Appreciating The Kinks’ Veddy, Veddy British Period

kinks british period

Editor’s Note: We’re happy to report that we’ve been having lots of new visitors lately, so want to feature some of our favorite posts from a while back … like this one.

The Kinks are of course well-known in America, or at least several of their quite distinctive “periods” are. Their initial hard-rocking British Invasion period, their “Lola” period, their late ’70s “Low Budget” period and their early ’80s MTV/”Come Dancing” period, certainly. But it’s the period between the first two — to my mind their best – that I’d like to focus on for this piece. The fact that this period — which includes what are perhaps their two best albums — is lesser known to many Americans is largely a function of history and the band’s getting very specifically British for those two albums. But it would be a shame for American fans to miss out on their best work.

The band burst on to the music scene with a particularly noisy entrance. “You Really Got Me” arguably rocked harder than anything the Beatles or Stones released that year (1964), and indeed that record has often been called either the first metal or first punk single. (Take your pick.) Lead guitarist Dave Davies allegedly once said that “They didn’t call it heavy metal when I invented it.”

Americans ate up the band’s early hard-rocking singles, but a legal dispute with the American musician’s union meant that after the band’s first US tour, they were not allowed to tour the US again till the end of the ’60s, guaranteeing that some of their best work would remain underappreciated on this side of the pond. Even “Waterloo Sunset,” the mid-’60s single often considered the best the Kinks ever released, failed to chart in the US at all, though it would belatedly become a staple on rock radio starting in the ’70s.

The 1970 single “Lola,” and the end of the union ban, meant that the Kinks would get back on to the American charts, and back into the American consciousness. But just prior to that, the Kinks would release what for my money are their two best albums, criminally overlooked in America at the time, and to a degree, still so today.

It probably didn’t help that both albums are so resolutely, quintessentially, unabashedly British. So for you Anglophiles out there, or simply those who recognize that sometimes the most specific artistry is really the most universal, I give you the Kinks’ best two albums.

The first of the two was (The Kinks Are) The Village Green Preservation Society. Like the previous year’s “Waterloo Sunset,” it failed to chart in the US at all and only gained its reputation later. In fact, it usually tops critics’ lists as the best Kinks album and often ranks in top 100 rock album surveys. In a sense, it’s the Kinks’ Pet Sounds, another album that flopped on initial release and gained stature along the way — though (like Pet Sounds) many people know it more from reputation than from actually listening to it.

It didn’t help that there was no hit single from the album. “Starstruck” was chosen, but it failed to make much impact, even in the U.K., and certainly the title track or “Picture Book” (rescued from obscurity by a 2004 HP commercial campaign for photo printers) would have been better choices. Instead, what we have is a song cycle of Ray Davies gems, all related in some way to his nostalgia for childhood and the presumably simpler way of life represented by the “village,” even if that village was just one of the more suburban-ish districts of London, as it was for Davies.

Some songs recall actual people such as a childhood friend (“Do You Remember Walter?”) or the local prostitute (“Monica“). Others imagine a rural past Davies didn’t actually have (“Animal Farm” and “Village Green“). In “Last of the Steam-Powered Trains,” Davies personifies himself as the last of that dying breed.

Of course, this being Ray Davies, there are wry recognitions throughout that sometimes nostalgia is just a way we play tricks on ourselves. At the end of “Walter,” Davies sings that “People often change / But memories of people can remain.” Is he saying that his friend has changed and that he prefers his memories of the “old” Walter? Or that sometimes we just prefer our idealized memories to reality? In the context of the whole song (and the whole album), it’s a little of both, which is one of the things that makes the album such a treat.

This ambiguity is equally present in the next album, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire). Originally conceived as a soundtrack to a British television drama that never aired, Arthur told the story of the fictional (though based on Davies’ brother-in-law) Arthur Morgan, a carpet-layer, and a rough history of Britain from 1900 to 1969.  This musical-that-never-was compares quite favorably with The Who’s Tommy, released the same year.

The album kicks off with “Victoria,” with Davies seemingly extolling the virtues of the monarch and the Empire she represented. Is he really celebrating a time when “Sex was bad and obscene / And the rich were so mean” and is he serious talking of the Empire “When I grow I shall fight / Let its sun never set”? From the exuberant music, it certainly sounds like it, but once again Davies is expressing nostalgia for a time when it seemed like Britain was “greater,” but that he knows full well wasn’t so great for a whole lot of people.

