Opinion – Why a 49-year-old album by The Kinks matters today
A fresh look at a lost album that has more relevance to today than it did all those years ago by the band who gave you such classic songs like “You Really Got Me” and “Lola.”
It’s November 22nd, 1968. Two landmark albums recorded from two different studios in the music capital of the world (London) have been released: The Kinks’ The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (VGPS) and The Beatles’ The Beatles (commonly known as The White Album). Both are albums from bands who were instrumental (pun intended) in the British Invasion and went on to explore different styles of music. They shared their differences, of course, especially in the sales of their particular album. The White Album sold 3.3 million copies in the first four days of release. VGPS? In total it sold 100,000 copies worldwide.
On the surface, they are very different; The White Album is a double album of eclectic styles and VGPS is a concept album with a clear and concise style. Musically, they’re surprisingly not that different; at the time, both bands were embracing a “back to basics” philosophy, and both albums show this development. However, this isn’t a compare and contrast between these albums, and I needn’t give more praise to The White Album than it already has. Quite frankly, I prefer VGPS. The White Album has great songs, but it suffers from “double album syndrome.” In other words, it can be overblown and pretentious.
Those are words that could not be used to describe VGPS, and it helps that The Kinks were not a pretentious band. While The Beatles would’ve loved to turn you on and The Who wanted you to see, feel, touch and heal them, The Kinks were writing about people living in two room apartments and watching football on Saturday. It would be safe to say that lead singer/songwriter Ray Davies is the English Bruce Springsteen.
So why did it not sell well when it first came out? Well first of all, it did not help that The Kinks were in the midst of a four-year ban from touring the United States at that time (no one quite knows why) and as a result were unable to market the album outside of Europe. In addition, with lyrics like “picture yourself when you’re getting old” and songs about flying cats, steam trains and growing apart from old friends, its apolitical sentiment was decidedly unfit for the hippie culture and anti-war protests that were going on at the time.
It’s precisely these lines and song ideas that make the songs more relevant today. The idealism of the 1960s is for better or worse, gone, replaced by the middle class values that The Kinks were known for promoting. “The Kinks all agree that Sunday dinner is the perfect realization of heaven”, bassist Pete Quaife once said. No song they ever wrote comes closer to promoting those values better than the title track, “The Village Green Preservation Society.”
On the surface, it seems like an English version of Make America Great Again, with lines that call for the preservation of values lost (“God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety”) and that decry modernism (“We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate”). Despite its rah-rah conservatism, it takes a middle ground position in the chorus (“serving the old ways from being abused/protecting the new ways for me and for you/what more can we do?”) that prevents it from being a conservative anthem. It’s interesting that this track promotes a middle class ideology, in a time when the middle class is referred to as one that is disappearing, this track seems more universal than political.
Davies seems to love pictures: there’s two songs about them on this album: “Picture Book” (which you’ll recognize from that HP commercial from 2004) and “People Take Pictures Of Each Other.” While in the 1960s photographs took time to develop, today pictures are available instantly, and websites such as Instagram and apps like Snapchat have become a platform to celebrate such photographs. These songs are where Davies was truly ahead of his time; he can take credit for inventing the idea for these platforms, with lines like “picture book/of people with each other/to prove they love each other/a long time ago” in the former song and “people take pictures of the summer/just in case someone thought they had missed it/and to prove that it really existed” in the latter song.
At this point in their career, The Kinks had made it a specialty writing about characters. However, most of those character studies were members of England’s upper class (“Sunny Afternoon” and “A Well Respected Man”, for example). The characters that populate the village green mostly live there, which brings them down to our level. The most relatable character is Walter, who shows up in the wistful “Do You Remember Walter?” We all know someone like Walter, someone we were close when we were younger, but grew apart from them as we got older.
The most interesting character we meet is someone who could be the precursor to one of The Kinks most famous songs, “Lola.” It’s “Monica”, a calypso song about the town prostitute. Like in the song “Lola”, Davies never passes any judgement on Monica’s predicament and feels affection, even longing for her, singing “I, I shall die if I should lose Monica.” For all of you feminists complaining of the lack of female characters, look no further than the work of Ray Davies.
It’s a myth that The Kinks never went psychedelic, because there are two great psychedelic tracks on here: “Wicked Annabella”, a menacing song about a witch, and “Phenomenal Cat”, a fairy tale about a cat who found the meaning of the life and now spends the rest of his days eating and getting fat. Other than adding a sense of otherworldliness to the otherwise quaint village green, Davies gives his most subtle satire in “Phenomenal Cat.” Organic, gluten free, soy and peanut butter in the fridge may be the way to go for a healthy lifestyle, but we could take a lesson from our feline friend: “He had flown to old Hong Kong/and had learned the secret of life/ and the sea and the sky beyond/So he gave up his diet and sat in a tree/and ate himself through eternity.” “Starstruck” (the only song on the album that charted) is another example of subtle satire disguised with a frivolous layer of pop: the song pokes fun at the high living that so many rap, modern pop and hip-hop songs celebrate.
“Big Sky”, one of the more minor songs on the album, is a song that doesn’t allow its melody to disguise its vitriolic satire. Possibly the most anti-religious song ever recorded, Davies has always denied that the song was about God. However, with lyrics that say “People lift up their hands and they look up to the Big Sky/ but the Big Sky is too big to sympathize” seem to discredit his claim. Also, Davies “raps” the lyrics on the song against an acoustic guitar backing; although this might annoy some, it allows Davies to be at his most sardonic.
Most of the album has a soft sound, but two tracks give the album its punch. My personal favorite is “Last of The Steam Powered Trains”, a blues based track where The Kinks “out-Stoned” The Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones were always devotees of the blues, but here The Kinks were more faithful in recreating the classic blues sound. “Animal Farm” is a driving song with some of Davies’ best vocals, but these songs are also the strongest contributors of another underlying theme of the album; a discontent for the rapidly evolving yuppie urban lifestyle. “Last Of The Steam Powered Trains” came out a good twenty years before computers, but what’s the difference between diesel train engines replacing steam powered trains and Kindles slowly replacing books, for example? Yes, there are tedious updates disguised as wonderful advancements in technology, but are we really gaining anything by these constant updates?
Ray Davies spent his whole life writing about an England that never existed. Donald Trump is going to spend his entire presidency trying to recreate an America that never existed. The Kinks knew their vision was idealized; it would be unfair to categorize them as Luddite conservatives, although it was probably easy to paint them that way in the radicalized 1960s. No matter how idealized their vision was, they were masterful at writing about the everyday things that people go through. Although they did a marvelous job writing about those subjects on their previous albums Face to Face and Something Else, they decided to narrow it down to writing about a fictional English village. What they ended up with was something that was rustic, yet mythic.
Track List (Ranked Strongest To Weakest)
- Last Of The Steam Powered Trains
- Animal Farm
- Picture Book
- Wicked Annabella
- The Village Green Preservation Society
- Do You Remember Walter
- Phenomenal Cat
- People Take Pictures of Each Other
- Village Green
- Sitting by The Riverside
- Big Sky
- Johnny Thunder
- All My Friends Were There