Classic Music Review: Lola Versus Powerman And The Moneygoround, Part One by The Kinks

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.

32 responses

  1. Excellent, insightful review of one of my all-time favorite albums. Thank you.

    While I’m a little more partial to Village Green and Muswell Hillbillies–I love the fact that, like Dylan (John Wesley Harding), the Kinks went provincial in the midst of the psychedelic revolution–I’ve worn the grooves out of more than one copy of Lola. This Time Tomorrow, Strangers, Get Back in Line, A Long Way From Home, APEMAN…truly great tunes.

    I’m reading all your reviews. I don’t always agree with them, but I’m excited enough each time to check out the music referenced. You write very well.

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    1. Thanks, Michael! I can understand your partiality to Village Green, and the songs on Muswell Hillbillies are some of their best. No kidding, true story: once my car CD player malfunctioned and I couldn’t get the CD out of the slot. Since it was a low-priority spend, I waited a couple of months, so all I had to listen to was the Lola album. I was perfectly content and it’s now my “stranded on a desert island” choice.
      No, you won’t always agree with me (very soon you’ll see how I feel about Bob Dylan), but diversity of opinion is what makes life interesting!

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      1. Really? Dumping on Bob, in any categorical sense, would be tough to defend. I don’t love everything Dylan’s done; far from it. I’m a huge fan, but there are lots of Bob’s tunes I can’t take. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of them that have always knocked me out. All of Highway 61 for example.

        In fact Bob, for my money, is one of only four artists/groups with 100 truly great songs to his/their credit, the others being The Beatles, The Stones, and The Kinks.

        Your tastes are eclectic. Have you gotten into Little Feat (the Lowell George version)? I’d be interested to read your review of say the Dixie Chicken album. If you’re not familiar with Little Feat, be good to yourself and crank up Fat Man in the Bathtub or Dixie Chicken or Two Trains…

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        1. I only “dump” on artists possessed by insufferable self-iimportance (see my review of the last School of Seven Bells). Dylan doesn’t fit into that category. Stay tuned for the 10/22 post. It’s been a while since I’ve heard anything by Little Feat so I’ll have to re-investigate. I have something like 15 classic reviews scheduled so it may be a while!

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          1. It’s OK to save the best for last.

            Along with Dixie Chicken I might suggest you also check out Sailin’ Shoes.

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  2. […] over. The writing simply isn’t as strong as it is on Village Green Preservation Society, Lola vs. The Powerman and the Money-Go-Round, or even Muswell Hillbillies for that matter (Muswell Hillbillies has other issues that I’ll […]

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  3. I do think this is the pivotal album, but Kinks study is an elaborate, complicated field. That being said, I think the record is pretty nakedly autobiographical, with art being used to transfigure mundane life events into more universal expression. Visually this is signified by the cover images (the segment band portraits and Vitruvian man) and musically in the subject matter and lyrics. On The Waterfront has always been a touchstone work for Ray and its incorporation into the titles and themes of The Contender and Get Back In Line is moving and profound. Strangers has always seemed to me the story of how a Sufi-spiritual younger brother tries to make sense of and peace with his weird professional and family life. I think This Time Tomorrow is quite a bit richer and profoundly sadder (and at the same time more uplifiting) than what you describe. It reminds me of the aloneness one feels when constantly traveling on business, but at the same time the traveler is a loner and there’s no better place to be alone with your thoughts than in airplane flight. For what it’s worth, I’ve always considered the Percy soundtrack to be Lola Pt. 2, but I may be out on a limb there. I think seeing the group when they were touring with this record is my personal performance high point with them, which is saying a lot. Lovely post. By the way, I’m a lawyer and it’s usually not THAT bad. But then I don’t do government work.

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    1. Ah! How I wish I could have seen them in their prime! We children of the 80’s missed out on a wonderful era indeed. Thank you so much for your insight!

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  4. […] also glad to see that some of the visitors took the time to check out my reviews of Lola and Village Green Preservation Society so that they know that I LOVE The Kinks and agree with my […]

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  5. Michael Chaney | Reply

    One reason I appreciate these reviews is that they look at albums in a way I usually don’t, or at least didn’t at the time they were released. My natural focus has been on individual tracks, looking for the great ones, not on thematic wholes. I tend to lose patience with songs I don’t like and skip them. So I often learn something from the reviews of the ARC (aka The Thread Tracer) even about albums I’ve owned for decades. Which is the case with this Lola review. So thanks for that. As usual, I’m going to go play the album start to finish.

