After all, the group’s 50-year-old masterwork, “Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire),” released this week as a deluxe box set, is a surprisingly easy time-travel from Queen Victoria to the parliamentary punditry on the BBC World Service.
“When [the record company] told me they would do a box, I got the tapes out and listened to them,” says Davies. “And ‘Arthur’ is not a concept album. It’s more like a documentary album. And it’s based on a real character called Arthur, who was my brother-in-law [Arthur Anning], who came out of the war disillusioned — voted Churchill out. There are lots of parallels in ‘Arthur’ to what’s happening in the world.”
The expanded and remastered “Arthur” includes alternative mixes, unreleased songs and an abandoned solo album from younger brother and perpetually underappreciated guitarist Dave Davies. The record captured the Kinks at their artistic peak but also an odd time for a band that emerged with the Who and the Rolling Stones. In the late ’60s, if you lived in the United States and wanted to see the Davies brothers play a gig, your chances were better in Beirut than Boston. The group was banned from touring the States from 1965 to 1969 for reported bad behavior on a previous tour.
Ray Davies today says that ban contributed to the creative surge that started with 1966’s “Face to Face.”
“I buried myself in English culture,” says Davies, 75. “And I wrote songs like ‘Waterloo Sunset,’ ‘Sunny Afternoon,’ ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ rather than trying to write ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ I think the band suffered because we couldn’t tour America at that time. We would have toured with Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, the peak of the great second invasion. We missed that. But I immersed myself in writing English folkish material.”
You practically had to wipe the clotted cream off your needle during the four-album run that concluded with 1969’s “Arthur.” Other groups wrote about girl problems or which pill made you larger. Davies wrote about social class and social climbing, crumbling ceilings and teen envy. All of it was delivered with a punkish wink by musicians who sounded as if they had one foot in the studio, the other in the pub.
“Arthur” would seem the unlikeliest theme for compelling rock-and-roll. Yet it works. It’s a record that features a snaky blues with quotes from Winston Churchill. It also finds Davies, seemingly lost in his characters, slipping into different voices and deliveries.
“I think Ray always wanted to be an actor,” says bassist John Dalton. “In his songs, he’s playing a part.”
“Well, I sing in character a lot,” says Davies. “ ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ I’m trying to sound like a subservient soldier talking to an officer. It must be confusing for people, but it’s the way I get through.”
“Arthur” was originally meant for actors; Davies planned it as a television program. It became a record when the project fell through.
Anning’s decision to emigrate to Australia with his wife, Rosie, the oldest of eight Davies siblings, “was a big wrench,” says Dave Davies, 72.
Through Anning, Ray Davies darts through the first half of Britain’s 20th century. The reign of Victoria and the social classes, the horrific losses of World War I, the Churchillian comeback and the frustrating postwar struggles for a generation that had sacrificed everything yet often seemed to be running in place. Seen through the eyes of a cagey, sarcastic, 24-year-old art school kid turned reluctant rock star, it could be hard to tell whether Davies was attacking the man sitting by the fire in his “Shangri-La” or admiring the satisfaction he took from the simplest, middle-class pleasures.
“Arthur was a soulful guy,” says Davies. “Obviously another generation. But the album in some ways is critical of his generation but also supportive and understanding. At the end of ‘Arthur,’ the song, I sing, ‘We’d like to help you and understand you’ and ‘Somebody loves you, don’t you know it.’ ”
By 1969, the Kinks seemed to be operating in an alternative rock universe. They missed out on the Age of Aquarius, though without regret, Dave Davies says.
“We weren’t there. We were banned,” he says. “We missed out on Woodstock, but we moved merrily along on our own.”
In typical Kinksian fashion, the original “Arthur” was hailed by critics but didn’t even crack Billboard’s Top 100. The record company’s publicity team did, however, deliver the “God Save the Kinks” slogan. And after Ray Davies reportedly apologized to the musicians union for the band’s behavior during its 1965 U.S. tour, the Kinks were able to play the States. In 1970, a new song, “Lola,” would even return them to the Top 10.
But the Kinks who arrived at New York’s Fillmore East in the fall of 1969 were far from the arena stars they would become in the late 1970s. They had lost bassist Pete Quaife, who had quit to form his own band, Mapleoak, and added Dalton, who had spent a chunk of the ’60s at his day job delivering coal. Dalton’s driving style gave a boost to the band’s sound, particularly on songs like album opener “Victoria.”
“Pete played fancier than me,” says Dalton. “I was more basic. I was brought up with Elvis, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry.”
Dalton seemed unfazed by the warring within the band. The famously dysfunctional Davies brothers were just one issue. Drummer Mick Avory and Dave Davies were known to fight onstage and at some point in 1969, Avory now says he actually tried to quit. The brothers, he says, didn’t seem to acknowledge his written resignation. And he forgot about the notion when they began touring the States again.
“It was volatile in those days, and you couldn’t help but get involved with it all,” says Avory. “There were times when I felt I just wanted to get out of it. If you haven’t got anywhere to go, you stay where you are, I suppose.”
Which brings us to the never-ending question of a reunion. The Kinks haven’t played live since 1996 or released a studio album since 1993’s “Phobia.” Ray Davies remains cagey about the prospects of getting the band back together. He seems to float the idea regularly, sparking yet another round of reunion headlines.
What’s clear, from interviews with Dave Davies and Avory earlier this month, is that there has been no in-studio reunion of the three remaining original Kinks — Quaife died in 2010. Avory says that Ray Davies occasionally calls him in to play alongside an already recorded backing track. Dave Davies talks of unfinished tracks in the Kinks archives that he and his brother want to finish. There is some new material they’ve been batting around. Nothing is defined.
“It’s been all talking almost since they packed it in 23 years ago,” says Avory, with a laugh. “If it carries on any longer, we’ll have to have a resurrection rather than a reunion.”