Monday, 22 June 2015

The Kinks are "The Village Green Preservation Society" (1968)




The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

The Village Green Preservation Society/Do You Remember, Walter?/Picture Book/Johnny Thunder/Last Of The Steam Powered Trains/Big Sky/Sitting By The Riverside/Animal Farm//Village Green/Starstruck/Phenomenal Cat/All Of My Friends Were There/Wicked Annabella/Monica/People Take Pictures Of Each Other

"We are the Alan's Album Archives Preservation Society, reviewing lost and neglected LPs that were lost to notoriety, we are the Marginally Magnificent Musical Menagerie, when all that awful modern music leaves you with a feeling of inadequacy, we are the Lost Music Appreciation Consortium, writing several thousand word reviews that for fans are no doubt boring 'em, we are the retired hippies' last refuge and institute, passing on stories of old albums that are jolly good to boot, we are the Spice Girls condemnation affiliate, refusing to believe the only way to know the past is to live in it, still learning from albums from decades long past, because the subjects are timeless and the songs were made to last, preserving the old days via lengthy reviews, preserving the old ways for me and for you, what more can we do? And you can google us too!" or "I live in a museum - so I'm ok!"

The Village Green is a rather lovely quiet little spot on the AAA map, located somewhere over the rainbow in the vicinity of Salvation Road, on the corner of Dead End Street, twinned with the smaller and rarer Berkley Mews and only a postcode away from Penny Lane and Pepperland. Few people were lucky enough to visit The Village Green the first time around and the locals must have looked around in wonder at all the carnival noise and colour going on in their backyard when the 'Sgt Peppers' carnival passed through town (in many ways this record is a low budget monochrome of that album, with a similar sense of nostalgia and a fear of growing old and growing up, though characteristically The Kinks make far less fuss about it than their neighbours). The album, famously, sold only 100,000 copies at a time when records sold in their millions and when new acts without fans were expected to sell more copies than this, never mind an established band like The Kinks. On purely sales-within-the-first-calendar-month-of-release 'Village Green' is the biggest flop The Kinks will have until they breath their last with Phobia a quarter of a century later. However, like all good things this record has been passed on by word of mouth by passionate fans not ready to see the Village Green wilt and it's eccentric cast of characters die to the point where this land has never been so busy: oh so many casual music fans and tourists now own this album after being told it's the best place to bird-watch the Davies brothers in their natural habitat and Village Green, treated at the time as a flop and a failure, is now (largely rightly) hailed as a landmark, a monument of how good The Kinks were and how much Ray Davies had to say about the world he lived in that no one else would ever have dreamed of saying. Once hidden by secrecy, surrounded by the barbed wire of record label Pye's indifference and the ignorance of the passers-by looking for hipper places to rest their weary minds, The Village Green has become the main Kinks attraction and is now open to all, 24/7, with a big blockbuster deluxe re-issue skyscraper to fit all the new visitors in and blaring golden lights that say 'The Kinks' best album' up in the main square.

I'm still not entirely sure what I think about this. Given that the album's main themes are of nostalgia and preserving and was the one record of the 1960s brave enough to say 'don't throw everything from the past away - some things are worth holding on to' it's revival seems poetically perfect. This is after all an album with much going for it, far more than deserved to be lost in the indifference of the record label and the unfashionable un-1968 sentiments of the album; few Kinks fans would dispute just how many great songs there are on this record - and more to the point how many great Kinks songs are on this record, with Ray Davies' unique vision, intelligence and wit at its sharpest. But that's kind of the problem with its current status as Kinks album #1: it's too much of a Kinks album to appeal to the general public, who told so often that this is by far the best Kinks album (shorthand in many casual listeners' heads to meaning 'the only Kinks album worth buying') may well be disappointed by it. After all most fans buying single 60s albums tend to go for the colourful ones, the carnival going on down the road; this isn't an album meant to be commercial or even popular, but a note from one like-minded writer to like-minded fans, to be studied and enjoyed in quiet private. I still remember the days pre-Britpop when 'Village Green' was a best-kept secret, a record that was still 95% known only to fans although it occasionally appeared on the hipper 'best album polls' down the years (usually near the bottom). That's what 'Village Green' feels like it ought to be, not available at the front of counters of supermarkets advertising the band (seeing this album on sale in Tesco was the metaphorical equivalent of seeing a Tesco going up in the Village Green itself, a corporation stealing jobs from all the independent sellers down the road). I'm still not entirely convinced that this is The Kinks' best album (although admittedly there are so many strong releases in the second-half of the 1960s that it's hard to choose between any records from 'Face To Face' through to 'Arthur') or that all the attention suits what used to be a best-kept secret, with too many snipers out there pointing out the low-fi production, the sloppiness of one or two of the tracks in the songwriting stakes and the famously sloppy Kinks performances (this is actually production-wise a step down from 'Something Else', a sign perhaps of how little interest Pye now had in what was once their biggest act).

