Almost Hits: The Kinks, “Waterloo Sunset” (1967)

I would’ve thought there was enough of a melancholic beauty and universal appeal to the 1967 Kinks’ classic “Waterloo Sunset” that it would have transcended any Anglocentric provincialism, enough at least to have broken through to the Billboard Hot 100 to match the Top 10 ranks it reached in charts in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and most of Europe.

But, nope: It not only dodged a “bullet,” but a fickle record-buying public — the same ones who could seemingly handle references to “four of fish and finger pies” (“Penny Lane”), and the “the Carnabetian Army” cited in even the Kink’s early Top 40 hit “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” — left it bubbling under the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles for good.

Though I seem to remember Top 40 radio in Los Angeles playing it a decent number of times — even during this time when the Kinks were banned from touring the U.S. for reasons best left hazy — the ultimate fact that it didn’t chart in the U.S. was curiouser to me, who was in grade school at the time. But what did I know? I could be a bit of a Keds-gazing gloomy gus — I even liked Pet Sounds! — who readily responded to “Sunset’s” scene-setting evocation: “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night; people so busy, makes me feel dizzy; taxi light shines so bright.”

Sounds pretty chaotic, especially with “millions of people swarming like flies ‘round Waterloo Underground” — and “chilly, chilly is the evening time” — but reprieve and contentment comes from staying indoors and looking out the window, taking in all that a thousand mile stare can survey. After all, “as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise.”

This fits in with Ray Davies’ remembrance of himself — as revealed in the storytelling tour for his “Unauthorized Autobiography” X-Ray — as a “bit of a homebody” growing up, “preferring to stay in while his siblings ventured out into the big city, content to gaze at the sunset from his boyhood home on a hill that overlooked the Waterloo Underground Station.”

Siblings come into play soon enough in the song, recalling a 2008 interview in which Davies explains that “Waterloo Sunset” was “a fantasy about my sister going off with her boyfriend to a new world and they were going to emigrate and go to another country”:

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.

“Waterloo Sunset’s” more than fine, of course, matters of commercialism aside. The could’ve-been contender and pop confection hit upon such accessible themes and moods as solitude and wistful nostalgia, while set to an irresistibly aching melody. Indeed, rock critic Robert Christgau has called the song “the most beautiful song in the English language,” while the Who’s Pete Townshend has called it “divine” and “a masterpiece.” Rolling Stone places it No. 42 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Pitchfork Media names it the 29th best song of the 1960s.

But for those who still bemoan its lack of Billboard recognition, you may want to keep in mind that “Waterloo Sunset” was indeed an American hit of sorts, shorn of all those perceived Brit-centric encumbrances but reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. Okay, so it was called “Laughter in the Rain,” by Neil Sedaka, but still — if you just imagine, you are in vicarious paradise for a few minutes.

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Gordon Hauptfleisch

The late Gordon Hauptfleisch served as an editor, freelance writer and book reviewer for San Diego Union Tribune Books and Blogcritics, worked in and managed bookstores and record stores, and was a purchasing manager for San Diego Technical Books. He held bachelor's degrees in English and history from Cal State Fullerton. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.