In the late sixties, nostalgia was the last thing anything was interested in. Hippies and mods in Britain and the U.S. were more interested in right now, experimenting with sexuality, controlled substances and psychedelic music. Just about every record at that point had some sort of drug influence running through it. But for The Kinks, things were different. The Brothers Davies seemed to be moving in the opposite direction as the rest of the world. In what may have been one of the worst commercial career moves in the history of rock `n’ roll, The Kinks released The Village Green Preservation Society, a 15-song concept album about an imaginary village green, growing up and looking back on the good ol’ days.
Ray Davies said about the album’s release, “While everybody else thought that the hip thing to do was to drop acid, to do as many drugs as possible and listen to music in a coma, the Kinks were singing songs about lost friends, draught beer, motorbike riders, wicked witches and flying cats.” It seems quaint and anachronistic, but much to the contrary of what the kids believed, The Kinks were ahead of the curve, taking on pop music with a fanciful, almost vaudevillian approach. Unfortunately, as Davies said, it was the last thing anyone was interested in hearing, and the album proved to be a commercial flop.
It would be thirty years until the album was reissued and given the attention it was due. The Village Green Preservation Society was the right album for the wrong time. And ironically, the lyrics on the album speak volumes about the chronological disparity. In the opening title track, Ray Davies announces the band’s mission statement: “We are the Village Green Preservation Society/ God save Donald Duck, Vaudeville and Variety.” Among the many things Davies lists off as objects to be saved are strawberry jam, Tudor houses and virginity.
The perky piano pop of “Do You Remember Walter?” is about Walter, an old friend that Davies reminisces about, supposing that he’d get bored with talking about the old days and goes to bed early. “Picture Book” follows, with a memorable ascending acoustic guitar riff that Green Day borrowed on their single, “Warning.” This song is, literally, about thumbing through an old book of pictures and talking about the good times captured in the photos, beginning with the legendary line, “picture yourself when you’re getting old.” “Johnny Thunder” and “Last of the Steam Powered Trains” are two of the only songs on the record that come close to the rock `n’ roll of classic Kinks, though still subdued in comparison.
“Big Sky” also contains some heavier rock riffs, though Davies narrates the song more than sings it, talking about the sky, who looks down on all of the people like a deity, albeit a non-interventionist one. Similarly to “Do You Remember Walter?” the track “Village Green” carries a sense of regret along with the reminiscence. Over a harpsichord melody, Davies sings about Daisy, a lost love, and how much he misses her and the Village Green on which they met. But not long thereafter, Davies returns to a happier tone on the carnivalesque “All of My Friends Were There”: “It was a big day/ it was the greatest day of my life.”
Brother Dave Davies’ only writing credit is on “Wicked Annabella,” which, incidentally is the harshest track on the album, with one of the most sinister melodies. However, the lighter, Latin-flavored “Monica” brings the mood back up afterward. And album closer “People Take Pictures of Each Other” is a peppy, bouncy number, returning to the theme of photographs and capturing the best moments before they’re gone.
In a way, Village Green Preservation Society is a happy, life-affirming trip back in time. But it also reflects the melancholy in fleeting happiness and the passing of time. It was a hard thing for youth to accept in 1968, not content to “f-f-f-fade away,” as Roger Daltrey insisted his elders do. But The Kinks’ performance is remarkably charming and likeable. And, put simply, the songs are great. Ray Davies was one of the most underrated songwriters of his time, unfairly living in the shadow of Lennon and McCartney. What no one realized was that he was on a level of genius all his own, veering in an entirely different direction than pop music was. And to this day, there aren’t many albums like it. It does seem fitting, though, that the album was finally given the attention it deserved, as contemporary music journalists dusted off old copies of it and took a trip down someone else’s memory lane.