main photograph by Andy @Birmingham_81
In 1979, The Raincoats could never have guessed how their joyfully amateurish, rushed recordings would one day be revered world-wide as something truly special. Their decision to play and subsequently record a version of the Kinks number 2 hit ‘Lola’ may also have been an impulsive idea at the time, which has generated intrigue and wonder ever since. Bassist and co-singer, Gina Birch recalls the recording of the album tracks including ‘Lola’:
It was done very quickly. We recorded it in Berry Street Studio in London over a two or three week period. We had just got back from a tour, and we recorded the songs pretty much as we had played them on the tour. We did very few overdubs, but the mixing was interesting because in the mixing you can perhaps take things out as well as bring in instruments when you hear different combinations.Gina Birch
Although different members of The Raincoats have been interviewed many times and asked about ‘Lola’, there hasn’t been a considered or lengthy response. Gina Birch reports that they can’t agree whose idea it was to perform the song, saying only ‘it was in the air’.
In contrast with the democratic, happy-go-lucky, bish-bash-bosh Raincoats, the original version of ‘Lola’ was released by The Kinks in the summer of 1970 accompanied by in-fighting, grabs for songwriting credit and recording sessions which dragged on well over a month for just that one song.
So who was Lola? There’s a bit of an obsession for finding this out when it’s perfectly clear that lyricist Ray Davies created a composite character based on any number of ‘swinging 60s’ experiences. Like many writers of novels, plays and song lyrics, Ray Davies used a variety of sources for inspiration – his own experiences, friends, situations and stories in the news. Ray D is particularly praised for his observational songs about the British class system, and the everyday description and detail that Britpop subsequently took on.
The impact of the UK’s 1967 Sexual Offences Act was massive for those in the arts. The underground social, artistic and sexual world that had previously existed in secret, and in constant fear of prosecution was able to relax, express itself and slowly start to become mainstream. So in the late 60s and 70s, there were a lot of seemingly new ideas for young people to consider – and bisexuality was a biggie. The brothers Ray and Dave Davies at the core of The Kinks have both identified as bisexual during that period. The band and their circle wore spectacular clothing, hung out with drag queens and attended the kind of places where ‘anything goes’. Indeed, the band name ‘Kinks’ itself was seen as being edgy, and attracting unusual characters to their gigs. The androgyny of Marc Bolan, David Bowie and those that came later can be traced back to 1967’s birth of the’ permissive society.’
There are plenty of articles and interviews that go over the basic plot of the song, ‘Lola’. Sung by a man (Ray Davies), the virginal narrator meets someone in a Soho club who is a transwoman. Although the narrator is shocked to realise who Lola is after drinking, dancing and romancing, there’s an acceptance that this sort of thing is the way of the modern world. The lyrics of the song were considered controversial at the time, although the initial BBC ban was for commercial content – causing Ray to replace the lyric ‘Coca-cola’ with ‘cherry cola’ for the single.
The writing of the song fused different elements, and it’s unsurprising to hear protests about unrecognised contributions from one brother to another. The Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo Lola chorus came from a nursery-rhyme style melody that Ray Davies made up to sing to his baby daughter Louisa. Dave Davies says that he was the one who then took that idea and put a guitar part to it – many would claim it’s a vital and iconic guitar part. Ray then completed the lyrics and claimed the song as his alone. Dave has repeatedly expressed anger about being cheated out of songwriting co-credits that he feels are rightfully his.
‘Lola’ by The Kinks reached number 1 in Belgium, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand. It failed to reach the top spot in the UK because ‘In the Summertime’ by Mungo Jerry didn’t shift from number one for 7 weeks. Since then, the song has remained popular when the band has played live concerts, and ‘Lola’ has on a couple of occasions (just) got listed in those NME and Rolling Stone lists of ‘500 Greatest Songs of all time’.
Female singers have often recorded versions of songs that originally had a male point of view (and sometimes vice versa). Back then, the accepted thing to do was to change the names and pronouns in an assumed hetero-world. When Shawn Colvin recorded The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does is Magic’, ‘She’ became a ‘He’; Karen Carpenter flipped The Beatles to sing about a boy – ‘He’s got a Ticket To Ride’. And in the 1970’s, if you didn’t do the presumed he/she switch, it would be considered ‘edgy’ – like Patti Smith singing Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ and not even thinking of changing it to ‘Gordon’.
The Raincoats, like The Slits with their cover of I Heard it Through the Grapevine kept the lyrics to ‘Lola’ exactly as they were without changing them. To us at punkgirldiaries, this is a normal musicianly thing to do – the song exists as a human creation, and you sing it as a human being complete with any contradictions or role-play as singer. Besides, if you genuinely tried changing all the gender stuff involved in ‘Lola’ it would indeed be a crock of mess instead of a bloody good tune.
As to the sound of The Raincoats version of Lola, it was mostly what they could do at that time – it was an energetic projection of their different experiences, and totally at odds with the prevailing macho rock world. Drummer Paloma (Palmolive) explained her original concept:
When I was with the Raincoats I had this idea. I thought it would be so cool to have really raw drums and raw guitar with beautiful, uplifting violin on top. So I made an ad, and this girl Vicky took it. She took the whole ad so no one else would call. I was really excited about this idea. That would have kept me in the scene. But she totally listened to the producers who said, you should be screechy. And I was like, forget it, I’m tired of this. I couldn’t believe in the music and I wasn’t that into the scene.Palmolive
Ray Davies did have some connection with the punk crowd in the late ’70s. Chrissie Hynde’s first hit with The Pretenders was a Kinks’ album track ‘Stop Your Sobbing’, and Hynde has a daughter from a 1980s relationship with Ray Davies. However he didn’t seem to ‘get’ The Raincoats cover version. When Gina Birch was asked in an interview if there had ever been any feedback from The Kinks, about their cover version of ‘Lola’, she commented:
“Ray Davies, when asked about our version (jokingly I think, although maybe not), that he preferred someone to take an album track of his, (Chrissie Hynde) and make it a hit, rather than taking a hit, and making it an album track. No word on the sensibilities of the recording!”Gina Birch
Still, never mind, Raincoats! Talent and brilliance comes in different forms. There’s the studied long-form career like that of Ray Davies, where despite worldwide recognition as one of the best songwriters of a generation, you still feel you’re overlooked, and under-appreciated. Or there’s the thing where you’re accidentally born at the right time, you fall in with an amazing scene and something you throw together in a couple of weeks is being talked about 40 years later.
Champagne? … or Cherry-cola?