377. ‘Sailing’, by Rod Stewart

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.

15 thoughts on “377. ‘Sailing’, by Rod Stewart

  1. It’s a very nice, very well-arranged and very finely crafted, well-produced record. BUT – I think when Rod left Mercury Records, more or less left The Faces (they had pretty well disintegrated by this time), signed to Warners and crossed the Atlantic, he became just another pop star. Something had happened to the man who was until then 50% devil-may-care pub rock’n’roll singer and 50% classy semi-acoustic folk-rocker. Up to and including the album ‘Smiler’ and single ‘Farewell’, for me he could do little wrong. ‘Sailing’ for me marks the start of the nice but oh so bland era, with odd flashes of the old Rod but not much more.

    1. I don’t know his career trajectory so well, but yes there is a big difference in sound and production from his earlier number ones to this. But then again, fame changes your perspectives and changes your music – Rod’s not the first and won’t be the last to suffer from this.

  2. Yes agree all-round really. early Rod was great, he’s a great songwriter, but he has admitted doesn’t like the process, boo hoo, and needs persuasion. On the one hand this gave The Sutherland Brothers a much-needed leg-up (they actually got a hit months later), but I still prefer the original. I like the ending of this one, the ethereal voice, the strings, but the rest is still too much of a dirge for my tastes.

    The best record he does in between this and the next number one (another cover) is Killing Of Georgie, a record ahead of it’s time. The covers…not so much.

    1. I like the Killing of Georgie, yes, and have to admit that I have a soft spot for Tonight’s the Night – despite some godawful lyrics – which was also from around this time, I think, too.

  3. Oh yes, ‘Tonight’s the Night’ (summer 1976), and its references to telling a virgin child not to say a word, but spread her wings and let him come inside. Ooo-er missus… Ironically, it was a Noel Edmonds Record of the Week on his Radio 1 breakfast show, but banned by Top of the Pops for being too sexually explicit! Talk about the left hand not knowing what the right was doing at the Beeb…

  4. badfinger20 (Max)

    I had this one on a greatest hits collection but I never heard it on the radio at all. He has that once in a generation voice…I like the song but didn’t hear it until I got that album.

    1. I’m amazed that this wasn’t a hit in the States. Just the fact that the video is him sailing around New York… It is overblown and full of itself, but there’s a time and a place for that sort of song!

      1. badfinger20 (Max)

        I like the song. A little after this is when I think he dipped some but….here he sounds great…Hey…He is Rod the Mod

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