    One note: I’m surprised you didn’t get deeper into This Time Tomorrow, a true gem. Wistful Ray, Dave’s signature ragged harmonies, and the tease of Waterloo Sunset (and all the emotion that it evokes) in that 3-4 second guitar (or is it a banjo?) figure.

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    1. Lola was one of my first Classic Music Reviews, and as I was still feeling my way through this review thing, I was very, very conscious of keeping my reviews short . . . so that’s why “This Time Tomorrow” did not get the attention it deserved. As soon as I settle in a bit, I’m going to update the review and give that song and probably others a more complete treatment. It is definitely one of my favorite Kinks songs.

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      1. Michael Chaney | Reply

        Alright. Reviews as works in progress. I like it.

        Over time they’ll evolve to become definitive and in that way persuade you to publish them in book form. Maybe…

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  6. […] of a Clown’ Davies,” my personal favorite Dave Davies song would come later on the Lola album: the magnificent “Strangers.” Here, he’s simply starting the journey to […]

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  7. Fantastic album. Lola vs Powerman had one of the strongest collections of songs of any Kinks album. This Time Tomorrow is one of the greatest songs the Kinks ever recorded. A Long Way From Home is beautiful as well. Strangers too. The mixed reviews really confuse me to be honest. This is without a doubt just as good as Muswell, Arthur or any of their other albums.

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    1. It’s my favorite! Sorry to be so confusing!

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  8. […] Lola vs. The Powerman and The Moneygoround […]

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  9. Hi there! It’s been awhile since I’ve checked in, but I’ve been enjoying your ongoing series and reviews, as always. Just thought I’d duck in here to say that the recent expanded-version release of Lola (together with Percy) is the best of a great set of expanded edition releases – which is saying a lot – and I’ve only listened to the first disc so far! The highlights to this point: * a new song called “Anytime” which sounds for all of the world like a long-lost Badfinger gem (except for Ray’s vocals on the first verse). Since I like Badfinger, and this song is contemporary with their peak, it’s a really cool find. * a beautiful instrumental version of “This Time Tomorrow” minus some guitar parts, * a fascinating instrumental jam of “The Contenders” that is dominated by Dave’s blasting guitar rather than Gosling’s keyboards and, finally, * an alternate take of “Lola” that changes some of it’s most discussed lyrics in almost unthinkable ways, especially the final line. The famous opening riff is replaced by an oft-interrupted acoustic introduction that includes Ray telling Dave to fuck-off. Really – this one is a gem!

    So what is your read on the baseball season? There aren’t any really good teams in the National League. Is their batting leader going to finish above .310?

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    1. Oh, there you are! Funny you should bring up The Kinks; always thinking ahead, once I’m done with the Great Broads series I want to do some mid-sixties garage and picked up a copy of The Kink Kontroversy with oodles of bonus tracks—but it doesn’t sound as interesting as Lola-Percy. I’ll check it out. This has been a weird baseball season. I stopped watching MLB.TV for a while because I got sick of seeing ballplayers in camouflage but got back into it a couple of weeks ago. There seems to be no dominant team in either league, so I have no frigging idea how this thing is going to end. The Tigers and A’s wound up screwing themselves with their trade deadline deals, and I still can’t figure out the Orioles. They’re not that good! We’re living in a year where the Mariners—the Seattle fucking Mariners—could actually go all the way because their starting pitching would be killer in a short series. Thrilled about the Royals, giving up on the Pirates. I’m not even going to mention your team, but at least they’re still champs for another couple of months.

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      1. Yes, the Boston championship seems long ago already, but that only highlights how amazing it was for them to have won in the first year of a three-year rebuilding effort. Their young talent struggled this year, but Betts looks like a keeper and I can’t wait for Henry Owens to come up from AAA next year. They’ll be contending in 2016 again, if not sooner. I hope they get Lester back, though. I’m kind of rooting for the Mariners this year, too. I would love to see Felix in the playoffs. Just no Yankees, please. I think the American League will win the series because the National League seriously has no hitting (except Giancarlo, who I would also love to see in the playoffs).

        I’ve kind of felt bad for your reviews, lately, You wrote that great Offspring review and…crickets. You deserve better than that, but your following seems to be more interested in older music (like me!). Since I had kids growing up in the 90’s -00’s, I caught a lot of their music, some of which was really good, as you’ve chronicled. I came the closest to writing about your Steely Dan reviews, They are one group that has always left me cold because they seem like such a creation of the studio. I like groups that can actually play their songs with passion live – maybe that’s why I kind of don’t like Sgt. Pepper Beatles so much.

