At the time they released “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society,” one of the greatest albums in rock history, the Kinks were at a low ebb in their career.
With hits like “You Really Got Me,” “All Day and All of the Night,” “Well Respected Man,” “Sunny Afternoon,” “Dead End Street” and “Waterloo Sunset,” they’d been one of the most successful groups to emerge from the British Invasion of the mid-1960s. But by the time of this album’s release late in 1968, they hadn’t had a hit single in many months, they’d been forbidden from touring the U.S. (after running afoul of the musicians’ union on their first trip to the States four years earlier), and the new music from chief songwriter Ray Davies was far out of step with the psychedelia and hard rock that their contemporaries and successors had embraced.
Instead of looking into a paisley-spangled future of free love, revolution and mind-altering substances, with “Village Green” Davies focused on acoustic arrangements and longed for the 1950s England of his childhood, with Tudor houses, stolen kisses “beneath the old oak tree,” and, as he sings in the title track of this unassuming masterpiece, “little shops, china cups, and virginity.” It’s a deeply thoughtful and personal album filled with soul-searing melodies, beautiful harmonies from Davies and his guitarist brother Dave, and vivid characters like “Johnny Thunder,” the “Phenomenal Cat,” “Wicked Annabella,” the almighty (in the form of the “Big Sky”) and even a talking steam-powered train; it’s a rose-colored, deeply nostalgic look at a world that was vanishing as quickly as he could lament its passing.
It’s also hard to imagine a less hip or less timely perspective for a rock band to take in the cataclysmic year of 1968 (“This world is big and wild and half insane,” he sang here, 50 years ago, on this album’s “Animal Farm”). Yet over the next few years the world caught up with both it and the Kinks — who would soon have a global smash with “Lola” and would tour the U.S. with gusto after the ban was finally lifted in 1969 — and “Village Green” soon took its place as the classic it is: Its influence has resonated across several rock generations, from Paul Weller and The Jam to Blur and Oasis to Yo La Tengo and Green Day to more recent acts like Ultimate Painting.
The album was the culmination of a manically prolific songwriting spree by Davies — which also included songs written for the BBC theatrical production “Where Was Spring?” — and took several iterations before its final release. The Kinks recorded approximately three albums’ worth of material around this time, and over the next several years stray tracks from the sessions dribbled out on singles and compilation albums, and later in the several deluxe reissues and boxed sets that have preceded this one.
And naturally, the album’s 50th anniversary will not pass without a definitive edition, and that’s exactly what we get — and then some — with three different incarnations. There’s the 1LP/1CD edition, which contains the original 15-track album with a nice booklet; and the 2CD edition, which balloons to 49 tracks (adding singles, outtakes and alternate versions and takes, including such marvellous non-LP songs as “Days,” “Wonderboy,” “She’s Got Everything,” “Berkeley Mews” and “Till Death Us Do Part”) and even nicer artwork.
And finally, there’s the monstrous “50TH ANNIVERSARY SUPER DELUXE BOX SET” (it’s so big that all-caps seems required), which includes 3 vinyl LPs and 5 CDs with stereo and mono versions of the original album; an earlier 12-track Swedish edition; even more B-sides, outtakes, demos, alternate takes, BBC sessions, two previously unreleased songs (an instrumental and a thematically suitable song recorded in 1972) and some almost comically over-arranged versions performed by Davies with an orchestra and choir (!) in 2010; three 7” singles; reproductions of vintage posters and tickets; and a lavish hardcover book containing liner notes, interviews with the band members and essays from longtime admirer Pete Townshend and others. It’s the most elaborate box set we’ve seen yet and, according to our bathroom scale, it weights 8 pounds.
Obviously, selecting the right edition depends on the depth of both one’s wallet and one’s obsession with this album. The remastering sounds wonderful, so you can’t go wrong with the single-album edition. Deeper fans will not be dissatisfied with the 2CD edition, which collects the best of the rare tracks and provides a satisfying dive into the liner notes and associated verbiage and eye candy. The box is for the maniacs: It took us nearly a week just to get through all of the liner notes and the multiple versions and mixes of the dozens of songs included, many of which don’t sound dramatically different from each other.
Having said that, several of those alternate versions are breathtaking: The alternate mixes cast the vocals into a newly intimate light, especially when Ray and Dave are harmonizing; there’s an early version of the song “Village Green” that’s much more psychedelic than the final version; an acoustic version of “Days” feels like Davies is sitting across from you; the “Alternate Mix With Session Chat” of the title track and “Starstruck” both demystify and enhance the songs — hearing the bandmembers chatting and warming up and then breaking into these timeless songs makes them more humble, but also throws the greatness of the songs into more dramatic relief. Although we’re not sure anyone needs multiple versions of comparatively mediocre songs like “Misty Water,” “Rosemary Rose,” “Did You See His Name?” and “Where Did the Spring Go?,” such box sets as this have an obligation to be completist, and this edition may well contain every track the group completed in 1968.
And while delving into such detail on a 50-year-old album might make one feel a bit like Ray Davies longing for the Britain of his youth, “The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society” has never sounded better.