Is it “a small observation of a big thing” that makes The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, the group’s once-ignored and now-cherished 1968 album, so special? That comment by XTC frontman Andy Partridge is one of the more interesting takes in this vivid and engrossing new documentary of the iconic band’s “lost” masterpiece. Echoes of a World: The Story of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society features interviews (and two recent duet performances) by founding Kink brothers Dave and Ray Davies, as well as their drummer Mick Avory. Typical of rock docs nowadays, there is a parade of well-known musician/acolytes, including Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher, Natalie Merchant, Graham Coxon, and Suggs from Madness.
There is also a lot of archival footage of both the band and the North London locales so central to their songs. A nice added touch is B&W filming in nearby Highgate Wood, where a young actor playing Ray delivers his thoughts on the record’s beguiling depictions of small-town Britannica. Overlooking the districts he would write about, actor Ray says that the album was a chance to “speak from inside myself.” This device works esp. well within the idea that the album was “not nostalgia but time travel.”
“I’m glad we stood our ground.” The simulated young Ray Davies mulls over the making of his unfashionable tour de force.
But oh, for those small observations of big things (actually, the inverse of that saying is probably more accurate). In late 1967, the Kinks’ released a single so great that Partridge (a pretty dang good songwriter himself) freely admits “I spent my whole life chasing that song.” This was “Autumn Almanac” a hit in the UK which preceded (and pointed the way to) the Village Green. The song, inspired by Ray Davies’ gardener, celebrated the prosaic joys of lawn work, a Sunday roast, a beach holiday in Blackpool and neighbors who will love you ‘til you’re 99. Not exactly the hippest subject matter during rock’s psychedelic era. Although “Autumn Almanac” would reach #3 in the UK charts, the band’s popularity started to fade as they went further down their rabbit hole of ethereal old-timeliness.
The last 11-minutes of “Echoes of the World.”
The Village Green album, which followed in the fall of 1968, doubled down on that lost sense of community and shared spaces. The title and lead-off track (one of the two tunes that the Davies are shown performing in a parlor) extols the virtues of Tudor houses, custard pies, George Cross medal recipients, obscure British pop-culture figures like Desperate Dan and Mrs. Mopp, and even virginity itself. The society is also quite clear on what they are against (“We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate”). More poignantly, the brothers also do “Do You Remember Walter,” a bittersweet ode to the lost ideals of youth.
Echoes of a World also looks back fondly on the albums rich picaresques. The family remembrances (“Picture Book”), the indifferent-universe hymnal (“Big Sky”), the exquisite rural escapism of “Animal Farm.” Just as memorable are the inhabitants of Ray’s “dream space”: the rebel “Johnny Thunder,” the local temptress “Monica,” the legendary “Phenomenal Cat” and the neighborhood witch, “Wicked Annabella.” These people and places are so ingrained in the minds of fans that several of the interviewees here—including Partridge, Natalie Merchant, record producer Greg Kurstin and even Dave Davies—proudly show hand-made illustrations of various tunes.
“American tourists flock to see the village green” A picture of your humble blogger in 2016 in the Kinks Room at the Cliswold Arms pub, where the Kinks did their first show. Ray and Dave grew up directly across in the Fortis Green/Muswell Hill area.
In an age of social disconnectedness, the yearning for a solid sense of place and community is only enhanced. Maybe that is one of the reasons that Village Green Preservation Society took so long to be fully appreciated. Paul Weller likens it to “a longing for something that wasn’t really there.” True, the fraternity may be amorphous but it is still there and still vital. As it says under the credits on the back cover of the original album: “You are our friends for playing this record.”
Another Kinks-related piece that has been made available for Amazon streaming is 1985’s Return to Waterloo, a 57-minute fictional film directed by Ray Davies. Its title suggests the band’s signature ballad “Waterloo Sunset,” but the urban romance depicted in that beloved Kink Klassic gives way to a grim premise here.
The mostly dialogue-free story stars Ken Colley as the dark-eyed, haunted “Traveler” who goes to and from work on a commuter train whose terminus is the iconic station of the title. There is a serial rapist at large and our man bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the police sketch of the suspect. It is never made quite clear whether he’s the guy or not, although the lockdown stare he gets from Ray himself (as a subway busker) is ominous enough. Return to Waterloo functions more as a downbeat tone poem, encompassing feelings of disconnection, loneliness, parent-child alienation and disheartened nostalgia, in contrast to the mostly nourishing nostalgia of the Village Green album sixteen years earlier.
I know it doesn’t sound very chipper, but the strong songs here by Ray move along the story. (A few of the tunes from the soundtrack also made it onto the Kinks’ latter-day highlight Word of Mouth, released in 1984). An evocative piece like “Expectations” can stand on its own as a pensive commentary on Britain’s post-empire decline and seems esp. relevant now in the UK’s post-Brexit era. As one can tell from the video below, Return to Waterloo boasts excellent production values. The cinematographer here is the acclaimed Roger Deakins, still early in a career that would see him be the director of photography for such movies as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Blade Runner 2049, among many others.
Return to Waterloo can be a bit of an odd duck in the viewing of it. It veers rather unsteadily between realism and the Traveler’s elaborate fantasy world. Everyday situations, like an encounter with a group of punk rockers, can shift into overdrive very suddenly (look for a young Tim Roth as one of the punkers). Elsewhere, a Pythonesque wit takes hold, as a matronly woman (within earshot of the Traveler) discussed her strategy if confronted by the rapist: “I’d give him a swift kick in the bollocks, that would sort him out.”
So while maybe not the thing to watch if you’re in the mood for a feel-good film, but a must for Kinks fans and clear-eyed Anglophiles. Make a note in your own autumn almanac to view one or both of these fine forays into the Kinkdom.
You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.