The Way We Are Today: Ray Davies and the Kinks 50 Years After the “Village Green Preservation Society”
By Stuart Mitchner
Ray Davies was envisioning the nightmare of Trumplandia 25 years ago in the last Kinks album Phobia and as far back as 1969 in lyrics like “I’m King Kong, got a hydrogen bomb … and so much money I can buy anybody who gets in my hair.” Then there’s “Powerman,” who’s “got money on his side … everybody else is just a sucker to him.”
In the Kinks rock musical Preservation (1974) a villain called Flash who “ruled with a fist … purchased all the land … plowed up fields and cut down trees,” doing it all “for a pot of gold and property speculation.” Besides songs like “Demolition” (“We’ll build a row of identical boxes and sell them all off at treble the profits”), you have “Flash’s Confession,” where Ray sings, “Been a cheat, been a crook, never gave … always took … crushed people to acquire anything that I desired. Been deceitful and a liar, now I’m facing Hell Fire.”
“Every time there’s a Trump,” Davies told the New Statesman in April 2017, “people say, ‘Revise Preservation.’” A month later he told The Guardian: “I’ve bumped into him a few times and it was all right. Like bumping into a bloke in a bar …. You get all the rhetoric when they’re trying to get into power, but as soon as they get the key to the front door, the pressure is on. He’s trying to run the country … and he only knows one way to get what he wants: total power.”
When Preservation Ruled
For followers of one of rock’s premier songwriters, it’s time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, as well as the 25th anniversary of Phobia. While most of the songs on the later LP would make a fitting accompaniment to the “fire and fury”of 2018, The Village Green presents the Kinks as a quintessentially British band devoted to “preserving the old ways from being abused” and to saving such things as little shops, china cups, Tudor houses, antique tables, and billiards. When the brawling Kinks were banned from touring in America between 1965 and 1969, a period when they could have drawn big crowds on the strength of chart-topping rock anthems like “You Really Got Me,” Davies went home, “took solace in being English” and “wrote The Village Green.” As he’s claimed in numerous writings and interviews, “If I’d have been going to America, I would never have written that album. I’d have made heavy metal records.”
To the Brink
In fact, Phobia opens with a heavy-metal-worthy fanfare from Ray’s younger brother Dave, whose pyrotechnic playing drives home the message in “Wall of Fire,” amplifying the apocalyptic carnage consuming “liberals who shout and cause concern while we all burn.” The notoriously combative siblings team up for a rousing celebration of brotherly enmity in “Hatred: A Duet” with an exuberant chorus that has special resonance in Trump’s America: “Driven by hate! Driven by hate! Hatred! hatred! hatred is the only thing that keeps us together.”
The song, “Drift Away,” is about escaping “apocalypse now”: “The ice is gonna melt, the water gonna rise …. And we’ll all go to hell …. So they’re keeping us advised …. While the dollar falls down, the yen gonna climb …. It’s a moral decline …. Now all the politicians are running out of hope …. They’ve burned all their bridges … they just can’t cope.” Same old same old, 1993 or 2018: just replace “bad” with “fake” in “a little bad news helps circulation …. Pass on the panic to the population.” Given what’s been going on in Washington, the lyrics of “Over the Edge” are on the money: “Democracy’s a shadow of its former glory/Law and order broken-down/End of story.”
In “Don’t,” a song set in New York City where Davies had a flat during the 70s, a man is poised to jump from the top of a skyscraper (think 666 Fifth Avenue or Trump Tower). What “sent him to the brink?” Maybe it was “the cries of the lunatics facing defeat” or “the cheers of the winners who are dancing in the street,” or perhaps “the crime and corruption” and “the violence of the city” that “finally got through.” What makes it cheering to hear songs like these as Trump and his mob bring the country to the brink is the passion with which Davies cries “Think it through” to the man on the tower before leading all of us below to shout en masse, as “our blood starts to pump, ‘Don’t jump, don’t jump!’” Then, although it seems the jumper jumped (“What made it happen, guess we’ll never know”), “the sun’s come out” and it looks like “he’s standing on a rainbow … he’s in the heavens, I’m standing on the ground saying don’t look down!”
