Songs About The Sea
"Hoist that sail! Trim that jib! Swab the deck, me hearties!! We set sail for . . . ???" The romance, mystery, and siren song of the sea has been well-documented in countless tales, novels, movies, and songs. In this installment, we'll examine how the themes of the sea, sailing, and sailors have been used in music. The notion of setting sail is attractive to our sense of adventure, individualism, and wonder. In terms of music, sailing, or travel of some sort over a body of water, can also take on metaphorical, mystical, even metaphysical meaning, as well. As one of humankind's earliest means of conveyance, sailing has a head start of several millennia over planes, trains, and automobiles (that's another, future blog). The courage and grit exhibited by ancient man, heading out into the wild and open sea, still finds an echo in our embryonic space exploration. It was surely no accident that NASA named one their first deep-space exploration vehicles "Voyager." Pop and rock music have occasionally grasped the spirt that moves in the hearts of bold men and women; those who set their faces to the wind and challenge the wrath of mighty Poseidon. That said, not many musicians have really had the experience of heeling over, sea spray flying, and a manic wind howling as the Beaufort Scale tips toward 8 and above, so can they come close to capturing it in their lyrics? Or, rather, is the "sea" and "sailing" more useful in the figurative sense and serves merely a backdrop?
I'm not sure what was in the water supply in the 1970s, but quite a few songs in this entry figure from that debacle of a decade. Maybe there was an abundance of leisure time and every would-be Magellan wanted to be a captain of his own yacht? Again, this touches on the image of the sailor as the lonely, rugged individual, pitting himself (herself?) against the elements and a capricious, vast ocean. Or, perhaps it was the New Age kicking in, because space and sailing both figure into some of the songs on this list. Perhaps it was the brush with outer space, the moon landings, that revealed to a restless world that much of our "big, blue marble" is made up of water? If we can't climb into a lunar lander, then maybe slipping away from the docks on a Hobie Cat for a few hours is good enough? In almost any time period, though, there is this sense of getting out on the water and exiting this brutal, unpleasant reality. You're either being taken away by alien visitors, drifting away, or "sailing off" in the sense of leaving life behind. Whatever the reason, the open ocean has been the mankind's muse for centuries. Let us now throw caution to the wind and see how musicians have paid homage over the years.
The Sloop John B- The Beach Boys. Oh yeah, what could go wrong here: the narrator and his Grandpa go cruising the waters around Nassau in the sloop John B, with lots to drink and a rowdy crew. As the story plays out, our hero seems to tire of his "sailor" gig: "This is the worst trip I've ever been on." By the end of the song, he's begging "why can't they let me go home?" Hey, you and me, pal- I want you "home" just as much as I want this saccharine-sweet, mindless song to end. Well, it was the Beach Boys and meant to be the weightless counterpart to the expansive lyrics of the Beatles or the roughness of the Stones. Still, I think I'll avoid any booking on the sloop John B., thanks.
Come Sail Away- Styx (also Man in the Wilderness- "I'm a lonely sailor out to sea"). I think singer Dennis DeYoung ate way too many `shrooms before he sat down at his keyboard to pen this ditty. Here, the theme of "sailing away" from . . . whatever is right up front, first line. Why? `Cos he's "got to be free . . . " That sense of "I'm in charge around here" is evident, but also the rejection of whatever is holding him back on land. So, it's all a personal story about being free, "childhood friends," and the "dreams" they had. There's disillusion, too- they missed out on the "pot of gold." Ok, we can all relate . . . but then . . . where the frikkity-frak did the angels come from?!?! Where are you taking me?! Is that a starship? Wowwwwwww, mannnnnnnn. (cue spacey synthesizer bits). Maybe Dennis wrote this on his yacht and soon realized that just getting out past the 12-mile U.S. waters boundary wasn't enough, he really wants to leave this whole, crappy planet behind? In a way, it all seems pretty cool and buzzy-worthy: the angels are aliens and it's groovy, not like a "Fire In The Sky" kind of way: abduction, complete with probes vivisections. Well, at least we hope not, since it just sort of trails off in a hazy glob of 70s feel-good pop. In "Man in the Wilderness," singer/guitarist Tommy Shaw (not Dennis this time) sings about estrangement with society, the loneliness of the soldier and sailor, and it seems much more convincing. Probably because fewer `shrooms were involved.
