David Hepworth on Sail Away by Randy Newman: “You wouldn’t be allowed to make it today”

From the Long Players series: writers on their most cherished albums.

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I bought Sail Away on 1 July 1972 at a shop in Palmers Green, north London, called Opus Records. My girlfriend and I had been out seeing the J Geils Band play a midnight show at the Lyceum off the Strand. Afterwards we dined on Wimpy and chips and then trudged to King’s Cross to await the opening of the suburban line to take us to her home. I bought the record the following morning. We sat in bed listening to it and looking through the French windows into the garden.

Men, particularly young men, have to decide to like the musician before they allow themselves to like the music. I’d already decided I approved of Randy Newman. His songs had been hits for Alan Price and Dusty Springfield. However I wasn’t entirely prepared for how dry he was when performing them himself as he did on Sail Away.

I watched Newman on The Old Grey Whistle Test when he visited. My enjoyment of “Burn On” was increased by his saying it was written about “the only river to be so polluted it was declared a fire risk”. He also played “Political Science”. At the time this seemed like a wildly exaggerated lampoon of American isolationism. “They don’t respect us – so let’s surprise them/We’ll drop the big one and pulverise them” – forty-five years later that could be a 140-character memo from the White House.

Over the years I’ve come to suspect it’s the record’s dryness that makes it endure. That and its ruthless lack of sentiment. You simply wouldn’t be allowed to make it today. Randy Newman’s the master of the unguarded thought. He’d always given his best songs to his most reprehensible characters: the slaver in “Sail Away”, the Harvey Weinstein figure in “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, even the condescending deity in “God’s Song” who decides “That’s why I love mankind/You really need me.” The interesting thing about unworthy thoughts is everybody has them.

The girlfriend and I are grandparents now. We push the babies in the park, secretly singing “Memo to My Son” to ourselves, saving particular relish for the line that goes “Wait’ll you learn how to talk, baby/ I’ll show you how smart I am.”

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This article appears in the 07 December 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special