Apr 08

ROD STEWART – “Sailing”

FT + Popular98 comments • 6,155 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. 1
    Rob M on 10 Apr 2008 #

    I might be getting dates wrong, but I seem to remember that the song was used as the theme to the BBC tv show “Ark Royal” which was shown at the time which is probably why it was so popular, or at least might explain why it’s so well known.

  2. 2
    Marcello Carlin on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Music hall – “Underneath The Arches”?
    Gospel – roots based on participation of collective rather than audience as such.

    Last night I caught his “Reason To Believe” on the radio – from 1971, his “good” period when he was still on “our” side and still a lad – but in its quieter way it still struck me as an overblown and needlessly drawn out performance. On the original Hardin sings as though hunched in the farthest, darkest corner, scarcely willing to raise his voice lest anyone might hear him; whereas Stewart’s is more of a stagey “performance” – he almost tries to turn it into an aria.

    Maybe Rod was the kind of performer that Tom Jones yearned to be, but couldn’t.

    But I think it significant that “Sailing” comes from the album Atlantic Crossing, i.e. his big move to the States, hence the homesickness – although the move was in large part due, as with many of his peers, to a reluctance to pay the 98% top rate of tax demanded by Wilson’s Government (why spend money on schools, hospitals etc. when you can just shove it up your nose but then I’m just a creaky old socialist so what do I know?).

    The song was written by Gavin Sutherland and originally recorded as a quiet folk-pop song by the Sutherland Brothers but Rod gives it the same big, bombastic treatment which I suspect he would have delivered even if he had still been “here.”

    30 years since the end of the war nostalgia at work again? How else to explain the contemporaneous success of Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell,” a number two hit (behind “Sailing,” as was Leo Sayer’s “Moonlighting” – a song about escape) on the same theme but with added war input? But then the latter was likewise a huge hit in the States – would the then-recent cessation of hostilities in Vietnam have something to do with both songs’ appeal there in a “bring our boys home” sense?

    It is worth noting that the single returned to our charts just one year later following its use in the BBC documentary series about HMS Ark Royal (the crew themselves had a minor hit with their own version a couple of years later) – in its second run it peaked at #3 but the run was longer than the first. It also nearly had a third run in the summer of ’82 because of the Falklands.

    Although at the time I recall it merely being a very popular and sentimental scarf-waver. Now I can’t disassociate it from Jim Davidson singing it with broom mop on head and buckets of water being chucked at him.

  3. 3
    Tom on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Ah! Wikipedia suggests Sailor (the Ark Royal show) was a few years later – which would certainly explain why *I* knew it as a childhood memory.

  4. 4
    Erithian on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Rob – the TV programme was “Sailor”, and it was an early type of docu-soap looking at life on board the Ark Royal. However the programme was broadcast a year or so after “Sailing” was initially a hit – on the back of the show the record returned to the top 3 in 1976 and actually stayed in the chart for longer second time around. (Tom, you possibly know it from the repeats – and of course by the time of the Falklands, when you were, what, 9?, it was ubiquitous.)

    My response to a lot of “anthemic” songs is that I prefer the start of the song, where it’s less anthemic and establishing the tune in a subtler way, and that’s certainly the case with the pretty guitar theme and tinkling background that kicks this one off. Late summer ’75 saw us on holiday on the Yorkshire coast just south of Bridlington, and whenever this came on the radio I’d look out to sea and watch the ships scudding across the North Sea. I can still picture myself on the prom there, so it connected.

    The writer of the song, Gavin Sutherland, was quoted as saying he intended this to be “one for the terraces”, and so it turned out – along with “Son of my Father” and “Amazing Grace”, this is the 70s number one tune you’ll hear most often at the match. The Sutherland Brothers and Quiver’s “Arms of Mary” was one of my top tunes of ’76 as well.

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    Tom on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Yes I remember it returning at the time of the Falklands War, but I knew it was a return. I think it was the Ark Royal show in 76 that I remember initially – my family were much more TV people than radio (or at least music radio) people.

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    Marcello Carlin on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Everyone loves a scarf-waving anthem, regardless of incongruity of context/absence of actual war (1), and this was no exception; Rod as overblown and needlessly drawn out in delivery as ever, feigning homesickness with the hit single from the album Atlantic Crossing a.k.a. I’m Not Paying 98% Top Rate Income Tax (Why Spend It On Schools Or Hospitals When You Can Shove It Up Your Nose?) but from the reminder of 1971’s “Reason To Believe” on the radio last night he would have most likely delivered the same performance if he’d stayed here.

