These days, when Ray Davies listens to his band’s masterstroke, 1968’s The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, it’s with “a bit of misery.” The frustration he was feeling at age 23, when he wrote it, is still fresh: The Kinks were banned from playing in the U.S. following a dustup with the musicians’ union in 1966, forcing him to “withdraw” into Englishness until 1969. But on the other hand, he also takes pride in the quaint stories and complex arrangements he wrote for each of the LP’s 15 songs and how much the band had grown in the four short years since they released “You Really Got Me.”
“With ‘You Really Got Me’ and ‘All Day and All of the Night,’ we were saying, ‘We’re here, we’re gonna grab you,'” he tells Rolling Stone. “The music on Village Green says, ‘Come find us.’ If you don’t want to find us, it’s bad luck for you. There’s a little bit of encouragement there.”
Lately, Davies, now age 74, has re-immersed himself in the fanciful world of Village Green — the last album to feature the original Kinks lineup — as he’s worked on a comprehensive new 50th anniversary reissue of the album. Back then he was “preserving the old ways from being abused,” as he sang on the title track, and the super deluxe box set is the ultimate act of preservation. It contains the original album in stereo and mono and hours of bonus tracks, BBC recordings, interviews and demos along with a book with photos, essays and a tribute from the Who’s Pete Townshend, among other goodies. When the album originally came out, it was a commercial failure. In recent years, though, it’s become a favorite for both fans and the band (Davies is currently working on a stage adaptation of the album) and Rolling Stone named it one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
“I have a lot of fondness for this record,” Ray’s brother, Kinks guitarist Dave Davies, 71, says. “There was a lot of reflection on that album. These characters that Ray supposedly drew from his imagination actually were based on real people we knew — there’s a lot of reality connected to these characters.”
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“It’s nice that it’s come back and people are appreciating it now,” drummer Mick Avory, 74, says. “Ray doesn’t go with trends — he likes to set trends. Psychedelia was still going on, and it didn’t fall into that category — it was more in the folk-rock bracket. It’s only been popular for the last 10 years or so and we’re getting the benefit from it now.”
“I was very inspired at that time,” Ray says. “The band was on the verge of breaking up. It was a farewell album of sorts, but here we are 50 years later talking about it.”
By late 1966, when Ray first started formulating some of the ideas for Village Green, the band had already begun to ease out of the amplifier-slashing hard rock that had made them leaders in the British Invasion. Ray had begun writing lighter songs, like “Sunny Afternoon” and “Waterloo Sunset,” with more of a “lazy” style as he called it in one of the vintage BBC interviews in the box set. Ray continued writing in that style and came up with the song cycle that reflected his viewpoint.
Meanwhile, bassist Pete Quaife, who died in 2010, was growing dissatisfied with his place in the ensemble, feeling more like a hired gun than a band member, and would eventually leave the group in early 1969. The Kinks were dealing with legal issues regarding their publishing and management. “We weren’t broke,” remembers Ray, “we just didn’t have much money in the bank.” And then they were not allowed to tour the U.S.
As legend has it, the Kinks found themselves banned from the U.S. after either Dave refused to sign a union contract or Ray unwittingly punched a man for suggesting that communists would overrun Great Britain only to find out that he worked for the American Federation of Musicians. They subsequently lost favor with U.S. booking agents and found themselves in exile. “America in the Sixties was the place to go,” Ray says. “The Stones, Led Zeppelin, our friends in Jimi Hendrix and all these bands were going over, but we were banned from playing,” he says. “So I withdrew into my own culture.”
As all of this change was going on, Ray began taking stock of his Englishness and writing personal, semi-autobiographical songs about growing up in London’s Muswell Hill district and the British traditions he’d seen fading as industry took a hold on the country in the postwar boom. At first he considered writing The Village Green Preservation Society as a solo album, but then he had a change of heart and thought it would work better in his bandmates’ hands. He made demos of songs on a cassette recorder, featuring just him on either a guitar or a piano, and let the band fill them out with what they thought fit.
“I’d let them in on the songs for the first time because for many years I wouldn’t let them hear the lyrics,” Ray remembers. “That’s because we were considered to be quite a heavy rock band. If they read the lyrics, they’d say, ‘What happened to him?'”
“Ray can write about anything,” Avory says now. “He’s a bit of a Shakespeare with songwriting. This album had more subtle things and descriptive, poetical words.”
In one of the BBC interviews in the collection, Ray speaks of how someone had recently pointed out to him that he was very good at “preserving old things.” Asked 50 years later what he would have been preserving, he jokes, “draught beer.” Dave also remembers seeing London changing at the time and feeling upset about it. “In the Sixties, they put some architecture up on London, and it wasn’t even architecture — it was just buildings being thrown up for people to live in,” he says. “In the Eighties and Nineties, people started to really think differently about our environment — what we waste, what we discard. So that record is kind of ahead of its time.”
In his essay for the set, Townshend wrote, “What Ray seemed to set his sights on was restoring England to its pre-war serenity and conservatism.” “The world was changing but it didn’t really change for the better,” Dave says of Townshend’s statement. “There was a kind of innocence that was being lost in the flurries of trying to do things instantly or quickly. I think we lost a lot of humanity and innocence and kindness, and today it’s happening in a grander way. But we seem to be working OK. I don’t know about the conservative bit, though.
“I wouldn’t go as far as ‘conservatism,'” he says, “I think it was ‘values’ more than conservatism. My father was a socialist — very left — and I was brought up to be that way. You can still be far-left and have values. It’s one thing when you get the left and the right together in values, and I think we should be selfless. I’m kind enough not to have edited out Pete’s comment on conservatism.”
Village Green’s songs ultimately conjured emotions ranging from wistfulness (“I think melancholia is part of the generation before me, because they fought in the war and missed their youths,” Ray says) to what Ray calls “quirky fun.” He jokes about playing a gig drunk and embarrassing himself in front of his mates (“All of My Friends Were There”) but he also laments how complicated life has become (“Village Green,” “Animal Farm”) and pays tribute to some of the colorful people he knew growing up (“Johnny Thunder,” “Do You Remember Walter?”). It’s neither a rock opera nor a concept album (only the title track specifically addresses preservation); it’s a series of vignettes that reflected Ray’s values.
Chief among them were the people Ray had grown up with. Although the Muswell Hill neighborhood where the Davies brothers were raised doesn’t have a village green per se (Dave says you’d have to go to nearby Cherry Tree Wood for “an actual green”), Ray wrote about what he calls “an imagined Muswell Hill.” “All the characters in the songs existed,” Ray says. “There was a Desperate Dan. There was a girl that looked like a duck; she had big lips, and we called her Donald Duck. So it became characters.”
On the wistful “Do You Remember Walter?” Ray sings to a friend, “Isn’t it a shame the way our little world has changed?” He reminisces how Walter and he would play cricket in the rain and sneak cigarettes. And he sings of how Walter said “we’d fight the world so we’d be free/We’d save up all our money and we’d buy a boat and sail away to sea.”
“It was an amalgamation of two or three people,” Ray says. “It was the postwar generation. We wanted to move on. We had conscription; that was abolished the year I came out of college. But the real Walter said it was coming and that it was evil. He set off living in a suburb and died a couple of years ago. He was one of those guys that wanted to change the world; he’d sail around the world and be free. There was also a guy who went to live in Canada; he made it out in time. So it was a gang of kids all wrapped in.”
In the baroque “Village Green,” he sings of a girl named Daisy, whom he loved but “I sought fame and so I left the village green.” “Yes, Daisy was real,” Ray says. “She was my first love. I kissed her by the old oak tree, but she didn’t take my virginity. That was someone else. She didn’t turn up in time.”
