You can always tell the quality of a work – an album, a movie, a book, what have you – by the amount of naysayers having their say and what little they’re actually saying about it. I’m going to talk about Shakespeare in a little bit, but he’s a prime example: the words “overrated” and “dated” get thrown around by people as if either of them have any weight, but ask those people to name one of his contemporaries – fuck, ask them to name anyone at all – who did as much as Shakespeare did for theatre, language, for gender roles, and bask in their silence.
The Village Green Preservation Society? It’s too English? Moronic criticism – longing for a better world, reminiscing about the past, these are universal themes expressed in the universal language of music. Pastoral literature are British in origin, certainly – Shakespeare’s As You Like It springs to mind – but like Shakespeare, they’re enjoyable by any culture (when I told my mother I was reading Shakespeare in school, she was ecstatic; she drudged up pictures of her acting in Merchant of Venice in all its English glory while growing up in China to an all Chinese audience, who couldn’t speak English, let alone Shakespeare’s version of it). Moreover, when the album does celebrate its nationality as the Kinks were wont to do (recall: Something Else by the Kinks’s “Harry Rag,” “Tin Soldier Man” and “Afternoon Tea”), it’s sarcastic (like As You Like It; spoiler alert: everyone except Jacques runs back to urban society as soon as it’s available for them). Read the things Davies lists in the anthemic opener: Sherlock Holmes and his adversary? Virginity? Fucking Fu Manchu?
It’s too queer? Your loss, bubba – perfect vocal melodies and backing vocals everywhere to entice you to sing along and great instrumentation and handclaps everywhere to entice you to dance along? Protip: singing and dancing are the world’s greatest natural medicines, and I revel in the album’s gaiety. Seriously, this album is perfectly mixed: every drum kick or drum roll is felt and every bass note is heard (Second Most Valuable Player Award goes to Peter Quaife), despite whatever else is happening (and there is a lot happening; from bongos to fake orchestras). The best example of all of this is “Picture Book”: hard not to sing along to the main melody or the higher inflection for the second time Davies sings “Picture book” during the chorus, or at least join in with the backing vocals during the second instance of the chorus or scat along to the third instance of the chorus (“Ah, ah-ah-ah-ah, a-scooby-dooby-doo!”). This album: lyrics that long for the past with music that bounces optimistically towards the future.
It’s too anachronistic? Christ, we’re really searching at the bottom of the water well for oil now, aren’t we? – because those same people probably wrote off earlier Kinks albums / singles for being too Beatles-like (or worse, Beatles-lite); you don’t know what you really want. Though The Village Green Preservation Society does stand out from its contemporaries, it’s not a bad thing. Because its all too aware of the music scene happening around it, it is consciously removed from all of that, and as a result of that, has aged better. A great example is the second side opener, “Animal Farm.” While bigger British bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were churning out louder rock songs with greater lyrical purposes that same year (think: “Revolution” and “Street Fighting Man”), you’d think that “Animal Farm” might be based off George Orwell’s book with the same name. Nope, it’s about animals, or people behaving like animals as they often do (the album’s best lyric: “And people are real people, not just playing”); no political pretensions at all. Meanwhile, there’s none of the hippiedom that I hated from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to be found here. There’s a great quotation found in the 33 1/3 book on The Village Green Preservation Society, Peter Quaife: “I just let the whole flower people, L.S.D., love thing flow over my head. I just laughed at it. The trouble is it changed a lot of good blokes, who everybody rated, into creeps. Instead of expanding minds, L.S.D. seemed to close minds into little boxes and made a lot of people very unhappy. You still can’t beat going to the pictures, a couple of pints and a fag. The Kinks all agree that Sunday dinner is the greatest realization of heaven.”
