Ray Davies – Return To Waterloo (1985)

waterlooWhen Nirvana released their b-side collection Incesticide in 1992, I clearly remember my reasons for not rushing out to buy it.  One reason was that I had already acquired two-thirds of the songs from various import singles and EPs. The other reason was that I wanted to give myself some Nirvana music to look forward to in the future. A decision that came in handy when their short tenure abruptly ended in 1994.

My relationship with the music of Ray Davies and the Kinks runs in a similar vein. Throughout the course of my adult life I have intermittently fallen head over heels with some of their classics. LPs such as Something Else, Arthur…, Face To Face, Village Green Preservation Society, and more, yet I never immediately set out to feast upon their next masterpiece. Instead I have chosen to break off a little bit of their discography at a time, in part to always give me something to look forward to, and in part because I fear that the RCA & Arista years might be a bit dicey.


The latter sentiment is exactly what I assumed would hold true upon my first ever viewing of Return to Waterloo, the 1985 film that Ray Davies wrote, directed, and scored.  At the time of it’s release, the 41 year-old Davies had spent the better part of his career channeling a middle-age man reminiscing about England’s good olde days. A healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek romanticism with a dash cynicism. The Stately Homes, Croquet Lawns, and the transcendent Waterloo Sunsets offset with the fat and married “Walter” who is in bed by half past eight,  and the little man from “Shangri-La” who gets the train and has a mortgage over his head.  Now that Davies was finally a middle-age man himself, one would only assume that Return to Waterloo would be a watered down attempt to get back to his roots, draw ink from a familiar well and spin his usual song-stories. As it turns out, Return To Waterloo is a pretty big departure from the usual Davies playbook, not so much in format or ambition, as Davies is no stranger to the concept album, but more so in overall tone.

The film stars character actor Kenneth “Admiral Piett” Colley as a typical business man who catches a train for what seems like an everyday commute. We catch a glimpse of his droll morning routine and his loveless marriage.  We see him stroll over to Waterloo Train Station, and pick up a newspaper. We then catch a closer glimpse of the paper and see that the front page has a composite sketch of a suspected serial rapist that looks exactly like Colley.

Wait, what?


Our man proceeds to board a train car that could be dubbed the Midlife Mystery Tour, the vessel in which Davies crafts his over the top satirical look at modern day society via musical numbers and early MTV production cues. Once seated, Colley essentially projects societal regrets and paranoia onto all of his cabin mates, and imagines them singing their life story to him ala his own personal musical.
The movie is a lopsided mix of noir, cynicism, satire, and camp, it after all, a rock musical. There is no waxing poetic about the Village Green here, though, Davies takes dead aim at the middle class, and virtually no stereotype or trope goes untouched in the film. The working class, the old guard, empty nesters, the modern woman, the punk rockers all get their say. We also learn from a series of flashbacks that Colley’s teenage daughter has gone missing, and that he has had a very unsavory relationship with her, and possibly has something to do with her death and disappearance.

Cutting through the abundance of ideas, however, is an extremely effective performance from Colley, and a surprisingly fresh set of songs from Davies.  Colley doesn’t have a single word of dialogue in the entire movie, but through a series 100 yard stares, he sucks you into his melancholic and twisted world. Colley’s supporting cast go all in on Davies’ songs, especially a young Tim Roth who sells the shit out of his parts.  The soundtrack is credited to Davies, who handles all the vocals on record, but in the movie, the actors take on a fair share of vocals, and I would love to see this out-of-print soundtrack reissued with the movie versions of the songs.

The biggest downside to Return to Waterloo is the dated 80’s production that riddles the project. It’s hard enough for some folks to get behind the rock musical genre in the first place, but when the songs are weighed down by outdated synth tracks and reverby drum machines, it doesn’t help the cause. If you couldn’t tell by now, I have a pretty high threshold for camp and novelty items, but this set of songs is worth picking over for most Kinks fans.

The Title track, Return To Waterloo, is vintage Davies (now with synthesizers!) weighing everyday monotony and universal and societal woes set to a damn catchy melody and slightly ominous pitch bender.

Not Far Away is a pretty great song, but any intended gnarl is immediately watered down by too much reverb and the Steve Nieve-lite keyboard part. Can I get some more Tim Roth in the monitors?