— Pete Townshend, 2004
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (referred to as VGPS from here on) is the musical equivalent of the perfect trip to Disneyland. Warm and sunny weather with cool breezes, barely any crowds, no lines, the best seats to every parade or attraction, Dole Pineapple Floats are on the house, FastPass machines are turned off because you don’t need them, walk-on-in-with-no-reservations dinner at Chef Mickey’s… wait where was I?
Oh yeah. VGPS. The Kinks’s most heralded album. A rock classic. A peerless 60s album in style, tone, and attitude. A gentle iconoclastic work from a premiere songwriter.
The best tack for me at this point would just be straight up. There’s a zillion resources online that go into the history of the album, its genesis, its production, and its commercial failure upon initial release. The long and short of it is that Ray was inspired by a visit to rural, rustic Devon, and wrote and recorded the song “Village Green” during the Something Else album sessions. Obviously an idea took hold, and after Something Else had been completed, Ray decided to run with and continue his Village Green theme. By now longtime producer Shel Talmy was out of the picture. This album was all Ray’s baby; he wrote every song on the album, and sang all save for Wicked Annabella. An early version shipped to Continental Europe, one with which Ray was completely dissatisfied, and he was allowed to cut two new tracks and resequence the album. It was release in late 1968, to absolutely stunning accolades and totally dismal commercial response. Basically it stiffed. But the album’s reputation over time led to VGPS becoming the band’s best selling record over the last four decades.
VGPS is just one of those albums that defies description. The feel of it alone elevates it to one of the Top 5 greatest albums of the 60s… maybe of all time. It’s a concept album in the best sense of the word… no big loud stupid story-line, no bloated conceits, no lumbering bombast, just a warm dedication to the simple pleasures of English pastoral living set to timeless music. The Disneyland analogy holds for me simply because Ray Davies was evoking warmth and nostalgia for times and traditions that always look magical in the rear-view mirror. In a single album he created slices of British life with universal appeal, a reflexive album that circles back on itself. It’s not just wistful reminiscing; VGPS is a musical À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, a journey in which the book of the past is opened, enjoyed, but must be closed at the end. Even if you want to listen to the album all over again. I usually do.
For example take “Starstruck”, a bouncy, catchy piece of pop with lush string undertones, in which the protagonist sadly warns their object of affection to not leave the comfort of British pastoral life in favor of the excitement, high falutin culture and debauchery of the Big City. Which is exactly what the singer of folksy, minor-chord “Village Green” did, by leaving his beloved Daisy behind to make his way in the world, only to return home to find her married to the local grocer. You can almost imagine him returning home, with his long-lost girl married and happy, while also yearning to know what happened his long-lost mate in “Do You Remember Walter?”.
All of three of those songs are linked by nostalgia, but there’s no real story here. It’s all feeling, yearning, warmth, regret, whimsy, fancy, and even a bit of “enough of this rubbish” at the end. Kicking off with the title track, VGPS sets its tone immediately. “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you. / What more can we do?” The various village societies introduce themselves throughout the song celebrating the little pieces of rustic life that charm, delight, befuddle, bemuse, etc. China cups, British literature aficionados, anti-commercial-development advocates, and the like. Musically it’s a peach of a tune, infectious as all hell. It leads into the aforementioned “Walter”, which in turn opens up the reflective, nostalgic “Picture Book”. Yup, I gotta thank Hewlett-Packard now, because if they hadn’t so prominently featured “Picture Book” in a marketing campaign, I never would have bought the album and fallen in love with it. It’s just a great song, with a killer hook and cheeky vocals (and lyrics). It has its own reflexive connection with the last track on the album, but I’ll get to that one in a little bit.
“Johnny Thunder” is the village sociopath, or misfit, or loner. One that apparently lives with his Mum, who considers him a darn good boy. The song is so commanding, with the punchiness of its main riff accentuating each verse. The superb “Last of The Steam Powered Trains” is equally as powerful, a “hat’s off” to a noble breed of travel now confined ot the local museum. I picture the faster rocking instrumental section that builds in the last third of the song, back into the verses, as a dream sequence in which said train is flashbacking on its previous glory days. “Big Sky” — however you want to interpret it, as a “Let Go, Let God” sentiment, or a more secular “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff” affirmation — is another winning rocker, alternating between shimmering 12-string acoustic picking and thicker, deeper riffing, as if a stark musical expression of the troubled earthbound mortals and the immortal, ethereal heavens.
