"Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night..."
PRODUCED AND WRITTEN BY RAY DAVIES
UK CHART: 2
Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys, when discussing New Order's beautifully maudlin single Regret, noted that great pop music makes you feel happy about being sad. That phrase could equally apply to Waterloo Sunset. Originally intended as Liverpool Sunset (a title that sounds like the curtain being drawn on that city's fading line of chart-bothering groups that followed in the Beatles slipstream), with the February '67 release of Penny Lane by The Beatles, Ray Davies redrafted the song from more personal experience. Promoting the song's release in late-May '67, he told Keith Altham of the New Musical Express over a half of bitter ale in Jack Straw's Castle on Hampstead Heath:
'I suppose 'Waterloo' has stuck in my mind because I used to walk over Waterloo Bridge several nights a week on the way to art school when I was young. Rasa [Davies, his first wife] and I drove up there recently and just sat in the car for an hour or so, watching.'1
In his youth, Ray's parents had taken him to visit the Festival of Britain with the spectacular, futuristic Skylon reflecting post-war progress and the Thames site of the event representing the constant; the reminders of London's past represented by the river.
The 1951 Festival of Britain: The River Thames curves past the Dome of Discovery, Festival Hall and Skylon.
The song was written as progressive pop was pushing at the formula of 3-minute hits. Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone, Brian Wilson's Good Vibrations and the Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single had created an expansive, shifting landscape. Davies was hailed as an equal to these songwriters by the music press, but was critical of his peers. Reviewing Revolver for a magazine article on it's release in 1966, he was dismissive of the new directions Lennon, McCartney and Harrison were taking. He maintained this with his comments to the press once Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was released, saying that the releases only had one or two songs of note. He was scornful of the crowd pop was beginning to attract. In 2010, he looked back on this time with little warmth:
'I used to live at 87 Fortis Green, where I wrote most of my songs. I recall people coming round...at the height of psychedelia, wearing kaftans, hoping to get turned on. The most they'd get from me was a six-pack of lager and a listen to Max Miller's 'I Fell in Love With Mary from the Dairy''2
His brother Dave was equally derisive of the concept of flower children in London, asking the question in August '67 of 'how can you have a flower scene in Acton? This is the area of Brylcreem and a number 233 bus.'3
No flowers, but a moustache: The Kinks in April 1967, from l-r; Mick Avory, Dave Davies (front), Ray Davies (at back) and Pete Quaife.
On it's release, Waterloo Sunset was received ecstatically, with influential reviewer Penny Valentine writing in the May 6th Disc and Music Echo that:
‘This is quite simply a beautiful record. Quite the best the Kinks have done, and if it doesn’t reach number one I shall be not surprised but astonished. I have waxed poetical about Ray Davies’ talents before, but he really is an extraordinary person of extraordinary talent.'4
Astonishingly, Waterloo Sunset didn't reach the top spot, stalling at number 2 behind The Tremeloes dated and treacly Silence is Golden. However, the song riding high in the charts meant media promotion, including an appearance on Simon Dee's popular BBC chat show Dee Time taping. This placed the group in amongst a distinctively more conservative, showbiz, set of acts. Also appearing on the same episode were ex-Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones, 1950's crooner Ronnie Hilton and The Caravelles - a duo who had gone 4-years without a successful follow-up to their hit You Don't Have to Be a Baby to Cry.5
Discussing this Dee Time appearance with Altham, Ray Davies reflected that 'I was standing there...just standing there singing and thinking what a drag it all is. And I'm sure the kids think it's a drag just to watch someone standing there singing. It's got so stale and boring.'6
Showbiz set: Simon Dee on the cover of the Radio Times, promoting Dee Time.
