the kinks on arthur and finding shangri-la

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by — Posted in The Sixties

AS WE BEGIN OUR STORY some time in late 1970, the Kinks were in a bit of a bad way. Despite being one of the premier groups of the British Invasion of 1964, they had not reached the Top 40 in the US since mid 1966. Even in their homeland—their own Village Green, filled with Arthur and millions like him—it had been more than a year since they’d had a hit!

Not that they were making out as new-fangled “album artists”: their LP sales had plummeted and that they were banned from performing in the US, hence income had become an issue. Something was needed, something like another hit single and a best-selling album . . .

But first, this article was originally published as a two-parter titled “now that you’ve found your shangri-la” in 2013. Here I have revised the text (conservatively) while adding images, something that I did not know how to do two years ago. For record collectors, please refer to a follow-up article, “A Discography And Price Guide to the Kinks’ Arthur Album And Related Singles.”


Arthur: photo of the Kinks 1969.

A village green for the students

My first year of college began in the last quarter of 1969—Nixon and Agnew and Haldeman and Erlichman and G. Gordon und so weiter were just starting their reign of error/terror. I was attending Wilkes College in sunny funny Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to ring up the basic two years worth of credits required for a Bachelor of Arts degree. The plan was to then find an appropriate art school and finish a degree in Fine Arts, although what I would have done with such a degree escapes me today.

Long ago, life was clean—sex was bad and obscene, and the rich were so mean. Though I am poor, I am free. For this land, I shall die.

Step forward a few months, probably June 1970. The location was some room in one of the smaller buildings at Wilkes. The “campus” was a potpourri of modern, mostly unattractive but utilitarian structures interspersed with several lovely old houses/mansions—many built in the 19th century—that had been donated to the pursuit of higher education by local families of wealth back when universal higher education mattered to some American families of wealth.

I went to Wilkes instead of straight to art school—which could be among the biggest of the now countless mistakes I have made in this life-cycle—because my mother was secretary to one of the higher-ups in the college. Hence, my tuition was free.

So, I took English, math, and science along with the other requisite courses. One of my electives was a public speaking course with a teacher who also taught drama. Unfortunately, I don’t recall the name of this delightful teacher, except that she was very cheerful and encouraging to all of her students—regardless of the degree of their abilities to wow an audience.

Wilkes itself was an odd campus: the college grounds were built on several city blocks facing one of the world’s finest dike systems—constructed with great pride by the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1948. These dykes hold back the Susquehanna River (most of the time). It was named by the conquerors—er, the settlers—after the Susquehannocks, a local tribe of the Iroquois people. 1

There was a stretch of grass and trees between River Street—once the place for the elite to build their mansions—and the dike that runs for several blocks. The top of the dikes are more than 40 feet above the river’s bed and wide enough for a large truck to drive along! The grassy area is quite lovely and a popular place for students to sit in the nice weather and study or take a break from studying. In a way, it was our own village green for the students and faculty.


Arthur: photo of Weiss Hall at Wilkes College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

This is Weiss Hall, donated to Wilkes by the Weiss family decades ago, is used by Wilkes College to house female students. It is one of many such structures that make touring Wilkes a pleasant experience, even if you are not a student.

A bummer on the grass

This area holds some interesting memories for me: I had my first bummer (then hip term for a non-groovy acid experience) on the grass while awaiting a concert featuring John Sebastian—riding his wave of popularity due to Woodstock the movie and still wearing that groovy jean vest—and Dave Mason, who was less than a household word in the US.

My roommates Jack and Judy were moving out (and guys, think twice about sharing living quarters with a newly married couple, especially when the young bride is sexually/personally insecure) surrounded by all these bad vibes and Roach was moving in.

He and I split a hit of barrel Orange Sunshine back when the shit on the street was so f*cking potent (400 mics? 800? more? who knew!) that we thought it was cut with speed and some said even strychnine but whatever it was it could be wicked, man.


