Graded on a Curve:
The Kinks, The Kinks
Are the Village Green Preservation Society

Ray Davies is without a doubt the most fascinating and enigmatic figure to emerge from England’s whole Merseybeat movement. Was he a hard rocker or music hall romanticist, an ironically distanced and gimlet-eyed chronicler of an England in terminal decline or the biggest mourner at the funeral?

One can only conclude that he’s all of the above, and add that he was, during the late sixties, the smartest fellow on the entire English rock scene with the possible exception of the Bonzo Dog Band’s Vivian Stanshall. That he chose to exercise his estimable talents during this period writing seemingly modest vignettes—miniatures if you will—of middle-class English life should not stand in the way of our adjudging the results—in this case 1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society—to be undeniable masterpieces.

The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society—which was released on the same day as the Beatles’ White Album—is probably Davies’ finest hour. Indeed, I for one think it’s the finest of the “concept” albums to be released by the great bands of the era, although I’ll hardly argue with you if you go with Pet Sounds. On its 15 tracks Davies attempts to do what Marcel Proust did with his seven-volume novel À la recherche du temps perdu—namely, to recapture lost time, and in specific his lost childhood spent in the little village green near his home in Fortis Green.

The album is a wistful look back at a “simpler” time, albeit one tinged with knowing irony—the Ray Davies who sings, on the title cut, “God save little shops, china cups, and virginity” is, without a doubt, having us on. And yet there’s an edge of sincerity there too—why not save vaudeville and variety, if they’re sunny childhood memories? But the truly wonderful thing about this remembrance of things past is the way Davies holds out the hope that—as he sings in “Do You Remember Walter?”—memories remain even as people change.

And the even better thing about this LP is how lovely its vignettes are—“The Village Green Preservation Society” is one of my favorite songs ever, what with its beguiling melody and detailed lyrics. And who, having heard the propulsive pop ditty “Picture Book,” can ever forget it? And the same goes for the lovely and spacious “Big Sky,” with its low-key psychedelia and mournful conclusion that there’s nothing up there with love in its heart for us.

“Village Green” is yet another nostalgic and sad look back; the great “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” a Howlin’ Wolf-based rhythm and blues take on a form of transport on its way out, just like little shops and virginity. “Phenomenal Cat” melds cartoon flutes—produced via mellotron—and a “Good Vibrations” kinda feel to a delightful set of lyrics about a fat cat who has seen through the veil of Maya to discover “the secret of life” and is now content to “eat himself through eternity.”

The rancorous “Wicked Annabella” is a childhood nightmare rendered in song, and boasts some great drum bash, a monstrous bass, and lots of ominous guitar. And I could go on; “Animal Farm” is a deliriously lovely bite of psychedelia about preferring real barnyard animals to the wilder beasts that roam the “hard, hard world,” while “Johnny Thunder” boasts beguiling acoustic guitar and lots of nonsense syllables, sounds like it could be by the Who, and concerns the village bad boy, who “lives on water, feeds on lightning.”

I prefer the miniaturist of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society to the bold strokes modernist of such later LPs as Misfits (1978), Low Budget (1979), and State of Confusion (1983), but then who doesn’t? In the late sixties, when everybody else was looking forward to the Age of Aquarius, Davies was looking backwards to an age that was gone forever, and there was magic in his gaze. We’ve all been cast adrift in time, separated forever from our moorings with nothing but our memories. We fill up so little space as individuals, but we’re all giants in time, and it takes an epic effort to vault the years in order to reconnect, if only for a moment, with what we once were. Ray Davies is more than a musician; he’s an alchemist of the only dimension that really matters. And I for one will always be grateful to him for that.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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