Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

Time for controversial claim of the day #1:
The Kinks are better than The Beatles - to my ears, anyway.


Of course, this is like comparing Greek gods, nearly equal in might but catering to different needs. I don't like to say anything disparaging about The Beatles for fear of misinterpretation, but right up to their (bitter) end, their success was fueled by pop songs. Their best moments, to me, were when they deviated from that. Notable examples include "Blue Jay Way," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "Dig A Pony," and so on and so on. I can take or leave "Hello, Goodbye," but dammit, it sold!

With The Kinks, and my own experience with fellow Kinks fans, is that we are all united by our love of what would constitute the band's greatest hits. We can all agree upon "You Really Got Me" or "Lola" as being terrific songs penned by a genius lyricist/songwriter, Ray Davies. From there, we have a select batch of albums we can say are enjoyable and great introductions to this band: what John Mendelssohn called "the three greatest consecutive albums of their time," (or words to that effect, to borrow one of his oft-repeated phrases) those three being Something Else By The Kinks (1967), The Village Green Preservation Society (1968), and Arthur, Or The Decline & Fall Of The British Empire (1969).

From there, all bets are off. One guy can love The Kinks' 60's stuff but hate the Lola album for being too cynical (if memory serves, John Mendelssohn meets this description) or doing a massive piss-take on their "out-there" releases in the early 1970's, wherein Ray Davies did his best to make The Kinks sound like any other band but The Kinks. Tom Kitts, who wrote an amazing book on Ray Davies, I'm Not Like Everybody Else, devoted most of a chapter to their 1986 album Think Visual, spending as much time on it as he did their universally-praised classics.

I know that due to my own dislike of Nathan Rabin (and others) starting off their online reviews with significant passages of their life story I've promised to not be overtly autobiographical, but if any exception is due it's this one. My senior project for my individualized major in Rock & Roll History was a mini-thesis on The Kinks. For just under a year, all I did in my free time was read, re-listen, and write Kinks. Definitely a labor of love, but totally worth it. Professor Kitts' book was one of my primary resources, due in no small part that not only is his book on Ray Davies/The Kinks extraordinary, his is the only book to have an academic standpoint. While I'm at it, Doug Hinman's day-by-day chronicle (I'm not kidding - day by day) of The Kinks' career, All Day And All Of The Night was indispensable to me, as well. Just the facts, but facts researched down to the nauseating details that I love.

My point is that I really, really like The Kinks. Which brings me to controversial claim of the day #2:
Ray Davies is the best songwriter to come from England and even gives Bob Dylan a run for his money.

Again, these guys are so high up in the stratosphere of talent that we can only estimate whose head his further in the clouds. Here comes the cliche fan tirade, but his music spoke to me. When I first picked up The Kinks' Greatest Hits (Rhino Records, 1989) in sixth grade, I loved it on a visceral level. That guitar on those early singles stills sounds raw and potent today. After I'd grown a little more I took notice of the lyrics.

One particular favorite of mine is in the early song "Something Better Beginning," a nice shimmering ballad from their second album, Kinda Kinks. In the bridge, Ray sings what I consider the most honest and realistic love lyric, ever:

"I never thought I'd love like this until I met you I found something I thought I'd never have The only time I feel alive is when I'm with you I wonder how long it will last..."

It's great, but real - "Wow, you've altered my perspective and made me feel great...but for how long?" I am in complete agreement with Frank Zappa's assertive dislike of love songs when he said something along the lines of, "They want to you believe love is the end. Love is the beginning!" (With that in mind, we can only wonder what sort of love songs could have come out of the mustachioed one's pen...)

Ray seemed to champion the downtrodden and the misfits of society. Paul McCartney was keen to dedicate songs to his sheepdog in the meanwhile. Ray wrote about these elements because he could identify from them. He was a downtrodden misfit growing up, and in many respects he's been a downtrodden misfit within the music industry - and I say this as a high compliment. (See also: Zappa, Frank; The Residents; Beefheart, Captain.)

Without going into any detail, those who know me can see why I identified with his music so much - "I don't fit in but I don't stand out," indeed - growing up in a shitty, clique-driven small town isn't exactly the most welcoming environment for anyone aspiring to one day leave and never look back. (That day is actually less than a month away for me, by the way.)

