The Whimsical Conservatism of The Kinks

Conservatives are quick to use rock musicians, with their grandiose egos and questionable moral fortitude, as a whipping boy for what is wrong with liberal society at large. Pop acts have been blamed for corrupting the nation’s youth, brought to Congress to defend their violent lyrics, and protested for not supporting the country’s leaders in a time of war. Don’t even get me started on what the average conservative thinks of “urban music.”

What conservatives often fail to appreciate is the intrinsically conventional content present throughout popular music. While these conservative artistic tendencies may not manifest as propaganda for the Republican Party, there clearly exists a large pool of traditionalist content that those on the right might nod approvingly to.

Christopher Sandford, author of David Bowie: Loving the Alien, recounts a moment in the Bowie’s life that he feels exemplify the artist’s conservative core. He writes:

I’ll end with my favorite David Bowie story, one that illustrates the deep vein of moral conservatism that lay just beneath the kooky exterior. On Christmas Eve 1986, a friend of mine named Nick Miles happened to attend a carol service at the Anglican church on the private island of Mustique in the Grenadines. “There were 40 or 50 people there, nearly half the island,” he told me. “At the very last minute, as the door was closing, Bowie and Mick Jagger walked in together. They were both wearing orthodox jackets and ties and they stood there side by side, singing away on all the hymns, and generally behaving like a couple of middle-aged schoolteachers. Other than the fact that it happened to be 90 degrees outside, we could have been in some draughty parish church in England.”

An hour later, Bowie and Jagger both stood patiently in the queue that filed past the vicar who had conducted the service, awaiting their turn to say goodbye. My friend happened to be next to them in line and heard the exchange that followed. Jagger was “joking about, doing funny accents, as if deflecting his sudden embarrassment at being seen in church.”

Bowie, for his part, nodded respectfully to the vicar, shook his hand, and said: “Whenever I hear the nativity story, tears of joy fill my eyes.” I’m assured that he sounded completely sincere.”

It’s a fine piece and I recommend reading it in full. However, these examples from Sandford falls into the same trap conservative music critics often do: he focuses on the personal characteristics of the artist at the expense of their work. The anecdote recounted above may find approval with old traditionalists, but its probable that similar examples can be found of Ozzy Osborne and Ice Cube showing reverence for elders and holding faith and family in reverence.

As I noted in my reflection on David Bowie and artists of the right, for art to actual make a social impact, it must first be beautiful[1]. It has to weed its way into the minds of unsuspecting listeners, lodging seeds of persuasion in their consciousness. Once the artist has hooked the audience through the pleasure they gain from listening to their work, the audiophile then begins to look deeper at the individual’s ideas and philosophies. The Beatles would never have been influential culturally if their music wasn’t appealing on a base level.

Having said that, there are artists who meet the initial beauty criteria while also addressing conservative themes and motifs in their work, yet who are rarely presented as popular figures of tradition. One of the most salient examples is The Kinks. Best known for a series of straight-forward but memorable singles in the mid-60s, the band went on to record some of the most conservative rock records in existence: The Village Green Preservation Society and Muswell Hillbillies. Mind you, neither of these records contains references to capitalism, reverence for military order, or the benefits of a flat-tax. The conservatism exemplified is not of the talking-point variety, but a deep-seated distrust of modernity and progress that more than a fair share of conservatives, of the right and the left, can identify with.

The Village Green Preservation Society, a concept album celebrating rural life and “lamenting the passing of old-fashioned English traditions,” was released in 1968 in the wake of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds. These records ushered in a new era of psychedelic experimentation in rock and roll and continue to be staples of the genre today. Unfortunately for The Kinks, Village Green did not sell well and only gained universal adoration decades after its release.

Ray Davis, hitting his song-writing peak, crafted an incredible set of poignant tracks yearning for an English nation that was quickly fading into history. The title track, while tongue in cheek, commemorates the ostensible caretakers of English culture and tradition active in small country towns across the state. Davis sings:

We are the Village Green Preservation Society
God save Donald Duck, Vaudeville and Variety
We are the Desperate Dan Appreciation Society
God save strawberry jam and all the different varieties
Preserving the old ways from being abused
Protecting the new ways for me and for you
What more can we do

On Do You Remember Walter? And Picture Book, the narrator reflects remorsefully on how the figures and characters of his youth have changed. The following lyrics have always struck me as pinpointing the quintessential fundamentals of aging and coming to terms with whom your parents were in before you came into their lives:

Picture yourself when you’re getting old,
Sat by the fireside a-pondering on.
Picture book, pictures of your mama, taken by your papa a long time ago.
Picture book, of people with each other, to prove they love each other a long ago.

As we are prone to do in our youth, we fail to imagine our parents as individuals existing without us. Only when we start our own families do we come to appreciate that change and grasp the sacrifices of our elders. I have always felt this song captures that sentiment perfectly.

