Monday, February 14, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 94 - The Kinks

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

Rock music embraces iconoclasm. From its birth in the 1950s, the overriding message has always been "out with the old and in with the new." Rock musicians are constantly pushing forward, trying to do something different, reinventing the genre, embracing youth and energy and vigor and newness. So I was surprised to discover that a sizable portion of the Kinks' output in the 1960s was thematically conservative.

1968 was one year after the famed Summer of Love. There was a feeling of change in the air, with youth uprisings from New York to Paris to Prague. And on November 22, 1968 (the exact day that the Beatles released their White Album), the Kinks came out with The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, an album that offered a sentimental look back at pre-war Britain. It's hard to imagine a piece of rock music more out of sync with the times. 

On Village Green, the Kinks mourn the loss of steam trains, rural village life, pastoral scenery and childhood friends. But to dismiss it as mere nostalgia would be too easy. On the album, the Kinks evoke the innocence of childhood, the melancholy of an adult life gone awry, the bittersweet taste that comes from looking at old pictures and playing "remember when." The album is homesick for childhood and the perceived Edenic quality of small town British life, while simultaneously acknowledging that a return is all but impossible. 

It's not an album that appeals to young radicals, but it also utilizes too many far-out psychedelic tools to appeal to old fogeys. Village Green is caught between the innocence of youth and the wistful memories of old age, without fully embracing either, and as such it failed to really connect with any audience. I think the album is a masterpiece (and, after four decades of slow but steady sales, it has since become one of their best-selling titles), but it's no surprise that it didn't catch fire with the youth of 1968. 

In one of the most poignant songs, "Do You Remember Walter?," Ray Davies sings to his childhood friend: "Do you remember, Walter, how we said we'd fight the world so we'd be free?" in a line that brings to mind both the clear moral delineation of World War II and the righteous anger of the 1960s counterculture. But the song goes on: "I 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'll have nothing more to say." It's a stark, painful truth, one that takes the dreams of any young generation and crushes them with a fistful jaded cynicism. 

The song ends with the final line, "Yes people often change, but memories of people can remain." It's not necessarily a happy song, certainly not a youth-oriented one, but that final line rings optimistic to me. Village Green is pessimistic, even sorrowful, but it's not wholly depressing. Memories can remain, and with that line, Davies affirms the worth of youthful idealism even while acknowledging its eventual demise. The album sits at a strange crossroads of youth and adulthood, old and the new, and the fact that it doesn't fully cater to any of these demographics only adds to its effectiveness, I think. 



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: "Lola" is basically a novelty song that's found everlasting fame, but I'd also heard a few of the band's early singles, such as "You Really Got Me."

MY LISTENING: I listened to The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968) every day this week. I also listened to Something Else By The Kinks (1967) three times, and Face to Face (1966) and Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) (1969) twice each, and put on a few of the Kinks' singles from early in their career.

WHAT I LIKED: As I stated above, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society is a strikingly original album, taking the psychedelic tricks of other bands of the time and using them not to look forward, but to wax nostalgic about the past. Listen to "Sitting By The Riverside," an idyllic song that takes a dark turn halfway through, morphing into sinister, dark-carnival type noises before returning to its original pastoral melody.

There's a lot of this mixture of innocence and darkness throughout the album, which is what made it so interesting to me. For example, on "Village Green," the quaint harpsichord chimes that echo the narrator's memories of childhood shift to antiquated kitsch, as the song goes on to describe the tourists that have since invaded the narrator's childhood home. The band is able to utilize sounds that reflect both childlike wonder and world-weary disenchantment at the same time.

But the album isn't completely like this, and are much more direct, and demonstrate the band's ability to craft a catchy melody: the opening "The Village Green Preservation Society" got stuck inside my head, and "Last of the Steam-Powered Trains" is just an all-around fun song. 

Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) was the album that followed Village Green, and it too revolves around nostalgia and British history - this time as a quasi-rock opera about a man who fights in World War II and moves to Australia (I think). Convoluted plot synopses aside, I enjoyed this album for its dichotomous look at history, reflecting back on the "good old days" that happen to include straight-laced morality, horrible working conditions and exploitative imperialism. "Victoria" is a great tongue-in-cheek song about this period in Britain ("Long ago life was clean / Sex was bad and obscene / And the rich were so mean"). "Brainwashed" is even darker, while "Australia" surrenders to an instrumental jam that simultaneously reflects the excitement and apprehension of the post-war world. Unlike Village Green, Arthur is a lot more humorous, even light-hearted, while tackling even darker subjects with a satirist's sense of wit. It's definitely an album I'm going to be returning to. 

In all this talk about the Kinks' concept albums, I would be remiss if I didn't mention their work from the early days of the British Invasion. "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" rock harder than any of the Kinks' later stuff, basically inventing the archetype of the "hard rock" song before the band turned its attention to a different kind of music. I enjoyed these songs, but it's hard for me to connect this period of music with the albums that I concentrated on most this week. It's a remarkable period of growth. 


The only times that the Kinks didn't connect with me was when they were being too trippy, or being too British. This happened mostly on Face to Face and Something Else By The Kinks, which I guess were transition albums between their mod rock phase and their concept-album phase. 

"Fancy" is an example of being too-trippy, an Eastern-sounding song with dull philosophical platitudes and the obligatory "OMMMM" drones in the background. The cockney "Harry Rag" is a good example of the too-British, and also indulges in the juvenile "tobacco or marijuana?" ambiguity. "Phenomenal Cat" is one of the few failures of Village Green, a song that's simultaneously too British and too trippy about a cat who discovers the "secret of life" in Hong Kong. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: The Kinks were around a very long time (basically from 1964 to 1993), and it seems that they were pretty decent until at least 1983. I want to check out more of their earlier hard rock stuff, as well as their later period of "Lola" fame, which I unfortunately didn't get to this week. This would include Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One (1970) and Muswell Hillbillies (1971). 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "All Day and All of the Night"

This song was on a Starbust commercial in the Nineties, and what's weird is that I remember that vividly but I don't remember what I read yesterday.


A song about a soldier's post-war life that runs a whole gamut of emotions, from calm and happy to bored and discontent. And it features brass instruments, which I always appreciate in rock songs.