The Curmudgeon: Ray Davies—Preserving Old, Rural Ways as a Kind of Rebellion

Music Features Ray Davies
The Curmudgeon: Ray Davies—Preserving Old, Rural Ways as a Kind of Rebellion

Sometimes the most radical act is resisting the new and preserving the old.

This cuts against our assumptions that progress is all about discarding established forms and replacing them with alternate structures. We assume that this is true not only of our politics but also our personal relationships, daily life and especially our music.

The Kinks’ Ray Davies saw through this solipsism back in 1968, when his band released The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. The London quartet, which had pioneered heavy-metal power chords on singles such as “You Really Got Me” and working-class rabble-rousing on singles such as “Dead End Street,” were now championing the commons that sit in the center of most English villages and the Tudor houses and swinging-sign pubs that surround each green.

Davies perceived that the relentless hunger for the latest trend, the newest gadget, the hot new star, the movement of the moment, often feeds capitalism’s insatiable urge to grind up the old so that we’re primed to purchase whatever’s new. What gets ground up first are the aspects of life that can’t be sold as products: hand-me-down recipes for custard pie and strawberry jam, dart games at the pub and neighborhood organizations that stand up for old buildings and common spaces. And such things are most likely to be preserved in small towns, where cultural turnover is slower than in the cities.

So, in 1968, at the height of hippiedom, student demonstrations and psychedelia, Davies wrote a batch of songs that said, “Whoa, hang on, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.” And the Kinks recorded the tunes with a new kind of pastoral-rock more suitable for tea and scones than blotter acid. It was a brilliant, contrarian move, and it has lessons for us half a century later. The choice, Davies implies, is not the false one between old and new, rural and urban, but rather between community and commodity, between the citizen as neighbor and the citizen as consumer.

On its 50th anniversary, at the end of last year, the album was celebrated in England with a Deluxe reissue that included the original album on CD plus a bonus CD of outtakes. The Super Deluxe version was a huge box with five CDs, five vinyl LPs, three seven-inch singles, a hardback book and a packet of photos.

In the box set, there’s a snippet from a 1968 BBC interview, where Davies says, “I was looking for a title for the album about three months ago. when we had finished most of the tracks, and somebody said that one of the things the Kinks have been doing for the past three years has been preserving nice things from the past. So I thought I’d write a song which said this…. Everybody’s trying to change the world; I’ve tried and I’ll probably try again, but I don’t think you can change Britain that much, because we’re the way we are. So I’m just going to try and hang on to a lot of the nice things.”

Davies was mistaken there; the world does change, constantly and at an ever-accelerating pace. The question is: For whose benefit will it change? For the developer who argues that a piece of property is too valuable to be wasted on an old-fashioned stone church housing nothing more important than a volunteer choir? A skyscraper, he claims, would pump so much more money into the local economy (not to mention his own pocket). Or for the neighbors who’d prefer to walk by the handsome old building and hear the hymns leaking out through the stained-glass windows?

Change is coming whether we want or not, so we should try to preserve the nice things and discard the ugly. Surely, we can tell the difference. Surely, as Davies sings, we can be both “the Draught Beer Preservation Society [and] the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliates.”

One way to imagine a better society is to employ science fiction to describe a utopian future. But just as valid is using nostalgia to describe a utopian past that never existed in such a pure form but which contained elements that we can remember rather than merely dream of. That’s what Davies is up to here: mapping a road out of our present predicament by traveling through a familiar past to get to an optimal future. And where does that past still exist? In the farmlands and villages outside our big cities.

The current administrations in the UK and the USA were elected on the strength of rural votes and a vow to protect rural values. Both regimes have betrayed those promises by leaving their small-town supporters even less protected from multi-national corporations than ever. That doesn’t negate the validity of the rural voters’ complaints; it just means they’re taking the wrong medicine for their ailments.

Immigrants and uppity women aren’t the true cause of their anguish. The cause is the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer mega-corporations based in supercities such as London, New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Austin and San Francisco. Those companies hoover up not just profits from their outlets in every town but also young talent from schools in every region. This result in supercities where housing is overpriced and overcrowded, left-behind cities that founder in stagnation, and ex-urban ghost towns inhabited by the wraiths of opioid addicts, farm auctioneers and minimum-wage food processors and telemarketers.

The reappearance of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society reminds us that the problem is not rural voters or rural values; the problem is economic destruction and consolidation. The Kinks showed us that we can celebrate fiddle music, home-made pies and dinners on the green without condoning racism and sexism. After all, who knows more about rural values than a peasant couple from Oaxaca who can play the accordion and make tortillas from scratch? They wouldn’t be much different than the eccentrics and misfits who populate Davies’ imaginary village.

One thing that becomes obvious in exploring the box set is that the 15 songs on the actual Village Green album are merely the core of 40-plus songs that Davies wrote and recorded between the release of 1967’s masterpiece Something Else by the Kinks and 1969’s near-masterpiece Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Those three albums define the elegiac, pastoral-rock sound of the new Kinks, so different from the bash-it-out, urban tenor of the band’s early singles.