    (1) Although in the UK this may have tied in somewhat with the 30-year VE Day nostalgia – see also one of the two records it kept off number one, Roger Whittaker’s “The Last Farewell,” a song on the same general theme but with added war-specific input.(2)

    (2) Though both songs were also huge hits in America – something to do with the then-recent cessation of hostilities in Vietnam and bringing “our” boys home perchance?

    (3) The other song “Sailing” kept off the top was “Moonlighting” by Leo Sayer.

  7. 7
    Billy Smart on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Yes, I was 2 at the time too, but I think that this is the first number one that I can remember recognising, certainly in primary school and probably as early as nursery school.

    I suppose that there is something impressive about writing a song so simple that it can register with us as tiny children, or with people with no interest at all in pop music. But I do find it a real dirge to listen to. At least Oasis songs made me laugh!

  8. 8
    Rob M on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Thanks both – that’ll teach me to not check my facts.

  9. 9
    Marcello Carlin on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Re. music hall – “Underneath The Arches”?

    Gospel is pretty much rooted in collective participation rather than audience participation as such but the preacher still has to be up there.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 10 Apr 2008 #

    “The Last Farewell” is the business, though! The orchestration is perfect, the lyric is concise, and it doesn’t feel like its gone on and on for half an hour once its finished.

  11. 11
    Ben on 10 Apr 2008 #

    For me, this song will always be associated with the episode of Men Behaving Badly in which Gary and Tony get hideously drunk and it cuts to them singing “we are sitting, we are sitting, on the floor, outside the pub”!!! Classic TV. MBB was mostly a fairly average show, but it had its moments, and for me, that was the most memorable one.

  12. 12

    gospel does call-and-response, which i think singalongs generally fail (haha except in panto where you divive the audience up into sections)

    call-and-response in rock is parcelled out between records: viz by treating single y as an “answer record” to single x (or movement y to movement x, as in punk vs pr0g); successive generations of rockfans as stage-invasions becoming rhe show; pitch-invasions becoming the game
    *getting very deep into weeds of demented “rock theory”*

  13. 13
    Marcello Carlin on 10 Apr 2008 #

    I can’t remember the whole story about “The Last Farewell” but think it had something to do with Roger Whittaker’s TV show of the time – he had a weekly feature where he invited viewers to send in their own lyrics and he would set them to music, and I’m pretty sure this song came from there, in which case for the guy who wrote the lyrics it must have been like winning the pools as far as royalties were concerned!

  14. 14
    Marcello Carlin on 10 Apr 2008 #

    I like “Moonlighting” as well – a lighter-hearted “She’s Leaving Home” for the seventies; “We’re only ten miles from Gretna, they’re 300 behind!”

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    Erithian on 10 Apr 2008 #

    “Moonlighting” went down very well with my classes when I was a language assistant at a school in Brittany some years later – a good narrative lyric and a chance to illustrate the British motorway network! Can’t quite remember how I explained the line “she gives him French kisses” though.

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    pink champale on 10 Apr 2008 #

    the song also had a third life, of course, that was also very much an attempt to generate (or cash in on) a bleary mass communal experience.

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    Marcello Carlin on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Yes, it was nearly a hit again in 1982 – just four years after Rod had attempted to rhyme “Buenos Aires” with “we don’t care just what the fare is.”

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    pink champale on 10 Apr 2008 #

    blimey, didn’t know about that. ‘our boys’ answer record to “shipbuilding”? i was thinking of the early 90’s rave version which if i remember rightly had a (pretty shoddy) video directed by jarvis cocker.

  19. 19
    Marcello Carlin on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Oh yes, “We Are Raving” by Slipstream – a pretty shoddy cover of a far superior original by Scooter who as Popular will go on to demonstrate were CRIMINALLY PREVENTED from getting a number one by TWO DEVILS (count ’em!).

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    LondonLee on 10 Apr 2008 #

    I remember that Ark Royal documentary very well, especially the opening episode when all the sailors are on shore leave and go to a strip club. My mum was asleep on the couch and there were naked boobs on the telly! It was liked I’d died and gone to 14-year-old boy heaven.

    “Moonlighting” was indeed a great record, only one of his I ever liked really.

  21. 21
    rosie on 10 Apr 2008 #

    I’ve never liked Rod Stewart much but I did like some of his earlier pop work – In A Broken Dream with Python Lee Jackson being my favourite.

