Saturday, 4 May 2013

Classic Albums No.5: The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society

I would imagine many people view The Kinks as something of a singles band. Just mention the names of “Waterloo Sunset”, “Sunny Afternoon”, “Lola”, or “You Really Got Me”, and most people with a pair of fully functioning ears will know what you are talking about. But mention the titles of some of the albums from the same period, such as “Kinda Kinks” or “Arthur” and you are unlikely to get the same reaction.

The situation hasn’t been helped by numerous singles collections over the years concentrating on nothing post-1972, suggesting that the band didn’t even seem to exist in the years leading up to 1996 (which they did), so The Kinks back catalogue has seemed shrouded in mystery, with only those early singles seeming to be their legacy.

But plenty of other outside influences confuse matters a bit more. The Kinks seemed to be struggling to sell large numbers of albums in the UK soon after their initial burst of hit singles, and so even though the likes of “Sunny Afternoon” were huge chart hits, the accompanying albums were struggling to have the same impact. The album from which “Sunny Afternoon” was lifted, “Face To Face”, did OK, but was famously outsold by a budget label semi greatest hits album “Well Respected Kinks”, issued a couple of months previously. The band’s fifth studio LP, 1967’s “Something Else By The Kinks”, also struggled in the charts - it seems as though The Kinks were well supported by the singles buyers, but that nobody could afford to, or wanted to, stump up the extra cash needed for a Long Player.

It’s against this backdrop of what seems to be fan apathy that the band released their masterpiece, 1968’s “The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society”. At the time, it was just another flop album, praised by some critics but dismissed by others, and became the lowest selling album of the band’s career. It would turn out to be the final album by the original line up of the band, as bassist Pete Quaife would leave soon after, and more or less marked the end of The Kinks as hit record makers, as it failed to chart anywhere in the world. There would be a resurgence of interest in the band in the USA during the 70’s and beyond, and in the UK, a few early 70’s singles hit the charts (“Lola”, “Apeman”) whilst their accompanying albums bombed, meaning the band were destined to become a cult band. The last time I saw them, in 1994, was at the 2000-ish capacity Brentwood Centre. The following year, by comparison, I saw the Stones at Wembley Stadium - in front of 72000.

But in more recent times, this period of the band has been reviewed. Several albums have been re-evaluated, and in doing so, the question marks being asked as to why a band releasing albums this good were allowed to fall off the radar are wholly valid. And of all the albums that have been re-evaluated, it is - to give it it’s sometimes official shortened title - “Village Green Preservation Society” that sits at the top of the pile.

When it was first released, several critics remained unmoved. 1966 had given us “Pet Sounds”, 67 was the year of “Sgt. Pepper”, and the ammunition aimed at “Village Green” by some was that it was totally retro - while The Beatles seemed to be embracing new technology, a forward looking band unafraid to experiment - reaching it’s ultimate conclusion on the avant garde “Revolution 9” on “The White Album” - detractors of The Kinks claimed that “Village Green” was the polar opposite, the sign of a band looking backwards, scared to embrace the future, and that it was far too whimsical to exist post-Summer Of Love. But of course, that’s where the record’s genius lies. It’s refusal to accept that all progress is good progress is as relevant now as it was then, and its yearning for a simpler life, when times were (maybe) better in some respects, is a far truer statement of what was happening in the late 60’s. Altamont was just around the corner and that finally killed the peace and love vibe. The Kinks, you could argue, foresaw this a year before.

Davies would later be acknowledged as one of Britain’s finest songwriters, and that he achieved this accolade by writing about very “English” themes. “Village Green” exemplifies this attitude. It has been said that the nostalgic element came from the band’s own fractious relationship itself, with concert riots and on stage fighting being in danger of killing off the band entirely. The love hate relationship between the Davies brothers still continues today. Ray, seemingly distraught at what the band were turning into, began to look backwards at “the good old days”.

