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SAILOR - A UNIQUE ACT
Sailor were genuinely unique. How many other British-based bands can you name whose lead vocalist, songwriter and 12-string guitarist was born in Norway, son of a Russian prince, and emigrated to Canada at the age of 18 unable to speak a word of English; and who in addition to a drummer had two members playing onstage and in the studio both sides of a custom-built nickelodeon with piano, synthesizer keyboards and bass pedals? Er...I thought not.
Between 1974 and 1979 they released 14 singles, all of which are on this double CD, after which leader Georg Kajanus left. He later rejoined and left again, and drummer Grant Serpell has more recently left, though the two 'odeon players Phil Pickett and Henry Marsh have kept going with other personnel. Though they only had three hits in Britain, they were very successful overseas, particularly in Holland and Germany.
It's my humble opinion that the debut single and opening track, 'Traffic Jam', is one of the best 45s of all time never to grace the British charts. Released in August 1974, it also features one of the most interesting lyrics Kajanus ever penned, a kind of potted history of the car - 'From the 18th century's cobblestone streets, with the horse and the carriages to rest our feet, to the train and city tram, came the birth of mechanical man...' Appropriately, behind these lines the percussion track sounds like the clip-clop of horses' hooves on a street. The rest of the song continues in ecological vein as it predicts how we are heading for a great big worldwide traffic jam, but you might be forgiven or not noticing the words at first as, like so many of these songs it's incredibly catchy. You'll be singing along with the chorus before you know it.
The tracks are arranged chronologically with A-side, B-side, but I'll take the A-sides first. Next came the dreamy 'Blue Desert', the closest they ever got to a ballad. Like several of their songs, it has a kind of nautical theme in the lyrics, as the singer muses, 'Betty Grable on the wall keeps my cabin warm, From Casablanca down to Rio, she won't feel the storm... Wish that I was far away from this blue desert, My only oasis is the bright harbour town.'
'Sailor' (inevitable, I suppose), is a jolly upbeat number, more typical of their rather music hall style, about the delights of a sailor coming into town, going to sample the delights in port - complete with two blasts of a foghorn by way of the intro. Looking at some of the lyrics, like 'Do what she said, get into bed, don't be afraid for she knows her trade', it was probably a little too racy for radio. Incidentally, this was also the title track of their first and in my view best LP.
If you know them from one song, it must be the glorious, exuberant 'A Glass Of Champagne'. Think of a more bouncy, fairground version of Roxy Music's 'Virginia Plain' - "Bryan Ferry will die when he hears this record," began the Melody Maker singles review when it was released in November 1975. You'll either adore this or hate it, and if you don't know it, hope over to Youtube when you've finished reading this, right? The song is just SO infectious - 1970s pop rarely got better than this - and a well-deserved British No. 2 at the beginning of 1976, their greatest hit ever. That momentum was maintained for the follow-up, the just as jaunty and slightly more dance-style 'Girls Girls Girls', also a Top 10 British hit.
After that they, well, hit stormy waters, with the also catchy 'Stiletto Heels' falling short of the chart altogether, and a final lowly return to the Top 40 in 1977 with 'One Drink Too Many'. More bouncy nickelodeon singalong fests of the good life and occasional hangover, they failed to resonate so strongly.
By 1977, almost everybody who was too old for punk rock was making disco records, and Sailor were no exception. The funky 'Down By The Docks' was an obvious effort to jump on the bandwagon, and as a dancefloor tune it's OK, but the old Sailor charm was lacking somehow - still, they doubtless felt the need to move on musically. 'Romance' was a pale shadow of the same, and it's probably the weakest track on this collection. It's almost a relief to hear them go back to the previous sound in 1978, with 'All I Need Is A Girl'. It may sound on first hearing like 'Glass Of Champagne' Part 2, but they get enough mileage out of the formula to make it a joy to hear, and for my money it's almost every bit as good.
Sadly they were losing their way a little by then. 'The Runaway', written and sung by Phil Pickett for a change (nothing to do with the Del Shannon song), is pleasant but lacks the customary sparkle. The follow-up 'Give Me Shakespeare' had another clever lyric and was an improvement, while as if to demonstrate the general writing versatility of other members, the next single 'Stay The Night was written by Henry Marsh (who sang lead vocal) and Grant Serpell. I would certainly put this in my top five tracks on the collection - it has one of those almost insanely infectious keyboard intros and equally distinctive chorus to match, and suspect that had it not been for the slightly risqué (well, for 1978 anyway) lyrics and subsequent lack of airplay, it might have given them a last crack at the charts. But by the time of another Pickett-composed A-side, 'Stranger In Paris', again pleasant but less than interesting, Kajanus had left and the band was acquiring new members - and a new record contract.
There's no need to describe all the B-sides, four of which are instrumentals and all rather good in their own right, especially the wistful and appropriately-titled 'Melancholy'. I'll just highlight two of the best. 'Blame It On The Soft Spot', also one of the songs from their first album, has one of those wonderful choruses which could easily have elevated it to A-side status, while 'I Wish I Had A Way With Women' has a sharper edge that recalls the work of late 1970s/early 1980s and grievously-underrated synth-rock band After The Fire.
Top marks for the 12-page booklet which includes full notes on the history of each single in order, plus worldwide chart positions, and a centre spread containing no less than 32 worldwide picture sleeve covers. (Well, 31 - plus a foreign release red label in company custom die-cut bag, as they say in 'Record Collector'). Obviously put together with collectors in mind.
The group did have their limitations, and there was probably only so much they could do with what was admittedly a very distinctive sound. But there are enough absolute crackers to make this 27-track collection an almost unqualified recommendation.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on dooyoo]