One of the always amazing things about a Rock n’ Roll song is that it can be about anything. At WMMCM we have covered songs about cars, planes, love, groupies, Sue, magic, sports, guitars and a whole host of other topical topics. We can go on forever and probably will.
While we are being angular and all that these days. I have two tales of the unexpected visitor to start out our Saturday in style. The first one is of the unwanted guest. The guest who is at least polite enough to go away, but unfortunately has killed you and everyone you know before leaving.
Led Zeppelin had just started a tour of Northern Europe with a kick-off date in Reykjavik, Iceland, and lead singer Robert Plant, inspired by the icy Scandinavian surroundings, wrote what must have been the first rock song about the Viking raiders of days gone by as they cheerfully sailed to new lands and proceeded to steal everything that didn’t move and murder anything that did. All in all a good time, no doubt, as long as you were a Viking.
Plant’s “aahh, aahh, aaaaahhhhh, aahh!” rightly has become legendary, letting you know from the first moment that this is something different. Jimmy Page’s stabbing guitar and John Bonham’s thumping kick drum and cymbals get the show on the road here as Plant ramps up his opening wails to make a sound quite properly described as “Hammer of the Gods” — a line Plant and Page borrowed from Norse mythology and that was later used as the title to Stephen Davis’ biography of Led Zeppelin.
There’s no way around it. This song has power.
My favorite part of this bit of Viking bombast is always what passes for a chorus:
On we sweep with, with threshing oar
Our only goal will be the western shore.
John Paul Jones’ bass goes into hyper-drive here, or should that be ramming speed? Either way it’s quite an impressive bit of bass work, with Bonham and Page also storming the beaches right along with Jones while Plant is wailing in a way only he ever really could. For only about two and a half minutes long, “Immigrant Song” certainly makes a violent impression.
Seven years later, a very different band, from Chicago, would have their own encounter with immigrants. These ones were from a very different locality.
Styx had already had a taste of success a few years earlier with the single “Lady,” but had started that all-too-common slide into declining sales and radio play after their next two followup albums didn’t really catch on with a nationwide audience. Since that glimpse of hope with the exposure that “Lady” had brought the band, there had been other changes. Founding member and guitarist John Curulewski had left, to be replaced by a young guitarist from Alabama named Tommy Shaw.
With the addition of Shaw, Dennis DeYoung, James Young, John Panozzo and brother Chuck Panozzo, Styx was now in what is considered the “classic” lineup.
Shaw and James Young were always much more hard-rocking than Dennis DeYoung, but in these early years they were able to make their screaming guitars work well with the more theatrical pop rock DeYoung preferred. The first album with Shaw on board produced the title cut and moderate success “Crystal Ball,” which was a good preview of where Styx was going to be in a very short time with the release of The Grand Illusion.
I do have to say that “Come Sail Away” is a deeply stupid song. It barely makes any sense at all.
I’m sailing away,
Set an open course for the virgin sea,
‘Cause I’ve got to be free,
Free to face the life that’s ahead of me,
On board, I’m the captain, so climb aboard,
We’ll search for tomorrow on every shore,
And I’ll try, oh Lord I’ll try, to carry on.
Now. having said that, I have always enjoyed it, and when it came out in 1977 I became a lifelong fan of Styx. I just wish that DeYoung might have spent a few more minutes on his bizarre, apparently aquatic, experience.
I look to the sea,
Reflections in the waves spark my memory,
Some happy, some sad,
I think of childhood friends and the dreams we had,
We lived happily forever, so the story goes,
But somehow we missed out on the pot of gold
But we’ll try best that we can to carry on.
Now after two verses, I can honestly say I have not a clue what the heck he’s talking about. He’s on some adventure out at sea, to be free, and he’s the captain, but not really a terribly skilled one as he’s missed that darn pot of gold. But he is tough as he’s going to carry on…
A gathering of angels appeared above my head,
They sang to me this song of hope, and this is what they said,
They said come sail away, come sail away, come sail away with me lads…
That leads to the synthesizer solo. As Bridey observed when we were concocting our never-ending list of contrarily contrasting confections of audio confusion, that synth solo sounds like it somehow escaped from the master tapes of Pete Townshend’s overture from Tommy.
As much as I like “Come Sail Away,” I always thought that the solo was too long and it just distracts from the whole thing — and even makes the whole story more confusing than it already is.
I thought that they were angels, but much to my surprise,
We climbed aboard their starship, we headed for the skies.
There’s a stark difference between Zep’s “Immigrant Song” and Styx’s “Come Sail Away.” With Zeppelin the Vikings come along and kill everyone. In Styx’s world, where everybody should already be dead, an angel starship comes along and saves this turkey from (probable) drowning.