Fifty years ago, the Kinks dreamed of greener pastures. Thursday (Nov. 22) marks the 50th anniversary of their nostalgic, pastoral classic The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, first released in 1968 and commemorated last month (Oct. 16) with a 50th anniversary boxed set.
For their sixth album, frontman Ray Davies was determined to dig deeper into his roots, writing about a rapidly changing England through a personal lens. And guitarist Dave Davies, bassist Pete Quaife and drummer Mick Avory stretched out from their garage-rock beginnings, exploring a myriad of 20th century forms in the process.
The Kinks began as the quintessential British Invasion rockers — with a few twists. For garage-R&B singles “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” Ray’s younger brother, Dave, achieved a rattling, overdriven sound by slicing the speaker cone of his amplifier with a knife.
And while some of their peers, like the Hollies or the Beau Brummels, struggled to update their approach for the psychedelic era, the Kinks ably rode the winds of change. 1967’s Something Else by the Kinks was autumnal and mature, full of introspective ballads and experimental flourishes.
For the follow-up to Something Else, the Davies brothers created their most ambitious statement by getting in tune with the history of England — and their own fading youth. In a press release for the 50th anniversary box, the older Davies described the album as “the ending of a time personally in my life.” But Davies wasn’t interested in just documenting his own experience; he mapped it onto wider shifts in his native land. The Kinks grew up in a period of rapid societal and technological change; for all its greenery and quietude, the English countryside was in for a rough ride.
But the songs on Village Green are never nostalgic to the point of bitterness or anachronism; they practically burst with unique, giddy joy. “I miss the morning dew, fresh air and Sunday school,” Davies laments on “Village Green” over harpsichords and violins. “The church, the clock, the steeple.”
On the barnyard anthem “Animal Farm,” he even walks away from the overcomplicated modern age altogether. “This world is big and wild and half-insane,” he sings as if exasperated with it all. “Take me where real animals are playing.” And a radiant wave of 12-string guitar carries him there.
In a 21st century that seems more crowded, convoluted and bleak with each passing week, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society feels ever more like a blast of country air. And its patchwork of quirky English vignettes can be enjoyed separately, together or any other way.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the original album, here’s every Village Green song ranked from worst to best.
Sometime around 1967, Davies’ relationship songs had taken on a new patina. Both the Beatles and Stones had explored deeper nuances in their “boy meets girl” formulas by then, but his “Waterloo Sunset,” released that same year, is colossally, Biblically poetic. Not so with “Monica,” in which Davies warns us about a street-walking woman over an insipid calypso beat. Clinkers like “Every guy thinks he can buy her love / But money can’t buy sweet lovin’!” were beneath this world-class songwriter.
14. “Sitting By the Riverside”
This fluffy ode to a sunny afternoon is bumped above “Monica” for at least landing near the Village Green concept. “It is heaven to be like a willow tree,” Davies coos about his bucolic surroundings, like he’s stumbled onto the set of The Sound of Music. Until “Sitting By the Riverside” is subsumed by an ominous death-rattle of tambourines and calliopes a la Brian Wilson’s “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” Oh, golly gee!
13. “Wicked Annabella”
The fabulously creepy “Wicked Annabella” is Village Green’s “Boris the Spider” or “Helter Skelter,” in which the band lets their hair down and whips up some knuckleheaded noise. Through an eerie vocal effect, Dave Davies snarls about an abode “where no Christian man has been” and unsavory creatures dwell. For a spot playing host to “little demons,” among other indignities, Annabella’s place sure sounds like a lot of fun.
12. “Phenomenal Cat”
Gather around, everyone, for a tale set in the “land of idiot boys.” There once lived a cat who’d feasted everywhere from here to “old Hong Kong” until he expanded to tremendous physical size. Or something like that? You don’t need to follow the plot to enjoy Dave Davies crooning as the “Phenomenal Cat” himself over mellow, stony mellotron. You’ll follow him all the way to Cowes, to Sardinia, to Kathmandu.
11. “Big Sky”
Although Village Green’s concerns are terrestrial rather than heavenly, there’s one tune about what makes God tick. Hilariously, “Big Sky” paints Our Lord as unwilling to engage with our plight — not out of indifference, but out of not wanting us to harsh His vibe. “Big Sky’s too big to let it get him down,” Davies observes, even when children call out in agony. His bandmates respond with distant “oohs,” sounding just out of reach.
10. “People Take Pictures Of Each Other”
Village Green’s closing track slips by so quickly you barely notice it. And “People Take Pictures Of Each Other” questions the value of capturing any moment on film, “just to prove it existed.” A photograph of himself as a baby, Davies seems to say, is pretty flimsy in light of what it can’t capture: “You can’t picture love that you took from me.” The tune repeats a few ideas from Davies’ wonderful “Picture Book,” which appears earlier, but it’s full of sneakily philosophical questions about permanence and memory.
