting on the tragedy of Arthur’s existence, but by one of the characters in the show, and that puts a whole different spin on it, as they say.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It does… except I strongly suspect that Ronnie was meant to be the mouthpiece for Davies’ own views here. It’s not lyrically that different from much of the material on Muswell Hillbillies or Preservation.

  14. cruth01 says:

    Andrew, I think even if your suspicion is correct it is more nuanced for Davies to put his views in the mouth of a character, thus putting a certain distance between Ray Davies the opinionated blowhard and Ray Davies the observational songwriter. The two works you name also put songs in the mouths of characters (especially Preservation). I think that even if Davies approves of these views, he has the sense to contextualize them a bit.

    Also, I know it is a bit thin to base this on one phrase, but the way Mitchell puts it (“getting worked up about the System”) sounds a bit ironic or condescending–he doesn’t say “Ronnie goes to the bar and, his tongue loosened by alcohol, starts telling some hard truths about the way the middle class lives” or something like that, but the image is of a young, impetuous man spouting off. It’s hard to believe that Davies wasn’t aware of the way this would come off in context, and it’s hard to imagine that it would come off as expressing the perspective of the show as a whole rather than one of the characters in it. I don’t think Ray Davies’ personal opinions are the most relevant factor in that context, nor do I think Davies is too opinionated to recognize how some of his opinions sound; even if they are his, the fact that he would give them to a character in a situation where they are liable to be exposed to a certain amount of ridicule (maybe too strong a word) is to me more telling than whether he actually believes them or not.

    Also, it is instructive to think about what the problem or problems with the lyrics is. You have said the problem is that they blame the victim, and I have added that they are a bit cliched and lack nuance. In other words, the tone, context, intent, and perspective are what we are problematizing; neither of us is claiming that they are simply false. But it is precisely tone, context, perspective and intent that the setting of the number bears on, rather than the truth or falsity of its claims. So even if they are Ray Davies’ opinions, the manner in which they are expressed is crucial, and that is what my conjecture about the setting of the song addresses.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      True enough. Of course, much like with Percy we don’t have the context in which these songs were originally intended to be heard available to us, and so we only have the songs as presented to us out of that context. I think one of the great tragedies of the Kinks’ career is that Arthur was never filmed, as it would possibly have added another layer to one of their best albums (although conversely it might have removed all the ambiguity).

  15. cruth01 says:

    Also, I think you and I have a bit of a difference in our view of the proper hermeneutical approach to the lyrics. At times you seem to be saying, “Based on everything I/we know, I think we can take song X as a more or less straightforward expression of the views of Ray Davies.” I think this approach is problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, it is partially circular–the lyrics are a major (although not the only) source for figuring out what Ray Davies’ views are to begin with. Second of all, to the extent it is based on other sources than the lyrics, it assumes that the Davies that allows himself to spout off in an interview or book is identical with the songwriter, whereas it seems clear to me that as a songwriter Ray Davies has a much more expansive perspective than he does as a human being. I don’t think these two points refute your approach, or are entirely fair to it, I’d rather you read them as concerns than as knock-down arguments.

    But finally, I think that what a song is doing in its immediate context is much more relevant than what we can piece together about it based on everything we know about Ray Davies. If a song comes off as an ignorant screed, that is not going to be mitigated by Davies saying in an interview that he was being ironic or joking or singing in character. And if a song comes off as nuanced and ironic, that is more important than whether Davies endorses it fully in the liner notes or his book or somewhere.

    This argument cuts against me too, which is why I think the information Mitchell gives doesn’t quite save the song from its own perspectival flatness. At the same time, it does, I think, provide some relevant context that affects the way I hear the song, and makes me more kindly disposed toward it. Again, I’m not trying to lay out some rules that are uncircumventable or applicable in all situations, and I’m not sure if I’m voicing my objections as clearly and effectively as I could; I probably don’t know my own mind well enough yet on this matter to do so. So take what I say as trying to contribute to a conversation about the lyrics, and about the interpretation of lyrics in general, rather than as a polemic against the way you interpret some of them.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, I agree with most of this. I think authorial intention is *a* factor, but not *the* sole factor, in interpreting a lyric.

      I actually refer more heavily to authorial intent in the Kinks essays than I otherwise would, because of the reactions I got from some Kinks fans to an offhand comment I made earlier this year, calling the song Black Messiah racist. One of the biggest flamewars I’ve ever been in resulted from this, and most of the people who were attacking me, often quite personally, were doing so because they interpreted the song as being ironic. Quite where the irony is in that song escapes me, though.

