Kinks 1969 epic chimes with Britain’s mood today, says singer Ray Davies

As ‘pop documentary’ Arthur is reissued and turned into a radio drama, the singer explains why it is more relevant than ever

Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) is a courageous concept album, about both personal loss and the loss of imperial identity after the second world war. But when it came out in 1969 the record industry did not know what to do with it, despite reviews in the music press saluting a creative masterpiece.

This autumn the Kinks’ lyrical story of an ordinary man caught up in a time of great national change has been turned into a BBC Radio 4 show, broadcast next month. For Sir Ray Davies, the band’s revered frontman, the radio revival and a 50-year anniversary re-release of the album this week could not have come at a more fitting moment.

“It has found its voice. By sheer coincidence, it resonates more now that it did then,” he told the Observer. The struggles and uncertainty of the postwar era are matched, he believes, by the current search for what it means to be English or British.

“Today, I feel we have got a similar atmosphere. To be fairly critical, looking back at the 60s, I think we blew it,” he said.

“It was a generation that made great art, but the politics and the country was falling apart.”

Davies, 75, describes the album as a “pop documentary” rather than a “pop opera”. Featuring his well-known songs Shangri-la and Victoria, it tells of a working-class family split in two when the father figure, Arthur, decides to move to Australia to make a better life.

“I brought in all these characters I knew and used the break-up of family as a metaphor for the break-up of empire,” Davies explained.

Ray Davies in 2016.
Ray Davies in 2016. Photograph: Alex Lake

Back in the 1960s a television version of the musical story got as far as being cast by Granada, with actor Frank Finlay as the lead. “He was a bit older than we’d imagined. Another generation up,” said Davies. “But anyway there was a falling out between the producer and the director and Granada TV. Words were said to the effect of ‘If I don’t get what I want I’m walking.’ And they said, ‘Go ahead.’ ”

The playwright Julian Mitchell had written a script, inspired by the life of Davies’s brother-in-law, and Davies wrote 12 accompanying songs.

“As an album it is a signpost of where the Kinks were going,” said Davies. “We stopped being a pop band with the album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society the year before, which was a homage to my spiritual or fantasy world. Then, with Arthur, I turned back to reality. I wanted to write about England, damn it. And so I stood my ground after Village Green failed commercially, if not artistically. I was quite stubborn and I’m still quite stubborn.”

The tracks were not all designed for release as singles and some space for longer guitar solos was “negotiated”.

“We didn’t really win any battles with the record company. You never do. They say they’ll do something, then they bend your arm and do what they want. So I just thought I would make the record I want to make,” said Davies.

The hour-long radio version, together with a longer stage show, has been adapted in collaboration with the playwright and musician Paul Sirett, with whom Davies wrote the show Come Dancing.

The cast includes Lee Ross as Arthur, Davies’s real-life brother-in-law, and Rosie Cavaliero as his beloved elder sister, Rose, and there are key songs from the original album, along with other Kinks’ hits Waterloo Sunset and You Really Got Me. It is also likely to come to the stage as a musical in the new year.

“It is a play set 50 years ago that is about now,” said Sirett, adding: “Ray is a very important English voice. He can still tell us things we haven’t even spotted about ourselves.”

The Davies brothers were born into a large, close-knit family in north London and suffered poverty and bereavement before they achieved fame. Their eldest sister, Rene, a dance hall star, had died suddenly when Ray was 13.

“It is a more emotional album for me than Village Green, as it is based on my own family,” said Davies. “Arthur and Rose were a surrogate father and mother to me. Arthur didn’t know the word ‘mentor’ and didn’t know that’s what he was. He was disciplined after his time in the army and it was character-building for me. He thought I was an annoying little bastard but we really missed them. Yet if Arthur had not left for Australia, my brother and I might not have formed the band. He wanted me to get a job and I would have stayed at art school for longer.”

The remastered re-release of the original album includes extra tracks that show the genesis of the key musical themes. It also features the solo music that Dave Davies, the band’s lead guitarist, was making at the same time.

“I wanted to put out a balanced overview,” said Ray Davies. The brothers notoriously fought throughout the latter part of their careers, but things are on the mend. The inclusion of his brother’s tracks from a solo album that was never released is a sign they are now, as Davies has admitted, if not exactly back together again, then at least “back to our dysfunction”.

The Kinks’ musical mood has been called nostalgic, but Davies isn’t keen on the word. He prefers “remembrance” or “melancholy” and also points out his hits All Day and All of the Night and You Really Got Me hardly fit this bill. He does concede though that the sadnesses of his youth “may have had an effect”.

“I was traumatised by Rene’s death,” he said. “When I was a kid if you had an issue you kept quiet about it. There was shame. So I didn’t sit down and say I am going to write a melancholy theme. I was sensitive and couldn’t express myself. Then I found music and the outpouring began. I’ll never stop writing because I think of tunes incessantly – it bugs me. They come into my head – literally voices in my head.”

When the Kinks toured Australia in 1971, Davies met up again backstage with his brother-in-law Arthur. “He told me he liked my work and that he knew I had written about him,” said Davies. “The overall impression I got was that the trip out to Australia was a success, although Rose didn’t want to go.”


Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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