However 'Village Green' is still a wonderful place to visit. The lack of a period production and the usual late 1960s themes of 'change is nearly here and it's gonna be great' (which sounded so dated just a few years later when glam rock and disco arrived instead of the promised nirvana) makes this record less dated than many other 1960s classics, including that 'Sgt Peppers' circus down the road. Ray Davies has been busy writing half-themed records for a while now and is at his best when writing songs around the same feeling as opposed to the same subject (although I still say the very much themed 'Arthur' is his greatest unsung masterpiece). The theme of this record is superb and oh so Kinks as the band - dying on their feet at home with falling sales (even as obviously classic and instant a song as 'Days' peaked at #12 in this period), banned from America until the 1970s where their career might have taken off to goodness knows where (due to either hi-jinks on a plane or a snub to a record promoter depending who tells the story), in court for a publishing rights case that will drag on until the happy-yet-sad resolution circa 'Lola V Powerman' in 1970 and suffering their own inter-band crisis when founding member and high school friend Pete Quaife hands in his notice, Ray looks back to the past. 'Village Green' is a glorious last celebration of innocence, full of the sort of characters who could have walked out of a fairytale (wicked witches, cartoon cats, steam trains, boyhood heroes like Johnny Thunder who 'walks on water') and a last gasp attempt to put that fun, quirky side of Kinks humour and childishness into sound that has been with them ever since 'You Really Got Me' - the most teenage impulse-driven song ever to be a number one hit- came out just four long years ago. The Kinks knew even then that they would go on, but that things would never be quite the same without Pete and that this was an end of an era, the Davies' brothers last link to their childhood gone with their bass player. While the rest of the world is looking forward, celebrating the bright brave exciting new tomorrow that's going to be better than anything we've had before, oh yes sirree, this is Ray Davies complaining 'Where Have All The Good Times Gone?' again and saying that, actually, he was rather fond of the past now that he knows it won't be here for much longer.
One factor that many fans miss about this album was Ray's (and to some extent Dave's and Mick's lives) home life. By now in their mid-twenties all The Kinks were past the point where rock stars were meant to have gotten old and get proper stable jobs. While both Davies brothers were to some extent in their own bubble, its interesting from reading both their very different autobiographies ('X-Ray' and 'Kink') that both brothers were struck in this period that their  old school friends were busy growing up and turning into their parents. Both Kinks had close friends who now had families of their own, with 9-5 jobs and mortgages and no doubt pipe and slippers sitting in the closet too. Ray, with two young daughters of his own (the oldest, Louisa, was already old enough to need to be enrolled in school and all sorts of adult stuff like that, with wife Rasa already pregnant with second daughter Victoria, born on Christmas Day 1968) has clearly been doing a bit of thinking about how differently his world might have been, with 'Do You Remember, Walter?' one of the saddest and most haunting of Kinks songs where two old friends who used to be so close meet up to find they have nothing in common (legend has it this song is about the Davies' cousin Terry, who emigrated to Australia with his dad Arthur and Ray's sister Rose - inspiring the next Kinks album; the pair had been close than Ray and Dave ever were growing up and had recently met up again thanks to some Kinks Australian tours). The central theme to this whole album is the line yelled on 'Last Of The Steam Powered Trains' which sounds out of place on the song but fits this album so well: 'My friends are all middle class and grey!' Elsewhere other adults with their adult themes are knocking on the door: Monica, so seemingly innocent, is a prostitute if you read the lyrics right; the steam trains that used to be such a part of English scenery had just been cut back remorselessly by Dr Beeching across the 1960s after losing money;  'Johnny Thunder', who seems such a cool James Dean style rebel existence, seems awfully lonely and frustrated behind Ray's hero-worshipping lyrics; 'All Of My Friends Were There' sounds like a music hall comedy joke, but is really an agonising song about a future favourite Davies theme of pressure and especially that of your peers; 'Big Sky', which can be read as such a comic and pompous song is underneath it all about a cold hearted God ignoring his people in need; 'Starstruck' is a cagey warning about being taken in by phoniness and glittering lights; even the playful 'Wicked Annabella' about a storybook witch seems to have an underlying reality underneath it all (I've never heard anybody talk about a fictional creation 'I've felt her eyes burning my soul twisting my mind!') No wonder the escapist plea 'Animal Farm' declares at the start 'This world is big and wild and half insane!' - the big bad world is by now pounding on the Kinks' door and trying to make Ray grow up the way it made everyone he knows outside the music business grow up and he dreads turning into everybody else ((it speaks volumes to me that the man who wrote 'Hope I Die Before I Get Old', Pete Townshend, once named this album as his favourite record ever; Rasa's mother was particularly disdainful of her initially under-age daughter falling for a rock-star and loved piling on the pressure of when he was going to grow up and get a proper job; most other singer-songwriters would have pointed at the Cadillac in the drive and gone 'nyah nyah nyah' to that but Ray was always overly sensitive to what others thought of him).

That I think is why 'Village Green' is such a popular LP. Ray once spoke about it being a 'special place in the mind' rather than a real place and in another interview added that it was a place that could remain unspoiled, whatever was happening in the world outside. Village Green is a traditional, faithful, reliable place without the scary calls of the adult world and which never ever changes, even though it was released into perhaps the most changing year of recent years in 1968 (a year of riots, protests, unrest, civil rights and assassination - no wonder this record doesn't want to grow up!) Instead Ray keeps the modern world at bay thanks to a promise made on the opening song that all great things will and must be preserved because they're too important to be forgotten (what other 60s rock star would you find pleading for the saving of 'little shops, china cups and virginity?', all things largely 'replaced' by now). Elsewhere Ray provides us with colourful creations that live in the mind: the imaginative 'Phenomenal Cat' is the single most childish song Ray ever wrote with a cutesy mellotron part, Mick Avory's voice unrecognisable as the cat thanks to electronic trickery, and is the one Kinks lyric that works to its own internal logic rather than making 'sense' (on an album where the benefits of freedom are competing against the benefits of tradition, it's notable that a song that breaks so many rules should be here). We get a quiet idyll 'Sitting By A Riverside' that could have come straight out of Paris in the 19th century. But most of all we get reminded that our innocence can be preserved, in a photograph, where the sight of how we once looked offers clues to how we once felt before the modern world knocked all the stuffing out of us. There are two songs about photographs on this album, 'Picture Book' and 'People Take Pictures Of Each Other' as if to emphasise just how important this is, the chance to 'prove that we really existed'. It's one of the delicious ironies of 'Village Green' that the only songs on the album that Ray's pre-Victorian ancestors wouldn't have instantly understood (apart from the Disney references in the title track perhaps) are the songs about cameras - the very art of preserving the past. How ironic that this modern world that pressures us more and more to grow up faster and faster with its adult sensibilities seen on the news everyday (see Kinks album 'Give The People What They Want' for more on this), sexual freedom at a younger and younger age and to take responsibility before most are ready (which by and large started in the 1960s when teenagers stopped being children waiting to be adults and became a whole new breed a whole lot faster) should also give us the technology to record more and more of our childhood to look back, to record a time that we lose at a much quicker pace.

