Fifty Years On (Part One): Two Rock Albums to Remember from 1968
by Michael Montgomery
In a previous post, I wrote about two definitively American musicians, Bob Dylan and Sammy Miller. In keeping with that post’s comparison of American and British music, I now turn to two definitively British musical groups, the Beatles and the Kinks. Both released landmark albums this month 50 years ago (and on the same day, no less). By celebrating the anniversary of those albums, I hope to show in this post that they and their British creators still have much to teach us.
The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, released November 22, 1968
Of all British Invasion bands, the Kinks were the most overtly British. Nowhere is this more evident than on The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, where the group evokes the peculiarities of English country life in words and, more impressively and inexplicably, in sound. Supported by an underlying musical whimsy, lead lyricist Ray Davies’ songs are at once a celebration of English culture and a plea to save it from increasing homogenization.
Regrettably, the album seems to have found a lasting audience only among music critics and Kinks aficionados. Overshadowed, perhaps, by its very strength—a quirky blend of local character and universal sentiment that can make the album feel stylistically like an orphan, especially for non-Britons—Village Green has nevertheless been vindicated by the passage of time. In a 21st century where digital estrangement from tradition is a trap far too easy to fall into, the album’s bittersweet reconciliation to change is poignant and reaffirming. The “village green” may vanish from the village, but it doesn’t have to vanish from our memory, and it never has to vanish from our music.
The Beatles (White Album), released November 22, 1968
As the Beatles’ only double album, the White Album is an enduring testament to their creativity. Far from suffering under the personal strain the band was then under—Ringo famously walked out of the recording sessions—their music seems to flourish. Not all of the White Album’s 30 songs are bona fide classics; but even where the Beatles misstep, they provide, as always, enough ambition and idiosyncratic panache to balance the more bizarre numbers.
Fifty years after its release, the White Album continues to demonstrate the benefit of not taking ourselves and others too seriously or one-dimensionally. For every moment of deep moral introspection on one topic, the Beatles’ principal songwriters (I include George in this category) provide two moments of glib playfulness on another; for every “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” there is an “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” for every “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” a “Rocky Raccoon.” This sense of balance, even on a record as disjointed as the White Album, is one of the band’s defining characteristics. The unity and creativity they derive from their combined differences—Ringo’s happy-go-lucky persona, Paul’s melodic ebullience, John’s knife-edged insecurity, George’s brooding reflection—are things we should all strive to emulate. Nowhere is this unity from diversity more noticeable than on the White Album; never has it been as politically relevant as in the fractious times we live in at present.
Michael is a third-year student at UC Davis. He is majoring in Marine and Coastal Science, with planned minors in History and Professional Writing, and is considering a career in science writing. This is his second year on the Mondavi Center’s Arts and Lectures Committee.