1968: The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society
by J A Gray
OK, so it was bound to start happening sooner or later. I was really torn about 1968. Part of me really wants to be typing away about another album right now – The Notorious Byrd Brothers by The Byrds. It’d be my last chance to write about a band that means a lot to me because it was their last 24 carat gold classic album. The last chance I’d have to wax lyrical about the sound of Rickenbacker 12-string guitars. Damn it. I could have even told the story about how after having seen the movie Easy Rider, which featured one of the album’s songs on its soundtrack, my friends Ed, Mike, Jon and I found ourselves in in a pub beer garden surrounded my children’s bicycles, tricycles and toy cars. We proceeded to get a bit tiddly and then ride around the garden on these ludicrously miniature modes of transportation whilst singing Wasn’t Born To Follow as a sort of bizarre cut-price tribute to Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson. One of us no doubt yelled out “Oh, I’ve got a helmet, I got a beauty!” But I’m not going to write about The Byrds this time around, and that story will have to keep. Unless I somehow manage to clumsily shoehorn it into my introductory paragraph.
I don’t think I have any comparable tales to tell about The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. I haven’t got together with chums to re-enact a bygone summer’s day in a traditional English village. There was no cricket match on the green as we supped tankards of real ale and reminisced about our schooldays or local eccentrics. Sounds quite nice though – who’s up for it? As a writer this is all wrong. I should be basing my choices on what will give me the best anecdotes. But I simply can’t deny Village Green Preservation Society its own chapter.
As I was telling you earlier, I first started listening to 1960s music in the 1970s. I was also listening to 1970s music in the 1970s. There was only so much a young boy could take in at once, so when exploring the old stuff, I gravitated first towards the big names. The Beatles, and then The Rolling Stones, and later on Bob Dylan. The unholy trinity. But I also heard bits and pieces by other 60s groups and singers. These were usually singles being played on radio stations or TV. I still thought that The Beach Boys looked too square to be taken seriously – it would be a good few years before I heard Pet Sounds and realised there was more to them than originally met the eye. It was obvious though that The Who would one day have to be explored in greater detail. And then there was The Kinks. I added them to the list of things to check out later. One day.
It wasn’t until late 1984 that I got around to hearing more than the obvious big hits. Newly arrived in Birmingham, I had my record player and a single box of LP records. Barry, who lived down the corridor in the same student resident block, had secured himself a borrower’s card for the big library in the centre of town. You could take out LPs or cassettes from there and tape them. What a great solution for the impoverished student who was fast outgrowing his vinyl collection. It also means I could listen to things I was vaguely curious about but hadn’t so far been keen enough to fork over money for. One of the first things I took out was a strange compilation 1966-71 vintage Kinks. It was called Lola, Percy & The Apeman Come Face To Face With The Village Green Preservation Society… Something Else! This rather cumbersome title had obviously been dreamed up by some young whippersnapper as an attempt to both summarise the albums being compiled, yet also mirror the band’s own predilection for somewhat lengthy, nay, ornate appellations for their long playing vinyl record albums. Sorry, I’ll stop that now.
It was full of wonderful songs. I worked out that many of them came from The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. I’d always wanted to hear that album ever since I saw a picture of the front sleeve in a book. That title, the colours in the photograph, their haircuts and the clothes they were wearing, and that strangely swirly thing that surrounded their heads and looked a bit like a hotplate on a hob – all very intriguing. I also read that it had a ‘concept’. It was a loose one, but it still had one. I was a sucker for an album with a concept, even if the worst excesses of prog rock went on to give any notion of thematically linking the songs on an LP a really bad name. I still think that’s a shame. Any half decent songwriter can do so much with a concept album. It doesn’t have to be an awful bombastic ‘suite’ about some druid’s quest to find the holy grail…in outer space…whilst trying to get home in time for his tea. (Has anyone written that one yet? Possible answer: yes, Yes.)
Still it wasn’t until about 1991 or so that I finally got a copy of the album. The regular version of the album* contained 15 tracks. None of them hit singles, at least not in Britain. In fact it was around about this time that the hits started drying up for The Kinks. As ‘pop’ made its transition to ‘rock’ and the hipper end of the market started buying and discussing LPs rather than 45s, The Kinks had been left behind. Too ‘pop’ for the hipsters and too old for the teenyboppers, hardly anyone bought their albums, and now their singles were occasionally stiffing as well (Wonderboy, released in the spring of 1968, didn’t even make the top 30). Village Green Preservation Society was not a big seller. In 1968 The Beatles were letting it all hang out on ‘The White Album’, The Rolling Stones were singing about street fighting men, and the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Cream were taking the sound of the power trio as far as it could go. Many other bands were either still mining the previous year’s fragrant vibes and trying to get their records to sound as lysergic as possible, or they were attempting to sound loud and ‘heavy’, demonstrating their ‘chops’ as they played longer and longer (and often duller) solos on their ‘axes’. So an LP about nostalgia and old fashioned values was somewhat out of step. Even allowing for the whole “getting our heads together in the country” movement (think Traffic), the results were rarely this sepia tinged and all-pervasive. And yet this is maybe why it seems to remain much fresher than many of its contemporaries. Occaionally, yes, it has a whiff of the late 60s about it (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but much of the time Village Green Preservation Society sounds ageless. It looks back rather than trying to reflect its own time, and looking back never goes out of fashion.
