From Route 66 to 34th & Vine via Memphis, Massachusetts and Frisco Bay, the places British singers and bands celebrated in song used to be largely American. True, Ewan MacColl’s folk standard Dirty Old Town was set among the canals, factories and slums of Salford, but such exceptions tended to prove the rule. Until 1967.
In the space of a few months, everything changed. Four years after Kansas City had been a staple of their set, The Beatles released Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, two specific locations to flesh the idea of ‘places I remember’ from In My Life 18 months earlier. It was a double A-side of jaw-dropping quality on which John Lennon and Paul McCartney reflected on locations from their Liverpudlian childhoods.
Then came The Kinks with Waterloo Sunset, evoking the ‘dirty old’ River Thames and the sun going down on the London skyline in a manner which, like Penny Lane, finds beauty in an urban milieu. With its gorgeous melody, evocative imagery and slightly mysterious storyline, it remains Raymond Douglas Davies’ finest composition. I refuse to say ‘arguably’, despite competition from See My Friends, I’m Not Like Everybody Else, Days, Shangri-La, Celluloid Heroes and countless others.
By coincidence, both the Beatles’ and Kinks’ singles were kept off the No1 spot in the UK charts by middle-of-the-road pap – Engelbert Humperdinck’s doleful dirge Release Me and Sandie Shaw’s insidious Eurovision winner, Puppet On A String. The Sixties did not always swing like a pendulum do.
Ray Davies wrote Waterloo Sunset for the Something Else By The Kinks album, which featured another song, David Watts, that confirmed him as a chronicler of Englishness in the John Betjeman mould. He is asked endlessly about the former, which, one suspects, has led to his being creative in his accounts of what inspired the song. His line used to be that it was originally titled Liverpool Sunset but his standard response now is that it was conceived while he was a patient in St Thomas’ Hospital, which stands on the opposite side of the river from the Houses of Parliament.
At one point he also allowed the idea to gain currency that the characters in the song, the romantic couple Terry and Julie, might be film stars Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Later he suggested that he had in mind one of his sisters and her boyfriend/husband. Another possibility is that the couple were simply symbolic figures, Mr and Mrs Everyman. After all, if he was isolated indoors, in a hospital ward, how would he know the names of the protagonists?
The track is still played on mainstream radio and appears on Sixties compilation albums. From my experience people see it as something sublime, nostalgic and even joyful; a portrait of the capital in a rose-tinted time. ‘As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset,’ sings Davies, ‘I am in paradise.’ In retrospect Waterloo underground and the ‘millions of people swarming like flies’ seems a peculiar paradise. But I remember the warm glow and the possibilities it created in my mind and how that contributed to my desire to escape the provinces for London. When I met my future wife she had the same connection with the song; her name is Julie.
On closer inspection of a lyric that has become so familiar, its solitariness is intriguing. The narrator (and Davies has encouraged the idea that the song is autobiographical, recalling how Waterloo railway station had featured in his life) identifies himself as someone that watches people – strangers – who are unaware of his scrutiny and to whom he even gives names. He tells us not only that ‘Every day I look at the world from my window’ but also that ‘I don’t need no friends’. One might call it benign voyeurism.
Waterloo Sunset has aged well, which reflects further credit on Ray Davies, who was producing for the first time. The words and music slot together seamlessly; the lead vocal is unforced and almost fragile – light years removed from the raucous metal trailblazer You Really Got Me a few years earlier – while the harmonies are delicate and unobtrusive.
Then there’s the intro and the outro, to borrow the title from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Dave Davies, Ray’s brother and, it has often seemed, his rival, comes into his own here. In contrast with the power chords of the Kinks’ early singles he picks out the melody note for note in a style he has called ‘that old delayed echo sound’, as featured by Hank Marvin et al. Even Ray has praised Dave’s ‘lovely, compelling guitar lines’. This was sibling revelry at its finest.
As the record fades out, a strident guitar riff comes in, almost in a marching rhythm and in sharp contrast with the gentle atmosphere created by the previous three minutes. Ray said the image he had in mind was ‘my sister and her boyfriend walking into the future’ and called them ‘triumphant chords’. I hear them as challenging, implying an uncertain future where anything could happen.
Either way, The Kinks created the London classic. And yet a few months after the New Vaudeville Band and The Beatles took Winchester Cathedral and Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields respectively to No1 in the US, this definitively English song failed to dent the Billboard Hot 100.
Their loss. Along with Lennon and McCartney, Pete Townshend, and Steve Marriott and Ronnie Lane, Ray Davies was demonstrating with Waterloo Sunset how far the outstanding British writers of their generation had come, in every sense, from Kansas City and its ilk. Now they sang in their own accents about their own backyards and their own back stories.