How we made Waterloo Sunset

Ray Davies: ‘I’d had a breakdown. At first, I didn’t show the lyrics to the band in case they sniggered’

Ray Davies, singer, songwriter

Waterloo is a part of London that has always had a lot of significance for me. When I was a kid, my father took me there to see the 1951 Festival of Britain. As we looked at the Skylon tower, he said: “I think that’s meant to be the future.” Then, when I was 13, I had a bad injury and my ward in St Thomas’ hospital overlooked the river and Parliament. It’s a very vivid memory. Also, as a student at Croydon College of Art, I used to change trains at Waterloo. There was a romantic element too: as a teenager, I used to walk along Waterloo Bridge with my girlfriend.

I carried these thoughts around in my head for years, then suddenly the song popped out. The tune and the lyrics came together very quickly, almost like the song was writing me, not the other way round. I come from a large family and my sisters’ generation – the one before mine – were expected to get married, work in factories or do menial work. They weren’t supposed to excel as individuals, so I wrote the song for them.

Of course, everyone thought “Terry and Julie” was a reference to Terry Stamp and Julie Christie, since they were immensely famous because of Far from the Madding Crowd. But actually, the image I had in my mind was of my sister and her boyfriend walking into the future. I do have a nephew called Terry, but his nickhame is Todger and he emigrated to Australia.

Although I’m an observer in the song, in many ways it is about me. I’d had a breakdown and, though I wasn’t a gibbering wreck, I was feeling vulnerable. The river is depicted as a protective force. I didn’t show the lyrics to the band in case they sniggered. Instead, I played it to my niece Jackie and sister Rosie and, when I told them I didn’t want it to be released as a single, they seemed to understand.

When we recorded it, my brother Dave proved that he can sometimes do what I tell him – he played lovely, compelling guitar lines to underpin my fragile vocal. Afterwards, Penny Valentine, a journalist at Disc magazine, heard it and rang me up to say: “You’ve got to put this out as a single. It’ll be a massive hit.”

The song is about how innocence will prevail over adversity. It starts out delicate, but by the end has become awesome in its power. Those triumphant chords come in – and the angels tell you everything is going to be OK.

Mick Avory, drummer

I first heard this during rehearsals at Ray’s house. Ray played the tune on an acoustic guitar, with no vocals. In its basic form, there wasn’t much to go on, but it still sounded like a hit. At that stage of a song, Ray would record what we were doing on a cassette and we’d muck about with tempos and such until it felt right.

We had a lot of ruckuses in the Kinks but, funnily enough, when we finally recorded Waterloo Sunset, everyone was in harmony. We tried it first with piano but it didn’t work, so we changed it to guitar. Ray had a bad cold and sinus problems that affected his ears, so he couldn’t use headphones, meaning he had to sing while hearing himself through a speaker. But he still got the vocal in two takes. Dave came in the next day and put the main guitar on and Rasa – Ray’s wife at the time – helped with the vocal harmonies.

When I first heard the chorus, I could picture the scene exactly. I’ve done that same walk Ray did and there is something powerful about the sunset over Waterloo. Unlike many parts of London, it isn’t hidden behind buildings – there’s a gap, so you can see the big red sun reflected in the river. It’s a song I get something different from every time I hear it.

  • Sunny Afternoon: The Very Best of the Kinks is out now. Mick Avory now plays in the Kast Off Kinks.
‘I didn’t show the lyrics to the band in case they sniggered’ … Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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