Released as a single by the Kinks in 1967, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ is one of the band’s best known and acclaimed songs and is also one of the most iconic songs to emerge from the ’60s. Fittingly, it has been regarded as “the apogee of the swinging sixties”.
One of the Kinks’ most quintessential and influential tracks, the origin of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ has always been steeped in mystery. Due to the way the Kinks’ frontman, and author of the song, Ray Davies, has remained elusive about the subject matter, many rumours exist about the classic effort’s origins.
The romance between Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, stars of 1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd is one. Another is about Davies’ sister “going off with her boyfriend to a new world” and “going to emigrate and go to another country” is another.
In 2010 though, Ray Davies would shed some light. He claimed that “Terry”, was based on his cousin Terry Davies who he was “closer to than his real brother in early adolescence”. Regardless of the truth of any of these, this mystique has only added to the song’s legendary status.
Despite its iconic, complex arrangement, the recording sessions for ‘Waterloo Sunset’ lasted only ten hours. Kinks guitarist and Ray’s younger brother, Dave Davies, commented: “We spent a lot of time trying to get a different guitar sound, to get a more unique feel for the record. In the end, we used a tape-delay echo, but it sounded new because nobody had done it since the 1950s. I remember Steve Marriot of the Small Faces came up and asked me how we’d got that sound. We were almost trendy for a while.”
Not only did it garner the love and affection of critics, the public and contemporary heavyweights such as Steve Marriott, the song also marks a significant point in the Kinks’ career. It was the first recording produced solely by Ray Davies without longtime producer Shel Talmy.
Showing that it was indeed the apogee of “the swinging sixties”, Ray Davies has commented that the song was originally entitled ‘Liverpool Sunset’. In a 2010 interview with the Liverpool Echo he expanded: “Liverpool is my favourite city, and the song was originally called ‘Liverpool Sunset’. I was inspired by Merseybeat. I’d fallen in love with Liverpool by that point. On every tour, that was the best reception. We played The Cavern, all those old places, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I had a load of mates in bands up there, and that sound – not the Beatles but Merseybeat – that was unbelievable. It used to inspire me every time.
“So I wrote ‘Liverpool Sunset’. Later it got changed to ‘Waterloo Sunset’, but there’s still that play on words with Waterloo. London was home, I’d grown up there, but I like to think I could be an adopted Scouser. My heart is definitely there.”
The song is effective in sonically displaying the Kinks at their peak. It was the first single and last track off their fifth album Something Else by the Kinks. This album would be their last to feature Talmy, and the last in their classic style before they embarked on the departure that was their sixth album, the concept record, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society in 1968.
Allegedly, in displaying the Kinks at their most organic, a lot of the song’s inspiration derives from the period where Davies lived at 87 Fortis Green, which can only be described as his hit-lab. It seems to be somewhat of a retrospective of his life up until that point: “I didn’t think to make it about Waterloo, initially […] but I realised the place was so very significant in my life. I was in St Thomas’ Hospital when I was really ill and the nurses would wheel me out on the balcony to look at the river. It was also about being taken down to the 1951 Festival of Britain. It’s about the two characters – and the aspirations of my sisters’ generation who grew up during the Second World War. It’s about the world I wanted them to have. That, and then walking by the Thames with my first wife and all the dreams that we had.”
Perhaps this is what gives the song its legendary status. The music is beautiful and the lyrics are so poetic that they cannot be helped in being tinged with pathos. It is as if the older Ray Davies is yearning for a simpler time, not just for himself but for humanity.
Regardless of its provenance, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ has continued to touch the hearts and minds of listeners since its release. It is also regarded as quintessentially British, up there with fish and chips or the Yorkshire pudding. This was encapsulated by Ray Davies performing it at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.
It is a testament to its quality and legacy that since its original release it has spawned so many cover versions. Join us then, as we list the top five covers of this classic.
The best covers of ‘Waterloo Sunset’:
5. Cathy Dennis (1996)
This is an unexpected one. In 1996 Cathy Dennis released her third album, Am I the Kinda Girl? With its release, she abandoned the dance-pop sound that had characterised her previous efforts and followed a more organic singer-songwriter approach. This was in keeping with the Britpop zeitgeist of the time and thus spawned this glorious cover.
This cover makes it seem as if ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was a direct precursor of the Britpop movement. One only has to note the topics inherent to Oasis or Blur’s work at their peak to feel this. This cover is the ’90s in all its glory. It also took the song the highest up the charts since its release back in ’67.
4. First Aid Kit (2014)
Swedish folk duo, First Aid Kit, strip the original back in this glorious cover. It is heartfelt without being cheesy and is reminiscent of a sisterly Simon and Garfunkel. It not only perfectly elucidates the sentiment of the song but adds extra gravitas by switching perspectives and providing a new foundation from which to enjoy the track.
There is not much else to say about this cover, apart from the fact it is a live version. Oh, and have the tissues ready.
3. David Bowie (2003)
This is classic latter-stage David Bowie. Featuring full production, modulated synths and even Ray Davies on backing vocals, this is a majestic reworking of the original. Furthermore, Bowie and Davies joining up and singing the line “I am in paradise” sends a shiver down the spine.
The lead guitar line is a tad cheesy, but hell, this was 2003, and this was David Bowie. Regardless, it stays faithful to the original and gives it a digitalised, Bowie re-imagining — we should be thankful.
2. Peter Gabriel (2010)
Taken from Gabriel’s covers album 2010’s Scratch My Back, this is an orchestral re-working and it is fantastic. It forgoes drums and guitars and strips the song back as much as possible, well for Peter Gabriel that is. The orchestral manoeuvres are beautiful and express the mixed feelings that comprise the original.
While Gabriel may not be the first person you think of when considering The Kinks, the band were so ubiquitous with British culture that you’d be hard pressed to find a single artist in the UK who hasn’t been affected by them.
1. Elliott Smith – 2000
Who else to top this list than the late, great Elliott Smith. Drenched in pathos, this cover really strikes at the heart. Featuring his trademark vocals and acoustic guitar, Smith reveals the melancholy inherent to the original to great effect. It really is a beautiful cover.
Transcending the original in pure fragile emotion, Smith lets the track find a new home in his soulful rendition, heartbreaking as it is. We’ll leave it to Smith to take it from here. Again, have the tissues ready.