Pressed to name my all-time favourite song, I’d be struggling, but a strong contender – alongside The Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, The Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ – would have to be ‘Waterloo Sunset’, surely The Kinks’ and Ray Davies’ greatest song. In the Kinks’ biography he wrote for Omnibus Press three years ago, You Really Got Me: The Story Of The Kinks, Nick Hasted obviously felt the same way, devoting a whole chapter to it, which I think belongs on my blog in its entirety. Here’s the first part, second tomorrow.
Ray Davies was in Van Morrison’s Belfast flat when he first heard the record which dominated the Summer of Love. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band indicated a turning tide towards mystic whimsy and psychedelic rock. It was joined by radical debuts including The Velvet Underground And Nico, Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn and The Doors. The hip singles which chimed were Procol Harum’s ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ and The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. The new rock mainstream was drifting away from The Kinks. The hippie counter-culture bloomed around them on both sides of the Atlantic, with the hope of upending the straight world, and, in the US, avoiding conscription into Vietnam’s bloody jungles. Their own personal counter-culture in 1967 fought for Fortis Green’s verities; restorative cups of tea after a hard day, not LSD to unpick its existence. “I didn’t listen to it all,” Ray says breezily of The Beatles’ magnum opus. “I was just passing through. It was alright. I knew I’d put out the best song of the year, so it didn’t matter to me.”
Sgt. Pepper sounds like a brilliant sonic artefact now. The Kinks’ greatest song, ‘Waterloo Sunset’, is a spell cast every time you press play, drop a stylus, or hear a snatch of it on a radio as you wait in a shop. It has made millions contemplatively pause around Waterloo, a busy urban area to which it has given a sacred glow. The place already had that resonance for Ray. Previous Kinks singles had moved from roaring teen desire to satires about others. Personal feelings more complex than being in love had been tucked onto B-sides and albums. Though only he knew it, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ drew on Ray’s past, spilling fragile memories.
Even if you don’t quite grasp the lyrics, you catch the narrator’s condition. He is a lonely, wounded animal who doesn’t dare leave his room, scared by the restless flow of the Thames and the crowds “swarming like flies” around Waterloo tube. Even the cold spring air is too much. So he contents himself with watching the young lovers Terry and Julie, and the beauty of the sunset from his window. “And I don’t feel afraid,” he sings, staring at and holding onto the view of his “paradise”. The comfort the record finds for this understated pain is one reason hearing it can feel like healing.
“I didn’t think to make it about Waterloo, initially,” Ray says. “It came to me as being not the death-knell, but a statement about Merseybeat. But I realised the place was so very significant in my life, and it’s always best to write about what you know. It’s not nostalgia for me. It came from good and bad feelings. I was in St. Thomas’s Hospital when I was really ill [when he had his tracheotomy aged 13], and the nurses would wheel me out on the balcony to look at the river. I used to go to Waterloo every day to go to college as well. It was also about being taken down to the Festival of Britain with my mum and dad. My dad took me by the hand and said something very poignant. I said, ‘What does this mean?’ He said, ‘This is the future.’ It was a fifties version of what the future was. I seem to recall they had a very strange tower.”
The Skylon tower did give the 1951 Festival, which would later grow into the concrete canyons of the South Bank Centre, a science-fiction edge. There’s a short film made at the time, Derek York’s Festival, in which a working-class kid playing with his mates on a bomb-site gets one of the free tickets the Festival’s organisers floated over London inside balloons. He has a tiring day cheekily cadging food and rides, before returning home to be thumped by his mum. It was revived for a 2010 screening at the South Bank’s National Film Theatre, in a compilation of shorts called Bow Bells And Waterloo Sunsets (though every film predates the song). In the black-and-white footage, the concrete South Bank is almost unrecognisable as it gleams with possibility. Ray’s dad didn’t imagine it.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he continues. “It’s also about the two characters in the song, and the aspirations of my sisters’ generation before me, who grew up during the Second World War and didn’t have all the advantages I had growing up in the Sixties. I used their character. 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. Her in her brown suede coat that she wore, that was stolen.” He laughs quietly. “And sometimes when you’re writing and you’re really on good form, you get into that frame of mind and you think, I can relate to any of these things. That’s when you know it’s something good.”
“Everything was right for it,” he said in a TV interview at the time which seems to describe a visionary state. “If I stopped writing, I went out, and I went past buildings that reminded me of the song. Everything happened. I saw rivers and things. And I had to do it.”
“I’ve got a sense of researching myself,” he says now. “It’s my way of dealing with emotional content. Maybe it’s something I learned through art school. Rather than absorb all the ideas, let them flow out, and some sort of sense comes out of it. It’s certainly the case with that song. ‘Waterloo Sunset’ works on many levels of memory, but not consciously. It’s a subconscious thing at work, on a level that none of us know about. That comes through in the record, that’s what people pick up on. But if you listen to the words without the music, it’s a different thing entirely. People go on about the song - I love the song, I always loved it the first time I played it and finished it. But no-one else in the world knows what that was like. So why talk about it? It’s the record, actually, and being able to make it myself. And I took care, because I knew what I had.”
