The Beatles sang better, the Stones played better, and the Who had more flash, but I’ve always had a soft spot for the lost-cause appeal of the Kinks, a band that sat out of the “British Invasion” due to a never-explained ban in America.
Being tethered to London, though, helped them become the most English of the bunch. The band’s gap-toothed singer Ray Davies waved off “Summer of Love” temptations and sang about old-fashioned pleasures like tea and biscuits, village greens, royal hat choices, and cockney rhyme. Or, as Davies put it, the songs were “grotesquely English.”
So the last time I went back to London, I decided to let the Kinks’ lore and lyrics lead the way.
Ray, and his brother and fellow bandmate, Dave, grew up in a working-class home (6 Denmark Lane) across the street from a pub where they’d go on to play their first show. Today Clissold Arms is an upscale gastropub with heaps of Kinks memorabilia (it also hosts regular Kinks-related events). I had a meal, a beer, and a good look around. But I had more in mind than just snapping photos of old Kinks 45s on the wall.
As the principal songwriter in the group, Ray Davies found everyday details to sing about by taking long walks around his hometown stomping grounds. I soon understood how easy that was when I stopped in for a cuppa at the century-old tea shop W. Martyn one morning, then strolled along the Parkland Walk in the footprint of a long-abandoned train track with only birdsong to keep me company.
I ended up at the Alexandra Palace (a.k.a. “Ally Pally”), a towering Victorian entertainment center with a funny history. Built in 1873 and still going strong, the stalwart institution (having survived two fires and hosted German POWs during WWI) now houses a concert hall, ice-skating rink, pub, and a Sunday farmers market. (The ridiculous panoramic view of London on offer from the 196-acre property is reason enough to visit.)
I had high expectations for the Archway Tavern, seen on the gatefold cover of the band’s under-appreciated 1971 country album Muswell Hillbillies. But instead of a working-class time warp, I found an empty modern bar with a tacky Dusk Till Dawn banner hanging over a plain stage and a chippy French bartender offering up Kronenburg on tap.
Instead, I opted instead for The Lion, a real-deal Irish pub across the street. I sat on a stool next to an old couple who was watching horse racing on a muted TV and I spied on groups of old-timers in seating areas divided by stained glass. I overheard a young woman consoling a friend: “Smile. It can’t be that bad.” I stayed for another pint.
My last stop of Kinks’ London took me to the city center for my own “Waterloo Sunset.” Picked by Time Out London as the best “London song” of all time, its lyrics alone make for one of the best walking tours in the world.
It’s easily followed.
I started out, like the characters in the song, on a Friday night from Waterloo Station, south of the river. The loner narrator, who finds his “paradise” by watching other people’s lives, talks of “millions of people swarming like flies” here – and it feels that way at rush hour.
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When I, too, like our narrator, walked back towards the “dirty old river,” I realized doing so poetically meant going against a tide of pedestrians who were streaming over the Waterloo Bridge from workaday jobs in central London.
Halfway across the bridge, I stopped to see the sunset, but found only a muted glow behind the thick palette of London grays. It didn’t matter.
Looking south towards Parliament and the Eye, and north to St. Paul’s and Tower Bridge, it’s as full and rewarding a view as London offers. Even if you’re alone.
That it just so happens to be set atop one of London’s least remarkable bridges seems somehow fitting. The best vantage points often are.