Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Waterloo Sunset on BBC Radio 4's Soul Music


The Kinks classic Waterloo Sunset is fifty years old this year - ample excuse to repost a piece about the song. I don't know what other celebrations may be planned by the Beeb or others, but today it was the first subject of the new series of Radio 4's Soul Music (above). This programme blends personal associations with musical analysis and, as ever, made for a compelling half hour. On first listen, I had the feeling that one story featured perhaps a little too prominently, but on reflection the balance was right - and that particular tale had something important to say about the power of the song.

An American widow talked about her British husband who, during a severe and terminal illness, was surrounded by friends who sang (and played) songs for him, including Waterloo Sunset; we even heard a snatch of his singing along. And later a recording was made by a friend which, for his widow, bore testament to the power of her partner to bring people together.

As this particular narrative gathered momentum with each reappearance over the thirty minutes I'm afraid to say that a graceless part of me, known well to certain privileged individuals, wanted to shout: "So what? Could have been any song. Let's get back to the musical analysis, people, as this is not, to the best of my knowledge, a newly discovered episode of the late John Peel's Home Truths."

But then a brief contribution from someone who talked of feeling isolated at his school helped put things into perspective. He had found solace in the song because he realised its narrator was, like him, an outsider. (Someone else made the point that in the stereo version of the track Ray's voice is off to one side, not central to the action but commentating on it. I think I may have read that Ray preferred the mono but, planned or not, that certainly makes sense.)

 And thinking over the lyrics after the programme finished, I remembered that it's not just the narrator who "don't need no friends" but the lovers too. They - lovers and narrator - are in their separate bubbles, even though they are linked by the view, the place. Which seems, especially for a fifty year old pop song, a pretty neat summation of the experience of being in a city: at once together and alone.

So it's appropriate that a personal tale of suffering is part of the mix - and that it liberates the song from being judged solely by the original studio recording: the widow makes the point that it's the recording her friend made which is the special one for her.

Plus I can hardly pretend that my own contribution to proceedings, reposted below if you choose to read on, is entirely devoid of the personal.

 Soul Music: Waterloo Sunset can be found on BBC Radio iplayer here

I must have been eight years old when I first heard Waterloo Sunset, in the year of its release, and - like just about everyone else in the world - realised it was something special.

Perhaps for a child the fact that it wasn't, strictly speaking, a love song had something to do with it, even though lovers figure in it. Certainly Davies' late friend and mentor Ned Sherrin said that was what made it unique in the pop charts of the time.

For someone growing up in Scotland, however, the song's setting was enough to suggest something magical, even if the Engerland in my head may not have swung like a pendulum do. My childish notions of the country and its capital came largely from Ealing films on the telly, all decency and community spirit, tempered by odd glimpses in police series of a modern day city seemingly awash with criminals, spies and pyromaniacs like George Cole  (below) in Gideon's Way.

Whatever the reason, the song stayed in my imagination. A few years later, when a family holiday finally necessitated an overnight stay in London, I eagerly craned out of my room's tiny window to take in the stretch of water in the reddening dusk: it was Waterloo Sunset.

We were in Camberwell at the time.

You can find a great deal about the song on the net, and I'm not going to try to provide a digest of others' comments here. Instead, I'm going to pick up on a few points which have stuck with me over many years of thinking and reading about the song.

To start with the identity of the lovers: my only contribution to the Terence Stamp/Julie Christie question is that I'm prepared to swear that on one early occasion when the Kinks were performing the song on TV (possibly Top of the Pops, possibly not), I distinctly heard Ray sing the words: "Terence meets Julia."

A playful reference to one half, at least, of cinema's golden couple (they starred in Far From The Madding Crowd that year) or an equally playful booting of the song's original pair a rung or two up the social ladder?

I think I prefer the latter explanation. And even if the revision was a momentary whim to amuse his bandmates it still suggests the inclusivity of the song: no matter how much of an allowance your daddy gives you, the healing balm of that view is yours for the gazing. (And I didn't even need to be there.)

In the act of listening, of course, the song makes perfect sense. Scanning the lyrics cold on the page, however - without the benefit of additional information about family members who may have inspired it - you can't help wondering about the character of the speaker and his relation to this couple. For a kickoff, he seems to have been watching them regularly enough to note that

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station
Every Friday night

But there's no clear indication he actually knows them. He appears to be a recluse, claiming in his defence:

I don't need no friends


I am so lazy, don't want to wander
I stay at home at night

But two details suggest that he has somehow absorbed the couple, is them as well as himself: an artist, in other words, identifying with his subject.

He is an omniscient narrator, swooping down on them as though via a crane shot, picking out the young lovers from the "Millions of people swarming like flies." And he even knows that they, like him, "don't need no friends" - that the city itself, the beauty of the scene, is enough to sustain the watcher and the watched.

Waterloo Sunset has already been compared by others to Wordsworth's famous sonnet about Westminister Bridge. But a small detail from his book-length poem The Prelude may illuminate the song further. Subtitled "Growth of a Poet's Mind", the poem might be crudely summarised as "boy meets Lakes - boy loses Lakes - boy gets spirit of Lakes back again." (Other synopses are available.)

