Traffic jams and champagne
The career of 1970s rock band SAILOR, well known for their distinctive carnival sound. From 'Keep On Rockin' No. 7, 1994
In the summer of 1968,
British-based Australian folk-pop group The Seekers announced
they were to disband. Tipped by the media to fill their place
were Eclection, one of the few non-American groups signed to the
Elektra label. Also British-based but mainly from Down Under,
Eclection made a couple of singles, 'Nevertheless' picking up
good airplay, and one album, but they sold poorly. In 1969 they
folded, their members going off to various destinations. Drummer
Gerry Conway and guitarist Trevor Lucas joined former Fairport
Convention vocalist Sandy Denny in the barely more successful
Fotheringay, all three later ending up in Fairport at various
stages, while bassist Georg Hultgren was to have his moments of
glory with his own band, SAILOR.
Georg was born in Norway, and before settling in England he had emigrated to Canada at the age of 18, apparently unable to speak a word of English. After the demise of Eclection, Georg (by now known as Mr Kajanus, or if you must, Georg Johan Tjegodiev-Sakonski Kajanus) met up in Paris with former English public schoolboy Henry Marsh, Chemistry graduate and former Geno Washington sideman Grant Serpell, and German-born child actor Phil Pickett, who had lived in Birmingham and the USA, and had written songs recorded by Percy Sledge and Arthur Conley. They played in a band, "a loose musical arrangement with various musicians playing on different nights" at Le Matelot Club, until it burned down in 1971.
Going their separate ways, Georg became, in his words, "a commercial songwriter". In the summer of 1971 one of his compositions, 'Flying Machine', made history by being the first Cliff Richard single not to make the British Top 30 (it peaked at No.37). A couple of years later, he bumped into Phil again, and they recorded an album as a duo, 'Hi Ho Silver', on the shortlived Signpost label. One thing led to another, and all four musicians got together on a permanent basis. Georg's vast writing backlog ensured they would never run short of material. "None of us was keen to form just another rock group," he said. "We all wanted to do something a little bit different. I was writing a musical which never got staged, all about the Red Quarter, and a lot of the songs have been taken out of that."
Signing to Epic in 1974, they were recording their first LP when they landed a gig on BBC TV's 'In Concert' series, followed by support slots on tour first with Kiki Dee, then with Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. Steve had been a staunch champion of SAILOR from the start: "He decided he really wanted us on the tour though his audience wasn't the SAILOR audience we imagined we'd get; but because he was so great to us and we always did a good set, his audience warmed to us."
The first album, 'Sailor', written, produced and directed by Georg, was issued in late summer. Three of the ten tracks were lifted as singles, the first, 'Traffic Jam', being undoubtedly one of the best 45s of the year. The lyrics contained a semi-serious message about the world getting smaller under the proliferation of 'nature's 20th- century technical toy' (well ahead of its time, years before lead-free petrol, carbon emissions and the ozone layer, and the infamous M25, had become topical issues). They were so well-crafted that it seems astonishing that they were written by someone who grew up not knowing a word of English. Production was clever, too, with a line about' 18th-century cobblestone streets' being sung to a percussion effect simulating the clip-clop of horses' hooves.
Two other singles were taken off the album, the slow, crooner-style 'Blue Desert', with references to 'Betty Grable on the wall, keep my cabin warm from Casablanca down to Rio', and the jaunty title track, which showed off well the group's line-up of 12-string guitar (Georg), drums (Grant) and Nickelodeon. The latter, designed and constructed by Georg (was there no limit to his abilities?), was played simultaneously from opposite sides by Henry and Phil. It incorporated an organ effect worked mechanically by the piano keyboard, an electrical glockenspiel, and a keyboard bass using a synth link-up, among other gadgets.
The album had a concept feel which reflected the basic story of a sailor going out on the town after his ship had docked. 'The Girls of Amsterdam' was basically a waltz with fairground organ. ELO frequently said they had meant to carry on where the Beatles' 'I Am the Walrus' left off; for ELO, read SAILOR, and for 'Walrus', read 'Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite', from 'Sergeant Pepper'. Another song celebrated the controversial 1920s dancer Josephine Baker. Georg's lyrics were largely vignettes of old cinema themes; according to Phil, he learned much of his English from watching American films as a child in Norway, and they gave him lasting inspiration.
