In 1968, when students and radicals took to the streets in America and France in a series of anti-establishment explosions, when the drug-and-sex-filled Are You Experienced wound up as the best-selling album of the year, and when The Beatles and The Stones filled the airwaves with hymns of revolution, The Kinks released an album celebrating the virtues of virginity, strawberry jam and Sunday school.
It bombed. Despite universal adoration from the critics of the time (even Christgau got this one right), the album had no chance. The Kinks were still persona non grata in the U. S. and couldn’t promote it in the world’s most important market. The album lacked an easily-identifiable hit, and the one single they released charted only in The Netherlands. The recording techniques were hardly state-of-the-art; the overall sound was positively clunky compared to Sgt. Pepper or Odessey and Oracle. Needless to say, defending virginity at the height of The Sexual Revolution proved to be the definition par excellence of a losing sales proposition. The Kinks, in the parlance of the times, seemed to be turning into “squares.”
Yet thirty-five years after its release, Andy Miller identified The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society as The Kinks’ greatest-selling album of all time in his book about it in the Thirty-Three and a Third Series.
The story of Village Green (we’ll use shorthand from this point) is one of passionate commitment to an artistic vision. Sometimes an artist simply must do what must be done. Sure, Ray Davies wanted the album to sell, but he never compromised his commitment to the thing he wanted to create. Like all great artists doomed to suffer the slings and arrows of an outrageous public, he naively believed his vision would carry the day, and both sales and validation would follow.
Ray Davies has always loved to work against the trend, and while Village Green was not a trend-defying smash, in the end, he was right to stick to his vision. Village Green is a timeless work of art that suffered the misfortune of birth during a period when people wanted to break free of the chains of the past, and as is often the case in revolutions, the participants went way overboard in denigrating what had come before. The hipsters of the time only paid attention to the past when they found art that the old establishment had buried; hence, there was a Folk Revival and a Blues Revival. But music celebrating “Donald Duck and Vaudeville?” Seriously uncool.
Whether the cause for the public’s indifference was idealism gone rancid or the various substances they were smoking, the failure to acknowledge Village Green at the time of its release is simply astonishing. From a purely melodic perspective, Ray Davies was never better. Each song is like a little oasis where you can spend a few brief moments immersed in a story, a character, or a perceptive observation of human nature while listening to melodies and harmonies that provide delicious stimulation. It had been years since I’d listened to the album in full, and by the time I arrived at “Animal Farm,” I felt myself starting to tear up. Village Green is so beautiful, so human.
It seems to me that the people who lived during that difficult year could have used some beauty and some signs of humanity.
The title song (an anthem, really) is a lovely way to begin a record. Beneath the pleasant melody, wonderfully varied harmonies and deceptively simple structure, we find a profound rejection of what we are conditioned to believe is progress. What Ray Davies insists we preserve are the traditions and human-scale experiences that give us both community and continuity. The village green is a symbol of a truly human environment where people can gather together naturally to talk, play or just sit and enjoy the sunshine. When I was a kid, my parents and I would take regular trips to the Wine Country, and we would always carve out time to have a little picnic on Sonoma Plaza, the closest thing to a village green in my world. It remains one of my favorite places on earth, a place where you can stretch out on the grass under the trees and simply enjoy life and the presence of other people doing the same. Compare and contrast that to today’s most common gathering spot, the workplace, with its ugly cubicles full of people who’d give anything to get the fuck away from all the other awful people in the “community.” “Oh, well, that’s progress,” we say, and head off to another meaningless meeting. Ray Davies would argue that blind modernization is the enemy of progress, for how can you characterize dehumanizing environments and meaningless activity as signs of human progress?
Listen to “Village Green Preservation Society” on YouTube.
Still, Ray Davies was never a starry-eyed idealist, and many of the people who inhabit the virtual village he created in this work are not living the ideal life. The off-stage character in “Do You Remember, Walter?” was the narrator’s childhood accomplice in acts of misbehavior and dreams of making the world a better place. The narrator hasn’t seen Walter in years, but imagines his old friend through the eyes of the world-weary traveler:
Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago
If you saw me now you wouldn’t even know my name.
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’ll have nothing more to say.
Yes people often change, but memories of people can remain.
The twin concepts of memory and preservation are further explored in the perfectly cheeky “Picture Book,” an incredibly catchy tune describing the family tradition of flipping through the picture albums (another lovely experience blasted away by digital technology). Ray Davies takes the stance of bemused anthropologist, finding the tradition amusing but fully accepting its significance to these curious humans.
