On November 22, 1968 The Kinks released their sixth album THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY (hence to be referred to as VILLAGE GREEN). Upon its release the album was branded a flop and the world moved on. But like a lot of great art, time has been kind to VILLAGE GREEN, and the album is now regarded as one of the band’s best efforts.
VILLAGE GREEN is a very (very, very) English record. It’s also a concept album. These two factors probably contributed to it’s poor reception here in America. Singer-songwriter Ray Davies, who wrote all the songs on the album, celebrates the traditional English country-village (the “Village Green” which is brought up throughout the album), while at the same time lamenting and mourning it’s disappearance. It’s difficult to tell exactly how much of Davies bemoaning is genuine and how much is ironic. The album opens with the song, “The Village Green Preservation Society” which, though sung in a very sincere manner…if clearly meant to be tongue in cheek with it’s list of things the band (as the Preservation Society) wishes to protect: draft beer, china shops, custard pie, strawberry jam (and all different varieties), Sherlock Holmes (and Moriarty), and the whole damn “English speaking vernacular.” It’s all a bit extreme, including the assertion that this “society” is also the “skyscraper condemnation affiliate/God save Tudor houses, antique tables and billiards.”
And yet, even though the song is a bit ridiculous, to the extent that it seems to be a parody…in comes the chorus: “Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you/What more can we do?” and I begin to wonder if perhaps Davies is only half poking fun. The answer can be found on the rest of the album, which is nearly 100% earnest in it’s assertion that the times are changing…and it kinda sucks.
Less about “green” spaces transforming into modern skyscrapers (though that’s in there too), VILLAGE GREEN is about how time and the change it brings effects one personal life. Ray Davies is a young-man beginning to realize he’s getting older. There are two themes of VILLAGE GREEN, both are very much intertwined. The first thing the album is about is time. The passage of time, the marking of time, the struggle against the change time brings, and finally the acceptance that one must grow older. The second theme of the album is photography, specifically as a reaction to time.
On a majority of the record the subject of photography/photos/taking pictures comes up. The question Davies seems to be asking throughout is: why do we take photographs? Is it because we love each other (like in “Picture Book” a song so pro-photograph it’s no wonder HP included it in a 2004 digital photography ad campaign) OR do we take photos for darker, more selfish reasons (like in the album closer “People Take Pictures of Each Other”)?
Davies and the rest of The Kinks seem to think it’s a little of both. “Picture Book” is a bouncy, glorious ode-of a song about looking back on one’s life via a big book of pictures. Though the chorus is a bit dark “pictures of each other/to prove we love each other,” the content of the photos described in the song are all seemingly random snapshots of our lives. It’s almost like photography as an extension of our memories. After all, if we don’t remember something, it’s like it never happened. And just like a picture of “a holiday in August/outside a bed and breakfast in sunny Southend,” our memories can be inexplicably random (why DO we remember the odd little things we remember?).
The darker side of photography, however, is found in “People Take Pictures of Each Other” (which actually seems like it should be the title of the more well known “Picture Book”). The song has a soft, French-like quality about it. Davies sings about how “People take pictures of the Summer/Just in case someone thought they had missed it/Just to proved that it really existed.” Which leads us to a world or mindset where, it’s not a question of “if you don’t remember it, it didn’t happen” but rather, to a place where “if you have no photographic proof of it…it didn’t happen.” I find that many people in my generation and beyond are obsessed with photos, so much so that many people (parents at a dance recital) agonize so much over the photos that they miss the actual moment. The song also touches on the albums other theme, of time when later one Davies sings: “You can’t picture love that you took from me/When we were young and the world was free/Pictures of things as they used to be/Don’t show me no more, please.” That’s a bold, and frankly powerful lyric…and really encapsulates the complexity of VILLAGE GREEN. The album goes from “Picture Book,” a love letter to photographs…and ends thirteen songs later with the exclamation “show me no more, please.”
That’s why this record is so fucking great. It’s this giant, complex mediation of life and death, disguised as a pop record.
“Do You Remember Walter?” has nothing to do with photos, but it’s a central track to the record. Whereas “The Village Green Preservation Society” is all about trying to hold onto the past, “Do You Remember Walter?” is a frighteningly realistic look at how that fight ALWAYS ends. The song is one man’s recollection of his old school chum, Walter. Walter and the song’s narrator were once young and idealistic–they were going to “fight the world and be free,” with the goal of saving their money and buying a ship to sail the world! Now he’s married and fat, in bed by 8:30. He’s not the cool guy that smoked and drank, and had a bunch of fun with his “mates.” Now he’s this empty shell of the free-spirited kid he once was. And, as the narrator laments, “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.” This suggests to me, that the narrator–like Walter, lost that battle against time. There is a brief respite from the gloom, tucked away at the end of “Do You Remember Walter?” when Davies sings: “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.” Which, in a way, reflects on the albums other theme of photography, in that like our memories, photos can preserve events AND people in the past forever. So Walter is gone, but never forgotten.