Reading and supposedly declaiming Hallmark greeting card verse that made Rod McKuen’s poetry seem downright dada-esque!


And we were, like, y’know, swapping bad energy, pulling grass out of the ground for no reason we could explain and when John stopped I started and we were picking up each other’s loose ends conversationally, finishing each other’s sentences and not in non-sequiturs and making Elaine cry—his Elaine, mine was a few years in the future—because she was so scared by the bad vibes that we were putting off but not understanding we were putting off.

She had never seen John like this and we had to split up to douse the negative energy, man, and Roach and Elaine palmed me off on my brother Charles who likes to be called Charlie but he’s always been Charles to me and he took me off their hands and I said to him, “No matter what happens do not let me go home with some hippychick that night of nights no matter how beautiful she might be!” and mein Gott but they were everywhere that night and all so and ready willing able but that’s another story . . .

At the time that the events in this essay took place, I was in a small room in one of the smaller houses—still a mansion by most people’s standards—and I was there for that speech class.


Arthur: photo of a sheet of blotter acid with Rick Griffin art.

While we East Coast heads were stuck with your normal everyday pills or occasionally some ‘barrel’ Orange Sunshine, on the West Coast the Brotherhood of Eternal Love was distributing acid on sheets of paper. Called blotter acid, the illustration above is a more recent example. As much as we would have loved to have had hits of acid with Rick Griffin art, the technology to do so was not affordable at the time. Most blotter acid of the ’60s and ’70s was plain white or gray pieces of paper.

Blasted for final exams

The public speaking class was mostly uneventful, until the final two classes for the semester, which were oral exams (of course). For the penultimate class, we were to select works from a printed source authored by someone other than ourselves and present it to the class dramatically.

It was an evening class and so many of the students were older and had day jobs. These part-time students were more mature and more serious than the full-time co-eds, but they were rather uninspired if not actually lifeless public speakers.

While Berkeley and UCLA and other schools in large urban areas may have been tinder boxes for creativity, at Wilkes many of my fellow public speaking students believed that an earnest reading of the most purple of prose—without inflection, without eye contact, without hand or arm movement—was good public speaking. It was often like watching a robot attempting drama.


An “everyman” occupies the role of protagonist without being a hero and without necessarily being a round or a dynamic character.


(And I do not mean this to sound as harsh s it probably does: standing up in front of an audience and speaking is not easy. That is why most of my fellow students were taking the class. But that doesn’t mean they were not robotic or funny . . .)

And what several students chose for that class was a favorite Hallmark greeting card-like bit of verse. As poetry, this made Rod McKuen seem downright dada-esque! 2

I often felt a sort of empathetic embarrassment for the person in front of the class unwittingly making his or her simple reading a bit of an ordeal—usually for those of us who had to listen and pretend to pay attention. I would sneak a peek at the teacher and would see her maintaining the stiffest of upper lips with an occasional cringe.

Not for me. Nosireebob—not when I took center stage!

By May of ’69, I had turned on (but hadn’t exactly tuned in yet) and found that a couple of hits of good old Mexican weed released the closeted Thespian within. So, for this class, I brought the insert from the recently released Kinks album ARTHUR, which featured the spectacularly witty lyrics of Raymond Douglas Davies. 3


Front cover art for the Kinks ARTHUR album.

This is the front cover of ARTHUR, subtitled “The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire.” The nostalgic artwork is by British artist Bob Lawrie.  The jacket is a gatefold affair that folds open into a 12 x 24 inch format with some rather colorful art on the inner panels (see below).

A decline and a fall

So, while my fellow students were reciting Hallmarkian verse-makers, I prepared for my performance by puffing on a joint before. The teacher had learned to save me for last, as I was usually difficult for the others to follow. This time was no exception. I sauntered up to the podium and held up a copy of the Kinks’ album for everyone to see the album’s cover painting, a decidedly Sixties British piece of pop art by Bob Lawrie.