Work on the album began as far back as the summer of 67, when the band recorded the song “Village Green” during the “Something Else” sessions, but it was left off the final running order. Ray Davies began to work on a sort of concept album based around the themes explored by this song (the key line being “I miss the village green“), by starting to write songs that were deeply routed in English culture, telling stories of towns and villages, and feelings of nostalgia, all of which was later described by Allmusic as an album “lamenting the passing of old fashioned English traditions”.

Although the songs could be taken as individual pieces of music (two variant editions of the album later came to exist, with different songs), the nostalgic element of the song writing runs throughout virtually everything on the album, creating that theme of Englishness. Some will tell you that earlier albums, like “Face To Face” had a distinct theme, or that the band didn’t really embrace the concept album format until “Arthur” or “Lola versus Powerman” or even “Preservation Act 1”, but there is no denying that if you were to try and remove something like “Picture Book” and shove it onto, say, “Percy”, then replace it with “Milk Cow Blues”, it just wouldn’t quite work.

The title track is the opening number, and sets the theme accordingly, with lyrics like “we are the Desperate Dan appreciation society” and “God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards”. The nostalgia element is at it’s most notable on “Do You Remember Walter” and “Picture Book”, songs lamenting the loss of contact with old friends on the former and also the fleeting nature of fame, and the use of photographs to try and preserve the past on the latter. “Last Of The Steam Powered Trains” refers to the finale, in 68, of main line standard gauge steam locomotives on Britain’s railways, before dieselisation and electrification took over.

Aside from the “Englishness” of the lyrics, the album also features some of the best songs, musically, that the band ever recorded. Whilst the album’s central theme might suggest that it is all quite pastoral, an album full of acoustic driven “Picture Book” soundalikes, a great deal of it is not. “Big Sky” has a nagging “nah nah nah nah” riff, that sounds like “Werewolves Of London” ten years before it was written, with Davies literally talking the lyrics over the top. “Phenomenal Cat” sounds like Syd-era Pink Floyd, whilst “Wicked Annabella” has an astonishing drum track, with snarling guitars chugging in and out - it sounds like Queens Of The Stone age covering Kraftwerk. “Monica” sounds like The Gypsy Kings jamming with The Who, “All Of My Friends Were There” feels like it has come straight out of some cockney-knees up musichall production. And words cannot describe the beautiful harmonies of “Animal Farm”, which has one of the greatest key changes in the chorus ever committed to vinyl. By the time you get to the rollocking “People Take Pictures Of each Other”, it’s surprising to think just how varied the sounds are on this record. All this from a band who, in their early days, used to recycle the riff from “All Day And All Of The Night” on later recordings whenever they felt the need (check out the b-side “I Need You”, if you don’t believe me).

The band had amassed enough material for a double album, and Davies was very keen on making this the first such release by the group. But Pye refused to allow it on cost grounds - the relative failure of “Something Else” meant that the label simply didn’t think the LP would sell enough to recoup the costs of releasing a double. Davies instead compiled a 12 track edition, including “Days”, which had been issued as a single in the summer (and which came backed with an old outtake “She’s Got Everything”). He also drew up plans for a totally different version of the album, with just eleven songs and a radically different running order for the US market, to be called “Four More Respected Gentlemen”, which was actually going to open with “She’s Got Everything”, and was only to include six songs from the 12 track “Village Green”, plus a 'so-called' new song (“Animal Farm“) which was absent from the 12 track edition. This release was cancelled, but the 12 track edition of the album got the green light and was issued in New Zealand and selected European territories in October 68. The cover differed in pretty much every country in which the record was released.

No sooner had the album been released, than Ray had a change of heart, and asked for the record to be withdrawn. Pressings of the album stopped and changes were made to the record before production of the UK album proceeded. Aside from using a cover not seen on few, if any, of the 12 track editions, a new 15 song version was planned. “Days” and “Mr Songbird” were pulled, the latter thus not getting a UK release for several years, and five new songs came in as replacements - “Big Sky”, “Steam Powered Trains”, “All Of My Friends”, “Sitting By The Riverside” and the aforementioned “Animal Farm”. Although the running time of this version of the album was still a fairly standard 40 minutes in length, you did get the impression that it was some sort of attempt to get nearer to the double album scenario originally envisaged.

