I was ten years old when the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The only reason I was watching was because my mother, who I guess would have been 33 at the time (funny how she seemed “old” to me back then), had been hearing about them and was curious to see what they were all about. So, the three of us (her, me, and my younger sister) sat down that Sunday night and watched, along with almost everyone else in the country, as the world was changed forever.
I remember she loved them, and found them adorable, while my sister Patty and I immediately wrinkled our noses and started giggling about how awful their long hair was. (Three weeks later, we were both in love with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, so go figure.)
For the next six months or so, the Beatles pretty much ruled my life. My classmates and I made life miserable for our bus driver, as we regaled her on a daily basis with fascinating details such as George’s birthday, Ringo’s favorite color, the name of John’s childhood pet, and Paul’s height and weight. Patty and I even cut out small photos of their faces from the pages of Tiger Beat magazine and taped them over the faces of all of our Ken dolls. There was no way our Barbies were going to date boring old Ken(s), not with the Beatles so readily available.
(By the way, I feel I need to mention at this point that, in all the years since that time, I have retained in my often-fuzzy memory the birthdays of all four Beatles. I married a devoted Paul McCartney fan. Every June 18, I say to him, “hey, you know what today is, don’t you?” And every June 18, he says, “no, what?” Sigh...men!!)
As the so-called “British Invasion” continued, I started to branch out and listen to several of the other bands of that era. I recall liking the Dave Clark Five and Herman’s Hermits well enough, but preferred the bluesy singing of Eric Burdon of the Animals, and the brilliant guitar theatrics of Beck, Hendrix and Clapton. I also really liked the Kinks, whose lead singer and songwriter, Ray Davies, was already making wry social commentary into hit singles (remember “A Well-Respected Man?”).
As time marched on, I began listening to a lot of different music. I remember at various times being “into” James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Buffalo Springfield (especially Neil Young, and I am still a fan). Janis Joplin, who died two days before my seventeenth birthday, became one of my idols not just for her amazing voice, but also for the fact that she’d grown up an outsider – just like me.
Meanwhile, Ray Davies and the Kinks continued to make great music, but with somewhat less success than before. Davies became enamored of “concept” albums. The general record-buying public did not, despite such great songs as “Sunny Afternoon,” “Shangri-La” and “Waterloo Sunset.”
In 1970, the Kinks released a single from their latest album. The song was called “Lola,” and it reached #9 on the Billboard charts. To this day, how a song like “Lola” could have possibly been a bona fide hit single blows my mind.
Which brings us to the topic of today’s blog post. Not long after its release, “Lola” became my favorite song. Through the years, it’s held on to the top spot in my heart, despite some serious contenders. Admittedly, there are songs I love that are more beautiful (“You and Your Sister” by Chris Bell immediately comes to mind) and songs I love that have a better melody (pretty much any of Todd Rundgren’s early stuff, not to mention a number of Davies’ other songs). There are even songs I love that are just as clever (click here to read my blog post on “Amplifier”). But, so far at least, nothing has quite been able to replace “Lola” in that top spot for me.
So, if I may, allow me to present Five Good Reasons Why “Lola” is Still the Greatest Pop Song of All Time.
1. The Song is About...What??!!??
There’s really no getting around it. The song is about a young man whose first sexual encounter may - or may not - be with a transvestite. The lyrics more or less leave it open to interpretation. Still, not exactly the sort of thing a lot of rock and roll songs are written about even now…and certainly not in 1970.
And it’s not like Lola is a particularly convincing woman, either. To wit:
“Well I'm not dumb, but I can't understand
Why she walked like a woman but talked like a man.”
2. The Vocal Performance
One of the things I’ve always loved about Ray Davies is the fact that he sings rock’n’roll songs, but, unlike most English rockers, he doesn’t particularly try to disguise his accent when he sings, and in “Lola” he definitely makes this work to his advantage.
After the brief, but instantly recognizable, guitar intro, Ray begins the narrative in his trademark English accent:
“I met her in a club down in old Soho,
where you drink champagne
and it tastes just like Coca Cola,
And he never really shakes the accent, even in the rollicking choruses. It gives the song the needed innocence that probably got it played on AM radio stations all over the country without any real issues.
3. The Whole Coca Cola Thing
The U.S. version of the song mentions Coca Cola by name, as quoted above. However, because the BBC had a policy against product placement, they insisted Davies change the words for British radio. The English version substitutes the phrase “cherry cola.” Which, to be fair, still rhymes nicely with “Lola.”
For some reason (probably the fact that I have a lifelong Coca Cola addiction), I’ve always gotten a huge kick out of that.
4. The Simplicity of the Musical Accompaniment
With lyrics that assault your senses and ignite your imagination from beginning to end, the fact that “Lola” has such a straightforward guitar/bass/drums musical backing works beautifully. There’s no need for anything fancy, the words are what matters here. The Davies brothers realized that, and I thank them for it.
In fact, the backing track is very similar to another of my favorite Kinks songs, “Apeman.” In that one, the simple music is once again matched up with witty, clever lyrics, and, once again, it works perfectly in the context of the song.
5. That Line
The main reason I fell so hard for “Lola,” and have stayed resolutely in love ever since, is the complete and total brilliance, wit, and just plain genius of its most famous line.
“Well I'm not the world's most masculine man,
but I know what I am, and I'm glad I'm a man,
and so is Lola.”
I’ve written in this blog before about my affection for lyrical word play, double meanings in songs, and the like. This, to me, is the apex, the crowning moment of pop song writing, the “it” moment.
It just might be the single greatest song lyric line ever written.
Yes, I know, there have been many, many great lines written in many, many great songs over the years. Most of them are a whole lot more serious and more earthshattering than this one. But, as far as I’m concerned, none of them come close to it.
So, what exactly is he saying? Is he saying that he’s glad he’s a man, and Lola is also glad? Or is he saying, as seems to be the general consensus, that he’s a man – and that Lola is also a man?
I’ve actually read a number of interpretations, and I think the beauty of the whole thing is that the question is left unanswered in the song. It can mean whatever you want it to mean. I’m quite certain this was done purposely by Davies, and to me it is sheer genius.
So, kudos to all the songwriters over the years who’ve written gorgeous love songs, or heartbreaking songs about lost love. For me, even after all this time, it’s still all about a young boy being seduced in a London bar by a rather manly transvestite named Lola.