A bit of hope.
“Village Green” is a slower song, one that’s essentially a list of all thing country things that the narrator/Davies misses about pastoral Brittan. It’s a good song, notable for mentioning the titular green-space AND also referencing photographs: “American tourists flock to see the village green/They snap their photographs and say gawd darn it/Isn’t it a pretty scene?”
The Kinks ape The Yardbirds on “The Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” which shares many thematic similarities to “Do You Remember Walter?” It’s a bluesy-harmonica fueled stomp that finds Davies proclaiming that he is the last “of the good, old fashioned, steam-powered trains.” This of course, is used as a metaphor for Davies/the narrator’s staunch stand against the endless parade of time: “I’m the last of the good old renegades/All my friends are all middle class and grey/But I live in a museum, so I’m okay.” It’s about trains, but it’s also about being that last holdout against growing up and adult responsibilities.
But it’s not all heavy on VILLAGE GREEN. The album has fifteen tracks, and some have very little to do with any larger theme (except in the most abstract sense). Of these, I enjoy the vaudevillian “Sitting By the Riverside.” With it’s heavy use of keyboard (there’s a great freak-out moment mid-way the song, when the keyboard reaches this climax…this thunderous peak, then crashes and the vocals kick back in, it’s fucking great) and laid-back vocal harmonies, this song reminds me of the Beatles-throwback songs like “Your Mother Should Know” or “When I’m Sixty-Four,” in that it’s a rock band playing a song in a style their parents would have liked. I always find those kind of songs fascinating.
Another non-theme related song I find really interesting is “Big Sky.” “Big Sky” is a trippy, near-psychedelic song–that’s nearly spoken-word. Davies croons and wails about all the injustice/terrible things that the song’s “character” the sky (Big Sky) looks down upon…and shrugs. He shrugs because he’s, well because he’s just so gosh darn big, and our problems are just so small. Is Big Sky God? Does God, like Big Sky, see our problems and find him/her/itself too powerful or mighty to help? Or is Davies being a bit sarcastic, is Big Sky not really overwhelmed but rather complacent?
“People lift up their hands and they look up to the big sky/But big sky is too big to sympathize/Big Sky’s too occupied/Though he would like to try/And he feels bad inside/Big sky’s too big to cry.”
What is Big Sky “too occupied” doing? Is he too busy staring down at our suffering to do anything about it? Maybe God’s hypnotized in such a manner, maybe that’s why we have war and disease and suffering. Then again, isn’t that what we all do? Don’t we as people look at other suffering and throw our hands up and say “I’m too busy to help!” What are we too busy doing? If The Kink’s “Big Sky” is God, then we were certainly made in his/her/it’s image.
From contemplating such large, theological questions, The Kinks switch over to the “Star-fucker” phenomenon on the song “Starstruck.” Which of course is about a girl who runs around, going nuts because she’s starstruck. Other album oddities include a song about fat cat (“Phenomenal Cat”), and an Orwellian-ode to Animal control of the world (“Animal Farm”). All three of these tracks make fantastic use of the mellotron–which allowed the band to simulate woodwind instruments (though they sounded pretty real to me).
I’ve probably over-thought this record. I know I’m misrepresenting it–it’s not a dodgy, stuffy old record with a lot of things to “say.” VILLAGE GREEN is just a rich, detailed, thought-provoking piece of art that, like a good painting or film–can stimulate the mind and, if you chose…give you something to think about.
Or you can hum along with it. It’s full of wonderful, beautiful hooks. VILLAGE GREEN is a very literate, yet very lively rock record. And we all know how few of THOSE are being made today. What do I have to do, put it in your hands? Go. Get it. Listen.
Thanks for reminding me of this album, which is now playing in the background. This is Ray Davies at his breeziest, and it’s delightful. Davies, like Paul McCartney, has a deep love of British music hall, pub songs and the infuriating/endearing traits of the well-meaning men and women of dear England. It was pretty radical to be so nostalgic while their compatriots were lacerating middle class values: while the Kinks sang about the charm of looking through picture books in 1966, a year later the Beatles were singing about seeing a photo of “a lucky man who made the grade.”