Sunday, 30 January 2011

Kinks: Waterloo Sunset / poetry and verse

Waterloo Sunset (May, 1967)

I think this is the masterpiece among many outstanding Kinks songs. That may be partly because of its great popularity at the time and because of its lasting power since (I remember a poet friend - a pretty hard headed man - talking about it in reverential tones) but it's not the remembered popularity, nor the fact that it has hung around that makes it so potent now.

So what is it then? The lyrics are simple:

Dirty old river, must you keep rolling
Flowing into the night
People so busy, makes me feel dizzy
Taxi light shines so bright
But I don't need no friends
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise

Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is evening time
Waterloo sunset's fine

Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy, don't want to wander
I stay at home at night
But I don't feel afraid
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise

Every day I look at the world from my window
But chilly, chilly is evening time
Waterloo sunset's fine

Millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river
Where they feel safe and sound
And they don't need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset
They are in paradise

Waterloo sunset's fine

Song lyrics don't have to be poems. Sometimes - heaven knows! - I prefer to think of verse and poetry as related but distinct forms. In this sense the poetic is simply the articulation of anything to which a kind of poetics might be applied. The poetic experience then refers to poetics, while the art of verse refers both to poetics and to prosody.

The poetics level is what everyone means when they exclaim: That's sheer poetry, that is! or Wow! Poetry in motion! Such a poetic may be produced by prose (by the prose poem for the most obvious instance) but it might just as easily be produced by a mere sentence, or by two words; or by a piece of music - a few notes might do - or a painting, a film or a photograph, or an actual scene - a glimpse might be enough, perhaps a glimpse above all!

I wouldn't myself quite know how to apply the basic terms of poetics to, say, a shout in the street, but I believe it might be attempted and that the poetic exists in this form and that somehow, in the experience of the poetic, we are presented with the apprehension of a whole parallel world that is a version of this one, but one in which all the important qualities are both distilled and focused. Verse then is the art of forming language into patterns whose chief purpose is to produce the poetic. I am a poet, so I write verse.


Waterloo Sunset is a song that exists within its own milieu, which is that of the cheap music Noel Coward talked about in terms of potency, though not so cheap neither. There is something in the lyrics about fear and safety, about a couple we are introduced to by their very ordinary first names, about another character - the singer - watching from the window and losing himself in a reverie, looking at the dirty old river by Waterloo Station which is not in itself, in my own opinion at least, an especially beautiful sight. It is all everyday, all familiar.

The familiar is rarely the poetic: it has to be reinvented and seen afresh, not in an idealised form of itself but just as it is, so it may be believed in. Many places in America have been sung and believed in, albeit in a different way, in the sense that even for Americans, they retained something of the exotic: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Tulsa, Memphis Tennessee and so forth. England isn't like that. London as a concept might be exotic for Americans (say in Gershwin's A Foggy Day in London Town) but in England itself, in song at least, what is on offer has been validated primarily by fondness of association and by a sense of mortality - that nightingale in Berkeley Square, for instance. Later, in punk, it could be seen as a site for potential revolt (cf The Clash's London Calling)

Waterloo Sunset was released in the same year as The Beatles Penny Lane. Like Waterloo Sunset, Penny Lane offers ordinary places as objects of affection and substance, though Penny Lane is just as interested in the quirky as in the ordinary. Nevertheless, both songs turn their face to places that are in themsleves unglamorous and perfectly common. They do so with affection but without sentimentality. I suppose you could trace the immediate roots of the feeling back to the British cinema of the early Sixties (A Taste of Honey, for example) and, before that, to Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse...

That turning of the face was extraordinary in pop: a democratic assertion of what was lyrically valid in the here and now, not in the exotic but in us.


Waterloo Sunset is a song not a poem. Its poetic depends on the music and on the quality of Ray Davies's voice. As always the intro riff is vital to prepare us for the entry of the voice, and then it's like being on the bridge, on a slightly rainy day, aware of both one's own solitude and of the solitude of lives everywhere - a consciousness The Beatles shared. Davies's frail, quavery voice has lodged itself in its perfect location. The edge of barbed wire we heard in You Really Got Me is still there. It is not a pathetic voice: it understands the material and delivers it to maximum effect. It is not sophisticated music in an abstract sense: it is as precisely sophisticated as it needs to be. Terry and Julie have vanished in the Sixties, but in other ways they have never gone. Nor has the fear, the solitude, or the beauty.


Sabine said...

It is more than interesting to me to read your comments to the Kink's songs which I adore. I grew up in Germany and loved the Kinks with all my teenage years, then.
My poor school English obstacled the understanding of the text, except few words like Waterloo sunset’s fine, underground, safe and sound, I am in paradise and few more. I understand now that what arrived to me and others who didn’t speak well the language, was the genuine emotion to something as simple as a sunset, made of the interwoven magic of voice, melody and sound of the words, even if we didn’t understand them all. Poetic power at its best.

George S said...

Thank you, Sabine. It's interesting that people far younger than myself hcontinue to value the Kinks, and particularly Ray Davies. It's a fascinatibng that the singer should express fear of something we don't know in a song like this. Nothing apocalyptic, just a personal fear. It adds a good deal to the song.

Reading the Signs said...

Yes! Thank you.