Monday, January 30, 2012

The Kinks’ “Village Green”: An Appreciation

Is there any song that has more going on in a shorter length of time than the Kinks’ “Village Green”? Clocking in at a mere 2:09 on the Kinks’ celebrated 1968 album, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, “Village Green” provides a sweeping vista of British culture that equals, if not surpasses, the other 37-or-so minutes that surround it. As a record, the only thing that touches it is Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs’ 1960 “Stay [Just a Little Bit Longer],” which, at 1:37, remains the shortest number-one pop single ever. Only where “Stay” feels longer because of all of the different musical things it contains (all of which are cleverly enhanced by the lyrics), “Village Green” feels longer because of the scope of its vision; thus, where “Stay” belies its brevity with the illusion of length, “Village Green” belies its brevity with the depth of its story.

“Village Green” can best be described as an epic (albeit a very, very short epic), following in the grand tradition of Homer’s Odyssey on down through Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane: It begins in the present, flashes back to the past to tell its tale, and brings the story back up to the present in which it began. Doing so is no small feat. The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society is, as the title suggests, an album celebrating the preservation of time and memory, the act of growing wistful for an England that is long gone – if it ever, as has often been pointed out, even existed in the first place. What gives “Village Green” its power is that it goes farther than any other song on the album, reaching back into the past and pulling it into the present, placing them side-by-side until the two become one.

It also helps that the song’s music is as distinctive as its tale. Taken strictly as a sound, “Village Green” doesn’t really sound like anything else on the album, let alone in the Kinks’ catalogue. The harpsichord churns with a thick sea of stringed instruments and culminates in a slithering clarinet figure can only be described as gothic, a Victorian Age ghost story with the production values of the Jaynettes’ bizarrely ominous 1963 hit, “Sally, Go ’Round the Roses.”

The lyrics are among the most nostalgic Ray Davies ever wrote (which is to say, among the most nostalgic in rock and roll) winding prepositional phrases capturing a lost era of country glens and rolling hills, which have long since been sacrificed to the steel jaws of industry and the empty profits of tourism. The singer’s words are simple yet dramatic. They take us out into the country, away from the soot and noise of the city, and into the church with the steeple that sits in the village green. Once upon a time, the singer knew a girl named Daisy, who he kissed by the old oak tree. “Although I love my Daisy,” he sings, “I sought fame, and so I left the village green.”

This is the most telling line of the entire song – in order to seek fame, the singer must leave the village green; the two notions are by definition mutually exclusive entities. They also set up the chief emotion that drives the song (and, in turn, the entire album): A bittersweet sense of longing. The singer expresses this in the song’s beautiful stream-of-conscious bridge:

I miss the village green, and all the simple people
I miss the village green, the church the clock the steeple
I miss morning dew, fresh air, and Sunday School...

But now the houses have become “rare antiquities” as the singer sneers with disgust at the American tourists who flood them, snap photos, and say, “Gawd darn it, isn’t it a pretty scene?” “And Daisy’s married Tom, the grocer’s boy,” he observes in phrases that feel modeled on the rhythms of ancient scripture, “And now he owns a grocery.”

The bridge kicks in a second time, this time accented by the plucking arpeggio of strings, which only makes the words sound that much more stately. All of the same elements scurry by – the simple people, the church and clock, the morning dew, fresh air, Sunday school – in a way that somehow elevates the mundane to the regal.

The song closes exactly where it should, with the singer deciding to return to the village green and see Daisy, as they drink tea and laugh while talking about the village green. “We will laugh,” the singer closes with a slight sense of gravity that counters the phrase, “and talk about the village green.”

Like so many great songs, there is a deceptive simplicity that asks more questions than it answers. For instance, did the singer ever achieve the fame he sought? Did Daisy know that he was returning? Does he still (or did he ever) love Daisy? Does she still (or did she ever) love him? And what about that ending: What exactly are they laughing and talking about (apparently in that order)? When taken in this light, the song is indeed like a British “Sally, Go ’Round the Roses.”

And yet, its closest parallel is a country song that came a decade before “Village Green” was released: Johnny Cash’s 1958 country song, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen.” It is perhaps Cash’s biggest early hit that is least familiar today, and it’s easy to hear why: After the timeless shuffle of songs like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” is one of the most dated things that Johnny Cash ever recorded. Trying to broaden his signature “hillbilly” sound, the song featured a cloying barbershop quartet echoing the lyrics and subject matter about girls and fame that reached for Chuck Berry but hit closer to Pat Boone. (Modern tastes aside, the ploy did work: “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” was one of Cash’s biggest hits of the ’50s, hitting number one on the country charts and crossing over to 14 on the pop charts.)

The song is simple enough, telling of a small-town teenage queen who fell in love with the boy next door (who worked at the candy store), until one day a talent scout whisks her far away to Hollywood, where she finds fame, riches, and anything she could possibly ever want. Everything, of course, except the boy next door (who worked at the candy store). “Do I have to tell you more?” the singer asks at the end, “She came back to the boy next door.” And you guessed it, he still worked at the candy store.

Given the similarities between the two songs’ subject matter (boy and girl fall in love until one leaves on a quest for fame, only to return years later), length (Cash’s song is exactly one second shorter than the Kinks’ song), and title (think about it: “Village Green” and “Teenage Queen” – they’re only six letters apart), I can’t help but wonder if Ray Davies didn’t consciously model “Village Green” on “Teenage Queen.” The former is subtle where the latter is obvious, inventive where the latter is trite, and, most tellingly, British where the latter is American. Is it any wonder that the British song is quieter and more open-ended while the American song is brasher and with a happy ending?

If this is the case, Ray Davies took a line drawing and made it into an oil painting, layering music and lyric, love and loss, youth and adulthood, religion and faith, dreams and reality, and British culture and American rock and roll – a British reimagining of what America’s greatest president once termed “the mystic chords of memory.”

And Daisy’s married Tom, the grocer’s boy, and now he owns a grocery.

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