'Village Green' clearly meant a lot to Ray. With The Kinks regaining control over their product just at the time Pye were beginning to care less, there's a lot of confusion around this album - not least the fact that at least three versions of the album appear to exist. The first version was a 12-track album entitled 'The Village Green Preservation Society' that contained all the songs recorded for the project in the early half of 1968 (including charming but slight outtake 'Mr Songbird' and single 'Days' - which despite what Ray has since said about being 'unnecessary' for the album suits it to a tee on the many CD re-issues down the years). Ray was clearly rushed into okaying it (the track listing on the cover didn't match what was on vinyl) and although the record was sent to reviewers (and generally given glowing reviews) he managed to pull it in favour of new material he'd been working on (which effectively became the 'middle' of the final fifteen track album: 'Last Of The Steam Powered Trains' 'Big Sky' 'Sitting By The Riverside' 'Animal Farm' and 'All Of My Friends Were There'). Figuring that The Kinks were spending too much time for not enough return, Pye additionally went about compiling their own 12-track album 'Four More Respected Gentlemen', a curious mis-mash of Village Green tracks, period A and B sides and outtakes seemingly held as 'blackmail' to make sure this album came out in some form or another (the track listing runs: She's Got Everything' (Days B-side)/Monica/Mr Songbird/Johnny Thunder/Polly(B side to 1968 single 'Wonderboy')/Days/Animal Farm/Berkley Mews (Outtake)/Phenomenal Cat/Misty Water (outtake)). Nobody seems to agree on just how serious Pye were about releasing this set  - one period interview with a reporter who'd heard about it had Ray telling everyone the record was 'a concept album about table manners', starting another load of rumours, although most likely meant as a joke at the expense of his bossy record company. The original plan was to release everything from the 1968 sessions in one massive double LP set (which interestingly would have come out just ahead of 'The White Album') but at the same price as a single LP set; Pye refused with the fifteen track edition (about the longest running time you could get on a single piece of vinyl before quality was lost) a compromise. Plus a last touch which probably had much to do with this album's reputation amongst hip record buyers but seems an odd move for a label concerned with expense: original copies came with grass (no, not that kind, though many fans did try to smoke it - but grass from a real Village Green of unspecified location. Well, allegedly. It might have come from the gardens at Pye head office for all we know).

Well, some compromise. For a fifteen track album there's a surprisingly small amount of filler (although unlike some fans who rave about everything I've never been starstruck with 'Johnny Thunder' 'Sitting By The Riverside' 'Monica' or, funnily enough, 'Starstruck' - or felt that the album artwork, of the band in a field with graphics that look like the peculiarly American Hollywood Bowl superimposed on top, is worthy of such an album). What's more 'Village Green' is an impressively eclectic record which somehow embraces both the psychedelia of 1967 (the trippy 'Phenomenal Cat') and the stark return to rootsy rock of 1968 ('Steam Train' 'Big Sky') as well as containing certain styles only The Kinks would use (the Victoriana of 'Riverside' and the music hall of 'All Of My Friends Were There') and inventing a couple of others (heavy metal fans who sneer at the claim The Kinks accidentally invented the genre with 'You Really Got Me' might feel less smug after hearing 'Wicked Annabella'). Despite being originally mooted as a Ray Davies solo LP (a companion piece to the planned 1967 Dave Davies one which never came out either; only 'Village Green' itself was recorded - as far back as 1966 - but released that year under The Kinks' name on the EP 'Mr Pleasant') there are some terrific band performances across this record as well as the last time we get to hear Pete Quaife's distinctive bass lines (his return to the band's r and b roots on 'Wicked Annabella' is particularly fabulous) even if some are notoriously sloppy. Ray too is on excellent form: 'Animal Farm' is one of his greatest grittiest vocals, with the oh so sad 'Walter' just a shoulder-shrug behind. The lyric to 'Big Sky' are special even for Ray, a distant, detached music publisher coming to be the metaphor for a distant, detached God in a distant, detached world where, to quote a future Kinks song, nobody gives anymore, while both 'Picture Book' and 'People Take Pictures' are two of the funniest, cleverest Kinks lyrics despite coming so close to treading on each other' toes and 'Animal Farm' contains of the greatest unsung Ray Davies melodies of them all. There's so much to treasure about 'Village Green', an album that manages to be all things to everybody: a rebellious record all about the importance of tradition, an album about looking back at the past which in 'Phenomenal Cat' contains one of the most out-there songs in the Kinks Kanon, an album that's oh so sad and serious for the most part but delivered with the odd punchline and a twinkle in the eye that never leaves.
It's a community album, about the community of the few loyal Kinks fans who were still buying their albums as much as the community at the heart of the record. It's a record that takes the bravest of all the bravest stances taken during the 1960s - the refusal to join in the 1960s optimism and desire to 'do things that haven't even got a name yet' to quote the Jefferson Airplane but to instead be a proud anachronism in a world that doesn't know yet how badly it needs you and what you represent (after all, The Kinks kould simply have sold out when their sales tanked and gone back to recycling 'You Really Got Me' - indeed that's what their records from the late 1970s and 1980s do seem to be doing sometimes). Instead The Kinks were brave enough to take a stand for something so woefully unfashionable they almost dared people to buy it - how wonderful that their reward should be their biggest audience, albeit several decades after first release. 'Village Green'  is, as the sleevenotes put it, 'the most successful failure of all time'. As intellectual and big and demanding as the concepts are, 'Village Green' remains a particularly beautiful album (Gawd darn it, isn't it a pretty scene?) Just remember that the Village Green isn't the be all and end all of  Kinky life or even the main attraction. There are more Kinks journeys to enjoy than just the Village Green and that as Ray himself once said, while the village green was his entire world when he was a child he later grew up and went into the city to have even bigger better adventures. But that's another story for another time when The Kinks are a bass player down and are all grown-up...

