"Waterloo Sunset" / The Kinks
One of the loveliest benefits of this album-a-day Kinksathon is the chance to savor the album back tracks, not just the obvious "big" songs. However, today's album is Something Else By the Kinks (released 1967), and the last song on that album is so monumental, I have no choice but to write about it. "Waterloo Sunset" may be one of the Kinks best-known songs, but no matter how many times I listen to it, it always devastates me.
Although Ray Davies claims this song was written as an elegy to the end of a musical era -- at one time, he says, he considered calling it "Liverpool Sunset" -- by the time he got done it was something else entirely. Even as he was writing it, he suspected it might be his masterpiece (although for a long time he kept the lyrics a secret from the other Kinks, fearing they would think he was daft). After the Kinks' producer, Shel Talmy, had finished mixing the song, Ray stole back into the studio with the other Kinks and recorded it all over again, until it was just the way he wanted it. I love those majestic marching bass thrums of the opening, the twangy counterpointing guitar riff, the ethereal oohs in the background (Ray's wife Rasa singing an octave above Dave), the "sha-la-la's" in the bridge and the overlapping repeats of "Waterloo Sunset's fine." It's a damn near perfect recording.
Even the melody sounds like a sunset, with sets of gently descending D-A-G chords, each short phrase making an arc until the final phrase dips below the horizon. Each verse begins with a widescreen panorama -- the "dirty old river" flowing under the bridge, the lovers Terry and Julie meeting by the platform, crowds swarming "like flies" into the tube entrance. Then, in verses one and two, after the panorama Ray telescopes his view, bringing himself into the picture -- saying the busy crowds make him feel dizzy, and he's too lazy to leave home and meet friends. It's not just about London, it's really about his aching heart. The end of verse one shifts into minor chords as Ray plaintively muses, "But I don't need no friends" and protests "But I don't feel afraid." And yet, in his isolation, he still is nourished by the world outside his window, as he return to the D-A-G chords for that grand final line: "As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise."
The tension between the lonely observer and the teeming metropolis is the bittersweet heart of this song. He never gets out of that room, as he admits in the bridge (all those wistful 7th chords): "Every day I look at the world from my window," a memory drawn from Ray's childhood, when he was confined by a long illness in St. Thomas hospital near Waterloo. His perspective is tinged with a fear of death -- "Chilly, chilly is the evening time" -- but at the moment, nature uplifts him, and "Waterloo sunset's fine." Not since John Keats wrote his ode "To Autumn" has anyone quite so poignantly etched the intersection between life and death.
It's almost as if writing the song itself conquers death. By verse three, notice, he has shifted the story completely away from himself and over to Terry and Julie -- they're the ones who "don't need no friends" now. And unlike loner Ray, they don't need friends because they have each other. They're in love, and we get our happy ending. Or do we? The shadows haven't entirely been chased away -- as Terry and Julie "cross over the river," I recall old myths in which crossing a river means death (which gives the line "they are in paradise" an extra twist). Love and loss are intertwined, tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same mask.
"Waterloo Sunset" is like a great landscape painting, worthy of Turner or Monet; it's also a cinematic piece, with its wide-angle shots, dissolves, close-ups, and long tracking shot. It's a lyric poem, and it's also an epic novel. To do all this with one pop song, in the space of three minutes and seventeen seconds -- and to do it with a simple four-piece band (no added strings or horn sections, thank you) -- well, it's a wondrous achievement. If Ray Davies had done nothing else in his life, he'd be worthy of undying respect.
And of course, he has done more -- so much more....
NEXT: The Kinks Are the Village Green Appreciation Society and "Picture Book"