Saturday, November 07, 2009

"Victoria" / The Kinks

Talk about starting off with a bang. After the introspection and retrospection of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the opening riffs of "Victoria" signaled to the world that the Kinks were ready to rock out again on Arthur, Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire. So what if Pete Townshend had beaten them to the wire, officially making The Who's Tommy the first "rock opera"? So what if the film of Arthur never made it into production? Arthur would nevertheless be the beginning of the Kinks' renaissance -- and its lead-off single, "Victoria," would blaze the way.

"Victoria," in fact, was the first Kinks single to chart higher in the US than in the UK (it hit #62 in the US, and never even charted in the UK). With the mysterious concert ban lifted, the Kinks could once again tour in the US, and "Victoria" was their re-entry key. It's pretty hard to resist the whooping energy of this track; I can't dial up this song without wanting to dance, pound my fist, and sing along. This was the first track that won my teenage son Hugh over to the Kinks, with its pulsing energy and upbeat joy. It almost doesn't matter what it's about . . . but oh, what am I saying? With Ray Davies' lyrics, it always matters what it's about.

"Victoria" has a very specific dramatic purpose. Though Ray originally conceived of Arthur as the story of his sister Rosie (as in"Rosy Won't You Please Come Home") and her husband Arthur emigrating to Australia, by the time he was finished Arthur had grown into a sweeping fable about Britain's declining luster. At the story's outset, therefore, Ray had to present the magnificence of Great Britain at its imperial height, and ever so subtly foreshadow its fall.

But plot be damned, it also had to kick off the show with a jolt of energy -- and "Victoria" does so brilliantly. Have I ever mentioned what a kick-ass guitarist Dave Davies is? The guitar motif of "Victoria" is a thing of glory indeed. It's like a trumpet flourish ringing out, yet with a hint of surf guitar twang; driven by the fierce locomotive of Mick Avory's drum beat, it charges out of the gate hellbent for whatever. Eventually Ray Davies comes in to sing, but he can barely keep up with the breakneck pace.

I used to puzzle over the half-strangled, fluttery quality of Ray's voice here, until I realized {smack to head} he's playing a character. That is crucial to remember. At first Ray -- or rather his character, Arthur -- seems to be extolling the good old days of Victorian England: "Long ago life was clean." But then he adds, "Sex was bad and obscene / And the rich were so mean." Ray can't be in favor of that, no way! But wait . . . the next couple of lines sound eerily familiar: "Stately homes for the Lords / Croquet lawns, village greens / Victoria was my queen." Isn't that Village Green Preservation territory?

And in verse two, Arthur's totally sympathetic: "I was born, lucky me / In a land that I love / Though I am poor, I am free." We have to root for that, and admire his patriotism as he adds, "When I grow I shall fight / For this land I shall die / Let her sun never set." Pride and national sentiment leak into Ray's voice as he sings lines like "Land of hope and gloria" and recites the vast holdings of the Empire. "From the rich to the poor / Victoria loved them all" -- well, if that were true, it would be a noble thing indeed.

So where does Ray really stand on all this? The obvious answer is that you have to follow the rest of the story, where the cracks in Britain's facade are revealed one by one. But irony would be fatal to this opening track -- and so Ray balances on the fence between satire and sincerity. At this point in the story, you should be on Arthur's side; plenty of time later to see his flaws.

And in the end, you must join in with Arthur on the chorus. Those repeated "Vic-TORR- ee-ahs" simply cry out for a singalong -- a LOUD singalong. I myself have ripped out my throat many nights joining in with Ray on this song. That is what it was written for. And with Ray on stage, kicking out all the jams, cajoling, seducing you -- well, how can you resist?

COMING UP NEXT: Lola V. Powerman and "Get Back In Line"


The Modesto Kid said...

Awesome -- I've had two pets named after Kinks songs, one was a boa constrictor named Victoria, then a dog named Lola.

Vivalabeat said...

Holly, your writing is stunning. I've stopped bookmarking your posts I just read your blog and it's such an enjoyable reading. :)

I must say I agree with everything you said about this album and the song. Especillay with the last paragraph. :) When I first heard Ray singing this song and when I got a chance to participate in that singalong I was the happiest person alive. I then had to join in when he ws singing All Day and All of the Night and my poor throat wasn't happy about it, I think. :)

Holly A Hughes said...

But there are so many singalongs in a Ray concert -- and he won't rest until you join in. I read somewhere that that's what his father Fred Davies was like, leading every singalong down at the boozer.

Mister Pleasant said...

I love it that you found a linkage between "Victoria" and TVGPS. It was there all along but until now I had always looked at Arthur as a one-off. Now if you find a link from Arthur to Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One I will really be amazed.

Gotta love Dave's delirious whooping in the chorus too.

Indeed it is a wonderful thing that (so far) there are so many good songs on each LP that you and I have managed to cover different territory. It should get interesting later this week when - by my estimation - the pickings get slimmer.

wwolfe said...

This was the song that made me a huge Kinks fan. I'd seen them live during junior year in high school, on the "Schoolboys in Disgrace" tour - a weak plot, as concept albums go, but surprisingly strong songs, nonetheless - but buying this album after reading a review of it in an old-chewed-up collection of Rolling Stone record reviews made me a devotee, rather than a casual listener. And "Victoria" was the song that allowed me to walk through that very special, very odd door marked "Kinks." Only a true curmudgeon could resist.

Holly A Hughes said...

"...that very special, very odd door" -- yup, you got that right!

Ah gee, Mr. P, I bet the pickings will never get too slim. The depth of the Kinks catalog never fails to astound me.

Anonymous said...

My second awareness of The Kinks came with "Arthur," and this particular opener, as the extremely unmilitary Paul Schwartz of Clifton, New Jersey, janked this one out of his eight-track as we sat in our barracks bay on an early March day in Fort K n o c k s, Kentucky, in 1972.

Oh course I was familiar with The Kinks from the mid sixties invasion, but like many others, felt they had gone by the wayside until "Arthur."

"Nothing To Say," "Arthur," (with its hootenany sing-along ending) and "Mr Churchill Says," were all well loved, but nothing hit the pit of the stomach of a young draftee like me as "Yes Sir, No Sir." Love the Cossak chorus.

Three bags full.


Holly A Hughes said...

Oh, man, that really gets me -- the idea of guys in the barracks listening to "Arthur." "Some Mother's Son" is one of the great anti-war songs, IMO. I will always think of you guys now when I hear "Yes Sir, No Sir." Doncha just love Ray's dopey voice in the later verses?