5.6.14

WATERLOO SUNSET - The Kinks' Greatest Song, Part 2

The second half of the chapter about writing and recording ‘Waterloo Sunset’, from Nick Hasted’s Kinks biography, You Really Got Me. Most evenings these days I walk from Oxford Street to Waterloo Station, crossing the river over the Hungerford footbridge at Charing Cross, so this lovely song has more resonance for me now than ever before. At the right time of the year I really can ‘gaze on Waterloo sunset’; hell, I might even have brushed past Terry and Julie on their way to paradise.

A third session began with Dave, Rasa and Pete recording ethereal backing vocals. “I’ve been doing it with a choir recently,” says Ray, “and a lot of the ideas in my head were choir-like.” Dave remembers his closeness to those he sang with, neither of whom he’s seen in years, or will again. “Rasa was a great Mamas and Papas fan, and always fancied herself as a singer, and she was good. We just sang along. It was very organic. It would be lovely to be able to work like that now. I was a great fan of Jo Stafford. My sister Dolly had a lot of her records, and I used to listen with my mouth open. She had that lovely, soft tone I admired. Having Rasa there, that female vibe, softens the attitude of the song. It makes it warmer.”
Then Ray added his backing vocal. That just left his lead vocal, and lyrics he hadn’t shown a soul. All the music had been made without anyone else having a clue what they were playing was about. It was so personal, he was frightened they would laugh. “A lot of the time after that,” [Mick] Avory says, “he’d just play the chords on the piano so the boys could learn them. Even if the words were completed, he’d rather keep it to himself. It wasn’t ideal. But because we had empathy, we could do it.”
“The song was all written out in long-hand, there were no bits to fill in,” Ray says. In X-Ray he remembers polishing those lyrics obsessively at home, till they were “like a pebble which had been rounded off by the sea... perfectly smooth.” “They didn’t hear my lead vocal until the very last moment,” he confirms. “I felt very precious about it, because I really didn’t want to rewrite this. I had it all set in my head. It was all definite.”
 “When I first heard it I thought it was about some pervert in his mac having a wank!” Dave jokes of the lyrics’ voyeuristic perspective and sad claim that “I don’t need no friends”, which so clearly describes teenage Ray in his hospital bed, and perhaps Fortis Green’s adult outsider. “No... it’s a song about isolation and detachment, and not wanting to be a part of the world. That was often a sub-plot with The Kinks. Because as a band we never really fitted in. It’s that feeling we had in a lot of our stuff, that it’s them and us. It wasn’t just Ray’s observations. It was us looking outside at a harsh world, and trying to pick out the bits of it that were beautiful and inspiring. Because a lot of it was ugly and frightening. The warmth of the record comes from our empathy with the characters and the music, and the friendship we had with each other. A lot of the feeling I get from listening to it is of safety. I felt very safe in the music, and in the picture Ray was trying to paint. That what’s happening outside isn’t as important as what’s happening inside us, when we’re together.”
“I could’ve written it now,” says Ray. “It’s the detachment from the person singing it – the subject-matter – that I find interesting. I’m on the outside of the narrator’s experience. Identifiable, but in the distance. I’m not the focal point. I wasn’t aware I was doing that. It is a voyeuristic lyric. But it’s not about a seedy voyeur looking out of his window. He just knows that what he’s looking at is an idyllic situation, and he won’t be able to fit into it. So he’s staying away.”
Terry and Julie cross the Thames to “paradise” in the last verse. What does Ray think is waiting for them there? “It’s like one of those Cartier-Bresson pictures,” he says. “You see the two people and that’s their love caught for eternity. Regardless of what happens to them later in their life, that’s the moment they were in love and it exists forever. ‘Waterloo Sunset’’s like that.”
“It’s a song about two people going on a journey to a better world,” he told Radio 2’s Johnnie Walker, on a darker day, “but for some reason I stayed where I was and became the observer. I did not cross the river, they did, and had a good life, apparently.”
  “When you are born south or north of the Thames, there’s a totally different feeling on the other side,” Dave says, of lyrics which could just be about north Londoners getting home. “It’s a border, a change, crossing bridges and water - going over to the other side. It’s a wonderful moment that you can’t really analyse. The Thames does things to you, especially when you’ve lived in London your whole life.”
“It paints a picture of a journey he used to make,” says Avory. “And it’s a scene that everyone sees when they walk across Waterloo Bridge. Lots of people have said to me they always think of that song when they do.” The simple beauty of that low, tree-lined view across the river, with St. Pauls to the right and Parliament to the left, is universally loved by Londoners. It’s hard to know now if ‘Waterloo Sunset’ enhances how we feel, or helped create it. Born in 1967, I’ve never looked without hearing the song. “How you feel about the view,” Ray advises, “depends whether you’re going to jump off the bridge.”
The identity of the two young lovers crossing the river is one of the Sixties’ piquant, enduring mysteries. Terry and Julie were thought to be Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, glamorous young stars together that year in Far From The Madding Crowd. Ray says Terry was his cousin, of course. Dave thinks the song’s secret code is even more personal. “I’ve always thought Ray meant him and Rasa. Ray’s never been very good at emotional things. He projects them onto characters in songs.”