Our next portrait is my personal favorite, depicting the alienated youth of the virtual village, “Johnny Thunder.” Although later in Preservation Act 1, “Old Johnny Thunder looks a little overweight and his sideburns are turning gray,” here he is described as the archetype of youth rebellion, with superb poetic economy:
Johnny Thunder lives on water, feeds on lightning.
Johnny Thunder don’t need no one, don’t want money.
And all the people of the town,
They can’t get through to Johnny, they will never, ever break him down.
Johnny Thunder speaks for no one, goes on fighting.
Once again, a lovely, singable melody is enhanced by the Dave Davies-dominated harmonies. The song provides the perfect foil to “Walter,” for the village contains both those who have given up and tuck in at 8:30 and those like Johnny who seek the highways and the late-night action. The bucolic community encompasses both conformists and rebels; the placid scene disguises the diversity of its inhabitants. I also think it was brilliant for Ray Davies to introduce Helena in this vignette, to show that even Johnny has someone within this superficially ideal world who loves him for who he is.
Listen to “Johnny Thunder” on YouTube.
“The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” is about as close as The Kinks get to rocking out on this album, which isn’t close at all. Still, this piece about the Victorian locomotives that were the great symbol of both progress and destruction during that age has its value in the overall pattern. “Big Sky” is far more interesting, a song where Davies satirizes the willingness of the masses to maintain faith in the indifferent power at the top (which could be God, a CEO or the Prime Minister). It’s followed by the flowing delight “Sitting by the Riverside,” a song echoing the Taoist wisdom of “Do nothing and there is nothing that will not be done.”
Oh, how I would love to spend a day sitting and doing absolutely nothing.
“Animal Farm,” a song that Ray Davies sings with great gusto, is a precursor of “Apeman,” expressing the desire to escape the insanity and phoniness of modern existence for a more natural setting where a father can share the wonders of nature with a child. “Animal Farm” is a more direct, sincere and strongly felt approach to the issue and features a fantastic, soaring melody. “Village Green,” the song that inspired the concept behind the album, features Davies (with touches of humor) bemoaning the transformation of a real, living village into a tourist destination for Americans. The sound of this song is slightly different from the others, having been recorded two years before, and as such, I don’t think it’s as strong as the other pieces on the album.
“Starstruck” is the only single from Village Green, and it wasn’t successful either. It’s a great tune with great background vocals, so I can only attribute its failure to connect with the public to the mass insanity of the time. Next is the remarkable “Phenomenal Cat,” opening with a jazz-like flute and soft mellotron to a vignette about a “fat cat” told in the literary style of the parable. The childlike voice on what passes for a chorus adds a fairy tale flavor to this song (rumors have it that the voice is a high-speed version of drummer Mick Avory’s). A very interesting and full treatment of “Phenomenal Cat” can be found on the blog, The Song in My Head Today.
We are then awoken from the dreamlike state of “Phenomenal Cat” by the ultimate anthem to public embarrassment, “All of My Friends Were There.” Ray Davies delivers this song with the theatrical command he would later bring to full flower on Preservation, Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace. I love the story of the disastrous performance, the consequences and the ultimate support that he gets from his real friends:
Days went by, I walked around dressed in a disguise
I wore a mustache and parted my hair
And gave the impression that I did not care
But oh, the embarrassment, oh, the despair!
Came the day, helped with a few last glasses of gin,
I nervously mounted the stage once again,
Got through my performance and no one complained
Thank God, I can go back to normal again
I went to that old café
Where I had been in much happier days
And all of my friends were there . . . and no one cared.
Next are twin songs dealing with the mysterious power of the female half of the species. Dave Davies finally gets a turn at the mike in the dark soundscape of “Wicked Annabella.” This is one of the more remarkable vocals on the album; Dave manages to express both the terrible fear and irresistible attraction of the town’s Wiccan practitioner. Yes, the peaceful villagers in Ray Davies pastoral vision are more than capable of burning a witch. The latin-tinged “Monica” follows, introducing the modern version of the witch in the form of the town hooker. Here the narrator expresses more awe and submission to female power. While that is a position I find personally appealing, it’s not exactly an affirmation of women’s lib. Still, it’s a great song with a fabulous, stutter-step chorus.
The album ends with the bouncy romp, “People Take Pictures of Each Other,” a song that takes a more jaundiced view of the human obsession with photography. In this take, photography is a tool used to raise one’s status or give someone a sense of identity in our depersonalized world:
People take pictures of each other
Just to prove that they really existed . . .
People take pictures of the summer
Just in case someone thought they had missed it.
I think we can all truly empathize with the line, “Don’t show me no more, please,” especially in this phone-camera dominated world of selfies. I love the way this song fades out with The Kinks la-la-ing the melody, as it is the perfect way to end this most melodic record.
