Fifty years ago, the Kinks hit the charts with a catchy song about a romantic encounter in a London nightclub between a clueless young rube and an ingenue who “walked like a woman but talked like a man.”
It was called “Lola.”
Mara Keisling, now one of the nation’s most prominent transgender rights activists, was then an 11-year-old boy living in central Pennsylvania. And when she heard the song on the radio, she suddenly felt less alone in the world.
“It was pretty clear that ‘Lola’ was like me,” Keisling said. “It made me realize I wasn’t absolutely the only person in the world living with what was then a shameful secret.”
Now 60, Keisling started transitioning in her 40s after many years of trying to live as a man. And the song by Ray Davies, the recently knighted leader of the venerable British band, became part of the soundtrack of her life.
“His song was one of the things that got me through,” Keisling said. “That sounds odd, but when you’re a kid and that alone, and you have that kind of thing weighing on you, and you can’t talk to anybody about it, a song like ‘Lola’ becomes so important.”
“Somebody,” she said, “was talking to me — to me — about this. It was lifesaving.”
The underlying message of “Lola” is “of acceptance and loving someone exactly as they are,” said Carey Fleiner, a British college professor and author of “The Kinks: A Thoroughly English Phenomenon.”
“In that sense, not only would that song resonate with LGBT listeners as someone who understood them, as a song they could relate to, but any outsider who felt different or rejected,” Fleiner said.
“This is one of the first cracks in the gender revolution ... It presented us in a way that was not negative. It’s truly pioneering, and it’s remarkable that the Kinks found the courage to put it out.”
“Lola” helped revive the fortunes of the Kinks, a band that first broke through as part of the British Invasion in the 1960s and scored early hits with power-chord classics like “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night.”
But from 1965 to 1969, the Kinks were banned from touring in the U.S. after the band ran afoul American Federation of Television and Recording Artists for brawling onstage and missing shows. And while contemporaries like the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones built huge fan bases in America, the Kinks had to start over.
And they really needed a hit.
“Lola” delivered. Lauded by rock critics, it hit No. 2 on the United Kingdom charts in June 1970, climbed as high as nine on the U.S. charts, and quickly became a concert favorite. But not before the BBC made a big fuss about the song for an unlikely reason — it had the words “Coca-Cola” in the lyrics.
“The BBC came down on the track like a bag of hammers, as they had a policy to ban anything that made commercial references,” Fleiner said.
“Famously, Ray had to fly back and forth from a Kinks tour in the USA to London and quickly re-record the lyrics and replace the drink with ‘cherry cola’ in order to get past the censors and to get the record out.”
Which explains why “cherry cola” appeared on the single but “Coca-Cola” remained on the album “Lola Versus the Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One.”
But other than a few radio stations in Australia balking at playing “Lola” because of what was described as its “controversial subject matter,” somehow the song managed to fly under the radar of social conservatives who might object to lyrics like “girls will be boys, and boys will be girls, it’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world.”
“It didn’t inspire that much outrage,” noted New York-based rock critic Jim Farber. “People were more flummoxed by it.”
Especially these 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.”
Farber said careful listeners fixated on those lines. Was Davies saying Lola was glad the object of her desire was a man? Or was the young rube glad that Lola was a man?
“It really was a subversive song,” Farber said. “It wasn’t like anything else out there and very much ahead of its time.”
Plus, “Lola” had the good fortune to land at a time when glam rock was starting to emerge.
“A key part of the rebellion in rock and roll was the blurring of gender representation,” Farber said. “The rock audience was already primed to enjoy the blurring of genders in a song like ‘Lola.’”
That said, the lyrics went right over the head of most listeners, Farber said.
“Pop fans are used to listening to songs and ignoring the lyrics,” he said. “It’s part of the experience and part of the fun.”
Natalie Egan, a transgender woman, can attest to that. Born seven years after “Lola” made her debut, Egan said she was obsessed with the song as a male-identified child in Evansville, Indiana, but didn’t understand why until she was 39 and transitioning.
“All of a sudden those words popped for me,” Egan said. “I had been singing that song my whole life but I never put it together. I would hear the music, but I was so disconnected from myself I could not connect to the lyrics. And yet I had a deep, deep connection to the song.”
“In many ways, it defined my childhood,” Egan said.
What amazes Egan now is that “Lola” emerged when it did.
“This is one of the first cracks in the gender revolution,” she said. “It presented us in a way that was not negative. It’s truly pioneering, and it’s remarkable that the Kinks found the courage to put it out.”
Egan is onto something there.
For context, homosexuality had been decriminalized in England just three years before “Lola” was released. And Davies had already been pushing that envelope with songs like “See My Friends,” which was released in 1965 and which some critics have called a song about homosexuality.
“The Kinks were among the first bands to write and record songs that questioned the aggressive commitment to heterosexuality that is conventional in most forms of popular music,” Nick Baxter-Moore wrote in a 2006 essay on the band.
“Although the members of the Kinks were quite clearly male, they were nonetheless willing to play with sexual identity,” Baxter-Moore wrote.
In the 1960s, that meant long hair, frilly shirts matched with red hunting jackets, for a look that Baxter-Moore described as “effete rather than classy.”
And then there was the name of the band, which according to various accounts, was designed to raise eyebrows.
Over the years, Davies has given various explanations about what inspired “Lola.”
It was based, he said, on an encounter the band’s manager had with a transgender woman in Paris. It was based, he said, on his own experience of being asked at a nightclub to dance with a “fabulous looking woman” who may have been trans.
It was also based on reports from what was then an underground scene by former Kinks drummer Mick Avory, who used to hang out at transgender bars in west London.
There were also reports that “Lola” was inspired by a date that Davies, a thrice-married father of four daughters, reportedly had with a trans woman named Candy Darling, who was immortalized in Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side.”
That supposed date did not come up in an interview Darling and two others did with Davies in January 1973 for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine.
No matter what the source of inspiration was, Fleiner said “Lola” differs in tone from many of Davies’ songs, which often dwelled on the frustrations of Britain’s middle and working classes or were tongue-in-cheek takes on the travails of modern life.
“Some of the Kinks’ satirical songs are biting in their commentary, but ‘Lola’ is definitely one of the sympathetic ones,” Fleiner said. “Of course, there’s much humor there, but there’s a resonant theme of acceptance, if not yearning for that acceptance and unconditional love that speaks volumes across so many listener demographics.”