For this edition of Dusting ‘Em Off, staff writer Henry Hauser revisits The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, The Kinks’ sixth studio album, which turns 45 years old this month. To celebrate, Henry dissects the album’s expansive concept about free spirits and nonconformists amidst the monotonous lull of the Village Green.
Right up there with The Beatles, The Who, and The Rolling Stones, The Kinks are the crème de la crème of the British Invasion. From the cragged, distorted riffs driving “You Really Got Me”, to the stinging music industry satire of Lola Versus Powerman, the Davies brothers did it all. Formed in 1964 , The Kinks released a whopping 23 studio albums before disbanding in 1996. This month marks 45 years of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (KAVGPS), providing an ideal occasion to revisit the ‘68 concept album.
All at once promoting and poking fun at the bourgeois obsession with respectability and uniformity first broached on “A Well Respected Man”, singer-songwriter Ray Davies presents a sedate alternative to the tumultuous urban landscape of London. Reaching back to a time when life wasn’t quite so caustic and frustrating, The Kinks journey “far from all the soot and noise of the city”. Behind the English countryside’s façade of stale traditions and kitschy fixations, there’s a path to quiet serenity that leads straight through the Village Green. The Kinks’ sixth LP in just four years, KAVGPS has the band embracing personal and societal vestiges – leafy sanctuaries, frayed childhood bonds, and moldy snapshots of idyllic family vacations.
Leading with Dave Davies’ peppy, frolicsome guitar lines, opening ditty “The Village Green Preservation Society” is a whimsical, bubbly number that ushers unblemished blue skies. Backed by ebullient harmonies and Nicky Hopkins’ honeyed organ, the Preservation Society joyously chants its oldfangled maxim (“Preserving the old ways from being abused/ Protecting the new ways, for me and for you”). Furthering this theme of fond reminiscence on “Do You Remember Walter”, The Kinks recall an adolescent friendship dulled by the passage of time. Looking back on unfulfilled childhood dreams, the singer bemoans that his erstwhile mate is now a mere “echo of a world I knew so long also.” Though conceding that time can transform even our closest pals into unrecognizable shells (“Yes, people often change”), Ray Davies presents a silver lining. Our friends and loved ones may no longer exist as they once were, but remembrance can render them immortal. At least within our own minds, “Mem-ahh-ries of pee-pole can ree-mainnn.”
Our need to capture signifiant memories photographically is just as pressing in the age of Instagram and selfies as it was during the era of photo albums and holiday slideshows. Kicking off “Picture Book” with the infectious circling bass riff of Pete Quaife, The Kinks oscillate between wistful (“Picture book, when you were just a baby, those days when you were happy, a long time ago”) and sardonic (“Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they love each other”). On “People Take Pictures Take Pictures of Each Other”, the singer suggests that snapshots of transient happiness may actually engender more pain than solace. Unable to cope with intense feelings of longing and regret triggered by a barrage of photos, he pleads for the montage to end, “Oh how I love things as they used to be/ Don’t show me no more, please.” It’s an incredibly complex sentiment for a pop tune; Davies is in McCartney territory here.
Even the Village Green has its share of problems and contradictions. “Big Sky”, seeped in clarion harmonies, is a sarcastic jab at those who sympathize with the plight of the destitute, yet can’t be bothered to lend a helping hand. Looking down on a world where “the children scream and cry”, Big Sky is complacent and ineffectual. Though saddened by the pain and anguish of the people on earth, he passively accepts the status quo. “Sitting By The Riverside” asserts the impossibility of evading the bedlam of contemporary life. Though we start off lazily contemplating the willows in some transcendental haven, our serenity is soon compromised by a jarring, psychedelic tide.
Taking a rare turn on lead vocals, “Wicked Annabella” has Dave Davies setting a bleak and foreboding scene (“In a dark and misty house/ Where no Christian man has been”). Atop scummy guitar riffs and Mick Avory’s disconsolate drumming, the singer whispers demonic lyrics about a sketchy spinster living in “perpetual midnight.” Characterized as an evil witch with a propensity to enslave little children, Annabella is so despised that even her kin to turn away in fear and disgust. The song presents an unfair and unflinching indictment of a misunderstood outsider, showing just how easily rumor mutates into fact within a closed and superstitious rural society.
Free spirits and nonconformists are poorly suited for the monotonous lull of the Village Green. Craving adventure, excitement, and stardom, these renegades are compelled to venture out and seek their fortune. Unable to relate to his fellow townsfolk or their frivolous financial endeavors, “Johnny Thunder” cruises the open highway in search of deeper meaning. With sweet Helena’s blessing, the protagonist vows to forge his own path in life, regardless of the cost. As the sprightly track fades with blithe, carefree harmonies, we know that he’s made the right call. “Starstruck” presents a more equivocal message. Intoxicated by bright city lights, the song’s protagonist receives a stern admonition that clashes with the track’s chirpy backup vocals, “Baby, watch out or else you’ll be ruined…It’s gonna drive you insane/ Because the world’s not so tame.” Though Baby is having the time of her life gulping down champagne and dancing the night away, her future is very much in jeopardy.
“This world is big and wild and half insane,” sings a bubbly Ray Davies on “Animal Farm”. Seeking escape from the inter-generational enmity plaguing London in ‘68, KAVGPS transports us to a more wholesome, harmonious realm. Simulating an orchestra of strings and woodwinds with an Mk II Mellotron, The Kinks take us to a place where friendliness isn’t just an act (“People are real people not just playing”) and the sounds of the city softly fade away (“It’s a quiet, quiet life”). Of course, this “quiet life” isn’t for everyone; Johnny is compelled to leave the Village Green in search of freedom, Annabella stays put only to be relegated to the margins of society, and Big Sky gets so high that it complacently accepts iniquity and malice.
Juxtaposing the idyllic lure of the Village Green against its shortcomings and duplicities, KAVGPS elucidates a quaint lifestyle that The Kinks’ contemporaries summarily dismissed as boring, stifling, and empty. It’s an incredibly tight offering, with 14 of 15 cuts coming in at under three minutes. Ray Davies’ vocals are crisp and clear, his lyricism wry and clever. The jaunty guitar riffs of Dave Davies perfectly complements the LP’s jovial vibe, while Nicky Hopkins’ bouncy keyboard shines. Despite sluggish album sales, The Kinks’ lead guitarist dubbed KAVGPS, “the best thing we’ve ever done.” And he’s absolutely correct; “God save the Village Green!”