Although it barely made a ripple critically or commercially upon its release the concept album The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society would go on to become one of the most influential in rock history. Like many great works the album was born out of a series of “happy accidents”. The band’s composer and front man, Ray Davies, had originally wanted to do a concept album about life in London but after a trip to rural Devonshire, England he decided to work on the “village” concept instead. Also, by 1968 the Kinks had begun to experience diminished chart success with pop singles, so they made a concerted change towards more substantial musical art. While most bands of the era were into their psychedelic phase and experimenting with newfangled sounds, the Kinks went back to their English roots and thoughtfully reflected on the loss of rural England to the modernization of the swinging sixties. They composed songs that blended the best of their rock and roll sound with various ethnic instrumentation and the result is a masterpiece that sits at the crossroads of rock history. So, despite the plethora of great albums during the year of 1968, we chose this Kinks work as our 1968 Album of the Year.
Personally, I take credit for The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society becoming Classic Rock Review’s Album of the Year for 1968. As an avid fan of the group’s 1981 album Give the People What They Want, I decided to explore further Kinks songs in my father’s vast music collection. I listened to a few tracks from this album and, what really ingrained the piece in my head was when I watched Edgar Wright’s film Hot Fuzz a day or so later. It contains two tracks from this album, and they fit perfectly into the film. So suddenly reminded of the album, I endeavored to listen to it again and I found myself no longer liking it but loving it!
The Kinks were one of the most prolific bands of the sixties producing an album every year from 1964 onwards, producing yearly releases through the mid seventies. The album immediately prior to the Village Green was 1967’s Something Else which was the last time the Kinks worked with American producer Shel Talmy, clearing the way for Ray Davies to explore with more creative freedom. Prior to 1968, concept albums were not known to be commercially successful and The Kinks knew this better than most, as their earlier concept album Face to Face did not do well on the market, but Davies was driven to give it another try.
The concept of the album is a nostalgic look back at rural English life. Each song deals with a particular part of that life gone by. I will discuss what I believe each song is saying a bit farther down. The album is the last to include the original four members of The Kinks, as bassist Pete Quaife left the group in early 1969. Due to the arrangements of these songs, Quaife’s role was diminished on this album.Now onto the individual songs!
The title track is a call to arms to preserve the rural English way of life. Which brings up the question would the album be better suited if the title track was the last song on the album instead of the first, seeing as it’s a sort of culmination of the themes on the album. That said, there are really no other lingering questions I have about this album.
The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks
|Released: November 22, 1968 (Pye)
Produced by: Ray Davies
Recorded: Pye Studios, London November 1966–October 1968
|Side One||Side Two|
|The Village Green Preservation Society
Do You Remember Walter?
Last of the Steam-Powered Trains
Sitting by the Riverside
All of My Friends Were There
People Take Pictures of Each Other
|Ray Davies – Lead Vocals, Guitars, Keyboards, Harmonica, Sccordion, Flute, Horns
Dave Davies – Guitars, Vocals
Nicky Hopkins – Keybopards, Mellotron
Peter Quaife – Bass, Vocals
Mick Avory – Drums, Percussion
The opening title track is also perhaps the most entertaining song on the album. The song opens with a fairly simple but catchy melody involving a guitar, flute and drums. The lyrics are a call for preservation;
God save little shops, china cups and virginity…”
This gave rise to fans shouting “God save the Kinks” in the years following the album’s release. Despite my wondering how the song would work closing the album out; it does a wonderful job of drawing the listener in and establishing the themes and tones of the album. The second track, “Do You Remember Walter?”, was recently mentioned by Edgar Wright on twitter as basically describing Gary King, the main character of the film The World’s End;
ICMI: The Kinks sing about their very own Gary King back in 1968. http://t.co/iJ2eKZnwkz
— edgarwright (@edgarwright) August 25, 2013
The song is about a man who was very popular in his young years but who has obviously not achieved much in life beyond having a good amount of fun in his younger years. The singer laments the fact that he and Walter wouldn’t even know each other if they met in the modern day. The song ends on the line, “People often change but memories of people can remain,” this is similar to the lines in a later track called “People Take Pictures of Each Other”. Musically the piano intro almost sounds like ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” for a moment before the drums and Dave Davies‘ guitar rolls in. Despite the slightly melancholy subject matter of a person growing up and becoming little more than a cog in the wheel of the world, the song remains fairly upbeat.
After this comes “Picture Book”. Mick Avory‘s drums in this song have an almost garage band feeling to them and it’s wonderful. It stays connected to the albums theme of looking back at the past as “Picture Books” are obvious ways in which we categorize and view the past. It’s a really fun song that I could easily see being played over a commercial for cameras. Even though cameras are slowly dying as their inclusion on cell phones has rendered them all but obsolete. Strangely that makes the song work even better for the album in some ways. “Johnny Thunder” seems to be a about a man who escaped his small town and spent the rest of his life on the go. “Old Johnny vowed that he would never / Ever end up like the rest / Johnny Thunder rides the highway”. The acoustic guitar introduction to the song has an exciting quality and Ray Davies’ vocal pitch changes when the backing vocals come in and are a fun musical aesthetic that is almost never heard in music anymore.
