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…