Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Let's Toast Sailor With A Glass Of Champagne

Sailor auditioned for a recording deal with CBS, and their quirky, theatrical nature worked a charm on the label suits. The band recorded their eponymous debut album (OZ#91) during 1974, which spawned the single ‘Traffic Jam’ that broke the band in several European territories, including Holland and Germany (the song later charted in Australia in 1976-#47). The album featured some very complex musical arrangements, which for all intents and purposes were going to be a daunting challenge for just four musicians to recreate live on stage. Rather than supplementing the quartet for their live shows, Kajanus designed and built a unique instrument called the Nickelodeon (that should score me some search engine hits). The radically inventive concept, mechanically linked two upright pianos, two synthesizers, mini organs and glockenspiels, within a single wooden frame. It enabled bassist Phil Pickett, and keyboardist Henry Marsh a workable means to play a wide range of instrumental sounds on stage, bringing the band’s album sound to life. To further add to the theatrical element of their live shows, the band played in the traditional seafaring attire on a set that resembled a virtual harbour town, replete with street lamps, palm trees, cafĂ© signage, and numerous and sundry nautical paraphernalia, immersing the audience in an exotic world of nostalgia, with echoes of great music hall tradition.

A live appearance on BBC, high profile showcase performances across Europe and the U.S., and support slots to Steve Harley & Cockney Rebel (see future post), provided new impetus to the band’s already growing reputation. The band enlisted the production services of Jeffrey Lesser and Rupert Holmes (see previous post) for their 1975 sophomore album ‘Trouble’, and the combination worked a treat. In late ‘75 the lead out single ‘A Glass Of Champagne’ bubbled up the British charts, and soon popped a cork in celebration at #2 in early 1976, also soaring to the top of the charts across most of Europe. The band’s wave of success soon reached Australian shores, where high tide for ‘A Glass Of Champagne’ was at #4. Sailor themselves underwent a mild re-jigging of their image at that time, dumping the matching sailor garb, in favour of a harder edged ‘down by the docks’ persona, and singer Kajanus sported a fake anchor tattoo on his cheek. Sailor soon found themselves vying with Bay City Rollers for Britain’s groupie girl population. Their next single no doubt would have garnered them even more ‘groupie girls’, as the playful ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ set sail on the British charts during March of ‘76. It quickly became a signature song for Sailor, and navigated its way to #7 on the U.K. charts (OZ#21), and into the top 10 across Europe, in the process helping push sales of the ‘Trouble’ album to gold status (UK#45/OZ#17).

‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ represented the high watermark of Sailor’s commercial fortunes, particularly in their home territory of Britain, but stormier waters lay ahead for the quartet. The band’s management charted a treacherous touring course across the, as yet, largely uncharted waters of the U.S. (well, the land mass in actuality). Rather than consolidating their success in Europe and Britain, Sailor found themselves high and dry in near empty club venues across the U.S., or playing in front of disinterested audiences as the opening act for country and western, and even soul artists. It was a demoralising and unsettling experience for Sailor, whose sea legs were suddenly very shaky, and the sooner they could return to safe European waters the better. Upon their return to port, Sailor recorded their third album, the appropriately titled ‘The Third Step’ in late ‘76, and found themselves once again riding high on the waves of huge popularity across Europe. The album failed to yield any major hit singles, but did feature another of the band’s fan favourites in ‘One Drink Too Many’, which docked with the charts in early ‘77 (UK#35).

In 1977 Sailor experienced the first change to their crew, when bassist Phil Pickett took indefinite shore leave to pursue his own song writing career. The remaining trio took up the slack for Sailor’s 1977 album ‘Checkpoint’, produced by Beach Boy Bruce Johnston and Curt Becher. The album featured the band’s first tilt at a disco hit (well everyone else was doing it so why not), but ‘Down By The Docks’ didn’t exactly deliver up a bounty of sales for Sailor, and overall proved a frustrating passage into some unfamiliar musical territory. Soon after Phil Pickett returned to the good ship Sailor, coinciding with the release of their first ‘greatest hits’ package in 1978, and resulting in an album of new material titled ‘Hideaway’. But the singles ‘Give Me Shakespeare’ and ‘Stranger In Paradise’ remained anchored outside the charts, and it was clear that Sailor had become somewhat becalmed. In June 1978, Sailor played a triumphant show at Trinity College, Oxford - a venue that had recently become a stomping ground for explosive punk/new wave acts - but despite once again wowing their audience, Sailor had decreed this to be their final gig before parting ways.

Two years later Sailor resurfaced, with a crew featuring original members Henry Marsh and Phil Pickett, with brother/sister combo Gavin and Virginia David. They recorded two albums, only one of which ‘Dressed For Drowning’ (1980), was officially released. But none of the singles ‘Runaway’, ‘Danger On The Titanic’ and ‘Don’t Send Flowers’, managed to float on the charts, and soon after the Sailor name was once more packed away in a locker. During the 80s the four former crew mates each pursued their own career paths. Georg Kajunus formed a new band called ‘DATA’, who recorded three albums; Henry Marsh turned to a successful vocation as a music writer for stage and screen in the U.S.; Grant Serpell reacted to the band’s demise by becoming a chemistry teacher; and Phil Pickett continued an increasingly fruitful career as a songwriter, co-penning two major hits for Culture Club - the global #1 ‘Karma Chameleon’, and ‘It’s A Miracle’.

After a near ten year absence, Sailor fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the band would never again return to port, but in 1989 the original quartet reunited to record an album of new material, eventually released in 1991 under the moniker of ‘Sailor’. Both album, and the singles ‘La Cumbia’ and ‘The Secretary’, worked to rejuvenate interest in one of the 70s more distinctive popular music acts, with regular TV appearances and a hectic touring schedule ensuing. Over the next five years the fun and adventure continued, with another album ‘Street Lamp’ released in 1992, especially well received in Germany, where the band were as popular as ever on the ‘rock-revival’ circuit. By late 1995 singer and principle songwriter Georg Kajunus had had enough of playing nostalgia festivals and the like, and made the decision to board a lifeboat and leave the band to sail on without him.

The following year singer/guitarist Peter Lincoln climbed aboard, and Sailor released their first live set ‘Live In Berlin’ in 1998. The year after that keyboardist Henry Marsh also jumped ship, and was replaced by new recruit Anthony England, who was in turn replaced by Rob Alderton in 2001. Over the next few years Sailor continued to enjoy fair weather and favourable currents across Europe, and in 2005 Henry Marsh returned to the fold, with his son Oliver taking on vocal duties the following year, coinciding with the release of a double CD anthology set ‘Buried Treasure’. Like all music artists, in fact like everyone, Sailor have experienced the ebb and flow of life’s voyage, but after 35 years as a pop-rock unit, and over 60 years as a virtual musical institution, Sailor have above all proven themselves to be seafaring survivors of rare distinction.

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