The Kinks went through four major stages in their career. The first was their hard rock/R&B phase in the mid-60s, which spawned their most well-known songs (“You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night”). The second was their Pye records phase, whereupon the band became somewhat of an underdog; banned from playing in the U.S. for 4 years (which was overly harsh, even if they sorta deserved it) and putting out decidedly non-psychedelic LPs in the late 60’s, they lost their position in what could’ve been a great three-way battle between themselves, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. Their third was their Broadway musical phase, in which Ray was pumping out one sprawling rock opera after another, mostly about social injustices and his obsession with the perils of stardom. And finally, their “trying really hard to score hit singles” phase, in which the band started playing harder rock again, releasing a ton of singles and occasionally charting one (“Come Dancing”), becoming the kind of legacy act that was easy to root for.
The first, third, and fourth phases all have their issues. Early Kinks rushed out albums too often (about twice a year), could hardly play their instruments and weren’t very good at writing songs, resulting in a lot of covers and sound-alike tunes. The Koncept Kinks were just a mess all around, with Ray seemingly not taking himself nor his position seriously, hiring a bunch of superfluous musicians and focusing on story over the music, even though those stories generally did not make a lot of sense. And while their radio-bating period (lasting from 77’s Sleepwalker to the band’s final album, 93’s Phobia) were generally unoffensive and produced several decent albums, they were completely unoriginal, often borrowing riffs wholesale from their 60’s contemporaries like The Who, or even themselves (“Destroyer”). What’s left are those Pye albums, from 1966 to 1970, when somehow the Kinks could do no wrong, with Ray Davies suddenly morphing into a songwriter on par with Lennon and McCartney, maybe even surpassing them in the amount of quality material written. Not only was his band cranking out excellent, canonical albums every year, but they were also releasing great singles on the side (“Days”, “Autumn Almanac”). The 2-LP Kink Kronikles, which puts together singles, album tracks, and B-sides from this period, may be the greatest compilation album ever released.
When I was in high school I figured I’d buy a few albums from rock’s golden age, stuff that had held up and was really well-reviewed (not to mention could be acquired cheaply thanks to a dozen reissues) but the hipster in me didn’t exactly want to get Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Pepper. I was just in it for the songs, and didn’t necessarily care about a record’s influence; in fact, the less influential the better, because I wanted to be surprised. Village Green Preservation Society hits those marks; released the same year as The White Album, Electric Ladyland, White Light/White Heat, Beggar’s Banquet, and We’re Only In It For the Money, it sounds downright ancient, staying in a pastoral vein when most bands were getting experimental and weird. Sure, there are some Mellotrons here and there, there’s one song with a hard rock riff (“Wicked Annabella”), and one that sounds a bit like something Syd Barrett would have come up with (“Phenomenal Cat”), but that’s it. Otherwise, the album’s attitude can be summed up by the opener and title track, expressing a longing for “little shops, china cups, and virginity”. Perhaps the words read as ironic or satirical on the page, but the music itself is a reflection of that; there lots of straightforward piano parts, easy-to-play riffs, and fun sing-alongs.
When I first read about this album it seemed to have the reputation as being one of history’s great underrated LPs; perhaps too un-hip for its own time, it sold a dismal amount, produced no singles, and didn’t chart. It’s true that the record was considered a flop upon release, but it was not exactly a Nick Drake situation. And certainly no one could say that now; outside of compilations, it’s the Kinks’ highest-selling album, and routinely shows up on “greatest albums of all time” lists in publications.
But I think the argument can be made that by being behind the times it was really kind of ahead of its time, especially because the album’s nearly five decades old now and nobody really cares that it was released in the age of psychedelia. I mean, the satire of We’re Only in it For the Money is largely irrelevant today (even if it’s still funny), but Village Green‘s central theme of nostalgia and its not-no-subtle subtext of “progress ruins everything” still feels poignant. Even though modern-day Ray would’ve just looked up Walter on Facebook to find out if he’s fat and married, but the idea is about how people change over time; baby becomes hoodlum becomes parent. And the Village Green is full of people; Johnny Thunder, the rebel, Annabella, the old lady next door who may actually be a witch, Monica, a prostitute that you’ve fallen in love with, Walter, your childhood best friend who you haven’t seen in years, Daisy, the girl you always thought you’d marry, and Tom the Grocer Boy, who she married instead. There’s a narrative about leaving town, trying to become a rock star; though it’s a disaster at first (“All of My Friends Were There”), it’s implied that he eventually makes it (“Starstruck”, about small-town girls trying to hook up with rock stars). And yet the Village Green is always there, partially as an escape (“Animal Farm”), partially because the Place You Grew Up In never exactly leaves you, and you’ve got hundreds of photographs to capture that forever.
Really though, the reason this album is so well-regarded is because of the songs – there are fifteen of them, and all fifteen connect. The message board I Love Music polled this album a long time ago and every song got at least one vote, which is a sign that this LP is really something special (the title track won with 11 votes, while somehow “Monica” only got 1). There is no standout track, no “Shangri-La” or “Lola” or “Waterloo Sunset”. With the exception of “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains”, they are all between two and three minutes, and while the album didn’t really have a single (the label tried it with “Starstruck”, but it didn’t take), nearly all the songs feel like classics. If I had to go with just one I’d probably pick “Animal Farm” as that’s the one I woke up with in my head for three straight months but it might as well be “Johnny Thunder” or “Picture Book” or “Monica”. Even though this album has a reputation as having been originally misunderstood, I can’t remember reading a single review of it that wasn’t relentlessly positive, even from when it was originally released. They’re simple pleasures; great melodies, bouncy rhythms, lots of harmonies – the sort of things that a lot of bands were trying to get away from in 1968.
For a few years I would claim this was absolutely my favorite album, and in fact, the greatest single LP ever made. And I think I based that on a certain period in my life where I wanted to listen to nothing but The Kinks all day; this album, Arthur, Lola, and maybe Something Else, but often just this one on repeat. There’s something romantic about picking this one, as it’s from the golden era of rock music, the same period from which so many “all-time” LPs like Pet Sounds, Abbey Road or Highway 61 Revisited were released, but it’s a bit more obscure; most people know the Kinks early hits and “Lola”, but not this album, necessarily. And it’s about as uncool as it gets too; even my Mom, who insists on starting every workout with the sounds of Rob Thomas and Santana’s “Smooth”, called this album “lame”. That’s what I like about it – “they don’t make ’em like they used to” indeed, a message that gets more relevant as we get older and grumpier. Tis a shame that whatever crazy muse possessed Ray’s spirit halfway through the Face to Face sessions didn’t stick with him a few more years, because it’s rare to see a once-brilliant songwriter indulge himself in such an extended run of bitter mediocrity the way Ray did after Muswell Hillbillies. It’s not my favorite album anymore, but I still somehow remember every single detail about it, from Ray getting too close to the mic on “Picture Book” to the mysterious creaking noise that crops up on “Phenomenal Cat” to that moment where the double-tracked vocals fall out of sync on “Wicked Annabella”. They’re all a part of me now.