His songwriting is also laced with observations. One would think he spends most of his time sitting and watching people, studying their habits, and writing about them. As I've learned, a lot of the songs that seem like character sketches of some unknowing sap are in fact abstractions of Ray's own persona. Not all of the time, but most of the time. And when they aren't, he's generally mocking or lampooning someone else - "A Well Respected Man," "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion," "The Poseur" - with a razor's edge.

Socially aware and hip to the climates of change that have come, gone, and stayed since 1964, Ray has generally avoided overt politics. The big exception is the Preservation saga, his true masterpiece, though I'm quick to acknowledge its potential for being unpalatable to the average listener. Sure, Village Green is almost too obvious of a choice to be the subject of my first Kinks write-up, but on its 348th listen I've found it still only gets better, still worthy of all the praise it didn't get the first time around.

Without further ado, go brew yourself a cup of tea, get out your own copy of The Village Green Preservation Society, and read on.

01. The Village Green Preservation Society [9]
A catchy, anthemic, mid-tempo number that serves as an overture for the rest of the album. The old ways must be preserved and protected, lest they be forgotten. It's a charming, earnest message, but the song takes a little too long for my taste to build up. There's a great live treatment of it on video of them doing it with a brass ensemble augmenting them, giving the song the touch of majesty it just doesn't quite attain in this incarnation.

02. Do You Remember Walter? [10]
On first listen I thought this one had quite a lyrical kick to it, as Ray wonders whatever became of his old childhood friend Walter. He retells their pastimes of smoking cigarettes in the backyard, playing cricket, and their overambitious plans to sail the oceans and "fight the world so we'd be free."

"You were just an echo of a world I knew so long ago..."

We all have those ghosts from our past, someone who was in our life for only a season, and then went away. What I interpreted as cynicism at age 13 I have come to recognize nine years later as being deadly accurate, when Ray says not only would Walter not recognize him, "I'll bet you're fat and married / And you're always home in bed by half past 8 / And if I talked about old times you'd get bored and you'd have nothing more to say..." I'm quoting him so much because he says it way better in verse than I ever could in prose.

At the song's coda, he finds some consolation with the fact that "People often change, but memories of people can remain..." Beautiful, poignant, and not like anything else from its time. We're still waiting for The Rolling Stones' "Street Fighting Man" to lead us in a call to arms in a "Revolution" against the oppressive bourgeois swine who reign over us, as the contemporary messages of The Rolling Stones and The Beatles seemed to claim. But in the meantime we're all remembering our childhood friends who have become complete bores while our own lives have only gotten all the more interesting.
03. Picture Book [10]
Please, please, PLEASE refrain from wanting to buy an HP printer during this song! Again showing what a stark contrast they were to their peers, the song opens with Ray and Dave asking for us to "Picture yourself when you're gettin' old," not exactly the easiest thought for a generation eager to take over the world to contemplate. The book of photographs serves as a reminder of the events of your life, of events that predated you, seeing your parents young "out boozing with their friends." Nostalgia seems to be the dominant theme on this album, but (and I think this is the point) for an era that may have only existed in those photographs. My favorite thing about this song is that these fairly reflective lyrics, with a hint of sadness ("Those days when you were happy...") are set to one of Ray's bounciest musical backdrops. He had a knack for doing that sort of thing.

04. Johnny Thunder [10]
There is something Dylanesque about this song, save for the bridges, that makes me think this song wouldn't have been too out of place on John Wesley Harding. It's a simple portrait of a guy who lives by his own set of rules, and "Though everybody tried their best / Old Johnny vowed he would never, ever end up like the rest." This motorcycle-riding rebel would be dusted off for another song all his own, "One Of The Survivors," on Preservation Act One for no real reason at all other than to make a fun rock and roll song. The original "Johnny Thunder" rolls along with a sense of awe and with some gorgeous harmonies from the band.

05. Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains [10]
I love The Kinks, and I love Howlin' Wolf, so to hear The Kinks' twist on "Smokestack Lightning" is a real delight. Never mind that, given the song's placement on the album we can only assume it's Johnny Thunder's own declaration of independence. He's the last of his kind - "All this peaceful livin' is drivin' me insane!" - and alternately proud and desperate sounding. During the solo the band speeds up and then stops, as if to catch their breath, before going through the final verse at breakneck speed, like a train picking up speed. Great song, giving a musical weight to a mainly pastoral, relaxed sounding album.

06. Big Sky [10]
Unlike midphase Who (think Sell Out through around Quadrophenia) or George Harrison's later songs, there isn't much spirituality to be found in the music of The Kinks. "Big Sky" is, from what I can tell, the only point where Ray Davies makes even an oblique reference to God. The way the Big Sky of the title is presented is that of the Deist's perspective of God, a greater being who created everything by way of science and just sat back for the free show. "Big Sky's too occupied...Big Sky's too big to cry...too big to see people like you and me."

Anyway, the musical accompaniment is as ethereal as its subject. Mick Avory's drumming gives the song a wholloping edge. Dave harmonizes excellently with Ray, as usual. Another great song, fairly unique for its time and unique even for its creator.

07. Sitting By The Riverside [10]
I keep describing this album as being a beautiful one, because it is. Driven by an accordion (in 1968, it probably sounded very un-Kink-like, but in 2009 it just sits as the first of many uses of it. Ray Davies used it fantastically on "The Morphine Song" on his 2008 album Working Man's Cafe) the song seems to flow along like carnival music. The melody as he sings "Now I'm free and the world's at my feet" is one of the most beautiful passages Ray has ever composed. The song gentle enough until after the second verse when a swirl of sound effects fades in, including organ and I swear someone dragging a guitar pick (or maybe just their fingernail) across the strings of a piano. We are returned to normalcy for the third verse, but the unique instrumental bridge returns before the song's final tag. A testament to Davies' skills as a musical composer, not just lyrics, but also as a producer.

08. Animal Farm [9]

For the longest time, this song didn't do much for me. It starts side B, but I don't think it's a good choice of an opener. Lyrically, I could always dig it, but I always thought the production wasn't so hot. Then I heard it in mono. In stereo it was a bit echoey, way too "treated"-sounding for my liking. It sounded pretty bad. But in mono it sounds crisp, its intro actually discernible. Not surprisingly, that deftly sums up the differences between the mono mix of this album verses its stereo counterpart.

Original Kinks bassist Peter Quaife is convinced this is one of the best songs Ray's ever written. I have to (respectfully) disagree, but it's pretty good. Perhaps it's just the title...Ray is a very literate man, so I couldn't help but think it was possibly a political song in the Orwellian sense.

Oh, well, Ray's revisiting of Village Green would turn into three albums' worth (one single-LP, one double album) of Orwellian madness with Preservation Act One (1973) and Preservation Act Two (1974).

09. Village Green [10]

The next song on this wonderful album is the song that kick-started this entire project way back in late 1966. Hot on the heels of Face To Face, their first truly great album, they quickly recorded "Dead End Street" (the subject of one of my thesis chapters), a fairly bleak but charming "we're all in this together" glimpse at England's working class. No doubt this song came out of a similar mindset.

The instrumentation on this is perfect. Harpsichord, low brass, and a lead line on one of my favorite orchestral instruments, the oft-underused oboe. The oboe plays a lovely countermelody to the prechorus. As the chorus is repeated, an array of pizzicato strings come in. Its use of non-band instruments doesn't weigh the song down but instead gives it a perfect atmosphere of baroque, Elizabethan days. Fitting, as the song's narrator reflects upon missing his hometown and learning his high school crush has married. A love song in one of the most unconventional senses...at least until "Lola."

10. Starstruck [11]
It was hard to just pick one favorite off this album, but it has to be this one almost by default. In a word: Mellotron. The eerie whine throughout the song is this now-obscure keyboard instrument. The Mellotron would play tape loops to a designated pitch. On this song, the Mellotron is being played with a string voice. On the intro to "Strawberry Fields Forever," easily the most notable use of the Mellotron in popular song, it is set to a flute voice. It's a cool instrument, but notoriously difficult to maintain, heavy and fragile, making travel difficult.

