Happy 40th Birthday, Village Green Preservation Society!
On November 22, 1968, there was only one album I was thinking about, and it was white with a gatefold cover. I was so deep into my Beatle love, everything else seemed meaningless. I didn't even know the Kinks still existed; having pissed off American concert promoters, they hadn't been touring the US at all, and they'd vanished from our airwaves. I'm sure I wasn't the only American who had no idea that the Kinks had released a new album -- and with their usual fatal timing, released it the same day as the Beatles' masterwork.
Well, so it goes. Maybe I wasn't ready for The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968, anyway. Not that it was "too English" (hunh? that was just my cup of tea) or too folky -- that folky acoustic quality would have been a definite plus for me at the time, considering how newer bands like Cream and the Doors were beginning to nudge rock music toward hard rock, a disturbing development as far as I was concerned. But when you listen to VGPS, it's so steeped in nostalgia and radical conservatism, how could an adolescent like me ever have gotten it? After all, this is an album where the title track proclaims, "God save little shops, china cups, and virginity" -- in the midst of the free love 1960s, that was a baffling message indeed.
"Do You Remember Walter?"is the wistful musings of a middle-aged man, reuniting with a boyhood chum ("I bet you're fat and married/ And you're always home in bed by half past eight / And if I talked about the old times / You'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say" -- and he sounds sad about it, not scornful of the complacent old fart). He eulogizes the old-time rocker "Johnny Thunder" and the obsolete locomotive of "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains." There's not one but two songs about how we cling to photos as souvenirs of our lives, the slouchy happy "Picture Book" and, at the end of the LP, the restless satiric "People Take Pictures Of Each Other." This is an album obsessed with loss and memory, hardly what I had on my agenda when I was 15.
Love songs? Well, Ray Davies has never done simple love songs. Instead you get "Starstuck," his bemused portrait of a dazzled groupie, and the deliciously Caribbean-flavored "Monica," a fond ode to a world-weary hooker. They fit right into his gallery of misfits and oddities, a cast of eccentric beings who'll be left behind in the shiny-new modern world the VGPS abhors. There's trippy "Phenomenal Cat," a flute-embellished fable about a magical cat that outdoes even Donovan in terms of flower-child feyness; "Wicked Annabella" is another fairy tale, this time a dark portrayal of a witch worthy of Hansel and Gretel, with a supremely ominous bass line. The Kinks' version of pastoral is the escape fantasy "Animal Farm" ("This world is big and wild and half insane / Take me where real animals are playing"), a loping rocker that doesn't feel blissed out at all. For that you need the loose-limbed softshoe of "Sitting By The Riverside," with its wheezy accordion and plinky piano, and even that laidback number morphs for me somehow into the comic patter song "All of My Friends Were There," with its woozy, boozy waltzing chorus -- get too relaxed and you'll end up drunk and embarrass yourself in front of everybody you know.
And who's running this whole quirky world? Well, there's the distant Supreme Being of "Big Sky" -- "Big Sky looked down on all the people looking up at the big sky / Everybody pushing one another around /Big Sky feels sad when he sees the children scream and cry / But the Big Sky's too big to let it get him down." I still can't always get my head around what Ray Davies means with that song, especially since he seems to find it comforting that Big Sky doesn't get involved in this petty world's problems.
The heart of the album is the minor-key "Village Green," with its anachronistic harpsichord and harmonium; in a precise, almost mincing delivery, Ray delivers yearning memories of some mist-swathed Ye Olde Englishe village -- church steeple, oak tree, and all -- that never existed except in his imagination. Of course, it's already been ruined, gentrified, marketed to tourists, and his old love Daisy is now married to the grocer's son Tom (who's no doubt as fat and complacent as his boyhood mate Walter). Far from a savage rant, though, this song mentions the loss only vaguely in passing, and he seems convinced that someday he and Daisy will have tea there again. This song isn't about Ray's own loss, it's about the universal emotions of loss and regret and memory. No way I would have gotten this in 1968. What's amazing is that Ray himself felt this in 1968, when he was how old? 24? Precocious doesn't even begin to cover it.
In their own ways, though, each song is a gem. The range of musical styles the Kinks explore on this album is just as broad as what the Beatles explored in the White Album; the Kinks were just working in more delicate brushstrokes, that's all. And somehow this exercise in memory released some of Ray Davies' most poignant melodies, wittiest lyrics, and deftest storytelling; his fellow Kinks turned in some of their finest performances as well.
I still think the White Album was a genius record; I'm not going to deny it just because I eventually rediscovered the Kinks. But this isn't like marriage, where you're expected to forswear all others. I don't have to choose -- I can love them both. I'm just glad that, though I missed it in 1968, I've been lucky enough to get to know The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in the years since. It may not be for everyone, but it sure is for me.