A giant, multi-disc edition of the Kinks The Village Green Preservation Society has hit store shelves.
A giant, multi-disc edition of the Kinks’ The Village Green Preservation Society has hit store shelves.
Very few bands of the 1960s saw their fortunes wax and wane as much as the Kinks did. The English group came snarling out of the gate with massive hits in the form of the jagged-edged “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night,” beating bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who to the top of the pops. But then bandleader Ray Davies turned down the distortion on his brother Dave’s guitar, got introspective with his songwriting, and molded the Kinks into one of the world’s very best bands—right around the same time people stopped listening. The group’s 1968 album, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, was a modest collection of character studies and meditations on a disappearing English way of life; released the same week as the Beatles’ White Album, it sank without a trace, its small, quiet tunes lost amid a storm of Hendrixes, Creams, and Blue Cheers.

But Village Green Preservation Society’s esteem has grown exponentially with every year, and it’s now firmly established as an all-time classic. Is it the best thing the Kinks have ever done? That’s a discussion for another time, but it came near the midpoint in a steady stream of perfect Kinks albums—beginning with 1966’s Face to Face and ending with 1971’s Muswell Hillbillies—and is now representative of the band as their defining work. Despite lacking any recognizable hits (“Picture Book” only became famous after being used in a TV commercial, so it doesn’t count) and not containing any of their very greatest masterworks (“Waterloo Sunset,” “Shangri-La,” “Autumn Almanac,” or even the contemporaneous single “Days”), it’s nevertheless a wonderful album that’s been repackaged and re-released countless times over the years, even as vinyl copies still command $40 and upwards at used record stores.

Now comes a new campaign celebrating Village Green’s 50th birthday, including a single-CD reissue, a double-CD version, a very welcome and long overdue vinyl re-release, and a massive “super deluxe” box set that includes five CDs, three different versions of the album on vinyl (the stereo mix, the mono mix, and a unique European edition with a different tracklisting and a couple of exclusive tracks), PLUS three 7-inch singles, a hardback book of essays and photos, and an envelope containing more photos, handbills, and assorted odds and ends. The super deluxe edition is, naturally, the very definition of overkill, and yet Village Green is such a rich text—and it’s an album that was fussed through many drafts, resulting in a bevy of unused material—that the gigantic size of this new package elevates the material as opposed to crushing it to death.

The Kinks in 1968.
The Kinks in 1968. © Barrie Wentzell
Here, a general word about “super deluxe” versions of well-known albums: By and large, they are chum designed for suckers with money to burn, and they usually come padded with unnecessary and inferior alternate versions of songs, uninformative liner notes, and shelf-robbing packaging. This isn't the case with the new Village Green set. To be sure, it’s for Kinks diehards and diehards alone, but boy, will they enjoy sifting through what’s inside. The album’s 15 concise songs fit neatly onto the original LP, but they also hinted at a larger world sprawling beyond the edges; the songs’ characters—a gallery of motorcycle riders, drunkards, witches, overweight cats, talking skies, women of the night, holiday snapshot-takers, and more—always seemed part of a fully realized, storybook world, and its themes of community and the passage of time are deftly soundtracked by acoustic guitars, Mellotrons, and wry vocals. This box gives us more of all of that.

My impression is that the five CDs were designed to be separate, discrete experiences—five different trips through the world of Village Green that Ray Davies envisioned. Disc one features the album in its original stereo mix, with a wealth of outtakes and B-sides (there’s a full LP’s worth of songs recorded around the same time that were either released only as singles, such as “Days” and “Wonderboy,” or were left unreleased at the time, only to see the light of day on BBC broadcasts, or on sanctioned and unsanctioned odd-and-sods collections). Disc two includes all of the mono mixes and a few additional spare tracks. Disc three, however, features new remixes of whatever tapes were able to be located, and the results are revelatory. While these tapes are incomplete (missing vocals, overdubs, and assorted other things), the clarity of the newly concocted versions is astounding, providing sharp new focus onto what were never particularly hi-fi recordings to begin with.

Disc four is a sampler of BBC recordings from around this time, while disc five expands the boundaries of the album to include the various times Davies, with and without the Kinks, revisited the material over the years. It kicks off with the album’s origins in the form of a medley of home-recorded demo tracks (including a spine-tingling solo take of “Days”), carries on with some unused mixes from the 1968 sessions, then showcases recordings made in 1973, while the Kinks were preparing their Preservation project, a pair of albums (one of them a double) and stage show that revisited the themes of Village Green. The versions of Village Green tracks from this period are pretty wonderful, given a thorough reworking and ornamented with military brass and large backing choruses. (“The Village Green Preservation Society” title track is especially terrific.) The disc concludes with a 2010 live recording from Denmark with Davies joined by a choir and small orchestra. While these somewhat schmaltzy versions of Village Green songs don’t do a whole lot for me, they show how Davies continued to be consumed with the ideas from this small, quirky album over the course of his very long career.

In other words, there’s plenty for Kinks kompletists and kultists, and the album sounds as good as it ever has. The remastering is excellent throughout, taking the original, somewhat-murky-sounding recording and cleaning it up while retaining all of its charm. The vinyl components sound equally good (the 12-track European edition sounds particularly fantastic for some reason), and the single stereo LP that’s being sold separately should be a wise investment for anyone who’s been trying to track down a reasonably priced copy of Village Green for their record collection. The obsessed, however, shouldn’t feel any shame in splurging for the big box, or at least asking loved ones to put it on their holiday shopping lists. It’s overkill, to be sure—the three 7-inch singles seem particularly unnecessary, although the inclusion of the sheet music for “Days” is pretty nifty—but there’s a lot of fun delving deep into the magical world this album conjures. For the truly cash-strapped, there’s also a bizarre 60-track version available on the streaming sites that appears to be a grab-bag of the box’s selections, placed in random order. You can probably make yourself a suitable playlist out of this morass of Kinks stuff and reinstate the album’s original track order, or just pretend you’ve got the box on shuffle.

The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society has turned 50, but it’s one of the rare rock albums that feels as fresh as ever. Its reactionary posture has aged surprisingly well, perhaps because it’s more observational than didactic, setting it apart from a lot of the music of its era. There’s only one horribly outdated song in the entire box—the unfortunate, unfunny “When I Turn Off the Living Room Light,” which was presumably never meant to see the light of day—but that, too, is part of the historical record, and very few box sets have done as good a job in presenting that historical record as this exhaustive treat. God save the Village Green, indeed.