Another day, another great Sixties’ songster. Today is the birthday of Raymond Douglas Davies, the lead singer and chief songwriter for The Kinks, the band he formed with his younger brother Dave on lead guitar. Davies and company jumped into the forefront of rockin’ rock bands with “You Really Got Me” way back in 1964. Today’s song is more reflective and indeed much more in-keeping with the main thrust of Davies’ music. “Waterloo Sunset” is a song about the urban experience, about young love, about a vision of communal life and one’s solitary place in it. Davies is a major songwriter of his generation because his songs aren’t just excuses for melodies and harmonies and the wonders of recording (in fact many major Kinks tracks could do with better recording tech), they are songs with themes. Davies almost always has something to say and a unique perspective from which to say it.
I didn’t get to know the quality—and range—of his songwriting until the late Seventies. At that point, the band had left Reprise (in the States) for RCA and RCA for Arista. They were on a bit of a comeback in as much as they seemed to have better studio privileges. But the main work of the band, and Davies’ best compositions, date from the Reprise and RCA years. Davies is still putting out records from time to time and has written a book I should get around to reading. Of all the rockers publishing books this decade, his, I suspect, will actually be well-written.
Discovering the earlier Kinks, from the perspective of the late Seventies, meant picking up The Kink Kronikles, a compilation double LP from Reprise that was packed with great songs, all out of sequence, of course. The liner notes were pretty good and the arrangements of the 4 sides showed some thought. It would be some time before I got around to hearing all the LPs that fed that mighty collection. One of the standout songs on that album, from one of the band’s landmark early albums is “Waterloo Sunset,” and the album is Something Else by The Kinks. The album is a charming collection of odd takes on Britain and its people. Davies, more than any of his contemporaries, The Beatles, the Stones, even The Who, got across a sense of the attitudes and outlooks, the trials and triumphs of standard-issue or at times extremely quirky Brits. By the time I got around to most of these songs I was steeped in the comedy of Monty Python and my fondness for how the Brits present themselves was well-established.
Davies can be very satirical when he wants to be, but he tends more toward the tongue-in-cheek approach. His irony can be sparkling, his sense of delicate phrasing surpassing The Beatles. Davies doesn’t write many songs to and about women—whether of seduction or complaint—that are so typical of rock and pop; he creates characters; he describes situations; he has a more novelistic sense of how lives are lived than most songwriters ever do.
In today’s song we have two situations compared. The situation of the speaker who doesn’t wander the streets and prefers to stay at home at night; and the situation of the couple, Terry and Julie, who meet at "Waterloo Station every Friday night.” The song opens with an establishing shot (if this were film) or a scene-setting description (as in a story) that begins poetically in the form of an apostrophe (to the Thames): “Dirty, old river, must you keep rolling / Flowing into the night?” It’s the tone of the poet who is about to consider the state of his fellow man. “People so busy, make me feel dizzy / Taxi lights shine so bright.” And we’re off. This is the modern metropolis and our guide is both a loner and a kind of omniscient eye who sees all. And one might as well say it’s possible that he’s just a retiring git in a bedsit, dreaming up his ideal couple doing ideal things on an ideal Friday in an ideal city. “As long as they gaze on Waterloo Sunset, they are in paradise.” That line—which joins Terry and Julie with the narrator—lets the sunset over Waterloo Station stand for the collectivity of the city. Whoever you are, whatever you’re after—we all look upon the same sunset each day in our particular locale. We are city-dwellers all.
The song actually begins with that descending intro on rhythm that gives ways to Dave Davies’ lead picking out the main melody. And a sweet melody it is, the kind that’s made for getting stuck in your head so that you’re whistling it or humming it on the Tube. I can stick to my faux Brit guns here because this song was a hit wherever Britannia flourishes—but not in America. The general population here just doesn’t get it. Song didn’t even chart in this crass country. Anyway, the pleasures of this song are great, but even a mere 10 years after the song came out the “sha-la-las” that introduce the chorus seemed quaint. But that’s not a complaint. The more this song fades into the past, the more dated it seems, the more powerful it becomes. Already it sounds to me almost as a song from the Twenties or Thirties sounded to me as a kid in the Sixties (when people like McC and Davies were stealing from their elders in the songwriting tradition). It’s ghostly. A vision preserved in a daguerreotype, but enhanced with power chords: “Every day I look at the world from my window / Chilly, chilly is the evening time / Waterloo Sunset’s fine.” One imagines the kind of dusk that comes in the early Autumn. It’s nice to be out and about, but you best take a sweater.
And the way those voices join and overlap and cadence their “ahhs” behind “Waterloo Sunset’s fine” gives us the song’s sense of paradise: it’s in a sound, in an almost choirboy sense of how to make harmonies lap at the throne of God. Then we get it: the God’s eye view: “Millions of people, swarming like flies ‘round / Waterloo Underground / But Terry and Julie pass over the river / Where they feel safe and sound.” This passage alone pretty much beggars most songwriters of Davies’ generation. Even if we feel “swarming like flies” is a bit of a cliché, there’s no denying that to hear it at this time in a song—that has been simply lyrical and evocative up to this point—deepens the effect and makes it more lasting. We are in a collectivity, alright, and we might as well be insects from the singer’s heightened position. He’s looking down on us all and on his heroes, the duo who pass over the river and off into the sunset. Singled out among the teeming mass of humanity the way lovers always single themselves out.
We then realize that the intention of the song is not to tell us a story but to capture the sort of thing that poets of the urban landscape like Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire did. We see the fragile but meaningful connection within the everyday (the couple meets every Friday) as the world streams around them, with the sunset over the station giving us both the God’s eye view as well as the dominant visual rationale—think of Whistler or Turner, the painters of the sky over an urban space. We might be, after all, looking at a painting in which a stray beam of light (a ray), golden and godlike, falls upon Terry and Julie as a benediction from above, which the song itself bestows.
OK, enough of all this. I want to wander. And I don’t need no friend . .
Happy 70th, Ray!