In 1967, The Kinks took a major turn in their sound and direction and released Waterloo Sunset to the world and was an instant chart success, breaking the top 10 in most of Europe as well as Australia and New Zealand. Why haven’t you heard of this monster hit, then? Because you’re either not a Kinks fan or you live in America, where it failed to chart at all.
How a song like Waterloo Sunset could fail to chart in America is beyond reason or explanation. With a beautiful melody, catchy guitar, and a gorgeous production, this song has all the makings for a world wide phenomenal success and it has become one of The Kinks’, and more specifically Ray Davies’, most enduring works.
Waterloo Sunset is written in the narrative style for which Ray Davies would become a legend in the songwriting community and is at times melancholic, reminiscent, hopeful, charming and sad. The narrator of the song describes things that he sees from his window over looking the river. A deeper look at the lyrics would suggest that the narrator may suffer from a phobia or mental hardship that prevents him from leaving his home as he sings “But I am so lazy, don’t want to wander, I stay at home at night” but the one thing that calms his fears and unease is to stare at the beautiful Waterloo sunset.
Attention is often given to this being a love song about Terry and Julie who meet every Friday night and therein lies the genius of this lyric. On the surface, one can view the narrator of this song as simply a story telling device or as the protagonist of the song. When the focus is on Terry and Julie, the song is sweet, simple, and endearing but when the focus is on the narrator, the song is sad, heartbreaking, but hopeful. No interpretation is wrong and no interpretation is right but where every Kinks fan can agree is that this depth and beauty is what makes Ray Davies one of the greatest song writers of the rock era.
Beyond the lyrics, the musical arrangement is stunning. Perfect guitar lines flow in and out of the melody and the backing vocals are among the most arranged and prevalent in the entire Kinks catalog. Along with being the first single released in full stereo by The Kinks, it’s also the first song that the band would produce on their own, a practice that would continue for the rest of their career.
Waterloo Sunset is one of those songs that every songwriter wishes they had written and few ever come close. There is something about this song, something indescribable, that speaks directly to the heart. Maybe it’s the perfect marriage of lyric, melody, chord progression, arrangement, and performance or maybe it’s just a smart song writer hitting a peak in his abilities or maybe it’s dumb luck. Whatever it is, we are lucky that it exists and that the power of music can speak through simple works of pop music such as this.
With every note perfectly placed and orchestrated and equally important to the structure of the song, nothing could be added to make this a better piece of music and nothing could be subtracted without damaging the quality of the song. It’s pop perfection.