Full disclosure: Randy Newman is my all-time favourite songwriter. As a childhood Beatles fanatic, I don’t think I ever imagined a time when this somewhat meaningless accolade would be bestowed on anyone other than Lennon/McCartney (with the emphasis firmly on McCartney). But then Randy came along with his broken, slightly wonky voice, the biting observations from a cast of bizarre, unreliable narrators, and most of all the melodies — the sometimes rollicking, sometimes translucently beautiful melodies — and, well, suddenly the Beatles weren’t the only act in town any more.
The main reason I think Randy Newman is such a brilliant songwriter is that his songs are both simple and complex at the same time. They’re dynamite satirical sketches with not an ounce of fat, like a musical mash-up of Raymond Carver and Jonathan Swift. And, although several of his songs have been covered by more successful acts (I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, Mama Told Me Not To Come, You Can Leave Your Hat On), they are all uniquely and distinctively Randy Newman tunes.
Sail Away is a perfect example of all this. I can still remember listening to the song for the first time on a Sony portable CD player during an interminable, grey-skied commute from Teddington to London Waterloo. I even remember the stations — Norbiton, New Malden, Raynes Park — that drifted past the window while the song was playing. I’d recently started my first proper job and it was a strangely dislocated time, mainly thanks to having to live at home with my mother after three years at university. I think I listened to the same CD (a Greatest Hits, I’m ashamed to say) every morning for a week. And on those first few listens, about the only thing I remember is being struck by the beauty of the melody. I couldn’t really make out the words — the reference to Charleston Bay, for example, went completely over my head — so it was an almost entirely emotional response. It’s the way I tend to be with songs, the melody always beating the lyrics to the punch.
I did eventually tune into the words though. ‘In America’ it begins, ‘you’ll get food to eat. Won’t have to run through the jungle and scuff up your feet.’ So not your typical pop song then. Maybe a missionary/explorer eulogising about America to a jungle tribe?
But then you get to the end of the second verse: ‘Everybody is as happy as a man can be. Climb aboard little wog, sail away with me’. And you think, hang on, did he just say…? Your relationship with the song changes: this is the sales pitch of a slave trader, seducing the natives with the false promise of a bright new land of opportunity. It’s dealing with one of the darkest, vilest episodes in human history. That’s some tricky stuff to shoehorn into a three minute pop song.
There are a lot of great lines in Sail Away, but the one in the third verse — ‘you’ll be as happy as a monkey in a monkey tree’ — has to take the prize in terms of nailing the insidiousness, lack of humanity, and just plain patronising bastardiness of the song’s narrator. It’s such a simple line, but I feel like you could write an entire dissertation on it if you wanted. (I don’t, you’ll be pleased to hear).
The final twist with Sail Away, as with so many of Randy Newman’s best songs, comes when you re-frame the melody in the context of the lyrics. When I first listened to the song — on the train, slightly dislocated, on the way to work — it carried me along with it. I was involuntarily sailed away. Onwards to a brighter future. Seduced by the melody, just like the natives will be seduced, and ultimately betrayed, by the slave trader’s patter. But once you understand the subject matter, that the song is about a brutal, despicable thing, you feel distinctly queasy. To use a boxing analogy, it’s like a fighter setting you up with a soft jab, then immediately delivering a knockout blow.
To me, this is song craft of quite breathtaking virtuosity. To create something at once so simple, but that also shifts and falls apart, reforms into a different beast altogether, makes you feel elated, then pulls the rug from under you. It’s an amazing thing. And it’s just one of the many reasons why I love Randy Newman.