Almost lost amid the psychedelic explosion that followed in the wake of Sgt. Pepper, the Kinks’ more conventional 1967 album Something Else included many of the best songs Ray Davies was ever to compose, none better than his masterpiece, Waterloo Sunset. There may be nothing else in all of popular music quite so wistfully evocative as this poignant, eligiac, and characteristically nostalgic paean to the famous neighbourhood of central London, over which Ray saw many a sunset as he looked out the window of his room in St. Thomas hospital as a very ill young boy. The beautiful melody came to him in a dream, like Yesterday‘s did for McCartney, and Ray at first thought the title should be “Liverpool sunset”, but he knew and loved London better, and the now familiar lyrics flowed readily as childhood memories of his view over Waterloo washed over him. There’s a curiously moving, philosophical, and almost olympian quality to the narrator’s depiction, as he gazes out over the city, with its bright lights and bustling people, content to stay at home all by himself. It’s chilly outside, but he’s safe, warm, and happy in his solitude, taking satisfaction in the lovely view, while the sun goes down and the Thames keeps rolling as it has through thousands of years of the old city’s history.
Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is the evening time
Waterloo sunset’s fine…
Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander, I stay at home at night
But I don’t feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise
Millions of people swarming like flies ’round Waterloo underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river where they feel safe and sound
And they don’t need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset they are in paradise
The Terry and Julie characters are often said to be Terrance Stamp and Julie Christie, at that time the “it” couple of Swinging London, but Ray was actually thinking of family, saying in one interview “I think the characters have to do with the aspirations of my elder sisters, who grew up during the Second World War and missed out on the 60s. I was thinking of the world I wanted them to have.” One can’t help but hear an underlying tinge of sadness upon learning that the eldest of his six sisters, Rene, died when Ray was just 13, the very day she’d bought him his first guitar as a birthday present, and the listener’s mood grows more somber knowing that two others who served as Ray’s muses, Joyce and Rosie, died within three weeks of each other in 2014. Yet Waterloo Sunset remains an uplifting celebration of life, and of the soothing, heart-warming beauty of everyday, ordinary things as taken in from a certain remove. Ray once described himself as living with “an abiding sense of apartness”, and that inherently melancholy point of view is certainly evident here, but Waterloo Sunset is written from the perspective of a moment at which the sadness has all been boxed away, and everything is, after all, still right with the world, or at least as right as it’s ever going to be, which might, in a naturally sad person’s reckoning, be one definition of paradise.
The story goes that upon finishing the recording session, Ray had his wife drive him down to stand for a while on Waterloo bridge; he wanted to soak it all in and be sure he’d gotten it right. Looking around, contemplating the nighttime scene, he decided that he had.