It’s been three years since we had Rod Stewart at the top of the singles chart. Back then, he was a folky troubadour, spinning yarns about older women and long-lost lovers. The songs were acoustic, and lyrically driven, lots of mandolins and fiddles…
Sailing, by Rod Stewart (his 3rd of six #1s)
4 weeks, from 31st August – 28th September 1975
‘Sailing’, while still unmistakably a Rod Stewart song (the voice is there, for a start), is a different proposition. The lyrics now are very simple, borderline nursery rhyme: I am sailing, I am sailing, Home again, ‘Cross the sea… He’s sailing, he’s flying, he’s on his way… To be with you, To be free… It builds, it grows, until organs and a full-blown choir have been added. It’s still got those little Celtic touches that litter classic Rod Stewart songs; but it’s overblown, and more than a little ridiculous.
It’s tempting to argue that in the past three years, as Rod has become possibly the biggest pop star on the planet, he may have disappeared, somewhat, up his own behind… I’d bet that drugs were present in the recording studio when they cut this disc. ‘Sailing’ had originally been written and recorded by The Sutherland Brothers, a Scottish folk duo, and their version is much more earthy.
What saves ‘Sailing’ is the moment when, after the guitar solo, it changes to We are sailing… Suddenly it isn’t a song for a self-indulgent rock star; it’s a football crowd singalong, a last song at karaoke night, a song to bellow out as you stumble home from the pub. It definitely moves something in you, deep down, and I am right this moment crowning it the ultimate drunk singalong tune, above even ‘Delilah’ and ‘My Way’. Change my mind!
The ending came as a bit of a surprise, I have to say. I thought it just continued with the We are sailings… ad infinitum. But no, for the last thirty seconds the vocals drop away, and the strings take it home. Which means that there’s a good chance I have never actually heard this record the whole way through. It’s a sign of a song’s ubiquity, of its classic status, when you think you know it simply through cultural osmosis.
‘Sailing’ is Rod Stewart’s best-selling single in the UK, and was a huge hit around the world. Everyone knows it. I have met people from many different countries: when they find out you are Scottish, and after mentioning whisky, of course, they will wrack their brains to think of another Scottish thing. This will invariably be Rod Stewart – even though he was born in London, and never lived in Scotland – and the song they sing will invariably be ‘Sailing’. (Still, at least it’s not The Bay City Rollers.)
Just a couple of weeks ago, ‘Sailing’ featured in a French movie that I stumbled across, ‘Ete 85’, in which the climax of the film involves a boy dancing on his dead lover’s grave while listening to the song on a Walkman, having promised to do so when said lover was alive. Which is a completely melodramatic and ridiculous storyline; but then this is a ridiculous, melodramatic song, and so, in the end, pretty appropriate.