Though now widely considered undisputed legends of pop music, The Kinks also provide an instructive example of the fleeting and unpredictable nature of popularity, critical acclaim and commercial success. Once the brother-led band evolved from "The Ravens" and renamed themselves just scandalously enough sometime around 1964, things quickly exploded with a string of razor distorted power chord hits, including the often covered "You Really Got Me." Everything seemed on the uptick until a United States touring ban, allegedly prompted by someone associated with the band punching a television company employee, stultified the band's then growing American market. During that time they scored a number of very British, perhaps too British for America, hits replete with sardonic social commentary punctuated by a variety of musical styles. The band also lived largely in the shadows of the British invasion giants, namely, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and others, while simultaneously casting a heavy influence upon them. To take just one example, many now consider The Kinks' 1965 single "See My Friends" as the first true mingling of Indian music with British pop, beating out even the Fab Four. Despite this, commercial flops gradually began to accompany the successes. The now classic "The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society," not their only interminable record title, initially sold miserably and, though many critics hailed the band's musical innovations, the general public seemed increasingly uninterested in doling out portions of their paychecks for The Kinks' latest idiosyncratic output. Not only that, with the exception of a "cult following," they became almost obscure in the United States during this era. But all of that, of course, soon changed.
The logistics of how some songs break generational divides remains somewhat theoretically inexplicable, but the inexorable marketing machine that has always driven the music industry seems to guarantee that people born at different times will experience the music of their predecessors. Often just a second or two fragment of a song broadcast on late night advertisements that once pushed products such as "the greatest hits of the 1970s on 26 compact discs," or other tangible mediums, would suffice. Younger viewers, unable to sleep due to raging hormones, caffeine-saturated blood or mere insomnia were thus vicariously indoctrinated into the popular cultures and music of those born a decade or two earlier, paradoxically through marketing targeted to those same older generations. Not to mention the ubiquitous containers of commerce, nearly always accompanied by a constant, churning musical soundtrack, provided another outlet for cross-generational musical pollination. Department stores, malls and public spaces often inject music into their environments to encourage the "buying mood" of their patrons. Such tools often get programmed to trigger the nostalgic faculties of their identified demographic base. These provide just two feasible explanations for how the infectious, edgy and envelope bursting song "Lola," one of The Kinks' signature numbers, reached the cochleas and brains of successive generations.
"Lola" remains an extraordinary piece not only musically but also thematically. Eons ahead of its time for a pop song, it tells the story of nearly mistaking a transvestite man for a woman in a dance floor tryst. Apparently, this actually happened to songwriter Ray Davies. The track dates well because it never directly criticizes or questions the concept of transvestism itself, which would lend it a prejudiced or discriminatory tone today. It simply states that the narrator, not having properly assessed the actual gender of his companion, simply wasn't interested. One passage both reflects the sentiments of songs that came before it while also adding a sympathetic twist: "Girls will be boys and boys will be girls, it's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world, except for Lola." This line has even more impact in a transgender age and it seems potentially dismissive until "except for Lola." If not sarcastic, it certainly doesn't appear to be prima facie, one could interpret it as "Lola" remains in touch with his or her true self. Carrying this further, Lola doesn't seem as mixed up as the rest of us who may simply mime dictated gender roles and act accordingly. Maybe the majority just follow the norm, but perhaps the norm leads many people astray? Who is to say what men or women are supposed to act or look like? Society strongly suggests a direction, but perhaps many people follow it without proper reflection? "Lola" presents the situation in an unforgettable catchy format without moralizing and then offers an opportunity to reflect on its implications. The narrator learned something about the world that day. Others can perhaps learn, too. Maybe this song, one of the Kinks' biggest hits, helped introduce new ways of thinking or wider perspectives to the mainstream? If so, it demonstrates the true power, one not often exploited in a constructive manner, of pop music. Controversy obviously surrounded "Lola" at the time of its release. Australia banned it outright and some radio stations apparently faded out the song prior to the lines "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," as if that accomplished anything but attracting attention to the song's core message. Censorship often defeats itself.
Many people of later generations may have discovered this fascinating song via the much rocked-up live version included with the 1980 "One for the Road" album. By that time The Kinks had once again fallen out of and regained popularity. But, perhaps unknown to many of these latecomers, "Lola" had originally appeared on a much different album a decade earlier, another album with a mouthful of a title: "Lola versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One." Pitting Lola against the more criticized characters "Powerman" and "The Moneygoround" also highly suggests that The Kinks overall approved of Lola and did not intend to reduce him or her to a ridiculous stereotype. The album itself, released in 1970, contains a smorgasbord of styles and loosely revolves around a theme critical to the ever money-grubbing music industry. "The Moneygoround," performed in true English Music Hall fashion, basically wonders where the artist's money went. Everyone else seemed to get a share: "Everyone takes a little bit here and a little bit there, do they all deserve money from a song that they've never heard?" Things apparently haven't changed much. Fans of "They Might Be Giants" may wonder if this song alone inspired that much later band's entire repertoire. "Powerman" portrays the typical money obsessed tycoon: "Powerman don't need to fight, Powerman don't need no guns, Powerman got money on his side." This driving number includes a guitar riff that bookends the song and will occupy a neuron in every listener's brain for some, if not all, time. Other songs build on the theme. "Top of the Pops" fully satirizes pop stardom with the line "life is so easy when your record's hot." "Get Back in Line" looks at unions. "The Contenders" ruminates on rural dreams of "winning." It opens with a folksy tune reminiscent of simple, innocent homesteads and then suddenly erupts into the then "modern" world. A sub-theme of "freedom" also pervades the album, but the lyrics overall suggest and warn that freedom probably does not exist in stardom and celebrity. The excellent "Apeman" romances the simple life living in the trees, presumably closer to human's "original nature." Some of its lyrics have not dated a nanosecond and sound as fresh as today's rhubarb, especially "I don't feel safe in this world no more, I don't want to die in a nuclear war." Another high point comes with "Strangers," written by Dave Davies. Apart from a beautifully haunting melody, it also contains one of the greatest lines in rock history: "If I live too long I'm afraid I'll die." The album doesn't tell a cohesive story, so calling it a "concept album" seems inappropriate. Nonetheless, it all fits together nicely, if for no other reason than the extremely high quality of its songs. Needless to say, no "Part Two," though planned, ever appeared.
The "Lola" album sold well and revitalized The Kinks yet again, at least for a moment in time. The next few subsequent albums didn't generate much critical or financial interest and the band fell into relative obscurity until the 1978 "Misfits" album and Van Halen's enormously popular cover version of "You Really Got Me." Once again, people seemed to care. This next, and ultimately final, wave of success lasted until 1983's massive hit "Come Dancing" and the not as massive hits "Do it Again" in 1985 and "Working at the Factory" in 1986. After further sluggish sales and lagging interest, the band officially ended in 1996 leaving behind a vast musical legacy that continues to garner interest and appreciation long after the Davies brothers embarked on separate solo careers. The "Lola" album remains only a single high-point in a highly acclaimed body of work that many will undoubtedly re-discover as long as people care about twentieth century popular music. No doubt they will also continue to care about money and power. Perhaps future generations will decide to deviate from that path, but, as long as humans remain human, hope seems sparse. As "Powerman" says: "It's the same old story." At least humanity managed to create some fantastic music.