Original publish date: May 27, 2016
Transgender questions have been in the news a lot lately, but for baby boomers and millennial’s, it’s nothing new. 46 years ago this week, Ray Davies of the Kinks was frantically scrambling from continent to continent on a last minute mission to change the lyrics of the most controversial Transgender song of it’s day. The song detailed a romantic encounter between a young man and a transvestite named Lola in a club in Soho, England. With that kind of content in 1970 Richard Nixon America, you may think, well, duh. However, the change had nothing to do with content and everything to do with corporate branding, namely Coca-Cola.
For the record, “Lola” is a song written by Ray Davies and performed by English rock band the Kinks on their album “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One”. The song is written in short story fashion, the first-person narrator describes his confusion towards Lola who “walked like a woman and talked like a man”. The song was released in the United Kingdom on June 12, 1970, while in the United States it was released on June 28, 1970. But because of two words in the song’s opening verse, it almost didn’t happen at all.
The song begins, “I met her in a club down in old Soho where you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca cola. C-O-L-A cola.” Despite its controversial subject matter, the BBC banned the track for a different reason. On the eve of the single’s release, the band was informed that the BBC wouldn’t play it because it went against their strict “no product placement” policy. The word “Coca-Cola” in the lyrics threatened to derail what many consider to be one of the most important cultural songs in Rock ‘n Roll history.
Turns out that the BBC Radio’s policy against product placement was realized at the last minute and in the middle of The Kinks tour of North America. After the band’s May 23, 1970 concert at The Depot in Minneapolis, songwriter Ray Davies was forced to make two round-trip flights from New York to London and hop across the pond back before the band’s next gig six days later. All this to change the line from “Coca-cola” to the soulless pacifistic “cherry cola” for the single’s release.
Of course some of the urgency was due and owing to Davies’ feeling that when he wrote ‘Lola’ (as he wrote in his autobiography) he wanted something that would “sell in the first five seconds” and he wasn’t about to let it be banned. Ray later claimed the song was his first genuine attempt to write a mainstream hit. He was going to do whatever it took to fix the track. Problem was, the master tapes were back in the U.K., so he had to jump on a plane and rush back to Morgan Studios in Willesden, London to record the necessary two word overdub.
According to Thomas M. Kitts’ book Ray Davies: Not Like Everybody Else, Davies booked a brief session to change “Coca-Cola” to “cherry cola” but was unhappy with the result. However, the band was waiting back in Chicago, so Ray was forced to return to the States in time for the May 29 & 30th gigs at the Aragon ballroom, then plan a trip back to the studio in the U.K. in the first few days of June. The Kinks were scheduled to play Ungano’s nightclub in New York City on June 4 to kick off a grueling series of 25 concerts in 36 days from Harrisburg to San Francisco. So this second session re-dub would be his last chance before the album’s release.
After several takes, Davies finally came up with a finished version that met his liking and passed muster with the BBC. But the saga wasn’t over. Davies was blindsided again when censors decided that a key line in the band’s next single, “Apeman,” needed amending too. Apparently, in the line “…the air pollution is a-foggin’ up my eyes…”, the word “a-foggin'” sounded too much like dropping the f-bomb. The original lyric remains intact on the album, and is heard at 2:20. If you listen to the album version of Lola, the BBC banned line remains. Although the lyrics in the gatefold sleeve of the original LP use the “cherry-cola” line, the album cut actually contains the original “Coca-Cola” version.
These days, recording an overdub is as simple as emailing someone an audio file, which is a lot cheaper, perhaps more efficient, but definitely not as cool. Like many of my fellow Kinks fans, I can distinctly remember hearing the “Coca-Cola” version as a kid growing up in Indianapolis. Seems that the US radio stations weren’t as particular as the BBC. In fact, I have my suspicions that back then, Coke probably liked the idea of having their name thrown out a few thousand times a day on AM radio. Pop culture maven that I’ve always been, I always thought the Coca-Cola version was far better then the redo.
Turns out, all that effort paid off in the end: ‘Lola’ was an instant hit, reaching number two on the UK Singles Chart and remaining high on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts for 20 weeks, peaking at # 9. The single also saw success worldwide, reaching the top of the charts in Ireland, New Zealand, and South Africa, as well as the top 5 in Germany, Austria, Belgium, and Switzerland. The track became one of The Kinks’ signature songs and was later ranked number 422 on “Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time” as well as number 473 on the “NME’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time” list.
The song’s success came at a critical time for the band and had important ramifications going forward, allowing them to negotiate a new contract with RCA Records, construct their own London Studio, and assume more creative and managerial control. In a 1970 interview, Dave Davies claimed that, if “Lola” had been a failure, the band would have “gone on making records for another year or so and then drifted apart.” Instead, the song paved the way for more controversial songs by other artists to follow.
Initial recordings of the song began in April 1970, but, as the band’s bassist John Dalton recalled, recording for “Lola” took particularly long, stretching well into May. During April, four to five versions were attempted, utilizing different keys as well as varying beginnings and styles. By mid-May, new piano parts were added to the backing track by John Gosling, the band’s newly minted piano player. Vocals were also added at this time and the song coalesced into an anthem for the LBGT community.
The distinct twangy guitar rift that opens the song was achieved by combining the sound of a Martin guitar alongside a vintage Dobro resonating guitar. Dobro is the generic term for a wood-bodied, single cone resonator guitar that looks like it has a giant tin pie plate covering the sound hole behind the strings. Ray Davies credited this mixture of guitar sounds for the song’s unique sound. Ray said, “I remember going into a music store on Shaftesbury Avenue when we were about to make ‘Lola.’ I said, ‘I want to get a really good guitar sound on this record, I want a Martin.’ And in the corner they had this old 1938 Dobro that I bought for $150. I put them together on ‘Lola’ which is what makes that clangy sound: the combination of the Martin and the Dobro with heavy compression.” The sound and content became legendary, but the real question remained, was the song in any way autobiographical?