A half-century later, The Kinks’ timeless classic makes us yearn for the problematic music industry of yore
A singer once told me that we can only begin to understand what makes some music ‘timeless’ when we take the word at face value. Timeless music exists without time, they said, or better yet, outside it.
Half a century later, The Kinks’ Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One feels simultaneously timeless and very much of its time. Recorded at a notable juncture in The Kinks’ career — suffering from a toxic relationship with their label and the end of a four-year ban on touring the U.S. — Lola eschews the baked-in nostalgia of the band’s prior concept albums to present a topical, meta indictment of the music industry, channeling gripes with the business motions made things difficult for The Kinks at their most creative period into lessons on maintaining mindfulness and perspective amid the fuckery.
Contrasted with today’s endless flow of streaming ubiquity, however, Lola’s cautionary tales about surviving the music business now sound like unexpectedly nostalgic lamentations from a simpler time, when industry decisions were far more transparent than today’s deterministic algorithms in deciding who climbs the charts, and an up-and-coming group like The Kinks’ fictional alter ego, “The Contenders,” could at least still see cogs of business as they rotated like an ugly ouroboros, flattening their art into content.
Yet, despite the fact that Lola’s gorgeous 50th anniversary reissue box — replete with exclusive commentary from the band, unreleased tracks, two 7” singles, four glossy photos, a 60-page hardback book and bespoke enamel pin badge — is most assuredly a product, the fact that so much love and care went into this reissue is another reminder of why it remains timeless still.
Industry-specific songs aside, Lola explored many deeper themes that their contemporaries seldom spoke to. Tracks like “Strangers,” with its meditation on forging deeper connections through shared hardship and loss, “Lola” with its celebration of transgender love, and “This Time Tomorrow” with its words about the clarity that comes with perspective and distance — just to name a few — offer prescient glimmers of wisdom.
These are the sounds of a band using their gripes with the rat race to peel back the veil and arrive at more elemental truths. Those truths transcend Lola’s more topical references, anointing the album with a depth that stands outside of time.
There are lots of great stories floating around about the making of Lola, but by all accounts the catalyst for its creation occurred in 1966, when The Kinks were banned from touring the U.S. after an incident on the television show Hullabaloo.
“That’s where it all started to go wrong,” lead singer Ray Davies told MOJO in 2017. “They said, ‘Here we have Freddie And The Dreamers!’ and they cut away to them all looking compliant. Then they cut away to some other act looking really macho. Then they went ‘And here’s The Kinks!’ and there’s me and [Kinks drummer] Mick Avory dancing cheek-to-cheek. So we got off to a bad start there.”
The incident set off a chain of events including, but not limited to: The Kinks being blacklisted by several musicians unions in the U.S., legal battles with PR and management, and their international popularity drastically declining.
After four years and two stunning concept albums — ‘68’s pastoral opus The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and ‘69’s aborted television play Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire) — The Kinks’ ban on touring the U.S. ended in 1969. Bereft of many good relationships with those handling the business and promotional aspects of their career, and following two unsuccessful returns to tour stateside, the band began work on Lola in Spring of 1970, releasing it that November.
Speaking to journalist Tim Sommer in Rock & Roll Globe this past January, Kinks lead guitarist Dave Davies said that his contributions to “Lola” met his brother Ray’s industry gripes with empathy and mindfulness.
“I’d seen Ray go through very tormenting reflections about why the hell this was all going on, and why people were doing the things to him that they were doing, and by way of help, ‘Strangers’ just came out,” Dave said. “It was my way of helping him through this confusion, this torment he was having with the music industry. Maybe it was a suggestion of how we could work at an alternative plan.”
That whole interview is worth a read, as Dave goes long about “Strangers,” a key tack on Side A he’d long told the press was about losing a friend to addiction. Going deeper with Tim, Dave spoke of the song as having more assuredly healing properties, reframing it as a paean about tuning our personal frequencies to a higher level of perception that was written at the start of his decades-long meditation practice.
“Well, the original idea behind the song was that we have to dispense with the normal ideas about society,” said Dave, “and we have to tune into some higher connection between our souls, between us all as human beings, as family members, or just as
partners in humanity, really! We have to train our minds to look at the terrain from a higher point of view.”
