The British Are Coming!

I kind of miss making year-end lists of albums and such, but I really haven’t been listening to a lot of new music recently. There are a few that I’ll probably discuss a bit in a future post, but for now, I’m returning to the sixties. Not that I was alive then, which I guess should mean I remember them. Or is only the reverse of that true? I recently received the Kinks albums Arthur and Muswell Hillbillies, and the Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle. They’re all recent reissues, with bonus tracks, extra liner notes, and the like. They also include the mono mixes of the album, which I think are kind of superfluous, but I know some people are into comparing the two. The Kinks are a quintessentially English band, the kind of thing that might actually go over better here in the States where there’s a certain mystique to what’s commonplace over there. Or maybe that’s just me. There’s also a whole lot of sarcasm in their lyrics.

Arthur, or The Decline of Fall of the British Empire was conceived as the soundtrack to a movie that was never made, with a story inspired by Ray and Dave Davies’ brother-in-law Arthur Anning, who moved to Australia in search of an easier life. There’s a definite nostalgia, a sense of longing for a past that probably never really existed, to be found in a lot of British media. We have that in the States as well, but we don’t have anywhere near as much history to feel nostalgic about. Arthur is, by Ray Davies’ own admission, about the then-recent history of the nation, and how its ordinary citizens felt screwed over. There are songs about Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill, and some very catchy tunes.

Muswell Hillbillies has more of an American sound, with elements of country and blues. It’s still very British in its lyrics, however, inspired by the post-war urban renewal that forced many working-class people out of London. A lot of the Kinks’ work is about ordinary people feeling let down and alienated. There’s kind of a libertarian tone to it, although I don’t know that it would have been considered such back when it was released. Paranoia about the government is a recurring theme, showing up in “20th Century Man,” “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues,” and “Here Come the People in Grey.” I was thinking about another Kinks song that isn’t on either of these albums, “Get Back in Line,” and how it comes across as anti-union. Well, the Kinks WERE banned from playing in the United States for a few years by the American Federation of Musicians. That said, the issue is really more with a lack of jobs in general than with the union in particular, isn’t it? It kind of appears to be assigning blame to the wrong place, although that could be to fit in with the working-class perspective. It just reminds me of how so many Americans these days assign blame in the wrong places for their crappy situations in life, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the same for the British. Not that unions and the government don’t also sometimes support the rich over the workers.

The Zombies were also part of the British Invasion, but their songs tended not to be as specifically British. Both bands were known mostly for their singles, and the Zombies only released two albums back in their heyday. (They put out a few more after reuniting in more recent years.) While the word “zombie” is now a household name, it was more obscure when the band started calling themselves that. I guess it’s appropriate in light of the fact that their lead singer became an insurance clerk after the band broke up. Anyway, Odessey & Oracle (the weird spelling was apparently the fault of the cover artist) was their second album, best known for the single “Time of the Season,” which is often used to symbolize the sixties and hippie culture in general. I do have to wonder about the line “Who’s your daddy?/Is he rich like me?”; is this a song about trying to determine whether a potential date is part of the proper social class? Much of the record has a pretty sad tone, with heavy usage of the Mellotron, an early kind of synthesizer that has kind of a dark sound. “Care of Cell 44” is about a guy waiting for his girlfriend to get out of prison, and “A Rose for Emily” has been compared to “Eleanor Rigby” in being about a lonely woman. The title of the latter comes from a William Faulkner story, but the song has nothing to do with the story. I would imagine that’s also true of the Bonzo Dog Band’s “Death Cab for Cutie.” “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914)” is a very dark and evocative song about World War I. They Might Be Giants once covered it at the Loser’s Lounge, using accordion in place of harmonium, and it was quite faithful to the original. I used to have a recording of it, but I think I lost it a few computers ago. Also included on this release of the album are some previously unreleased songs intended for a potential third album. I find the most memorable one to be “Imagine the Swan,” which deals with feeling that a lover has lost what made them special, not an uncommon theme in pop music.

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