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The Past, Perfect

  • Jun 25, 2009
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The Who’s Pete Townsend once said that Ray Davies of the Kinks should be a poet laureate of England. Strong words of praise, but The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is strong enough on its own to make me agree.


During their heyday, the Kinks compiled as substantial and consistent a body of work as anyone in classic rock. Still, while the other three horsemen of the 1960s British Invasion—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who—rode on to conquer the world, the Kinks remained relegated to also-ran status. Win, place, show—and after that, the Kinks, sadly lumped in on Starbucks compilation CDs with the likes of Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Dave Clark Five.


As to why this happened, theories abound. Some blame the fact that they couldn’t tour the U.S. during their most productive years. Others say their music is more particularly British than, say, the Beatles. Rather than singing about universal and easily translated themes like love and absurd druggy imagery and absurd druggy love, the Kinks sang about English country life, tiny towns with village greens and quaint squares and peaceful rivers. There, to paraphrase Thom Yorke, everything was in its right place; old people maintained an air of reserved politeness while drinking their afternoon tea on lace-covered tables, and youngsters thrilled with the pleasure of a simple first kiss. Such things don’t sell well in America, or in the world at large, and they didn’t necessarily fit in with the anything-goes forward-thinking groupthink of the late 1960s.


But if time is the ultimate judge, this album will ensure the Kinks are judged second to none. Ray Davies reportedly wrote it as a response to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as a commemoration of culture rather than a herald of counter-culture, another masterwork—besides the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds—against which the Beatles supposed high point must be compared. Because of that, this feels—at least to me—more timeless and valuable than Sgt. Pepper’s. In the mind’s eye, past and future alike can be made flawless, and endlessly compared with the imperfect present. But past images of the future—even the near future—always seem wrong-headed once the future gets here, whereas the past itself never returns to contradict our fuzzy memories of it. Simple pleasures often metamorphosize in memory to golden perfection.


Of course, realities are never that simple. The future won’t be perfect, and the past never was. Ray Davies doubtless understood that; this album has a decidedly tongue-in-cheek feel that shows he is in on the con. On the album’s title track, he says he is “Saving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways, for me and for you.” But there is a passive-aggressiveness and a futility inherent in such vigorous efforts, as evidenced by the snide second track, “Do You Remember Walter?” a timeless meditation on how the fiery idealism of youth mellows and fades into flabby middle age, and how we nonetheless often refuse to accept it when people don’t play the roles they used to play in our lives. “I bet you’re fat and married now and always home in bed by half past eight/And if I talked about the old times you’d get bored and have nothing more to say,” Davies’ narrator sings to an old friend from youth, then caps it off with a dynamite line I always wish I’d written: “Yes, people often change/But memories of people can remain.”


There are far more pleasures on this album—a harpsichord on “The Village Green” that makes me deliriously happy every time I hear it, a hilariously cynical take on God in “Big Sky” that I never agree with but never fail to enjoy, a charging little song called “Johnny Thunder” that always hits the sweet spot between sweet and sour. And like all classics, it gives new gifts with every revisiting. But that simple line in “Walter” sums up why I love this album. Even though I’m a melancholy Irish-German and this is an all exuberant Englishness, I’d probably put it on my proverbial list of five desert-island CDs. Like all great works of art, it manages to be about far more than itself, for in singing about the aforementioned particulars of English life, the Kinks uncover many larger truths—about nostalgia and longing, and the ways in which we distort the past to save it from destruction.

(This review was originally published on Amazon.com on March 20, 2008.)

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June 26, 2009
I have to agree...fantastic review!!! And I for one adore images of old people having reserved conversation while drinking tea over lace covered tables:) I also added a youtube video of the "The Village Green" to the wiki section. Sweet song.
June 27, 2009
Thanks! I've gotten ahold of just about everything by The Kinks up to and including "Muswell Hillbillies," and they really had a pretty solid body of work up to that point. But "Village Green" is just about my favorite song of theirs. I can't think of a piece of art that better describes nostalgia than this album and this song, and Ray's reminisces and regrets about young innocent love are just priceless.
June 25, 2009
Phenomenal review. Wow. I'm impressed. I must confess, my only real familiarity with The Kinks is "Lola" ... a classic IMO. Thanks for sharing this info. I'm going to iTunes now.
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Alfonso Mangione has a Clark Kent job that involves managing data for a small telecommunications company.At night, he's been spottedswooping through the blogosphere at www.alfonsomangione.blogspot.com. … more
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Ray Davies' sentimental, nostalgic streak emerged on Something Else, but it developed into a manifesto on The Village Green Preservation Society, a concept album lamenting the passing of old-fashioned English traditions. As the opening title song says, the Kinks — meaning Ray himself, in this case — were for preserving "draught beer and virginity," and throughout the rest of the album, he creates a series of stories, sketches, and characters about a picturesque England that never really was. It's a lovely, gentle album, evoking a small British country town, and drawing the listener into its lazy rhythms and sensibilities. Although there is an undercurrent of regret running throughout the album, Davies' fondness for the past is warm, making the album feel like a sweet, hazy dream. And considering the subdued performances and the detailed instrumentations, it's not surprising that the record feels more like a Ray Davies solo project than a Kinks album. The bluesy shuffle of "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains" is the closest the album comes to rock & roll, and Dave Davies' cameo on the menacing "Wicked Annabella" comes as surprise, since the album is so calm. But calm doesn't mean tame or bland — there are endless layers of musical and lyrical innovation on The Village Green Preservation Society, and its defiantly British sensibilities became the foundation of generations of British guitar pop.

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Label: Reprise/
Genre: Classic Country
Release Date: November 22, 1968

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