The Kinks - Waterloo Sunset
tylus Magazine’s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you’ve never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
“Waterloo Sunset,” one of the saddest, most beautiful songs the Kinks ever wrote, opens with a musical sigh. While the guitars hold an A-seventh chord, the bass drifts down a slow octave, settling into a D major chord like a man sinking gratefully into an armchair. The trip from A to D is unhurried but proceeds inexorably, and carries a sense of resignation. The arrival at D feels inevitable, alright, but it doesn’t feel like triumph.
That pained sigh sets in motion Ray Davies’s tale of a lonely agoraphobic, contemplating the sun as it sets over the “dirty old river.” Captivated by the sight, the narrator contrasts it with visions of the crowded, unquiet city lying beyond it: “People so busy / Makes me feel dizzy / Taxi lights shine so bright.” Referring with distaste to “millions of people swarming like flies round Waterloo underground,” he appears to have completely cut himself off from humanity, though the beauty of the moment stirs a vague desire for contact. Momentarily, he yearns to reconnect—“Every day I look at the world from my window,” he sings, his voice swelling—but shrinks away: “But chilly, chilly is evening time / Waterloo Sunset’s fine.” Paralyzed by his fears, he takes what pleasures can be found in a dimming sunset, then turns away and continues on in solitude.
I always sympathized with this constrained soul; his rueful acceptance of his lot resonated with me as a freshman in college when I first got a radio show. My timeslot was from 3 to 6 a.m., and I went about inflicting my tastes on a mostly imaginary audience. I was a budding music fetishist—I named my show “Championship Vinyl,” after the shop that Nick Hornby’s archetypal music dorks run in High Fidelity—and like all fetishists, I searched in my chosen obsession for what I could not find elsewhere, which in my case was human connection. Humans, wildly unpredictable and demanding, don’t offer the same tidy consolations as good pop songs, which sort through the dismaying tangle of human emotion for order and structure. I shied instinctively away from the rude spectacle of my fellow freshmen as they made colossal mistakes, contradicted themselves with every other word, and generally mucked about in a morass of confused hormones. Half of me clucked disapprovingly—as if I knew any better—and half of me yearned to enjoy their freedom.
As an alternative, I stayed inside, grew my hair long, and collected songs. A good pop song will offer a reasonable facsimile of human warmth and intimacy, for three or four minutes anyway, and they are easier to open up to than people: they offer no judgment and they keep your secrets. My radio show, buried in the middle of the night on a weekday, was a solace, a place for me to allow myself to feel all those inconvenient emotions my peers were acting on all over campus. Songs like “The Boy With the Thorn in His Side” and “Waterloo Sunset” were my Waterloo sunsets: the moments when, tucked away in a basement alcove at three in the morning, playing records to myself while everyone slept, I could safely appreciate what there was to savor in humanity.
There’s another moment in “Waterloo” that chills me. The narrator, watching the world pass him by, asserts: “But I don’t need no friends / As long as I gaze at Waterloo Sunset, I am in paradise.” The melody turns suddenly haunted on the phase, “I don’t need no friends”; the guitars drop out as an E minor chord hangs pendulously in the air, and Davies lingers searchingly on the phrase, his voice cold with doubt. Whenever I hear that musical stab of uncertainty, I can see the contented smile on the man’s face hover for a minute, marred by nagging sense of unfulfillment. Then the guitars come back in and tranquility is more or less restored. But it’s a moment of such perfect beauty that it served as a balm to me during a difficult time. Every time I heard it, I could allow myself a wistful smile, as I always imagined the narrator doing, and quietly regret my closed-off life.