        So glad it sounds like you are finally caving to reviewing Kinks Kontroversy. Yes, some of it sounds like it was recorded in two weeks (which it was), but it is the first plank in the Kinks rising above their great garage beginnings into something more interesting. And I LOVE listening to Milk Cow Blues, which I will take over any Steely Dan record in a heartbeat because it has a heartbeat (named Dave Davies).

        I need something to cheer me up. My 22 year old daughter left last night to live in Argentina with her boyfriend. My wife and I could not be happier for her – the guy is terrific and she is so happy with him – but it’s so far away from LA! Parents eventually have to let go, and that moment came last night. Fuck the circle of life. Could you write another Donovan review???

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        1. Another Donovan review is about as likely as me moving back to the States, and the broads I have lined up don’t really lend themselves well to yuks. Sorry! Argentina is a long way from LA, but the country is so dysfunctional that maybe the couple will chuck the idea someday and come back to dysfunctional Los Angeles!

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        2. And the only National League team capable of going all the way is The Giants. I can’t figure out how they’re in the race, but that was the same feeling I had when they won their two titles. I REALLY do not want to see the Cardinals in the Series again.

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          1. OK, I’ve finished listening to the Lola expanded version, and I do think you should go back and give the song songs on this album fuller treatment. I always thought of this album as a return to harder rock for the Kinks (and it kind of is), but I think it is much more obviously a precursor to Muswell Hillbillies musically, now that I’ve really listened to the album and bonus material. Almost every song on Lola features great acoustic picking and grinning from Ray and Dave, as well as some real down home brotherly harmonies. They took it a lot further in Muswell Hillbillies, but I never noticed before how the seeds were planted here. I think the prominence of John Gosling’s piano and Mich Avory’s drumming on the album help cover the loss of Pete Quaife. Not that John Dalton was a bad bass player – his work on “A Long Way From Home” carries a great song, but Pete Quaife was a special part of the whole that made the Kinks so great.

            The biggest revelation for me, though, is just what a great song “Lola” is. I know, of all the Kinks songs, Lola is one of the very few in danger of over-exposure, but, damn, they got it so right! The alternate earlier version in the expanded album shows that this song got a whole lot better over time. The signature guitar opening was not there. The ending lyrics weren’t nearly as clever and, most importantly, the tempo did not drop at the “That’s the way I want it to stay” verse. This one move added such an intimacy and humanity to the song that is so Kinks, yet they had to work hard before getting it there. I have read so many times how Lola is a perfect single and that Ray must not have been even trying to be commercial in the two years since they had a hit. I think that trivializes what a great achievement Lola was and is.

            Hey, are you going to do a baseball post? Who do you pick at this point? I like Oakland and Lester to get by “Big Lame” James and the Royals tonight.

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          2. Hey! I can’t stay up until 3 a.m. to watch a game! I’ve got the replay on now, so don’t tell me how it turns out! Neither starting pitcher looks sharp. I’ve never liked Shields, though. But the Royals are a relentless bunch, and the A’s have been crap ever since they made that dumb trade and killed their offense. I’m still rooting for the Royals and Pirates, but I doubt they’ll get far. Yes, I’m even rooting for the Pirates tomorrow against the Giants. They brought Bonds back in Spring Training and I’m pissed at them. No time to write a full baseball post, but this is the most wide open postseason in some time. Anyone can win it. I just don’t want it to be the Cardinals or the Dodgers.

            Interesting comment on Lola. I don’t think people really appreciate how hard it is to get the exact sound and mood you want in the recording process. I’ll pick up the album soon, then we’ll see about the review. I have six more Great Broads to get through, then a “early garage band” set, then I have a few promises to keep.

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          3. Be sure to watch the game all the way…this was a great one!

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          4. I had to pause it in the 6th but got to watch the rest at lunch. That’s what baseball’s all about!

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          5. Yes, for one night, Little Ball slammed Money Ball. Poor Brad Pitt! I can’t believe you’re really not rooting for the Giants. You are one stubborn cuss when it comes to Bonds!

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          6. Jeez, I could have planted that curve ball into the upper deck. What a lousy pitch!

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          7. OK – You’ve got to be rooting pretty heavily for the Giants by now. I say whoever wins game 1 wins the series. What say you?

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          8. I don’t think so. Madison hasn’t been stellar on his second outings, and what was Peavy’s ERA in the American League? I’m not rooting for either team. I just want it to go seven!

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  10. I’ve always thought it was a shame that the two best songs, “Strangers” and “Lola,” are the ones that don’t fit into the concept, so it’s interesting that you view them as part of the concept. I will listen to the album differently now, and maybe appreciate it even more than I do already. Thanks!

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