The Infinite Jukebox: The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset

Some songs are a product of their time, and some songs exist in an eternal present, untouched by the entropy of time. Some songs are both at the same time.
The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’ could not, I firmly believe, have been written and recorded in any decade other than the Sixties. Yet at the same time, it has stepped outside any passage of the days, an immortal moment of sound and voice that can never be dated. It carries its time with it, like an aura, worn lightly, its effect undimmed and uncaptured.
This is the mature Kinks, the later Kinks, the Kinks who outgrew their earlier raucousness of guitar. This is the band that, denied access to America, chose to be English, not in some foppish or stilted manner, but to reflect English thought, preoccupation and mannerism in songs that flirted with caricature but maintained a delicate balance due to Ray Davies’ skill with words.
At the same time, the band’s sound drew off a folkish tinge, Ray’s acoustic guitar dominating the sound, Dave’s electric guitar kept from free reign, its early weight taken down. The sound separates, the instruments existing in separate planes. There’s almost a deliberate amateurism to some of the songs, an endearingly English way of being modest, of not getting above oneself.
‘Waterloo Sunset’ is a London song, sung by London boys, about London. It was written when London was, or seemed to be, pretty much the most important place in the world, Swinging London, the hotspot for fashion, music, progression and hope. Yet it’s a song that, even as it borrows from the touchstones of Swinging London – Terry and Julie are namechecks to actors Terrence Stamp and Julie Christie – stands foursquare on the ground, anchored by its own sense of place.
The song begins with a descending bass-line dominating unobtrusive music, before Dave picks out the melody on a guitar that sounds individual notes, lacking a flow, given a bass edge themselves. This leads into Ray’s opening verse.
He chooses to anchor the song to the city, the dirty old river that both divides and unites it, the eternal rolling into the night, that a part of him would wish to stop, knowing all the time that to do so would destroy the city. It’s a city of motion, the people as much as the river, though their motion dizzies him, as much as the taxi-lights overwhelm him.
But he is where he should be, where he knows he belongs, and the city has a sign for him, the sun setting over Waterloo Bridge. As long as he can gaze on that, he knows he is in his own Earth, and he will not give in to fear.
He then introduces Terry and Julie: not the stars that dazzle up West, but two ordinary young people, whose distinction is only for each other. Terry meets Julie at Waterloo Station, every Friday night. It has the atmosphere of ritual, but it’s nothing so grand. We don’t see beyond the simple words but we instinctively understand all the things that lie behind it. Which one comes by train, which one arrives to meet the other? Unimportant: the working week is over, the things that separate them no longer hold them, they are together again, their real life about to begin.
The singer watches. He has neither a Terry nor a Julie to meet, a lack he shrugs off as being due to his laziness. He doesn’t want to wander, he stays at home at night. But behind the words, they are excuses. Something scares him, and he retreats to his self-adopted place, where the City is his love: he needs no friends. Doth he protest too much?
Terry and Julie need no friends, but that’s because they have each other. They might be lost in the crowd, millions of people, swarming like flies round Waterloo Underground: swarming, with its connotation of flies swarming around a piece of rotten meat, gorging on its foulness perhaps. But Terry and Julie are not part of them: they have crossed the river, gone into their own place, where they feel safe and sound.
They too gaze upon Waterloo Sunset, though now they stand at a different vantage to the singer. There will be others, people for whom place and location are the anchor to lives in the middle of a turbulence that threatened to turn the world upside down, but sadly did not do so.
For the singer, for this young couple, there is the bridge and the sunset, an echo of Wordsworth, drawn from the more upmarket environs of Westminster Bridge to the places where the ordinary people go.
And the bridge and the sunset stand forever. The band gather together to end the song, repeating that Waterloo Sunset’s fine, the melody released, the walls gathering. Terry and Julie married, had kids, grandkids, lived out their lives in the shadow of Waterloo Bridge.
No, not the shadow, but the light, the light of sunset.

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