For the last week, I’ve been listening to Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1970) by The Kinks. Listening over and over again because it’s such a good rock album, and I have always been fascinated by pop music that takes a look at history and society, although I don’t mind songs about wanting to hold hands either.
I was only 13 when this album came out – I didn’t get to know The Kinks’ music until the last two years, spurred on partly the interest of my young daughter in 60s music. I wasn’t a close follower of rock ‘n’ roll as a teen, but I knew the big hits by The Kinks – “Lola”, “You Got Me”, etc. “Mr. Churchill Says,” a song on Arthur, is now firmly lodged in my head and I can’t get enough of it. It begins with a slow, bluesey cadence:
Well Mr. Churchill says, Mr. Churchill says
We gotta fight the bloody battle to the very end
Mr. Beaverbrook says we gotta save our tin
And all the garden gates
And empty cans are gonna make us win
and goes on to quote Churchill himself, with a little additional text by Davies:
We shall defend our island
On the land and on the sea
We shall fight them on the beaches
On the hills and in the fields
We shall fight them in the streets
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed to so few
‘Cos they have made our British Empire
A better place for me and you
And this was their finest hour
An air raid siren goes off, and the song changes into a fast-paced rock number. After a long instrumental passage, they sing:
Did you hear that plane flying overhead
There’s a house an fire and there’s someone lying dead
We gotta clean up the streets
And get me back on my feet
Because we wanna be free!
Do your worst and we’ll do our best
We’re gonna win the way that Mr. Churchill says
Is he mocking Churchill? Yes. Is he celebrating him? Yes. Is it gentle mockery or admiration he’s expressing about the slogans, the legendary ‘British pluck’ that got them through the blitz? Both, I think. The last song, “Arthur”, after making a little fun of him, concludes with the rollicking chorus
Arthur we read you and understand you
Arthur we like you and want to help you
Oh! we love you and want to help you…
Several of the songs evoke the horror and dehumanization of war – are they “anti-war” songs? They are intensely personal. Is “Get Back in Line” (on a different album) an anti-Union song because of the lines,
‘Cause that union man’s got such a hold over me
He’s the man who decides if I live or I die, if I starve, or I eat…?
It’s intensely personal, but doesn’t make an explicit political points. Davies is not a politico. His song “Some Mother’s Son” is about death in war, good war, bad war, indifferent war, period.
Davies was born in ’44 in working class London, too young for memories of the war, but no doubt surrounded by folks for whom the experience was as vivid as it could be. So British, so 60s in a way, breaking away from the past, welcoming the swinging present, but looking with a bit of (sceptical) nostalgia at the past. I don’t know of a comparable strain in American rock/pop music, but Ray Davies may just be extraordinary. Certainly, his muscial roots in British music hall culture (someday I’ll find out just what that was) are part of it, and he shares that with the Beatles.
The Blitz? Gravity’s Rainbow does a nice job of evoking the terror of life lived under the rain of the first rockets. Orwell, in 1984, draws on his experiences with the random destruction of streets, houses, and lives in that time. (I wonder if Orwell would have liked the song – he could be a real stick in the mud when he wasn’t being brilliant.) I’m not sure why it fascinates me so – I’ve always had a thing for the Spitfire airplanes. The fact that the Brits had radar, and nobody else did, so that they had advance warning of the Luftwaffe raids, which, together with the skill of the RAF and the prowess of the Spitfires, wrought terrible losses on Hitler’s planes. Of course, it was nothing compared to the siege of Lenningrad…which makes me think about September 11th …
Some people say 9/11 changed everything – I just don’t get it. It was a terrorist attack…but maybe I’ll post more on that later.