    This, however, is Stewart transformed from Rocker to Lad, and that’s what will be churned out from now on. Don’t care for it, nothing much to say about it.

  22. 22
    Steve Mannion on 10 Apr 2008 #

    ‘which if i remember rightly had a (pretty shoddy) video directed by jarvis cocker.’

    how odd. his videos for Nightmares On Wax and Aphex Twin were good at least.

    Re Slipsteam at least this was done soon enough to avoid actually featuring Rod himself (which a remix from the last ten years probably would’ve been forced to do) – although I don’t suppose this would’ve really made it any worse.

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    pink champale on 10 Apr 2008 #

    i only saw it once (and that was sixteen years ago) so i’m probably not the authority on this, but i think it was sort of like the video to ‘atmosphere’ (no, the other one) done on a ferry.

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    mike on 10 Apr 2008 #

    I think one of the reasons why this went to Number One in 1975 was simply down to the personality factor. Simply put, it was Rod’s moment – just as it was Boy George’s moment in 83/84, Madonna’s moment in 1989/90, and Oasis’s moment in 1995/96.

    By “moment”, I mean one of those strange convergances where it seems like the whole country is a little bit in love with the act in question. Total across the board appeal – barring the odd pocket of hipster dissent, but there weren’t even many rumblings on that score.

    In Rod’s case, there was a fair deal of vicarious living involved. That international playboy rockstar lifestyle seemed awfully appealing to a lot of people, and Rod was still perceived as man-of-the-people grounded enough to get away with it. So there was a sort of “good on yer, my son” factor involved. Why Punk Had To Happen, Part 94 and all that.

    More particularly, he was going out with gorgeous pouting Britt Ekland at the time – she featured heavily in the reportage-style video, as I recall – and “Rod & Britt” were very much the Posh-n-Becks golden couple of their day. So if you bought into “Sailing”, then you bought into all of that.

    I’ve got the Sutherland Brothers original on an old K-Tel compilation, so must dig it out for comparison…

  25. 25
    Waldo on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Yeah, okay, Rod. Nice touch, boy.

    It’s a ticklish business trying to criticize this because it’s a belter and the Plastic Jock is just the man. None better. The song, as has been discussed, served as a backdrop to a documentary series about The Arc Royal and is one of Stewart’s great offerings. Your beloved correspondence, Waldo, has delivered his own interpretation of it once or twice this side of the drunk tank, I may say. The secret for preparation is to down enough supermarket cider (80p a litre. “Enjoy Warm and Irresponsibly”. “WARNING: May contain traces of apple”) straight from its flimsy plastic bottle just before you get to the stage where if you were on a bench outside the borough library, you would be starting to threaten and swear at pigeons and the odd errant squirrel. “Can You Hear Me?” comes our brilliantly after that little lot and aside from being part of the lyric, it is usually rather a rhetorical question by that stage of the proceedings.

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    Marcello Carlin on 10 Apr 2008 #

    I will, however, forever associate the song with top Tory comic Jim Davidson sporting broom mop atop head and having buckets of water thrown at him regularly.

  27. 27
    vinylscot on 10 Apr 2008 #

    I’ve got the SUtherland Brothers version too – it was played to death on Radio1 when it came out but never really did anything.

    I remember listening to it after the Rod Stewart version was released, and being disappointed at how bland the original was. I could then understand why it hadn’t been a hit. It was a good song, but it needed a performance to make it memorable.

    Whether you liked him or not, you always got a performance from Rod.

    Another reason this was such a big hit (first time round) was that at this time, Rod still appealed to girls and boys. The Faces had not long wound up, and he still possessed a fair amount of rock credibility, which would wane over the next few years as he relied more and more on ballads, covers, and near novelty songs, with only the occasional diamond in the rough (The Killing of Georgie).

  28. 28

    spot-quiz: name two other acts — apart from the sutherland brothers and quiver — whose names are just the additive sum of the two acts before they teamed up

    (excluding eg one-offs: i mean like “oasis and blur” not “david bowie and bing crosby”)

  29. 29

    better still: dream up some which should have been

    viz “the ohio players and slade”

  30. 30
    Mark G on 10 Apr 2008 #

    Well, I liked the SuthBors original.

    Imagine ‘Give Peace a chance’ played more gently but at around the same tempo.

    Yeah, I had the Ktel album, but you had to crank up the volume to 11 just to hear the faintest glimmer of any track on the album, let alone “Sailing”

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