Five songs by The Kinks that perfectly emulate British life

Today’s British experience is a paradox. It’s circular, almost like a modern-day plague that we can’t escape. We sometimes love it, we often love to hate it, but we definitely constantly criticise it. For the most part, we disagree with its politics, but for reasons unknown, we’re still drawn to its aesthetics. Perhaps there’s a maudlin quality to the “old times” that makes it romantic and a constant backdrop to our changing times, even if we don’t always stand by its social implications. Everything that The Kinks created emulated this ambivalence perfectly; they created worlds which appreciated as much as they criticised, epitomising the quintessentially dichotomous British experience like no other band in history.

Ray Davies was serious in his presentation of the British experience in a way that flaunted its qualities while remaining realistic about its shortcomings. He grew up in a significantly transformative period of British history and culture, which meant that Victorian values and architecture were slowly experiencing decline, making way for a new “glass and steel” version of forward-thinking.

After the war, Davies encountered an odd sort of nostalgia that didn’t as much represent a yearning for the past as much as it reflected his confusion – many people at the time were still stuck trying to piece together the fragmented pieces of an era that no longer existed, and Davies was one of them. He didn’t necessarily look back, wishing things had stayed the same. Instead, he grappled with the depth of the shift, desperately trying to connect the dots between the then and now.

Although The Kinks’ entire discography is emblematic of the British Invasion, the biggest standout when it comes to replicating, criticising, and glorifying the British experience came with the release of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Although, in hindsight, this album demonstrated the band’s shift from pop-rock maestros to cult status, it also showcased the extreme levels of introspection and paranoia that many British people were experiencing at the time.

In Davies’ world, his view when looking out on the streets was changing by the day: old, Victorian-style houses were being replaced by modern buildings, while local society struggled to keep up with the influence of external factors like America and Europe. While these observations were also present in Something Else by the Kinks, Davies became more skilled in crafting tunes that focussed on places that held significant meaning in his own life while lamenting the issues of society. The music itself became more sonically interesting, too, as their sound transitioned from almost pandering to the scene to becoming its own entity.

In true British fashion, Davies enjoyed threading a satirical outlook into his work, with albums like Face to Face, which conceptually captured the oftentimes contradictory experiences of British life. As we delve deeper into some of the band’s most fundamentally British tracks, it becomes clearer how Davies’ outlook shifted and developed from albums like Kinda Kinks, which emulated the uncertainties of the era on a surface level before his ideas flourished into something more telling.

How The Kinks emulated British life:
‘A Well Respected Man’
Back in 2009, this song was used for the opening sequence to an episode of Supernatural, depicting the main characters in an alternate reality where they don’t know each other. It played on class divides, portraying one character as seemingly well-off while the other was at the bottom of the ranks with no power whatsoever. This was precisely Davies’ trail of thought when crafting the song.

A satire on the British upper class, ‘A Well Respected Man’ says more about the class system than Davies’ strange vacation. It humorously jabbed at the wealthy, categorising those in the upper class as frequenting a different reality to the general public. In the song, Davies paints Britain as a place where the privileged enjoy a life that runs in technicolour, but it’s a farce, one where conservatism is rewarded, and charisma helps you climb the professional and societal ladder.

‘Sunny Afternoon’
When Davies wrote ‘Sunny Afternoon’, he was going through a strange and turbulent time. The Kinks’ sudden rise in popularity didn’t mesh well with the group’s ongoing tensions, and Davies left to deal with fatherhood for a while. At the time, he only listened to Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan as he felt the music matched his hazy mood, but when the idea for ‘Sunny Afternoon’ arrived, it was as clear as day.

The song is undeniably one of the band’s most accurate depictions of British life; it sounds upbeat, but beneath the layers, it tells a story filled with a fallen elitist whose mansion has been taken by the tax man. This wasn’t just a parable of life in England; the story became a conduit for Davies’ own feelings at the time as he navigated potential downfalls through lyrics.

‘The Village Green Preservation Society’
Throughout their tenure, Davies became more and more drawn to the misconceptions of the band that the media crafted, one of his favourites being that they were purposefully trying to preserve older, more conservative British values. ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ addressed this with ironic lyricism that sought to satirise and debunk the errors of tabloid journalism.

Although there’s still a lot of debate surrounding the song’s meaning and whether Davies actually intended to drip irony into the lyrics, it’s clear that he’s playing on public perception and misinterpretation. It’s the ridiculousness of “Donald Duck, Vaudeville and Variety” that leaves little room for tonal ambiguity as Davies wades through all of the different things that make the British truly British.

‘Village Green’
Growing up, north London was Davies’ version of the countryside. While ‘Village Green’ may seem like the musician was attempting to revisit his past, his glorification of Victorian values appears to be more critical than first meets the eye. For starters, the lyrics paint a vivid picture of this hypothetical village green as a way of describing what the “old world” physically looked like.

Although he says he misses it and suggests he feels a longing that refuses to subside, the song bridges the gap between then and now, describing the drastic ways that Britain has changed since the beginning of the Second World War. Things weren’t better before, just different, and they were still changing at a pace that even our singer couldn’t keep up with.

‘Waterloo Sunset’
It doesn’t really matter whether Davies was singing about London or Liverpool; ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is fundamentally romantic towards British culture as the lyrics ponder a better future. Initially a reference to The Beatles and ‘Penny Lane’, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ became an ode to the dreamers who envision themselves one day enjoying a whole new world.

‘Waterloo Sunset’ achieves its optimistic outlook in two ways, the first being its endearing arrangements. The song somehow sounds like walking along the Thames in spring as you think over your hopes and aspirations. Secondly, the lyrics add an extra layer to the positivity as Davies sings about the sunset up ahead, comparing it to paradise. It’s a reminder that, although for the most part, England isn’t all that great, real beauty can be found anywhere.

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