Davies had scripted a teleplay with novelist Julian Mitchell for broadcast on television in England. Davies also wrote twelve songs related lyrically, musically, and conceptually as the soundtrack to the play. The tracks worked as an album and probably should have been considered a song-cycle or as a concept album but was called a rock-opera as it followed Pete Townsend and the Who’s bloated TOMMY by several month.

The plot revolves around a not particularly bright Englishman everyman named Arthur Morgan and attempts to give a Cliff Notes version of British history in the 20th century.

“In literature and drama, the term everyman has come to mean an ordinary individual, with whom the audience or reader is supposed to be able to identify easily, and who is often placed in extraordinary circumstances.

The everyman character is constructed so that the audience can imagine itself in the same situation without having to possess knowledge, skills, or abilities that transcend human potential. Such characters react realistically in situations that are often taken for granted with traditional heroes.

Alternatively, an everyman occupies the role of protagonist without being a hero and without necessarily being a round character or a dynamic character. In this scenario, the everyman is developed like a secondary character, but the character’s near omnipresence within the narrative shifts the focus from character development to events and story lines surrounding the character.” (Wikipedia)

That Davies uses the idea of Shangri-La ironically is hopefully evident even to American listeners. The term itself has little meaning to many members of the post-Boomer generations. Here is a capsule explanation:

“Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. He describes Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains. Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world.” (Wikipedia)

Davies uses Shangri-La metaphorically and ironically in the song (see the YouTube video and the lyrics below). 4


Interior art on the gatefold jacket for the Kinks ARTHUR album.

On the inside is another Bob Lawrie painting of the fattest, goofiest kangaroo that ever hopped this planet—and he’s wearing boxing gloves! (Another example of the Kinks’ rather obvious rejection of so many things swirling psychedelically about them in 1969.)

The cancellation of Arthur

According to Davies, “Arthur had a most unhappy history. It was originally meant to be a sort of rock opera, and we got as far as casting (excellent director and actors) and finding locations and were about to go when the producer went to a production meeting without a proper budget, tried to flannel his way through it, was immediately sussed and the production pulled. I have never been able to forgive the man.”

Davies was one of the most distinctive vocal stylists of the ’60s, playing up his British accent and never attempting to sound like an aging black American bluesman. On ARTHUR he uses more voices than one can count on the first few listenings, many of them with exaggerated accents or completely hammed up. He mixes them with a droll sense of humor and an acute wit.


Victoria loved them all

Back to speech class: eschewing the microphone, I stood in front of the podium and began reciting the first song on the first side, Victoria. I was a bit of a ham myself, and was rather good at emulating others—especially British accents. And the more extreme the accent or affectation, the better!

In this case, I had Davies down as though I was his American doppelgänger. Without glancing at the lyric sheet and in an absurd British accent—and remember that I was quite stoned by this time—I oh so politely began: “I was born—lucky me!—in the land that I love . . .” and then realized I had the second and first verses mixed up. (No one ever found out.)

Long ago, life was clean,
Sex was bad and obscene,
And the rich were so mean.
Stately homes for the lords.
Croquet lawns, village greens.
Victoria was my queen!

I was born, lucky me, in a land that I love.
Though I am poor, I am free.
When I grow, I shall fight.
For this land I shall die.
Let her sun never set!

Canada to India,
Australia to Cornwall,
Singapore to Hong Kong.
From the West to the East,
From the rich to the poor,
Victoria loved them all.

I especially loved the second verse: that begins “I was born, lucky me.” It sums up the gung-ho, jubilantly jingoistic attitude of the so-called patriot.


Where do I go, sir?

I followed this with Yes Sir, No Sir, a song about a dimwitted recruit in the British military. As far as I can tell, the lyrics represent three different speakers (two officers and a subordinate), each with a different tone and intonation to his voice, each with a slightly different British accent.