'It all sounds terribly serious but it isn't really. I mean wouldn't die for the cause or anything, but I do think it's frightfully important!' That's Ray's take on album theme tune 'The Village Green Preservation Society', which has in many ways become The Kinks' theme tune, setting out their non-political manifesto with a tongue-in-cheek earnestness in a lyric that sums up this band perhaps more than any other. While the rest of the world in 1968 break rules left right or centre just for the hell of it, Ray celebrates all the things from the past that once made England great and which were in danger of extinction. In many ways The Kinks were ahead of their time: while largely accepted at the time in years to come people frowned on the ugly concrete monstrosities clogging up Britain's towns in the 1960s and by and large people came to mourn for their lost village green, garden ponds, village pubs and above all characters as they were all replaced by the uniformity and corporateness of what came after. Ray is in mourning for a lost world he knows he'll never see again, but the lyric is edgier than just a sighing 'wasn't it good back in the old days?' routine. After all, many of the things Ray mentions - like Tudor Houses and antique tables - are either protected under law or have great amounts of money spent on them precisely because they are old (the irony being that a house or table that meant nothing to its owner takes on new significance centuries later simply for surviving). For a start these aren't just English institutions being lost but outside influences like Donald Duck  and Hollywood films of Fu Manchu and Dracula. What's being mourned for here is a specific past: a moment in time when these elements of popular culture had become key to the development of English culture, with Ray mourning his generation's passing youth as much as anything (Walt Disney had died only two years before this record's release, ending the last real great Disney age - though the great Pete's Dragon in 1977 should have brought a revival - while nobody made films like Dracula anymore until the horror films were revisited with a new slant in the 1980s). The music cleverly mixes music hall (another dying breed which bands like The Kinks helped kill off) and folk, suggesting some sort of implied cultural heritage that might or might not die off.  However as that quote suggests there's a certain slippery feel about this song that leaves the listener unsure whether they should be crying or laughing. Like many a Kinks song in fact.

'Do You Remember, Walter?' also yearns to be a comedy, with its post-David Watts tale of a former hero and friend 'fat and married and always home in bed by half past eight'. But despite the twinkle in Ray's voice this is one of his most harrowing songs, inspired by an emotional reunion between the Davies Brothers and their cousin Terry when the band toured Australia  (who now looked so different, so much older, so much more like an adult, apart from the rock cocoon that had helped Ray and especially Dave avoid growing up). In a cleverly conceived lyric, though, Ray's narrator isn't appalled at the changes in his former friend so much as at the changes that must too have taken place to himself without him knowing ('Isn't it a shame the way our little world has changed?' he sighs, perhaps reflecting on the sheer size of Australia compared to the intimacy of Muswell Hill). The narrator is in mourning not so much for a friend he hasn't seen in a long time but the way that their lives failed to turn out the way they'd dreamed of - they vowed to 'fight the world so we'd be free' and 'save up all our money, buy a boat and sail away to sea', with plans to spend the rest of their lives alongside each other. Instead in the modern world Walter is bored of his friend's company, can barely remember him and is now a mere 'echo' of the lively, courageous companion he once knew. It's as if all those years of scheming and dreaming amount to nothing - that life is too dull and dreary to allow miracles to happen and the narrator, whose kept the spark alive through so many years, has just realised this with a real slap to the face. The music cleverly reflects this, trying hard to be patient and friendly and open, but all too often finding itself knocked off its feet by a sudden snarling guitar part from Dave and a switch in time signature as Ray gets more and more emotional and desperate. Only a slightly clumsy, muddled production lets this song down - both the mono and stereo mixes pack everything dead centre, leaving the space no room to breathe while the recording sounds slightly rushed and unfinished (the plodding piano part is unusually simple for The Kinks in this period - they're badly missing the spirit of session pianist Nicky Hopkins on this album - and the mellotron keeps missing the odd note, although this in itself might be deliberate, the present 'Walter' being a faulty replica or 'echo' of the memory locked safe in ray's memory all these years). Still, a highly moving and clever song.

'Picture Book' is a third song in a row where we don't know if this is meant to be a tragedy or a comedy. The song starts with the single biggest no-no of the 1960s, an admittance that, yes, even the current flower children will grow old someday (all that old exuberance and spirit reduced to an existence 'sat by the fireside, pondering on'). 'Picture Book' then moves on rapidly, at speed, as if The Kinks are flicking through the packages of their scrapbook in horror at how much time has passed and how much they've aged. The trouble, though, is that while the photographs are useful as a memory aid they don't recall what life was really like back in the past - they're random collections of holidays, weddings, day trips, one-off events deigned to be recorded and to stand out. But the desperate chorus 'those days when you were happy, a long time ago' makes it clear that only the good, special times are being recorded here (though I gave up photography long ago when every picture seemed to come out blurred I always find my eyes going back to the pictures of ordinary days rather than memorable ones, the times that were just like any other but aren't like any other happening right now; I get the feeling from this song that Ray Davies is the same). The other big threat of the song is hidden away in the singalong chorus: 'Pictures of people with each other, to prove they love each other, a long time ago'. We're back to the old Kinks reality v fantasy debate again: how can you prove that a feeling is real? Sadly you can't, so instead you do the next best thing and re-enact it for the camera, recording a false posed grin and hoping that this 'proves' happiness, even though it may just be an act. The ever authentic Ray seems to be questioning here whether it really matters what you felt when you look back a photo from seventy years earlier if it doesn't show, because you've probably forgotten anyway (but see 'People Take Pictures Of Each Other' for an ever more sarcastic take on this theme - Ray isn't done with it yet). Together with a catchy, simple and childlike melody (which uses a riff that sounds like the sort of scales children play when starting out on musical instruments) and a rare-for-this-album full on Kinks Khorus, 'Picture Book' is one of the album's more memorable songs, vague and elusive enough in its threat to be as deep as the listener wants it to be.

