Christmas, 1968 was a watershed for my musical evolution. Make that a tsunami. On that date I received three life-changing albums: “The Beatles” (aka the White Album), the Rolling Stones’ “Beggars Banquet,” and “Super Session,” a wonderful blues-rock amalgam by Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper and Stephen Stills.
It was a power pyramid featuring the best of the First Great Rock Era, with the Beatles at its peak. I listened to all four sides of the White Album straight through on Christmas Eve, my headphones taking me on an incredible journey through every musical style they could produce, then insisted my brother do the same.
It was only years later – just now, in fact – that I learned the White Album was released the same day, Nov. 22, as another album that would later change my life in subtler ways: “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.”
“We are the village green preservation society/God save Donald Duck, vaudeville and variety,” the Kinks sing in choir-boy fashion on the opening track. “God save little shops, china cups and virginity.”
Huh? While Mick Jagger was railing away on “Street Fighting Man” and John Lennon screaming on “Revolution,” Ray Davies was mooning about a vanishing world of custard pie, antique tables and billiards. While the rest of us were manning the cultural and political barricades of the Sixties, Davies was taking a quiet walk into an idyllic past.
Forty-five years later, “Village Green” stands as the signature statement of one of rock’s finest songwriters and a quiet classic of the rock repository. Its 15 tracks are a kind of short-story collection, a suite about sentiment, the passing of time and the value of memory.
It was a complete commercial flop. Besides being so hopelessly out of step with the times, it wasn’t helped by the fact the Kinks were banned from touring in the U.S. at the time. (Kinks cultists, feel free to explain why. Something to do with a fight with the musicians’ union.)
For Davies, who was just 24 then, it’s also a remarkable transformation from the raw lust of “You Really Got Me” just four years earlier. As the world got louder and more violent, Ray’s songs got quieter and more introspective. I still find them nurturing and comforting as we mark 50 years since that other, traumatic Nov. 22 of 1963.
For such a young man, Davies has already come to regret the passing of a simpler England that seemed to be fading away. On the melancholy song “Village Green,” he laments:
“I miss the village green and all the simple people./ I miss the village green, the church, the clock, the steeple./ I miss the morning dew, fresh air and Sunday school.”
He could be writing about one of the little hamlets in the Cotswolds. More likely, it’s the village he imagined while walking around Hampstead Heath, the wild tract of fields and woods bordering his north London hometown of Muswell Hill. It’s an idealized world, but the ideal itself seemed to be crumbling under the street fighting and commercial development of the late Sixties.
Relationships, too, are not what they once were. In the album’s most memorable track, “Do You Remember Walter?,” Ray regrets how time has changed an old friend:
“Walter, remember when the world was young and all the girls knew Walter’s name? / Walter, isn’t a shame the way our little world has changed?”
In barely two minutes, Davies sketches the dissolution of two friends “who said we’d fight the world so we’d be free,” to a day when Walter wouldn’t even recognize him.
“I’ll bet you’re fat and married and you’re always home in bed by half past eight./ And if I talked about the old times you’d get bored and you’d have nothing more to say./ Yes, people often change but memories of people can remain.”
How to help preserve such memories? The idea of photographs preoccupies Davies on “Picture Book,” a bouncy number that was revived as a TV ad for HP printers, in the album’s one moment of commercial semi-success. He imagines looking through a photo album as an old person, dreaming over “pictures of your momma, taken by your papa, a long time ago.”
Surely there is some comfort in that. But on the album’s closing track, “People Take Pictures of Each Other,” Davies sees photos as a kind of cruel trick, a false way of trying to dry-freeze the stuff of memory:
“People take pictures of the summer/ just in case someone thought they had missed it/ and to prove that it really existed.”
The song’s jaunty cheerfulness belies its underlying sadness. “Pictures of things as they used to be” may seem to bring back the past, but they also are painful reminders of time’s passing:
“People take pictures of each other/ and a moment can last them forever/ of a time when they mattered to someone.”
He concludes an album of nostalgia on a note of regret: “How I love things as they used to be./ Don’t show me no more, please.”
“Village Green” itself is a kind of picture book, for me. Listening to it now, more than 40 years after I first discovered its magic, reminds me of how much I have changed from that young man — and how much different life is. Isn’t it a shame the way my little world has changed?
And yet I do find comfort in these sweet snapshots of times past. They remain my friends as I walk toward an unknown future, accompanied by the echoes of the Kinks’ choir boys:
“Preserving the old ways, from being abused./ Protecting the new ways, for me and for you./ What more can we do?”
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