One section deals with his sense of alienation in London until he too is able to zoom into the swarm to pick out tiny details of humanity:
And is not, too, that vast Abiding-place
Of human Creatures, turn where'er we may,
Profusely sown with individual sights
Of courage, and integrity, and truth,
And tenderness, which, here set off by foil,
Appears more touching. In the tender scenes
Chiefly was my delight, and one of these
Never will be forgotten. 'Twas a Man,
Whom I saw sitting in an open Square
Close to an iron paling that fenced in
The spacious Grass-plot; on the corner stone
Of the low wall in which the pales were fix'd
Sate this One Man, and with a sickly babe
Upon his knee, whom he had thither brought
For sunshine, and to breathe the fresher air.
Of those who pass'd, and me who look'd at him,
He took no note; but in his brawny Arms
(The Artificer was to the elbow bare,
And from his work this moment had been stolen)
He held the Child, and, bending over it,
As if he were afraid both of the sun
And of the air which he had come to seek,
He eyed it with unutterable love.
Suggs (how's that for a cultural leap?) was talking in a TV series about the impact of first hearing Lola . He said something to the effect that although he didn't get the details, he knew enough to understood it was describing an adult world, and set in a place - Soho - associated with adult pursuits.

He went on to say, however, that he had found the song reassuring: the message he took was that whatever the obscure challenges to come later in life, they could somehow be coped with, that ultimately he'd be alright, just as the speaker seemed to be.

The subject matter isn't quite the same, but Waterloo Sunset had, I think, a similar effect on my younger self. The speaker may be a reclusive adult - is it merely being "lazy" which keeps him indoors? - or he may be an artist. But it could equally easily be a child's eyes which are timidly peeping out at life from that window, at the big city with its "millions of people", and those as yet unknowable adult challenges.

That, at any rate, was how I think I took it - and the London I knew then only from TV seemed more remote and dangerous, closer to my notion of "The City", than nearby, familiar Glasgow.

Taken like this, Terry and Julie could be seen as imaginary figures, brought into being by the child-artist in an effort to make sense of that frightening mass of people and bring them down to a manageable scale: two people who at least know each other.

Their names are friendly, reassuring, perhaps absorbed from film or TV (which might bring Terence Stamp and Julie Christie back into the equation); they presumably have found proper grown-up jobs in the big city as they meet at the end of a working week; maybe, too, the fact they have discovered each other in all this crowd offers hope for that peeper-out at the window that he might someday be redeemed from his isolation.

As would be consistent with a child's-eye view, however, the speaker doesn't enter into details of their lives beyond the suggestion that they have in some unspecified way completed each other ("they don't need no friends") and feel "safe and sound" - a phrase perhaps more associated with children than adults - once they have crossed the river.

And instantly I see in my head the image used to sell Start-Rite shoes in the sixties and well beyond: two small children hand in hand, a boy and a girl, walking along a road which stretches to infinity with the dark unknown safely fenced off:

But as mentioned earlier, over and above the need for contact with others what seems to sustain all three in the song is the place itself. Indeed, for the narrator, London itself seems like a friend who can be addressed with familiarity:
Dirty old river, must you keep rolling ...
which would make sense of his later "I don't need no friends."

This ties in with Wordsworth again, and now I really can't avoid that more famous poem. In The Prelude, the citybound Wordsworth may take comfort from glimpses of human contact but feels he has lost himself as a result of being away from the mountains, hills and lakes of his Cumbrian childhoood. Whatever the isolated examples of people caring for each other, London itself is not a beautiful place; he may even be suggesting in the above extract that it's the ugliness of the place which makes those instances of contact more moving ("here set off by foil").

In the sonnet written on Westminster Bridge, however, he finally gets the city. Writing in the early morning, before the day's bustle has begun, the emptiness allows him to see the beauty which was always there - and such is his rapture at the realisation, the vision goes straight in at number one, beating the Lake District down to two:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:


Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Just to be clear, Wordsworth is not saying he prefers the city empty: "mighty heart" seems to refer both to the mass of people and their physical surroundings. London seems a single entity, a vast body which is nevertheless comprised of countless individuals.

As is well known, Davies had a tracheotomy which contributed to the writing of the song. Slowly recovering from the operation, his vision seems not dissimilar:
I couldn't speak for days and the nurses would wheel me out onto the balcony to watch the Thames. I was amazed by how I could see such life in the river. It felt like blood pumping through the veins of the city.


it was just a very poetic moment for me. So [when I wrote 'Waterloo Sunset'] I thought about that time.
In Davies' song, however, beauty is present at the end of a working day when the city is still thronged, and available to all - the Terrys and Julies, the Terences and Julias ...

And the child/man/artist gazing, like Wordsworth, on what he has half-created, half-perceived.