This is Ray Davies doing pop music at its most elegant. With the tight band performance and overdubs of handclaps and extra percussion, this song should have been a hit. But since the record-buying public, if we walk away from all this knowing one thing it's this, are all quite stupid, this was not the case. I've got a link to the song, which I feel speaks for itself.

11. Phenomenal Cat [10]
Oh, hey, cool, more Mellotron! This time it's set for the flute voice, after a brief intro by real flutes. A semi-psychedelic nursery rhyme, it's about a cat who learns the secret of our existence, gains eternal life, and decides to sit in a tree and eat forever. It might be a little silly and trite, but it sounds great sonically.

12. All Of My Friends Were There [8.5]

This song, the only "dud" on this album, would have been more at home on a release in 1966, where on the Face To Face album or as a b-side to one of their singles. It's a good slice of Ray Davies' sense of comedy, a tale of a drunken performance and the ensuing embarrassment (hence the title), and it is a funny song. (I personally try to avoid this song in the days/hours leading up to a public speaking engagement as a bit of superstition.) But it just sounds out of place here. On Face To Face, this could have garnered a 9.5 or a 10 easily, but here it sounds like yesterday's papers.

13. Wicked Annabella [10]
On one end of the spectrum of psychedelic music is the playful Alice In Wonderland type of stuff that can be heard on "Phenomenal Cat" or so much of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but on the other end? I've never done acid - and don't want to - but it's pretty well-discussed that there are good trips...and then there are bad trips. The good trips give us these Technicolor worlds like "Pictures Of Matchstick Men" by The Status Quo or early Pink Floyd on a good day and absolute garbage like "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" by Procul Harum on the bad days. The bad trips give us these nightmarish glimpses of mysticism, the surreal, and our own deepest fears. Perfect examples are "2,000 Light Years From Home" off The Rolling Stones' attempt at Pepper, Their Satanic Majesties Request and this song.

This song is downright sinister. Its lead vocal from Dave Davies, run through some sort of filter, sounds like the Devil himself especially in that final verse. Musically, Mick plays the drum intro like it's the start of a Voodoo dance. The guitar line during the verses is G#-F#-E, with the E being the lowest chord possible on a six-string guitar without tuning down. It sounds amazing. While "All Of My Friends Were There" sticks out like a sore thumb, this song, although it is musically heavy and the theoretical anti-"Village Green Preservation Society", it somehow works. Listen closely in the song's coda for Dave's evil laughter.

I dare you to listen to this in the dark.

This was also the first song I ever played on my drum set, but you don't care about that sort of information, do you? I even knew to turn off my snare to get the sound right.

14. Monica [7.5]
"All Of My Friends Were There" sounds like 1966 Kinks, for sure. But "Monica," though I do like it, sounds like 1963 album B-side Beatles. Sprinkled with Calypso seasoning, the song just doesn't work on this album. Ray's vocals also aren't terrific on the lead parts, though when he sings against himself in the "I-yi should die" part he sounds good. This one is just kind of there, not an awful song, but certainly not any of the heart-stopping beauties we've already heard.

15. People Take Pictures Of Each Other [9]
Just as bouncy as "Picture Book," but lyrically it's a giant piss-take on the nostalgia Ray has been waxing for the past 39 minutes. When Mick Avory kicks the drums into motion, the song runs like clockwork. Re-listening to it, it's almost cynical on the subject of people preserving their own memories through photographs - "Just to prove that they really existed," "Of the time when they mattered to someone." The bigger message, that we're all going to die and somewhere down the line we'll just be faces in photographs rotting away somewhere, is an unsettling notion. Missing a point for being too damn short!

"Don't show me no more, please," indeed. A nice way to end one of the best albums ever.

Subtotal: 96.3% A

Replayability Factor: 3
This album is great, damn close to perfection, and as I was listening to "People Take Pictures Of Each Other" on my iTunes, it was immediately followed up by "The Village Green Preservation Society" once again, as I have the mono and stereo albums back-to-back. And yet I wasn't inclined to turn it off. I can literally hear this album back to back without complaint.