Coming after three such clever and multi-layered songs, poor 'Johnny Thunder' sounds more one dimensional somehow. Which is a shame because it's another clever lyric from Ray about a former hero whose clearly idolised by the narrator but who is secretly clearly lonely and sad. He's a rebel is our Johnny, possibly a biker depending how you read the lyric 'rides the highway, moves like lightning', and feared by all the establishment, which in another of the album's ambiguous relationship with traditions, is a good thing here ('They can't get through to Johnny, they will never ever break him down!') But his vow to 'never ever become like the rest' comes at a price - he 'speaks for no one' but himself, and 'goes on fighting' the same battle day after day simply for dropping out of society. It seems as if this song and its close cousin 'One Of The Survivors' (from this record's close cousin 'Preservation Act One') are ironically enough celebrating a dying breed - the last of the 50s rocker in a world where 60s idealisms, brotherhood and bright colours are key and lone rebels in leather are out of fashion right now. It's a warning tale of the new inevitably becoming the old sooner or later (again no wonder Pete Townshend like this record so much - the seeds of his masterwork and oh so Ray Davies-like rock opera 'Quadrophenia' are in this work), delivered to a generation who don't want to hear it. Ray may also see something of himself in the lonely rebel angrily fighting a world that never seems to listen, in which case its notable just how sad this song is (note that the 1977 'Sleepwalker' track 'Full Moon' - an autobiographical yell based on Ray's continual insomnia - re-uses the 'bah bah bah bah bah bah' chorus here, but in an even sadder, lonelier  setting). However great as the lyric is, there's something 'off' about this song: the song doesn't have the retro 50s feel you'd expect from the lyrics and is one of the slowest tracks on the album, crawling along in as laidback way despite the urgency of the words. Another sloppy performance (the backing vocals are especially off) and a muddy production that keeps dropping instruments in and out of the mix don't really make for easy listening either (Ray sounds as if he's singing down a tunnel). Ray's written far better melodies in his time, too, although the chorus is awfully catchy.

The glorious 'Last Of The Steam Powered Trains' is a last gasp return to The Kinks' r and b roots on a track that re-creates not only the template of their early days (the harmonica and sudden speed up in the middle recall 'Got Love If You Want It' in particular) but also the dying glory days of steam (The melody, for instance, sounds like a speeded up 'Smokestack Lightning'). Comparing himself to a physical, smoky, sooty, dirty, hard-working steam train in a world that's gone all streamlined and diesel, Ray vows to 'keep on rolling to my dying day' without changing, a defiant rallying cry to Pye who demanded with menaces a 'hit single' for this album which they never got. The song chugs along at first before really picking up the pace in the middle for a Milk Cow Blues-like solo in the middle from Dave where the song suddenly leaps into action, the best band performance on the record navigating the tricky chord changes one after another until they finally fall, exhausted, in a heap on the floor (there's a shockingly obvious edit at 3:05 suggesting something went wrong right at the end here). Ironically enough, although The Kinks were deliberately trying to sound dated, with a performance more like that of 1965 (and which only The Beach Boys' had come close to recently with 'Wild Honey'), they're actually only a tiny bit ahead of their time not years behind: the 'in' sound of late 1968 will be a return to this r  and b huffing and puffing after the floaty, ethereal year that was 1967 as best heard on The Rolling Stones' 'Beggar's Banquet' LP (released mere weeks after this record). A cracking little song, which does a good job at sounding like a train with its clattering drums and hooting harmonica (again The Who so nicked this trick for their '5:15' song) 'The Last Of The Steam Powered Trains' proves that vowing to preserve something can actually make you more of a rebel than embracing the 'new' all your peers relish and is probably the best song on this album casual fans may not already know.

While 'Village Green' is an unusual 'classic album' in that it doesn't have any really well known songs on it (for the general public anyway), 'Big Sky' is the one that really should have been - the hit single that Pye was looking for. Ray wrote the song after a meeting with a music publisher at the Cannes Music Festival. Arriving at the meeting early atop a giant hill, Ray noticed looked down on all the music publishers - the very people who were giving him sleepless nights as part of their court case against him (a side effect of The Kinks trying to escape their first producer Shel Talmy) - who had seemed so big and full of their own importance and now seemed so small. Turning the tables, Ray tries to imagine himself as being as officious and bureaucratic and as distant to the world as they are and turns in a fine performance as the cold-hearted 'Big Sky', sneering down at the world below him. The way the song is written it sounds as if Ray is playing the part of a sneering God, looking down at his creations with disdain (there's even a heady rush of echoed harmonies on the stereo mix, the trippiest thing on the album, that gives the feeling of space and other-worldliness). Ray's intoned received pronunciation vocals for the song were a 'joke' between him and Dave, who both liked to spend their down-time from The Kinks doing mad impressions - this is Ray's version of Burt Lancaster, not a perfect mimic stylistic fit perhaps, but close enough to the actor's 'no nonsense' personality. Ray's too good a writer to simply make 'Big Sky' a hate figure though and turns the tables by the end of the song, leaving the pompous individual 'too occupied' to take part in society 'though he would like to try - and he feels bad inside!' Better yet comes the chorus, an early example of The Kinks 'freedom' choruses dotted round their discography ('Set Me Free' 'I Am Free' 'Gotta Be Free') in which the band shifts the tone slightly and turns the song into more of a generational angst song, again a twist on the 'preservation' theme of the album: 'One day, we'll be free, we won't care just you wait and see!' as if Ray's suddenly discovered his inner hippie and urging his fans don't let it get you down!' It's a magical moment on a magical song where everything is captured perfectly, The heavy shrill distant feel of the opening bars of the song soon giving way to hope, beauty and optimism as a hate figure slowly blooms into a loved one. How very Kinks.

By comparison 'Sitting By The Riverside' is a bit of a 'nothing' song. Taking the 'Village Green' idea of escapism to its logical degree, this is Ray closing his eyes and enjoying a bit of down-time communing with nature. For this track only The Village Green seems to be located near France thanks to a shimmering accordion part and a slight Gallic Charles Aznavour feel about Ray's voice (the accordion even quotes a bit of 'People Will Say We're In Love' just to add to the old-timey feel. This time round it's the sweet singalong melody, which ends in a sad rush of descending chords as the narrator heads back to the 'real' world, and a strong band performance (which somehow adds toughness and drama to what's a simple, pretty song) that part rescue a song which by Ray's high standards sound unfinished. He's also written better songs on the same theme: this is a poor man's 'Sitting In The Mid-day Sun' or even 'Lazy Old Sun' without the sense of drama or reason for the riverbank snooze to take place. Three simple verses and a chorus of 'sitting by the riverside with you' can't compete with the multi-layered epics on this album and in all this is probably the most forgettable of the 'Village Green' songs.

