Counterbalance: The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
The 183rd most acclaimed album of all time is this week's Counterbalance, a pastoral 1968 masterpiece from the Kinks. God save little shops, china cups and virginity.
Klinger: How in the hell has it taken us this long to talk about the Kinks? Ray Davies is (and this can't just be me) one of the finest songwriters in rock history. Sure, he might not have the incisive fogginess of Dylan or the cantankerous anthemry of Lennon, but he can usually be counted on to bring a certain dignity — something very close to wisdom — to the proceedings that you just don't often hear. I suppose the rap on the Kinks is that they never made their masterpiece. For whatever reason, they never delivered a career-defining statement of purpose that would match a Sgt. Pepper or a Blonde on Blonde or an Exile on Main St. Over the years, though, critics have come around to this week's record, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, which currently sits at No. 183 on the Great List. Which, if you buy into the rap on the Kinks, pretty much makes sense.
After all, the artists I've mentioned all made their bones by going for the big score. The sprawling double album (and double albums are nearly always described by rock writers as "sprawling") or the dizzying array of technical and studio wizardry. Not our Kinks, though. When the world was zigging, they were one of the few acts to zag. The Village Green Preservation Society is a deceptively quiet record, with its odes to pastoral splendor, not to mention little shops, china cups and virginity. And in 1968, when the world was just waking up from its technicolor psychedelic dream, this all must have seemed a bit unfashionable. (Granted, the Stones were turning in Beggars Banquet and Dylan's John Wesley Harding had already signified his abstention, but I still don't think it had all fully sunk in yet.) So maybe it's no surprise that The Village Green Preservation Society sank fast upon its release, but still I'm quite pleased that it's hanging on in the critical hive mind. Were you familiar with this record before I sprung it on you, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: Not really. But then, I’m not one to spend a lot of time digging through the various rock acts of the 1960s — as I’ve made abundantly clear every time you foist one of those records upon my ears. It’s not that I find it dull, I’m merely a man of simple, predictable tastes. Give me a Beatles record — preferably Revolver. Give me a Dylan record — preferably Highway 61 Revisited. Give me a Rolling Stones record — preferably Let It Bleed. Toss in the Band’s self-titled effort and then we can move on to a different decade .
Klinger: I find this to be very confusing. You're starting to sound like the kind of guy who orders a cheeseburger at a Mexican restaurant. And since when have you ever said "Give me a Dylan record?"
Mendelsohn: If you are going to make me listen to 1960s music, I would choose that Dylan, because I’m familiar with it and I don’t hate it. Given more autonomy, I would dump Dylan any day and take this Kinks record. But it takes a little perseverance to get to the Kinks, because as you noted, they don’t have that one album, a masterpiece that can be passed around and talked about in revered tones. On the flip side, though, it’s not as if the Kinks were abject failures. They have had longer careers than most bands from the 1960s, with success spread out over nearly three decades. On top of that, their music has been covered by numerous groups. Most of The Village Green Preservation Society is immediately familiar because of the Kinks prolonged presence in the music industry. While they never had the one great album, Ray Davies has been knocking out top-notch singles material that has managed to filter its way into my brain. The entirety of this album is like auditory déjà vu. I’ve heard this before, Klinger, even if I’ve never actually sat down and listened to this record.
Klinger: Here we go again? Are you once again suggesting that there's no reason to listen to other records from the 1960s because there's already a Revolver out there? If this were even a little true, there really wouldn't be much need for us to have gone beyond about the top 50 most acclaimed records of all time. But regardless, Whether or not The Village Green Preservation Society is an according-to-Hoyle concept album, it certainly has a thematic cohesion, both lyrically and musically. You mentioned the Band earlier, and I think that The Village Green Preservation Society can be seen as a sort of British analog to Music from Big Pink. While the Band was filling their gatefold with family photos and living like scruffy musical wizards in their ramshackle manse, the Kinks were pining for a mythical small-town Britain that probably never actually existed. Both groups use older forms of music to convey their message, each one steeped in their individual traditions (hoedowns vs. knees-ups, to put it simplistically).
Mendelsohn: I think we might be having a slight misunderstanding. While I have accused many late 1960s rock acts of the egregious sin of trying too hard to be the Beatles, I won’t be laying that charge at the feet of the Kinks. When I say I feel like I’ve heard this record before, it has to do with the exquisite moments of pop mastery that permeate this record. The Kinks, despite being as British as one can be, write some incredibly universal melodies that still sound fresh and to my ears, have informed a great deal of indie rock I enjoy today.
Klinger:Well, that’s a mercy anyhow. Still, I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the musician’s union hadn't banned the Kinks from touring the US from 1965 to 1969. Would their albums have been bigger here and would we have been talking about them more here at Counterbalance? The timing of this album does, after all coincide with the initial rise of rock journalism and its taste-making powers (although critics were very much on board with this album, touring was still one of the primary ways bands sealed the deal with the public back in those days). It’s hard to imagine that a song like "Picture Book", with its exuberant chorus and catchy riff, could have fallen through the cracks.
Mendelsohn That would be would be an odd reason for the Kinks to be relegated to the role of also-rans. It’s a shame too, because the more time I spend with this record, the more I’m amazed that it isn’t higher on the Great List. “Picture Book” is the obvious gold track on the album, but the next seven tracks are just as strong as the Kinks jam through a myriad of styles. The rambling blues of “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” is on par with almost anything from the Rolling Stones camp. “Big Sky” is a sweeping, wide open take on rock. “Sitting by the Riverside", is a little old fashioned and goofy but completely endearing and makes Paul McCartney’s love of old-timey music seem quaint. And “Starstruck” finds the Kinks working on the formula that would eventually result in their hit “Lola". After that the record fizzles a little bit. Maybe that’s the problem.
Klinger I will concede that this album seems a little front-loaded, and it took me a while for some of the songs toward the end to fully sink into my head. Maybe that's because the musicianship here is never flashy — Peter Quaife and Mick Avory are a sturdy rhythm section, and Dave Davies plays well throughout, but you'd be hard-pressed to point to any particular virtuosities. Not to mention the fact that I was quite obsessed with "The Village Green Preservation Society" for a long time (I did find myself wishing that Ray Davies was in fact singing "God save Doogie Howser" instead of "Tudor houses", though). I'm glad you're more on board with this album than you had seemed at first, but I'm not all that surprised by your initial reticence. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is that kind of album with, again, that kind of subtlety that doesn't often capture the critical and popular ear right away.
It's interesting to note that in 1973, the Kinks expanded this Village Green concept out into Preservation Acts 1 & 2 — just the kind of grab at the brass ring that critics and fans should have gone bananas over. For a lot of reasons, it didn't work. But even these albums, which were perceived as large-scale misfires at the time, are being re-evaluated in certain circles. And that's something that seems to be a constant when we talk about the Kinks. For all the misadventures that the group endured (the touring ban, the Davies brothers infighting and general neuroses, the fact that The Village Green Preservation Society ended up coming out the same day as the freaking White Album), their contributions remain with us, ready to be seen in an entirely new light.