On this sideof the Atlantic, the Kinks are best known for their 1970 song “Lola,” about a young man’s encounter with a transvestite, and for the raw power chords of two hits from 1964: “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.” But between those milestones in the band’s long career (the Kinks formed in 1963 and only officially split up in 1996), they recorded their quiet masterpiece The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society (1968). A musical departure for the band, this album was also the first chapter in what became a sustained commentary by the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Ray Davies, on the built environment of postwar Britain.
The opening song is a manifesto, by turns serious and silly: “We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity / God save little shops, china cups, and virginity.” The threatened vitality of England’s traditional towns and villages became such a preoccupation for Davies that he eventually wrote a rock opera about it, Preservation (Acts 1 and 2), released in 1973–74. The villain of that piece—not the band’s finest outing, musically—is a predatory real estate developer.
Village Green reveals Davies as a great songwriter and a man who was, to quote Ezra Pound, “out of key with his time”: While things were swinging on London’s Carnaby Street, Davies stuck around the north London suburb of Muswell Hill, where he’d grown up, to write songs about strawberry jam and Tudor houses. Not surprisingly, the album was a commercial flop. Its 1969 follow-up, Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), fared a little better. Arthur sketches the arc of 20th century British history through the story of its titular character, an everyman based on Davies’ brother-in-law.
When listened to carefully, Village Green and Arthur prove that Davies’ surface nostalgia is really something deeper—it’s a conviction that beloved places, and the memories they hold, must be sheltered from the sweep of conformity; and it’s an indictment of the British class system that literally puts people in their place.
The most subtle of Davies’ meditations on place and class is “Shangri-La,” from Arthur. Even the song’s title is ironic: The British tradition of giving one’s house a name often results in a comical gap between grandiose pretensions (Shangri-la is a fictional paradise) and prosaic environs. What makes the song so effective is its ambivalence about suburbia—how pitiful, it suggests, that the sum of anyone’s ambition is to take out a mortgage on a bland suburban box. Yet in the eyes of Davies’ working-class hero, a modest house with an indoor toilet really is paradise:
Here’s your reward for working so hard
Gone are the lavatories in the back yard
Gone are the days when you dreamed of that car
You just want to sit in your Shangri-la
Put on your slippers and sit by the fire
You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher
You're in your place and you know where you are
In your Shangri-la
“You’re in your place and you know where you are”: At the same time that it undercuts Arthur’s contentment, the lyric also affirms it. Perhaps Davies’ fondness for the real-life Arthur—whom he regarded as a good but frustrated man—and his own working-class, suburban upbringing made him able to identify with those who moved to the suburbs for a better life. In any case, such generosity is notably absent from a better-known musical put-down of suburbia, Malvina Reynolds’ 1963 song “Little Boxes” (once described by Tom Lehrer as “the most sanctimonious song ever written”).
Davies sharpened his tone in response to urban renewal. The album Muswell Hillbillies (1971) marries bluesy rock to lyrics that attack government-imposed conformity in the shape of eminent domain and modernization schemes. “Muswell Hillbilly” is the lament of a local man being forcibly moved to a new housing estate: “They can clear the slums as part of their solution / But they’re never going to kill my Cockney pride.” “Here Come the People in Grey” imagines the moment the same man (or one of his neighbors) receives the bad news:
I got a letter this morning with some serious news that’s gone and ruined my day
The borough surveyor’s used compulsory purchase to acquire my domain …
Here come the people in grey, they’re gonna take me away to Lord only knows where
Did the people in gray win? Muswell Hill is now one of the more desirable neighborhoods in London (it can hardly be considered a suburb, given London’s outward growth over the past 40 years). Houses like the one Davies bought for a mere 9,000 pounds (about $14,000) can command more than a million today. Maybe one type of conformity—that of granite countertops and closets stuffed with designer suits, some in gray, no doubt—has simply replaced another. ?