The Kinks are The Village Green Preservation Society. Who are you?
Before I flew out to Las Vegas, a colleague offered the sage observation, “Oh they love the British out there, you’ll feel right at home.” I felt overwhelmed and not a little scared; a whole nation loves me? Wistfully casting a minds eye over my temporarily dislocated land of hope and glory, I stepped proudly out, onto the Las Vegas Boulevard. Strutting like a cor-bleedin’ blimey guv’nor, resplendent in a t-shirt boasting the Mod-appropriated RAF ensign, I thrust out my chest. Within ten seconds I came across my first group of American teenagers. They took one, collective sneer at me and shouted, “t-shirts with circles on are for queers.”
It appeared to me that, for these young rapscallions, being British didn’t mean what it used to. But what did it mean? I bought the top because I liked the design; and because Keith Moon had looked rather sharp in a similar garment during a mid-sixties photo shoot. Not through any burning sense of patriotism. Here was a symbol of the chalky homeland that I could relate to, a badge used by countless bands since the first British pop invasion that somehow tied them to the modernist dictum, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.” Or so it seemed to my sheltered, middle class mind. I was in a band, trying to write songs about where I was at; having gleamed all there is to know about living from within the four, secret-gardened walls of leafy Kent. I’d sulk in bed as Pete Townsend glowered at me, “So tell me, who the fuck are you?” I really couldn’t answer, staring at the soft-focus niceties of suburban British life.
What does it mean to be British? It’s a massive question with many points of view. Some points are currently being expressed by the new swathe of British guitar-pop bands, clamouring to make the once-a-decade invasion across the Atlantic. Kaiser Chief’s drummer, Nick Hodgson has predicted, “Big things for British bands in America and also British bands in Britain…because everywhere we go people are talking about Bloc Party, The Futureheads, The Zutons and so on.” Ever since the star-spangled blues made the pilgrimage to the shores of blightly, musical armadas have regularly crossed the stormy seas separating Britain and America. Each country gets to hear stories of what it’s like living the other side of a massive ocean.
But the story-telling exchange programme hasn’t been as successful in recent years. It was reported that the English landscapes painted by Britpop’s connoisseurs didn’t hang too well in America. And since then it has been their guitars making the loudest noise, not ours. But now we’re back. Or rather Coldplay are back, leading the British rise up the US charts. But are Coldplay singing about being British? Does it really matter anymore? John Sutherland – Professor of Modern English Literature at University College, London – recently said of Coldplay’s lyrics, “It’s a one-size fits all philosophy. To some extend it’s just crooning sounds without meaning.”
In 1968, members of the original British pop invasion sang, “All you need is love,” to a global audience; perhaps Chris Martin and chums are fulfilling the summer of love vision, peddling songs that communicate with the world. Or perhaps this is the language of mass appeal. Whichever you choose, the art of British story telling is not dead. John Sutherland finds cause for hope in the Arctic Monkeys whom, on their debut single – Fake Tales of San Francisco – spit out the closing put down, “You’re not from New York, you’re from Rotherham.” In recent months Nottingham’s live venues have been packed with musicians whose tuneful tales seem to be as much about where they’re from, as where they’re at. So it seems appropriate that Ray Davies has decided to unpack his very British perspectives and take them on the road again.
Measured against global luminaries such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who, the achievements of The Kinks have often been overlooked. Whilst their peers became associated with a generation that was going to cross social and cultural boundaries, The Kinks were still exploring within the confines of their own four walls. Dave Davies – the band’s lead guitarist – has commented, “When everybody was experimenting with psychedelia we were still searching and gathering information through our roots and our family – British tradition and history. It’s interesting because no one else was doing that.”
The Kinks had already made a huge impact in both Britain and America, prior to the availability of lysergically-expanded visions. Talking about the band’s debut number one, You Really Got Me, music critic John Savage has said, “It stands, along with the work of the early Rolling Stones, as a landmark of creative exploration of rhythm and blues by white musicians. As such, it had a huge influence on the early Who, mid-1960s American garage punk, and early 1970s heavy metal.” The song’s snarling riff showcased a new sound, a Dave Davies original. “I was fed up with the sound and in a moment of madness – or inspiration – I cut the speaker up, not even believing for a minute it would work,” he has commented. “But when I plugged it in it sounded amazing. Really raucous, distorted. Then I perfected it. I ran a lead from the speaker into my other amp, which was a Vox AC30, and that’s how that sound was born.”
