IT IS A CENTURY AND A HALF SINCE THE FIRST London underground journey took place, and a time to reflect on the impact of this historic transport system. The tube is part of our consciousness and it is impossible to imagine (or imagine navigating) the huge sprawl of the city without tracing our journey along the lines set out in Harry Beck’s iconic map. The anniversary has prompted us to reflect on how tube stations have been immortalised (actually, often just mentioned in passing) in songs and films and books. It is an opportunity to assess or reassess the place of these particular works in our collective and personal histories.
So how do these two, both dear to my heart, compare? An unfair contest, really. Donovan’s Sunny Goodge Street (1965) and Ray Davies’s Waterloo Sunset (1967) are both haunting and evocative songs which create a mood and a sense of place, but one is like a period piece, a snapshot which captures the atmosphere of a specific era, while the other is timeless like the river it celebrates.
Sunny Goodge Street is set in a 1960s’ world of dope and jazz and coffee houses. The train platform is a ‘firefly’ platform flickering with light and shade. We see a hash smoker violently shaking a chocolate machine which is not easily giving up its hoard to satisfy his fit of the munchies. The neon streets echo with the mellow sounds of Charles Mingus and with breathy intonations of love. The song is free form, impressionistic. It captures a fleeting instant in which the beatniks and bohemians of the Fitzrovia area to which Goodge Street leads and the soon-to-emerge flower power hippies, magicians sparkling in satin and velvet as the song says, are held together in a moment of time.
Waterloo Sunset evokes a scene and creates a mood which is not only of its time but straddles the past, present and future. The words are simple, unpoetic. People buzz like flies around Waterloo Underground. The narrator, solitary, an observer rather than a participator, is overwhelmed, dizzy with the movement and the noise. The words combine with the music, melody and voices to create a tender and nostalgic picture of the England that Ray Davies knew when he was young and which was already changing.
The crowds he saw on Waterloo Bridge would have contained scores of men in the City uniform of pinstripe suit, umbrella and bowler hat, an image which came to represent the stuffy and class-ridden nature of post-war society. He focuses on Terry and Julie, meeting for their regular Friday night date, an couple with the dreams and aspirations typical of young people of their background, whose love and optimism creates a paradise of safety and security.
I imagine Julie wearing a suede coat and Terry wearing a suit with narrow lapels and tapered trousers, both of them well-dressed and up-to-date but not fiercely fashionable. They belong to the ordinary England which Davies celebrates here and elsewhere, the England of dance halls and village greens and draught beer and seaside holidays and football on Saturday and roast dinners on Sunday.
Waterloo Sunset transcends fashion and the era in which it was written. Its mixture of melancholy and romanticism and its intimation of the lonely crowd, set against the inexorable roll of the timeless Thames, speaks to the imagination of the listener. The song creates an experience which is more than the sum of its parts.