Monday, August 13, 2012

Waterloo Sunset / The Kinks

I don't know how long this YouTube link will remain viable, but since the American network NBC -- which paid a truckload of money for the exclusive right to broadcast the Olympics Game -- saw fit to cut Ray Davies' performance of this quintessential London anthem from their broadcast of the Closing Ceremonies, I felt it was my civic duty to post it here. (Ray's bit starts at about 1:30 in the clip.) Enjoy!

I won't rant on here about how stupid it was to edit out Ray (considering that such luminaries as George Michael, Annie Lennox, and Fatboy Slim were given plenty of airtime!).  But here's a rerun of a previous post I wrote about "Waterloo Sunset":

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.


wwolfe said...

Thanks for posting the video - Ray's voice remains remarkably strong. More thanks, though, for re-posting your critique, which is the best I've read on one of the world's great songs.

Uncle E said...

This song has remained in my personal Top 5 songs of all time, and I can't imagine a time where it'll go below that. Amazing, amazing song.

Alex said...

Such a gorgeous song... and very moving moment in the Closing Ceremony. Considering all he's been through, Ray sounded amazing. (The only thing that would have made it better is seeing Dave by his side, but perhaps that was too much to hope for.)

NBC are complete asshats.

Anonymous said...

Gotta say it...sacrilege that it is, but "Waterloo Sunset" is perphaps, my 134th favorite Kinks song of all time. Maybe, as we all know, because it is about lead singer of the 70's, Terry of "Terry and The Pirates," and PBS food maven, Julia Child. But it was never on my list of favs and always has been a big fav for Kinks newbees. But that's alright, the more Kinks fans, the merrier.

Now, "Sitting In My Hotel," there's a marvelously maudling song!

Yeah, Alex is right about NBC. I'll never watch it again, not even "Jeopardy."

And seriously, Holly, thanks for the posting.

Bon apetite.


Anonymous said...

I watched the live-feed telecast where Ray Davies performed this and he sounded dreadful, out of tune and warbly. All over Twitter, he was being blasted as "awful" and "past it" and "can't sing anymore." Odd that people here say it was "remarkable." Maybe someone fixed the problem after the fact. This could be a tape over. Because when he did it live, it was pretty bad.

--- Andi

Holly A Hughes said...

As I only have this tape to go by, I'm surprised by that. As far as I know, this tape wasn't fixed; someone I know recorded it off the live feed. Given all the cacophony around Ray, it's hard to tell the fine points of pitch, and I'm sure it was even harder for Ray to hear himself. But then, slagging public figures is what the Twitterverse does best, isn't it? The terrible revenge of the young, to rag their elders for having submitted to the inevitable ravages of time. I sincerely hope that what goes around comes around.

I gather that Ray was asked to do this song specifically (being themed to the landmarks on stage), and it was timed to appear at sunset, which is a cool idea but meaningless to those who watched it in other time zones. It's a great song, and doesn't have to be delivered in a powerhouse voice. Ray performed it as a singalong, and he got the crowd chiming in all right. Much as I also love "Sitting In My Hotel," that would not have worked in this occasion!

Who Am Us Anyway? said...

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) ...

That's exactly right, and I don't think anyone's ever said it that right before.

Holly A Hughes said...

An interesting note: "Waterloo Sunset" is also the title of a new compilation CD that's just been released in the UK, so Ray's Olympics performance also served as a plug for that CD. And lo and behold, it is now ranked #14 on the Official UK Albums Top
100 chart, while the original recording of "Waterloo Sunset" is at #47 on the Singles chart. So I guess this performance triggered some substantial record sales, despite the mean-spirited tweeting -- isn't that cool!