The Kinks have strong, sometimes diverging memories of making their delicate masterpiece. “It was just in a chord-state, at first,” Ray says. “I remember I bought a little mini-grand piano, and I wrote it on that. What was missing was the sound, the arrangement. I probably didn’t play it to Dave till we were in the studio.”
“Ray introduced us to it the front room in Fortis Green,” says Mick Avory. “That’s where we heard all his songs. He played it on the piano, and we’d get the general tempo, and a feel for it. Dave thought of a riff, then I played the rhythm in semi-quavers on a high-hat to accompany the intro - dang-danga-dang-danga-dang. Then when it goes into the song, you do the right thing together. You have to be careful with songs like that. They’re not bashed-out rock’n’roll. They’re quite subtle. Anything that stands out too much takes away from the mood. But at the time we were working quite well together, and it fitted into place quite easily. Everyone thought about their own part, conscious of what the others were doing. That’s the way we did things then. We mixed more socially, so we were closer together as people.”
“How things used to work,” says Dave [Davies], “was that Ray often got ideas sitting around the upright piano he had, like the one in my mum’s front room. Often Rasa [Ray's wife] would be there too, and we’d exchange ideas. I think a similar thing happened with ‘Waterloo Sunset’. Pete [Quaife] was there, too. The first time I heard it, it was a verse and a chorus. The first verse was the important one.” In Dave’s memory, everyone chipped in devotedly. “It was Pete who came up with the ‘sha-la-la’ bit. I think the descending bass-line was his too. Apart from the vocal lines and the guitar riff at the beginning, I think the arrangement evolved from playing it. It was Ray’s song, of course. But we were all so in love with its atmosphere that every embellishment contributed to the outcome. That unity of spirit is very important to songs like that. The Kinks had that then, without question. When we got in a room with each other, we were charged with ideas. It was an unconditional, inspiring creative situation. Me and Ray were very close. When Rasa and Pete were with us, there was a great bonding. We all loved each other.”
Shel Talmy maintains this was the last Kinks single he produced. “I think the last thing Shel was involved with was ‘Dead End Street’,” demurs Ray. “I think his getting credit was more to do with his deal with the record company [no producer is named on the single’s label]. ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was mine, I think. Alan MacKenzie engineered it for me. Those staff guys at Pye contributed a lot, because they knew what The Kinks wanted. They knew where to put the compressors.”
“Shel was a vibe person,” Dave says. “But I don’t think he really understood what we were doing. Ray was protecting his song from getting damaged by him, like it was his child.” Avory agrees. “‘Dead End Street’ didn’t really work with Shel’s style of recording. He over-produced it. On the more subtle things he wasn’t so good. Ray took over after that.”
“Visually, I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like,” the former art student says of his first production. “It’s like the singer Laura Nyro said: ‘I can draw what I want something to sound like.’ Sound and images work together. It works on that level for me. The song has a lot of emotional depth to it, and I wanted the sound to echo that depth. That’s why I took care.” The days when whole albums would be done in three days were suddenly gone. The song drew out Ray’s perfectionism.
“I did the back-track over the course of two or three sessions,” he continues. “I did it in Pye No. 2, a smaller studio, while making an album. I did it on the end of sessions. I said, ‘Let’s go back to that, and do the next bit’, and gradually built it up. I tried it out at the beginning with Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, and it felt too professional. So I put it down with bass, one of those old Fender acoustic guitars, drums, and piano I played. I kept it as a band track. I think it’s one of the last real band’s tracks we did. All the effects went down as we recorded it. Then I went on a separate day and put Dave’s guitar down. That was a rarity for us then. It went down first usually with the back-track, because it was a guitar-driven band. But I wanted a certain part. It’s one record where Dave really sat down and we worked together as a team, and he played what I wanted him to play.”
“We were looking for a sound for the guitar-line,” Dave says, “and Alan MacKenzie came up with this Fifties idea – that Elvis echo, with a triplet tape-delay. It was a lovely feeling of liberation, hearing that echo on my guitar. Something big, inside a little idea. That Danson guitar playing one note at the beginning is the glue that holds it together, like when football managers talk about a side’s spine. When you’ve got that back-bone, you’ve got a chance. I love the counterpoint, where the bass and my guitar go down as the song rises. It’s like tunes I loved as kid, that went up and down like snakes and ladders – it’s sad, but you know it’s going to erupt into something good. The way Bert Weedon would dampen off the string at the bridge, getting that little plucking noise, Chet Atkins too – we combined all those things. In situations like that, where you don’t have a lot of time, you draw on everything you’ve learned. And my mum and my sister and Uncle Frank are in it too.
“It didn’t have a bridge, at first. I added that inspired by the shifts in Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, those Fifties pop songs. ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was derived from an earlier time musically, with bits of the fifties – that ‘sha-la-la’. Inspirations from our childhood, in current metaphors for what was happening in 1967.”