Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Waterloo Sunset on BBC Radio 4's Soul Music



 [screengrab]

The Kinks classic Waterloo Sunset is fifty years old this year - ample excuse to repost a piece about the song. I don't know what other celebrations may be planned by the Beeb or others, but today it was the first subject of the new series of Radio 4's Soul Music (above). This programme blends personal associations with musical analysis and, as ever, made for a compelling half hour. On first listen, I had the feeling that one story featured perhaps a little too prominently, but on reflection the balance was right - and that particular tale had something important to say about the power of the song.

An American widow talked about her British husband who, during a severe and terminal illness, was surrounded by friends who sang (and played) songs for him, including Waterloo Sunset; we even heard a snatch of his singing along. And later a recording was made by a friend which, for his widow, bore testament to the power of her partner to bring people together.

As this particular narrative gathered momentum with each reappearance over the thirty minutes I'm afraid to say that a graceless part of me, known well to certain privileged individuals, wanted to shout: "So what? Could have been any song. Let's get back to the musical analysis, people, as this is not, to the best of my knowledge, a newly discovered episode of the late John Peel's Home Truths."

But then a brief contribution from someone who talked of feeling isolated at his school helped put things into perspective. He had found solace in the song because he realised its narrator was, like him, an outsider. (Someone else made the point that in the stereo version of the track Ray's voice is off to one side, not central to the action but commentating on it. I think I may have read that Ray preferred the mono but, planned or not, that certainly makes sense.)

 And thinking over the lyrics after the programme finished, I remembered that it's not just the narrator who "don't need no friends" but the lovers too. They - lovers and narrator - are in their separate bubbles, even though they are linked by the view, the place. Which seems, especially for a fifty year old pop song, a pretty neat summation of the experience of being in a city: at once together and alone.

So it's appropriate that a personal tale of suffering is part of the mix - and that it liberates the song from being judged solely by the original studio recording: the widow makes the point that it's the recording her friend made which is the special one for her.

Plus I can hardly pretend that my own contribution to proceedings, which follows below if you choose to click to read more, is entirely devoid of the personal.

 Soul Music: Waterloo Sunset can be found on BBC Radio iplayer here