Mention has been made before of the nostalgic lure of the train and the station in British psyche, a way of time travel to the past. In the very first column of this blog, Waterloo Sunset showed the interplay of past and present and the repository of memories lodged at Waterloo Station that the song tapped into. Ray Davies revisited the same place and the themes of nostalgia, regret and a lost England in Return to Waterloo in the mid-1980’s. In 2006, both station and song cropped up again in a record by another artist also associated with the heyday of Swinging London, Jane Birkin.
Despite a dozen or more albums and the 50+ films over the years since appearing in The Knack and Blow Up in 1966, Jane Birkin will probably always be first associated with her 1969 Number One record with Serge Gainsbourg, Je t’aime...moi non plus. Gainsbourg had previously recorded the song with Brigitte Bardot (though it wasn’t released till years after) and had also apparently asked Marianne Faithfull – who later said, ‘Hah! He asked everyone’. It is the Birkin collaboration, however, that became the definitive one and established a number of ‘firsts’ in the UK.
1)The first banned record to get to Number One. It was also banned in many other European countries, though radio play in France was only restricted until 11pm. Top of the Pops got round the problem of the ban by getting a group of session musicians to record an instrumental version called Love at First Sight, which sort of missed the point but promptly became a hit in its own right. At least mums and dads could safely tap their feet as Herbie Flowers, Clem Cattini and co doodled away.
2) The first foreign language song to get to Number One. The title itself , Je t’aime... moi non plus, was a sort of Gallic existentialist joke –Woman: ‘I love you’. Man: ‘Me neither’ – that was totally lost on the British. Instead, schoolboys searched their French dictionaries to find what on earth Gainsbourg was muttering about with ‘ l'amour physique est sans issue’ and could it perhaps work as a chat-up line on the next school trip to Calais.
(3) More debatable this –it is often solemnly cited as the ‘rudest pop record ever ’. When, rather predictably, a comic and very British version involving golf was done in 1971 by Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield, it was also banned by the BBC, presumably on the strength of the title alone.
However, despite Je t’aime, her relationship with Gainsbourg and the decades living in France, on Waterloo Station Jane Birkin sounds so awfully British that it could be Mary Poppins singing – which leads to the uncomfortable thought of Mary Poppins doing Je t’aime...moi non plus with Serge Gainsbourg. In some ways Waterloo Station, from her 2006 album Fiction, almost sounds incomplete. The song was written for Birkin by Rufus Wainwright and she seems to have difficulty fitting some lyrics to the tune, stretching the word ‘Abba’ to such an extent it is scarcely recognisable. There is also a point towards the end where it sounds as if the song has run out of steam, before suddenly picking up again.
However, there is also something haunting and poignant about it, something to do with Jane Birkin’s slightly weary tone over the delicate backing and shimmering guitar work of Johnny Marr, with the 'la la la la la' refrain from Waterloo Sunset that drifts in and out like a puff of smoke from a steam engine and with the theme of re-visiting the past. This emerged in several of the songs on Fiction. In Home, a song again written for her - this one by Neil Hannon of Divine Comedy – she wistfully recalls ’skipping ropes and pipe smoke, church bells..., marmalade on cold toast, endless summer holidays’ and , in a oddly effective video of meeting herself as a child, wonders where home is; London? Paris? Neither?
In this song, Waterloo Station takes on the guise of a portal to the past, a version of Over the Rainbow. Imagine this. Jane Birkin returns to London from years living in Paris. As the Eurostar pulls into Waterloo there is a blur of memories. Though it is 2006 it is also a sun drenched afternoon in the summer of 1967. The new Kinks release , Waterloo Sunset, plays from a transistor radio and Blow-Up is still showing at the cinema outside the concourse. It is also the summer of 1951 and a porter helps a young Jane Birkin climb into a carriage with her parents en route to the Isle of Wight for their summer holidays. No Waterloo Sunset then but Ray Davies passes through the station with his father to see the Festival of Britain on the South Bank. Fast forward to 2010. On the now disused Eurostar terminal, (the link having shifted to St Pancras in 2007), a staging of The Railway Children, set in an Edwardian golden summer a hundred years before, is taking place. Forward again to 2011. Ray Davies is Director of the Meltdown Festival, a few minutes away from Waterloo Station and celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Festival of Britain.
If you miss one memory there, another will be along in a minute.