Used as a B side to various single releases of Starstruck, Picture Book had become one of the most popular album tracks The Kinks have ever recorded. Now adopted for films and TV commercials, the song fits both inside and out of the Village Green concept. When it was plucked from the album to be the theme for a 2004 Hewlett Packard advert, promoting the joys of digital photography and the printing of treasured moments, the irony was not lost on the loyalist of Kinks fans.
On the album, there are two songs which focus on the complex habit of taking pictures and storing them in albums. On the album's closer, People Take Pictures of Each Other, Ray points out the strange habit of looking back on key moments, but also highlights what he sees as the sheer lunacy of taking pictures just for the sake of it, as if to merely prove that one really exists. Had Hewlett Packard opted for that song instead of Picture Book, then the commercial would have taken on a whole new level of satire. Ray's own word on the company's decision to use Picture Book was rather relaxed, and may surprise those who see him as a stubborn old curmudgeon. “It was perfect for that commercial,” he told Performing Songwriter.
As it stands, Picture Book is more of a casual, though not exactly ecstatic celebration of the family photo album. On the surface, a collection of old snap shots is a wonderful thing to have, even if it does have its minor negatives. For one, there's the idea of bringing home a new girlfriend and your mother getting out the old photos to embarrass you. There is also the sad possibility of an older person getting out a picture from "along time ago" and seeing that they are the only person in the crowd who is still alive. In Ray's scenario, there's even a picture from when they were three; worse still, it's one of them in their birthday suit. There are holiday snaps too, outside bed and breakfast in Sunny Southend, a detail which makes the song very personal and precise.
In the 40s and 50s, evidently the era Ray will be singing about on Picture Book, cameras were rarer among the working classes, who couldn't really afford expensive cameras. But there was a chance to take a few snaps here and there for the treasured album, and in Ray's case it's the very vivid character of "Fat Old Uncle Charlie" who is boozing with mum, dad and their friends. The only hint of sadness is when Ray says the pictures are of babyhood, those happy days so long ago.
Musically, Picture Book is one of the punchiest songs the band had done in a while. While Avory may have rolled his eyes at some of the things Ray was "making" him do, and longed for that old fashioned rock and roll ("We're supposed to be a rock band," Avory once complained according to Ray), he must have been pleased to take on the more direct, rocking beat of Picture Book. Featuring one of the group's finest riffs, it's played meatily on acoustics, with Quaife's pumping bass aping the six string dual attack. Avory adopts a basic chunky rhythm, and together the band are tight and compact. The recording is tidy, neat, and actually sounds as if it was recorded in a cupboard, and you imagine the group so intimately squashed together that their strings are practically rubbing off each other.
“I wanted a very low-fi, underachieved record with the vocals mixed down, not great, brilliant sounds,” Davies said of the album before explaining the sound he got for Picture Book itself. “Sometimes I think about songs as tracks: ‘I’m going to write a track.' The whole magic of that track is that 12-string guitar and the snare drum with the snare off. It’s the way Phil Spector used to work—he had his sound and wrote songs to fit that sound. I’d like to go back and do more of that.”
So Ray, once again, longs to "go back", explore something from yesteryear; but in this case it's an old style of music which just happens to be his own. It was a piece he wrote at the age of 24, and today, with Ray an older man, the song is another memorable snapshot in his own personal picture book. Music Hall was once the form which Ray paid tribute to, elsewhere on tracks like Mr Pleasant (complete with theatrical finger wagging judging by surviving TV performances) and on Village Green with the track All of My Friends Were There. Kinky music is now as treasured as a part of British cultural history, along with Music Hall, Vaudeville and the golden age of live entertainment. The Kinks have become one of the beloved things Davies wished to preserve all those years ago.
You can get the book here: