Whenever someone asks me to choose between The Beatles or The Stones I will sometimes reply with ‘neither’. Instead I will say The Kinks. There is something special and close to my heart about that band. Throughout the 60s they had hit after hit and were certainly one of the leading British groups of that era. Yet many listeners of The Kinks I feel only penetrate the surface of this great band. They know the hits, but few venture beyond those songs as popular as they may be. I came to the band a little late. I first got into the group via a greatest hits compilation I purchased when I was 19. As much as I cherish all those well loved songs, what struck me as odd was that the compilation ended at the 1970 hit single Apeman; as if the group ceased to exist after that song. It seems to be the same with many other Kinks compilations.
Most of their well known hits are from the time when they were signed in the UK to the Pye record label from 1964 until 1970. The vast majority of their most well known songs such as You Really Got Me, Sunny Afternoon, Tired Of Waiting, Waterloo Sunset, Days and Lola fall within those years. Personally, my favourite years are from 1968 to 1975. I love those early songs and they will never get stale and always retain a timeless quality to them. For me though, the most exciting years are when the group’s chief songwriter Ray Davies began to compose these brilliant and ambitious concept albums starting with the 1968 album The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society (TKATVGPS) and ending with the 1975 album Schoolboys In Disgrace. Those albums receive mixed reviews from fans. For example, the former is today frequently heralded as a classic landmark album and can be seen in many ‘greatest albums of all time’ polls. The latter album, on the other hand, gets invariably torn apart. Perhaps those journalists and listeners never even bothered to actually listen to Schoolboys? They probably saw the hideous front cover and decided that they didn’t need to investigate further; their prejudices already set in stone.
During the few remaining Pye years, The Kinks released some very strong albums. In 1968 they released the aforementioned TKATVGPS album. Then the following year they released the album Arthur, which is just as good as VGPS and is equally held in high esteem. The final two albums they released on Pye were the 1970 studio album Lola Vs Powerman And The Moneygoround and the 1971 soundtrack album Percy for the film of the same name. Lola Vs Powerman… produced the hit singles “Lola” and “Apeman”. The former is one of the band’s best known songs.
After the band left Pye, they signed a new deal with RCA records in 1971. Their tenure at RCA would last for four years and during this time the band continued on it’s trajectory of releasing concept albums. Just as they signed to RCA, they released the album Muswell Hillbillies. It’s a strong album with some fine songs on it. The next year they released the album Everybody’s In Showbiz. Personally, I have mixed views about this album. On one hand, I like Ray’s ideas and inspiration behind it as well as songs such as Celluloid Heroes and Sitting In My Hotel Room. Both these songs are excellent. Celluloid Heroes has gone on to be covered by multiple artists – most notably Bon Jovi. It contains some of Ray’s finest lyrics.
Then in 1973 and 1974, the band released two albums; Preservation: Act One followed by Preservation: Act Two. All in all, neither of these albums were particularly well received by music critics at the time; especially the Preservation: Act Two album. However, after listening to both those albums I have come to the conclusion that they are the two lost masterpieces of The Kinks’ cannon of albums. And it is those two albums that I want to make the centre of this article. Whilst it may be too controversial to say that they are the best albums by The Kinks, I think I can firmly say that they are Ray Davies’ most ambitious works. It doesn’t matter whether one thinks those albums are a success or a failure. I don’t personally think they are a failure. What I will say is that those albums took Ray down avenues he never, or at the minimum only casually, ventured down before. He had already explored subjects like greed, poverty, inequality and injustice in society earlier on via songs like ‘Dead End Street’, ‘Brainwashed’ and ‘Powerman’. But on the Preservation Act albums he goes right into the heart of darkness. The Village Green Preservation Society(VGPS) album is almost soft liquor by comparison. Whilst the songs on VGPS are very strong and vivid, they are also accessible. They don’t rock the boat nor do they, at least superficially, take the listener to an ostentatiously dark and uncomfortable place. The Preservation Act albums, on the other hand, are much more polemic.
We’ll start with the Preservation: Act 1 album from 1973 before delving more deeply into Preservation: Act 2. One of the gems of this album is the song Sweet Lady Genevieve – a song that could fit quite comfortably with the cannon of better known Kinks hits. Of the two Preservation Act albums this one is lighter in tone and there are even echoes of the earlier VGPS album via songs like Sitting In The Midday Sun and Daylight. Another pearl on this album is the song ‘Where Are They Now?’…
I’ll sing a song about some people you might know
They made front pages in the news not long ago
But now they’re just part of a crowd
And I wonder where they all are now.
