November 16, 2018


The Kinks discuss their masterpiece about societal decline (Andrew Dansby Nov. 14, 2018, Houston Chronicle)

The music of "The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society" laments societal change in England as an empire heads toward autumn. And as social tumult consumed the States, such understated and melancholy thematic fare simply wasn't at the forefront of hotter discussions.

But as author and sometimes music critic Jonathan Lethem told me earlier this month while talking about "Village Green," "One of the things the English have on us is that they're way out ahead on the empire-in-decline curve."

Admittedly, empires decline in different manners, dependent on their culture and economic and social structures. Fitting, then, that the Kinks' album was more melancholy with a British stiff upper lip, compared to the petulant and angry pouting that engulfs a culture across an ocean decades later.

A pastoral folksiness runs through the record, which runs contrary to the Kinks' reputation as a tightly wound progenitor of the British Invasion.

Ray's meditations on people and structures gone was mirrored by the guitar parts played by his brother, whose visceral, serrated work just a few years earlier helped define the sound of rock 'n' roll on songs such as "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night." They were no longer singing three-minute garage-rock songs about girls. They were summoning ghosts.

"Everything was psychedelic," Dave says. "That wasn't what we were going for. We wanted it more mystical. Something that captured this feeling of lost innocence. This idea of embracing the new but missing the old."

"Ray was never one to follow a trend," says Avory, the Kinks drummer. "He always tried to set one. When you got a trend, something in fashion, at that time, it was very difficult to break it. ... But he was more interested in telling a story with some quality. Not a throwaway. I think that's why it had a different sound and feel, all part and parcel, from what we did before."

There were indications before 1968 that the Kinks were headed in a different direction.

The band formed around its sibling core in 1964 in Muswell Hill, in the northern part of London. By October that year, the Kinks were rock stars thanks to those singles, "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night," which played well in Britain as well as the States, where each broke into the Top 10.

The turgidity of the music hung like a gray cloud around the band, even after the songs finished. The Kinks were famously among the most internally pugnacious bands in rock history. Their reputation likely played a part in being banned from touring the States just as the group found its groove. So from 1965-69, the Kinks were a nonpresence in the U.S., which explains a four-year blackout from the charts.

Which doesn't mean the Kinks stopped making music. And perhaps the insularity back in England helped them. Because the band found itself distanced from trends of the day.

The 1966 single "Dedicated Follower of Fashion" may have been written as a swipe to trend-following British listeners, but the Kinks in the late-'60s found themselves freed of connection to what was in vogue in North America.

Albums "Face to Face" in 1966 and the aptly titled "Something Else" a year later showed a group uninterested in hitching its wagon to any pre-existing trend.

The sound on the album is interesting. Though the Beatles' White Album -- also released in November 1968 -- was informed by a ramshackle looseness, likely a response to the every-hair-in-place quality of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" a year earlier -- the Kinks played songs that sounded loose.

I brought up Al Bowlly, the popular '30s British vocalist, and Dave Davies' came alive. "Yeah!" he said. "We wanted people to know the influences from the past were important and that we were reintegrating them. We had vast influences as kids. It was a big family. My sisters all played piano and sang. My dad played the banjo. Obviously, the blues and Chuck Berry were a big influence, but so was skiffle and all this stuff we heard growing up. It was a wealth of influence."

Avory pointed out that Davies was a fan of American vaudeville, which can also be heard on the record, as well as old musical theater. "Imagine a bar band," he says, "but rehearsing a bit more. Because all these great ideas needed to come out."

That instrumental approach was inviting and engaging, giving the record an almost informal vibe, which gently obscured just how specific the themes in the songs were.

"There's something particular about English nostalgia," Avory says. "That's what Ray was writing about. We were very English people, interested in our culture. And there are things that change and they're good, and there are things that change and they're not for the better. Buildings become boxes. Ray looked at the idea of a Village Green and all these things that went with it. It was quaint. But it also made you think about change. Things move on, but it's not always a progression, is it?"

Posted by at November 16, 2018 5:29 AM