So we leave the 1960’s behind and take our first tentative steps into the new decade by looking at… one of the most defining bands of the Sixties. But there’s no way this series couldn’t discuss “Lola”, which peaked at Number 2 in the UK charts in the summer of 1970. And the reason it couldn’t possibly be passed by is because it is essentially perfect. Of all the singles by The Kinks – and some of them are beyond outstanding – “Lola” is the perfect summary of everything the band is. Post-“Lola” and its accompanying album, the catchily-titled Lola vs Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part 1, the Kinks would have one more bona fide hit – the aged-like-milk “Apeman” – then never trouble the top ten again on either side of the Atlantic.
They would still produce some interesting material – Muswell Hillbillies remains perennially underrated – but as a top-tier commercial force and a reliable staple of the singles charts their days were done. The Kinks are, after all, one of the Great British Singles Bands. Which is to say, although they were capable of producing great albums, what they are primarily known for is a run of absolutely unimpeachable hit singles. There’s no Sgt Pepper or Tommy in The Kinks’s back catalogue but have a look at their Greatest Hits or Best Of’s and it’s just a run through some of the best singles of the Sixties (well, and this, scraping in midway through 1970). The Rolling Stones more or less fell into this category as well up until… oh let’s say Beggars Banquet, even although it’s probably Let It Bleed. It’s not unique to the 60’s – the likes of The Jam and Madness in the 80’s equally have unbroken, perfect runs of singles. Nobody’s rushing out to buy Keep Moving by Madness but “Michael Caine” and “One Better Day” are simply unimpeachable. It is this legacy that The Kinks belong to, even as “Lola” draws that legacy to a close.
But what a closing. Just those opening guitar chords, detuned by a single semitone and played on two different, overlapping guitars, already tells the listener they’re in for something special. It’s all deceptively simple, but simple is no barrier to quality. Ray Davis’s voice is light, almost diffident, as he sings the opening two lines “I met her in a club down in old Soho / where we drink champagne and it takes just like coca-cola” (or cherry cola, for the BBC-approved version that avoids the then-banned product placement). And that tone is held all the way through the song, which, given the subject matter, is incredibly important.
Davis is kind in the lyric, and in 1970 kindness when writing a song about a transsexual was not exactly a given – it’s not exactly a given now. It contrasts with Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side” and its similar subject matter released in 1972, which is basically “look at this parade of freaks and geeks”. Not that it isn’t a great song – it absolutely is – but it comes across as way less interested in its subjects. They’re simply presented as-is, a roll-call of the weird to be gawped at. That’s not the case with this song. There’s a generosity in “Lola” wholly lacking in “Walk On The Wild Side”, and even the title is a giveaway – the freaks and geeks of the Reed song are the “wild side” and thus apart from normality, whereas normal is precisely what Lola is shown to be.
Basically “Lola” is just incredibly sweet – there’s no apology, no justification, no explanation, the protagonist just happens to fall for someone outside the bounds of the usual boy-meets-girl paradigm. And most importantly of all, there’s no macho posturing or defensiveness. It’s worth pointing out that in the UK homosexuality had only been legalised the year before, in 1969, so singing openly about a transsexual relationship wasn’t exactly a guaranteed unit-shifter. But because “Lola” does everything The Kinks do so well they get away with it. This is a million miles away from the flowers-and-peace clichés of the 60’s but it’s a perfect expression of the inclusiveness that those clichés aspired to. The instrumentation is clean and straightforward but incredibly catchy. There’s great little moments of singalong glory. It’s funny in a way that never makes the subject of the song an object of the humour, only the clueless protagonist – Lola is never reduced to being a punchline or a joke. There’s those gorgeous harmonies at “that’s the way that I want her to stay…” The sly, broad grin on, “she said, “little boy I’m gonna make you a man!”” The sheer enthusiasm and joy that’s infused all throughout the song. Much of what The Kinks embrace is backwards-looking – “Victoria”, say, or the late-evening longing of the also-perfect “Waterloo Sunset” – and while it’s not always exactly nostalgia it’s certainly a sensibility firmly rooted in other times. “Lola” showed just how affecting and effective the band could be when looking in the other direction. After years of The Village Green Preservation Society and musings on the Decline And Fall Of The British Empire “Lola” pops up and is happy to demonstrate that there was still plenty left to explore. As an encapsulation of everything the band did you couldn’t really ask for more.
