The random access butterfly of memory has flapped its wings again, stirring up another remembrance of times past. Gather round me, my children, whilst I relate to you another tale of when things were Not As They Are Now.
I speak of The Kinks, and their classic hit single, ‘Lola’. I have mentioned from time to time that I literally discovered pop/rock music ten days from the end of the Sixties, and ‘Lola’ was the band’s first big success of the new decade.
I’m pretty sure that I was vaguely aware of the band’s existence but not their history. I knew ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ but was under the impression that it was a novelty song, and therefore not by a ‘name’ band. I was certainly not aware that the band hadn’t reached the Top Ten since 1967, nor the Top Twenty since the following year.
It was a strange time. The Sixties were over, no-one knew what the Seventies was going to hold, and all the currently surviving Sixties pop bands were going ‘heavy’ to one degree or another. The Kinks weren’t immune to that, in fact they, in their idiosyncratic way, had begin the process somewhat earlier than most.
‘Lola’ was a glorious revival, but there was a point, early in its existence, where it could all have gone wrong, for the BBC were on the point of banning it.
Perhaps banning is too strong a word, and I’m not aware of what negotiations were being carried out, but there was a distinct reason why the song, in its original form, was not going to get any airplay on Radio 1, and it was serious enough that, in order to get the record on the air, Ray Davies had to break off an American tour, fly back to England, and record an overdub.
Let’s consider that opening verse, shall we?
I met her in a club down in Old Soho
Where they drink champagne
And it tastes just like Coca-Cola
I walked up to her and I asked her to dance
I asked her her name
And in a different voice she said “Lola”
Already Ray Davies is signalling that things are not quite of the ordinary, and indeed he quickly follows up by signalling openly that Lola is a transvestite and that ‘she’ and the singer are entering a sexual relationship.
Not exactly the lightweight, family-friendly, boy meets girl and shares nothing but sweet, innocent kisses until three years after the wedding that was the kind of thing decent, honest, hard-working parents expected their kids to be listening to on Radio 1 in 1970.
You may now think that you understand why ‘Lola’ was in such danger of a radio ban, but you would be wrong. Go back to that verse: the clue is right there. In order to make The Kinks’ new single playable, Ray Davies had to overdub a single word. Can you guess which it is?
That’s right: it was ‘Coca’.
The BBC was, and still is, an organisation set up, and operated by Government Charter. Though primarily independent (this is talking about 1970, when the Beeb really did hold itself separate from most Government influence and was incredibly better for it), it was still the National Broadcaster. As such, it was barred from throwing the National weight behind advertising in any form. Even when it came to a pop song’s lyrics.
The Kinks could not be allowed to sway public opinion towards the Coca-Cola Corporation, and to the clear detriment of Pepsi-Cola, and all the other small brewers of Colas the world over. So Davies had to criss-cross the Atlantic to record a radio-friendly version that referenced the fictional Cherry Cola.
The single, of course, was unaltered. All those innocent thousands who bought it after hearing it on Radio 1 found themselves subjected to the most pernicious and insidious advertising.
Of course, the irony is that now, and for many years, the BBC has been perfectly happy to play the Coca-Cola version – always a jarring experience for those of us as old as me, conditioned to expect Cherry – and the forgotten radio version is just as much as advertisement as the original, Cherry Cola being a very popular drink.
This wasn’t the first, nor the last time that product placement would radically affect a record’s chances with the BBC. Let us go back a dozen years, to 1958, and the single ‘Beep Beep’, recorded by The Playmates.
I have a vague, and clear illusory memory of hearing this song on Juke Box Jury, but the more factual version is that I became familiar with ‘Beep Beep’ from its regular appearances on Junior Choice throughout the Sixties.
That alone should tell the young folk that we are dealing here with a novelty song. Let’s delve deeper. According to Wikipedia, this is a perfect example of accelerando, meaning that the song gets faster and faster as it goes along. It begins at walking place, with this guy driving along in his big, flashy, powerful, status symbol Cadillac when he gets beeped from behind by a guy who wants to pass him: the guy in back is driving a Nash Rambler. Oh dear.
Whilst driving in my Cadillac, much to my surprise (beep, beep)
A little Nash Rambler came right behind, about one third my size (beep, beep)
The guy must have wanted to pass me out, cos he kept on tooting his horn (beep, beep)
I’ll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn (beep, beep).
You get the picture. This may be a novelty song, but its subject cuts deeply to the heart of the psycho-sexuality of the American male. The beep beep, incidentally, is a cheap and tinny car horn, and it is beeped at the end of every line.
Naturally, the Caddy-driver speeds up, which is echoed in the accelerando, but instead of leaving the little Nash Rambler behind in the dust, the silly little car stays right on the Caddy’s tail, still beeping its horn at the end of every line, determined to overtake. Which would be a big disgrace.
Now we’re doing a hundred ten, as fast as I can go (bip, bip) – the horn has got faster too
The Rambler pulled alongside of me, as if I were going slow (bip, bip)
The fellow rolled down his window, and yelled for me to hear (bip, bip)
“Hey, buddy, how can I get this car out of second gear?” (fusillade of bips up to abrupt cut-off)
But this isn’t the song with which my infant ears became familiar. It was decades, and decades of forgetting The Playmates even existed, before I ever heard of Cadillacs and Nash Ramblers.. The song I recollected was about the driver of a generic ‘limousine’ being pursued by an equally generic ‘bubble car’ (and if you’ve ever seen a bubble car, you’ll know why that made the song even more of a goof).
Yes, the BBC had even required a novelty song to record a radio-friendly version that excluded references to specific makes of cars, even though neither of the cars or their rivals were available to buy in Britain. Even though not one Briton in one hundred thousand could have recognised a Nash Rambler if one ran him over (very slowly). The airwaves could not be defiled by commercialism.
Nor did this attitude die out any time soon. Fifteen years later, three years after ‘Lola’, Paul Simon had a massive world-wide hit with a song called ‘Kodachrome’. Kodachrome did not exist in Britain, but the single was never released here anyway. Not only would the BBC not play it, they wouldn’t even allow it to be referred to by name.
To return to the subject of ‘Lola’, you still may find it strange that, even after the invention of Cherry Cola to make the track playable, the BBC did not have any qualms about playing a song so clearly celebrating transvesticism and homosexual relationships, subjects all but designed to set the crusading heart of Mrs Mary Whitehouse a-fluster (look what a fuss she made about Chuck Berry’s ‘My Ding-a-Ling’).
In answer to that I can only point to another single that came out in 1973, Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, which improbably reached no. 10 in Britain. Where Ray Davies spoke in rather guarded, albeit unambiguous terms, Reed let it all hang out, especially the line about ‘But she never lost her head/even when she was giving head’ (which got censored like a shot on American radio – the ‘coloured girls’ didn’t survive either).
But the song was on Radio 1’s playlist, meaning that you’d hear it at least three to four times every day, Monday to Sunday. The DJs knew what it meant. The Producers knew what it meant. Everybody knew what it meant (except for a rather naïve, innocent seventeen year old with practically no experience, over whose head it passed like Concorde, and at a similar distance).
The BBC didn’t. They really did not get it. They seriously did not understand the words.
So ‘Lola’ was never in any danger , not even with the lines:
Now 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’s Lola.