If I’m not too crazy about “Down By The Riverside” as an individual song, it still makes for a decent album cut, almost a breather of sorts as a moment of contemplation as the gentle river flows by. It almost has a Parisian vibe. It leads into the beautiful shimmer of “Animal Farm”. The world is big and wild and half-insane indeed; the “real animals” have got it right. Ray would get a TON more cynical about the subject matter two albums from now with the radio classic “Apeman”. But let’s not get THAT ahead of ourselves. “Animal Farm” is one of the best songs on album full of best songs.
The double-reeded woodwinds and harpsichords anchor the somewhat melancholic but hopeful “Village Green”. I mean he does end up having tea with Daisy and laughing over happy memories at the end of the song! We discussed “Starstruck” earlier, and how that ties in with “Village Green”. Daisy warned the singer that he was truly in love with her, and if he left he’d end up losing her. She was right. Oh well.
Now I must admit I love “Phenomenal Cat”, as ridiculous as it is. We’re in fairy tale storybook time, and if the creepy gnome la-la-la voice is a bit overboard — a BIT — it’s almost forgivable during this brief exploration of whimsy and childhood. But if Phenomenal Cat is Fantasyland, “Wicked Annabella” is pure HAUNTED MANSION baby. It’s been written that the creepy rocker feels out of place musically with the rest of the album. It’s a departure, no question, but it’s SUPPOSED to be. Dave takes over vocal duties, and he does a great job playing up the song’s creepiness, about the local town witch. Probably some old lady who lives by herself that all the local kids are afraid of, and she’s accumulated her share of local legends throughout the years. Musically maybe it’s different from the rest of the album, but thematically it fits in PERFECTLY.
Sandwiched between those two bits of fantasy is “All Of My Friends Were There”, a music hall bit of piffle in which our narrator relates a moment of on-stage embarrassment, which was only helped by having good friends around to take some of the sting off of the occurrence, and how next time he had to speak publicly, he was good-to-go. Reminds me of something Dick Van Dyke might have sung in “Mary Poppins”, that kind of silly bouncy feel. It’s a cute song, but little more. Far more interesting to me is the Latin-flavored “Monica”, a breezy piece of Iberian-flavored awesomeness. Obviously the narrator of our tale found a spicy piece of Spanish tail in his travels abroad, and even back home in the Village Green he’s still enraptured by her charms. Another great song, catchy and toe-tapping, almost like a warm tropical breeze.
The album ends with “People Take Pictures Of Each Other”. It’s not a particularly strong ending. If you’re expecting something akin to “A Day In The Life” or “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, you’re inevitably walking away disappointed. There’s no epic closer. What there is, though, is a closing of the book, an end to our visit to the Village Green… at least for now. Again we flash back to Picture Book back towards the beginning of VGPS… where looking back into our past was swell, shimmering, fun, silly, and awesome. Here it’s faster-paced, hurried, and perhaps a bit over the whole return to the past. We need pictures to prove things actually happened. OK, the narrator agrees, they happened. But the past wasn’t always that great. Don’t show me any more please. I wanna head back out to find Monica. The local girl who married the grocer isn’t doing it for me anymore. It’s nice to look back, it’s nice to return to traditional life every once in awhile, but it’s also time to move on. Our journey is complete. For now.
It’s difficult to imagine how The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society could be more of an extremely pleasurable album. I suppose the production values could have been a bit more substantial; there’s an unfortunate “thinness” to the sonics which haunted many early Kinks LPs. Nonetheless, VGPS as an album is a singularly complete experience, and a wondrous album experience at that. Many complaints tilted towards the album is that it’s a bit top-heavy; that the “best” songs tend to appear in the first half and by the end it wears out its welcome and gets a bit grating. I disagree with that assessment entirely. As thematic storytelling, VGPS is a cohesive whole. As music, it’s almost entirely delightful from start to finish. Even the lesser songs are reasonable, and the great songs are plentiful. VGPS is a personal album, a decisively non-commercial album, and as it stood apart from the prevailing musical trends of the day — to put it in perspective, it dropped on the very same day as The White Album — it achieved an air of timelessness. It’s a nostalgic celebration of a parallel-universe past that never really existed, yet one that remains just as real to everyone who spends time lazying about the Village Green.