“Johnny Thunder,” a rocker about a motorcycle-riding rebel, was about a Cockney Ray knew, “but I saw him as a Neal Cassady type character,” as well as a bit like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. “All rebels look like Marlon Brando on a motorbike, but they don’t wear a bowler hat,” he says.
Dave says he has different memories of the inspiration for Johnny Thunder. “There was a guy that I knew that I thought Ray modeled Johnny Thunder after,” he says. “He was a loner, and he’d drive around and didn’t say much. In the middle of Muswell Hill, there’s a big roundabout, where you go ’round just before the hill itself. It’s very steep. This guy used to sped on his bike ’round the roundabout and the story has it one day his footrest hit the road and he toppled and that was the end of Johnny Thunder. But Ray has different memories of that.”
Dave also remembers a real-life “Wicked Annabella,” the character in the song he sang lead on, as a “funny old lady on the street corner sneering at the all the kids whenever they came near her yard.” Ray offers, “her mother was a widow and she lived in a big house with her mother. It’s very Dickensian. I cast the song for Dave because it had power chords in it.”
One song both Davies brothers feel strongly about these days is “Phenomenal Cat,” a tune with a Mellotron flute arrangement by Rolling Stones associate Nicky Hopkins about a lazy cat who had learned the secret of life on a trip to Hong Kong and was content living out the rest of his life getting fat in a tree. “It was eccentricity,” Ray says.
Dave looks at it as more profound. “It shows in a very cunning and thoughtful way the mystical and spiritual potential we all have,” he says. “‘Phenomenal Cat’ is the mystical side of all of us. It’s a metaphor, saying, ‘You do have a soul.’ The cat is the coolest part of you. You don’t know it yet but through healing we can throw your ideas up in the air and see which ones stick.”
The album closes with the upbeat “Pictures Take Pictures of Each Other” (“to prove they really existed,” as the lyric goes) and it concludes Ray’s wistful suite. Along with Village Green’s “Picture Book” it drives home Ray’s message holding onto and appreciating the past. “There’s more value in an old picture than there is now on iPhones,” he says now. “I know a guy. He’s homeless and I chat with him sometimes in the street. He’s got a picture of his family in his pocket, and he’s always got a picture with him, he says, ‘For when things get really low.'” He pauses. “It’s all gotten cheaper because of iPhones.”
Even though he quit the band after the record came out, Pete Quaife was quoted in 2006 as saying it was the high point of his career and that “It is probably the only album made by the Kinks in which we all contributed something.” “He’s probably right,” Avory says, deadpanning, “Why’d he leave?”
“I think the songs allowed the band to express itself — Mick in particular,” Ray says. “The songs were structured in such a way that they could fill in the gaps of a normal pop record. And Pete was fascinated with a piece by Leroy Anderson called ‘Holiday for Strings.’ He kept playing it in soundcheck to prove he could play it, so when ‘Wicked Annabella’ came out, he could sneak it in there.”
Dave fondly remembers working out the vocal harmonies to “Picture Book” with Ray. “He and I would always stand around the piano with Pete and try to work out harmonies,” he recalls. “Halfway through ‘Picture Book,’ I was trying to do a bit of jazz improvisation like Jo Stafford. You can almost hear Ray mimicking or singing across it, ‘scooby-dooby-doo,’ poking fun at what I was saying. That was quite a spontaneous album.”
It was such a productive period, and the band came up with enough material that Ray, who also produced the LP, hoped to put it out as a double-album. The record label refused, and Ray pared down the songs. One of the songs that got cut in the process was “Days,” a reflective farewell song, that closed an early version of Side One. It’s included in the box set along with many other outtakes from the sessions. The label liked “Days” enough that it issued the track as a stand-alone single a few months before the album release, and it made it to Number 12 in the U.K. but failed to chart in the States. It was the band’s last big hit until 1970’s “Lola.”