Yes, sir—no, sir.
Where do I go, sir?
What do I do, sir?
What do I say?

Yes, sir—no, sir.
Where do I go, Sir?
What do I do, sir?
How do I behave?

Yes, sir—no, sir.
Permission to speak, sir?
Permission to breathe, sir?
What do I say?
How do I behave?
What do I say?

So you think that you’ve got an ambition.
Stop your dreaming and your idle wishing.
You’re outside and there ain’t no admission to our play.
Pack up your ambition in your old kit bag.
Soon you’ll be happy with a packet of fags.
Chest out, stomach in!
Do what I say!
Do what I say!
Yes, right away!

Yes, sir—no, sir.
Where do I go, sir?
What do I do, sir?
What do I say?

Yes, sir—no, sir.
Permission to speak, sir?
Permission to breathe, sir?
What do I say?
How do I behave?
What do I say?

Doesn’t matter who you are,
You’re there and there you are.
Everything is in its place,
Authority must be maintained.
And then we know exactly where we are.

Let them feel that they’re important to the cause.
But let them know that they are fighting for their homes.
Just be sure that they’re contributing their all.
Give the scum a gun and make the bugger fight!
And be sure to have deserters shot on sight!
If he dies we’ll send a medal to his wife.

Yes, sir—no, sir.
Please let me die, sir.
I think this life is affecting my brain.
Yes, sir. No, sir.
Three bags full, sir.
What do I do, sir?
What do I say?
What do I say?
How do I behave?
What do I say? 

Ray Davies is brilliant in all three roles—especially the condescending, effete senior officer—and I did a more than passing job at imitating him. (And those readers familiar this track will appreciate the efforts that Davies put into the recitation and that I had to follow.)


This is your kingdom to command

The teacher gave me a standing ovation and requested an encore! I selected Some Mother’s Son, one of the most moving anti-war lyrics that I had ever heard—and so appropriate given that Johnson’s “quagmire” in Vietnam was about to become Nixon’s fiasco in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand!

Some mother’s son lies in a field.
Someone has killed some mother’s son today.
Head blown up by some soldier’s gun,
While all the mothers stand and wait.
Some mother’s son ain’t coming home today.
Some mother’s son ain’t got no grave.

Two soldiers fighting in a trench:
One soldier glances up to see the sun,
And dreams of games he played when he was young.
And then his friend calls out his name;
It stops his dream and as he turns his head,
A second later he is dead.

Some mother’s son lies in a field.
Back home they put his picture in a frame.
But all dead soldiers look the same.
While all the parents stand and wait
To meet their children coming home from school.
Some mother’s son is lying dead.

Somewhere, someone is crying,
Someone is trying to be so brave.
But still the world keeps turning,
Though all the children have gone away.

Some mother’s son lies in a field.
But in his mother’s eyes he looks the same
As on the day he went away.
They put his picture on the wall.
They put flowers in the picture frame.
Some mother’s memory remains . . .

While the other students had all read their lines from printed materials, I had the entire album memorized. So where their hands had been encumbered by the papers or books that they had to hold before them, my hands were free to gesticulate, to underline, to punctuate. And gesticulate I did . . .

 
 

Arthur: aging hippie cartoon by David Horsey.

Aging hippies as seen through the eyes of David Horsey of The Los Angeles Times. Fortunately, due to being pickled in acid, I still look like the image in the mirror . . . sorta.

And the gung-ho jingoistic bullies

I should tell you, I suppose, that this was the time in which not only was the inner Thespian coming out, but so was my hidden hippie. My fellows in that class were dressed in a manner that would not have been out of place in an episode of Leave To Beaver or Ozzie And Harriet.

Standard gear for me at the time was boot-cut Lee jeans ($3.99 at the Army & Navy Store back when those stores sold military surplus and hard-wearing gear for hard-working men and women) over a pair of Frye boots in their natural, neutral color that I had rubbed oxblood color into them by hand.

My shirts varied with whatever was available but were always open-necked with a necklace of multi-colored beads—handmade by me (the necklace, not the beads). The topper was that I had my Uncle Bill’s US Navy lieutenant’s dress jacket from the 1950s. As 1969 was also the beginning of the Nixon administration and the continued escalation of the Vietnam War into the Southeast Asian War.

In protest of the ongoing and escalating war, I tied a black armband around the upper left sleeve of the military dress jacket. This gesture—along with my longish hair—brought me no small amount of grief from the gung-ho jingoistic bullies with their “Love it or leave it” mentality. Being insulted, jeered, challenged, spit upon, and physically bullied became part of my daily life. (I was a wuss back then.)

So, in the outfit described above, I stood in front of my class. Stoned. Having a ball, being Kinky—Hell’s Belles!—being Raymond Douglas Davies for an hour!


White label promo of Reprise pressing of ARTHUR album.

Reprise pressing of ARTHUR album with promotional title strip on front cover..

In the US, Reprise shipped white label promo copies of the album to radio stations around the country—including the few underground stations in existence and the growing numbers of college radio stations playing hip music for hip students. Perhaps it worked: Victoria was the first Kinks single to make Billboard’s Hot 100 since Mr Pleasant more than two years before.

Finally, lest I do an injustice to the other Kinks—they also excel on this album. After several years of rather lukewarm rock and roll—don’t get me wrong: great songs and great performances but most of them didn’t rock like their previous hits!—the group really swings on every track. In a year filled with fine albums—and an argument could be made that 1969 was the best year ever for rock and pop albums—ARTHUR was a standout!

Also, while people tend to prefer lead guitarists with outstanding soloing styles, I tend to favor the rhythm guitarists and ARTHUR is chockablock full of strummed guitars in both channels. Davies is the lead guitar-player while Ray is credited as rhythm guitarist but it seems there are several layers of Dave overdubbed on several tracks. The other two members were the ever-underrated rhythm section of John Dalton on bass and Mick Avory on drums. 


Cropped image of kangaroo from the interior artwork on the ARTHUR album.

FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page was cropped from the inner panels of the ARTHUR album. For contrast in making the white letters of this article’s title stand out, I darkened the art of Bob Lawrie.

 
 


FOOTNOTES:

1   The term Susquehannock appears to be Algonquin and means (approximately) “people of the Muddy River.” This tribe was often referred to as the Conestoga by English settlers, although I don’t know why.

2   I spend hours wondering about things like how many of the dada artists and poets think of dada as dada and how many as Dada? And would Tristan Tzara or Hugo Ball have conniptions about me describing something as dada-esque? I know I’ll never know but still I wonder . . .

3   The title ARTHUR was bad enough for any rock and roll album then or now, but this one was also burdened with the cumbersome and possibly off-putting sub-title: THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE.

4   The condescension of the lyrics of Shangri-La was evident and agreeable to me at age 18. Now, at 63, I live in a “manufactured house” in an “over 55” community and my wife and I think of our forty year old mobile as our Shangri-La . . .

 


2 thoughts on “the kinks on arthur and finding shangri-la

  1. Neal, thanks for your memories on Arthur. Went digging & found 24 Kinks LP’s with Arthur being one. It is dbl. fold still in shrink wrap but on Canadian PYE. The insert is of Queen Victoria with all lyrics on back when you pull record out. Introduced to Kinks on car radio while in HS on way to Moose meat party. It was a Univ. crowd & I was interested in the girls, meat was excellent. Knocked out by “Driving on Bald Mountain” in the car while in a hilly wooded area going to a log cabin..

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article. The Kinks 1964-1971 are among my faveravest groups ever, but after that it’s pretty hit or miss (with more of the latter than I care for). Hoping you have an album with DAYS, one of their finest tracks.

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