While there have been dozens of tedious songs and full-length works about the rock star experience in the music business, we have also been treated to a few works that provide genuine insight to the broader human condition. Some have mirrored the experience that many law school graduates have encountered in their careers as attorneys: you start out with high ideals/artistic aspirations and find out you’ve wound up inside a system as filthy as a crumbling sewer. Others have taken another route, ascribing more mundane motives to their heroes (Ziggy Stardust, for example) and focusing on the self-destructive nature of self-absorption. For me, the one recording that best describes the experience of the typical naïve lower middle class rock-and-roll wannabe as he encounters the exploitative reality of the music business is The Kinks’ gem, Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One.
I read many reviews about Lola (we’ll just call it that to keep things tidy) and the reviews remain mixed at best, largely because most reviewers interpret Lola as a Ray Davies bitch session. I find that response rather curious. When I listen to Lola, I don’t hear Ray and Dave Davies playing themselves: I hear them as actors playing roles in a cohesive story about a young man with talent and not a whole lot of connections . . . the everyman of the 1960’s who saw Elvis or The Beatles on TV and felt both the meaning and the magic of the music.
The main character is introduced in both “Introduction” and “The Contender,” where he clearly identifies himself as a member of the lower middle class with visions of freedom in the world outside: “I don’t want to be a deserter of highways, a sweeper of sidewalks—I gotta do it my way.” He doesn’t have the smarts or the resources to be a mathematician, a politician or a decision-maker . . . his only shot is the music that expresses his emotions and may fulfill his ambitions. This is a guy who fully understands both sides of The Beatles: the lower-to-middle-class Liverpudlians who wanted to get to the “toppermost of the poppermost” and sung about their greed in delightful fury on “Money”; and the talented blokes who wrote beautiful, meaningful songs that moved millions. I’ve known many a musician in my short life, and I’ve met people who are at various places on the spectrum: some want the money, some want the sex, and some want to make beautiful music.
The problem is that all of them want to be heard—and to get yourself heard in the 1960’s, you only had one narrow path available to you: the music establishment.
Our hero seems to be a seeker of beauty, so he writes what is of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard, Dave Davies’ “Strangers.” The song is a musical and lyrical masterpiece, with its simple chord structure and arrangement, punctuated by Mick Avory’s almost funereal drums, serving to strengthen the emotional impact of the words:
So you’ve been where I’ve just come
From the land that brings losers on
So we will share this road we walk
And mind our mouths and beware our talk
‘Till peace we find tell you what I’ll do
All the things I own I will share with you
If I feel tomorrow like I feel today
We’ll take what we want and give the rest away
Strangers on this road we are on
We are not two we are one
Having written this thing of beauty, he naturally wants the whole world to share the experience—but to accomplish this laudable goal, he has to shift from the sublime to the tawdry and follow his nose to a publisher on “Denmark Street” who might be willing to take a flyer on the kid:
You’ve got a tune it’s in your head you want to get it placed
So you take it down to a music man just to see what he will say
He says ‘I hate the tune, I hate the words but I’ll tell you what I’ll do
I’ll sign you up and take it round the street and see if it makes the grade
And you might even hear it played on the rock ‘n’ roll hit parade!’
Our hero leaves Denmark Street almost completely discouraged by the experience and appalled by both the commercialization of music and the rude dismissal of his creation. This leads us to “Get Back in the Line,” where we find our hero dismissing his dream as silly and unrealistic—while at the same time dreading the humiliating reality of the meaningless quest for meaningless work in the union hall:
Now I think of what my mama told me
She always said that it would never ever work out
But all I want to do is make some money
And bring you home some wine
But I don’t want you ever to see me
Standing in that line
‘Cause that union man
Got such a hold over me
He’s the man who decides
If I live or I die, if I starve or I eat
Then he walks up to me
And the sun begins to shine
Then he walks right past and I know
That I’ve got to get back in the line
Desperate to avoid a life of quiet desperation, he goes back to guitar or piano and creates the antithesis of “Strangers,” a catchy song with a strong hook loaded with sexual innuendo and more than a hint of gender identity issues. “Lola” is as perfect a hit single as one could imagine, and a major departure from the blatantly non-commercial songs that Ray Davies had been writing during this period. Some have observed—and I agree—that Ray Davies could have written hit after hit had he wanted to. After all, he knew all the formulas and certainly knew that sex always sells; he just chose to do something different and outside of the mainstream. Here he reconnects with that skill to place the perfect song to complement his narrative.