The rest of the album explores this, particularly the British class system, far more rigid than the more fluid (but still real) system found in America. Davies’ insistence on the primacy of class in Britain permeates the album, from “Yes Sir, No Sir” and “Some Mother’s Son,” which immediately follow “Victoria” and address the reality of average Britons used as cannon fodder to support the Empire name-checked in “Victoria”’s last verse, to the ironically titled “Shangri-La” — what Arthur calls his modest home — which explores Arthur hitting the top of what the class system will allow him to be.

So what to do if you want something more? Emigrate, perhaps? “Australia” tackles this head-on, and once again we see Davies mastering the art of lyrical ambivalence, simultaneously acknowledging the appeal (and indeed, the fictional Arthur’s son is supposed to have taken this leap), while lampooning the hell out of it. The background vocals continually promise the siren song of “no class distinctions!” (in a tone that lets one know that might not be entirely true), while the lead promises that “We’ll surf like they do in the USA / We’ll fly down to Sydney for a holiday / On a sunny Christmas day” — but only, of course “if you’re young and healthy” (which leaves Arthur out).

British specificity abounds, including name checks like Princess Marina and Anthony Eden that most Americans will probably not be familiar with. And yet, the specific is the universal, and any American can suss what Davies is getting at here, and understand that to one degree or another, it applies everywhere.

David Stewart

Photo Credit: The Kinks photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

PS. Read more about Arthur and a lot of other great concept albums in our post 31 Concept Albums You May Have Missed. Plus, you may enjoy Let Paul Simon, James Taylor and Bob Dylan Be Your Travel Guides and 15 Bands That Could Be Considered the Next Beatles.

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6 comments on “Appreciating The Kinks’ Veddy, Veddy British Period

  1. chris judson

    can’t argue you didn’t pick good ones….but something else and face to face are just as good.starts with kontroversy

    but i like all kinks ‘periods’…..yeah i like the preservation series….love daylight and the hard way….saw dave not

    long ago…great.

  2. Gary Frank

    Arthur and Muswell my standouts, but it’s hard to limit.

  3. I love all the kinks albums except Preservation Act I is little weird for me. Act 2 is awesome!!!

  4. Mark Hudson

    Both albums are classics, no doubt. By the way, not sure where this “veddy” thing you Americans refer to comes from. I can assure you that neither myself, or any of my family and friends EVER pronounced the word “very” like that 🙂

  5. David Stewart

    It’s what Americans THINK they hear when listening, especially to an upper class Received Pronunciation. That was kind of the point; that these albums weren’t just British (since ALL Kinks albums are British), they are, to Americans, VEDDY British. Specifically British, if you will.

    I found this online:

    Edward Artin of the G.C. Merriam Company, publisher of Webster’s dictionary, wrote in to the Times with an answer…

    “Americans’ articulation of the r in very (in fact, of all r‘s) may be described as comparatively sluggish. On the other hand, when a Southern Englishman says very he often articulates the r by thumping the tip of his tongue quite lustily but quickly against his palate, producing, to the American ear, a dd effect.

    “Now, when this same Englishman says eddy he articulates the dd by hermetically clamping the tip and sides of his tongue against his palate so as to completely shut off the outbreath for a split second (producing what phoneticians call a stop or explosive). His sound between vowels here is appreciably different to his own ear from his sound between the vowels of very, and hence on the basis of purely his own speech the veddy jibe makes no sense. The average American, however, does not cut off his breath for even a fraction of a split second when he says eddy: he articulates the dd by much the same thumping of tongue-tip against palate that the Englishman uses for r in very. Thus the American listening to a Southern Englishman may apprehend the latter’s Perry as Peddy, and vice versa.”

  6. Huge Anglophile American here. These are my two favorite Kinks albums, by far. And the Village Green album is in my all-time Top 10 as well. It seems impossible that the title track wasn’t released as a single!?! Although, the album is really meant to be played though in one go; every track is perfect.

    And Shangri-La from Arthur…what a masterpiece. It’s a song that motivates me to keep moving as I’m now in my mid-60’s!

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