“My feelings at the time were always very mixed [about ‘Days’] because I always thought it was a very unhappy song,” Dave says. “It’s very sad, and it hasn’t got the humor. It saddens me every time I hear it, and in fact, Pete was unhappy and Ray was going through a lot of trauma in his personal life.”
“It’s a goodbye song, but it’s also an inspirational song,” Ray explains. “It could also mean a new beginning. I wanted to write a sad song with an optimistic praise to it. My sister Rosie had gone to Australia, and we didn’t have communication — no Internet in those days. She left and said, ‘Say goodbye, my loving brother,’ and I said, ‘Thank you for being my sister.’ So the song’s for her, really, and her generation.'”
Another outtake in the collection with less sentimentality is the boogie-ing instrumental “Mick Avory’s Underpants.” “I’m glad that’s an instrumental,” Avory says. “God knows what the words would have been. I used to take my trousers off when I got drunk and I used to have these horrible underpants with either skull-and-crossbones on them or some inscription. Everyone knew I had silly underpants.”
The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society came out on November 22nd, 1968 — the same day as the Beatles’ White Album — in the U.K. and a couple of months later in the U.S. Rolling Stone gave it a positive review, as did other critics, but it never caught on with the public. The album’s only proper single, “Starstruck” backed with “Picture Book,” failed to chart in England and the U.S.
Ray simply moved on and began working on the band’s next LP, the equally British Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). That LP got them back on the charts in the U.S. but strangely not in the U.K., though the Kinks’ singles continued to earn them hits there. Avory left the lineup in 1984, a result of his tumultuous relationship with Dave, and the brothers kept the band going through 1996.
Muswell Hill these days is more different than ever, compared to 1968, and Ray still feels the same way he did about the way England is changing as when he wrote the album. “When this was written, it was that England and Europe are changing, and it was a bonding record,” he says. “If we are gonna throw away the past, let’s remember the good things, like preserving the little shops in England. All the small shops are closing ’cause everything gets delivered in boxes from Amazon.”
He’s more aware now of how much things were changing in 1968 when he wrote it, citing the revolution in Czechoslovakia and the Vietnam War. He recognizes it now as being something about loss. “I was trying to sort everything out,” he says. “There was lots of change in the world. And I think it’s appropriate now because I think most countries in Europe are scared of their governments not preserving their cultures. That’s a big political issue throughout Italy, Germany and Britain and to a certain extent America. It’s very timely, this re-release. But I’m not set on joining the far right. God forbid. I’m in the silent majority.”
Another thing that’s different now is that everyone in the Kinks seems to be getting along. The three surviving band members convened recently at an art opening for which Dave had done some paintings of Village Green’s characters. “Mick was at the event, and we were chatting like the old days,” Dave says. “It’s fine.”
“I see Ray quite a lot anyway,” Avory says. “But we had a couple of pictures taken together and a chat, and yeah, that was good.”
“I’m toying with the idea of working with Dave again,” Ray says. “We’re listening to a lot of old songs. We uncovered a lot of tapes when we were looking for Village Green material outtakes, and we might be doing an album next year. But I’ve got a couple other projects first.”
That said, Ray has a self-deprecating opinion on how it will go over. “When the Rolling Stones do a comeback, they use Yankee Stadium,” he says. “When the Kinks make a comeback it’ll be in a bar on the East Side.” He laughs.
Joking aside, they’re all aware of their legacy and that of Village Green — now that people appreciate it. “It was the most melodic of our original music,” Ray says. “Our early albums were obviously inspired by American R&B. Village Green was the best homespun material we’d done so far.”
“It didn’t seem to bother me that much at the time that it wasn’t a hit,” Dave says. “I thought it was a hit. I’ve thought at so many points that people just don’t get the Kinks or didn’t get the Kinks. And then a few years later, people turn around and say, ‘Yeah, it’s not bad, that. I quite liked that.’ That’s the story of our lives, really.”