Though that exploration would be restricted to an increasingly small band of Kinks fans. Their fall from the heights of the charts isn’t exactly difficult to explain – the usual personnel problems and albums that became increasingly quirky, theatrical and self-indulgent meant that more general fans were left alienated. Music also simply moved on and The Kinks didn’t particularly move with them – there’s no Kinks glam or punk album out there. That’s not a criticism, but it does help explain why their time passes.
Their knack, too, for knocking out instantly catchy riffs and lyrical turns of phrase also rather falls away in the 70’s as well, but their fandom – especially in America – was enough to keep them together as a going concern until the 90’s, which isn’t bad at all. How many people still choose to listen to 1983’s State Of Confusion – to take one random example – is another matter of course yet the sheer determination to keep putting out material stopped them becoming just a novelty act or something to see on the nostalgia circuit. But throughout their 60’s career The Kinks remained one of the finest exponents of well-crafted pop songs, and “Lola” is the last example of that making its mark on the singles charts. If one wanted to argue that “Waterloo Sunset” is a better song than “Lola” then, well, there is absolutely a case for that. Or the punky, defiant “All Day And All Of The Night”. Or the lazy, hazy indulgence of “Sunny Afternoon”. The sarcasm of “Dedicated Follower Of Fashion” or the genuinely beautiful ode that is “Days”. One could make a case for all of them, and that alone shows just what a strong run of songs The Kinks produced when they were at the height of their powers. But here, at the very beginning of the 70’s? Well. I always fell for “Lola”. L-O-L-A. Lola.
What Else Was Going On In 1970?
Well, there’s a little cluster of Beatles news as we sweep up the detritus of the 1960’s, specifically the actual break-up of the band, McCartney releasing McCartney, Lennon releasing John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and Harrison releasing arguably the best Beatles solo album of them all, the peerless All Things Must Pass. Let It Be – movie and album – also make their underwhelming, over-produced presence felt. The Who release one of the finest live albums of all time, Live At Leeds, the Stones release the exceptionally-named live album Get Yer Ya-ya’s Out!, and Syd Barrett releases his first post-Pink Floyd solo album. Janice Joplin and Jimi Henrdrix die from drugs overdoses, both aged 27. Miles Davis gives us his confusing landmark Bitches Brew, and Stevie Wonder gives us the fabulous Signed, Sealed, Delivered. God help us all but Jesus Christ Superstar is released, beginning Andrew Lloyd Webber’s depressingly unstoppable ascendency, while James Brown wishes us to know that he is, in fact, a Sex Machine. I wonder if that comes with a service contract? Dylan releases the intentional career suicide-note that is Self Portrait, and T.Rex have contracted their name and album titles by giving us T.Rex. Glam is coming soon… Globally Elvis again has the biggest hit of the year with the worthless “The Wonder Of You” – the second-biggest is “In The Summertime” (though it’s the biggest-selling UK single). Ready for some cock rock? Aerosmith are formed in 1970 – ah well – and at the other end of the preposterous-rock-band spectrum so are Queen. Derek And the Dominoes release ubiquitous guitar-show-off staple “Layla”, and the doors close on, um, The Doors, as they play their last ever gig with Jim Morrison.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
The very first Number 2 of the new decade in the U.S. was “Leaving On A Jet Plane” by Peter, Paul and Mary but as mentioned last time out – no. In the UK it was “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” by Kenny Rogers. Is an explanation necessary? Free’s standard “Alright Now” peaked at Number 2 in the UK and though it’s indicative of a style shift from the 60’s to the 70’s – and an OK song – there’s limited mileage there. Today’s curio – a band called Hotlegs peaked at Number 2 with “Neanderthal Man”. Never heard of them? You might have done – they’re about to become 10cc. Across the pond Venus spent an unfeasibly long time at Number 2 with “The Shocking Blue”. Does anyone really want to talk about Bread? Apparently they want to “Make It With You”, but we shall never find out why…
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. The Kinks – “Lola”
3. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
4. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
5. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
6. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
7. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
8. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
9. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
10. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
11. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”