Does Ray think so many people respond to the record partly because it draws from such a deep well of his emotions and memories?
“I think so. I don’t remember my emotion as I wrote it. I didn’t feel that precious as I did. Because the lyrics were fine, they did the job. Looking back now, they could be better, I use the same rhyme a couple of times. But I guess it’s the way you tell ‘em. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Because the record had faults, sonic issues. The vocal isn’t mixed very high, it peaks through, you can just hear the words trickle out. Even the bass is quite pulled-back. It’s all very delicately played. Nice touch playing from Avory. Because Avory was a wrist-player, the old-fashioned way of playing drums. People forget that element, on this and ‘Sunny Afternoon’. It’s ambient-sounding, and minimalist. It all fits together. It exceeds the sum of its parts.”
‘Waterloo Sunset’ was finished on April 13. “I still remember pulling the fader down for the fade-out, and just getting that right,” Ray says. “In those days engineers wouldn’t let you touch anything. Alan [MacKenzie] let me. It was the first one I could actually have my hands on. We still have the masters somewhere. I’d like to get the tape out and see what I’d do now. Probably stick it in ProTools and give it more beef. But that would have totally destroyed it.
“Because,” he concludes, “that record does something else. It triggers people’s imaginations, as well as what they’re actually hearing from the gramophone or radio. It puts people into a world. Like most things that have been around for a long time, it sounds commonplace and inevitable now. I was there when it was played back the first time, and it sounded like nothing like it had ever been done. Now I think of it, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ was all in the air,” he says, suggesting the visionary again, “waiting for someone to put it together. Whereas ‘Days’, for instance, all came from me.”
Ray was still reluctant to let it be heard. In X-Ray, he claims he considered not releasing it at all. “It was very personal,” he says. “I still get a personal feeling from it. But once it goes out there, it’s everybody’s.” Instead, he took an acetate home, and for a few days pretended he had made it for his family’s private pleasure. Its first audience was niece Jackie, and Rose, who was visiting from Australia, and spent every second she could with Ray.
“That time playing it at home to my sister was magical,” he says. “They said… nothing! Jackie was quite a critic - she still is very critical of what I do. But it’s when they say nothing they think it’s a really great record. I think they were moved. I know [sister] Rose liked it.”
It was released on May 5, as spring turned to summer. It was held at number two by Sandie Shaw’s banal Eurovision Song Contest winner ‘Puppet On A String’, The Tremeloes’ bland ‘Silence Is Golden’ and, signalling the change the summer would bring, The Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’. In America it didn’t chart, and remains largely unknown. The ban was finally killing them. “Maybe they did us a favour,” says Dave. “Because the music turned a corner.”
“It’s the best record you’ll ever make,” Disc & Music Echo’s perceptive singles’ reviewer Penny Valentine rang Ray to tell him, and it was. He has re-recorded it twice. On The Kinks Choral Collection (2009), it’s the song that’s least changed by the addition of the Crouch End Festival Chorus, though even this local North London choir sound too professional compared to Rasa’s innocent keenness. On See My Friends (2010), Ray is joined by Jackson Browne, proving it can survive on its acoustic guitars and harmonies.
His only substantial postscript is his short story ‘Waterloo Sunset’, in the eponymous 1997 collection. Here, petty crook and painter Fox, dying of cancer, eyes so sick the view from his window has an Impressionist blur, discovers he is a character in a story, and wanders along the Strand and Embankment in a sort of death-dream. He crosses Waterloo Bridge and then starts back, lingering at a spot by the river where he is told people stand to watch their whole lives flow by. The river stops, a flash freezes him inside the song’s imagery, and he’s freed. “You’ll capture the picture in your own imagination, and there’ll be a space in it for you,” he’s told by a man waiting futilely at a bar for “the man who wrote ‘Waterloo Sunset’”, who will not cross the river. More prosaically, Fox was first nicked when the song came on the radio and distracted him in his get-away car. The policeman whistles it as he puts on the cuffs.
That’s just how the record works. A friend of mine remembers being unhappily back in London in the early nineties after years abroad, feeling lonely and different. Walking past the old County Hall, she looked up-river and wished she lived there. The London air was turning into the song’s “chilly, chilly” early spring, and as she saw Waterloo Bridge she sang it in her head. At that moment, a hip, different-looking courier cyclist, an unusual sight then, passed her whistling it too. It was the first time she felt there were people in the city with whom she might connect; that you could be different but understood, like the characters in the kind song. When a boyfriend around then gave her flowers from the stall where he worked at Waterloo Station, she thought of Terry and Julie.
That’s the everyday impact of this beautiful London folk song and pop record. You might get something like it from a Beatles song, but not from the Stones or The Who. It’s why The Kinks are loved.
“It’s not a question of being loved,” Ray says. “I just knew, within the terms of what I was doing, that I couldn’t have made it better. I’m not saying it changed the musical landscape of the world. But in the world that I inhabit, it did all the right things. It’s a very innocent record. I’m proud of that. You can’t beat innocence.”

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