My favourite song of all time is Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. But to single something out as a favourite without just reason and thought is rather foolish indeed, so I thought that I should dedicate an entire post (with videos!) explaining my oh-so-strong feelings about this amazing song. If you don’t care then please feel free to stop reading now.
Firstly, it would be an idea to hear the song
My love for this song is pretty plain and simple – I feel that it was written for someone like me. Musically it hooks you in with a gentle but catchy guitar riff followed by a simple, poinient vocal performance by Ray Davies. There is no big chorus and no singalong moments (aside from the “Sha-la-la” before the chorus refrain), no guitar solos and no screaming, fist in the air triumphant vocal flourishes. If one does not take in the lyrics then it comes across as a very very nice song that one would be proud of writing. With the words considered, it becomes the greatest song ever written and recorded.
It is often said that The Kinks’ golden era can be bookended with notion of boy meets girl; from You Really Got Me (seething with sexual excitement) to Days (where Davies thinks back on this time with fondness). Interestingly, Waterloo Sunset does not fit into this at all, instead focusing on someone else’s story entirely. The focus of the song is the stretch of the river Thames in central London between – I think – Waterloo Bridge and Blackfriars Bridge. The song tells the story of a nameless man watching the people living their busy lives, in particular Terry and Julie, a young couple in love. Like the best storytelling, Davies tells us details about the setting (“Dirty old river”, “People so busy”), giving us pause for thought about where we are. This is no tale of naive bumpkins – this is the story of a big city.
But in the big city comes loneliness and isolation. After it is emerged that “Terry meets Julie/Waterloo Station/Every Friday night” comes the single most telling and affecting line in the whole song:
“But I am so lazy/I don’t want to wander/I stay at home at night”.
Though it might be that the narrator is a malevolent being that miserably looks at the lives of others with disdain, I like to think that he is someone that dearly wishes to have love and a life outside of his window. It seems that life has denied him these opportunities but, being a stubborn and plucky sort, he chooses to believe that it’s his choice that he doesn’t do these things, simply because of his laziness.
In the third verse, he becomes more vitriolic with his snappy “Millions of people/swarming like flies/’round Waterloo Underground” but then feels sympathy for the young couple in love, saying “But Terry and Julie/Cross over the river/Where they feel safe and sound”. London, it seems, it a hive of drone like people clambering to simply get by in life and this is surely for the fools, but where there is love in the air, it sets people free.
The choruses also give an insight into our narrator’s view on life. The world spins by so fast right outside his window and it’s literally there for the taking, but “chilly chilly is the evening time”. Best stay indoors. Might be boring but it’s safe. At least he gets to take in the lives of others – of which there are plenty. And (this is vital) it does keep him happy. Yes, there is a sense of regret in missing out on all this fun and live, but it is too fragile and too brief to directly intervene with. The sunset that falls over Waterloo (presumably bridge) is indeed beautiful, but it lasts mere seconds. But from the safety of his window, he sees it day after day.
So yes, clever lyrics and a catchy tune, but what is it that makes this my favourite song of all time?
The thing that sticks in my mind is simply the fact that my favourite place in the entire world (and the place that I would like to scatter at least some of my ashes) is the south bank of the Thames between Westminster Bridge and the Millennium Footbridge. Of all the places I have ever been it is the most vibrant, beautiful and magical. I proposed to Kate here. I visit here every time I go to central London and I never get bored. I have had the great fortune of, on a warm, August evening, of seeing the sunset from the top of the London Eye. It is not a place to go as a group, it is a place to savour with a loved one or alone. It shows the greatest city in the world at its very best.
Waterloo Sunset sounds like the south bank feels. I’m not sure if this is down to retrospect or if there is something deeply engrained in the music that makes it so, but to say that Waterloo Sunset is the soundtrack of the place is selling it short – it is the sound of the place. I find it quite hard to visit without getting Waterloo Sunset lodged in my head while there. This to me is a very special thing.
I’m also an absolute sucker for songs sung by the writer who truly mean what they sing. This is obviously the case of people like Bruce Springsteen, but to have something as delicate and gentle as this without becoming bogged down with emotion or pathos is something very rare indeed. The words of Waterloo Sunset have as much humour of anything that Morrissey has written but falls well short of the sarcastic or saccharine. Ray Davies is an acerbic man, but possesses the most English of all traits – restraint. I’m not saying that this is a good or bad thing, but I will say that it fits in perfectly with the song as a whole.
And that is truly what makes the song so good. Every part of the song fits together so perfectly. Special mention should be given to Dave Davies for his incredible and considered guitar parts. Truth be told, the bass and drums are actually, technically, a bit crap (there’s a woeful timing error in Pete Quaife’s bass playing in the first verse), but they serve the song extremely well by remaining simple and keeping out of the way. And, artistically, a rhythm section can’t do better than this.
So there you have it – my favourite song of all time, considered and shared, I would just like to share with you some of my favourite verions of the song.
(In chronological order.)
This is a live performance by the Mk II Kinks in 1973. Dave Davies is on special form with some amazingly bluesy guitar work. It also has a great gospel sound that I’ve not heard in other versions.
Ray Davies from a British TV show at some point in the mid 70s. Possibly my favourite of all the versions that I’ve heard thus far. (I reserve the right to change my mind at any point, even if that before the end of this list.)
Ray Davies performing at the Glastonbury Festival in 1997. Great stripped down version. Lovely participation from the crowd. Also features an awesome shot of a man at about 2.38, full of emotion. Good economy of the guitar riff. And features Ray Davies in natty flat cap n’ mac combo.
Another Ray Davies solo performance, this time from the Electric Proms at the Roundhouse, Camden Town in 2007. This is the full choral version. It’s amazing.
I don’t think that anyone has actually done great job of covering Waterloo Sunset (not least David Bowie, who’s version makes me want to harm others), but there are a couple of nice versions to consider.
Peter Gabriel’s version gets a bit silly towards the end, but his voice does make a fair stab and doing the lyrics justice, even if he’s a bit wide of the mark sentiment-wise.
Not a great cover by Cornershop, but they get points for location of this performance.
Most contentious of all of the covers is the Eliot Smith one. It’s lovely, but manages to miss the mark on more or less everything that the song is about. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, but I simply can’t believe the story that I fully invest in when Ray Davies sings it.
Thank you if you read this far and watched some or all of those videos. Please feel free to comment, I would honestly love to know your thoughts.