As rock ‘n’ roll lumbers on, it’s no longer revolutionary to say the peak of industrialized progress has come and gone. This new worldview must eventually demand a major shift in social thought, the kind of progress only dreamed of in the long ago false golden years of the 1960s. The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, possibly the only album to emerge from the decade unscathed by that aborted revolution, is an untapped source for dealing with the frustration we have encountered on the downward slant. The album deals in missed opportunities and dead dreams, leaping ahead of its time by planting tongue in cheek in honor of the penultimate hope that things must get better because they can’t get much worse. Reissued this summer in an essential three-disc set from Sanctuary, Village Green emerges as the most important record of this generation to arrive forty years too early. It’s ironic that an album from the past, so dedicated to the past, could be so relevant in the present, and so vital to the future.
The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is a study in loss. Even the cover, taken during a photo shoot through the actual Village Green, has been altered to obscure the image, giving it a worn look, a noticeable sense of passing. Aging, it seems to say, has even caught up with rock ‘n’ roll. Photography is at the center of the album; two of its songs are expressly about the medium (“Picture Book” and “People Take Pictures of Each Other”), and what was once the imperfect present is now the untouchable past.
Each song tells a tale of loss in some way, whether it’s a specific person or a broad concept. And with such loss comes nostalgia, the idealization of a memory. But with songs like “Do You Remember Walter,” in which the narrator reminisces about — and finally dismisses — a childhood friend, Kinks frontman Ray Davies shows he’s extremely conscious of this. “People often change,” he tells us, “but memories of people can remain.”
It is this self-consciousness — and sarcasm — that made Village Green, which was originally released in 1968, so hard for people to swallow. It promptly bombed, and even among its biggest fans is thought to be severely out of touch with the world into which it was released. The White Album, Beggar’s Banquet, and Are You Experienced? are most often invoked to illustrate the disparity between Ray Davies’s consciousness and most rock artists at the time. But it would be a mistake to assume that this is just a set of good pop songs.
Davies has used his band to say something intensely personal about the nature of getting older and living your life; like all great artists, his most personal work is his most universal. The future in The Village Green Preservation Society is the unknown, a cold and frightening place; the past is obscured through time as a bliss-filled Eden that only the naive would desire. Utopia has come and gone; we took the red pill and found out how deep the rabbit hole went, and it turned out neither alternative protected us from the full spectrum of pain and joy unique to being human.
The album is so packed with brilliant ideas about aging and time that it would be easy to view it as what Davies originally intended: a solo album. But the Kinks were always intent on rocking beyond the call of duty. “Last of the Steam Powered Trains,” with its tight-as-hell up-tempo freak-out halfway through, contributes to the contradictory tone just as strongly as any lyric. Beneath these beautiful melodies and supposedly traditional thought processes is a legendary rock ‘n’ roll band ready to break free and smash everything they claim to hold dear. It makes for as notable a shift in musical thinking as the above-mentioned, far more commercially successful albums. Look to the bouncing rhythm of “All of My Friends Were There,” the orchestral overdub of the sublime “Village Green,” and the controlled — and oddly timeless — psychedelia of “Phenomenal Cat”; this is hardly a quaint harkening back to tradition.
But these really are quite good pop songs, and they’ve been put to uniquely arranged and professionally handled rock ‘n’ roll. Listening to a re-mastered Village Green when all you’ve been exposed to is the original version is to listen to Village Green for the first time. Where those early CDs give a sense of sound, re-mastered recordings give a sense of specific instruments. The piano on “The Village Green Preservation Society” slides and punches, the deep guitar riff on “Big Sky” booms from above, and the string-based swirl on “Sitting by the Riverside” brings a revelation: This may be the best song on the album.
The wealth of extras included on the excellent Sanctuary re-mastering expands and deepens the portrait of Davies’s contemporary persona. Along with some B-sides and six excellent songs previously only available on the ironically titled Great Lost Kinks Album (an out-of-print collection well worth tracking down), the stereo version of “Days” has been included. This single, originally to be included on Village Green but eventually scrapped, is a beautifully controlled melding of perfected mixing, arranging, and Davies’s spectacular lyrics that recall “In My Life.”
But where the Beatles were about big emotions and bigger realizations (is there anything bigger than, “The love you take is equal to the love you make”?), the Kinks were about the complications of such developments. “Days” begins by thanking a loved one “for the days,” but soon Davies says, “You took my life”; it becomes clear that this is a song not only about love, but also about fear. Now that your love is gone, what is next?
Few Kinks songs feature one emotion; fewer still completely mean what they say. For Davies, to commit would be to pretend that something can be defined, that there can be an absolute truth (this idea would be incorporated into British music casually associated with the Beatles, particularly Blur, who are essentially a modern Kinks). The Kinks would never write “All You Need Is Love.” But then they could never be a “Street Fighting Man,” either. They are the grey to the black and white of the Stones and the Beatles.
Because grey has so many shades, the Kinks have never been an easy band to pin down. The oft-repeated notion that Davies created a work entirely separate from the moment in which it was created is misleading. The records of the time were certainly looking toward the future, but in many ways Davies was as well, albeit negatively.
With much of the record (and certainly with the above-mentioned “Days”), Davies was saying there is no turning back, that it is easy to look to a crystallized past and ignore the troubled present. But eventually we must acknowledge that, despite our fears, we are continually moving forward. Rather than embrace the future, Davies, in his own cynical way, is rejecting the past and present. By simplifying the intricacies of his language, it becomes easy to associate this idea with the counter-culture movement, just as it is easy to associate it with today’s fascination with technology.
But that Village Green doesn’t need those associations — that it could very well come from any time — gives it a freedom that few classic albums have been afforded. The classic Stones albums are firmly associated with the social developments of the ’60s; the Clash will forever be associated with the birth of (British) punk. When you listen to most “classic” music, it’s almost impossible not to identify with an idea that has already been established in your head; the time comes in every rock ‘n’ roll fan’s life when he understands the greatness of the Beatles, but no one can discover the greatness of the Beatles.
To identify yourself with a particular genre of the past is to pledge allegiance to an ideal that is already dead. In this era, there are no punks, no mods, no ravers; there is only the illusion of association, the superficial ideological or sociological dedication needed to become accepted within a co-opted — and therefore obsolete — group. The shift of the new decade has seen more people choosing culture’s grey area: some hip-hop today, some rock tomorrow, a club visit to a favorite house deejay next weekend. Whether or not this is a uniting of the fringe culture in response to a nation-wide jolt to the right is irrelevant to the conclusion: Uncertainty is our uniting force, and a big fuck you to “the ’60s” is the only way to give our generation any hope of contributing to the same tradition we must reject.
The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is the untainted ideal of the first rock ‘n’ roll generation, realized decades ahead of its time. Although the record is hardly an obscurity, its untainted nature persists: It is perhaps the best album from rock ‘n’ roll’s golden age that has no singles, no songs you’ve heard on the radio, and few advocates in the older generation. Yet its uneasiness with its own confidence, its hatred for its own joys, and its controlled chaos mirrors the cynicism of hope we define ourselves by today, as well as the quiet revolution we demand tomorrow.
Our parents had their chance to discover the brilliance of the Village Green, to place it alongside the best rock ‘n’ roll has given us. But, like the Village Green itself, they let it pass them by. Now, like Ray Davies, we must rediscover it and claim it as our own. We are the Village Green Preservation Society. God save the Village Green.
Kinks Reissue Buyers Guide
Discuss this review at the Prefix Message Board
Unofficial home page
Koch Records home page