Friday, November 22, 2013

The Mountain and the Meadow: The Day 'The Beatles' and 'The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society' were Released

November 22, 1968. The date arrived toward the exhausted end of a year that started with the United States taking a crippling blow in the Vietnam War with the Tet Offensive on January 30 and acting out in the most horrendous of ways with the My Lai massacre of March 16. Two weeks later, Martin Luther King, Jr., would lead a march through Memphis that would end with the death of a teenage boy and the injuries of sixty other people, and King, himself, would be murdered on April 4. On the 23rd, the cops would bring a violent end to a demonstration at Columbia University, and on May 6, student demonstrators in Paris would engage in their own revolutionary conflict against gas-grenade hurling officers. Andy Warhol shot on June 3. Robert Kennedy shot two days later to die on the 6. Protesters beaten by police in Chicago on August 28 and murdered by police and soldiers in Mexico City on October 2. And then on November 5, Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States, ensuring many more dark days to come.

Into this relentless tumult came a plea for support and unity from one of the brightest bright spots to shine on the shadowy sixties. On August 26, 1968, The Beatles released “Hey Jude”, and the single would set records as both the longest (at seven minutes and eleven seconds) and longest-running number one single (spending nine weeks at the top of the charts in the US), doing its part to soothe tattered spirits when they needed it most.

“Hey Jude” was still at the top on November 22, when The Beatles released their long-awaited follow up to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that united the masses in 1967. Nearly a year and a half had passed since then, and just as the hippie love-vibes of the summer of ’67 must have seemed like a distant memory, The Beatles’ own unity was starting to seem like a similar thing of the past. John, George, and Ringo were tiring of Paul’s attempts to play leader of the band, which really began during with Sgt. Pepper’s —a veritable solo album for the bass player by some accounts but went into overdrive following the death of manager Brian Epstein in August 1967. Paul masterminded The Beatles’ first true folly, Magical Mystery Tour (though one that has not dated without its charms), and drove his mates mad through take after take of the trifling “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, a song that particularly offended John’s Rock & Roll sensibilities. There had even been a minor feather-ruffling while recording that great message of hope and friendship, “Hey Jude”, when Paul wouldn't allow George Harrison to lay down some guitar licks over the opening bars (with all respect to George, Paul was right to leave that intro stark).
The paradox of the album on which “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” found its home is that The Beatles was anything but a team effort but it allowed each member of the team to come to the fore in a way Sgt. Pepper’s had not. So the record that would be affectionately known as “The White Album” seems like more of a Beatles album than Pepper’s. That album’s excess of studio trickery and orchestrations had not been banished, but such things did take a back seat to rawer guitar/bass/drums arrangements that made the new album sound like The Beatles were back to playing as a four-piece of equal quarters even if each member of the group was essentially running his own sessions. In essence, the unit was fracturing just as John, Paul, George, and Ringo had found the distinctive voices that would carry them through their soon-to-come solo careers.

Meanwhile, some of The Beatles’ most prominent peers were living through their own paradox. The Kinks were similarly pulling apart. After years of frustration, bassist Peter Quaife was getting ready to split. Meanwhile, leader Ray Davies was steering the ship as assuredly as Paul McCartney had through the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions. Ray had an even more ambitious project in mind: a double album conceptual disc that might also be adapted into a stage show. However, The Kinks’ current paradox was the opposite of The Beatles’: although The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society seems like more of a Ray Davies solo album than a band project, Quaife would later say that he felt Ray allowed him, Dave Davies, and Mick Avory more room to contribute to the final product than they had on other recent records, working as more of a unit than The Beatles were on their “White Album”. Despite that refreshing spirit of collaboration, Quaife would still leave the band soon after Village Green Preservation Society appeared on November 22, 1968. 

The album released on that date would be quite different from Ray’s original concept. Pye Records had already put the kibosh on his plan for a double-album, though the artistic and corporate entities would reach a sort of compromise when the original twelve-track Village Green Preservation Society, which included the recent single “Days”, was withdrawn after its October release in several European markets so Ray could re-sequence it, lop off the single and a pretty though slight track called “Mr. Songbird”, and add five more recently recorded songs, which resulted in a fifteen-track record at least a little closer to the twenty-track double-album he really wanted.

One might imagine Ray was seething when his album came out the same day as The Beatles’. The biggest band in the world was not going to be denied two vinyl discs. Producer George Martin told them that The Beatles’ thirty tracks should be pruned down to a single disc of the crop’s cream, but his charges would not have it (at least Paul wouldn’t). Despite the extra expense that came with a double album, “The White Album” was a massive hit, becoming only the third Beatles album to debut at number one in the UK and spending eight non-consecutive weeks in that position. In the US, it would top that achievement by an extra week.