The best part about the next track is that the way it builds up ‘steam’ seems to mirror the songs title “The Last of the Steam Powered Trains”. A harmonica is employed in the song as well. It’s both a nod to vagabonds riding trains and a somber sort of sendoff for the dying technology. The drums are steady but increase in speed and you can almost visualize them as the train’s wheels turning faster and faster. The song just gets better and better as it builds steam. It adds in a few more instruments and even some clapping. As the song reaches its climax you can picture a train mounting a hill and building energy as it does only to crest the hill and coast for a second before it starts to power itself again. The song paints a wonderful visual picture with music and is an absolute joy to listen to. On “Big Sky”, Ray Davies does a sort of narration throughout the song instead of singing. I’m not completely sure what the song is saying. I believe it’s essentially commenting on the fact that all of our human problems are essentially pointless when faced with something as big and majestic as the sky but that is just my guess.
One of my many favorite tracks on this album is “Sitting By the Riverside”. It’s a completely different type of song from the first six songs on the album. It has a similar theme to “Big Sky” as it conjures the image of a person relaxing on a riverside and enjoying the beauty of nature. I also tend to think of Gondola boat drivers singing in Italian to their passengers when I listen to the song. It’s interesting that at two separate points in the song it feels like it’s about to go in a radically different direction musically but quickly returns to the main flow of the song. It’s amazing to listen to how much of this song is done with Ray Davies’ vocals. “Animal Farm” is after this and it has a completely upbeat tempo throughout. The song seems to comment on the idea that rural life is simpler and more peaceful than city life. The whole song seems like an optimistic and idealist view of a farm from the perspective of someone who longs to live on one. I believe the mellotron makes its first real appearance in the background of this song.
My favorite track on the entire album is “Village Green”. This was the earliest song, recorded during the sessions for Something Else, and set the theme which inspired everything on the album. A large amount of wind instruments create a stirring, slightly melancholy beginning to the song. The character of the song first describes the town he came from and his past happiness there with a woman named Daisy. He then spends the rest of the song lamenting leaving it as it has become a tourist trap and “Daisy’s married Tom the Grocer boy”. The wind instruments really lend a sort of sad vibe to the song that allows you to slip right into the feeling of it. Conversely, I’m not really sure how “Starstruck” fits into the albums concept. My guess as to how this really connects is that big cities have a tendency to chew up innocent people from small towns. Musically, Avory’s drums take center stage through most of this song.
The album goes through a radical music change with “Phenomenal Cat”. The song starts with what sounds like a wood flute solo that reminds you of something you’d hear in a forest. The entire song has a dream like fairy tale mood to it. It seems to be touching on small town’s penchant for myths that spring up around certain characters, people or even animals that reside inside of them. The ‘la la la’ sections of the song sound like the vocalist was inhaling helium before takes but it helps to add to the strange quality of the song.
The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society continues to change as the next song starts off with an accordion dance number. “All of My Friends Were There” reminds me a lot of the Pennsylvania Polka but that’s just because I’m used to hearing the accordion within it. It’s only fitting that an album about rural England would contain an accordion number as that was long known as the instrument of common rural Europeans. The lyrics themselves point to the embarrassment that can come from standing out or performing in a small town where you know every member of an audience. Ray Davies even sings as if he is covering a European folk song.
“Wicked Annabella” returns the album to its more rock oriented roots but it still has some tricks up its sleeve. Dave Davies is the lead vocalist on this track and there is an echo on Davies’ voice to give it a spooky impression. The guitar on the album is heavily distorted to add to the spooky nature of it. The lyrics deal with a woman who is the town black sheep and because of her reclusive nature she has become the town witch and boogey man who people tell their children about to scare them into falling asleep at night. Every small town does seem to have someone like this.
Once more the album does a ‘180’ with the next song, “Monica”. The character of the song’s title is the complete opposite of Wicked Annabella so it makes sense that the song would be completely different. Monica is the girl every guy wants to marry in the town. The song has a Latin jazz feel to it which fits perfectly with the idea that everyone wants to love the character of Monica. I love the fact that all of the characters in this album seem to be representations of people every small town has. “People Take Picture of Each Other” is a fun ending to the album that sort of blends “All of My Friends Were There” with some of the albums other influences such as “Do You Remember Walter?”. It is a pretty literal song as it is about people taking picture of things to remember them. It might not be the albums strongest act but it holds up when compared to the rest of the album.
Upon its original release, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society only sold about 100,000 copies and, 45 years after its release, it has yet to reach Gold record status. The Kinks continued to be an extremely dynamic band that adapted to three decades of rock and roll changes, constantly evolving and doing what they wanted to do. In 1973 and 1974, the group released the albums Preservation Act 1 and Preservation Act 2 respectively, which Ray Davies later acknowledged as sequels to this album, when he referred to the three as his “Preservation trilogy”. In many ways, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society stands out in 1968 for innovating via the use of classic sounds and instruments. Along with that the Kinks presented a clear concept album which contains themes and messages that should be clear to anyone who comes from a small town even up to the modern day. This wasn’t something that was done a lot as many of rock and roll’s first forays into concept albums were a bit confusing and disjointed. Unfortunately in a strange twist of fate this Kink’s album has become something that needs Preservation itself. It has been dubbed a ‘cult classic’ but anyone with ears should be able to hear it’s simply a classic. People should discuss the Kinks as one of the great bands up there with the Beatles, and the Stones. So let this be the first act in the movement that will bring about this album’s very own Preservation Society!
God save the Kinks, china cups and virginity!
~ J.D. Cook
Part of Classic Rock Review’s celebration of the 45th anniversary of 1968 albums and our Album of the Year for 1968.