The music complemented the lyrics perfectly -a happy-go-lucky, good-time carnival sound. "We are loud, but our rhythms are the complete opposite to rock," said Georg. "We always try to create an intimate atmosphere with the audience rather than just doing our thing. Rock bands tend to shout at the audience, whereas we talk to them." This atmosphere was enhanced by a stage set in keeping with the general concept theme, incorporating the silhouette of a harbour town with a street plan, palm tree, and lamp post on the corner. "We wanted to attract attention to the music being slightly strange and not to be categorised as a teenybop field," said Phil. Summer 1975 marked the high tide of Bay City Rollermania, and SAILOR were anxious not to appeal to the same fickle audience.
Most of the British music press was largely bemused, if not downright hostile. 'Traffic Jam' had been played heavily by Radio Luxembourg on initial release in 1974, and though reactivated in June 1975 to coincide with their first headlining UK tour, failed to make the Radio 1 playlist or the Top 50. Its cosmopolitan sound found more receptive ears in Europe, with record sales particularly strong in Belgium and Holland. Colin Irwin of 'Melody Maker', one of the first critics to be converted, commented that the music, "although fresh in its continental tinges and close harmonies, is perhaps a little too sweet and fragile to bring out the full drama and character of what are extremely good lyrics."
Max Bell of 'NME' gave a more favourable if tongue-in-cheek review of their appearance at the Geleen (Southern Holland) festival about the same time: "The basic theme of the SAILOR's night on the town looking for girls is dead corny but, like all the best simplistic ideas properly executed, it works. Marsh and Pickett straddled each side of the doctored Nickelodeon and hammered the hell out of its box-of-tricks keyboards. Serpell slicked off the beat while band mentor Kajanus strummed inaudible 12-string and sang excellent Temperance Seven/Ink Spots vocals. Considering the time, weather and indifferent acoustics they went down a storm. Dutch audiences are usually as receptive as a heap of wet cod but SAILOR contrived a hard earned response. Marsh's inter-number humour was mostly lost on these foreign ears; those who got the gist grinned warmly like foreigners always do when you ask them where the nearest bog is and they tell you the time."
The British tour helped boost their following, and the group were justifiably full of confidence when they recorded the second album, 'Trouble', later that year. "Bryan Ferry will die when he hears this record!" began the 'Melody Maker' review of their next single, 'A Glass Of Champagne', released in November 1975. A constantly repeated chopping piano chord intro brought instant comparisons with 'Virginia Plain', but despite the rhythmic similarities, SAILOR's goodtime sound was far removed from Roxy Music's elegantly stylised fusion of rock and electronics. National and radio stations loved it, and after entering the charts at No.44 the following month, it gained momentum to peak in January 1976 at No. 2.
"I wrote 'Champagne' specifically as a hit in England and now I've been accused of pinching from other groups," Georg said ruefully. "I tried to be more commercial and got accused of sounding like Sparks and Roxy but I wasn't deliberately trying to pinch from them. Before that I'd never been conscious of writing singles."
The other nine tracks on 'Trouble' extended the basic theme of the first album, but showed Georg adapting his writing effortlessly to different world music rhythms. 'Trouble in Hong Kong' had an Eastern feel to complement the song's story, while 'Panama' was done Latin-style, and 'Coconut' had an obvious Caribbean flavour. 'The Old Nickelodeon Sound' was nostalgic waltz-time at its best, and 'People in Love' showed he could write strong ballads too. The jolly 'Girls Girls Girls' gave them a second hit, peaking at No.7 in the spring. 'Trouble' stayed in the album chart for eight weeks, though never rising higher than No.45. Meanwhile, in December 1975 Elektra had craftily reissued Eclection's 'Nevertheless'. (Nevertheless) it still failed to chart.
