Waterloo Sunset

Waterloo Sunset is the perfect pop song. It’s not just that, in 3 minutes 16 seconds, it tells a story bathed in melancholic observation in a way that has been described as “the most beautiful song in the English language”. It’s not just the way it sketches a vignette of London from the opening lines, “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling” to the closing fade of ‘Waterloo sunset’s fine”. It’s not just the match of words and music, with the descending bass line, interaction of acoustic guitar and electric power chords and ethereal backing vocals (done by Ray Davies’ wife Rasa) suiting the lyrics so completely that the Kinks’ original version will remain the definitive one for all time. More, like the best poem or painting, it provides a structure on which the listener can hang their own memories or imaginations. As such, a song that has been lodged somewhere inside my head for more than forty years has never turned stale.

The mood and images evoked on first hearing are not the same as those that come now, though I also recognise that the past has helped shape the present in this regard. Waterloo Station was my first glimpse of London - as it must have been for so many others - arriving as a child of four or five on a steam train from the Dorset coast to stay with an aunt and uncle in Wembley. Waterloo Underground gave my first experience of the London tube. The imagery of millions of people swarming like flies did not occur to me then. I had other priorities - it was on the tube platform that I first saw a chocolate vending machine. Years later, when the words came to mind on emerging from the tube onto the terminus at rush hour, it seemed more apt. It was at that arrival at Waterloo that I saw my first black face, previously only seen as pictures in a book in the seaside remoteness still stuck in a pre-war cultural past.

As time went on, there were more images and experiences that came to influence the feeling of the song. During a school trip to see a play we were decanted at Waterloo for 2 hours free time. By this time Waterloo Sunset was already part of my psyche and, in a conscious or unconscious response, I walked over Waterloo Bridge to the Embankment and stood looking out across the Thames, narrator and Terry all in one. I think it occurred to me then that perhaps Terry and Julie didn’t really ‘exist’, that they were the imagination of the song’s narrator looking at the world from his window and creating a romantic alter-ego. That idea seemed not unlikely to a gauche schoolboy. When I left home and came to London to live, I arrived again at Waterloo, worldly possessions in a suitcase, seeking a flat and a job. It seemed familiar, something to give faint reassurance in a strange world, and I had a coffee and an individual fruit pie in the same station cafe in which I had once sat as a child, coming to London in feverish excitement for a week’s holiday round of the Tower of London, St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery and the Russian State Circus. Waterloo was the entrance and the exit for all that.

Waterloo continued to hold little surprises that somehow made it different. There was at one time, long past, a cinema on the station terminal, where I sat one afternoon and watched In the Heat of the Night, years after its release date. I once went for a haircut in an basement establishment off one of the platforms, the elderly barber tut-tutting disapprovingly at the length of my hair. Many years later, married with a family, we all walked over Waterloo Bridge one bitingly cold New Year’s Eve and I stood and looked at the view, vaguely aware that the London Eye would not have been in the line of vision when Waterloo Sunset came out.

In fact, the constant interplay of past and present was a recurrent theme of Ray Davies’ songs. Released in the (first) Summer of Love, Waterloo Sunset might have been seen at a superficial glance to have been in tune with the current mores, performed on Top of the Pops by the Kinks in Carnaby Street finery and granny glasses and with the Terry and Julie characters of the song taken by many as a reference to Swinging Sixties icons, Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. This seems to miss the point by a mile. Apart from the obvious unlikelihood of Stamp and Christie meeting at Waterloo Station every Friday night - surely, at least, they would have chosen the Bag of Nails or Tiles - Ray Davies has remarked that the idea for Terry and Julie came from thinking of “the aspirations of my sister’s generation, who grew up during the Second world War and missed out on the '60s”. Davies’ best work always drew on the commonplace and the ‘ordinary’. At a time when pop songs were full of psychedelic imageries of magical lands, he could start a top ten hit with the lines “From the dew-soaked hedge creeps a crawly caterpillar, When the dawn begins to crack” (Autumn Almanac).

