It is nearly 50 years since the Kinks released their classic album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society – or as Sir Ray Davies likes to refer to it, ‘the most successful flop of all time’.
The LP appeared in the shops on November 22 1968, the same day as the Beatles’ ‘White Album’. Worldwide, the Beatles’ new effort shifted two million copies in a week; The Village Green Preservation Society, meanwhile, did not sell enough even to register in the charts here or in the US. The Kinks were a popular singles band whose recent hits included Waterloo Sunset, Autumn Almanac and the beautiful, elegiac Days. But in a year of political protest and riots on the streets of Paris and London, a collection of songs about village greens, steam trains and ‘preserving the old ways’ could hardly have seemed more out of step with the spirit of the times.
Half a century later, however, things feel rather different. Most fans and critics agree that The Village Green Preservation Society is not just one of the highlights of the Kinks’ career but one of the greatest albums of the 1960s and beyond. A lavish new Village Green box set is being released, containing remastered vinyl and CDs, photographs and memorabilia; in total 174 tracks of different mixes, outtakes, demos and BBC radio recordings. There is also a commemorative exhibition running at Proud Galleries in the West End displaying unique artwork, copies of the LP from around the world and vintage portraits of the Kinks on Hampstead Heath, the location of the cover shoot.
At the launch party a few weeks ago – probably the first launch party Village Green Preservation Society has ever had – the surviving members of the band gathered in the same room at the same time but without being photographed together or speaking to one another much. But then the original line-up of the Kinks – brothers Ray and Dave Davies, drummer Mick Avory and bass player Pete Quaife, who died in 2010 – always was a notoriously volatile combination of personalities, however harmonious the music they created.
Ray Davies had an old head on young shoulders. Despite being only in his mid-20s at the time, he was writing retrospective, introspective songs about the pressures of life as the band’s front man, using the village green and its inhabitants as a metaphor; The Village Green Preservation Society is more like an autobiographical collection of short stories than a concept album with a single narrative thread (Davies would go on to make several of these in the 1970s). It ends with the desperately jaunty People Take Pictures of Each Other, in which the singer leafs through a family photo album before closing it, and the LP, with the words: ‘Don’t show me no more please’. However much you may want to, he seems to be saying, you can’t go home again.
The LP was misunderstood in 1968 and it took several years for the rest of the world to catch up, by which time the Kinks had reinvented themselves as a hard rock group. What’s interesting about listening to the album now, in the autumn of 2018, is how easily it might be misunderstood all over again. With its low-key, melodic sound and its lyrics about ‘morning dew, fresh air and Sunday school’, it sounds like – but isn’t – a document of English cultural conservatism. I have even seen it described on social media as ‘well Brexit’. But the songs on Village Green Preservation Society aren’t really about village greens and steam trains, or saving ‘little shops, china cups and virginity’, to quote the title track; the subject Ray Davies was writing about was nostalgia – or rather, the ways in which nostalgia can lead you astray, falsifying memories and leaving you yearning for something which may never have existed in the first place. In this respect it’s probably more relevant than ever. And of course, it still sounds wonderful. God save the Village Green!
Andy Miller is the author of a book about The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (Bloomsbury) and is co-host of Backlisted podcast