Waterloo Sunset

03londonmaydy

Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, 1967).
Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks, live, 1973).
Waterloo Sunset (Bowie and Ray Davies, live, 2003).
Waterloo Sunset (Bowie).

At his final (to date) Tibet House benefit concert in February 2003, Bowie duetted with Ray Davies on the latter’s “Waterloo Sunset.” Soon afterward Bowie recorded a cover of the song, at first slotted for Reality and ultimately issued as a bonus track. Apart from his cover of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” on Pin Ups, it’s Bowie’s only overt Kinks homage,* but Davies was far greater an influence than this suggests. He was a fundamental element for Bowie; he’s in the bedrock of Bowie’s songwriting.

Bowie had met Davies in 1964, when the former’s King Bees were on the same bill as the Kinks for a brief tour of southern Britain, and for a time Bowie and Davies shared a producer in Shel Talmy. But Davies existed more as a guide on records for Bowie, teaching him how to structure songs, write top melodies, set up riffs, spin lyrical scenarios. You see it anywhere you look in Bowie’s Sixties work, from how the lovelorn “Baby Loves That Way” answers the Kinks’ “Nothing In This World” to how “See My Friends” haunts “The London Boys,” from the Davies-esque third-person character pieces of Bowie’s debut LP to the melodic and harmonic flavors from Kinks songs that turn up in later Bowie pieces (e.g., Iggy Pop’s “Baby,” which Bowie co-wrote, has bits of “Dead End Street” and “Sunny Afternoon” in it).

Yet covering “Waterloo Sunset” was still rather ambitious for Bowie: it would be like attempting to finally crack “A Day In the Life” in late middle age. “Waterloo Sunset” was a Kinks masterpiece, a capstone for an era. “I started writing a song about Liverpool that implied that the era of Merseybeat was coming to an end, but I changed it to ‘Waterloo Sunset’ not only because that gave me a bigger canvas to work on but because it was about London, the place where I had actually grown up,” Davies wrote in his “autobiography” X-Ray.

He’d felt possessive of the song as he wrote it, refusing to let his bandmates hear his lyric until backing tracks and backing vocals were cut.** “Even when the record was finished, it felt like a secret,” Davies wrote. “It was like an extract of a diary nobody was allowed to read.” When asked by a critic what the next Kinks single was, Davies pretended to have forgotten the song’s title.

67waterloo

It came from a teenage memory: Davies standing on Waterloo Bridge, watching the brown Thames flow beneath him, having a vision of the river cresting its banks and submerging the Houses of Parliament.*** Many of his great Sixties songs share the sense that an older, homelier England is getting washed away by a fresh tide, leaving the “common” British man or woman stranded and wondering how to get home (if home’s even still there). While often using his large, ructious family as characters (Rosy, or his brother Dave as his swinging sister), Davies used for his lead actors in “Waterloo Sunset” the actors Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, beautiful gods of Swinging London (if there was a Wicked + Divine set in Sixties London, they’d be in the pantheon for sure). He cast himself as narrator, a shut-in who spends his days in his flat, watching life go by, turning the nameless people he sees into stories.

So “Waterloo Sunset” is a songwriter’s workbook. The composer sits at home alone, watching the young go about the business of life as he scratches out ideas in his notebook. There’s too much relentless life out there: the dirty river, flowing ever eastward to the sea (counterpoint to the lazy old sun, ever ballooning westward). The millions of people entering Waterloo Station, pooling from all across London and streaming in veins outward to the suburbs. Waterloo Bridge itself (the opening and closing scene of Alfie), its name Britain’s fading glory, now a commuter’s walkway and a meeting place for lovers, a still point for old dreamers.

Davies was often depressed in the Sixties, worn down by band and managerial politics, struggling with financial problems (he was writing #1 hits yet was often broke). He said he felt he was supposed to have given up years before. The Kinks were just meant to get a few top hits and break up, letting the record company move on to brighter things. But he kept at it. In 1967 he was still writing songs in the shadow of the favored likes of the Beatles. The Beatles promised the world could be new; Davies stayed home to keep a record of what was being decommissioned: steam trains, china shops, Victoriana, palais halls, dance bands. Must you keep flowing? As long as you have one corner of London to claim, you’re not dead yet. Sunset’s the end of the day, but it lingers for a while in the summer.

