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.
Updated May 2016
I am always thinking ahead. It’s one of my worst tendencies, and it while sometimes it prepares me for the future, I usually wind up getting virtually fucked in the ass (without lube).
Even before I started the Great Broads series, I was thinking about what to do once I’d completed it. The idea that most appealed to me was to do a series on great garage rock. Garage Rock is a very loose genre, but in general it implies high-energy rock with little attention to polish. The first bands I thought of were Them, 13th Floor Elevators, The Seeds and The Leaves. Once my dad found his Them album, they shot to the top of the list, but when I listened to the others, I realized they were pretty much one-hit wonders.
The Leaves were a real disappointment. I love their version of “Hey Joe,” and was excited about having the chance to explore them further. I should have been tipped off to the band’s limitations when I saw there were three different versions of “Hey Joe” on The Leaves Are Happening: The Best of the Leaves. Except for that one song, they filled most of the space on the record with knock-offs of The Beatles and The Byrds.
So the idea of a garage rock series foundered on the beaches of L. A., but I still held hope that I could find at least one other great garage band to pair with Them. Two reviews don’t add up to a series, but at least it’s a gesture.
My dad solved my dilemma. “You’re forgetting the greatest garage band of them all!” he observed.
“Who’s that?” I asked, miffed at the possibility that my knowledge of musical history might have a noticeable gap.
“The Kinks, of course!” he smiled.
“Which one?” I sighed, unhappy about the possibility of doing yet another Kinks review.
“Oh, it’s gotta be The Kink Kontroversy. The deluxe version.”
“Yep, you’re right,” I said with glum submission.
My reluctance to do The Kinks had everything to do with secondary considerations and nothing to do with their music. I love The Kinks! It’s just that Kinks fans make a big deal out of The Kink Kontroversy because they claim it contains the first seeds of Ray Davies’ shift from Top 40 to modern rock poetry. I think “A Well-Respected Man” is much stronger evidence, but I will concede that a few of the songs do hint at the future breakout, much like side two of Help! anticipated Rubber Soul. Personally, I think what’s more important is that The Kink Kontroversy is the last album where The Kinks did what we now call garage rock, and if you imagine a world where they had dropped out of sight before Face to Face, you could make a very compelling case that The Kinks were the best garage band of all-time.
The Davies brothers weaned themselves on blues and R&B, a stage of development that I consider an essential prerequisite to creating great rock ‘n’ roll because it gives you heightened awareness of the importance of groove and the feel of a song. Most great blues recordings are terrible recordings from a technical standpoint, but the magic still shines through. Attempts to smooth out the rough edges through overproduction pretty much kills the thing that makes blues sound so vibrant and alive. The Kinks early recordings reflect those values: they’re raw, noisy, sloppy and bursting with energy.
“Milk Cow Blues” opens with a nifty little guitar duet, but what I love about it more than the technique is the sound: it sounds like they walked into the studio, said hello, plugged their guitars into their amps and let ’em rip. Dave Davies takes the vocal on the first verse and chorus, and there’s a moment when he raises his voice enough to create mike distortion while the guitars raise their intensity to create overload and the result is a heavenly burst of pure energy. Ray takes over the vocal on verse two, slurring his words and riding the guitar waves in a wonderful example of—I need to create an oxymoron here—dissonant synchronicity. Here they cut to the instrumental break, where Dave’s stinging licks are joined by an exceptionally muscular bass run from Pete Quaife that probably shook the crap out of the primitive speakers of the day. What’s amazing about the track—and something that characterizes nearly all The Kinks’ rockers—is (another oxymoron) their tight looseness (or their loose tightness, if you prefer). They never lose the groove, they hit all the right dynamic cues, but the result is not the mechanical sound produced by anal retentives, but a cool, energetic bash. Toward the end of the song when they let it all go for a few measures before bringing it down is one of those delightful moments of excess that defines rock ‘n’ roll energy.
Scaling it way, way down, next up is “Ring the Bells,” a pleasant acoustic number that opens with the sustained chord pattern that was in vogue at the time (The Byrds’ “Feel a Whole Lot Better,” Harrison’s “If I Needed Someone”), supplemented with some clever chord shifts midway through the verse. This is still a boy-loves-girl, song, though, and while a nice tune, it’s not next-level material.
The Kinks get back to the garage with “Gotta Get the First Plane Home,” a more impatient rendering of the goddamn-I-hate-touring theme than Mick Jagger’s psychological treatise in “Goin’ Home.” “When I See That Girl of Mine” begins with what sounds like a false start—a single unadorned note on the bottom guitar string. We finally get a three-note guitar intro that opens up to a solid mid-tempo rocker.