I remember too many conversations with older people during my tenure working at Indigo about how my generation doesn’t know what good music is when they’re the same crowd who snubbed this record (despite being critically acclaimed at the time), simply because it’s not what the people wanted at the time. Broadly speaking, what we have here is fifteen perfect songs that works holistically to form a perfect album; the greatest album of 1968, fuck it, of that decade (and if you have the triple disc reissue of 2004, you have access to a handful a few more perfect songs including “Mr. Songbird,” “Days,” and” Polly”). Ray Davies has always been the best songwriter to ever songwrite, and maybe the Beatles had a better batting average simply because they had access to three good songwriters (and a label who actually gave a shit; the mellotrons pretending to be strings do their job, certainly, but it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if Ray Davies had access to an orchestra like he wanted, and it’s harder still to wonder if any of these songs would have actually flopped if they were released as singles as they should have been).
The reason being is simple: Ray Davies actually cares about his characters or about the situations he sings about, probably because the characters are based on real people and because the situations they endure are based on real events. (To wit: the next year, the Who made a great concept album in Tommy, but one of the reason why it’s slowly falling out of critical view (in comparison to Quadrophenia) is because it’s hard to relate (and thus empathize) with the protagonist.) Hell, even “Last of the Steam Powered Trains” – the biggest anomaly of the record, both because it exceeds 4 minutes on an album where no other song passes the 3-minute mark and because it’s the only song that reminds us that the Kinks once had their pulse on R&B – is analogy to alienation; “Everybody wanted to know about steam trains a couple of years ago, but they don’t anymore. It’s about me being the last of the renegades.” (On that song, it’s a great one: the blues rock riff helps make sure the 4 minute song doesn’t feel that way, the wailing harmonica adds to the energy, and the buildup starting at the 2:56 mark helps bring us to the song’s grand finale.) On the album as a whole, Davies has the perfect singing voice for these topics: the way he growls through the opening lines of the two main verses of “Animal Farm” (“This world is big and wild and half insane”; “I’ll take you where real animals are playing”), or the way he strains certain words on “Johnny Thunder” that adds to their pre-existing catchiness (“Feeds on lightning”, “Don’t want money”).
“Do You Remember Walter?” is the greatest example on the album of Davies’ expertise on character creation. In particular, David Bowie seems to have fully absorbed the song’s driving piano (courtesy of Nicky Hopkins, who had previously worked with the Kinks on “David Watts”) into his glam rock years. But David Bowie missed the sincerity while doing so; here, Ray Davies reconnects with an old friend to shoot the shit but realizes how different they are, “I bet you’re fat and married and you’re always in bed by half past eight / And if I talked about the old times you’d get bored and have nothing more to say”, and the song’s final lyric might as well be the album’s thesis: “People often change, but memories of people can remain.” On the other hand, “All of My Friends Were There” is the greatest example on the album of Davies’ expertise on situation creation, based on a terrible live performance by a drunk Davies in front of his friends. He runs through the verses as if suffering an anxiety attack (and testament to his greatness, still managing a melody despite the wordiness of it all). And the choruses are completely different; airy instead of anxious and in waltz-time, and though the switch is indeed sudden, it is anything but awkward.
And the Kinks, never one for psychedelics (as mentioned), still play in psychedelic waters that they’re not used to, and still manage to come up with great songs. “Sitting by the Riverside”’s rolling piano lines places you at the cottage, but when Davies sings “I can close my eyes,” the song suddenly enters a scary carnival of sorts; as if to say maybe the riverside isn’t the most peaceful place to be (again: think the conclusion of As You Like It). Meanwhile, “Wicked Annabella” might have the weakest melody on the album, but it sounds like a predecessor to the Cure’s “Lullaby,” from the creeping guitar line to Ray Davies whispering the sinister lyrics. But the best psychedelic slice the album has to offer is “Phenomenal Cat,” with its gentle flutes (a manipulated mellotron) and calming backing vocals (a manipulated Dave Davies). And even when the music itself isn’t inherently psychedelic, it still has transportative qualities: the bridge where everything quiets down in “Animal Farm” is still tumultuous because of Davies’ words, “Girl, it’s a hard, hard world / If it gets you down / Dreams often fade and die / In a bad, bad world.” The solution? Run away with Davies to the village green.