In 1968, The Kinks joined countless other bands and released a seminal work that ranks among the greatest in rock history. Because the crop of classic albums from that year was so fruitful, Village Green Preservation Society sometimes eludes the praise and credit that it deserves.
The album is largely driven by acoustic instruments, save a few tracks that rely on the mellotron, but it is far from an acoustic album. Dave Davies and Mick Avory deliver stunning performances on guitar and drums respectively and Pete Quaife — on his final album with the band — is as solid as ever on the bass.
Each song is married to a strong melody, dripping with hooks, and produced in a way that is both timeless and of its time. The lyrics illustrate the banality of life in an artful and beautiful manner. If one seeks a political protest or a love song, this is not the album to search on but if one seeks 15 short slices of life, this is the jackpot.
Only one song clocks in over three minutes but each track is filled with musical ideas and variations all while being beautifully orchestrated by the band. It’s a master class in songwriting without form, orchestrating on the quick, and saying what needs to be said efficiently. Village Green Preservation Society is the gold standard every songwriter aspires to but few achieve.
For the song by song analysis, a few notes on each track will be provided. This is not a lyrical analysis — a deeper dive into individual songs will come in other articles — but a general review of each track and how it relates to the album as a whole. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts at the bottom of this piece.
The Village Green Preservation Society (2:49)
As far as album openers go, it’s hard to find a song that better establishes the tone and subject matter of an entire album than this title track.
On first listen, this track may seem a bit lightweight and folksy but underneath Davies’ lyrical delivery is a driving drum pattern and electric guitar fills reminiscent of Waterloo Sunset. It may be a folk/pop song but it is still clear that The Kinks are a rock band.
The lyrics are a simple list of “old” things in dire need of preservation such as Mickey Mouse, Vaudeville, and strawberry jam. There is no chorus to speak of, rather a series of versus and a repeated bridge, but the potential for monotony is broken up by a key change a little after the half-way point.
Do You Remember Walter (2:27)
A simple piano driven rocker reminiscing on childhood and an old pal named Walter. Much like the title track that preceded it, “Walter” is more of a verse/bridge tune with a vocal line that feels like a shuffle despite the band playing it straight.
This track wasn’t a hit but clearly influenced at least one up and coming rock star as Jeff Lynne would use a virtually identical intro for his Electric Light Orchestra hit “Mr. Blue Sky”.
Picture Book (2:37)
Despite not appearing as an A-side single in the UK or USA, “Picture Book” ranks alongside several Kinks songs that probably would have been hits had they been released.
The first track on the album to feature a proper chorus, “Picture Book” has an infectious guitar riff — which was nearly borrowed by Green Day among others — fun background vocals, a catchy melody, and a driving beat which would have fit nicely on the radio at the time.
Johnny Thunder (2:31)
This song suffers from a horrible recording. Over compressed to the point that it’s nearly unlistenable, recent remasters have allowed this great track to breathe a bit.
It’s a classic mid-tempo, Ray Davies character portrait with an incredibly melody and dripping in hooks. As has been the case with most of the album so far, there is no clear chorus on this tune with the closest functioning B section being a scat section that repeats at the end of the track.
To be clear, the lack of choruses are not a criticism, just an observation. Very few songwriters are able to compose interesting pop songs without including a clear and repeated chorus section but Ray Davies manages to do it over and over again, often using single repeated lines or words (in this case the words Johnny Thunder) in the same function of a chorus without actually establishing them as such. It’s genius.
Last of the Steam Powered Trains (4:11)
A driving blues tune which is influenced (or stolen from) Smokestack Lightin’ by bluesman Howlin’ Wolf. This track doesn’t follow a standard blues form and the tempo gradually increases as every verse is presented until it ends as a straight ahead rocker.
The lyrics, as with most of the songs on this album, paint a portrait of a dying industry as Ray takes the viewpoint of a steam train. The track is a nice diversion from pop sensibilities of the record thus far as the band is clearly rocking and jamming in this tune but it is not necessarily a standout and probably ranks on very few fans’ top 10 lists.
Big Sky (2:51)
Big Sky opens with a stellar intro section which features some great guitar orchestrations. It suffers a bit during Ray’s talk/sing first few lyrics but once this song gets going it is a real treat.
Again, with the exception of “Steam Powered Trains”, this track is a pretty rocking track disguised as a more palatable pop song. Mick Avory’s drum work is aggressive and pounding and Dave Davies is providing several crunchy guitars underneath a pleasant and pretty melody line. The Kinks, even at their softest, are a rock and roll band through and through.