When I look back at The Kinks’ catalogue, I am completely floored by the sheer quantity of high-quality songs released during the period from Face to Face up to Muswell Hillbillies (though Everybody’s in Showbiz contains the brilliant “Celluloid Heroes,” the rest of the original songs aren’t up to par). During that period, except for a brief love affair following the release of “Lola,” the public appreciation of The Kinks bore absolutely no relation to the quality of the work they produced. Yes, I’ll probably wind up reviewing all of those albums sooner or later, as well as the rock operettas from the theatrical period that followed. But if I had one wish, I’d wish that I could go back to 1968, wave my magic wand and make Village Green as popular as Are You Experienced. Both were truly deserving of that number one spot on the year-end charts.
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You got me interested in this album, especially because they dared defend virginity, something that I admire, in that context. They already earned my admiration!
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This is my most coveted album, along with Revolver / Sgt Peppers, Odysey and Oracle, The Who Sell Out, and maybe one of the mid-60s Dylan albums. For people who put the Kinks behind the Beatles, Stones, Who, Dylan, Byrds, et al., I ask them, how many groups had five back to back album masterpieces? — Face to Face, Something Else, Village Green, Arthur (well, near masterpiece), and Lola. Other than the Beatles, I don’t think any group. Not even the Stones had five solid straight album masterpieces. Dylan certainly didn’t — maybe three. It puts to shame the notion that the Kinks were a singles band — and the irony: their singles were every bit the masterpieces, too, Waterloo Sunset the best of them all. And I am NOT an “Autumn Almanac” naysayer. I can’t think of too many groups who could put together 6 different musical moods, styles, vignettes into one barely three-minute song and make it all hold together. Listen to it again, perhaps listen to it three times. It moves from silly rustic fairytale, to revelry, to nostalgia, to melancholy (with amazing contrapuntal back vocals), to music-hall / cabaret, to a fadeout in pseudo-pscyhedelia. There is no other song I know of that has such an innovative structure and encapsulates so many moods and voices in barely a few minutes. And I don’t know any group past or present who can accomplish that, except for the Beatles.
Nicely put! I think of it this way: there were three great bands from that era, The Beatles, The Kinks and The Stones. The Beatles were the strongest musically, The Kinks lyrically and The Stones rhythmically. They all had to have some strength in all three areas, but those were their primary strengths. That said, of those three groups, The Kinks were very solid musically and rhythmically. The Beatles were melodically and harmonically brilliant, rhythmically superb but neither Lennon nor McCartney could match Ray Davies when it came to lyrics. The Stones were decent in the other two areas (their lyrics aren’t great but fit nicely with their style), but they weren’t too strong at melody or harmony. The Who were wildly inconsistent and The Byrds have been consistently overrated by the critics. Dylan was another thing entirely, so when all is said and done, no band or artist of that era produced as broad and deep a catalog as The Kinks while displaying obvious strength in all three components of the listening experience. The Beatles had one huge advantage over The Kinks: George Martin. The quality of The Beatles’ recordings is stunning, fifty years after the fact.I don’t like ranking bands, but I do notice that I tend to listen to The Kinks more often than I listen to The Beatles, and I have no qualms in saying that Ray Davies is the best songwriter of his time.
What I have always felt distinguishes the Kinks from the Beatles is that Ray Davies incorporates point-of-view in his miniatures. The songs come from distinct voices, whereas the Beatles are, more or less, omniscient narrators. The analogy isn’t that great, I’m afraid. I’m an English professor. But what drew me to the Kinks when I was young was how the songs would come from personae, often with a sense of ironic detachment. I have to admit my revelation with the Kinks was in high school when I heard the song “End of the Season.” Not their best, BUT, it made me say, wait, who is this woebegone character behind this Noel Coward thing? I wanted to hear more – and boy am I glad I did. I’m an English professor, by the way, which probably accounts for my rather lame application of literary terms to music.
We need more English professors to apply themselves to music! I was raised in a literary family and have a passion for several poets. It frustrates me no end when music reviewers who couldn’t tell Eliot from Wordsworth label a fourth-rate lyricist as a “poet.” The moniker has a deeper meaning for me than the typical listener. While you can’t set too high a standard for those who fit words to a melody, particularly when they are by necessity singing in the vernacular (as Ray Davies often did when singing in character), you can set some standards to expose a lazy lyricist.
