November 22nd 2013, marked four and a half decades since Pye Records grudgingly released The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, an LP the Kinks’ leader Ray Davies would subsequently describe as “the most successful flop of all time.” Yet when that same Ray Davies, now aged 68, stood on stage at the Olympic stadium in East London last summer and sang the deathless “Waterloo Sunset” as part of the closing ceremony pop concert, he must have taken some satisfaction in knowing that, although “Waterloo Sunset” will always be the more famous and familiar song, the bittersweet vision of England set out in the Village Green… LP had already found expression in Danny Boyle’s triumphant opening ceremony a month earlier: pride in the achievements of “ordinary people,” the knowing nostalgia for a green and pleasant Albion which never quite existed, habitual self-deprecation, a reflexive sense of humour, sing as we go.
Here’s “Waterloo Sunset” at the London Olympics closing ceremony, 2012:
It is ten years since I researched and wrote this book, from the autumn of 2002 through to the spring of the following year – a very happy time. It was published in November 2003 as one of the first half dozen titles in then-Continuum Publishing’s 33 1/3 series of books about LPs, a series which has expanded over to a decade to encompass nearly a hundred artists and albums, from Black Sabbath to Celine Dion (less of a distance than it might first appear). I shall always be grateful to my editor David Barker, not least because he had already commissioned another author to write about Village Green…; it’s that kind of album. David persuaded that writer to step aside and allow me through. I owe thanks to them both – and thanks to Antón López at Libros Crudos for subsequently undertaking the task of translating this English book about a very English subject, written in a deliberately English idiom, into Spanish.
For several years, this book was the best-selling title in the series, until it was overtaken by Kim Cooper’s illuminating account of the making of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, a unique album which may well be the Pitchfork generation’s very own The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. The popularity of the Village Green book is almost entirely down to the affection with which people view The Kinks in general and this album in particular; but I think it also reflected an appetite for serious, grown-up writing about the Kinks which discussed the group on the same level as the Beatles or the Who, while making reference to social history, film, literature, and so on.
“[This album] has become exactly the sort of heritage artifact Davies both celebrated and critiqued in the song ‘Village Green Preservation Society.'”
Coming back to the book after ten years, I think I almost succeeded in delivering this. Almost. I have one regret – I wish I had been kinder about “Wonderboy.”
I dismissed “Wonderboy,” as “a mess,” lambasting its “trite arrangement and murky production.” In retrospect, I can see I was apeing the style of the late Ian MacDonald in Revolution In The Head rather too closely; in a book about the Beatles, he was not afraid to be amusingly waspish or plain rude about the Beatles records he did not like. I felt I had to do the same, if only to show my critical judgement had not been impaired by a fannish love of the subject. When you read that entry, please bear in mind that I am very much accentuating the negative for stylistic effect. The truth is I quite like “Wonderboy.”
Here’s “Wonderboy’ on TOTP (Top of the Pops, for you non-Brits) in 1968:
Even though the group is no longer together, the Kinks’ story has continued with its customary dramas, crises and surprises. In January 2004, Ray Davies was attacked on the street in New Orleans and shot in the leg; six months later his brother Dave suffered a serious stroke which left him partially paralyzed and unable to play the guitar. Fortunately, both men have recovered and continue to tour and make music, albeit separately. Ray Davies has even released two solo albums of new songs, a development which seemed highly unlikely at the time I was writing the book. The Kinks’ original line-up was reunited briefly in 2005 for induction into the short-lived UK Music Hall of Fame; for the next few years, there was some talk of another album or a tour. Sadly though, 2010 saw the death of Pete Quaife, the Davies brothers’ schoolmate and the Kinks’ original bass player. Quaife was an unsentimental and hilarious interviewee, as several of his contributions to the book will attest. More to the point, he was a wonderful musician and the Kinks would not – could not – have been the Kinks without him.
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society has since continued to grow in reputation and stature, featuring regularly in critics’ and listeners’ polls, and arguably its songs are being heard more widely than ever before. “Picture Book” was licensed to an advert for Hewlett Packard printers, a folky arrangement of “Village Green Preservation Society” by Kate Rusby became the theme tune of the BBC situation comedy Jam and Jerusalem, and the original featured in the Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy film Hot Fuzz. I am reliably informed TKATVGPS has become the best-selling original album in the Kinks’ entire back catalogue.
In 2004, I was asked by reissue producer Andrew Sandoval to contribute to a Village Green deluxe edition triple-CD set. Nearly every non-LP track discussed in this book, many of which had hitherto solely been available on bootleg, was included, even the instrumental “Mick Avory’s Underpants.” If you are reading this and do not possess a copy of TKATVGPS – unlikely but possible – this should be the edition you seek out. Alongside nearly all the necessary singles and rare tracks, it also contains both mono and stereo mixes of the LP and numerous alternate takes. The exceptions, discussed in the latter half of the book, are as follows: “She’s Got Everything,” “When I Turn Off The Living Room Light,” “Plastic Man,” “Pictures In The Sand,” and “Till Death Us Do Part.” It should be noted that the set’s compilers hoped to include all these tracks but, at the eleventh hour, Ray Davies vetoed their inclusion. Ah well, we thought, it wouldn’t be Village Green… if Ray didn’t change his mind about the tracklisting at the last minute. Fortunately, the first three tracks are easily found on compilations. However, it is a huge pity that “Pictures In The Sand” and “Till Death Us Do Part” remain unobtainable legally, though these days both songs are easy to find on the internet (see below and NB: Don’t tell Ray!). Andrew undertook a fresh remastering of the mono album for The Kinks In Mono box set (available from Universal for about five minutes in 2011) but the 2004 deluxe remains the definitive edition of the album on CD.