      Those people also thought I was conflating the author and the song — that by saying Black Messiah is a racist song, I was saying Ray Davies is a racist person, which is very far from the case. It may well be that he intended the song to be interpreted in a way I’m missing (and even if he didn’t, I’m not going to hold anyone to stupid views they expressed thirty-three years ago), but the song itself still reads as racist.

      So whenever I’ve made a statement that I think might be controversial about a song’s interpretation, given that a number of people made extremely nasty personal attacks on me as a result of that interpretation, I’ve tried to back it up with reference to a pattern in Davies’ works and interviews.

      Normally I’m fairly unconcerned with authorial intention, but there is a faction of Kinks fandom that *will* attack people for negative readings of songs, and so I’ve ended up being far more defensive with my readings here than in my other essays.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Incidentally, I just want to say how glad I am to be getting such intelligent feedback on these essays. It’s just a shame that you only happened along here *after* I’d put them into book form.

  16. cruth01 says:

    It’s amazing to me that Ray Davies seemingly was never [i]asked[/i] about “Black Messiah.” I don’t think the song comes off as straightforwardly ironic or unironic, or if it’s ironic then the [i]whole thing[/i] is meant ironically, there are no tip-offs in the lyrics. The only reason to think it is ironic is because the lyrics are kind of unacceptable, so one wants to think it’s irony.

    I think it’s entirely possible that it was intended ironically, and even if Davies was expressing feelings he indeed has he may be sending himself up. But there’s no real evidence either way, and what is astounding is that, as far as I can tell based on Google searches, nobody ever simply asked him, “What did you think you were doing in that song?” It was even a single, after all! What was he thinking? Why doesn’t somebody just ask him?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Quite.

      Personally, I think the “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” stuff in the song sounds *so* close to the kind of thing people say when they know they’re going to say something horribly unacceptable, that the song probably was just a genuine bit of appaling racism from someone who was usually better than that, in the same way that Prince Of the Punks has a nastily homophobic edge to it. Davies seemed to be in a pretty bad mental state around that time.

      That said, I have no problem at all with a reading that says it isn’t racist — in fact, I would like to be able to read it as not racist, because then I’d be able to enjoy the song. What I had a problem with was people telling me that the song wasn’t racist, not justifying the opinion in any way, and then saying all sorts of abusive and threatening things about me for suggesting it was.

      I very nearly gave up on writing these essays after that — in fact I very nearly gave up on writing *at all* around then — because it was clear that a substantial proportion of the readership of these pieces were actively hostile to any reading of the lyrics that suggested that there was anything problematic in any of them. And when you consider some of the politically charged material in the early 70s work, it’s almost impossible to look at that stuff without engaging with the political arguments being made, both explicitly and implicitly.

  17. cruth01 says:

    Of course, now I’m going against all my “death of the author” statements in my previous post! Crap. But it seems to me that “Black Messiah” is mysterious enough that a little statement of authorial intention would be helpful…

    …or maybe it’s not mysterious, maybe it’s just racist…

  18. cruth01 says:

    “Personally, I think the “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” stuff in the song sounds *so* close to the kind of thing people say when they know they’re going to say something horribly unacceptable, that the song probably was just a genuine bit of appaling racism…”

    Yeah, but that would be consistent with a send-up too, although I agree that it does seem like an attempt to head off being “shot” for saying something lame.

    One possible interpretation is that the only part of the song in Davies’ own voice is the stuff at the end about more love and understanding and all that, which is otherwise hard to reconcile with the “white’s white, and black’s black” stuff. That latter sentiment is also particularly difficult to attribute to Davies, since that is exactly what he heard about his niece Jackie and her mother when he was growing up, so he would have been sensitive to the effects words like those have on people and unlikely to just unthinkingly mouth them at any point.

    The song could conceivably move through three different perspectives: the first, claiming that God is black (“and he’s no liar”), the second beginning with the line “everybody talk about racial equality” being from the perspective of a “honky living on an all black street” who “don’t want no black messiah,” and then the third being the sort of “moral” of the story, coming in with “everybody’s got to show a little give and take.”

    I’m actually convinced this interpretation is slightly more likely than that it is just a racist song, but I am nowhere close to certain about it…

Comments are closed.