Dirty old river….

We jump in with both feet as usual to our new theme, great backing vocals! So I have to start my side with one of the best backup singers in all of rock ‘n’ roll, Dave Davies of the Kinks (please say “Davis,” not “Daveez”).

The sound quality is only OK on this, unfortunately, but it’s such a lovely song:

“Waterloo Sunset” is from 1967′s Something Else by the Kinks, and it’s one of their most loved songs. And most covered, though indeed it shouldn’t be. I can’t fault an artist for falling in love with a song and wanting to make it his or her own, this is one that really should be left alone. What can an artist do with this that the Davies brothers didn’t?

Ray of course takes the lead, singing with no hint of of condescension or irony as a man too fearful to mix in the world who tries to assuage his loneliness by making up stories about the people he sees from his window. Particularly one couple, whom the narrator calls Terry and Julie, borrowing the names of two beautiful young movie stars of the day.

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

It’s a fine and touching performance, but the song is given much of its emotional weight by Dave’s backing vocals. His voice is odd, hoarse and high-pitched, but he sounds very gentle (even angelic), on the sweet falsetto “ooohs” and barely audible “la-la-las” behind the verses (the first is at exactly the 30-second mark).

Tellingly, Dave’s backing drops out as the narrator declares, “But I don’t need no friends,” then returns as the first verse ends. Then, as the melody changes –

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

Dave is singing the sweetest “Sha-la-las” you’ll hear outside a girl group. Then, at the end of the refrain, he drops out of the falsetto (and multitracking) to echo Ray on “Waterloo sunset’s fine….”

By the end of the song, the narrator is projecting his own lonely view of heaven to Terry and Julie:

But they don’t need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo sunset,
They are in paradise

This song sounds simple, based around Dave’s guitar and the drums, but it’s actually quite slickly produced; it’s just that it fits together so neatly only Ray’s lead vocal really draws attention to itself. But Dave’s backing vocals are haunting throughout, suggesting both the longed-for “paradise” and, by echoing Ray, how the narrator has to keep insisting to himself that “Waterloo sunset’s fine” — and so he’s really fine, too, right?

As grand as his performance on “Waterloo Sunset” is, Dave was not, of course, just a deliverer of falsetto oohs and aahs. He could also provide a rock ‘n’ roll punch that Ray simply wasn’t vocally, or perhaps temperamentally, capable of.

As demonstrated on “Shangri-La, which, as I’ve mentioned before, I think is one of the Kinks’ finest songs, and perhaps their angriest. It starts out mildly enough, a bit sardonic, but when Dave comes in at 1:15, the rage comes into play. And when the refrain begins a few seconds later, listen to him wail:

I can’t think of any backing vocalist who contributed more to a band’s work, more consistently, than Dave Davies.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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One Response to Dirty old river….

  1. Michele says:

    Once again, the article and the music do not disappoint.
    I have to agree that Dave Davies is consistent,
    and I will add that he is also a Master at what he does.
    He adds to every song I’ve ever heard him in
    and these are two really fine examples of his art.

    Thank you for this one Bridey ♫