The song Village Green probably best represents Ray Davis’ conservatism. He writes:

Out in the country,
Far from all the soot and noise of the city,
There’s a village green.
It’s been a long time
Since I last set eyes on the church with the steeple
Down by the village green.
‘Twas there I met a girl called Daisy
And kissed her by the old oak tree.
Although I loved my Daisy, I sought fame,
And so I left the village green.

In the second verse, the narrator reflects on how the quaint village town he left for a fast-paced life in the city is now a tourist attraction.

And now all the houses
Are rare antiquities.
American tourists flock to see the village green.
They snap their photographs and say “Gawd darn it,
Isn’t it a pretty scene?”

Yet, the chorus returns to the narrator’s sense of loss at having left this idealized community for an industrial metropolis.

I miss the village green,
And all the simple people.
I miss the village green,
The church, the clock, the steeple.
I miss the morning dew, fresh air and Sunday school.

At its end, Davis provides a hopeful future for the aged narrator; his town has changed, but he can return to his home and take part in its traditions.

And I will return there,
And I’ll see Daisy,
And we’ll sip tea, laugh,
And talk about the village green.
We will laugh and talk about the village green.

Three years after the Village Green was released, The Kinks put out Muswell Hillbillies, an album centered on working-class life in Britain and the slow erosion of traditional English society. The albums standout track, 20th Century Man, is the reactionary mindset movingly put to music.

This is the age of machinery,
A mechanical nightmare,
The wonderful world of technology,
Napalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare,

This is the twentieth century,
But too much aggravation
It’s the age of insanity,
What has become of the green pleasant fields of Jerusalem.

Many musicians and artists have lamented the destructive rise of technology, but Davis rightly links these scientific achievements to the increasingly bureaucratic state and the nihilism of modern life.

Ain’t got no ambition, I’m just disillusioned
I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t wanna be here.
My mama said she can’t understand me
She can’t see my motivation
Just give me some security,
I’m a paranoid schizoid product of the twentieth century.

Considering the fact that Republican politicians often find themselves at odds with musicians over the use of their work at campaign rallies and events, they may want to give a look at the following lines from 20th Century Man.

I was born in a welfare state
Ruled by bureaucracy
Controlled by civil servants
And people dressed in grey
Got no privacy, got no liberty
Cos the twentieth century people
Took it all away from me.

Yet, even though those lines may find agreement with Ted Cruz and Rush Limbaugh, those American conservatives would surely balk at what follows:

Don’t wanna get myself shot down
By some trigger happy policeman,
Gotta keep a hold on my sanity
I’m a twentieth century man but I don’t wanna die here.

By this point in the track, Davis is screaming out his words in a fit of rage against the forces beyond his control, regulating him to his life in the encompassing state. There is an understanding of the problems that face him as a man of the 20th century, but there are no solutions. All he knows is he doesn’t want to what the modern world is offering.

The conservatism present in the work of The Kinks is much truer than that of the Republican punditry. Ray Davis, while recognizing the loss of tradition in the modern world and the rise of the bureaucratic state, acknowledged what Conservative Inc. does not: the uniformed agents of the state, be they cops or bureaucrats, are part of the beast. Unfettered capitalism, consumerism, ecological destruction and state violence go hand-in-hand with the degradation of tradition and communal values that should be bedrocks of “conservatism.” To believe an ordered, religious society advocated by American conservatives can exist in tandem with the aforementioned foundations is rubbish. Conservatism, if it means anything at all, must actual conserve something and not be a serious of talking points recounting the virtues of free markets and law enforcement.

The Kinks, while producing beautiful art, have fashioned some of the most thematically conservative records ever recorded. Activists on the right, long accustomed to assuming pop-culture was the playground for the left, should embrace these works as part of the traditionalist canon. In addition, they should reexamine many of the pop records they initially discarded as cultural products of the left. Like-minded rock records exist; you just have to look past the sex, drugs and flashy clothes.

[1] In this case, I define beauty as having an initial positive, gut reaction in the mind of the viewer/listener.


Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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25 thoughts on “The Whimsical Conservatism of The Kinks

  1. The British historian Dominic Sandbrook has argued that the Kinks never really made it big in the United States, besides getting into a big fight with unionized roadies, because they were too self-consciously English compared to the Beatles and the Stones. You really needed to be aware of a lot of English things to really get what the Kinks were singing about while the Beatles and Stones had a more universal appeal.

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  2. Another very “English” songwriter that at times has expressed certain “conservative” sentiments that have landed him in hot water with leftier types, is Morrissey. Particularly around the time of Your Arsenal, which had lines like “We look to Los Angeles / For the language we use / London is dead” and “We are the last truly British people you will ever know”, which some took as having xenophobic and/or racist undertones.

    Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople) had a really great song on the appropriately-titled Rant in 2001, which expressed certain similar sentiments:

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  3. Speaking of dancing…

    They put a parking lot on a piece of land
    When the supermarket used to stand.
    Before that they put up a bowling alley
    On the site that used to be the local palais.
    That’s where the big bands used to come and play.
    My sister went there on a Saturday.

    Now I’m grown up and playing in a band,
    And there’s a car park where the palais used to stand.
    My sister’s married and she lives on an estate.
    Her daughters go out, now it’s her turn to wait.
    She knows they get away with things she never could,
    But if I asked her I wonder if she would,

    Come dancing,
    Come on sister, have yourself a ball.
    Don’t be afraid to come dancing,
    It’s only natural.

    Come dancing,
    Just like the palais on a Saturday.
    And all her friends will come dancing
    Where the big bands used to play.

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      • I haven’t heard it in years (“Give The People What They Want” is the only Kinks album I own), but I had it running through my head a while back and really listened to the lyrics for the first time. The nostalgia just hit me like a brick. Since it was a fairly fresh experience, it’s the first thing that came to mind when I saw this topic, and was as surprised as you that it wasn’t there.

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        • I have Village Green and Word of Mouth.
          That last one has this, which coincides with the thrust of this post:

          Told you I always screw that up.

          All the stories have been told of kings and days of old
          But there’s no England now
          All the wars that were won and lost somehow don’t seem to matter
          Very much anymore
          All the lies we were told, all the lives of the people running ’round
          Their castles have burned
          Now I see change, but inside we’re the same
          As we ever were

          Living on a thin line
          Tell me now, what are we supposed to do?
          Living this way, each day is a dream.
          What am I, what are we supposed to do?

          Now another century nearly gone
          What are we gonna leave for the young?
          What we couldn’t do, what we wouldn’t do
          It’s a crime, but does it matter?
          Does it matter much, does it matter much to you?
          Does it ever really matter?
          Yes, it really, really matters!

          There’s more to it than that, but I need to go screw off some other way for awhile now.

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  4. How can you mention the conservatism of the Kinks without mentioning Come Dancing and their use of English Music Hall traditions? Also is it possible to be Conservative and sing about sexual relations with transexuals? ;)

    Lee is right about the very self-conscious English nature of the Kinks. I don’t know if they are completely conservative though. A Well-Respected Man pretty well covers the class hypocrisies of conservative Middle-Class England. Yet they were also capable of poking great fun at the over-the-top nature of Swinging London with A Dedicated Follower of Fashion.

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  5. I think in the end though that a lot of American conservatives are very puritanical. So anything conservative gets washed away unless it is as squeaky clean and pure as the Osbornes and as dull.

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  6. I don’t know… I think trying to pigeonhole a band’s ideology (Ted Nugent’s a crazy libertarian?) says more about the commenter’s leanings than the artist. If the Davies brothers were so right minded, please explain this critical little piece…

    ‘Cause he gets up in the morning,
    And he goes to work at nine,
    And he comes back home at five-thirty,
    Gets the same train every time.
    ‘Cause his world is built ’round punctuality,
    It never fails.

    And he’s oh, so good,
    And he’s oh, so fine,
    And he’s oh, so healthy,
    In his body and his mind.
    He’s a well respected man about town,
    Doing the best things so conservatively.

    And his mother goes to meetings,
    While his father pulls the maid,
    And she stirs the tea with councilors,
    While discussing foreign trade,
    And she passes looks, as well as bills
    At every suave young man

    ‘Cause he’s oh, so good,
    And he’s oh, so fine,
    And he’s oh, so healthy,
    In his body and his mind.
    He’s a well respected man about town,
    Doing the best things so conservatively.

    And he likes his own backyard,
    And he likes his fags the best,
    ‘Cause he’s better than the rest,
    And his own sweat smells the best,
    And he hopes to grab his father’s loot,
    When Pater passes on.

    ‘Cause he’s oh, so good,
    And he’s oh, so fine,
    And he’s oh, so healthy,
    In his body and his mind.
    He’s a well respected man about town,
    Doing the best things so conservatively.

    And he plays at stocks and shares,
    And he goes to the Regatta,
    And he adores the girl next door,
    ‘Cause he’s dying to get at her,
    But his mother knows the best about
    The matrimonial stakes.

    ‘Cause he’s oh, so good,
    And he’s oh, so fine,
    And he’s oh, so healthy,
    In his body and his mind.
    He’s a well respected man about town,
    Doing the best things so conservatively.

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    • Exactly!! To writer of this piece…The Kinks were always very tongue-in-cheek. How can you not get that ? My native language isn’t even English and I get their songs. Don’t confuse nostalgia with conservatism. It’s not because you don’t like the progress, that your mindset isn’t progressive…

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