“Shangri-La” is my favorite song on Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of The British Empire), and is probably one of my top 5 Kinks songs overall.
As the first song after you flip the record over after “Australia,” it always felt like also kind of a compare and contrast piece to that song as well. While the former is all about celebrating the endless possibilities of uprooting your life and moving to the other side of the world, the latter is a slowly burning satire of putting down roots in your very own uniquely-named home.
Both, of course, have their ups and downs: obviously Australia wasn’t necessarily the paradise that was pitched, and anyone who’s ever owned a home knows all of the pitfalls involved, even if they didn’t have nearly the entire back part of their house get flooded.
Of course, at first, “Shangri-La” starts quietly, with just Ray and an acoustic guitar:
Now that you’ve found your paradise
This is your kingdom to command
You can go outside and polish your car
Or sit by the fire in your Shangri-la
Here’s your reward for working so hard
Gone on the lavatories in the back yard
Gone all the days when you dreamed of that car
You just want to sit in your Shangri-la
Wow. Sounds wonderful. But of course, as the song adds instruments: harpsichord, bass, drums, horns and backing vocals, the scenario gets better and better.
Put on your slippers and sit by the fire
You’ve reached your top
And you just can’t get any higher
You’re in your place
And you know where you are
In your Shangri-la
Sit back in your old rocking chair
You need not worry, you need not care
You can’t go anywhere
When the whole band erupts into those triumphant, anthemic shouts of “Shangri-la” with the horns arcing ever skyward, it’s one of absolute moments of pure joy in all of Kinkdom. You want to stay there forever, toasting the endless pleasure of Shangri-la.
But, of course, we can’t. So in the very next verse, we’re now worrying about debts and mortgages, just to keep up the appearances of the happy castle. Which doesn’t make the second chorus any more wonderful than the first, even as Ray trails off into a “laaaaaaar” just before the song changes.
The picked guitar becomes heavily strummed guitar, the drums keep less of a straight beat, and the horns turn from celebratory to menacing, where over a riff copped from Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” Ray Davies sings my very favorite Ray Davies couplet.
All the houses on the street have got a name
‘Cause all the houses in the street they look the same
If you lived in the burbs like I did as a teenager, you probably remember the weirdness of walking into a neighbor’s house and realizing that it was basically the same as your house, just with slightly different (and, of course, inferior) stuff.
Same chimney pots, same little cars
Same window panes
The neighbors call to tell you
Things that you should know
They say their lines, they drink their tea
And then they go
They tell your business in another Shangri-la
The gas bills and the water rates
And payments on the car
Too scared to think about how insecure you are
Life ain’t so happy in your little Shangri-la
Shangri-la la la la la la la la la
But, of course, you put that stuff away. You have to. You tell yourself that it’s a trade-off — all of that bad stuff — for the joys of home ownership, for being able to sit in your favorite chair in front the fire and sing “Shangri-la” at the top of your lungs for the rest of your life.
Recognizing its quality, but overestimating its popular appeal, The Kinks put “Shangri-la” out as a single, and it pretty much stiffed everywhere but the Netherlands, which makes sense, because despite its dynamism and anthemic qualities, it doesn’t feel like anything but a major album cut.
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