Point of No Return- Kansas. Another classic rock band from the 70s, Kansas had their own "sailing adventure" song, only this one didn't end so well. This song harkens back to a time when sea travel was mysterious and dangerous. It was the age of exploration (or exploitation, if you happen to be one of the indigenous population) and required hardy, brave (foolish?) souls. Or, in this case, men desperate for money, because the "captains tell they pay you well." So, despite pleas from family members (Father, Mother, and Brother), our hero signs on to crew a ship bound for Demon's Guard, which is described in the travel brochure as: "an ocean grave." This is not sounding like a good time. The refrain, over and over, is "how long, to the point of no return?" Well, there's the catch- no one who's been to said "point" and "seen the sign," has come back to report on "how long." This is strictly a one-way cruise. All aboard!
Brandi- Looking Glass. A tale of lost love between a sailor and his gal, Brandi, a waitress in a "harbor town." This sailor loves her very much, but the "raging glory" of the sea was a greater lure. In fact, all of the sailors tell her that she's a "fine girl, what a good wife you would be, but my life, my love, and my lady is the sea." Ouch. I think there's a bit more going on belowdecks for all these men to pass on Brandi, ya know? ;) Joking references aside, this song paints a picture of the mythical sailor- a drifter, a loner, and a man not wanting to be tied down. Also, the opportunities and scenery of the wide world seem to offer more than the comforts of a sedentary life, even with a beautiful woman like Brandi.
Sailing- Christopher Cross. Now, when we think of the fuzzy, mushy, feel-good 70s, this song should come to mind. This song is the ultimate expression of seabound escapism. Life as a landlubber must have been an unrelenting hell for Christopher. Talk about Peter Pan, he sings: "It's not far to never-never land, no reason to pretend." So, he plunks on his jaunty cap (at a sufficiently rakish angle), pulls on his docksiders, and then sailing just "takes him away." Again, the notion that all is serene and "paradise" on a sailing ship is reinforced in this song. Maybe it just depends on where you're sailing and if the weather cooperates, I guess. Trying to reclaim his "innocence," Christopher takes to the sea, secure in the knowledge that "the canvas can do miracles . . . just you wait and see." Actually, I shouldn't be snarky- I'd rather be sailing than piloting a desk all day long!
Southern Cross- Crosby, Still, and Nash. Sounds like someone here is running from the law or an angry woman: "Got out of town on a boat, goin' to southern islands." I will say this, they seem to know what they're singing about, based on the lyrics, which are chockfull of nautical jargon. For instance, "Sailing a reach, before a following' sea" and "She was making for the trades on the outside, and the downhill run to Papeete Bay" would probably lose 90% of the listeners, unless sailing literacy was much greater in the 70s than I imagine. All of that serves to immerse the listener in the story and connect with the singer, who seems to have his share of love troubles, but finds solace in the sea and traveling "around the world." There's some heady stuff in the lyrics, which elevates it well above the earlier Beach Boys song. In the end, our singer is looking for a certain woman, who knows love "will endure." Here we're not always sure if the "ship" and the "sea" are real or simply allegorical.
`39- Queen. This song is complex . . . complicated. When I heard it on my brother's stereo back in the 70s, I fell in love immediately. This song was actually written and sung by the guitarist, Brian May (forever a hero of mine). At first glance, this appears to be a song about sea travel, perhaps by Puritans to the New World. Or, I thought it might be about children sent out from England during World War II, thus the `39 (re: 1939) in the title. May is a talented songwriter/singer/guitarist, but he also holds a Ph.D. (a real one, not an honorary endowment) in Astrophysics and this song is about . . . space travel (yes, again). So the lines between ocean voyages and space exploration cross once again in this fine song- "Here the ship sailed out into that blue and sunny morn, sweetest sight ever seen." But, what always gets me are the melancholy lyrics and Brian's beautiful way of singing them. I won't claim to understand all the physics that goes into faster-than-light travel, or how that warps time, but there are moments here that are both mind-bending and poignant- "Write your letters in the sand for the day I take your hand in the land that our grandchildren knew." It's hard to tell, but perhaps the ship leaves in 2139 and returns in 2239, one hundred years later, bringing "good news of a world so newly born." The earth (from whence he left and returns to) he describes as "old and gray," perhaps it is dying? That's the topic of another (previous) blog from me, but I like that twist. What brings tears to my eyes is revealed in the final few lines- while 100 years have passed (or so it seems), the space traveler returns, only a year older, to address his daughter or granddaughter, not his wife- "Your mother's eyes, from your eyes, cry to me." Alas, he ends with: "For my life, still ahead, pity me." Brilliant. I do tend to get the Queen lyrics jumbled, so hopefully others can come to the rescue and help sort it out.
