Sailor, an appreciation.
I think what changed my mind about Sailor was seeing them performing Glass Of Champagne on a repeated edition of Top Of The Pops. Previously to that, I’d barely heard of them, instantly dismissing them as being of the same ilk as Racey or Smokie. My reaction to Glass Of Champagne was, I am sure, not particularly original – I Can’t Believe This Isn’t Roxy Music – as it bears more than a passing similarity, at least in arrangement, to Virginia Plain and Do The Strand. But, even given the consistent ham-fisted shitness of the Top Of The Pops house band, I was intrigued enough to check the band out on Spotify.
And I was surprised to find they were actually very good. So good, in fact, that I listened to "The Epic Singles Collection" to death, and then bought it on CD (so bear that in mind, people who say that Spotify is a bad development, I have bought and or downloaded innumerable albums as a direct result of listening to them legally on Spotify). They are kind of like a half-way point between Roxy Music and 10CC, encompassing the virtues of both bands. I’d say the secret to writing a great pop song is to be both original and obvious, to reconcile those two seemingly contradictory things (and if I had to criticise early Roxy Music, it’s that they’re trying too hard to avoid the obvious rather than going for arrangements and musical choices that serve the song best.)
I was most impressed by Traffic Jam, an environmentalist, anti-automobile song, which picks up where the Beach Boys left off with Holland (Holland being, of course, the last remotely passable Beach Boys album, after which they stopped trying to be contemporary or relevant and instead became a retro/nostalgia band.). I’d say all their singles were very strong; Give Me Shakespeare would have been a big hit, had it been performed by XTC or Squeeze.
But the problem was, it was performed by Sailor. And despite their great arrangements and extremely clever songwriting – both original and obvious – and despite great vocals, ingenious lyrics and marvellous, inventive synthesizer parts, Sailor were, and still are, a mind-bogglingly uncool band. This is because whilst other groups may have contented themselves with knocking out the occasional concept album, Sailor were a concept band. Not only were they called Sailor, they had to dress as sailors whenever they appeared on telly, or on their album covers, and nearly all their songs would have to have a nautical theme (apart from all the ones I’ve mentioned in this article, funnily enough.) Bearing in mind also that the members of Sailor couldn’t look less nautical if they tried – they look extremely geeky* - to narrow their appeal in such a manner seems ludicrously perverse lunacy.
In addition, their other ‘hit’ – Girls, Girls, Girls – compounds the crime by the fact that although it is a great, well-constructed song, it’s also clearly an Irving Berlin pastiche and not perhaps as far away from The Theme To The Muppet Show as might be desirable. And so Sailor would be evermore pigeonholed as a novelty band, consigned to guest spots on variety shows and children’s shows, Seaside Specials and the like. I’m not saying they should have been taken seriously, but it meant that the record-buying public never got past their preconceptions, and never got past the band’s naff image and gimmicky subject matter. Although, interestingly, Sailor were successful in Germany and Holland, perhaps because their nautical nature held more appeal in those countries, or perhaps because the people buying the records in those countries couldn’t understand their lyrics and so were just judging each song on its melody and production.
So, in summary, I’d say if you like bands like 10CC, Roxy Music, Wings, ELO, Supertramp, The Feeling – all that lot – then you should give Sailor a listen.
* Not that there is anything wrong with that. One of the best bands from the 60’s, The Zombies, looked like it was formed out of all the musicians who couldn’t get picked to be in the cool bands, and yet they produced the psych-classic Odessey and Oracle.