'Animal Farm' is, despite the title and the similarity of many Ray Davies songs to George Orwell's metaphors for some bigger struggle, simply another tale of escapism though one with more drama and drive than 'Riverside'. By 1968 Ray had moved house again from the town to the country (yep, he's finally bought the 'House In The Country' he once sneered at on 'Face To Face'!) and like many an AAA star before him is thrilled to be back among something so 'normal', so 'earthy', so 'real' after years in the music business. While Ray never did quite do a Paul McCartney and buy up his own farm, he was a lot closer to nature than he'd probably even been in his life and you can hear his joy at this in the song's scatterbrained lyric which matches his fears of the world that's 'big and wide and half insane', a long list of animals and a rare love song for Rasa (though I'm sure she wasn't best pleased at being slotted in between the pigs and goats!) This the land of 'real' animals, not the 'pretend' wolves of music publishers and record labels biting with politeness and after years of struggle Ray finally feels as if he's in the right place: though his wife is now 'far from home' (for that read 'freer from interfering mother-in-laws) she 'need not fear' because 'she is by my side - and the sky is wide!' The horizons are limitless here, with anything possible and that infectious joy spills over into this ear-catching song with one of Ray's greatest melodies not to come attached to a hit single (really, Pye, you heard 'Animal Farm' and didn't see the hit single potential in this either?!) Once again it's a wistful middle eight that provides the depth, as Ray sighs over 'dreams that often fade and die in a mad, bad world' - but this dream, this idea of escape and retreat in a lovely country house really did happen, so why not all the others as well? Though much of 'Village Green' is dour and depressed, like many an album in 1968 post summer of love, 'Animal Farm' sits outside it despite being heart and centre at track eight out of fifteen: this is the psychedelia hope at its best and brightest again. With so much to convey Ray's vocal has a lot to do but he copes with the pressure just fine, turning the lyric this way and that between hope, fear and wistfulness. While the Kinks backing is particularly sloppy across this track, highlighted by the long awaited return of Nicky Hopkins and Mick Avory struggling to hold on till song's end on a tricky drum part, the orchestral arrangement added on top is a delight, full of the cheer and goodwill and occasional heart-strings tugging (just listen to the Hollywood film score line after 'that we called out home...') that the song demands. Another of the album's highlights.

If 'Village Green' sounds out of place despite fitting the theme perfectly then that's because it dates from another time altogether. First released on an EP in 1966, it has more of a 'feel' of 'Face To Face' somehow: the sense of drama and of other characters drawn in caricature to tell us more about ourselves. Hopkins' fluttering harpsichord and some oh so grown-up orchestra plus some sweet Kinks backing vocals make for a surprisingly staid and 'adult' song, one so remarkably out of touch with its era (1966 and 1968) that you can imagine many stoned Kinks fans running a mile from it. However Ray has always done Victoriana well and this song's proper strict poshness makes for perhaps his most Victorian song, a track that celebrates the simple pleasures of village life. It could be, given the timing, that this was Ray's 'farewell' to the Muswell Hill suburb of his youth (not strictly a village, but with a surprisingly village-like feel considering its part of London) and it's notable how much of the song is told in flashback. The narrator has had to leave for unknown reasons and while he can return as a visitor he doesn't belong to this world anymore, with its intricate rules and 'antiquities'. He's even lost his childhood girlfriend Daisy whose now 'married Tom The Grocer Boy'. In other Ray songs this would be a cause for sadness and despondency; here though the narrator is too prim and proper to show emotion, straight away fitting into the ye olde worlde feel of the place, and instead he meets up with her 'sips tea laughs and talks about the Village Green' like a well brought up young man. Even the invasion of American tourists in the final verse isn't the travesty it would be in other songs - they're a harmless distraction who don't 'get' it, seeing the English village down a lens instead of feeling it, even more of an outsider than the narrator is because they've never been lucky enough to be a local (Ray will later write himself as a 'Tourist' when he moves to America on the album 'Other People's Lives'). A fascinating glimpse of English life, no doubt inspired  by Dylan Thomas' depictions of similar life in Wales in 'Under Milk Wood', Ray obviously heard a whole world in here he couldn't get down in just one song and it's a good launching pad for an album this song - even if, ultimately, it makes for a rather dull song by Kinks standards without any of their usual surprises or twists along the way (this isn't a world made for surprises after all).

'Starstruck' sounds like the half-hearted attempt to give Pye the single they craved, although typically this song is doing two things at once: it ticks every catchy singalong single box in terms of melody and bright breezy simple performance, while the lyrics condemn the need to have bight and breezy catchy songs in the first place. A warning to youngsters about being fooled by 'the bright city lights' and the idea that stardom will change things for the better, Ray has never sounded more like a nagging parent or elder brother. In fact, taliing of elder brothers, it could be that, like 'Two Sisters' gone and 'Long Walk Home', this is another dig at Dave's lifestyle as the carefree no responsibilities teenager runs amok in a life of 'partying and dancing through the night' while daddy Ray has a house and family and bills to pay. However if that's true nobody told Dave that who joins in this song with gusto, really getting into the partying atmosphere. Note too the curious ending where a weary Ray declares that 'you're starstruck on me - you always were and you always will be'. Dave, surely would not agree with that - and nor does it fit with the sentiment of the rest of the song, which tries to shrug off fame as quickly as it arrives, or indeed The Kinks circumstances at the time (singers who only sell 100,000 copies cannot really be crooning that 'you always will be starstruck on me!') A sweet mellotron part drifts happily in and out of the song and a rare example of Dave and Pete singing together is a joy, but there's something not quite right about this song or Ray's vocal, which is unusually smug. While the pop chorus would have worked well at the start of The Kinks' career it also sounds rather out of place amongst such distinguished company and the 'starstruck baby starstruck it over' harmony part is a little odd. Then again I'll put up with anything for the pure release of the 'ba da da da' chorus that puts everything right again.