61terminus

The Kinks’ recording of “Waterloo Sunset” was marked by happenstance and their typically erratic studio habits. After puzzling how to process Dave Davies’ lead guitar, they wound up piping it through tape delay (“almost like a Fifties-type ‘triplet’ delay,” Dave recalled) while Ray’s rhythm guitar was a scrappy undercurrent in the mix, barely audible at times. The song’s beautiful melancholia was in the backing vocals–the Davies brothers and the essential Rasa Davies, the grace of many Sixties’ Kinks tracks—which soar upward while the chromatic bassline trudges downward.

Having sung “Waterloo Sunset” as a joyous full-band piece at the Tibetan concert, with Bowie serving as the high end of the harmonies, Bowie crafted a bright, even peppy version of the song in the studio. Why he felt the need to chase away the blues of the song, to make essentially a “Waterloo Sunrise,” is another question. There was something of a precedent: a Kinks TV version from 1973 with horns and a host of singers, where the refrains were a carnival retort to Davies’ humble verses.

But Bowie mainly just scrubbed away the soot, his embellishments including a nagging two-note synthesizer riff, a handclap-fattened Sterling Campbell hitting on every beat in the intro, and a “theremin” squiggle to transition back to verses. The song hustled, sparkled; it pushed you along. Bowie discarded most of the Kinks’ harmonies, only doubling himself at the octave in refrains (one of his voices was almost conversational). He wrote a new set of backing vocals for the last verse, some “ooh-LA-las” in slight debt to the Beatles’ “You Won’t See Me.” Only in the coda did he finally bring in the echoing, plangent harmonies of the original. He sounded as if he was in competition with himself.

The Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” offered that in a world consumed with movement, often going nowhere, sometimes you could find an escape hole, like Terry and Julie do (were they catching a train out of town?) Bowie’s version has no need for hideaways. It’s the sound of a winner’s Sixties, a flattened Sixties; it seems intended as cheery in-flight music for Virgin Airlines.

03waterlood

Bowie and Davies’ performance was at Carnegie Hall, 28 February 2003. Bowie’s version was recorded ca. January-April 2003, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 November 2003 as a “cyber-single” download in the UK (some BowieNet members got the track earlier on a promo CD), and also included on the “tour” edition of Reality, which included a DVD with the entire album sequence played live at Riverside Studios in Sept. 2003.

* Bowie also played Kinks hits on stage with the likes of the Manish Boys and the Lower Third in the mid-Sixties, and he’s thrown in bits of “All Day and All of the Night” in a few live performances over the years.

** Likely some poetic license here on Davies’ part (X-Ray is far from an “official” autobiography), as his brother recalled Ray playing the developing “Waterloo Sunset” to him and “we started ad-libbing vocal parts around the chorus.”

*** Davies described the Thames as “bright brown, almost red…like blood flowing through a great vein,” which does suggest another lament for a “lost” England, Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech from 1968.

Top: “Gadget (Ben),” “London, Mayday 2003;” “Waterloo Station, 1967“; Waterloo Sta., still from John Schlesinger’s Terminus (1961); dirty old river, still flowing under Waterloo Bridge, 2003 (Bruno Girin).

41 Responses to Waterloo Sunset

  1. Ramzi says:

    Davies really does have the most perfect English singing voice. The way he sings “Terry meets Julie” is just lovely.

    Bowie’s version is, erm, kind of dross.

  2. Sky-Possessing Spider says:

    I’ve always loved the original version. Although I’d never really given much thought to the meaning of the lyrics, that sense of longing and nostalgia is palpable. A beautiful song.

  3. col1234 says:

    meant to credit “Crayon to Crayon” for spotting “dead end street” in Iggy’s “baby”

  4. BenJ says:

    Hasn’t Davies denied that “Terry and Julie” were Stamp and Christie? I seem to have read him somewhere saying that “I can’t write for movie stars.” He’s done just that, sort of, but only as illusions. (See “Oklahoma USA”)

  5. Steve says:

    As I recall from the press in 1967, Terry and Julie were inspired by their appearances in Far From the Madding Crowd, John Schlesinger’s Hardy adaptation–and at the time it would have been pretty disingenuous to claim those two names, together, referred to anyone but Stamp and Christie.