When Davies catalogues the things his “Village Green Preservation Society” should preserve, prominent on the list are “vaudeville and variety,” that older brand of show biz where broad jokes, dance teams, sentimental ballads and bouncy singalongs are all part of the show. The new music he was exploring in 1968 drew from that tradition, emphasizing catchy choruses, vocal harmonies with his brother Dave and an easy-going swing from drummer Mick Avory and bassist Pete Quaife—music that could be played on a sunny afternoon in the village green’s gazebo without much technology.

“The recording method,” writes the Who’s Pete Townshend in the box set’s book, “and its simplicity and directness, is part of what makes listening to the album such a pleasure. The music, the style of it, the intention and reference, is as soothing and settling as a day in the English countryside can be, even today. It unifies what is actually an incredibly ambitious attempt to describe ordinary English life. This album is probably in my top ten, top five, or even maybe top three albums of all time. Whenever I listen to it, which is often, I am reminded of Ray’s genius but also his modesty and humility.”

“It’s just the way things have evolved,” Davies explains in a 1968 BBC interview on the box set’s fourth CD. “I like writing that sort of thing, and the boys like playing it. That lazy style is part of the whole group. We’re daylight birds, really; we’re not night birds.”

You can hear that “daylight” sound on the first post-Something Else single, “Autumn Almanac.” It painted a vivid picture of one of those Tudor homes on the village green, where “crawly caterpillars” creep through “the dew-soaked hedge” as the “leaves of musty-colored yellow” blow from the trees. The home’s older couple know their lives are fading as surely as October plants outside, but they find refuge in “tea and toasted buttered currant buns” and “roast beef on Sundays.”

That was followed by two singles credited to Dave Davies (including his own back-to-small-town ode, “Lincoln County”) and two more credited to the Kinks (though the same musicians played on all four). Most crucial was “Days,” one of Ray’s best songs ever, an elegy for a lost past. Addressing an unnamed someone—an ex-lover, a dead parent, an old school chum?—Davies expresses gratitude for what he once had rather than complaining about what he’s lost. Establishing the wistful atmosphere was an unforgettable, hymn-like melody descending over a steady folk-rock guitar strum.

That set the stage for The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society itself. There were abortive stabs at an 11-song version, a 12-song version and a 20-song version, before Davies and Pye Records agreed on the ultimate 15-song version. It begins with the title track, which introduces the theme of sifting through an English village’s past to determine what’s worth preserving and what’s not. It’s as if he’s flipping through the pasted photos in a “Picture Book,” as another song puts it.

“Do You Remember Walter?” evokes the schoolmate that “Days” might have been addressed to. Davies fondly remembers the youthful Walter “playing cricket in the thunder and the rain,” but admits he’s wary about meeting the current Walter, “fat and married [and] bored.” Davies imagines himself as the “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” a locomotive sitting in a museum. The engine even sings a harmonica-powered blues about how handsome he once was. And the songwriter imagines himself as a “Phenomenal Cat,” a fat housecat contentedly sunning himself on the window sill of a Tudor house.

When Davies sings of “Sitting by the Riverside” and of living on an “Animal Farm,” a dizzying Mellotron conjures up the blissful reverie of the water flowing by and the goats grazing in the yard. He warns against the dangerous temptations of urban nightlife on “Starstruck” and offers the “Village Green” as a healthier alternative. Because when your career and personal life crater, that’s where “All My Friends” will be, down at the café, ready to take you as you are.

And some terrific tracks didn’t make the final version of the album. “Mr. Songbird” and “Wonderboy” offer the simple, happy-go-lucky lyrics of the films supervised by Davies’ hero Walt Disney, but their melodies prove as irresistible as Paul McCartney’s best. On “Misty Waters’ and “Lavender Hill,” Davies acknowledges the unreality of his pastoral paradise, suggesting that only by imagining such places can we hold out hopes for a better world and perhaps get closer to it. “Take a sip of misty water,” he sings, and “everything is lovely.” Climb Lavender Hill and you can stroll “through the land of make believe.”

The Kinks weren’t the only rock ’n’ roll stars turning away from the psychedelic, urban, late-night excesses of the late ’60s to a more organic, rural, daylight music. The Beatles followed Sergeant Pepper with the White Album and such understated, rural-flavored, acoustic-guitar songs as “Blackbird,” “Julia,” “I Will,” Sexy Sadie” and “Mother Nature’s Son.”

The Rolling Stones followed the elaborate Their Satanic Majesties Request with the much more straightforward Beggars Banquet. The Beach Boys followed their ambitious Smile project with the acoustic-guitar R&B of 1967’s Wild Honey. And Bob Dylan followed the long songs and far-flung imagery of Blonde on Blonde with the concise, traditional country music of John Wesley Harding.

Sergeant Pepper and Blonde on Blonde were great albums, and we need that kind of ambitious complexity in pop music. But when such aspirations teeter on the edge of overweening excess, we need to get back to basics. We need to scrape away the encrustation of urban consumerism and artsy self-indulgence to reclaim the best of an older world, a world most likely to be found in the countryside.

We could use a similar return to basics today. Perhaps Taylor Swift, who got her start as a country star, can finally link her undeniable songwriting talent to a cultural tradition older than herself. Maybe Beyoncé can get back to the Southern R&B of her Texas childhood. Maybe a young star such as Valerie June or Tyler Childers can break out of the Americana ghetto and remind a larger audience that rural America is not the enemy but the repository of non-consumerist values that we can’t afford to lose.

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