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‘Waterloo Sunset’, Memory and interiority: TSA Blog 4

I remember when I became entranced with ‘Waterloo Sunset’. It was a late afternoon in September 1982. I was in my grand high-ceilinged bedroom staring out through the three Roman-arched windows that faced west. The tallest centre window opened out to a marble flagged porch. From there I could look up at the sky over the roof of the shops erected in front of the neglected mansion, or down into the back of the most notorious take away food shop on Fitzroy St, St Kilda, its sink full of chipped potatoes apparently a mask for dark doings. I was shaking off two years of mourning for my sister Jane while winding myself up to drop out of acting school. Up in my grand eyrie, while wagging the 'Impulse Work' sessions at the V.C.A. I was making time to search inside myself for a new purpose, a reason to fly on to new horizons. I had a cassette of The Kinks and I started to play it every day.

Tremulous. A breeze ruffling the surface of a river. Once the descending bass and the opening melody on the guitar set the scene, something magical happens. It’s the sound of Ray Davies’ voice. I’ve sung this song from time to time because it is irresistible. I’ll sing it again. But the thing that I can’t do, is deliver it with Ray Davies’ mix of warmth and vulnerability. He has such a unique way of expressing himself: a robust attack at the beginning of notes that swiftly hollows out to his unique, tremulous vibrato. Notes emerge half-urgent and half-hidden. There’s softness and strength. Maybe it’s the mix of frequencies. It’s unmistakable. I can’t think of another voice that does the same thing. The song itself is one of the great works in the pop idiom, but its lasting allure is all about Ray Davies’ voice.

The first section of melody, the economical motif, clipped and syncopated, moves down in three steps to a resolution. Falling from its high point, the energy dissipates creating the illusion of a pause at the end, like a slow breath in and out. Then the second half of the verse steps up and steps down to long held notes creating emphasis that drives forward to what seems to be the hook, as the opening motif reappears, “As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in Paradise…” But it's a false ending swiftly overtaken. “Sha, la, la…” introduces what seems to be bridging material, a gear change, as the narrator’s regard of his immediate surroundings inserts itself into the thousand-yard stare of the verses, “Every day I look at the world from my window…”. More energy colours the singing now and that hint of tension is important, because without it we couldn’t arrive at the real climax, “Waterloo Sunset’s fine…” a final vocal fanfare that rises like vapour in echoing swoops and sighs. The whole song form moves with wonderful inevitability from dissipation and tremor to power and release in 75 perfect seconds. Of course the song develops over repetitions, but it never transcends these fundamentals. It doesn’t need to.

Altogether, the melody and the arrangement of instruments and voices serve the lyrics perfectly. “But I don’t feel afraid…” He’s discovered a way to be at peace with the world, immersed in the beauty of the familiar and ordinary. It is all truly splendid, as long as it is observed through a window, from a distance, at the most mysterious and changeable time of the day. He’s safe inside his room, inside his imagination. He’s standing outside of life and looking in, even as he sits inside his room looking out. It’s a contradiction most of us seem to understand. This picture is so specific, but so universal. And then there’s the coda, to my ears a rapturous enunciation of the richness and beauty of interiority. Goodness me.

Davies generously, bravely shares his vulnerability, that oddly handsome young man drawing on his great talent to transform an experience of depression through poetic vision and musical mastery. It turned out to be the perfect fit for its time. It’s still a classic. And when I listen to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ I can still see the slanted light in that room just 500-yards from the Southern Ocean. I can still recall my limbs growing heavy, my head buzzing and my eyes losing focus as I listened to the song again and again. That’s when Ray Davies’ voice imprinted itself on me so very deeply.


Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, rolling into the night

People so busy, make me feel dizzy, taxi light shines so bright

But I don't, need no friends

As long as I gaze on Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise


Every day I look at the world from my window

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


Every day I look at the world from my window

Chilly chilly is the evening time, Waterloo sunset's fine


Millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground

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

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