Few songs have as accurately captured the quintessence of London in the sixties than the brilliant Ray Davies for The Kinks song ‘Waterloo Sunset’. The track climbed the charts and has gone on to be an anthem for the city but it started out as an ode to another location.
Ray Davies has written some of the sixties most cherished songs and with ‘Waterloo Sunset’ the frontman of The Kinks, one of the most underrated acts of the decade, managed to capture a zeitgeist moment.
In a year that saw the release of The Beatles own ethereal and locational classic ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ The Kinks’ representation of a small piece of London real estate fell perfectly in line with the feeling of the moment. But Davies had originally set out to write a song about another British city, in fact, the Fab Four’s own Liverpool.
“Originally I wanted to call it Liverpool Sunset,” Davies reveals to Classic Rock. “I loved Liverpool and Merseybeat. But you know what they say as advice for writers – write about what you know. I knew London better than I knew Liverpool. So I changed it.” But soon enough the idea of reflecting on his own childhood in and around south London made more sense.
“Waterloo was a pivotal place in my life,” he continues. “And I saw several Waterloo sunsets. I was in St Thomas’ Hospital there when I was really ill as a child, and I looked out on the Thames. Later I used to go past the station when I went to art college on the train. And I met my first girlfriend, who became my first wife, along the Embankment at Waterloo.”
Much like Paul McCartney’s ‘Let It Be’, Davies also claimed the song was born out of his subconscious, awaking from a dream to have the song already somewhat formed, “’Waterloo Sunset’ came to me in a dream. I woke up and it was there.” It was this tone which transcended the song from an idiosyncratic pop tune to a new anthemic height as the group worked hard to add a dreamy sound.
Recorded at Pye Record in Marble Arch, the song took shape alongside Davies, his brother Dave and producer Shel Talmy. Eventually, Davies fell out with Talmy and has later suggested that he took the reins of ‘Waterloo Sunset’ himself, despite Talmy’s protestations. “I had a feeling it was going to be a hit,” Dave Davies wrote in his autobiography, Kink. “It had a wonderfully hypnotic descending bass line contrasting magically with rising vocal harmonies, gentle but stirring textures. Immediately, we started ad-libbing vocal parts around the chorus.”
With the magical arrangement in place, forgetting who placed them there, Davies vocals were overdubbed with choral backing. It saw the tone of the song move squarely into a new realm of psyche-pop and after a few guitar parts were cleverly put together by Dave Davies the track was complete. Released on May 5th in 1967, the song would become a landmark track of the decade.
To compound this notion, Davies reveals to Classic Rock that sixties sub-culture poster boy Jimi Hendrix also had a deep affection for the song. “I remember a moment with Jimi Hendrix and I, when we were on Top Of The Pops together. We met in the corridor, and he said: ‘Man, I love your tune.’ And he played ‘Waterloo Sunset’, just hammering the notes with his left hand, with that wonderful Hendrix feel.” An iconic moment.
If you put aside the track’s humbling melody, and the mystic arrangement the real beauty of the track resides in Davies’ incredible ability to create a crystal clear image. Like a painter, he adds colour texture and his own passion to everything he does.
“As soon as I sang ‘Terry and Julie’,” Davies remembers, “it seemed that they didn’t need description.” Lines like this were a seemingly simple part of a free-association lyric writing session that had seen Davies pick moments from his life in London and litter them through the track with a unique pattern that only those who have lived in the capital will truly understand.
It was a deliberate vagueness that alluded to Davies as a true artist. “With records, I like to let the listener do some work and conjure up some images in their own way. If everybody could draw a picture of Terry and Julie, they’d all draw a different picture, according to people they knew.” Despite the notion it may have been a reference to two celebrity actors of the time Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, Davies has always remained aloof about the song’s true identity.
From where we’re standing, with it’s sheening proper pop structure wobbled by a contradicting undercurrent, its characters born out of the salt and earth of banks of the Thames, all warmed by Davies own life in its streets. It’s hard to see this song as anything else than what it says on the tin.
‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a love letter to London, and everyone in it.