Apr 08

ROD STEWART – “Sailing”

FT + Popular96 comments • 4,526 views

#377, 6th September 1975

Fads come and go in the world of business: a recurrent buzzword right now is ‘simplicity’ – boil that report down to a sheet of A4, find the “nugget” in that presentation, apply the ‘elevator test’: if you can’t summarise an idea in 30 seconds, it’s worthless. The tone is a weird combination of zen and macho.

I’m all in favour of cutting out waffle but not when nuance gets thrown out too. The simple truth about simplicity is that most of the ideas that pass the elevator test are banal and useless: it’s the implications of an idea that are often the interesting bit, and they’re what gets lost. And I’d say the same of this record: Stewart seems to be trying to create something that’s expressing yearning in as straightforward and widescreen a way as possible, but all subtlety’s been boiled away and we’re left with a great voice being put to dreary use.

You might disagree, of course – “Sailing” is slow and doesn’t develop much but at least it’s not bombastic, and there’s no sense that Stewart’s a phoney or the sentiment untrue – it’s just too blankly expressed to matter to me. But whether you like “Sailing” or not it’s worth considering how rock got to this point. Other styles of music, after all, didn’t develop anthems: music hall had singalongs but nothing this slow and hymnal, gospel and soul demanded participation from audiences sometimes but not (it seems to me) this kind of mass assent. “Sailing” is a record by a credible, respected artist which has less energy and spark than the grimly cynical Rollers.

Of course it’s a simple function of audience size – if you can get that many people into one place to hear you, then it becomes a lot more tempting to produce music which will create the kind of mass communal experience “Sailing” does – no coincidence that Rod was a big football fan, or that “Sailing” had a second life on the terraces. (This is why I’m wary of complaints about artists ruining their sound to find mass appeal – what if it’s not the numbers of people listening in total which damages the music, just the number doing it in one place?)

It’s also worth asking why a song striking this particular note was so successful: what, if anything, was there in the cultural atmosphere that made Rod’s simple longing for home so effective? I do actually remember this song – and I was 2, so that’s how ubiquitous and user-friendly it was! – but I didn’t know the chords it was striking, so I leave that question up to you.



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  1. 76
    Erithian on 11 Apr 2008 #

    MC/Tom (#67-68) – did I actually say that the shark-jump came with the number one in question? I think it was round about the time he rhymed “Buenos Aires” with “what the fare is”!

  2. 77
    crag on 11 Apr 2008 #

    By “young lady” i meant “girl in her 20’s” not “school girl”…

  3. 78
    LondonLee on 11 Apr 2008 #

    I can’t believe you all like ‘Tonight’s The Night’ – “Loosen up that pretty French gown” “Spread your wings and let me come inside” and all that is like bad soft porn. You want to rush in to the song and tell the poor virgin girl to get the hell out of there.

    Teddy Pendergrass could probably get away with it but Rod just sounds like a nasty old lech.

  4. 79
    Marcello Carlin on 11 Apr 2008 #

    Not all of us, Lee.

  5. 80
    SteveM on 11 Apr 2008 #

    Rod has obviously been atoning for Maggie May all these years with his lusting after girls young enough to be his daughter.

  6. 81
    Tim on 11 Apr 2008 #


    Chas and Dave and Tottenham Hotspur!
    Status Quo and Manchester United!
    Fat Boys and the Beach Boys?

  7. 82
    Brian on 11 Apr 2008 #

    I love this song and ” Atlantic Crossing “.

    At the time of it’s release on vinyl it had all the slow songs ( ballads ) on one side and all the fast songs ( mostly rock ) on the other. I always saw that as a representation of USA – UK.

    If you are ever taking a plane somewhere, make sure this is on your ipod at take off.

  8. 83
    Chris Brown on 11 Apr 2008 #

    @82 – Well, you’re not allowed to use a iPod at takeoff. Which is probably quite a good reason to have that album on it IMO!
    I don’t really grasp the idea of putting fast songs on one side and slow ones in the other – doesn’t it just make the record sound more boring than it is? Mind you, the most recent act to do that were Counting Crows so that problem would hardly arise…

    The Pipes And Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards?