Ray Davies has said he doesn't like analysing songs ("It's instinct") and that's as it should be for any artist. But the origins of such an enduring song seem particularly tantalising. How much did his passive, weakened state while recovering from the tracheotomy contribute? It could certainly help explain the childlike aspect of the observer figure. He has said that he nearly died after the operation: could it be that the essence of the song's power is simply that it reaffirms for all of us the wonder of being alive?

But of course lots of people have gone through near-death experiences without penning immortal ditties. All that is certain is that its composition seems to have come easily: he has said that there wasn't any part of its creation which wasn't a pleasure to him. Magical enough on its own, of course, is the piece's sea change from Merseybeat lament to a more personal location - and a different sort of song altogether.

As with Where Have All the Good Times Gone? it is also a perfect marriage of words and music. Quite apart from their intrinsic beauty, the harmonies (including Ray's then wife Raisa) bestow the aural equivalent of a glow over the description of the scene, working in this case with, rather than against, the lyric to - I was going to say romanticise, but maybe simply to draw attention to a vista which more jaded citizens have stopped noticing. Could the intention be to suggest, musically, the setting sun's rays, an antidote to the brightness of the taxi lights (and the harshly strummed guitar at the start) which may have made the speaker retreat to his eyrie in the first place?

It's difficult not to think of Waterloo Sunset in terms of other media. As mentioned earlier, there's something cinematic about it. But perhaps it's better compared to a painting. There may be a narrative of sorts (watched from the window, the lovers meet and cross over the river) but the song seems to invite quiet contemplation of the sort associated with standing in front of a canvas (or being wheeled out to gaze upon the Thames).

And as with a good painting, the selection and ordering of elements of elements from life leads to something new and separate which is as much about the maker as his model.

Even if what is produced ultimately has a separate life. Ray Davies once said, rather sadly, at the end of a TV documentary, "I'll never be as good as Waterloo Sunset." I took the remark to refer not to his songwriting powers but the innocence, the - well, I'm tempted to say holiness in the song. In fact, the term may be unavoidable.

There is a poem by Humbert Wolfe in his book Cursory Rhymes, part of which I dimly remember. The young Charles Lamb, pupil of the distinctively uniformed Chrst's Hospital school, then in Newgate, is visited by an angel who sets out the whole of London before him. Quite how this was achieved I can no longer remember; I have retained only the final couplet, in which the angel
Set London working like a toy
And gave it to the Bluecoat boy.
It's a phrase which also sums up what Waterloo Sunset gave me personally, making a remote and forbidding place seem knowable by placing an urban Adam and Eve in its centre - a thought, incidentally, which may also explain my fondness for the film Three Hats for Lisa - and it also seemed to suggest, in the person of the speaker, that you didn't have to join the rat race, that it was enough simply to be, to observe and record. I'd even like to go further that this song may have provided my first inkling of the transforming power of art, but I really can't remember.

It may be, though, that the persona of the child which my younger sensibility imposed on the speaker isn't so far off the mark, that what I was responding to was the purity and optimism of the childlike eye of the man who then used the skills he had acquired to bring that vision to life.

Or something. Maybe the best way to explain how I feel about it is that if Waterloo Sunset were a painting it would not be Pre-Raphaelite (my first thought): the stories told on those canvases often have some kind of moral connotation.

No, Waterloo Sunset is not out to teach you anything, or not in any kind of conscious way. If there was any equivalent in paint, I'd say it was Stanley Spencer, a man who saw the divine in the everyday sights around him, whose vision of paradise was interwoven with his home in Cookham.

There is even a Bowie connection here, as I know he bought a palette of Spencer's at an auction, astonished that nobody else seemed to be bidding. And I believe he is the owner of the above work, Carrying Mattresses 1920-1, although the Spencer painting which sticks most in my mind is one I can't immediately find online. It may be from his time in the army, and it depicts Spencer surprised by joy on his knees in the middle of the most mundane of tasks: washing a floor.

Is it too fanciful to imagine the young Bowie also responding to something painterly in the song? Waterloo Sunset was released in May 1967 - too late, presumably, to have any effect on the songs on Bowie's imminent albumm but was its influence further reaching? The fact that he felt moved to cover the song some thirty six years later would suggest so.

What has not been mentioned yet is the directness of Ray's vocal on the recording. No semi-Americanised voice like the early days, no Georgie Fame impersonation, no shifting in and out of personae ... just that distinctive, slightly nasal, lilt which serves his composition perfectly. I have a vague memory of reading somewhere that Ray was rather shy about letting the group hear his vocal (possibly it was the song itself); it may not be a confessional song, a la Where Have All the Good Times Gone? but it does feels intimate, unprotected: it is, I'd suggest, the child in Ray - and in all of us.

But whatever the possible details of its composition and recording, ultimately, like all great art - and this is surely one of the greatest popular songs of the twentieth century - Waterloo Sunset defies analysis. It has to be heard. And whether or not its composer feels he can "never be as good as Waterloo Sunset," we can only be grateful that he wrote it.

Further thoughts on Ray Davies' influence on Bowie in the next post, here.

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