The 15 track edition was issued in both mono and stereo in the UK (LP, NPL/NSPL 18233) and the US, but was a failure. The success of the “Days” single was still not enough to entice record buyers to purchase the latest Kinks long player, and “Village Green” became the worst selling Kinks album to date. After a couple of Dave Davies singles, the band’s next release was the “Plastic Man” single, which true to form, did better sales wise than “Village Green”, by denting the lower regions of the UK Top 40.

By the time Castle set about starting a major reissue campaign of the Pye era albums in 1997/1998, the cult nature of this album had grown to a point where it was now being name checked as the band’s undisputed masterpiece, and it was to prove to be a big seller when reissued. It appeared as a 28 track edition (CD, ESM CD 481) - the original UK 15 track version in Mono, the 12 track version in Stereo, and the mono single mix of “Days” to fill up the disc. Although I had often thought that this album was the first of all the Pye albums to be reissued, as a sort of taster for the rest of the series, I think I must have imagined this, as inside, details of the catalogue numbers of all of the other reissues are listed, suggesting they were all issued at the same time.

Given that the album had been issued in a bewildering variety of sleeves worldwide, some attempt was made to try and showcase this in the reissue. Aside from the miniature re-productions of some of the period singles and overseas editions of the album, the rear of the booklet featured a reprint of the Scandinavian cover. In 2001, all of the band’s Pye era albums were reissued in vinyl style “boxed” sleeves, and wherever possible, an overseas sleeve was used. There were no bonus tracks on these editions - the “Village Green” reissue used the original Italian sleeve, and played the 12 track version of the album (CD, CTMCD 319).

The most CD reissue of “Village Green” appeared in 2004 on Sanctuary. It was an attempt to effectively merge all the various editions of the album into one package (3xCD, SMETD 102). The first disc featured the 15 track version of the album in stereo, adding the two tracks (also in stereo) that were absent from this version of the LP - “Days” and “Mr Songbird”. Also included are alternate stereo mixes of “Do You Remember Walter” and “People Take Pictures Of Each Other”, that appeared on the original “Overseas” 12 track stereo LP. Disc 2 is a mono version of the 15 track LP, boosted with the mono (and single) mix of “Days”, plus a mono mix of “Mr Songbird”, never previously available on any version of the LP. Also included are the period single “Wonderboy”, and the b-sides taped at the time, “Polly” and “Berkeley Mews”, the latter of which eventually got released on the flip of “Lola” several years later. You also get an alternate mix of “Village Green”, whilst the third disc consists entirely of rarities and previously unreleased material.

“Village Green” is an absolute classic. To be fair, The Kinks made quite a few mind blowingly great albums, and maybe others will feature in this list in the future (I have already mentioned on this site my total adoration of the totally unloved “Soap Opera”), but this is the best one. The lyrics are intelligent, describing that same view of Englishness that “Waterloo Sunset” also achieved, the music is mostly beautiful but also sometimes brutal or vibrant, and whilst it might be easy to get wrapped up in the hype that has surrounded this LP in the last couple of decades, it’s fully deserving hype. I was well aware of the album’s reputation before I first heard it, and it matched - if not exceeded - every expectation I had for it. Whilst other so called classic albums aren’t always that classic (Talking Heads’ “Little Creatures” may well have got a 9/10 rating on Allmusic, but it aint “Remain In Light”), “Village Green” justifies the hysteria that has long surrounded it. It may well have marked the beginning of the end of the band as popular hit makers, but it arguably kickstarted the most creative part of their career. Later albums were superb efforts, although none of them ever quite managed to top the sheer inventiveness of this LP. It may well have been the album that accidentally invented Britpop, and therefore accidentally gave us lots of landfill indie in the process, but it’s a remarkably clever album, and never fails to amaze whenever you heard it. Many people may well have taken it’s template and tried to copy it, but nobody quite managed to make anything quite as good. Not even Blur.

As somebody once said, God Save The Kinks.

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