  6. s.t. says:

    Goddammit, I really have to get into the Kinks. They’re one of those bands that just flew by my radar, and no one ever actively pushed them on me. I really like everything I’ve heard though. In this song I can hear the seeds of Pete Shelley and Stuart Murdoch.

    Bowie’s version is fine enough, but as you say it lacks poignancy.

    • col1234 says:

      pretty much all the ’60s albums are great. Plus Percy, Lola and Muswell Hillbillies in the early ’70s. look for the reissues w/key singles & B-sides (the Kinks had amazing B-sides).

    • Mike F says:

      If there is a better piece of songwriting than “Shangri-La,” I haven’t heard it yet.

    • BenJ says:

      I had it kind of lucky hearing them grow up, so I’m a second generation Kinks fan. Probably a little rarer than second or third Beatles fan, but there are some. Village Green Preservation Society is a good place to start, but there are many good places to start.

    • dm says:

      Also, if you want (for my money) THE definitive song-by-song analysis of the band’s best work, look up Andrew Hickey’s Preservation. It cheekily refuses to analyse this song, because there’s really nothing left to say.

    • Vinnie says:

      I can’t help but agree – the closest I’ve come to getting into The Kinks was The Darjeeling Limited, but the stone never sparked. “Waterloo Sunset” is so lovely. Bowie’s cover is decent as well.

  7. Mike F says:

    Bowie’s version sounds like an upbeat remix geared towards aerobics instructors looking for a groovy, kitschy 60s dance track for their step class. Yuck.

  8. J.D. says:

    really just a hunch, but genius though bowie is, part of it consists in knowing when something isn’t really there; my thought is that you’re exactly right that Davies is central to the DB ethos but that by the time of say, the arrival of ‘serious DB’ in Man-Who or thereabout, he knew he couldn’t really manage the lightly effervescent thing that Davies does, the humor and the romance in one.

    And he kind of dropped it for a dozen lps or so. The light touch, the common touch, the humor. You do see Davies everywhere you look in the DB early-show, and then faintly, regretfully, by the later, much later likes of Outside, Hours, Buddha-burbia, etc.

    Oh, and this ” Davies stayed home to keep a record of what was being decommissioned: steam trains, china shops, Victoriana ” … could hardly be more true. Nice observation.

  9. crayontocrayon says:

    I echo J.D. above in that Bowie’s strength was never the more narrative ‘life-and-times of ordinary people’ style of writing of a Davies or a Townshend and he thankfully sussed this out fairly early on.
    The cover is fairly obnoxious, stripping the tenderness from the original. Not the worst Bowie cover by far, but a thankless task to try and redo such a perfect of its kind song.

  10. dm says:

    I was worried about reading the comments here incase someone had something bad (or even lukewarm) to say about the original. It’s ridiculous, but that’s how protective I am of Waterloo Sunset. It’s the most beautiful sound in the world and I’ll never tire of it. At the right time it can put a smile on my face or reduce me to a sobbing mess.

    My two favourite songs of all time are this and Sound and Vision- I guess I have a thing for shut-ins, so seeing the two perform together touches me deeply. I can almost imagine a more swinging, perhaps more wordy, Sound and Vision on Arthur or Village Green, with Rasa obviously on backing vocals.

    As for the cover, Bowie seems fully aware he can’t even approach the original’s delicate beauty, so he just seems to have a lot of fun here. Obviously it’s sacrilege, but it’s not nearly as offensive as his God Only Knows.

    Once we finish Reality, it’d be fun if someone could put together an exhaustive list of Bowie’s covers (recorded only) and we did a poll. My absolute favourite is coming up soon.

    Iggy Pop’s “Baby,” which Bowie co-wrote, has bits of “Dead End Street”
    Okay I honestly thought I was the only one who heard this.

  11. Ididtheziggy says:

    Waterloo Sunset is straight up one of my favourite songs in the world. And Chris, incase you’ve gone come tell mad and decide to do another project like this, might I recommend The Kinks. But seriously, don’t do this to yourself again.

  12. Patrick says:

    As a Londoner, though only born here in the early 60s, this is pretty much the quintessential London song, not the scared Thames of ancient times but The “dirty old river” . Bowie’s interpretation is er..underwhelming.

    • Patrick says:

      I meant sacred not scared! (Chrome auto spellcheck to blame I suspect) Scared? the Thames is never scared,
      though it might be scary at times.

  13. Steven says:

    Those horrible synth parts!

  14. Mike says:

    Bowie clobbers the hell out of the tune but the tune is so great it survives the beating. Or something.

    • Mr Tagomi says:

      I kind of like DB’s cover.

      I think recasting the essentials of the song as a straighforward bit of upbeat pop was actually a well judged way of tackling it.

      No attempt to scale the heights of the original. It comes across to me as an expression of fandom expressed fairly unpretentiously.

  15. Ramzi says:

    As we’re talking about the Kinks, fun story about how my dad met them. In the late 60’s they were booked to play in Beirut while it was still the Paris of the Middle East, however they got ripped off by the guy who organised their shows there in some form or another (not doing the Lebanese any favours in this story but oh well) to the extent that they had to call the British Embassy. My grandfather was Vice Consul at the time and got the call; he was busy but sent a colleague and my dad (late teens and a fan) to sort them out.

    I only found this out a couple of years ago. If I met the Kinks I would’ve been telling my children a lot sooner.

  16. MC says:

    Just listened to this for the first time. Not bad, perhaps, but hardly necessary. The live version with Davies, on the other hand, is glorious. DB probably should have left it at that.

    For me, the Pinups version of Where Have All The Good Times is pretty great, the perfect capper for that collection, suggesting a real affinity with The Kinks. Like s.t., I too have been meaning to give the band a more thorough listening-to, and just haven’t gotten around to it.

  17. Maj says:

    I have a Kinks best of album and play it from time to time, usually when doing stuff like cooking or caring about my flowers, and I found I can’t listen to them in large doses…to me they feel like a band of comedians who chose to express through music. For better, for worse. So it seems I’ll never get to the second base with these guys.

    Waterloo Sunset though, sure is fine. Truly a masterpiece of a song. The original version is prefect as is, but Bowie’s studio one is quite good too. Is it less melancholic than the original? Probably. But I have no problem with that. In fact it goes well with my “thing” for songs with happy music but sad or sinister lyrics. Bowie certainly could have done worse things with it (see God Only Knows).

    I haven’t heard the duet version before, but I actually love what Bowie is doing there vocally. It’s funny hearing Davies’s puny voice next to Bowie’s (and you can still tell Bowie was holding back a bit as to not belt poor Davies off the stage).

    And yes, 60’s Bowie is very Kinks-y, but thankfully he evolved from this poor man’s Davies phase…

    • Maj says:

      Oh, and btw, “dirty old river, must you keep flowing” is one of my favourite lyrics, happy to see you find it inspiring too, Chris!😉
      Great entry!

  18. Diamond Duke says:

    “Yet covering “Waterloo Sunset” was still rather ambitious for Bowie: it would be like attempting to finally crack “A Day In the Life” in late middle age…”

    Neil Young’s actually done it!🙂 Check it out on YouTube… (I don’t know…can we actually post videos here anymore??)

    And Def Leppard is yet another band who’s taken a crack at Waterloo Sunset (one their covers album Yeah!). If ’80s hard rock/metal isn’t your thing, then yeah, I can see that being the most horrific prospect imaginable. But it’s actually not half-bad, and I actually prefer it over Bowie’s version (as solid as it is, particularly with Gail Ann Dorsey’s lovely back-up vocalizing). Once again, see YouTube…

    • col1234 says:

      sure, include a link if you’d like. Hit “share” and then copy/paste that url, as that’ll prevent the video from popping in the comment thread itself.

  19. Nick 7 says:

    east to west – the sun’s trajectory

    west to east – the dirty old river (though it’s tidal and can roll west as well)

    south to north – Terry and Julie crossing the bridge

    north to south, south to north – Muswell Hill to Bromley to Muswell Hill – Ray to David and back again

  20. Galdo says:

    I like the cover. This post made me curious about ‘The Kinks’. I shall listen to them to see if I like.

  21. crayontocrayon says:

    Was thinking about this again last night. Am I wrong in hearing a little waterloo sunset in lady stardust? Mainly the ‘and I dont’ part of waterloo and ‘he was awful nice’ from lady stardust. It’s not really the same but I can’t help but hear it.

  22. Tayo says:

    Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Ray Davies is as cool today as he ever was in the ’60’s.

  23. Ramzi says:

    Bowie’s cover seems to have been purged from the internet. Not on spotify, all videos on youtube blocked by SME (at least in the UK).

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