Here’s “Pictures in the Sand”:
and here’s “Till Death Us Do Part”:
There have been a few further developments in and discoveries about the convoluted history of the album since this book was published ten years ago and I take the opportunity to note a few of them here: A reasonable quality off-air audio recording of the group’s appearance on the BBC2 television show Colour Me Pop was uncovered, complete with the noise of a family dog barking in the background. This tape was subsequently issued on The Kinks At The BBC box set (2012). The differences between the early versions of “Sitting By The Riverside” and “Picture Book” and those released on the finished album five months later are minor but fascinating – it would be truly miraculous if someone were to recover the original video.
Such a miracle might just be possible–in 2008, the Kinks long-lost 1969 appearance on Once More With Felix popped up unannounced on YouTube in pristine sound and colour. The clip, Pete Quaife’s penultimate performance with the group, had been junked by the BBC but rescued by ex-BBC engineer Bob Pratt who, unbeknownst to his bosses, also saved dozens of other rare appearances by David Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, and others by making illicit copies and sneaking them out of the studio. This is some of the only surviving footage of the Village Green-era Kinks and I found it thrilling – and poignant – to see the actual Kinks playing “Picture Book” and “Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains” when these songs were just a few months old. Idiotically, this clip was not included on The Kinks At The BBC set but, once again, it is easy to find on the internet. You can watch it here:
In addition, 2011 finally saw the appearance of Dave Davies’ unreleased 1969 solo album and associated tracks under the title Hidden Treasures; the following year, in an excellent interview with Record Collector magazine, Ray Davies confirmed that he had made four-track demos of the songs for the BBC TV series At The Eleventh Hour and Where Was Spring?, and even sang a few lines of the long-lost “We’re Backing Britain,” which rather suggests that at least some of those demos may still exist and, if we all live long enough, we may yet get to hear them.
Finally, for Kinks Kompletists, here are three small nuggets of information about the Village Green… songs which came to light after the first edition went to press:
1) “Big Sky”: The clipped speaking voice adopted by Ray in the verses of “Big Sky” is his impersonation of the actor Burt Lancaster. This was confirmed to me by Dave Davies in an interview for the liner notes of the deluxe edition of the album.
2) “Berkeley Mews”: The mystery saxophonist who only appears at the end of the song is actually the saxophone tape from a Mk II Mellotron, played through by holding down one key and letting the tape spool.
3) “Where Did My Spring Go?”: This song from Where Was Spring? is an inversion and parody of Nina Simone’s single “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” a top ten hit in England in January 1969, the month “Where Did My Spring Go?” was written and recorded. This was probably obvious to viewers of Where Was Spring? in 1969 but I loved this track for twenty years before finding out it was actually a piss-take of another song and my opinion of it hasn’t changed – it is Ray Davies, and the Kinks, at their peak:
For comparison, here’s Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life,” live in London in 1968 (it’s incredible):
In the decade since this book first appeared, then, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society has continued to be acknowledged as one of the most important albums of the pop era, gaining new fans and growing in popularity. It has become exactly the sort of heritage artifact Davies both celebrated and critiqued in the song “Village Green Preservation Society.” Perhaps more surprising is the change in attitude of Ray Davies himself. For a long time, Davies remained skeptical of the praise heaped upon Village Green…. However, in the mid-1990s, ever mindful of a trend, the Kinks reconvened to record a live-in-the-studio collection in the style of the then-fashionable MTV Unplugged series of albums, which had given acts as diverse as Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Nirvana huge exposure and sales. And when To The Bone, as it was known, was released in the USA in 1996, it featured not just a neat version of “Days” but also careful, respectful renditions of the first three tracks on Village Green…, “Village Green Preservation Society,” “Do You Remember Walter,” and “Picture Book.”
Shortly afterwards, the Kinks finally split up and Davies embarked on the solo career which has resulted in several new records and his Storyteller series of shows; a well-deserved lap of honour. He seems to have accepted that his most popular work will always be the string of singles he made nearly fifty years ago with the Kinks but in the early 21st century he also came round to the idea of Village Green… again, playing its songs more frequently in concert and discussing the album with warmth in interviews. In 2011, Davies performed The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society in its entirety at the Royal Festival Hall in London, accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Crouch End Festival Chorus choir. And although, on the night, this maximal approach was the complete opposite of the small, intimate sound of the original LP – it was like hearing the songs being played by “Mr. Blue Sky”-era ELO – it was genuinely moving to see the work’s author apparently reconciled with the album he had been forced to give up for adoption more than forty years earlier.
After all, what more could he do?
Finally, it wasn’t possible to make this happen ten years ago; incredibly, there was no YouTube when I wrote this book! But if you are the person who has stumbled onto this page by accident, the one who has never heard The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, who wonders what all the fuss is about or why someone would seek to establish the identity of the saxophonist on a dusty old Kinks b-side, let alone write a whole book about it, well, listen to this. It’s not just the most successful flop of all time; it’s also magic. God save the Kinks!
Andy Miller’s new book The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-so-great Ones) Saved My Life will be published in 2014.