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?
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.
“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.