Writing in his memoir Americana, The Kinks, The Riff, The Road: The Story (Sterling 2015), Ray says one of the joys of the Phobia project was working with Sue Coe, the artist who did the artwork for the cover and with whom he held “similar opinions over the totalitarianism of the ‘capitalist corporate’ world,” which the songs portray as “a wasteland on the edge of a precipice.” He also shared with her his “nightmare vision of the executive trying to scale the ‘Wall of Fire.’” As the two stood on the roof of her apartment building, they “envisioned burning skyscrapers with people hanging from windows, eerily imagining a scene similar to 9/11 nearly ten years before the event.”
While Ray Davies has written dozens of great songs in his time (with “Waterloo Sunset” near the top of most lists), there’s a capital-G great one in Village Green. The first time I heard that album I was hoping for something like “Waterloo Sunset.” The title song came close and so did “Walter,” the old story of schoolmates whose lives take different paths. “Picture Book,” “Johnny Thunder” and “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains” were all listenable enough as they developed the theme. Then you come to “Big Sky” and the album enters another dimension, Ray intoning the opening statement in a remote, above-it-all voice, speaking for the Big Sky looking down “on all the people looking up at the Big Sky.” When he begins to actually sing the words “Big sky too big to cry, too high to see people like you and me,” the emotional momentum building with the transition from speaking to singing opens the heart of the song for Ray and back-up voices singing “One day we’ll be free, we won’t care, just you see. Till that day can be, don’t let it get you down.” On hearing these passionately emotive, we’re-all-in-this-together lines, multitudes of Kinks fans were born. Just as he does in songs like “Shangri-La,” “Lola,” “Misfits,” and “Stormy Sky,” Ray opens his arms and takes the world in.
Composed in the aftermath of Ray’s mother’s death, “Scattered” provides an upbeat, joyously transcendental conclusion to the wall-of-fire dynamics of Phobia. It’s as if he’s taken the “one day we’ll be free” moment in “Big Sky” to a life-and-death level, and we’re immediately in the song with him, moving forward, undaunted, the wind at our backs: “To the fields we are scattered from the day we are born/To grow wild and sleep rough/Till from the earth we are torn.” After describing the empty room his mother left “so soon, the scattered clues she left behind,” he brings us in again: “We get bruised, we get battered, but we’ll pick up the pieces that scattered.” Still thinking of his mother (“Ever since she went away”), he’s “watched the stars and wondered why they’re scattered up there in the sky, and is she up there out of view.” Using this one infinitely open word to shape and move and center the song, he takes us back to the free forward movement of the first line: “To the fields we are scattered, then from the dust we are born …. We survive somewhat battered to a new life, a new dawn.” Then he wonders: “In the end what will it matter, there’ll only be my ashes to scatter,” before coming back to us, face to face this time, life to life: “To the earth you are scattered — you’re going home, so what does it matter to an atomic mind scattered here while you travel time.”
You need the music, of course, and the way Ray keeps weaving it into his theme leaves you shaken, moved, and feeling something like awe. In April 2018, this song drowns out the dissonance of the day, scattering the stuff of scandal and sleaze and lies like so much dust in the wind.
Longtime Kinks fans may have mixed feelings about last year’s knighting of Ray Davies. The idea of putting a title like “Sir Ray” on the composer of “Dead End Street” (“We are strictly second class”) and “Shangri-La” (“Gone are the lavatories in the back yard”) seems even more absurd than the idea of a Sir Ringo. Knowing Ray’s lyric writing sensibilities, he must consider himself royally benighted. He gave this statement: “Initially I felt a mixture of surprise, humility, joy and a bit embarrassed but after thinking about it, I accept this for my family and fans as well as everyone who has inspired me to write.”