For me this song is an affectionate tribute to all the mavericks. The individual and special people who were a blast of colour in a world that is becoming increasingly colourless and homogenous. In the context of the earlier VGPS album that would be characters like Johnny Thunder. Some strands of humanity are evident on Preservation: Act 1. But this is deceptive. The presence of the song Money And Corruption/I am Your Man poisons any idyllic and romantic notions…
Money and Corruption
Are ruining the land
Betray the working man,
Pocketing the profits
And treating us like sheep,
And we’re tired of hearing promises
That we know they’ll never keep.
With this song Ray dives straight into the underbelly of the system – taking it on like a firebrand revolucionario a la Hugo Chavez. This continues and is reinforced in the end refrain part of the song with it’s Communist Manifesto overtones…
I visualize a day when people will be free
And we’ll be living in a new society.
No class distinction, no slums or poverty,
So workers of the nation unite,
Workers of the nation unite,
People of the nation unite.
This song sets the tone for the follow up Preservation: Act 2 album. On the later released bonus edition of the Preservation: Act 1 album is the song ‘Preservation’, which wasn’t featured on the album when it was originally released. It’s lyrically not only a very strong song but totally encapsulates the spirit of both Preservation albums as a whole. It also, along with the song Here Comes Flash, introduces the character Flash, a central figure in the follow up album who represents everything that’s wrong in the world – a psychopathic, greedy, amoral, corrupt and duplicitous individual who lacks empathy and is only out for himself. He is the type of person that would make Gordan Gecko blush…
Once upon a time
In a faraway land
Lived a villain called Flash
He was such a wicked man
He terrorized the people
He broke arms and crushed hands
He ruled with a fist and he purchased all the land
Then he plowed up the fields and cut down the trees
For property speculation
And he did it all for a pot of gold
And for his own preservation
Preservation: Act 2 is a dark unsexy beast of an album. Whatever light there was on Preservation: Act One has now been blocked out. If VGPS is all rural fields, church fetes, strong bonds of trust, tea and scones and strawberry jam, then Preservation Act Two is polluted rivers, eyesore landscapes, revolutions, and societal collapse where everyone just looks after number one. The VGPS album has a kind of innocence to it. Even the mildly dark characters in the album like in the song Wicked Anabella completely pale in comparison to Flash. The world of VGPS is a paradise compared with the world of Preservation: Act Two, which represents a paradise that is well and truly lost. It is about as east of Eden as one can get.
The life portrayed in Village Green is overall idyllic and peaceful. Yet it is a bubble shielded from the truly evil and disruptive forces of life. It is naïve to think such a life like that one can just go on forever. Flash hadn’t yet pitched up to turn things upside down.
The first song on Preservation: Act 2 to really get things going is the song When A Solution Comes…
When a solution comes,
It’s gonna breathe right down on everyone.
When a solution comes
It’s gonna cover up the clouds
And eclipse the sun
And black out a pale blue sky,
And everybody’s gonna be terrified,
Because they’re all going to feel the bite
And there’s going to be a revolution
‘Days’ this song is not; in that iconic song from 1968 there is sadness, loss and grief. But there is no bitterness. There is no hate nor is there fear. This is evident in the following lyrics;
You took my life,
But then I knew that very soon you’d leave me,
But it’s all right,
Now I’m not frightened of this world, believe me.
Yet in When A Solution Comes there is a change in the weather. This is the beginning of a new period of fresh hell that will reign down on all of society. In the book The Fourth Turning, the authors William Strauss and Neil Howe look at the world over the last 500 years and locate a series of cycles each lasting a generation. Within each generational cycle are four turnings. The first turning represents a ‘high’: this is a period of stability. Trust in institutions is strong and individualism is weak. A new civic order is established the old values regime collapses The second turning represents an ‘awakening’ where the civic order established in the first turning begins to come under attack from a new values regime. The third turning represents an ‘unravelling’. During this era trust in institutions begins to weaken and individualism strengthens. The first turning civic order collapses at this point and eventually taken out by the new values regime. The forth and final turning represents a ‘crisis’. By this time the world is in chaos as the the new values regime replaces the original civic order created in the first turning with a new one.
In the context of the trilogy of all three Preservation albums, the song When A Solution Comes represents the ‘unravelling’ phase of society. It is not in the full ‘crisis’ phase yet, but it is already well on it’s way. On the other side of the coin, the opening title track of the VGPS album in some ways represents many attributes of the first turning….
We are the Village Green Preservation Society
God save Donald Duck, Vaudeville and Variety
We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do
The lyrics of the title track of that album for me evokes a strong sense of unity. A sense of everyone looking after each other. Not allowing society to disintegrate. Keeping the peace. And that requires making an effort and caring. Once people stop caring, apathy begins to prevail and with that goes the ties that bind paving the way for disruptive forces to take over. The consequences of this are probed deeply in Preservation: Act 2.
The song Shepherds Of The Nations is one of the strongest songs on the album and in my view represents the new horror show of this dark turning….
Down with sex and sin,
Down with pot, heroin.
Down with pornography,
Down with lust.
