THE KINKS: Underrated Underdogs
When it came to the British Invasion in the U.S., Ray Davies and The Kinks must have been too damned English for their own good. While they started off with a few big hits like the explosive "You Really Got Me" (often called the first "heavy metal" song because of the distorted guitar sound that Dave Davies achieved after puncturing his amp) and the quite similar "All Day and All of the Night," their success in the Big Country began to fade out in the late 1960s, just as their music was becoming truly unique and interesting.
A lot of this can probably - in retrospect - be blamed on the fact that after a disastrous tour in 1965, The Kinks were banned from playing in America until the next decade... after similar groups like the Rolling Stones, Beatles and the Who had left no room for anyone else at the top of the heap here.
It's a damned shame, because the songwriting legacy left behind by Ray Davies and his brother Dave (two siblings who fought so much and so openly that they laid the template for the Gallagher brothers in Oasis) is one that is just as rich as any of the aforementioned bands. The Kinks recorded some classic albums in those years they were consigned to British shores, but their pastoral style of songwriting and Euro-topical lyrics probably alienated American fans looking for songs with power chords instead of class warfare.
No album more captures the Kinks in this glorious stage of their career than THE KINKS ARE THE VILLAGE GREEN PRESERVATION SOCIETY, a baroque "concept album" about memories, nostalgia and the loss of a simpler way of life that is just as good as anything in The Beatles' storied catalogue. If I were a wealthier man, I would write you all a guarantee that if you bought this album and were disappointed, I would refund your money (and call you a lunkhead under my breath).
VILLAGE GREEN was a bomb upon its release in 1968. Ray Davies drove the band insane while recording it, constantly fiddling with the track listing and even pulling the record after an initial pressing so he could add and remove songs. His perfectionist tendencies, and his inability to allow band members to collaborate with him most of the time, caused so much tension that this and the following record (ARTHUR) would be the last recorded efforts of the original Kinks line-up.
Luckily, the album has gradually started to get its due, especially in the last couple of years. Most of the tracks I'm posting tonight come from a recently released import 3CD version of the album. You may recognize one of VILLAGE's finest songs, "Picture Book", from a recent Hewlett Packard commercial. If you don't remember the ad, you may also recognize this as the song that Green Day completely ripped off when "writing" their hit song "Warning" a couple of years back. Two-and-a-half minutes of perfect folk-pop (I love that ascending bassline), "Picture Book" spells out all of the themes touched on in the album, with great lyrics like "Picture book / of people with each other / to prove they loved each other / a long time ago."
"Do You Remember Walter" is another perfect creation, telling the story of a man idealizing the past and wondering why people must inevitably change. "Walter / You are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago / Walter / If you saw me now you wouldn't even know my name." The inherent sadness of the song is hidden behind some machine gun drumming and a "la-dee-da" melody played on the mellotron.
I'm tempted to say that the 3CD edition is really the definitive document. I found my copy online for a fairly cheap price ($24, and that included shipping, from the UK wing of Amazon.com). This edition features both the Mono and Stereo versions of the album, along with alternate takes/mixes, b-sides, unreleased tracks and other songs recorded during the same sessions, like "Days", a UK hit that Ray Davies wrote for his wife as their marriage was falling apart because of an affair the singer was having.
This 3CD edition also netted me the perfection that is the stereo mix of "Berkeley Mewes", a song recorded for but cut from the album. I've been a Kinks fan for some time but had never had the joy of hearing this song until last year. It's now a personal favorite. It's telling how much fiddling must have gone on in the studio when you notice that there's a horn section on this song, but only during the last 8 seconds. That couldn't have been cheap.
Another favorite from VILLAGE GREEN is "Monica," a somewhat risque song about a prostitute with a snaky, almost reggae guitar line and a tropical beat. So I don't spoil too many treats for you folks out there who are wisely going to heed my advice and seek out this record, I'm including it here in an old live BBC radio performance, as collected on the wonderful Kinks' collection, KINKS BBC SESSIONS 1964-1977.
For more on THE KINKS:
A CNN article on Ray Davies
A Kinks bio at The Kinks Forever
A huge Kinks site
A stellar Pitchfork review of the album and remaster