The first sign that The Kinks were moving away from testosterone-estrogen interactions comes not from Ray but from Dave Davies, in the form of “I Am Free.” Although Dave slurs some of the words to the point of unintelligibility, this flowing number in 6/8 time does express the need for a resilient frame of mind in the face of society’s attempts to deny the dignity of the individual. “I Am Free” is also a lovely song with a melody that sticks in your head for days. “Till the End of the Day” follows, a song I’ve already covered in my review of The Kinks Greatest Hits.
Side two opens with “The World Keeps Going Round,” a geez-will-you-grow-up message from Ray that opens with a highly distorted chord. There’s a microscopic connection to Ray’s future in the image of the “big old sun,” and you could make a case that the song deals with the impact of modern life on folks like Arthur, but it’s not as clear a break from the past as “I’m Free.” Ray will need to connect with his sense of humor before that happens.
And voilà, he does just that in the very next song! The story line on “I’m On an Island” may have its roots in girl-abandoning-boy but what Ray is describing through both lyrics and his tongue-in-cheek, poor-me vocal is the childish absurdity of taking rejection to the limit and whining, “I’m not going to play with you anymore!” The narrator has a brief moment of lucidity when he realizes the nonsensical situation he has created for himself:
I’m on an island
And I’ve got nowhere to run
Because I’m the only one
Who’s on the island.
We’ll hear the theme of escape again, most memorably in “Apeman,” and both songs have a Caribbean feel.
Having taken the first step, Ray takes a more sizeable leap in “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” a precursor of the preservation theme central to his work. The song is full of ironic passages where the narrator longs for the return of a happier past that in reality was anything but:
Ma and Pa look back at all the things they used to do
Didn’t have no money and they always told the truth
Daddy didn’t have no toys
And mummy didn’t need no boys
Won’t you tell me
Where have all the good times gone?
Where have all the good times gone?
While Ray references The Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” in the second verse, the more interesting citation is of McCartney’s “Yesterday,” released a couple of months before the recording of The Kink Kontroversy. He uses the line to temper the narrator’s desire for a return to a mythical past:
Well, yesterday was such an easy game for you to play
But let’s face it things are so much easier today
Guess you need some bringing down
And get your feet back on the ground
Ray’s ambivalence about past-and-present continues all the way through Other People’s Lives, so it’s not surprising to find it in its place of origin. The song itself is a pleasant, laid back mid-tempo number with solid harmonies and a semi-cynical, sneering vocal from Ray that adds to the rich subtext of the lyrics.
The last three songs are not in themselves remarkable, but they’re good, solid songs that rise above the level of album filler. “It’s Too Late” is a thumping rocker with strong harmonies, a good groove and a clean, simple arrangement that serves as a solid backdrop for a hot Nicky Hopkins piano solo in the break. The Kinks get back to more of a garage sound with the bouncy number “What’s in Store for Me?” where Dave assumes lead vocal duties and spices up the mix with a fine solo. The original album ends with the vocal duet, “You Can’t Win,” an original R&B-influenced number with a good steady beat.
As noted, the second CD contains alt-takes, interviews, BBC performances and unfinished pieces. They certainly made a good decision not to release the sentimental and painfully traditional “And I Will Love You,” a definite step backwards. The different version of “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” has a slightly cleaner mix than the original, but I’d be happy with either. My favorite track is the very rough Ray Davies solo demo “All Night Stand,” a reflection on the endlessly erotic life of the touring rock star. It’s a brutally honest admission of lust and greed:
All night stand,
With a different girl each night.
All night stand,
With two hundred miles to ride.
But I won’t give it up,
As long as I can make the bread.
When I do, I shall stop,
Close my eyes and go to bed.
The difference in how The Kinks and The Beatles handled the media is clarified in the song, “Mr. Reporter.” The Beatles charmed the pants off the press, even after Lennon allegedly put his foot in his mouth during the Maureen Cleave interview. Ray Davies was always skeptical of the press and kept them at arm’s length throughout his career. “Mr. Reporter” is in essence a primitive version of the brilliant “Other People’s Lives.”
In the end, the bonus tracks rise far above the low bar I’ve set for deluxe edition content, but what makes The Kink Kontroversy worth your hard-earned currency is the original album, where The Kinks bid farewell to their roots with some of their best blues/garage work, and crack open the door to one of the great musical journeys in rock history.