The characters described in songs such as Waterloo Sunset, Autumn Almanac and the strong set of originals on the The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society are linked to The Kinks being unable to tour America following a disastrous 1965 tour led to them being black-listed for several years by U.S. musician unions. However, in addition to this Davies had suffered a nervous breakdown (smoke-screened by the press at the time as a flu ailment) in 1966 following the heavy schedule of recording and touring that the band were locked into. Following his recuperation, Davies would tout to the music press in late-66 and early-67 about a possible move to a Brian Wilson-style role for him in The Kinks. Writing and producing the songs, but only joining the band for media appearances that were deemed essential. This never came to fruition, but the more outgoing Dave did go solo for some time in mid-67, going top 3 with Death of a Clown (a Dave and Ray co-write). Dave was photographed in extravagant regency-era style clothes for his solo push and one irony of Ray's timeless writing about the decline of a British way of life is that he and the rest of The Kinks were often dressed in clothes reminiscent of Empirical days due to the Swinging fashion (that Ray peerlessly satirised on Dedicated Follower of Fashion).
Davies has often been slippery with his inspiration for his most famous songs. He has become dismissive of the suggestion that the Terry and Julie of Waterloo Sunset, were anyone but his family and imagining their post-war dreams and ambitions. Speaking to Altham about the inspiration for the names, he noted that:
'If you look at the song as a kind of film, I suppose 'Terry' would be Terence Stamp and 'Julie' would be Julie Christie. I've never really thought about the lyrics being sarcastic, but I suppose they are - it's just the way I feel.'7
The Terry and Julie of our imagination: Stamp and Christie in a promotional shot for Far from the Madding Crowd, released in October 1967.
Cementing the image of two of the icons of the Swinging London set being the subject of the song, just over 6 months after Waterloo Sunset charted, John Schlesinger adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd was released, with Stamp in Carnaby St./Sgt. Pepper-esque military finery and Christie the belle of the ball. In the public imagination became a tight connection between Davies' hymn to London, the warm pop-beat of the backing track and layered vocals and a film-star pair of names that defined the look of British glamour in 1967. Stamp also defines the rise of the working-class in the decade, sharing that escalation through the class system with Ray Davies, David Bailey and Michael Caine et al.
And this is the power of Waterloo Sunset ultimately, it's a movie we return to. Deemed beautiful on it's initial release, it's a testament to a safe place that gives the song's character wonderment and peace among noise and confusion in the Big Black Smoke. Ray's cynicism is in check and the song becomes a movie we want to return to, a musical equivalent of it's subject matter. Little matter that Ray performed the song at the 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony, as the song brings us nostalgia and longing in it's sighing, descending melodies. Waterloo Sunset's fine...
1 Keith Altham, Beatles Changed Kink Ray’s ‘Sunset’ (New Musical Express, 20 May 1967), quoted in Uncut: The Ultimate Music Guide Issue 12 - The Kinks (IPC, 2012), p.35, original article title found at https://www.skidmore.edu/~gthompso/britrock/NME/nme6705.html
2 David Cavanagh, Ray Davies (Uncut Magazine, December 2010, quoted in Uncut: The Ultimate Music Guide Issue 12 - The Kinks (IPC, 2012), p.136
3 Keith Altham, Kink Dave Embarrassed by 'Clown' Hit (New Musical Express, 12 August 1967), quoted in Uncut: The Ultimate Music Guide Issue 12 - The Kinks (IPC, 2012), p.36, original article title found at https://www.skidmore.edu/~gthompso/britrock/NME/nme6708.html
4 Penny Valentine, Beautiful Kinks in a 'Waterloo Sunset' (Disc and Music Echo, 6 May 1967), found at https://1960smusicmagazines.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/singles-disc-6may67.jpg?w=2200
5 List of guests that appeared on 18 May 1967 episode of Dee Time found at http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/a358b5208b3c4929a530d5e9d415dd6e
6 Altham, Beatles Changed Kink Ray’s ‘Sunset’ (New Musical Express, 20 May 1967), oft-cited.
7 Altham, Beatles Changed Kink Ray’s ‘Sunset’ (New Musical Express, 20 May 1967), oft-cited.