The playful 'Phenomenal Cat' is a fascinating song, quite unlike any other in the Kinks Kanon. Phenomenal is surely a cousin of Pink Floyd's 'Lucifer Sam' and the Grateful Dead's 'China Cat Sunflower', with a whole psychedelic life-style at night his owners don't know about. Ray's world, though is lighter than the Floyd's dark realm and yet crazier still than the Dead's: this is a land of Lewis Carroll where no reality rules make sense. Instead this is a land of 'idiot boards' (slang for the autocues that TV presenters use), where cats live up trees, go on adventures to exotic sounding names ('Cowasardinia' 'Katmandu' 'The Scilly Isles')and ultimately 'eat themselves through all eternity'. The Kinks, famously, didn't really do drugs (well not till Dave gets going in the 1970s anyway) and were more of a drinking band, but Ray did admit to at least trying pot - this song sounds as if the drug is still coursing through his system. It's a long way from his usual earthy character observations, this leap into the imagination, but it's also rather charming with Ray's 'Jackanory reader' vocal pretending that he'd delivering lyrics of great importance and a charming mellotron part that sounds both other-worldly and childlike. Mick Avory also gets one of his greatest moment on a Kinks record, as he double up his simple thud-drumming with an electronically treated cameo as the cat himself, la la la-ing the night away across the finale. While the song must have sounded so old fashioned and outdated in 1968 ('it's 'so last year' - perhaps, on an album about maintaining traditions perhaps that's the point?) it sounds terrific now - The Kinks should have tried more songs like this. While the three CD deluxe re-issue of 'Village Green' from 2004 was in many ways a missed opportunity (there's at least another disc's worth of material that deserves to be here) the 'extra disc' did have many thing going for it - alongside the glorious Dave Davies rarity 'Groovy Movies' and two songs from Ray's TV project 'Where Did Spring Go?' an instrumental cut of 'Phenomenal Cat' was by far the highlight, a great opportunity to hear The Kinks mastering a totally alien new sound. Not quite purr-fect, perhaps (the song needs a middle eight badly, or at least something to change things up a bit), but this feline is feeling and looking and sounding just fine.

For a time (probably about half an hour) The Kinks were planning a Christmas version of 'Village Green' which would mix their stage show with a pantomime. Pye, who had already turned down financing a full stage production of the album, predictably refused to support this one either, which would have been a definite un-hip move in 1968, therefore fully in keeping with the theme of the album. 'All Of My Friends Were There' sounds like an overhang from this idea, an oompah-ing music hall ditty where all of Ray's neuroses come true during on unfortunate concert. Normally Ray might have disguised this, turning his rocker who can't remember his own words into an artist exhibiting paintings or a politician who can't read his own script perhaps. Instead this is clearly Ray, worse the wear for the sake of a few beers to help his nerves and who 'management should not appear' making mistake after mistake. Worse yet he's in room full of not stranger but friends ('not just my friends but their best friends too') who 'stand and stare' in horror ('those who laughed were not friends anyway' Ray adds bitterly). The song then gets fictional, Ray walking around with a moustache and a new hair parting disguise (although Ray did start wearing a moustache for a couple of months in late 1967 before shaving it off - a shame as he looked rather good with it!) before getting back up on stage and finding that it all works out the next time around ('Thank God I could go back to normal again!) The telling lines are Ray's admittance that 'I gave the impression that I did not care - but oh the embarrassment, oh the despair!'  as he covers up his pride (although if this is a real incident then it's very Ray to then tell the world about covering up for the sake of a few friends!) Ray's vocal is sung with gusto as he laughs at himself and the fast-paced Gilbert and Sullivan patter song type lyrics are genuinely funny. However this doesn't sound much like a Kinks song, even less a track from 'Village Green' - it's a confessional that belongs more to the future Ray of 'Lola v Powerman' or in a different mood the more sombre 'Muswell Hillbillies' - and while fine in its own right does rather break up the flow of the album's second side. One of the last songs added to the album the 'second time round', it doesn't fit the album half as well as 'Days' would have done (perhaps it should have been that single's B side? Or better yet the self-deflating counterpoint to the 'Starstruck' single?!)

We turn to heavy rock now for the eerie, scary 'Wicked Annabella'. Though a Ray Davies song, like all the others, the elder brother offered it to Dave to sing, perhaps sensing that he would get more out of this theatrical song than his sibling. Dave, the star of last album 'Something Else' yet all but silenced on 'Village Green' (this and 'Steam Train' are the only real 'guitar songs' on the album too) makes the most of his cameo and his batty double-tracked vocal is delightful, comic book scary and suitably manic. This is in fact the last great Kinks performance (though Ray might not be on the song at all apart from a brief backing vocal), with the band reviving the 'power trio' feel of 'Love Me Till The Sun Shines'. Dave's guitar crackles with energy and feedback, Pete's sturdy bass lines prop the song up and Mick Avory has woken up, delivering perhaps his funkiest, dirtiest, most aggressive drum part as he rolls around his kit like John Bonham (but better!) An exciting performance rescues another slightly odd song about the Village Green's local witch who lives in a 'dark and misty house where no Christian man has been'.  However, unlike 'Johnny Thunder', there's no sense of any character underneath what the narrator sees: he's clearly scared of her in the same way Ray adored Johnny Thunder, but this time around there isn't the expected ending where Annabella proves to be just an ugly, anti-social and lonely yet secretly sweet old lady. Instead there are 'demons' with 'umbrellas' (that settles it - Ray's definitely been smoking something!) 'waiting to carry you home' while the last words of the song are actually gibberish, Ray intoning 'jam jar, jam jam jar' over and over for no apparent reason (although it somehow fits too). A fierce ending, that ends in aggressive chaos, distracts the ear though and not for the first or last time a sterling band performance saves the day.

'Monica' is another slightly odd song, at an angle to most of the record. It seems odd that a Village Green - untouched for centuries, full of traditional values and no doubt neighbours twitching their net curtains looking out at everything going on - has  a village prostitute but there you go. Actually it took me a long time before I guessed that was what was going on in this song - it is, after all, quite subtle, Monica works at night, she 'glows' come midnight 'and every guy thinks he can buy her love'. Played with a slight calypso feel not heard since The Kinks recorded 'I'm On An Island' back in 1965, this is an exotic number about what for the narrator is clearly something still quite exciting and daring - though the cleverness of the song comes from portraying Monica as bored and fed up, going through the motions as the novelty of selling her body has worn of long ago. She sighs when the eager narrator wants to meet up with her and calls the narrator a fool for proposing to her and offering to carry her away; she's heard it all before. It's that sense of something that should be fun turned into the mundane (a very Kinks theme) that makes this song seem out of place as much as the sex, as Monica sounds as if she belongs in the town, not this village. An energetic if slightly chaotic backing track and a crazed Ray vocal try their best to add some drama to the song, but sadly there's not really enough to catch the ear here - at least not until the catchy middle eight ('I I shall die if I I should lose my Monica!') which deserves to be part of a better song than this. While many Kinks fans rate this song highly, Monica's charms just don't seem to work on me.

