In the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s book Juliet, Naked, a reclusive singer-songwriter is coaxed into performing at a seaside town’s museum exhibition, but he doesn’t sing something he wrote; he sings something he wishes he’d written, Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset.” The Kinks’ record also pops up on the soundtrack of the documentary My Generation, an impressionistic flashback to ‘60s London, guided by Michael Caine. I happened to see both films on the same day, and earlier in the morning, I’d played the song on Spotify, by request. So it was, from sun-up to nighttime, a period where that most hauntingly cinematic of songs circled in the air. Unlike so many other artifacts from the summer of 1967, “Waterloo Sunset” seems, somehow, disconnected from its moment.
Maybe it would feel different to me if it had been as big a hit single in America as it was in the U.K.; maybe, if it accompanied me everywhere on the radio when it was released, it would be more tethered to that summer the way a lot of records are. “Groovin’,” say, or “Somebody to Love,” or “Light My Fire.” “Waterloo Sunset” exists in its own universe, befitting a song that is quietly, privately observant. The singer sits by his window. He doesn’t need friends, just his view of the dirty old river in eveningtime. We don’t even know if “Terry and Julie” are real, or in a movie in his mind – they are named after famous British actors – that has the companionship and romance that his life lacks.
Did I even hear “Waterloo Sunset” when it was released, or did I not discover it until it closed out the album Something Else by the Kinks, months later (it didn’t hit the U.S. until early in 1968)? I was obsessed by that album, as I was by The Who Sell Out, two British rock albums that, it seems to me, are more resonant and timeless than that most celebrated and venerated album from ’67 by the Beatles. How would it have reached me? Maybe I read about it in Rave magazine? Maybe someone published a U.K. singles chart? Something Else didn’t make much of a dent in America, but my friends and I could not stop playing it. The Kinks weren’t on pop radio in ’67-‘68, and they were prohibited from playing live in the U.S., so being a fan involved a certain level of alertness: Something Else snuck into record stores, and onto the Billboard album chart in the lower quarter of the top 200 for a meager two weeks.
It felt, compared to so much of the music that swirled around it, modest, finely detailed, filled with lovely details. There were portraits of characters, short stories, melancholy ruminations, all concluding with “Waterloo Sunset,” a song so perfect and so touching. When the character Tucker Crowe in the Juliet, Naked film is at Waterloo Station with his young son, the song pops into his head, as it does in mine every time I visit London and enter that tube stop. “Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night.” If it happens to be a Friday, you look around, maybe, and feel a part of the continuing life of Davies’ vivid sketch.
It’s a marvel, the way the song’s camera dollys in to Davies’ flat — he’s looking out his window, singing as though to himself, making little notes about what he sees – and then switches perspective; there are Terry and Julie (you picture Stamp and Christie, of course), and the narrator simply notes their meeting before coming back to his own isolation. He stays at home gazing at the sunset, and it’s “paradise,” but a paradise of solitude. Then back outside, to all the people swarming around, and the camera zooms in one last time on Terry and Julie, who have only each other, escaping the tumult. They gaze at the same sunset. The music, starting with Pete Quaife’s loping bass line and Dave Davies’ statement of melodic theme, is steady and unhurried, there are spaces in it; the melody is lilting and graceful.
It’s all so quintessentially Kinkslike; it’s a song that couldn’t belong to anyone else. And yet so many artists, like the fictional cinematic Tucker Crowe, can’t help but be drawn to it: Bowie, Paul Weller, Elliott Smith, Peter Gabriel, Rhett Miller. Odd bedsitfellows Def Leppard. Twiggy, who figures prominently in My Generation, herself has covered it, as have the Pretenders and the charming duo First Aid Kit. It’s understandable, because it sounds like a modern standard, like a mid-‘60s British version of something like “Georgia On My Mind” or “Moonlight in Vermont.” It has geographical specificity, but a universal theme of wistful longing. Is the lyric a memory, perhaps? In Terry and Julie, is he remembering a lost love of his own, does the Waterloo sunset represent paradise lost, and is that where he wants to live? I could listen to this song forever, and probably will.