Consistency Factor: 3
You're lucky there's enough Kinks fans on YouTube to make this album readily available to you, otherwise I'd say if you don't have it you need to go out right now and BUY IT! If you want quintessential Kinks, the album that could be used to define the genius of their lead songwriter and the musical talent of The Kinks as a band, this is it.

External Factors: 2
Self-producing an entire album for the first time, and with their commercial success on the wane in the US, Ray decided to go for broke and produce this. I won't deny its enormous lack of commercial potential. We don't even have village greens here in the United States. But that's what makes it so good - hearing it, you begin to feel for the songs' subjects. You feel just a little more English listening to The Kinks.

Total: 104.3% A+

Singles

01. Wonderboy [9.5]
The Kinks do their best to sound like Davy Jones of The Monkees. I wasn't nuts about this one for a long time, until I found out Ray wrote this about his eagerness to have a son of his own, then it took on a whole new level of meaning for me. Now I think it's charming and cute in all the right ways. I'd like a boy of my own someday, so I feel for him.

Ironically, I believe Ray's only produced girls! Apparently John Lennon was crazy about this song. Frankly, I'm not too surprised that this song was not a hit.

02. Polly [9]
I've seen this one listed as "Polly," "Pretty Polly," "Pollyanna," and "Pretty Pollyanna" on various compilations I've come across. For now, I'll just call it "Polly." John Mendelssohn likens this to an early Who song. I happen to agree, the way it builds up - sort of like "Happy Jack" - during the verses to a rollicking fun chorus.

01. Days [11]
One of Ray's finest moments as a songwriter, hands-down one of the best breakup songs ever. It's got a haunting blast of Mellotron during its bridges, just perfect. The lyrics are delicate and sensitive, thanking his now ex-lover for the days she gave him - "Days I'll remember all my life" - and for the effect she had on him, in the best way possible. Yet another example of Ray taking the idea of a love song and giving it his own unique treatment. One of the band's best moments of the 1960's, although no one bought it when it was first released, just another in a series of travesties involving the stupidity of the record-buying public and their neglect of The Kinks.

02. She's Got Everything [11]
Move over, "Strawberry Fields Forever" / "Penny Lane," there's an even better British single out there. At least by my bizarre standards. On one side, you have a perfect ballad. On its flipside, you have The Kinks at their most rambunctious. The recording itself is two years old by this point, but it serves to help mark the passing of time for a band that worked in eras. In the same vein as a lot of their early singles, but with the addition of ace keyboardist Nicky Hopkins going just as crazy on the ivories as Dave is on his fretboard - I LOVE THE SOLO HERE - and the fact that the song shifts and changes makes it known that this isn't 1964, and the band has grown up. Terrific rocker.



And now for my third and final controversial claim of the day:
As much as I love The Kinks and this album, I personally feel they've done better.

12 comments:

Gerald said...

Great article, very well written and an enjoyable read. You mentioned how everyone can agree on the top three albums for the Kinks (Something Else, Village Green and Arthur) but then it is all over the map from there. Another interesting factoid would be to have people choose there favorite songs from those three albums and see how much of a spread there is.

For example you seemed to really enjoy Johnny Thunder and the last of the steam powered trains whereas I tend to skip those tracks quite a bit when listening to this album. On the other hand, I quite enjoy the song "All of My Friends Were There" and would not consider a dud at all. After all, we all make idiots of ourselves at one point or another and its an interesting take on that experience.

Eric said...

I agree in full that the Kinks were more talented than the Beatles. I think they'd have been more popular than Lennon & Co if they just weren't so damned ugly, really. Ya' dig?

Dancin' Homer said...

Great review of my all-time favorite album. I'm jealous of your course of study in college!

I will say that when you mention 'Big Sky' as "the only point where Ray Davies makes even an oblique reference to God", 'All God's Children' immediately came to my mind. Also 'Black Messiah'. Of course, neither tackles the 'concept' of God like 'Big Sky', but both could probably be considered to make more than an oblique reference. But this is a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent article (I am an an admittedly biased Kinks fan, though I did pay a lot of $$ to see McCartney two nights ago)!

I became aware of your blog from kindakinks.net. I'll have to check out some more of your stuff, keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

Your review is great. This album is just so beautiful and a big inspiration for any artist.