  9. 84
    Billy Smart on 11 Apr 2008 #

    The first Mary Jane Girls album has a slow and an uptempo side – clearly designed to be listened to by couples, who would improvise their actions around the music.

  10. 85
    Brian on 11 Apr 2008 #

    Chris @ 83 : Back in the day it was equivalent of a ” chill ” CD . And you’d party to other side. I believe there are still
    CD’s like this today.

  11. 86
    crag on 11 Apr 2008 #

    Of course one of Rod’s contemporaries that we will be discussing very shortly released two albums in ’77 that were state of the art in terms of one side being uptempo and the other being “chill out”…

  12. 87
    Billy Smart on 11 Apr 2008 #

    Indeed, combining posts 84 and 86, I can remember watching an interview with Marc Almond, where he talked about experiencing his sexual awakening choreographed to the movements of ‘Low’.

  13. 88
    Snif on 13 Apr 2008 #

    Fun Boy Three and Bananarama

  14. 89
    wwolfe on 15 Apr 2008 #

    In answer to your question as to why rock produced anthems in a way and to a degree unlike any other genre, I think it’s because it was treated as a quasi-religion in a way and to a degree that was unlike any other genre. Having grown up during the 1970s, my sense is that this approach to rock probably peaked during the first half of that decade.

  15. 90
    Chris Brown on 16 Apr 2008 #

    Dan Le Sac Vs Scroobius Pip?

    Two Men, A Drum Machine And Trumpet?

  16. 91
    swanstep on 23 Apr 2010 #

    Tom’s score for this track is, in my view, way too low. This is a better than average #1 in any year. In general, I think Popular has a blind-spot with respect to (hence is maximally unreliable about) slow anthems.

    I think people may be under some illusion about how easy it is write and convincingly perform – generally pull off – a Sailing or a Mull of Kintyre or a Hey Jude (or even an I’d like to Teach the world to sing). The simple truth is that it’s blimin’ hard to make such things. To see this, just think of all the horrible World Cup Football tunes there have been – think of the atrocities that the 2010 WC *will* bring. In all those cases, some song-writers and performers would have died and gone to heaven if they’d been able to come up with something as simple and graceful as S or MofK or HJ. If it was easy to come up with something that good they would have, but it’s very far from easy, so they didn’t. Normally they don’t even get close.

    I haven’t found the comments on this song to be particularly illuminating – blind-spot! – and, quite strikingly to me at least, there’s been little if any attempt made to answer Tom’s question about what chords this song was striking when it was released? I’ll do a little to fill that gap in a moment. Of course, on one level, I reject Tom’s presumption that some *special*, contextual explanation for S’s success is needed. No, Sailing would be a massive hit tomorrow, say if it were appearing for the first time as the 2010 England WC song. But set that point aside for the sake of the argument

    Basically, I see S as twinned with John Denver’s Jacques Cousteau theme ‘Calypso’. Calypso was #1 in the US at the same time as S was #1 in the UK. Bizarrely, S did nothing in the US and C did nothing in the UK, but both were top-5 in NZ in December 1975.

    At any rate, I see both these songs as part of a much larger trend towards pop expressions of the eco-/nature-consciousness that had begun near the end of the 1960s, but that would reach a peak in the mid ’70s with ‘oil crisis’ and the first big wave of environmental regulations and clean-up. (All of that went on the back-burner with the inflationary recessions of the late ’70s and the final risky flaring up phase of the cold war and the rise of Islamism starting in 1979.) Balancing out all the dire warnings of apocalyptic, ecological collapse and over-population in fiction and film of the mid ’70s, were a range of nature documentaries with Cousteau’s pre-eminent and back to nature imagery was kind of the rage – ften as subtext in tings about hang-gliding and the like as I vaguely recall. The use of S in the show Sailor, certainly as seen through a (still later) Falklands filter risks missing the ‘communing with nature’ aspect of Sailing that was originally *very* important. 1975 was the year of the Tommy film – which in its weird way is all about reconnecting with nature and leaving civilization behind – and even the mega-hit film that year, Jaws, had a big nature component to it. Of course the great predecessor for both Calypso and S is Neil Diamond’s soundtrack to the 1973 film of the bird/pop philosophy novel that was inflicted on every primary school kid at the time, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, e.g., here (especially) and here.

    Anyhow, although I may have got it out a little inelegantly, this is the central cultural movement into which Sailing plugged. As for S itself: it’s very pretty, and that little respite near the end, breaking down into flutish choral bits before the strings and guitar come back in is fantastic:
    7 (or at least 6 – but I’d say Mull of Kintyre is at least a 5 and probably a 6!)

  17. 92
    punctum on 23 Apr 2010 #

    I addressed his question at least in part in my original post but should have added that the song also became very popular as the template for a series of football chants. The Sutherland Brothers original, which was certainly closer in spirit, arrangement and performance, to the environmental ideals you’re talking about, didn’t do any commercial business but in tandem with “I’m Not In Love,” “Space Oddity” and “Bo Rap” it’s probable that UK 1975 audiences simply had a predilection at the time for epics, the Big Gesture.

  18. 93
    thefatgit on 23 Apr 2010 #

    Funny how the most laddish of the lads is lambasted for growing old (dis)gracefully. Rod’s played to type almost all of his adult life. He’s fabulously wealthy, been with some of the most beautiful women in the world and probably snorted most of Colombia up his nose. He’s lived to tell the tale. How beastly of him!

    Having said that, it’s not easy to like the guy. I enjoyed “Sailing” when it first came around. The 9 year-old me felt it was about adventure and exploration and that sense of achievement on returning home successfully. Little wonder Swanstep compares “Sailing” to John Denver’s Jacques Cousteau theme. I’m still not old enough to answer Tom’s question, but there was a trend towards the anthemic “lighters in the air” song around this time. I could still listen to it now, but there’s little else of Rod’s that would persuade me to part with my cash for it. “Maggie May” maybe.

  19. 94
    swanstep on 23 Apr 2010 #

    Thanks to punctum and thefatgit for feedback on my slightly grumpy note! Thinking things over a little more, even though I believe that there’s *always* room in the charts for a stonking, building ballad with a bit of finesse, I guess I am prepared to believe that there really was a ‘lighters in the air’/taste for the epic moment in 1975. The full stadium rock show circuit had finally crystallized technologiclly and institutionally at that point perhaps (Punctum said something like this above I think), and, as well as the tunes that have been discussed, 1975 was the year of Born to Run. As a primary school kid at the time I don’t remember hearing that until a little later, but when I did hear it, I remember thinking that Bruce’s magnificent whooping at the end of that track resembled the yodelly stuff on John Denver’s Calypso. And when Bruce whooped again at the end of the ’80s on Tunnel of Love it sounded even more like John Denver to my ears! Anyhow, back to Rod. S.. I agree he’s easy to hate (isn’t there a scene in a Pistols video where they pretend to shoot Stewart? e.g., ‘Rod at 2 o’clock! Fire.’), but Sailing is a good ‘un I reckon, and really well instrumented and arranged. I just listened to the Sutherlands & Quiver original version for the first time, and, yep, Stewart’s version has got all the trimmings and tinsel that money can buy by comparison. I don’t know whether Stewart himself can take any of the credit for the arrangement and production, but someone did really fine work there.

  20. 95
    thefatgit on 23 Apr 2010 #

    We’re not a million miles away from those Irish lads who trawled the MOR songbook for ballads with a “bit of finesse”. Plenty of fuel for the fire there, but of course we mustn’t wake bunny.

  21. 96
    Billy Smart on 23 Apr 2010 #

    And, oddly, we’ll be discussing them via their anomalous fast songs…

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