There’s a whole plot in the history of sixties music uniting all the “songs written to emulate/respond to/avoid the Beatles.” Everybody knows that Brian Wilson was so knocked down by Rubber Soul that he suffered a nervous breakdown and the following morning when he woke up he sat at the piano and wrote God Only Knows with Tony Asher in one sitting; the beginning of a little thing called Pet Sounds. Ray Davies had also a song in mind that he wanted to name Liverpool Sunset. But then he heard Penny Lane and all of a sudden the idea of creating another love ode to the city of Mersey, being from London, seemed kind of ridiculous. When it finally crystallised, the song got the name we all know now it should have always gotten, Waterloo Sunset.
This song has just turned fifty and, like many other great ones from the same years, it never reached the top one. In its case because Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale stole it from it. But it’s not the only one: My Generation, Brown Sugar, Wild Thing by the Troggs and Penny Lane only made it to the top two – checking that decade’s charts always leaves me with the same feeling of disbelief at seeing the hits fighting each other, hits that must have been played on the radio as frequently as now DJs play Despacito –.
Davies is famous for his storytelling, for inventing characters like the Carnaby Street peacock of Dedicated Follower of Fashion, the proper City gentleman of A Well Respected Man, or the transsexual with cherry cola lips of Lola. And also for capturing with his lyrics perfect vignettes of (soft) social satire and caring critique of Little England, like in Sunny Afternoon or the whole of Village Green Preservation Society. But here he used the first person, something not so usual in his songs: “I don’t need no friends / as long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset / I am in Paradise.” In the years gone by since he wrote the song, the Kink-in-chief hasn’t tried to deny it as an exercise of vague self-fiction. “Although I’m an observer in the song, in many ways it is about me. I’d had a breakdown and, though I wasn’t a gibbering wreck, I was feeling vulnerable. The river is depicted as a protective force. I didn’t show the lyrics to the band in case they sniggered. Instead, I played it to my niece Jackie and sister Rosie and, when I told them I didn’t want it to be released as a single, they seemed to understand,” the composer told The Guardian some years ago.
The women in the Davies family are in the origin of the song, as he himself said on the same article: “[In] my sisters’ generation – the one before mine – [they] were expected to get married, work in factories or do menial work. They weren’t supposed to excel as individuals, so I wrote the song for them.” Round about that time, one of his sisters had just emigrated to Australia looking for her own “sunny afternoons,” with her husband and her son Terry. So no, the two lovers meeting at Waterloo each Friday, Terry and Julie, are not Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, like many people thought back then. The two actors, who on that same year starred on the film adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, embodied the Swinging Sixties and had little to do with the melancholic couple that, probably, after their date, took the train back to their dormitory towns.
During the recording of the song, the Davies brothers were closer than ever, as Ray acknowledged, with Dave’s delicate fingerpicking on his guitar to the fragile voice of the singer. The drummer Mick Avory also remembers feeling transported by the song since the first time he heard it. “I could picture the scene exactly. I’ve done that same walk Ray did and there is something powerful about the sunset over Waterloo. Unlike many parts of London, it isn’t hidden behind buildings – there’s a gap, so you can see the big red sun reflected in the river,” he said. Is there a cheaper pleasure than urban contemplation?
Some five years ago, historian Christine Wall revealed an unknown fact about Waterloo bridge: it was built, mostly by women, during the Blitz, the period of Nazi bombing over England. Around twenty-five thousand women worked during the war as bricklayers and building workers in the United Kingdom, earning less than the men who had gone to the front and knowing that as soon as the men were back from the war, they would lose their jobs. If the news, or the documentary about it, The Ladies Bridge, ever reached Ray Davies’ ears, I’m sure he would have smiled about it. Not in vain did he write the song for working class girls who were late to the sixties.
By Begoña Gómez Urzaiz
Illustration by Conxita Herrero