VIDEO: The Kinks perform “Lola” (1970)
There’s been much made about the album’s title track and hit single, “Lola,” with some calling its depiction of the singer’s interaction with a transgender woman at a nightclub (can we stop exoticizing this by calling the meeting an ‘encounter’?) lightyears ahead of its time, and others taking issue with the characterization of its title character as glib and dated. There’s room for both of those things to be true.
While there are multiple origin stories for “Lola” floating around, Ray told the New York Times earlier this month that the single was actually inspired by someone the group met at a Paris venue called the Castille Club: “One of our crew at the time met this beautiful blonde and he took her back to the hotel,” he said. “In the morning, he saw the stubble growing on her chin. So, he got a surprise!”
“Lola” went on to be not only the band’s first Top 20 single in two years, but a watershed moment for LGBTQI+ representation in popular music, by far the biggest hit with queer themes at the time.
“Before he passed away, Lou Reed told me that ‘Lola’ was a big influence on him,” Ray continued. “It was reassuring to him when he did ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’”
The Kinks’ industry angst kept coming during the recording of “Lola” when the BBC refused to play the single so long as it referenced the brand “Coca-Cola.” Ray, who wrote the single with the intention of seeing it chart, allegedly flew 6,000 miles just to re-record that ‘Coca-Cola’ line, changing it instead to a generic, broadcast-friendly ‘cherry cola.’
Lola’s Side B begins with Ray’s “This Time Tomorrow,” a literal application of Dave’s meditations on heightened perception in “Strangers.” More than just a tune about the dregs of touring, the homesick singer looks out their airplane window and remarks on how small the world really is — telegraphing a simple, but nonetheless powerful moment when what we can visibly perceive reminds us of our unique place in the world.
But it’s the next track on Lola, “A Long Way From Home,” that may be the true thematic mirror to “Strangers.” On “Home,” those feelings of possibility that come from realizing ‘it’s a small world’ are reduced by the vastness of distance, not amplified, and the true measure of our singer’s success is checked.
AUDIO: The Kinks at Fillmore West 11/13/70
Maybe Lola is about the cycles that govern our lives — from cycles of industry to cycles of loss, cycles of success and failure, cycles of wisdom and helplessness.
A bucolic banjo bookends the album, with the same lick that begins the opening track “The Contenders” anchoring the closing track, “Got To Be Free.” It’s a song cycle that The Kinks, and their fictionalized counterparts, have come through together — on and off “The Moneygoround” but still coming back to the sounds that made them start making music together in the first place (Ray and Dave’s dad was a banjo player.)
Ray planned a proper Part 2 to Lola, going so far as to sketch out a whole narrative that explored how the music industry can warp a person’s priorities to bring about a nightmarish personal ruin. Tracking sessions reportedly took place. But those sketches allegedly fell apart when they signed to RCA and began work on their next album, Muswell Hillbillies.
Tim Sommer shared his theory with Dave that The Kinks’ subsequent albums, ‘72’s Everybody’s in Show-Biz and ‘77’s Sleepwalker, play out as continuations on the same themes and ideas first espoused in Lola are are hence the true “Part 2” and “Part 3” that never materialized. Dave agreed.
It remains unclear if any more of Lola’s story will be told in the Lola musical Ray says he’s currently writing, but he hopes to stage it somewhere on London’s West End in the coming years. With theaters currently shuttered and album narratives lost to the streaming shuffle, it also remains unclear whether a narrative song cycle can still have the same reach that it did half a century ago.
Where would such a musical even get seen were it not streamed as part of an exclusive deal on Netflix or HBO Max? might it stand a better shot if the soundtrack’s digital release was released with a mobile-friendly visualization to accompany each track?
In Lola, the hobnobbing nepotism that pervades “Denmark Street” acts as a pipeline to the public stage and “The Top of the Pops.” Today, news that Spotify’s algorithm will boost the likelihood of discovery for artists who agree to accept less royalties offers a grim, accelerationist parallel and suggests that the past, as documented on Lola, was always prologue.
Even in 1970, The Kinks understood how the industry was set up to devalue their work and treat it as nothing but content. Spotify, and other digital platforms, have since carried that prophecy to its grotesque conclusion.
The irony of Lola’s seemingly dated industry gripes, then, is that they aren’t really dated at all. Greed and nepotism, legal woes and the chase for top tier broadcast media placement remain ever present. Licensing deals may have become more complicated amid all the 1s and 0s of digital automation, yet the cottage industry churns on.
If that’s not timeless, what is?