So why were The Kinks so out of step with their times? One of the reasons can be found in their own history. The Kinks were a fractious band and a physical fight could break out at the drop of a hi-hat. Their unruly behavious saw them receive a 5 year ban from playing the USA in 1965. Being forced to pretty much give up any hope of breaking America, Ray Davies, their lead singer and principal songwriter, turned ever increasingly back towards England for his inspiration. The characters and settings in his songs became more recognisably English, and so did the musical settings. Their rock ‘n’ roll became less frantic, acoustic guitars and pianos became more prominent, the songs often bore traces of music hall or trad jazz. All of these elements reached their zenith on Village Green Preservation Society.
So, as I said, no hits on here then. And yet the great majority of these songs sound like hits to me. Alas, history proves me wrong on this score. Maybe though, in some parallel universe, songs like Village Green Preservation Society, Picture Book, Animal Farm, Starstruck or Monica are jukebox favourites. The songs are dripping with hooks. Catchy as flu, but much kinder to the head and body. All written by one man in the course of about a year, give or take. And he threw away as many songs as he kept. An incredible production rate from a major talent. Lie back and shut your eyes and you’re there. It’s a sunny late summer or early autumn day. You’re sitting by the riverside, looking up at the big sky. A train puffs by on the horizon. There are hardly any cars on the roads – just that Johnny Thunder on his motorbike. You spot Walter having a fag behind his garden gate. You see Monica coming home still dressed in what she was wearing the night before. It’s not a linear concept album as such, but Davies created a wonderfully vivid world that you can almost inhabit for a while.
Maybe I do have an anecdote after all. I was sitting in an English pub a couple of weeks or so ago with my friend Nick and our lady friends. And actually, we were drinking real ale from tankards. There was no jukebox, but the bar staff were playing some CDs. Nick cocked his ear and asked me if I could make out what song was playing. It took me a little while – the hearing’s not what it used to be. It was Village Green Preservation Society. How lovely. We share a love of The Kinks and it was a wonderful coincidence that on one of the rare evenings we were out together that they were playing ‘our’ music. But it wasn’t just the title track. Do You Remember Walter followed. Then Picture Book. Then Johnny Thunder. They were playing the whole bloody album! And this wasn’t a parallel universe, this was right here.
The next track to come on was Last Of The Steam Powered Trains. This was a clever rewrite of the American blues standard Smokestack Lightning (Howlin’ Wolf’s version arguably being the definitive recording), but of course changing the scenery to an English setting. What I didn’t realise until Nick told me on that evening was that Ray had written and recorded the song in the very month that the last British steam train made its final service run (nostalgic pleasure rides aside). Maybe I was wrong about The Kinks being out of sync with the times – you can’t get more contemporary than that. And despite once being as hip as China cups and virginity, Village Green Preservation Society seems to be slowly finding its way to the people who want it. Like the last of the good old fashioned steam-powered trains.
* An earlier version of the album had been released in some European territories. It had 12 tracks, but shared only 10 of these with the more familiar version of the album. When Davies changed his mind about what he wanted on the record, one of the two tracks to be discarded was the hit single Days (what a song!), presumably because the song was already available on 45.
N.B. The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society is currently available, in remastered form, as both a single CD, and as a ‘Special Deluxe Edition’ triple CD pack. Both include all the tracks from the two different editions of the album and both have stereo and mono mix variants, but the Deluxe also contains a wealth of other vaguely contemporaneous material, including many of the tracks that were briefly issued on an American compilation LP called The Great Lost Kinks Album. Ray Davies had the LP pulled, and even after all these years, still refused to sanction two of its songs for release on the Village Green Preservation Society Deluxe pack, so the very wonderful Till Death Us Do Part and Pictures In The Sand can still only be found on this rare slice of vinyl, or on bootlegs. This aside, the general standard of the material he did allow to be included is high, and many of the songs could easily have been slotted into the original album and fit perfectly, so I would urge anyone with more than a passing fancy to buy the Deluxe version.
It’s also good to be able to note that stereo mixes were getting better by 1968, which is just as well because mono LPs were all but phased out by the end of the year. The stereo mix of Sitting By The Riverside is especially notable – the treated keyboard and trippy sound effects pan this way and that and sound pretty amazing. It’s probably the closest The Kinks ever got to sounding psychedelic. Other tracks weren’t quite so successful though – the stereo mix of Days, for example, has the lead vocal far too low in the mix.
My other nominations for 1968 albums of merit:
The Byrds / The Notorious Byrd Brothers
Bob Dylan / John Wesley Harding
The Zombies / Odessey And Oracle
The Rolling Stones / Beggars Banquet
The Beatles (‘The White Album’)
The Small Faces / Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake