At the time, the genesis and birth of Arthur (Or The Decline And Fall Of The British Empire) must have felt like something of a waking nightmare for Ray Davies and friends. The concept was to write a soundtrack to underscore a Granada TV play, to be written by Julian Mitchell, but while the recording of the album progressed nicely, the development of the TV programme was troublesome, culminating in last-minute cancellation after funding fell through. After seeing the best part of a year’s work come to nothing, the album was to be released as a standalone concept album – but with the concept itself much less tangible than was first expected. With hindsight it perhaps unsurprising that two pre-album singles were released (Plastic Man, and Drivin’) to either limited or no chart success.
The album paints a picture of a fictional Arthur Morgan (based closely on the Davies’ brother-in-law) in the post-Second World War years. He is depicted as an essentially good, decent man who is confounded, let down, and ultimately brow-beaten by the world around him, inevitably serving as a metaphor for the once-great British Empire.
Davies’ themes are clear and prominent: nostalgia for a forgotten Britain (the excellent Victoria, and Young And Innocent Days), the fundamental emptiness of life (Shangri-La, and Nothing To Say), and the war (Yes Sir, No Sir is notable for its memorably scathing take on the army’s attitudes to its recruits: “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 memo to his wife”). Indeed many of the album’s subjects are treated with thinly-disguised scorn. Australia is presented as an apparent land of opportunity which its immigrants expected to believe has “no class distinction, no drug addiction”, while in Mr Churchill Says, the war-time British public is portrayed as both resolute and desperate (“All the garden gates /And empty cans are gonna make us win”).
The centrepiece of the album is quite rightly Shangri-La. I’ll go out on a limb here and state that this is possibly my favourite song ever written. It is simply majestic, effortlessly describing the mundanity and desperation of Arthur’s quiet suburban life, which has been reduced to a pursuit of modest material aspirations (his lifetime achievement being that of no longer having an outside toilet archly contrasting with the album’s finale which tells us Arthur “was young, and he had so much ambition”). Arthur’s life is now one of a TV, a radio, and a ‘dream’ car (all on the never-never), in a world of resignation where he knows his place; his place being in his rocking chair by the fire, cup of tea in hand, scared of his own insecurity, enduring execrable visits from nosey neighbours.
These lyrics could be taken to be an aloof, damning indictment of the aspirational working man, but in Davies’ hands they are agonised, sympathetic, and bittersweet, despairing of the world we’ve inherited and of what the Empire has become.
This song and the album as a whole are simply musical and lyrical masterpieces.