England’s past, too, was always there in his seminal songs, including Waterloo Sunset. Davies has said that the lyrics were shaped by his trips over Waterloo Bridge as an art student in the early 1960’s and by a spell as a child in St Thomas Hospital, seeing from the balcony the views described in the song. Memories of a visit to the Festival of Britain on the South Bank in 1951 also apparently played a part. There are some commentators who have seen Davies as a modern Romantic, an heir of Wordsworth, with Waterloo Sunset compared to Lines Composed Above Westminster Bridge. There seems too much pessimism and disenchantment in his work to make that comparison hold true. For me, the most apt comparison is with George Orwell, a socialist who celebrated England through the ordinary and daily items of life: gloomy Sundays, a salacious article in The News of the World, red pillar boxes, old maids riding bicycles, roast pork and apple sauce followed by suet pudding. In the same way, Davies’ England was presented through references to strawberry jam, draught beer, Mrs Mopp, Tudor houses, Saturday dances at the local palais and the Orwellian working-class characterisation of Autumn Almanac: “I like my football on a Saturday, roast beef on Sunday is all right. I go to Blackpool for my holidays...” Both of them could cross the boundary from a rueful nostalgia, tinged with disappointment at a vanishing world, to grumpy old man bitterness or teeter on pure sentimentality. At the best, however, they captured the England of the working class with an insight born of affection and love for that world, being destroyed by capitalism and consumerism. The puritan streak in Orwell would have been dismayed at the apparent flamboyant dandyism of the Kinks at their peak. Yet the narrator voice of Waterloo Sunset would have been deeply familiar to him.

Anyone who stands looking over the Thames towards Waterloo Bridge cannot help but have a sense of history and of change simultaneously. It is the genius of Waterloo Sunset that it both captures that dichotomy and enables the listener to bring their own perspective to the song. Ray Davies once said of this song, “It might make you smile if you believe this country has some romance left”. If so, it is perhaps a smile of regret or resignation rather than happiness. A similar smile might come on realising the song never made number one, being kept off the top spot by The Tremeloes’ Silence is Golden. Unlike its contemporaries, however, Waterloo Sunset will never date, for it will forever remind the listener of something in their real or imaginary past - “As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset...”

Link to song


  1. Thanks for this posting. Love the song and the theme of the column. I wonder what you think about the Peter Gabriel version of the song. He recorded it for an album due out this year (called Scratch My Back). I think it was cut from the final album but is a bonus track somewhere on a special issue of the CD. Also, I recently heard Ray's album called Return to Waterloo, from the mid 80s I think - the track on there called "Return to Waterloo" relates quite closely to your column (about returning to the same place throughout a life).

  2. Thanks Laura-I haven't heard the Peter Gabriel version. Barb Jungr did a much slowed-down version a few years back. The recent single Postcard from London by Ray Davies and Chrissie Hynde returns to the same theme and place too.

  3. Geoff, this is so interesting. I suppose I always thought the song was about the narrator's inner life - he seems such a lonely gazer, one of Davies' many characters who lead lives of such quiet desperation (like Arthur, the subject of that whole album in 1969). It's fascinating to think about the song as a reflection of the country at a certain moment (your wonderful description of the song's expression of disappointment at a vanishing world, the way it summons "the England of the working class with an insight born of affection and love for that world, being destroyed by capitalism and consumerism"). Suddenly thinking about the song as a historical document, though, made me wonder about the fact it was still a working river at the time of writing and recording the track. I wonder if that impacted the song at all. Anyway, thanks for the column.

  4. Thanks Geoff! I'll check out the Barb Jungr version and I love Postcard from London. Here is the link to the Peter Gabriel version in case you're interested: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9m9CLACAtU

  5. Thanks for the link, Laura. This is link for the Postcard from London video-there something poignant about it

    Thanks for comments, Chris. I hadnt thought about the Thames being a working river-but it must have played a big part in Londoners' lives in the past

  6. Thanks for the link to Postcard from London, Geoff, I agree, it's really poignant. It reminds me of CH's song "2000 miles" a bit. And Ray's voice sounds simply beautiful in this. But I read somewhere that they first recorded this song with Ray and Kate Nash. That was certainly the promo version that did the rounds originally. It's supposed to be even better than the version with CH. NashS is also a Londoner born and bred which adds to the song's theme.

    CH and RD never officially tied the knot, did they? Legend has it they got as far as the registry office but the clerk sent them away because they were fighting so much.

  7. Oh no, just realised that the children's choir that starts singing does remind me of this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rsXJcIODLtQ - but then all children's choirs singing in all pop songs remind me of that, which is a bit unfortunate.

  8. Thanks for info, Laura.I hadn't realised it had been done with Kate Nash-but, yes, this is the version


    I suppose the Chrissie Hynde vocals add a certain piquancy to the lyrics-and, no, they never did tie the knot!
    You are right about children's choirs and There's non-one quite like Grandma -but at least the Crouch End choir adds a bit of weight here!

  9. Yes.... If they had to have a children's choir, The Crouch End Choir is a lesser evil!

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