Alex said...

Gerald - funny how that is, isn't it? Being also a Zappa fan, I see many similarities where there's the agreement on a fistful of albums but even then favorite songs are all over.

Eric - yeah, there wasn't exactly a Paul McCartney or a Davy Jones in The Kinks...and frankly, I think Mick Avory has aged the best out of all of them, although John Dalton looks more like Paul McCartney than ever. His resemblance was so strong when he was a Kink that he was nicknamed "Pull McCockoff." Oddly enough, he preferred "Nobby." Go figure.

Homer - complete oversight on my part! And two other terrific Kinks songs, from entirely different eras. I wonder how Kinks fans feel about 'Percy.' I think it's got a trove of Kinks gems, especially "Moments." A perfect song through and through.

I actually just saw Dave Emlen posted a link here from kindakinks.net; I was quite flattered, considering I've been frequenting his site since late 2000, my initiation into Kinkdom. You can actually find my entire Kinks thesis on his page, it's the next best thing to a proper publishing. Hell of a guy, Hell of a site.

Anonymous - thank you very much. It is a very inspiring album, I'm wondering how many specific examples one can find of a record where you can listen to it and say, "Oh, yeah, they've heard Village Green."

Thanks for all the comments!

Mark said...

You underrate Animal Farm. That really could be the best song Ray Davies ever wrote.

Anonymous said...

Only 348 listens, yet you have been listening to them for almost 20 years? Well, there are others--could listen to Muswell Hillbillies all day--but still...

Well done.

Alex said...

Anonymous -
You can imagine I've not really kept count. Shall we leave it at a lot?

Also, it's only been (just under) 9 years. I celebrate almost their entire catalog.

Almost. I know it may have its defenders, but Word Of Mouth, Think Visual, and UK Jive are pretty unlikable. I'm also not big on Low Budget.

Anyway, it's so strange having people actually read this that isn't my significant other! Thanks for the comments!

Shelley said...

Replayability? Uh, yeah, I could listen to this album over and over and over and not get sick and tired of it.

There is something about the sound of Monica that I like. Its eerie and, I can't explain it.

And this whole album flows so well. Playing a song, stopping to read your review, playing another song, etc. made me realize that these songs are all so different, yet you don't even notice it because it just flows so beautifully.

"She's got everything" Holy crap, I freaking love that song.

Peace

Anonymous said...

Its great to see someone your age appreciate great music....you wrote a nearly perfect review, as I love all the songs on this album.
An example of the power of this music, as a 19 yr old back in l969 in San Diego (us navy)...I would play vgps album everyday in the barracks....anyone and everyone could hear it and I was amazed on how many squids stopped by and asked who is that singing? Everyone of them LOVED IT....God save the kinks.....

Chad said...

Great review - very similar to my own journey through the Kinks' brilliant, underrated catalogue ((being 30, I'm only a few years beyond you, but I think it took me longer to dig deeper than "You Really Got Me" and the other huge hits)). I definitely go through phases with their albums - sometimes I play "Muswell Hillbillies" for a week straight, others "The Kinks Kontroversy" will dominate my stereo, but VGPS does seem to consistently sit at the eye of this swirling storm of amazing albums for me.

"Interesting" story: I teach high school, and a few years ago I entered class (a remedial one at that) absent-mindedly whistling "Starstruck"......a student who normally picked his head up off of his desk only to request a bathroom break exclaimed, "Hey! That's the Kinks - "Starstruck", right?" I was blown away, and wondered if I whistled that song every class for the rest of my career, would, could another student ever identify it? To me, the odds are slim, but maybe because I tend to be a bit of pessimist about the state of our youth's collective taste in music. Anyway, it gave me some "street cred" in this kid's mind, and him a little in my mind, I must admit. We got along great the rest of the year, and he did a terrific job, too.

Thanks for providing me with a welcome distraction. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

I would so much like to hear a review of many other songs of the Kinks out of your mouth. Your lines confirm my good taste ;-) !! It really cheers me up knowing that there is someone out there who can express the feelings I deal with while listening to their songs.
Great job, well-founded! Thank you.
Jutta