by Dave Gebroe
“Lola Vs. Powerman And The Money-Go-Round, Part One“ was t ‘ most successful record on both sides of the Atlantic since the mid-60s. It single-handedly elevated them to arena band status in the U.S. Its title track became their legacy, an FM standard that refuses to die. Ask any classic rock fan what record springs to mind when you say “The Kinks,” and 99 times out of 100 they’re going to say “Lola.”
But pull back the curtain and look a little closer. “Lola” planted the seeds for a once-great band’s creative demise, as tremendously gifted songwriter began spinning a solipsistic cocoon that eventually led to him simply floating out to sea. Starting in 1970, Ray’s choices seemingly began to be made solely on whether or not he wanted to convey the impression of giving a shit about being appreciated. During the first half of the decade, he apparently couldn’t have cared less (much to new label RCA’s chagrin). After “Lola,” Ray escaped into himself, finding comfort inside concept albums whose last priority was musical excellence. They were mainly dopey nostalgic forays that made it clear that Ray Davies was now a man who felt extreme discomfort in his own skin. Precious little of the output from this period (1972-1975) holds up as listenable and I’d only loosely define much of it as music. Then, after 1975, Ray flip-flopped and spent the remainder of the decade pumping out generic stadium rock in a listless concession to the idea of “giving the people what they want.”
Ray’s utterly conflicted, thoroughly bizarre knee-jerk reaction against commercial acceptance can be traced back to 1965, when the Kinks were banned from re-entering the U.S. by the American government. For four years, one of the greatest, most creative bands on the planet all but disappeared from America, focusing instead on following their muse and creating distinctly British masterpieces that had the unfortunate effect of thrusting them headlong into a sales slump. By 1969, their star had fallen precipitously. They needed a hit to bring them back in a big way.
Ray later talked about wanting to write a song that would “sell in the first five seconds.” Enter “Lola,” their new single. Based on a real-life experience of Ray’s back in 1965, “Lola” was an instant smash, reaching #1 in the New Musical Express in the U.K. , and #9 in the U.S. This wasn’t just a shot in the arm for the Kinks — it was necessary for their continued existence as a band. Their last album, 1969′s brilliant “Arthur,” had topped out at #105 on the charts. This was it and Ray Davies knew it.
With the prospect of an honest-to-goodness comeback looming ahead, Ray shaped an entire concept album around the song. In a particularly strange gesture, when considered side-by-side with the years of struggle they’d just endured, the LP created around the 45 flat-out rejected and negated the success that seemed within their grasp as a result of that very song! This insistence on biting the hand that fed them at this crucial juncture in their career is, arguably, the fulcrum point between the undimmed brilliance of the Kinks up to that point and the extreme musical self-indulgence of their output from 1970 forward.
The basic concept: a struggling band makes a go of it, releases a single that tops the charts, achieves huge success, and has to contend with the faceless, soul-crushing behemoth that is the music industry. The funny thing is that at its root the true concept of “Lola” is something of the inverse of that — a well-established act releases a huge hit and shoots themselves in the foot in a misguided attempt to prove their integrity.
I wouldn’t say the record’s a total disaster; “Lola” truly is the great single it was created to be, and “Get Back In Line” and “A Long Way From Home” are two of Ray’s most poignant, affecting ballads. “This Time Tomorrow” isn’t bad, either, communicating with great economy the whirlwind isolation of life on the road, a topic that would be far more laboriously explored on 1972′s double-set “Everybody’s A Star.”
However, what saps “Lola” of its power and its message is the acerbity that lingers in the listener’s ear. Somehow, during this period, when Davies attempted to express himself with bitter resignation, his ability to connect emotionally was awe-inspiringly on the money (i.e., the twin-ballad attack mentioned above, “Celluloid Heroes,” “Where Are They Now?”, etc.), but when he stripped that bitterness of its resignation he had a tendency to come across as shrill and ungrateful.
Is the man allowed to whine? Has he earned the right? Sure. But, as his career path eventually revealed, once a rich, famous rock star begins bitching and moaning about his woeful existence, it becomes a chore for the listener to relate. Let’s face it, Ray had already shown signs of being a crotchety old man in the 1960s. On “Lola,” he finally got to yell at his audience — and the music world at large — to keep their collective ball off his lawn.
Although the material on “Lola” is quite varied — there’s folk, music hall, even metal — much of it is blunt, generic, and uninspired. Right off the bat, there’s “The Contenders” — a piss-poor attempt at blues rock that comes off sounding like a generic Ten Years After outtake. The second single, “Apeman,” sounds like what might happen if “Weird Al” Yankovic took a cod-Calypso stab at “Lola.” ‘ “Rats” sounds as pseudo in its intent to rock out with its cock out as “ ” felt like the real deal and the seething swipes at the music industry — “Denmark Street,” “Top Of The Pops,” and “The Moneygoround”—barely qualify as songs.
Indicators for all the various, half-hearted dead-ends the band were to barrel down thereafter were there for the seeking on “Lola”: the throwaway music hall whimsy, Ray Davies’ lyrical over-reliance on autobiography and the compulsion to populate his records with villainous character-types…even the desire to take twice the time to say half as much (as can be surmised by the title, a part two was originally intended). The essential Kink konundrum can be found in the lyrics to its closing song, “Got To Be Free”:
“Got to be free to say what I want
Make what I want and play what I want”
What a beautiful declaration of artistic independence! Unfortunately, from this definitive fork in the road of Ray’s musical concerns, we’re able, now with the benefit of hindsight, to trace the outcome of this pronouncement. He took that freedom and promptly utilized it to transform himself into an inebriated music-hall stooge. Within two short years, Ray had bottomed out in a confused mess, leading to this stunned, momentary insight of the music-hall insanity he’d come to embrace:
“If my friends could see me now, dressing up in my bow-tie,
Prancing round the room like some outrageous poove,
They would tell me that I’m just being used
They would ask me what I’m trying to prove.
They would see me in my hotel,
Watching late shows till the morning,
Writing songs for old time vaudeville revues.
All my friends would ask me what it’s all leading to.”
(from “Sitting In My Hotel,” 1972)
Unfortunately, in Ray Davies’ case, what it led to was a great band being flushed down the toilet in a sacrificial gesture to one man’s bold yet increasingly diffuse vision.