Behind the song
You know the hit, but do you know how it came to be written? What was the inspiration? Today: Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks
Monday 09 March 1998
First released: 1967
Highest UK chart position: 2
The Kinks came to fame with "You Really Got Me" and "All Day And All Of The Night". But Ray Davies's songwriting skill was far greater than that. He was a cutting commentator on the Swinging Sixties, criticising what he saw with an affable humour. He satirised Carnaby Street in "Dedicated Follower Of Fashion", teased trendy partygoers in "A Well-Respected Man", lampooned the aristocracy in "Sunny Afternoon" and bravely discussed transvestism in "Lola".
His best-crafted composition was "Waterloo Sunset", from the Kinks' most consistent album, Something Else. The album barely made the Top 40, but the single Waterloo Sunset only missed the top because of Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale". Also featured on the album was Dave Davies' solo hit "Death Of A Clown" and Ray's hilarious schoolboy memory of "David Watts", later to be updated by the Jam.
The power chords on "You Really Got Me" mark the Kinks' best-known introduction, but the throbbing start to "Waterloo Sunset" is just as tempting. As soon as you hear the notes and the exquisite melody, you want to hear the lyrics.
It was Davies' first production for the Kinks and it is perfectly, but sparsely, arranged with piano, bass, drums and guitar and some of the best harmony singing in rock.
It was never intended to be "Waterloo Sunset". Ray Davies had written the song as "Liverpool Sunset" with the "dirty old river" being the Mersey. He says, "The Beatles came up with `Penny Lane' and that was the end of that. I suppose "Waterloo" stuck in my mind because I used to walk over Waterloo Bridge several nights a week on my way to art school."
The change was an improvement, as he was able to add lines about the people swarming around Waterloo Underground. The song has Terry meeting Julie, and many have assumed that this is Terence Stamp meeting Julie Christie, although at that time the two film stars had not appeared in a film together. In fact, Ray's brother-in-law, Arthur, had emigrated to Australia and his son was called Terry. In his imagination, Ray Davies had him returning to England and meeting his imaginary dream girl Julie, who symbolised England and may well have been Julie Christie.
For all that, "Waterloo Sunset", like so many Ray Davies compositions, is a song of isolation. The singer is at home watching the world from his window. He does it so often that he knows that Terry meets Julie every Friday night. He admires their courage in crossing the river, as the song suggests that he does not dare go out.
Just before its release, Ray Davies was involved in a court case with his former management. In court, it was announced that his next single would be "Waterloo Sunset" and stood every chance of being a hit. "Will it make me laugh like `A Well-Respected Man'?" asked a barrister. "It might make you smile if you believe this country has some romance left," said the enigmatic Davies.
Behind The Song by Michael Heatley and Spencer Leigh is published by Blandford at pounds 14.99. Independent readers can buy the book for pounds 12.99 (including p&p). To order 01624 675 137.
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