Saturday, May 06, 2017

50 Years Young

"Waterloo Sunset" / The Kinks

Released as a single 50 years ago, on May 5, 1967 (it's also on the classic album Something Else By the Kinks), "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 -- and I always find something beautiful and new in it.

Even as he was writing it, the Kinks' resident genius Ray Davies suspected this might be his masterpiece. It was so important to him that, after 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.

Bingo.

video

It starts off majestically, with those martial bass thrums marching down the scale, but then that twangy guitar riff slips in, laying on a jazzy, modern sound. One of the things I've always loved about Ray Davies' music is his deft mix-and-match of musical styles. In just this one track you've got the 40s-style background oohs (Ray's wife Rasa singing an octave above his brother Dave), 60s girl-group sha-la-la's in the bridge, and the overlapping repeats of "Waterloo Sunset's fine," a nod to Brian Wilson's genius 1966 recordings "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations."

And then there's that ineffable melody, sets of gently descending D-A-G chords, each short phrase making an arc until the final phrase dips below the horizon. (Just like a sunset -- hello!) Notice how 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.

But the balance is fragile, and Ray ruefully morphs into minor chords as he muses, "But I don't need no friends" or "But I don't feel afraid" (how long he hangs on those "don'ts," as if trying to convince himself). He's focused on himself, complaining how the 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.

And then, and then -- the world outside his window revives him, and it resolves into the major D-A-G chords for that grand final line: "As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise." It's a great life lesson: Let go of your petty personal concerns, and be subsumed into the big picture.

The tension between the lonely observer and the teeming metropolis is the bittersweet heart of this song. Listen closely and you realize that 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 for right now, nature uplifts him, and "Waterloo sunset's fine."

By verse three, notice, he finally shifts the story away from himself and over to his fictional lovers Terry and Julie. (And who in late sixties Brit cinema was cooler than Terence Stamp and Julie Christie?). But unlike loner Ray, the reason they don't need friends is 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).

"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, no horn sections) -- 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....