And how could there be any doubt that “Lola” would get to the “Top of the Pops?” That song is a hoot, as Ray takes us through the steady climb up the charts, verse by verse, blow by blow. Along the way, Ray provides us with satirical commentary about the inflated importance of rock stars and the transformation of normal person into music god:
Now my record’s number 11 on the BBC
But number seven on the N.M.E.
Now the Melody Maker want to interview me
And ask my view on politics and theories on religion
Now my record’s up to number 3
And a woman recognized me and started to scream
This all seems like a crazy dream
I’ve been invited to a dinner with a prominent queen
And now I’ve got friends that I never knew I had before
It’s strange how people want you when you record’s high
‘Cos when it drops down they just pass you by
Now my agent called me on the telephone
He said, “Son, your record’s just got to number 1.”
Any joy our hero might feel about his artistic success is dampened by his agent’s laser-like focus on commercial success:
And you know what this means?
This means you can earn some real money
Yeah, right. “The Moneygoround” quickly dispels that notion, as various shadowy facilitators of chart-topping success step in to get their piece of the action. The continuing naiveté of our hero, expressed in the line, “I thought they were my friends” tells us that the guy who wrote “Strangers” is still very much alive.
Success sends our hero on tour in “This Time Tomorrow,” describing the dull and disconnecting experience of modern flight in one of the loveliest songs The Kinks ever recorded. The melody is so strong it stays in your head for days, and the arrangement combines both subtlety and strength. The instrumental version on the Deluxe Edition is superb, highlighting the talents of John Dalton on bass and the amazing John Gosling on piano, a man who clearly had “the touch.”
All change involves loss, and “A Long Way from Home” gives our hero to self-reflect on all he has lost in his pursuit and achievement of success. The song could be a message given by a friend, but is more powerful—and consistent with the narrative—to imagine the hero looking into the mirror:
You’ve come a long way from the runny-nosed and scruffy kid I knew
You had such good ways . . .
You’ve come a long way, you’re self-assured and dressed in
Funny clothes, but you don’t know me.
I hope you find what you are looking for with your car and handmade overcoats
But your wealth will never make you stronger ‘cos you’re still a
Long way from home
His quiet reverie is interrupted by the harsh guitars of “Rats,” a journey through the metropolis through the perspective of one who’s absolutely fucking had it with the teeming masses who push and shove their way through life. This sets the stage for a compensating fantasy in the song “Apeman,” where he fantasizes about a life with his woman where “I’ll keep you warm and you’ll keep me sane/And we’ll sit in the trees and eat bananas all day.” Ray’s vocal is spot-on, as he adjusts his tone back-and-forth between faux-Caribbean and naïve idealist.
Refreshed by both the fantasy of escape and the realization that the desire to “bring you home some wine” is all that really matters, our hero is now willing to face reality square in the eye in “Powerman.” Matured by disappointment and free of illusion, he realizes the fix will always be in, but his love more than compensates for his financial losses:
Well, I’m not rich and I’m not free
But I’ve got my girl and she got me
He’s got my money and my publishing rights
But I’ve got my girl and I’m alright
The album ends with “Got to Be Free,” an upbeat, breezy number based on the melody of “Introduction.” Our hero has now come full-circle. He realizes that the classic lower middle class belief that riches can buy freedom is a seriously flawed idea. He is now philosophically and emotionally committed to an alternative, though he has no coherent idea how to realize his commitment or what exactly his alternative might be. The notion of freedom is something that people have struggled to define for centuries, but I think what Ray Davies is getting at here is closer to one of Camus’ definitions of freedom: the freedom to think and act how one chooses . . . though unlike Camus, Ray Davies would always place such freedom in the context of more traditional values.
Beyond the strong narrative, Lola features three of The Kinks’ most beautiful songs, two of their greatest hits and some of Ray Davies’ most effective satire. Unlike their later Arista recordings, Lola is not over-produced, so the playful energy that defines much of their best work still shines through. For all these reasons, Lola remains my favorite recording in their catalogue, a brilliant work of a band at the top of their game.