Running From The Storm (also Blood of Emeralds)- Gary Moore. Ok, let's come back down to earth for a bit, shall we. This is a much more straightforward song with regards to the lyrics and meaning. Gary had a tumultuous relationship with his friend and former bandmate Phil Lynott. In the years before Phil died as a result of drug abuse, he and Gary had patched things up and had collaborated on several songs. This song was written several years after Phil's passing and could be seen as a metaphor for Phil's life- always running from the storm, and burning up as a result. In the song "Blood of Emeralds," Gary sings about their early relationship: "The darkest son of Ireland, he was standin' by my side. We would sail the stormy seas. Never looking back, we were afraid of what we'd see." So, one could see the connection between the two songs, which both came from his album After The War (1989). This song evokes the danger and fear present, I assume, when caught at sea during a terrible storm, but can also be seen as something more personal in Gary's case. For me, if the "sky is black, and the wind is howling" I'm looking for a comfy couch and some tea. So, my hat is off to those souls intrepid enough to brave those conditions.
Rime of the Ancient Mariner- Iron Maiden (see also The Talisman, Ghost of the Navigator, Sea of Madness). As you might guess, this song borrows from the classic poem of the same name by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As such, it follows along the mythical tale of the Mariner and his unfortunate crew. Their ship comes to a halt at sea, as punishment for the Mariner having killed an albatross, a "bird of good omen." The crew all (save for the Mariner) "drop down dead, one by one." They are claimed by the physical embodiment of Death; the Mariner is given to "She, she Life-in-Death." Once he sees the error of his ways, the crime of murdering the albatross, he is pardoned by the Hermit, but must spend the rest of his days wandering the earth, proclaiming that "we must love all things God made." It's a big, weighty poem and it took the band a full 13 minutes to do it justice. I used this song and poem as the topic of a paper in college, likening the Mariner's ordeal to spiritual death, penance, rebirth, and baptism (I was much more religious then, mind you). Well, it got me an "A" for a grade and the offer to have my paper published! This song tries to capture the mood of the poem, all the way down to creaking boards and sea sounds. The middle section is moody and perfectly sets the stage for the bombastic rebirth ("And then, down in falls, comes the raaaaaaaaaaaaain!!"), set to the brilliant lead playing of Adrian Smith and Dave Murray. Not many bands can take on a project like this and make it a classic like Maiden did. Bravo!
Navigate the Seas of the Sun- Bruce Dickinson. While we're in the neighborhood, here's the final song of this entry by Iron Maiden singer Bruce Dickinson (as a solo artist). Bruce is a man constantly looking to the skies for inspiration and wonder. His uncle was an RAF pilot and he himself is a commercial airline pilot (quite the renaissance man!), and if he could become an astronaut, I think he would jump at the chance. His catalog of songs is replete with lyrics that look at space for exploration, for release from this prison of terrestrial existence, and (daringly) as the point of origin of life on this planet. This song urges humanity to look forward, to explore the stars, much like the early explorers who sailed out in an age of discovery. Bruce argues that our future is out amongst the stars and we've got to get past this "death by gravity." Perhaps he's telling us that if we discard the notion that we are the center of the universe, we'll look skyward and see that "this darkness is really full of light?" Other songs from Bruce that embrace his love of stargazing and the mystery of the universe are: Toltec7 Arrival/Star Children, Solar Confinement, Space Race, Innerspace, Strange Death in Paradise, Omega, Arc of Space, Mars Within/Abduction, Soul Intruders, Power of the Sun, and Eternal, to name a few.
Whether literal or figurative, the sea, sailing, and sailors have been a source of inspiration to musicians over the years. Granted, not as much as in the 1970s, but there's still a brisk business to be made with the "old salts." The open ocean can represent a clean slate, an escape from the concerns of the landed, and new vistas to discover. It offers a chance to touch something greater than yourself, yet still strike out as an individual. In days of old, it was full of mystery and could be seen as a great, new frontier. With the oceans thus conquered (or so we would like to think), humanity now turns its gaze to the stars, with the same sense of awe and curiosity. A brave new world, or worlds? We look with wonder at the sea and regard those willing to go out into it with admiration and envy. The same, or more, can be said of the universe . . . we just haven't figured out how to get there . . . yet.
A few additional sea/sailor songs:
The Cardinal Point- Machine Men
The Ship Song- Concrete Blonde
The Ocean- Led Zepplin
Captain Nemo- Michael Schenker Group
No One At The Wheel- Rush
Ocean- Tommy Shaw