Perhaps not surprisingly, SAILOR were soon prisoners of their own originality. The basic concept was a striking one, but difficult to extend much further. The third album, 'Third Step', again written entirely by Georg and released in October 1976, was more of the same - songs about women, wine and dockside life, and just as appealing -but failed to make the same impact. The charm seemed to be wearing thin. Its first single, 'Stiletto Heels', was an 'NME' single of the week, but despite generous airplay it still flopped. A follow-up from the album, 'One Drink Too Many', had them on 'Top of the Pops' early the following year, but only made No.35, their last UK chart appearance. Several other tracks were potential singles, especially 'Two Ladies on the Corner', though its subject matter would have probably ensured a radio ban in those more timid days. Georg was honest about his inspiration; "I find the red light district extremely romantic. Some people find it very crude but it's a very honest place - it's obvious what's going on and what people are looking for. "
A radical rethink was called for. In 1977 punk was the happening thing, though most of the major singles-selling artists were either black acts or smart white performers like the Bee Gees, who saw which way the wind was blowing and planned their musical strategy accordingly. SAILOR were one of several bands to discofy their style, and their fourth album, 'Checkpoint', released in October 1977, found Georg bowing to the musical direction of Thor Baldursson, Donna Summer's arranger. Though the old SAILOR sound shone through - on songs like 'Joe's Pianola', the overall result was an uncomfortable marriage of styles and sounded like a blatant case of bandwagon-jumping. "That's the end of any band in a creative sense," commented a reviewer in 'NME', adding that the group's identity was "stripped to a minimum, and the result is out of the same disco computer used by everyone else."
They evidently took the bad press to heart, for 1978 saw a return to their old style. Realising they had obviously peaked and were now on the downhill slope, in Britain at least, Epic released a 'Greatest Hits' compilation. It included two new singles, 'The Runaway', and' All I Need Is A Girl'. They were good records, but still sounded more than a little like retreads of past glories, the latter especially coming on like' A Glass Of Champagne' Part 2.
A new single at the end of 1978, 'Stay The Night' was produced by Georg, but penned by Henry and Grant for a change. Very commercial, with echoes of Mike Batt, it proved that Georg was not the only talented writer in the group. The B-side was credited to Phil. Would the parent album, 'Hideaway', mentioned on the label, see a more democratic balance of input?
'Hideaway' was only released in Europe. The group had held on to their continental following, but a fickle English public had given them their statutory Andy Warhol fifteen minutes of fame and then looked elsewhere. But their influence had left its mark on Abba, whose spring 1979 hit 'Chiquitita', with its hurdy gurdy-passage at the end, obviously owed more than a little to them.
Another SAILOR album, 'Dressed for Drowning', was released early in 1981 on the CBS/Epic subsidiary label Caribou. Phil and Henry were part of a radically-altered line-up, with Georg nowhere to be seen.
Georg later formed the duo DATA with Frankie Boulter, but without success. Phil did better for himself. In 1984 he wrote and performed the ITV Olympic Games theme, and joined Culture Club as a temporary fifth member, co-writing and playing keyboards on 'Karma Chameleon', the best-selling UK single of 1983 and topping the stateside charts as well the following year. A couple of years later, he produced records for Thereze Bazar of Dollar, and the very underrated Terraplane, who re-emerged in 1990 with a slightly different line-up as the more successful Thunder.
In 1991 SAILOR themselves were back, with the original line-up and a new release, simply called 'Sailor', on RCA. The ten tracks included virtually identical re-recordings of 'Champagne' and 'Girls', alongside eight newer songs by Georg, very much in the old carnival style. There was nothing quite up to the standard of 'Traffic Jam', but the sound was refreshing to hear again. It was no one-off, for in 1992 'Street Lamp' followed. Georg's ear for world rhythms - rather like a male version of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine - fits the dancefloor beat perfectly, and in 'Precious Form' he can still knock out almost indecently catchy pop fare, while coming up with strong ballads like 'Lovers Blues' and 'When My Ship Comes In'.
Sad to say, SAILOR's renaissance seems to have been one of the best-kept secrets of the decade so far. I only came across the first of these CDs by chance while browsing in Tower Records, Piccadilly, and RCA appear to be confining their release to mainland Europe. 'Street Lamp' was recorded and mixed in studios in London and Hamburg, and a UK information address (P.O. Box 131, Twickenham TW2 SUE) appears on the insert card, so hopefully there are still some fans in Britain. Maybe a track from 'Street Lamp', put out on a single and given adequate exposure, could help get the ball rolling again?