The Sepia-Tinted Haze Of "Waterloo Sunset"
Nostalgia For A Time You’ve Never Known
This essay was originally posted on my old Medium page in 2021, but that was a century ago.
For years I groped to accurately describe how The Kinks’ song “Waterloo Sunset” made me feel.
It was a very specific kind of melancholy that hovered somewhere between nostalgia, sadness and resignation (though no combination of those words did it justice).
Then I stumbled on the word anemoia, coined in 2012 by John Koenig for The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:
Anemoia — n. Nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.
“Imagine stepping through the frame into a sepia-tinted haze, where you could sit on the side of the road and watch the locals passing by. Who lived and died before any of us arrived here, who sleep in some of the same houses we do, who look up at the same moon, who breathe the same air, feel the same blood in their veins—and live in a completely different world.”
It wasn’t immediate, but at some point I connected anemoia back to the mysterious feelings conjured by one of my all time favorite songs.
It felt like somebody had finally captured the wistful soul of “Waterloo Sunset.”
Dirty old river
Must you keep rolling
Flowing into the night?
People so busy
Make me feel dizzy
Taxi light shines so bright
London was an undeniable capital of cool in 1967. The Swinging Sixties were in full effect, with art, fashion, film and music at the center of the countercultural revolution. But that year is also seen by many as the last hurrah for the British Invasion, first unleashed on the world by Beatlemania in 1963.
One historic chapter was coming to a close, while another was in full bloom. That’s a lot of historic cultural change to process in real time, especially for such a young generation. It’s a moment that would be hard for even the most seasoned songwriter to capture, but lucky for us Ray Davies was there.
While their British Invasion peers leaned into the psychedelia swirling up all around them that year—the Beatles with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour; the Rolling Stones with Their Satanic Majesties Request—Davies and the Kinks steeped themselves in dreamy Baroque pop with songs like “Death of a Clown,” “Afternoon Tea” and “Waterloo Sunset.”
Terry meets Julie
Every Friday night
But I am so lazy
Don’t want to wander
I stay at home at night
“I think the characters have to do with the aspirations of my elder sisters, who grew up during the Second World War and missed out on the 60s,” Davies told Classic Rock magazine in 2014. “I was thinking of the world I wanted them to have.”
The world he conjured was simultaneously magical and mundane, inspiring and isolating. A world where a loner spends his evenings watching the sunsets over Waterloo from the safety of his flat, content to let millions of others live out the historic era that he prefers to observe from a distance.
But I don’t need no friends
As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset
I am in paradise
Part of the song’s appeal for me has always been how personal it felt.
As if listeners were not only being invited into the narrator’s private world, but also the darkest, loneliest corners of his mind. Davies lent credence to that interpretation when speaking about the song in 2016.
“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,” songwriter Ray Davies told The Guardian in 2016.
Millions of people
Swarming like flies ‘round
But Terry and Julie
Cross over the river
Where they feel safe and sound
Thankfully, Davies overcame his reluctance to share “Waterloo Sunset” with his bandmates. It’s not only the poetic lyrics, but the band’s beautifully sparse performance that made it one of The Kinks’ most beloved songs—which is really saying something considering their impressive catalog.
I personally came to the Kinks through punk spelunking. After discovering bands like Sex Pistols and Generation X (both already broken up before I got to them), I went back to explore the music of earlier English bands like The Who, The Rolling Stones and, of course, The Kinks.
All three acts were still releasing new music in the ‘80s, but nothing as visceral as early Kinks songs like “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” (although their 1981 U.S. hit “Destroyer” came pretty close).
It was around then that I got a copy of their fifth studio album, Something Else. I was initially drawn to the lead track, “David Watts,” because I already loved the Jam’s version from their 1979 album All Mod Cons. (Interestingly, a later Jam hit—“That’s Entertainment” from Studio Affects—is the only other song that gives me the same sense of anemoia as “Waterloo Sunset.”)
So, I was ready to have my face melted over and over again by Something Else, but a more profound reaction occurred when I first heard “Waterloo Sunset.” I was too young then to grapple with the strange feelings the song still evokes in me, but there’s no denying a romantic vein had been tapped.
And they don’t need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset
They are in paradise
Looking back, I can honestly say that “Waterloo Sunset” forever changed my perspective on music. And for that I will be eternally grateful to The Kinks.
I wasn’t even born yet when Davies gazed across Waterloo in the swinging sixties, but I’m definitely nostalgic for all the time I’ve spent in that sepia-tinted room with him over the years.
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