Thank you. Literature probably began in a lyric mode way way way back as people sang in either celebration of life or mourning its loss, which essentially meant celebrating limitless sex and mourning the loss of limitless sex. I’ve always had a problem with reviews that confuse overblown and excessive lyrics in music with poetry. Donovan gets the “poet” accolade way too easily when his lyrics are pure shit, despite the occasionally nice melodies. And I always feel guilty to knock Dylan–I do love several Dylan albums–but at least 80% of his lyrics are gibberish. For instance, “Like a Rolling Stone” is always hailed as one of, if not the, greatest song ever. Yet Dylan himself claimed that halfway through the song he lost it on the lyrics, and that the last half of the song is mostly crap. That means that the groundbreaking aspect of the song–that it was a single that went longer than three minutes–is based upon three more minutes that the songwriter himself claims sucks.
I had a great time ripping Donovan in my two reviews. To anyone who has read Yeats, Rimbaud, Browning, Dickinson . . . applying the poet label to people like Donovan is deeply offensive. Right now I’m preparing for some future reviews of progressive rock bands, and oh, boy, let’s talk highfalutin’ gibberish!
Ha! I’ll have to look for your Donovan reviews. I simply cannot listen to most prog rock, so, good luck! I could, however, live on a desert island with the complete works of Dickinson, Yeats, Shakespeare, and Eliot. And the Beatles and Kinks. And some cigarettes. Coffee. A woman. Ah, fuck the desert island. That’s my apartment I just described.
Great review of a great album. This is definitely one of the lost gems in rock history. Believe it or not, besides a compilation of Kinks stuff, this was the first album I got by them and was floored by it. I played it for all my friends and so many of us would play it over and over when we got together. I love so many of the Kinks albums (and even have a fondness for some of the “not-so-popular” albums like Preservation Act 1 and Give The People What They Want), but VGPS is the one that I still listen to regularly. Listen to the 3 disc special edition to hear the original mix, the mono mixes, singles released around the time and outtakes. It is a great set, but nothing beats throwing on the old vinyl and listening!!!!! Thanks again for a great review and a great site!!!!
Thank you! I found that in revisiting all these albums I wanted more, so I’ll definitely get the 3-disc version. I’m a passionate defender of their theatrical period and those reviews are by far my longest pieces.
Indeed! And I proud myself to be a minority within a minority! I mean, the Kinks fan kontingent is not very numerous to begin with, and fans who think the band has not peaked in the 1960s are fewer still – and I’m one of these! I love their theatrical phase and even some of their “arena” albums. To me, Cash Box has summed it all up: “The KInks are one of the few bands who have great songs on all of their albums, although not all of their albums are great.”
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I bought all of those kinks gems from 1966 until 1974 and my friends thought I was a joke ! But John Peel and Dave Lee Travis on Radio One were very fair and often played kinks new album tracks at peak hour times in England
You were ahead of your time, as we’re The Kinks. Thank you for taking the time to comment!
I missed this review until now. I love the fact that you teared up listening to Animal Farm. That was Pete Quaife’s favorite Kinks song, and, though he had just about had it with the Kinks by this point, he also would mist up when trying to explain his affection for the song. My favorite from the album is “People Take Pictures of Each Other,” a perfect, perfect song…
It would be good to mention that this album existed in another iteration that was released in Europe briefly before Ray had it pulled and reworked it. Another Pete Quaife favorite, “Mr. Songbird,” was on that original version, as was “Days,” perhaps the most moving song the Kinks ever released. Both of those songs would have fit perfectly on “Village Green,” but were eventually bumped because Ray wanted to add other songs and Pye would not release a double album.
Thank you for writing such a thoughtful review for an album that has always needed a sympathetic ear. How is it that the Kinks very best work (this album, Waterloo Sunset, Days) are still virtually unknown in America?
A friend of mine has a tagline he always uses to explain absurdities in the USA: “Never underestimate the stupidity of the American people.” I did not know about “Days” having been a possibility for VGPS; it’s a beautiful song and now it will be in my head all day long! Thank you!
[…] Else is a generally pleasant and sometimes stunning interlude between Face to Face and The Village Green Preservation Society. It’s listed somewhere in the middle of the 500 greatest all-time albums list from Rolling […]
[…] also glad to see that some of the visitors took the time to check out my reviews of Lola and Village Green Preservation Society so that they know that I LOVE The Kinks and agree with my friend and frequent commentator Michael […]
[…] much so that sometimes their cup runneth over. The writing simply isn’t as strong as it is on Village Green Preservation Society, Lola vs. The Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, or even Muswell Hillbillies for that matter (Muswell […]
My friend Marianne Sp, a hardcore Kinks fanatic (she was their official tour photographer for a few years). There’s some Kinks biz her front page right now: