We move from one of the most bombastic #1s – Whitney’s ‘One Moment in Time’ – to one of the oddest.
Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)’, by Enya (her 1st of two #1s)
3 weeks, from 23rd October – 13th November 1988
If you’ve been listening carefully, though, there have been signs that a big nu-folk, new-age smash hit was coming. Both the Bee Gee’s ‘You Win Again’, and T’Pau’s ‘China in Your Hand’ had touches of it, to my ears at least. Still, it’s a shock to hear a song so out there appearing at the top of the singles chart.
And while it does sound like a slightly more focused version of the sort of music piped into to spas and massage parlours, with some unidentifiable chanting and chords that break and ebb like waves, ‘Orinoco Flow’ is a pop song underneath all the hippy dressing. The sail away, sail way hook is a real earworm, while the airy synths (the technical term is pizzicato, and the fact that it sounds a bit like water dripping in the rainforest is very new-age) are distinctive.
The lyrics that aren’t ‘sail away’ are pretty cryptic. It’s basically a list of places Enya wants to visit on the Orinoco flow (the Orinoco being both a river, and the name of the studio where the song was recorded): From Bissau to Palau, in the shade of Avalon…, which one wag has described as ‘the itinerary for the most expensive gap year of all time’.
Then there’s the break, in which things slow down and we’re treated to some chanting in what I guessed was some Bornean tribal language, but what is actually just: Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up, up, adieu… (Actually, this probably sums up the ‘new age’ movement quite well: what appears authentically ethnic turns out to be some gibberish cooked up by middle-class women for money…) Still, when the main beat breaks back in with a big bass drum, you too are swept along with this funny little chart-topper.
There don’t seem to have been any external reasons for it turning into such a big smash hit – no TV theme, no advert… It was from Enya’s second album, but was her first charting single. She had been a member of Celtic folk-rock band Clannad for two years, with various of her siblings and uncles, before going solo in 1982. Perhaps the time of year helped – this is the archetypal ‘autumn’ chart-topper, and I’m not sure it could have been such a big hit at any other time of year. (I’m not sure why this is, something to do with yearning, minor keys…) There are summer smashes, festive songs (obviously), and cosy autumnal hits; but I’m yet to pick out a ‘sound of spring’.
Enya, born Enya Patricia Brennan in County Donegal, has gone from strength to strength since her debut smash, and is the second biggest-selling Irish act ever (we also recently met the best-selling – U2). She scored reasonable-sized chart hits throughout the eighties and nineties, including a handful of further Top 10s, which is pretty impressive considering that her genre isn’t the most commercial. She will also feature on two big hip-hop #1s: one of which she’s credited on; the other one she isn’t…
18 thoughts on “618. ‘Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)’, by Enya”
I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard this song. I was in my car, sitting in my grandmother’s driveway, getting ready to go inside. This piece of music carries you away to the “lands I’ve never seen…” OMG, I love this song, I love her music and I also like her family’s music…Clannad. I love Irish music (Bono’s big, fat head, aside).
That being said, where did you get the idea that the Orinoco River was in the US?
Hmmm… I have no idea. I was going to argue that the Orinoco studio must have been in the US at least, but I see that it’s in London 😄 I’ll change it…
Lol… Anyway, it’s a cool thing when you can remember hearing a song for the first time. It doesn’t happen very often!
I agree. It was so different, so cosmic…it burned into my memory. I was so blown away by the composition.
I’m actually surprised it even made it to the US. Billboard was 24 and US Cash Box was 25. It got higher ratings in all the other countries.
I’ve always liked that tune by Enya. In fact the entire “Watermark” album is great!
It’s a good song, and an interesting style of number one single. Not sure I could last a whole album, though…
It’s definitely on the quiet side – very soothing and perfect to relax!
It’s new agey in style for sure.
Her second, somewhat of a hit from 2000, Only Time, made it to #10 on Billboard. It is a little less new agey.
On a side note, in 1997, another new agey type, Loreena McKennitt (Canadian) scored a #1 Adult Contemporary in Canada and a #1 Adult Alternative in the US. The Mummers’ Dance is quite unique, with a really cool remix single (the charted one) and the original album version (longer with less contemporary funk to it). I heard it the first time from an off the wall video channel out of Virginia, then managed to hear it on the radio a couple of times. It just wasn’t played heavily in my area of NC. I love it, too but, I have a thing for Celtic/Irish/meditation/new age music.
It sounds more like an atmosphere song to me… I do remember this and I didn’t think about it much. It is catchy… I mean it’s not my favorite but it’s not the worse of the 80s for sure…
Ever heard any of her family’s music, Clannad?
Do you like Irish music?
Van the Man I do…and the Chieftains…they are pure Irish
Here is some Clannad…
It’s not really my kind of thing… But as a number one single it’s pretty unique!
Its a great track! New Age was all the rage, and this sounded like nothing else before, so it was refreshing. Plus, the video was fab. Put it on in the evening on the albums and relax….
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