Original publish date: April 3, 2016
Last week, we revisited The Kinks classic transgender anthem, “Lola.” It seemed like the right time to take a look back since the subject has been in the news so much lately. Trouble was, contrary to what you may think, the transgender subject the song alludes to was not the problem. The problem was the band’s use of the brand name Coca-Cola in the opening verse. Seems that the BBC had a strict policy against product placement of any kind back in the day and refused to play the song. Kinks frontman and songwriter Ray Davies was forced to fly back-and-forth from the U.S. to the U.K. to redo the phrase from Coca-Cola to Cherry Cola during the middle of a US concert tour. Today that would require a simple file transfer, back then it involved a few Transatlantic Jet flights.
Last week’s article ended with the question, was the song in any way autobiographical? Contemporary rumors whispered that the song was written about a supposed date between Ray Davies and a trans woman actress Candy Darling. The same Candy mentioned in Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk On The Wild Side” (“Candy came from out on the island, in the backroom she was everybody’s darling”). Darling was one of Andy Warhol’s original “superstars” at Warhol’s New York studio known as the Factory. Davies eventually disavowed the rumor, saying that the two only went out to dinner together and that he had known the whole time of Darling’s gender identity.
Davies once said the idea behind the song this way: “It was a real experience in a club. I was asked to dance by somebody who was a fabulous looking woman. I said “no thank you.” And she went in a cab with my manager straight afterwards. It’s based on a personal experience. But not every word.” Davies further explained, “‘Lola’ was a love song, and the person they fall in love with is a transvestite. It’s not their fault – they didn’t know – but you know it’s not going to last.”
Kinks drummer Mick Avory claims the song was partially inspired by Avory’s frequenting of transgender bars in west London. Avory said, “We used to know this character called Michael McGrath. He used to hound the group a bit, because being called The Kinks did attract these sorts of people. He used to come down to Top of the Pops, and he was publicist for John Stephen’s shop in Carnaby Street. He used to have this place in Earl’s Court, and he used to invite me to all these drag queen acts and transsexual pubs. They were like secret clubs. And that’s where Ray got the idea for the song.”
Ray put the rumors to rest once and for all when he told Rolling Stone magazine that the song was inspired by a true encounter experienced by the band’s manager. Ray explains that he wrote “Lola” after Kinks manager Robert Wace spent a night in Paris dancing with a transgender woman. Davies said of the incident, “In his apartment, Robert had been dancing with this black woman, and he said, ‘I’m really onto a thing here.’ And it was okay until we left at six in the morning and then I said, ‘Have you seen the stubble?’ He said ‘Yeah,’ but he was too drunk to care, I think.”
Although it was a major hit, Ray’s brother Dave Davies did not enjoy the success, saying, “In fact, when ‘Lola’ was a hit, it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Because it was taking us out of a different sort of comfort zone, where we’d been getting into the work, and the writing and the musicality was more thought about. It did have that smell of: ‘Oh blimey, not that again.’ I found it a bit odd, that period.” Brother Ray said that he had initially struggled with writing an opening that would sell the song, but the rest of the song “came naturally.”
There may have been another reason for Dave’s discontent. Every Kinks fan knows that the brothers Davies don’t get along. Although the acrimony existed long before the 1970 song hits the charts (Dave once claimed that the only three years Ray was happy were the three years before he (Dave) was born), Lola certainly fueled the simmering sibling rivalry between the two. Ray has sole songwriting credits on the song, but Dave always believed he should have gotten equal credit for the song’s authorship. In his autobiography, Dave claims that he came up with the music for “Lola” and his brother Ray added the lyrics after hearing it. In a 1990 interview, Dave said that “Lola” was written in a similar fashion to ‘You Really Got Me’ in that the two worked on Ray’s basic skeleton of the song, saying that the song was more of a collaborative effort than many believed.
While the feud between the brothers may be common knowledge for rock aficionados, most don’t realize that the Kinks were the original bad boys of the British Invasion. Only in The Kinks case, they never really invaded. Seems like an on stage fist fight between drummer Mick Avory and guitarist Dave Davies derailed The Kinks invasion before it ever started. Performing at Cardiff’s Capital Theatre in May 1965, tensions among band members came to a head on stage after just two songs. Dave insulted Avory’s drumming and Mick dropped his sticks and knocked Dave unconscious in front of a startled crowd of fans.
Dave was laying on the stage and Avory, convinced he had killed his bandmate, fled the concert hall and went into hiding. Dave was rushed to Cardiff Royal Infirmary and received 16 stitches. When the police caught up with the Kinks’ drummer, he denied the whole thing happened. The cops pointed out that they had the entire audience as witnesses. Dave Davies ended up dropping all charges and relations in the band were smoothed over. The same couldn’t be said for their chances of success in the States though.
Because of the onstage bust-up and various other misdoings, The American Federation of Musicians placed a four year ban against the group on touring the United States. The ban coincided with the rise of The Beatles and the British Invasion. The Kinks popularity in North America undoubtedly suffered as a result. As Ray Davies later stated, “In many respects, that ridiculous ban took away the best years of the Kinks’ career when the original band was performing at its peak. We came about in the first days after Beatlemania, got chased everywhere we went and had to have police escorts to and fro,” Ray said. “I never even heard a note we played for a long time, the crowd’s screaming was always so loud. We were battlers,” he continued. “But the very thing that makes a band special is what ultimately causes it to break up. What made our music interesting ended up being the very thing that destroyed it.”
Now, about that transgender elephant in the room, yes, “Lola” received backlash for its controversial lyrics. Censorship talk began to arise, with some radio stations fading the track out before Lola’s biological sex is revealed in the song’s final verse. On November 18, 1970, the song was banned in Australia because of “controversial subject matter.” Regardless, “Lola” received positive reviews from critics. It opened the door for artists like Lou Reed and David Bowie to explore homosexuality in songs that straight people liked too. Did you know David Bowie produced that Lou Reed classic?
The song was also well-liked by the band. Mick Avory said “I always liked ‘Lola’, I liked the subject. It’s not like anything else. I liked it for that. We’d always take a different path.” In 1999 Dave Davies said of the song, “We just thought it was little bit tongue-in-cheek humor that we might slip by the radio censorship, which it did. We always tried to get things past the censors and a lot of people didn’t realize what the song was about.” In a 1983 interview, Ray Davies said, “I’m just very pleased I recorded it and more pleased I wrote it.”
The Kinks were probably unaware of it, but an American song published in 1918 was the first to combine Lola and Coca-Cola. In “Ev’ry Day’ll Be Sunday When The Town Goes Dry,” we hear the line, “At the table with Lola they will serve us Coca-Cola.” An anti-Prohibition song published in anticipation of the 18th amendment, the song addresses the prospect of being unable to buy alcohol on any day of the week. And as for that mythical champagne that tastes just like Coca-Cola? Ray Davies insists it’s the real thing, stating, “I had a Californian champagne that tasted like it, in some kind of L.A. bordello tourist trap.” So, in the spirit of “Lola”, I think I’ll go out on a limb here and predict that the Transgender question will soon devolve into an argument about the added expense of building new bathrooms. All in an effort to undermine the real civil rights issue.