(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #3 – released November 22, 1968. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 6/2/2014)
Track listing: 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
Nostalgia inevitably permeates any facet of popular culture. Think of all the books, plays, films, TV shows and music that either deliberately recreate or pay homage to something from the past or simply admire and ruminate on a way of life that no longer exists. As a rule, critics tend to berate nostalgia—what is the value of looking back when a blank canvas carries the potential for anything? What is art, after all, but an opportunity to advance the culture, to devise new ways of seeing and hearing, nothing short of altering one’s perception of the entire world?
The catch is, for art to resonate it must also provide enjoyment and, at some primal level a sense of familiarity. Nostalgia is just another word for familiarity, and we respond to what we recognize. If the mere term gets a bad rap, that’s because most of it is lazy and pandering, at worst utilizing period-specific wardrobe or songs in order to prey on the audience’s sentimental receptors. At best, however, nostalgia simultaneously celebrates and critiques, longing for the past while trying to understand it and place it within a relevant context.
The Kinks are arguably one of the four great British Invasion bands (along with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who) and easily the most cult-ish one today. They peaked in popularity early on with a series of riff-driven rockers you can still hear on oldies/classic hits radio (“You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night”). As with their contemporaries, the band’s sound evolved as the decade wore on—only, instead of maintaining their appeal with the masses, they increasingly appeared more British, more fey, more off on their own unusual path. They still scored the occasional fluke hit (“Sunny Afternoon”), but replaced the youthful brashness of their earlier recordings with a more wistful, intricate sensibility. Robert Christgau has called their 1967 British hit “Waterloo Sunset” ‘the most beautiful song in the English language’ and he’s not exaggerating. This maturation in tone resulted in a string of classic albums, from FACE TO FACE (1966) to LOLA VERSUS POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND, PART ONE (1970), the latter itself scoring its own fluke hit with “Lola”.
THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY, their sixth album overall, arrived in the middle of this run. Released on the same day as THE BEATLES (aka The White Album), it was an unmitigated commercial flop, failing to chart in the US and the UK (whereas The White Album became one of the Beatle’s all-time best-sellers). Why VILLAGE GREEN failed to find an audience in 1968 is a good question, indeed. Some blame the band’s inability to promote the album in the US due to a temporary touring ban in that country, although this wouldn’t explain its nonperformance in the UK, where they had had three hit singles the previous year. Although presently one could easily date VILLAGE GREEN, in 1968 it might’ve seemed a little out of time—not so much in sound (The Kinks are still a guitar band, albeit one now enhanced with acoustic instruments, a few baroque orchestral arrangements and the occasional Mellotron) but in temperament. Although by this time, the Beatles and the Stones had expanded their repertoire to include such stylistic diversions as “When I’m 64” or “Ruby Tuesday”, neither group had released an album dominated by them. VILLAGE GREEN is the first album by a major rock band to look inward and back rather than expand its scope (and by default, the whole genre’s). It has little in common with the trendy, flashy rocker of its time (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors)—today, it plays like an alternate-world 1968, one where an act like folk-rock collective Fairport Convention might’ve had more sway over the musical conversation.
The title track kicks off the album with nothing less than a manifesto: under the proud guise of a grassroots community organization, the band is “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you,” and asking that God save all sorts of effluvia, from strawberry jam and custard pie to Tudor houses and coffee cups. Subsequent songs reminisce over long-lost childhood mates (“Do You Remember Walter”), social rites of passage (“All Of My Friends Were There”), vanishing technology (“Last of the Steam Powered Trains”) and former residences (“Animal Farm”). Both “Picture Book” and “People Take Pictures of Each Other” are paeans to the most nostalgic act imaginable: paging through old photo albums. Throughout, lead singer/songwriter Ray Davies displays appreciation and affection for his subjects, especially in “Village Green”, which reprises the title track’s declaration of purpose on a more personal scale. The song’s narrator longs to return home, or at least to a home he once knew. He says a lot with a repeated phrase as simple and straightforward as “I miss the Village Green.”
Although VILLAGE GREEN as a whole wallows in nostalgia, it also subtly (and sometimes none-too-subtly) transcends it. Even as a straight-faced manifesto, the title track leaves one wondering if there isn’t a dollop of satire hidden within, particularly when “virginity” suddenly but quietly appears as a thing to be saved. Both “People Take Pictures of Each Other” and “All of My Friends Were There” skip along on jaunty, music hall rhythms that emanate sarcasm rather than reverence. And both “Starstruck” and “Johnny Thunder” have sections where the lyrics drop out, replaced by lusty, possibly mocking “ba, ba, ba’s”. By title alone, “Big Sky” could be praising wide open, unspoiled spaces, but examine the lyrics more closely, and you’ll see it’s really about skepticism towards spiritual belief and man’s miniscule place in the universe (“People lift up their hands and they look up to the big sky / but big sky is too big to sympathize”).
This is playful album above all. “Starstruck” and “Picture Book” now sound like peppy, great lost singles, while the moodier stuff—the gentle and utterly daft “Phenomenal Cat” with its delightfully drugged-out, sped-up vocals, or “Wicked Annabella”, a vaguely sinister vocal showcase for guitarist (and brother of Ray) Dave Davies—still retains a lightness of touch that The Beatles could no longer manage at that point without seeming strained. Placed midway through the album, “Sitting By The Riverside” neatly sums up the Kinks’ ambition at this stage in their career: it’s a breezy lament about a memory of a cherished, ideal afternoon, albeit one in danger of fading into oblivion as the song’s revolving three-note motif ebbs and flows in volume and distortion, like a unstable merry-go-round forever threatening to go off the rails completely. Fortunately, it’s a near-miss emergency, any danger obscured by a pleasant surface that concludes on a calm, reassuring note.
Despite its commercial failure, VILLAGE GREEN and The Kinks in general will heavily influence at least two bands we’ll hear from much later in this project. Up next, though, comes another massively influential group that similarly abandoned raucousness for reflection, although few would ever accuse them of being nostalgic.
Video for “Starstruck”:
Video for “Sitting By The Riverside”: