The Kinks - Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

The Kinks: Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)

Album #71 - October 1969

Episode date - June 13, 2018

The Alternative Top 40
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    The Kinks’ very existence is enough to justify the purpose of my new book book.

    Here is a band that continually released absolutely ingenious music that also happened to be incredibly catchy, but their records sold incredibly poorly here in the States. This was partially due to their lack of a presence here, as the AFM banned them from playing from 1965-69, without ever stating an explicit reason for the ban. It didn’t help matters that Ray Davies subject matter usually conveyed a profoundly British perspective in their storyline, but then again, the band’s records weren’t selling in England either. It wouldn’t be until the 1980’s that the band would experience a period of rediscovery that would lead to total sales of over 50 million albums from their catalog, but in the sixties and early seventies, the band was viewed as a commercial flop.  

    At live shows, they were relegated to opening for little known acts (The Herd, for instance) where the audience would treat them like has-beens. The absolute commercial failure of “Village Green Preservation Society” may have been the last straw for the band, because in 1969, Ray Davies flew to Los Angeles to negotiate a deal with the AFM, and the ban was lifted. By then, though, bassist Pete Quaife had enough and anticipating a humiliating tour of America, announced he was leaving the band. John Dalton, a player who helped the band on previous occasions, was brought in as a replacement.

    Around this same time, Davies was asked to write music for a British television project based on a quintessentially English character named Arthur. The band set to work on writing and recording material, while Davies contributed to the script, but a series of setbacks caused the project to be delayed repeatedly. As luck would have it, the project eventually collapsed completely, leaving the Kinks with a theme album for a project that never came to pass.

    The Kinks were ‘stuck’ with an album so British in its subject matter that it seemed unlikely to translate outside the UK. With no backup plan, the band simply delivered the tapes to their American record label. “Arthur” initially sold a paltry 25,000 copies and peaked at #105, which represented theirbest chart position since 1965! In England, the record might as well have not even existed.  The album’s name never appeared on British charts, and every single failed unequivocally as well. The American single, “Victoria,” peaked out at #62, which also represented their most successful 45 RPM chart appearance since “Sunny Afternoon” hit the top 20 in 1966.

    At the time, it must have seemed that music critics were the only ones who heard the record. Praise was nearly universal, with many comparing it positively to the Who’s “Tommy,” which had preceded “Arthur” by a few months. Like the rest of their catalog, the album would remain a slow but steady seller and is now revered by Kinks fans for its detailed depiction of the austerity that defined post-war England, and which led many families to emigrate to Australia. As a set piece, “Arthur” is the most cohesive collection of songs ever assembled by the band, and also one of  their best.

    October 1969 - Billboard Charted #105

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