Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sailor Sets A Course For Uncharted Waters

If Roxy Music had decided to abandon the serious art-rock aspect of their music in favour of playful, feel good pop, chances are they might have sounded a little like 70s pop-quartet Sailor. There was more than a hint of Bryan Ferry about Sailor singer Georg Kajanus’ vocal cadence, and some of the band’s songs featured that curiously quirky chord structure, suggestive of Roxy Music classics like ‘Virginia Plain’. But Sailor were (and are) their own band, with their own fascinatingly unique history and a solid collection of acoustic brand, glam-tinged pop hits, that for a time during the mid 70s, brought them a solid following across Europe, Britain and Australia.

There aren’t too many bands from the modern popular music era that can claim to have their origins hark back as far as 1946, but Sailor can boast such a historical link (and it’s not in reference to its members being born that far back). As Parisian folklore would have it, there was a café proprietor called Monsieur Faux (not of the Pas variety) in charge of the venue Café de Matelor, which since the early 1900s become a famous coffee house (perhaps even more famous than ‘Allo ‘Allo’s ‘Café Rene’). In 1936 Monsieur Faux put together a house band of sorts, for nightly performances, which were no doubt less torturous than Madam Edith Artois’ escapades at the fictional Café Rene. The group was quickly dubbed ‘le fils de Faux’, and featured a regular revolving multi-national roster of musicians, with an ever evolving musical style that reflected the evolution of contemporary popular music. The Café became known for attracting famous singers, musicians and entertainers, who would stop by for impromptu performances, with backing from ‘le fils de Faux’.

With the arrival of World War II, and a Nazi occupied Paris, the Café de Matelot was forced to close its doors, due in no small part to its proprietor Monsieur Faux being arrested by the Germans for his key involvement in the French underground (possibly with his waitresses Evette and Mimi in tow). Faux was sentenced by a German military tribunal to be shot at dawn in front of his own café. As fate would have it Faux was saved in a daring pre-dawn rescue, carried out in part by an AWOL American navy officer, who gave his name simply as ‘Sailor’. Faux returned to his work with the French underground, Paris was eventually liberated, and in 1946 the Café de Matelot re-opened its doors, now as the club venue Le Matelot. Faux never forgot his American rescuer, and named the new house band ‘Sailor’ in reverence to the renegade navy officer. Over the next couple of decades Le Matelot continued to be a landmark venue in Paris, and Sailor became one of its biggest attractions, boasting the likes of Barry Inverson, Boris Karensky and Michael Michaud among its constantly evolving line-up of international musicians. Sailor’s style and music continued to reflect the changing face of popular music, but one thing that remained a constant, was that its members dressed in appropriate nautical garb during performances. Actually you could probably liken Sailor to Australia’s own Party Boys circa 1980s (see earlier posts), aside from the maritime attire.

In 1970 fire swept through the club Le Matelot, and it was raised to the ground. With no place to play, Sailor were spread to the seven seas, and the club’s proprietor Monsieur Faux left for parts unknown. By pure chance, two former members of the Sailor house band both found themselves in the U.S. city of New Orleans during 1971. English born bassist Phil Pickett had experienced a rollercoaster ride of, mostly, misfortune over the twelve months since the demise of Le Matelot. Long story short, he found himself playing at the New Orleans airport coffee shop, when who should walk in but another Sailor alumnus, singer/guitarist Georg Kajanus, himself led there through a serious of curious events. The two vowed to stay in touch, and two years later Phil Pickett was working as a session musician back in England, when he met with Steve Morris, son of record mogul Edwin H. The two decided to resurrect the Sailor tradition, but this time they would take the band’s music beyond the walls of a Parisian club. Pickett contacted Kajanus, who in turn had maintained ties with another ex-Sailor Henry Marsh. Marsh, then a school teacher by trade, had been playing guitar and keyboards with British band Gringo, but for Sailor would also return to his first love, the accordion (the instrument had been a key element of the Sailor sound throughout its Le Matelot years). The final member of the new Sailor crew was drummer Grant Serpell, who had previously worked with jazz-rock outfit Affinity, serendipitously discovered by Kajanus, in Paris by the burnt out remains of Le Matelot, for some reason wearing an old naval uniform - well he just had to be the new drummer.

Initially the newly refloated Sailor couldn’t attract any backing to fund their new pop odyssey, but in 1973 the Mid-Atlantic Arts Association put up some money to help the lads to set sail, in part due to the cultural and historical significance of the Sailor name. Soon after the quartet, of two guitars, bass, and drums, were rehearsing their new act as a common-or-garden pop-rock unit. But how were they going to stand out from the rock crowd doing that? The group’s primary songwriter, and driving creative force, Georg Kajanus, played a demo tape of semi-experimental music to the others in the group. Kajanus incorporated an eclectic mix of more traditional instruments including harmoniums, mandolins, glockenspiels, hand-bass drums, and pianos. One song in particular, ‘Sailor’s Night On The Town’ grabbed the others attention, and the quartet decided they would take on the challenge of utilising this unique instrumental style to take on the pop charts. Kajanus was given the green light to pen more songs that could provide the vehicles for the new Sailor sound. The standard pop-rock formula was transmogrified into a unique musical amalgam, that if nothing else, would set Sailor apart from the other rock and roll soldiers out there. Kajanus also constructed the songs in a very theatrical way, aware that the group were story tellers as much as musicians, and honing in on the theme of world weary sailors.

In researching material for this post I came across one of the most complete and informative ‘band dedicated’ websites out there. So to delve more into the waters that Sailor inhabit, I highly recommend you check out the following great site:


Anonymous said...

This was my favourite Sailor tune, a damn classic, yet when i play this around people around my own vintage ... they say they've never heard it ?
Reminds me of the ol' Skating days ( you know, the real skates with '4' wheels on them ) lol

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Around the time Sailor scored 'A Glass Of Champagne' and 'Girls, Girls, Girls' I was in my second year of primary school. My sister is a few years older than me, and one of the reasons I got into music so much at that stage was that Countdown was compulsory viewing on a Sunday night. Seeing Sailor perform 'Girls, Girls, Girls' was one of the stand out music memories from that time. Shame on anyone from that era who hasn't heard of it lol.
Oh, and the skating thing - yep definetely remember the old school style, but a tragic absence of balance and dexterity meant I was never gonna be king of the roller disco.