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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Waterloo Sunset" examines a complex case of escapism

The Kinks' beautiful psychedelic pop rock track has a narrator who just can't let himself enjoy life to the fullest.


As you can probably tell based on my last couple Senior Year Soundtrack entries, I'm opting to listen to the softer side of the popular music spectrum this week as I work on my final essays and projects. I tend to go this route in my listening when I'm stressed and/or on a deadline, so as to avoid distracting myself by listening to something too pulsating or catchy that might get me dancing and out of my workflow.


All the same, some songs get me to lose focus simply because their sound or message resonates with me on that particular day. Today, the Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset" is definitely one of those songs. One of the greatest singles ever released, "Waterloo Sunset" is a light psychedelic rock entry that speaks to an interesting sort of close-range escapism, which one feels simply from looking on at a pleasant scene within their reach.

"Waterloo Sunset" is a track that I used to think was pretty simple, but as time has gone on I've realized there's actually a lot happening beneath the surface level. Instrumentally, the various sections being driven by a steadily downward moving bass line leads to some interesting flavors of chords and inversions being used. Then there's the guitar work, especially that of Dave Davies on electric guitar. Dave and the rest of the Kinks spent much of the ten hours that went into the track in the studio — a remarkably short time then as it is now — crafting the lead guitar tone, which incorporates a slight tape delay echo that helps warm up and richen the sound. While delay seems ubiquitous in 21st-century guitar playing, it was in fact a somewhat rare sound in the from the late 50s to the fateful 1967 session which produced "Waterloo Sunset." Another background guitar layer also incorporates a wah-wah pedal, creating a shimmering sound in the mid-high register that fills out the sound above Ray Davies' vocals.


Transitioning to said vocals, Ray's narrative is a deeply personal one, which was initially based more on his experiences in Liverpool than in the Waterloo district of Central London. However, between the Beatles' releasing of "Penny Lane" and Ray's greater familiarity with his hometown, he switched the focus to Waterloo, an area with which he had become quite familiar in his adolescence. What resulted is one of the most beautiful sets of lyrics in the popular canon — simple, but with plenty of internal rhyming and semantic intrigue. It's clear that Ray is enamored with the titular scene onto which he looks... yet he as the narrator refrains from fully experiencing it by "stay[ing] at home at night." What he and the listeners are thus left with is an interesting sort of escapism, in which Ray claims, "I don't need no friends / As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset / I am in paradise," yet from the second verse onward he lives vicariously through the observed couple of Terry and Julie. It's evident that the narrator is in his own way, and is the only thing keeping himself from enjoying life as he sees the couple doing. Waterloo sunset may be "fine," but life can be far more than "fine" if you're willing to take the risk of putting yourself out there.


I hear "Waterloo Sunset" quite interestingly as I tackle my final papers and prepare for my exams. From my bunk bed on which I'm writing this article, I'm able to see out on all sorts of happenings in Southside Berkeley all day long, and I can also see out to San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, meaning I can take in sunsets like Ray Davies' narrator does. I also want to be out there and be part of the fun — and unlike Ray's character, I'm actually motivated to do so, but I've got to earn it by tackling my exams this next week. Once I do that, I'll feel comfortable enjoying much more than the sunset views.

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