Grand finale 'People Take Pictures Of Each Other' is a clever summary of the album's themes. Obviously 'Picture Book' is in there too, but so is the oompah music hall of 'All Of My Friends Were There', the sense of important things getting lost from 'Steam Powered Trains' and the fiery calypso ('Mah Na Neyhr Huh!') of the near-instrumental is lifted from 'Monica' (which sounds like an outtake from 'Fiddler On The Roof'). This is also a great song in its own right, as Ray flips back through his picture book again and comes up with a different philosophy: in a short life, with so little time to get things done, people take pictures of themselves 'just to prove that they really existed'. It's a vain hope that what was once valuable to them will be valuable to other people and a memory of times gone by, of people who used to be around and people you in fact used to be. It's worth remembering that the 1960s was about the right time for the people who eagerly bought the first camera in their youth to be dying out: photo albums routinely appear at auction and junkyard sales today (something that seems sadder than an inanimate object being sold as they seem so much more personal with people's faces attached)  but this would have been new for 1968 or thereabouts, when the first brace of  youngsters of the Victorian era who captured their entire life on film were dying out. Ray, realising the futile attempt of recording a life that only really matters to you, is struck by the absurdity of this past-time and the sadness he feels when looking back at a time when he was happy (were he and Dave sharing photos with Terry perhaps? Was this song written at the same time as 'Walter', a contrast between then and now?) A last ambiguous take on the importance of hanging onto traditions, 'People Take Pictures' is a memorable song, more absurd perhaps than 'Picture Book' but with an even stronger sense of pathos and loss (Ray's growled 'don't show me no more please!' sounds like more than just a cute chorus). The joy of another strong band performance - the last with Pete in the band - is that nobody seems to have told the other Kinks, who perform with the same hi-jinks la la la-ing Ray started the song with, having not gone through the emotional journey he's just been on (is this Dave and Terry joking while Ray is brought close to tears?) Ray once said that 'Village Green' was a goodbye to innocence and this track is the perfect farewell to that - a song that starts off as a party and memories of good times and ends up with the narrator struck about how dark and adult the world now is compared to the way it used to be. A glorious finale.


Overall, then, 'Village Green Preservation Society' is a concept too big for its original song 'Village Green' to hold and too big, ultimately, for this one album to hold (Preservation being a slightly more explicit and a lot more political sequel). There's a whole world in this village, the people who left to find more that wasn't there, the people who stayed, trapped by its confines, the colourful characters who have a hidden story to tell and who never change, the heroes who slowly transform into villains and the villains who rise to become heroes. Perhaps the reason that 'Village Green' has lasted the years so well is that it manages to be a pretty, accessible (and a pretty accessible) album whilst remaining a deep and thoughtful album - there are many layers to this record, even if they aren't always there in every song. It's a very real and authentic record this, for all the cameos by phenomenal cats and wicked witches along the way, with a sense of a changing world drawn brilliantly through both the changing scene of the Village Green and even more so the changing opinions and altered mind-sets of the people who live there. Caught at the cross-roads of a fascinating period of our culture, when the brave new world had seemingly been and gone and nobody quite knew what was coming next, it makes sense that The Kinks should cling so hard to the past - and that Ray should be intelligent enough to know that some traditions are destructive and made to be broken (for instance Johnny Thunder may not feel like a hero, but his rule-breaking inspired Ray to his own greatness and thus he is a hero). The Village Green remains a lovely stopping off point in The Kinks Kanon, caught between the character caricatures of 'Something Else' and the intense autobiography of 'Arthur', although in many ways it lacks the extreme experience of either record (especially 'Arthur', which is another leap ahead from this record). I'm not sure it's my pick as The Kinks' highest entry on the great record lists (there are a few songs that fall short, although the generosity of the track running means that there's still a world-beating ten track album in here somewhere; also what the heck has happened to Dave Davies who gets precious little to do?) and I'm not sure it's the record that deserves to be the only Kinks album non-fans own in their collections as their access to the Kinkdom. But 'Village Green' is a very strong, very good, very powerful, bordering on great album that equally deserves its renaissance so much more than being simply a poor-selling record that nobody knows. Luckily one of the benefits of this site being a 'museum' rather than reflecting on the albums that came out at the time is that we can see which albums last and which ones grow - 'Village Green' is clearly a 'grower', a relevant now as it was in 1968 if not more so, and despite the band's fears of being an anachronism is clearly so much more than simply ok!

Other Kinks articles from this site you might be interested in reading:

‘Kinda Kinks’ (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/the-kinks-kinda-kinks-1965.html

'The Kink Kontroversy' (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/the-kinks-kink-kontroversy-1965.html

'Face To Face' (1966)  http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-8-kinks-face-to-face-1966.html

‘Something Else’ (1967) http://www.alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/the-kinks-something-else-1967-album.html

'Arthur' (1969) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-30-kinks-arthur-1969.html

'Lola vs Powerman and the Money-Go-Round' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/news-views-and-music-issue-74-kinks.html

‘Everybody’s In Showbiz’ (1972)  http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/the-kinks-everybodys-in-showbiz-1972.htm

'Low Budget' (1979) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/the-kinks-low-budget-1979.html

'Give The People What They Want' (1981) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-81-kinks-give-people-what-they.html

'State Of Confusion' (1983) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.com/2014/02/the-kinks-state-of-confusion-1983.html

'Word Of Mouth' (1985) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/news-views-and-music-issue-96-kinks.html

'Think Visual' (1986)  http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/07/news-views-and-music-issue-37-kinks.html

'UK Jive' (1989) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-93-kinks-uk-jive-1989.html

Pete Quaife: Obituary and Tribute http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010_06_27_archive.html

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