Ray Davies has no doubts about how influential his brother’s invention was: “he’s never been given justice for doing that. He made that when he was 16-years-old. He created a sound, and after that came Jimi Hendrix and all the fuzz boxes.” Despite their early successes, The Kinks were often viewed with suspicion. In an interview with Creem Magazine, Davies stated: “when there was a new pop group like the Kinks, you got all sorts of people coming to the sessions and wanting to sit in. There were a lot of groups going around at the time—the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones—and nobody had really cracked with a sort of R&B number one record. The songs were always sort of like the Beatles. When we first wanted to do a record, we couldn’t get a recording gig. We were turned down by Decca, Parlophone, EMI and even Brian Epstein came to see us play and turned us down. So I started writing songs like “You Really Got Me”, and I think there was a sheer jealousy that we did it first. Because we weren’t a great group—untidy—and we were considered maybe a bit of a joke. But for some reason, I’d just had dinner, shepherd’s pie, at my sister’s house, and I sat down at the piano and played da, da, da, da, da. The funny thing is it was influenced by Mose Allison more than anybody else. And I think there was a lot of bad feeling. I remember we went to clubs like the Marquee, and those bands wouldn’t talk to us because we did it first.”
Despite being the first band, behind the Beatles, to alter the nation’s sonic pathways, The Kinks were never presented as the number one contenders to the Mersey-mopped crown. That mantle was given to The Rolling Stones. And by the time the band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1990, The Who had muscled ahead in the line, having received the award a few years previous.
Aside from peer jealousy, other tales have been offered to explain the perceived lack of national and international recognition afforded The Kinks. Relationships between Ray and Dave Davies, Peter Quaife and Mick Avory were famously strained. They were due to be invited to The White House after one particular US show. But the offer was withdrawn after the band started fighting on stage. Commenting on this occasion, Ray Davies has quipped, “That’s typical of the way we were because there was a lot of hatred in the band that I was unaware of.” Also, The Kinks’ US invasion was cut short when they were banned from touring the country from 1965-1969. Some put this down to union disputes; others pointed to the band’s wild behaviour during their previous American tour. Whatever the reason, lack of exposure in the land of the free severely restricted The Kinks’ commercial potential.
But one of the biggest commercial obstructions facing the band in the mid sixties is also the root of their longer lasting influence and appeal; the emergence of Ray Davies as a very English story-teller. Whilst The Beatles became introspective on the topic of fame through songs like Help and Nowhere Man, and The Rolling Stones and The Who were kicking out at certain aspects of their heritage with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction and My Generation; the Kinks were peering beneath the veneer of British society and writing about what they saw with a growing subtlety and wit. Singles such as Dedicated Follower of Fashion and Sunny Afternoon combined Davies’ growing talents for social commentary and acute observation.
This was at a time when the dilated eyes of The Kinks’ peers were beginning to take in vistas of far more epic proportions than drinking a pint, in London on a sunny afternoon. The sounds, textures and lyrical combinations explored around the summer of love must have sounded unworldly at the time. But Davies continued to keep his eyes on scenes closer to home. The albums Face to Face (1966) and Something Else (1967) introduced characters and landscapes of a very British persuasion; from the effortless, social privileges enjoyed by public school boy-wonders to the nicotine-stained holy grail at the end of the 9-5 working line.
But these offerings were mere sketchbooks compared to the band’s bold statement in 1968, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. In apparent harmony on the opening, title-track, The Kinks sang, “Preserving the old ways from being abused, protecting the new ways for me and for you, what more can we do.” As Dave Davies has already commented, nobody was saying anything like this. And judging by the public reaction there was a good reason for this, no one was really listening. The album suffered poor sales. In a world where the cultural and social boundaries were being pulled down, who wanted to hear stories about the nuances of English Life?
But the album did deal with cultural destruction and rebuilding, just from a very provincial perspective. Much of Britain was trying to come to terms with the blurring of class lines; a result of the post-war economic and youth explosions and the decline of the empire. Davies lamented the last of the steam powered trains, extolled the virtues of sitting by the riverside and on Animal Farm, painted a very clear picture of the England he wanted to escape to: “This world is big and wild and half insane. Take me where real animals are playing…I’ll take you where real animals are playing. And people are real people not just playing.”
Mixing music hall influences with the bands powerful understanding of US-rooted rhythm and blues, Davies made a very wry statement on what is was like to be British at a time when traditional British life was being uprooted. He developed this theme on subsequent albums, particularly the critically acclaimed Arthur (Or The Decline and Fall of the British Empire) and Muswell Hillbillies. British Songwriters have cited Ray Davies and The Kinks as a major influence for the last 35 years. This isn’t a story of who’s better who’s best, an attempt to paint it black and white by deciding upon a hierarchy of British bands from the sixties. I’m certainly not trying to say get back to The Beatles, The Who or The Rolling Stones. But next time you encounter the suburban shadows that lurk behind the twitching curtains, remember The Kinks. Or better still, go and see Ray for yourself. He’s playing at the Nottingham Royal Centre on September 29th, 2005.
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- June 13, 2006 / 5:30 pm