9. “The Village Green Preservation Society”
The opening theme of Village Green is full of very specific artifacts from British post-war youth: custard pie, strawberry jam, draught beer. Dracula, Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes even show up, suggesting that a young Davies tended to be nose-deep in a book. And Davies positions himself as the caretaker and guardian of all of it. “The Village Green Preservation Society” sounds cheery, but aches with longing, as if Davies is gathering his toys and treats into Noah’s Ark as the world becomes unrecognizable.
A natural observer from a young age, Davies had a knack for waggish character studies that prodded at human foibles. “Starstruck” is a great one in that lane, with Davies gently mocking a love interest who’s ignoring him to engage with glitz, glamour and cosmopolitanism. For anyone who’s gotten a tad big for their britches in a new city, “Starstruck” is a funny, chiding corrective. “You’re taken in by the lights / You think you’ll never look back!” Davies crows, like his lady is on the list at every club that weekend.
7. “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”
In 1956, the blues singer Howlin’ Wolf recorded “Smokestack Lightnin’”, a crepuscular vamp about trains passing in the night. The Kinks’ response song, “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” cleverly skewers this idea by exploring how the steam locomotive had gradually gone obsolete: “My friends are all middle-class and grey / But I live in a museum, so I’m okay,” Davies sings. It’s an inspired goof on many levels; the rest of the guys grind on in a 12-bar parody of Them and the Yardbirds.
6. “All of My Friends Were There”
This tragicomedy about public humiliation was inspired by a real event in Davies’ life. In Andy Miller’s 33 ? book about Village Green, Davies recalled a concert at which he performed with a high fever and after one too many. “I had lots and lots to drink, and I thought, ‘It doesn’t matter,’” he said. “The curtains opened, and all my friends were there in the front row.” He’d spin that embarrassing moment into gold: “All of My Friends Were There” is bubbly and hilarious, even as Davies skirts social death.
5. “Johnny Thunder”
“It’s about a rocker,” Davies would go on to say about “Johnny Thunder.” “I wrote it after Wild One was released.” There’s not a lot of lyrical meat to this one, just a riff on a rebellious, leather-bound lad. But the music is windswept and majestic, as if we’re flying down the road with Johnny himself. And Pete Townshend, a Kinks fanatic, was taking notes. On the Who’s 1969 rock opera Tommy, fast-strumming cuts like “Go To The Mirror!” and “Pinball Wizard” would speed along at the velocity of “Johnny Thunder,” riding that same highway, moving like lightning.
4. “Village Green”
The romance of rural living pairs well with period instruments. While the rest of Village Green flirts with classical music, its sorta title track positively spills over with frilly, baroque sounds, like it was penned by Vivaldi in the 18th century. Davies rhapsodizes about an old-fashioned England, where he can steal a kiss from the fetching young Daisy “under an old oak tree” before she ties the knot with the grocer. In spite of its peaceful air, Davies sounds white-knuckled, like he’s trying and failing to conjure a time that no longer exists. That’s the beating heart of the album — a beautiful tension between the future and the past.
3. “Do You Remember Walter?”
“Do You Remember Walter?,” a piano shuffle about not seeing eye-to-eye, was taken straight from Davies’ life. As he told Melody Maker, Walter was an old footballing friend of his until Davies “met him again after about five years and we found out we didn’t have anything to talk about.” He takes it further in the song, imaging his old buddy (“all the girls knew his name”) as now “fat and married / In bed by half-past eight.” Davies was 24 when he wrote “Do You Remember Walter?”, and it deftly captures how old friendships change around that age; if he gave Walter too hard of a time in the lyrics, it was all in service of a Kinks classic.
2. “Animal Farm”
This “Animal Farm” has nothing to do with Orwell. It’s a gorgeous ode to communing with the beasts and the birds, period. Instead of sounding hippy-dippy in the lyrics about cats, dogs, pigs and goats, it’s hustling and longing, positively drunk on the glory of the day. No twists, no turns, just a quiet, breezy day in Davies’ “dirty old shack.” “Animal Farm” is so powerful because it’s almost like a public park, or a biodome; whenever the world feels as maddening as Davies describes it, you can always jump into this song and roll in the mud. “Dreams often fade and die / In a bad, bad world,” he warns about the incoming 21st century. Not so in Village Green.
1. ”Picture Book”
The astonishing pop song “Picture Book” seems to kick open a trapdoor in the ceiling, raining down photographs on the listener. It’s the whole of your life, documented. Pictures of your mama, taken by your papa, a long time ago. When you’re sitting by the fire at the end of your life, you’ll always remember those hot afternoons, the old bed and breakfast, boozing old Uncle Charlie. “Picture Book” reveals itself like you’re turning its pages, remembering “those days when you were happy” as if they were yesterday. Davies thumbs his nose at all this nostalgia, even breaking into scat: “Na, na, na, na, a scooby-dooby-doo!”
On an album all about being lost in the past, “Picture Book” is a wonderfully irreverent tribute to a life in the rear-view mirror. On The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, looking back never felt so right.