Ray Davies wrote this when he was 21. His producer apparently said it was the kind of thing a 40-year-old would write.
Personally, I was about one year old when the original came out, at the end of 1965, but when I was discovering the Kinks in the late 1970s, this was on a live album.
It’s a somewhat rocked up, stadium version, it has more bounce than the original recording, but retains the same knowing, warily ironic lyrics. I fell in love with the Kinks around this time, even though they were well past their best. It was difficult to get hold of out-of-print albums in New Zealand then, but I managed, after a few years, to scour enough second-hand bins to put together a collection.
I loved them because they were so damn different to anything else going on – even though you could hear their influence in a lot of the music of the time.
Ray Davies visited Buck House last month and arose Sir Ray.
Davies sang like an old man, well before he was one. The run of recordings from roughly mid-1966 to mid-1969, although spread around several different albums, some nominally formed around “concepts”, plus a splattering of magnificent if often neglected singles, is like a unified body of work.
A body of work completely out of sync with its times: amid the spectacular multicolour of psychedelia and the self-conscious, self-dramatising youth revolution of the late 1960s, Ray Davies penned a series of monochrome songs about the world that was being lost.
“Dead End Street”, a single at the end of 1966, could probably began this body of work, although there were glimpses in some of the tracks on the ‘Face To Face’ album earlier in the year.
“Dead End Street” is more reminiscent of the 1930s than the 1960s: Davies’ vocal begins, pinched and cold, like an unemployed man huddling into a cold army surplus overcoat for warmth.
‘There’s a crack up in the ceiling
And the kitchen sink is leaking …’
The rhythm is a march: there are horns, like a northern brass band, and it calls to mind mental pictures of the Jarrow March of 1936 rather than the psychedelic “happenings” of 1966.
The video is silly, but one thing it has in common with the song is it is in black and white.
Davies’ songs from this era all sounded monochrome: they were like Ealing, or Boulton Brothers, films set to music.
‘Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night?’
Including, of course, the masterpiece: Waterloo Sunset. A big part of the appeal of the song is the loneliness of its narrator (‘every day I look at the world from my window’) and the imagery of the detached, solitary observer viewing the bustling crowd and the dirty old river, rolling, flowing into the night, sticks in the mind.
There’s both a distance and a clarity and a detail in what Davies is singing about – again, the imagery is monochrome, and his brother Dave’s guitar matches the mood perfectly.
And if words, and playing is gritty and monochrome, the ethereal backing vocals float away, above the busy urban scene, like Philip Larkin gazing through his High Windows, nowhere and endless.
This body of work culminated in two albums, ‘The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society’ and ‘Arthur or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire’ – the latter from a tv play by Julian Temple which was, in the end, never made.
Davies has since redone it, with a choir – there’s a live version here. It works, pretty much.
Davies said once, somewhere, that Waterloo Sunset is him at his best, and he himself as not as good as Waterloo Sunset. I recently read Johnny Rogan’s recent biography of him, ‘Complicated Life’ and this is certainly a piece of that good old English understatement. While not exactly a hatchet job, Rogan – whose earlier book on the Kinks was subtitled ‘A Mental Institution’ – does not exactly go out of his way to hide his subject’s flaws.
But it’s always the way, isn’t it? Brilliant creativity – and Davies’ influence can be heard on musos as diverse as David Bowie, the Who, the Smiths, Ian Dury, and even our own Split Enz – often goes hand in hand with a certain personal rebarbativeness of character. “A miserable little bleeder” one of his uncles dubbed him when he was a child, and there’s no doubt Davies, from childhood, was suffering from some form of undiagnosed mental illness.
There’s a good recent interview with him in the New Statesman here, where he discusses hipsters and Pete Townshend, amongst other things.
He’s clearly an awkward bugger, somewhat at odds with life. But that kind of goes with the territory, it seems.