Down with vice lechery and debauchery.
We are the new centurians.
Shepherds of the Nations.
We’ll keep on our guard
For sin and degradation.
We are the national guard
Against filth and depravity,
Perversion and vulgarity,
Keep it clean.
When all of a sudden all basic freedoms that were once taken for granted have now been eroded and a new cabal of neo-puritan Gestapo-like folk have taken over the asylum. Rather than the world taking a step forward and continuing to evolve and flourish, it has been abruptly thrown off its course and has taken a thousand steps backward towards some unfolding new sterile, lifeless and fearful Middle Ages era wasteland; where all the flowers start to wilt and die, and turn a new shade of grey. All the colours of the Village Green world now dulled to cigarette ash.
The song Nobody Gives is another dark slice of what it’s like to be in the living in the middle of a turbulent fourth turning style world…
I can’t understand why everybody’s quarreling,
Nobody gives in case they lose face,
And everybody’s guilty and everybody’s innocent,
And the fact of it is nobody gives any more.
Once upon a time there was a period of peace, stability and trust amongst one another. The aforementioned VGPS title track nails that sense of societal harmony perfectly with the lyrical couplet, ‘Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you‘. But in the song ‘Nobody Gives’ everyone has turned against one another. They have become fearful and full of mistrust. Any attempt at simply performing any altruistic acts of kindness is simply not worth the bother and in a climate of unanimous fear this could even backfire. Thus it is easier and safer to just not care anymore.
As the song gathers pace, it takes the listener on a vivid and sombre journey through the roots of this social breakdown leading to, in the example of this song, the rise of Hitler…
Back in nineteen hundred and twenty-five
There were thousands of people struggling to survive.
There was hunger, unemployment and poverty,
Then in 1926 they decided to be free
So they all went on strike and
The workers told the unions, who blamed it on the government,
The politicians blamed it on the strikers and the militants,
Everybody’s guilty and everybody’s innocent,
But the fact of it is nobody gives any more.
Back in nineteen hundred and thirty-nine
There were scores of German military waiting in a line,
And the Fatherland wanted what the world wouldn’t give,
And then Hitler decided he could take what was his,
So they all went to war and said
Kill all the left-wing intellectuals,
Annihilate the Jews and wipe out their race,
Eliminate the weak because they’re ineffectual,
And the fact of it is nobody gives any more.
In 1923, when Germany was then the Weimer Republic, the country experienced a period of devastating hyperinflation. This had the effect of throwing millions of citizens into acute poverty – especially those who didn’t own any hard assets that could protect them from this inflation. Any savings in the local currency that had been accumulated via hard work and over a long period of time had very quickly become worthless. The grinding poverty and desperation aside, one can also only imagine the extreme anger and injustice felt by those who had lost all their life savings. They wanted blood and someone to blame. Hitler emerged at a time when this anger and desperation was reaching boiling point. It is only when a society is in meltdown and in the eye of a fourth turning that a figure as evil Hitler can rise to the top. In a Village Green world of togetherness and mutual respect for one another, Adolf wouldn’t stand a chance.
Overall, I think both these Preservation Act albums should be essential listening and certainly deserve to be much more wildly known. They not only complement the earlier and more well known VGPS album, they also give the listener a glimpse into the more intricate and visionary workings of the mind of Ray Davies. I think this was perhaps lost on some of the music critics who were reviewing both albums at the time. The lyrics aside, I think some credit also needs to go to Ray’s brother Dave. Generally, I don’t think he gets another credit as a guitarist. His guitar work is a really important part of both albums and I feel it sets the tone very effectively on some of the songs.
Two further albums followed in 1975, Soap Opera and Schoolboys In Disgrace, before the group left the RCA record label. Like the earlier Preservation Act albums, neither album got overly favourable reviews. Yet I think they are both interesting in their own ways. Soap Opera is a flawed hit and miss album yet the concept behind it is strong and very relevant. I particularly like the songs Everybody’s A Star (Starmaker) and You Can’t Stop The Music. The former song quite simply describes how anyone can be a star; even the blandest and most personality and talent bereft of individuals. Ray created a character called Norman to personify such people.
Schoolboys In Disgrace also has it’s moments. Unfortunately, it suffers from a front cover that is quite frankly a veritable abomination. I feel it unfairly undermines the whole album. That is certainly one reason why many listeners do not give this album a proper chance. However, those who look beyond this monstrosity of an album cover will be rewarded for their curiosity. It is not a perfect album, but there are some gems on there like Schooldays, I am In Disgrace and The Hard Way . It is also conceptually a very interesting album as it is based around a disruptive and unruly schoolboy who would eventually develop into the vile and evil character Flash of the earlier Preservation Act albums. So, in a way, this album plays an notable role next to those albums. It is an important part of that complex puzzle.
By Nicholas Peart
3rd July 2021
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