The performance of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society was another story. It did not chart in either the UK or the US (where it was released in early 1969)—the first Kinks album to suffer this unfortunate milestone (it would also be their final album to miss the charts in the US, though they’d never again regain their commercial footing at home). Retrospective commentators have noted how out-of-touch Village Green was with that year of war, assassinations, riots, and revolutionary actions. The Kinks had made a cozy, nostalgic record that dared to declare “God save little shops, china cups, and virginity.” Many have blamed such conservatism for the album’s commercial failure. But was “The White Album” any more revolutionary? It housed few topical songs. The ones most tuned in to the progressive zeitgeist were George’s anti-capitalism parody “Piggies”, John’s anti-hunting parody “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”, and Paul’s free love freak out “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” (his “Black Bird” is supposed to be about the civil rights movement, but this message is so sketchily expressed that one could reasonably assume the song is just about a bird). A weary early take of the “Hey Jude” B-side “Revolution”, however, argued more explicitly against fighting in the streets than anything on Village Green, leaving it even more out of time than “The Last of the Steam Powered Trains”. Elsewhere, The Beatles reveled in abstractions (“Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, “Glass Onion”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey”, “Revolution 9”), silliness (“Wild Honey Pie”, “Birthday”, “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, Savoy Truffle”, “Rocky Raccoon”), and a lot of very Kinky quaintness (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, “Good Night”, “Dear Prudence”, “I Will”, “Mother Nature’s Son”, “Honey Pie”, “Martha My Dear”, “Helter Skelter”, a hell-fire rocker about a playground slide). Sure, “The White Album” is great, but only a lunatic like Charles Manson would read it as a call to take up revolutionary arms. 

In reality, Village Green did not fail to sell because of its backward-looking philosophy. It certainly did not fail because of its quality. American critics championed the exquisite record, but The Kinks’ unofficial touring ban in this country did them no favors when the time came to promote the record. In the UK, it failed to get any accolades because Pye apparently didn’t bother to send review copies out to any papers except for Disc magazine. That review declared Ray “one of our finest composers,” but one blurb does not make a hit record.  

Nevertheless, Village Green Preservation Society supports Disc’s assertion like no other Kinks work. While many will be debating what could/should have been hacked off “The White Album” for years to come, Village Green is indescribably perfect, nearly as eclectic as The Beatles but uniform in performance and spirit. Each song is a marvelous creation regardless of whether The Kinks are dallying with lager-raising anthems (“The Village Green Preservation Society”), renaissance pop (“Village Green”), children’s music (“Phenomenal Cat”), music hall (“All of My Friends Were There”), French psychedelia (“Sitting by the Riverside”), blues (“The Last of the Steam Powered Trains”), riff rock with a touch of raga (“Big Sky”), acid rock (“Wicked Annabella”), show tunes (“Starstruck”), gypsy folk (“People Take Pictures of Each Other”), calypso (“Monica”), or Beatleseque pop (“Do You Remember Walter?”). 

Perfection and uniformity are not the names of the game on The Beatles; sprawl and bizarre juxtapositions are. That the musique concrete of “Revolution 9” can sit between the whimsical folk rock of “Cry Baby Cry” and the pure Hollywood schmaltz of “Good Night”—all products of Lennon’s pen, incidentally—is what makes “The White Album” so thrilling. The fact that it allowed room for such nonsense as “Wild Honey Pie” and “Rocky Raccoon” is another of its great appeals. It is an avalanche of styles tumbling from a mountain of music. Village Green is a meadow speckled with flowers of every imaginable shape and color.

With each passing year, more and more people have discovered that meadow and reveled in putting on a nice warm sweater to lie in its autumnal grass. While “The White Album” is an institution to be consumed by everyone, Village Green Preservation Society is a cult secret to be passed back and forth among the most discriminating listeners, its hipness antithetical to its dated celebrations of Fu Manchu, Old Mother Riley, and virginity. And as tension-fraught “The White Album” would turn out to be the beginning of the end for The Beatles, the collaborative Village Green would be the beginning of a rebirth for The Kinks. With new bassist John Dalton they’d recapture their former glory in America. With the lifting of the touring ban, 1969’s Arthur: or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire would be The Kinks’ highest charter in the states since 1965’s Kink Kontroversy. 1970’s massive hit “Lola” would clinch this most British of British bands in the states for good. They’d now have the longevity and commercial as well as artistic clout to rank alongside those other heavy weights of sixties British pop: The Rolling Stones, The Who, and yes, The Beatles. And so with The Beatles and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, two pop cornerstones passed each other on their ways to radically different futures no one during that radical time could have predicted. Their enduring legacies are less dissimilar.

The Beatles and The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society were both released 45 years ago today.

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