When I arrived to interview Arthur Kitchener, it was with a view to discussing his time as the front man for Arthur Kay & The Originals. Legendary amongst Ska aficionados for tracks such as “Ska Wars” and “Limehouse Lady” (although I was soon to learn that the latter as never released as a single), Arthur was someone I was eager to quiz about the Ska scene. So, you can imagine my disconcertion when his first remark about Ska was “I done it for a bit of a laugh really.” Feeling the need for my well-researched questions slip through my fingers, I asked him to elaborate.
“I like the early Ska, but I mean the 1960s. Where I grew up [Streatham/Brixton area of Lambeth], it was impossible to go down the street without hearing it.” However, Arthur goes on to reveal that his passion for music lies with Rock and Roll, “All my CD collection is rock and roll. I’ve probably only bought a few Ska CDs in my life. When I did “Ska Wars”… it was when they had a bit of a Mod revival. It kinda took off a bit. When I done “Ska Wars”, I’d never heard of The Specials or Madness. We had to create an image. As an old rocker doing the scooter thing, it was a bit strange.” Trying hard to hide my disillusionment that he didn’t live and breathe Ska, I asked Arthur how “an old rocker” was able to write such authentic songs for a genre so far removed from his own tastes.
“The difference between our band and other Ska bands was our influences. My influence is Rock and Roll…Dion, Fats Domino, all them sort of guys. Later on, Bruce Springsteen. So the Originals was more a cross between the East Street Band and The Specials. It had all that power with the Hammond organ. My Ska albums are not three cord tricks. They’re engineered in their arrangements.”
It soon becomes apparent that Arthur is happiest when discussing his song writing, regardless of its musical style. Not one to be pigeon-holed, he is currently working on a number of projects, including the “Hobo Manifesto”, his tribute album to Woody Guthrie. He is also one third of The Lords of Lonesome, a band he describes as a “three piece rock and roll band”. Having listened to their self-titled album, I have to say that Arthur’s description falls short of accurately conveying the content of an album that is as diverse as it is entertaining. Along with shades of AC/DC on “Running With The Pack”, The Clash on “Graduation Day”, and early Billy Idol on “Let Me Hear It [For The Bad Guy]”, there is more than a hint of the Billy Bragg-esque protest songs of the ’80s. Despite Arthur’s own protestations that he has left Ska behind, there is even a track that is so heavily Ska-based that I thought the opening bars were The Beat’s version of “Tears of a Clown”. Listen to “Had It Your Own Way Too Long”, and you will know exactly what I mean. Add the tongue-in-cheek humour of the Country & Western styled “Bad Day At Black Rock”, with lyrics such as “We love that Country sound, but we don’t know our a**holes from a hole in the ground”, and you begin to appreciate the extent of Arthur’s talent not only as a writer, but as a lyricist (he wrote every track on the album except “Marlon Brando”).
It is therefore unsurprising that he has been recently taken on board as a writer and rhythm guitarist by Sixties’ rock group The Wild Angels. A big fan of the group – “It’s a great honour to be part of them” – Arthur first heard The Wild Angels play in the Nightingale Café, Biggin Hill in 1968, whilst a member of the band The Next Collection. A hangout for Hell’s Angels, band members had warned Arthur against going to the café, but “the more they dissed it, the more I was intrigued about it,” remembers Arthur, who went on to become a regular visitor there. His affection for the café is reflected in his The Lords of Lonesome album track “Spirit of The Nightingale”, an undeniably rock recollection of a time when Arthur rode a BSA 650 Gold Flash motorbike.
A crash on said bike resulted in Arthur ending up in Mayday Hospital, Croydon with a broken collarbone. Whilst he was in hospital,The Next Collection went on to finish the album they had all been working on, without Arthur. Having cut him out, The Next Collection went on to become progressive rock band, Second Hand. Never a fan of progressive rock, “You’ve got to have a degree in music to get into it,” Arthur believes that the “people who are into that kind of music all come from middle class backgrounds”, which is why it was so popular amongst university students at that time.
Referring to The Originals, he continues “Ours was a bit more working class, if you like.” He feels it was also raw, and made an impact, the same way that Punk did. Although, “The Punk scene never had any of the impact that original Rock and Roll had in the 1950s. All that music was underground. You had to tune into American [radio] stations.” Arthur goes on to explain how music was part of your identity then, but now music is “like porridge”. He goes on, “everyone dresses the same. The thought of dressing like my parents…” Arthur rolls his eyes and sighs with despair, “but that’s what it’s like now. That’s the way it is.”
Back to talking about the present day, I seize the chance to ask him whether, with the enduring popularity of Ska music, he can see himself ever performing with The Originals again.
“Arthur Kay and the Originals went for nearly thirty odd years on and off. At our height, we were Judge Dread’s backing group. Unfortunately, I think the band died with Judge Dread, to be honest.”
So, has he written off ever performing Ska again?
“I think it’s written off me!”
I try to convince him otherwise, but Arthur is having none of it, and why should he? His tracks for The Lords of Lonesome have shown it would be foolish for him to restrict his writing to one particular kind of music. I look forward to hearing his acoustic set, which promises another musical divergence, when he plays The Horsebridge Centre, Whitstable on 27th July. In time, we will also get to hear the rock and roll songs he produces for The Wild Angels. Let’s hope that somewhere down the line, we will have a chance to hear again the Ska sounds so many of us associate with him, but about which, as I have discovered, he is so much more. I may have arrived to interview a Ska legend, but I left having been enlightened and impressed by a music master. It was both a pleasure and an education.
More info on Arthur Kitchener can be found at: http://www.arthurkitchener.co.uk/