Friday, November 06, 2009

"Picture Book" / The Kinks

As a card-carrying Kinkaholic, I am honor-bound to say that today's album -- officially titled The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, fondly known as VGPS (Kinks Kultists have to be handy with acronyms) -- is one of the greatest record albums ever made. This isn't just group-think, though; I really and truly believe it. So naturally I've already written about several songs on this landmark album, like "Starstruck" and "Phenomenal Cat" and the title track, "The Village Green Preservation Society". I've even broken with my song-a-day format to write about the entire VGPS album. But have I said all there is to say about the Village Green? Hey, I've barely scratched the surface.

For a number of reasons (the White Album, the Kinks' US ban, adolescence), I knew nothing of this album for years. The Kinks' great single of this period, "Days," wasn't even included on the album (and in the US we barely heard it anyway). So my introduction to VGPS was, oddly enough, a clever HP printer commercial a couple of years ago, which showed satisfied HP customers melting in and out of their own home-printed photos -- all to the tune of "Picture Book." The first time I saw this on TV I sat up, immediately riveted. I didn't recognize the song but by god I knew that was the Kinks -- and I had to track it down. It was all part of that curious tangle of fate, destiny, and serendipity that led me back into the Kinks fold, after years in exile. (A story for another day.)

With so many incredible songs on this album, "Picture Book" might not otherwise have ranked among my favorites, but I'm so grateful it triggered my Kinks renaissance, I still feel a rush of happiness when it comes on. It's actually half of a "picture" pair on the album, the other being the LP's last track, "People Take Pictures Of Each Other." As the album's send-off, PTPOEO finally shrugs off the nostalgia that runs throughout the album, declaring "People take pictures of each other / Just to prove that they really existed." But "Picture Book" falls earlier in the album, on track 3, and it shows Ray still fondly flipping over the pages of his memory book.

"Picture yourself when you're getting on," he sets the scene, "Sat by the fireside a-pondering on." This song is like Ray's version of the Beatles' "When I'm 64," except he isn't just projecting into the future -- he's looking back over his life from the future. And to further complicate the time scheme, that picture album's parade of images depicts not only his past but his family's past before he was born: "Pictures of your mama, taken by your papa a long time ago." There's a weird fascination to pictures like that, isn't there? how you stare at the image of those carefree youngsters, rearranging their features to find your parents in them.

I'm betting that Ray Davies had in mind a specific photograph for every picture he describes in verse two: "A picture of you in your birthday suit, / You sat in the sun on a hot afternoon . . . Your mama and your papa / And fat old Uncle Charlie out boozing with their friends. . . . A holiday in August, outside a bed and breakfast / In sunny Southend" (or South Bend, as one Kinks friend used to mishear it.) What I wouldn't give to get a look at the Davies family scrapbook, to see Fred and Annie Davies and Uncle Son boozing it up at the Clissold Arms. And as Ray looks at those images, the people flare briefly into life, just as they were.

So how does Ray feel about this? Well, come on, this is Ray Davies -- naturally he feels ambivalent. He's skeptical of the picture-snapping impulse in verse one ("Picture book, of people with each other, / To prove they loved each other / A long ago"). But as he leafs through the holiday snaps, they work their spell on him; by the end of verse two, he's sucked into the emotion ("When you were just a baby, / Those days when you were happy, / A long time ago" -- implying, of course, that happiness is a thing of the past).

The whole song is propelled by that steamroller bass/guitar line, charging up and down the scale, punctuated by fat splashes of cymbals from Mick Avory. While that marks the time, Ray's melody hopscotches all over the place, before and behind the beat; the two lines dive and cross each other over and over, in spectacular rock counterpoint, like they're weaving a tapestry of time and memory. Ray's voice sounds light-hearted, youthful, even a little campy -- no, a lot campy, goofing through the repeated chorus of "na-na-na na na na's" and tossing in a little Sinatra-esque "scooby doo be doo." In the background, Dave's falsetto echoes of "pic-ture book" are jolly and jaunty; the whole song is sung with reckless gaiety. It's simply irresistible.

Fifteen years later, on the album State of Confusion, Ray would write another song about photos and souvenirs that trace the course of a life. It's called "Property," and it's one of his most heart-breaking songs ever. "You take the photographs, the ones of you and me, / When we both posed and laughed to please the family" -- now he's at the other end of life, not sitting by his fireside but standing in the doorway with a suitcase. Yet don't let the jauntiness of "Picture Book" fool you -- the sorrow and regret of "Property" are already there, in utero. Now consider that Ray Davies was only 23 years old when he wrote this song. Humbling, ain't it?

NEXT: Arthur, or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire and "Victoria"


Clutch Cargo said...

Oddly I discovered that great tune just in recent years on a TV ad.
The product in the ad now escapes me but the song lives on...better late than never. I especially like his choice of twelve-string guitar doubling the signature bass line.

Vivalabeat said...

Yup, that's what I think about every time I hear this record. Ray was 23 as I am now. I'm unable to write songs at all and he did it so that it seemes easy and natural! :)

Holly A Hughes said...

Sometimes rock fans act horrified when their favorite musicians "sell out" by letting ads use their songs. But on the other hand, how many fans "discovered" the Kinks after seeing that HP ad? Ray's no fool!

wwolfe said...

" stare at the image of those carefree youngsters, rearranging their features to find your parents in them." That's a lovely observation - so true, and so well expressed.

I recall an issue of Rolling Stone magazine in which musicians chose their favorite Beatles song. Emmylou Harris chose Paul's "For No One," and I remember her asking, How could he have known so much about the human heart at the age of 24? It is indeed amazing.

As a footnote, the Rolling Stone review of "Arthur" noted that "Village Green" sold 8,000 copies - that's not a typo: eight-thousand copies! - in the United States. But, as I often say, the thing about history is it lasts a long time. And in this case, at least, history has proven the greatness of Ray's work on this album.

Holly A Hughes said...

Eight thousand copies. Sheesh - that's criminal. Of course this was at the tail end of the ban, when the US audience had withered away to nothing. But still!

Of course, if Ray hadn't pulled the 12-track version at the last minute, it would have been released in September, instead of waiting until the same day as the White Album came out. Just another in a long series of colossally rotten mistakes the Kinks made.

Anonymous said...

Nice, Holly.
PTPOEO supports a minority, yet rabid, point of view that reality is at least as important as photographs OF that reality. Don't many of us find it irritating, if not self-aggrandizing, when some one always seems to want to snap a quick I-phone pic of an event instead of just enjoying the event.

I prefer mind movies.

And the best line from "People Take Pictures Of Each Other," for anyone who has been held captive for six hours at the in-laws, while Dad-in-law once again maniacally reloads the slide carousel will always be, "Don't show me no more please."