Sitting by the Riverside (2:22)
Ray would someday write that he wrote songs for “old time Vaudeville reviews” and this track fits nicely in that category.
A fun little ditty complete with an almost annoyingly catchy piano hook, this song serves as a perfect close to side one of what is proving to be a wildly eclectic album. Even in the saccharine arrangement of this song, The Kinks don’t let listeners get too comfortable as dissonant crescendos break up the light joviality of the song
Animal Farm (3:01)
Driving pop at its finest.
This track opens up full steam ahead and builds little by little as it progresses. It is easy for this song to get lost in the mix, especially in today’s CD/digital format where it falls in the middle as opposed to opening the second side, but on any other band’s album this would be a standout track and a potential hit single.
Village Green (2:10)
With harpsichords and oboes peppering this entire track, one could easily consider this a baroque pop recording and it is the closest remnant of the psychedelic era to grace this album.
Tonally, the track is rather dark with a foreboding melody but the lyrics are, again, reminiscing and quaint as the narrator retells lost love and the loss of innocence of the town he once lived in.
The track was originally recorded for the preceding album, explaining the tonal shift in the arrangement, but fits nicely on this album and adds to the eclectic nature of the entire record.
It’s hard to say whether this tune is the most British or most 1968 or most pop track on the album or if it is somehow all three. Featuring an affected lead vocal, mellotron strings, Mamas and the Papas style background vocals, “Starstruck” was the first single released from this album in the United States. Failing to chart, possibly because it was too much of a departure in style for the band, one must wonder if the B-side, “Picture Book” would have been the more appropriate single.
The song is fun and clever and the arrangement is interesting if not a bit dated sounding but it does tip toe right to the edge of being a parody of itself.
Phenomenal Cat (2:38)
It took until track 11 to arrive at true filler. This track feels unfinished and unfocused. Driven almost entirely by mellotron flutes, the melody meanders, the band sounds uninspired, and the high speed vocal scatting is so wildly out of place on this recording that it plays more as an accident than innovation. Forgettable in nearly every way, it is a rare weak spot in the middle of The Kinks most inspired and consistent output era.
All of My Friends Were There (2:26)
Following Phenomenal Cat with a jump swing story about drunken embarrassment, the album is back on track. The tune slips into a straight waltz for the chorus and, in style, foreshadows the tone of the Lola album still a few years down the line.
Striking on this track is Ray’s vocal delivery which, in retelling a story about drunkenness, slides into the notes of the chorus melody as if he were singing it drunk in a pub. Overall the album finds him in fantastic vocal form but this “acting” really helps to deliver the content of the lyrics.
Wicked Annabella (2:43)
Another lost Kinks gem and Dave’s lone lead vocal, this track feels like a long lost T-Rex song and is a welcome departure from the generally upbeat tracks on the album.
This quasi-latin inspired track is pleasant but forgettable. The most interesting part comes in the Indian inspired melody of the chorus but overall it feels like a song trying to sound Latin but performed by a group who isn’t exactly clear why Latin music sounds and feels the way it does.
There’s probably a reason this track is tucked away as the 14th song on the album.
People Take Pictures of Each Other (2:19)
This isn’t a great song but it’s not bad and it is, strangely, a perfect closer for this album as it feels like a curtain call at the end of a musical.
Returning to the theme of pictures and holding on to the past, the jump beat and melody are pleasant and contain a lot of hooks but it is a definitive album track.
The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society may not have the household recognition of contemporary releases but the impact and import that this album has on generations of Kinks fans cannot be overstated. The weakest songs on this album would be the envy of most songwriters and the recording sessions found a band in top musical form. Of course some of the tracks sound dated but, in a way, isn’t that the point. Alongside the backdrop of The White Album, Electric Ladyland, Beggar’s Banquet, and We’re Only In It For The Money, much of this album probably sounded dated at the time. It is, after all, an album about the past and preserving the old ways.
Falling in the middle of what should be considered the golden age of Kinks albums, Village Green Preservation Society solidifies Ray Davies as one of the great lyricists of the rock era and The Kinks as one of the most adaptable bands of all time, effortlessly moving from rock to pop to blues to country to music hall and often melding all those components into one track.
Every fan of rock music should own this album and give it the time and attention it demands. There are so many layers and nuances to this work that have never received the acclaim they deserve.