100 Essential Albums: #92 — Sail Away by Randy Newman (1972)
“I remember getting a check for $6,000. I said, ‘Where’s the rest?’ They said, “Well, you know….”
Randy Newman’s name might be obscure to some, but his music is known to all.
Newman has been nominated for 20 Academy Awards — for original songs, movie scores, and music composition. He’s won 2 Oscars. He’s won 7 Grammy Awards. He’s won 3 Emmy Awards. He’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
His songs and movie soundtracks have appeared in Ragtime, Awakenings, The Natural, Leatherheads, Meet the Parents, The Full Monty, Avalon, Cold Turkey, Pleasantville, Maverick, The Paper, Parenthood, 9 1/2 Weeks, and Seabiscuit — to name but a few. He composed soundtracks and theme songs for 8 Disney-Pixar animated films — including Toy Story, A Boy’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 3, Monsters 3, A Bug’s Life, The Princess and the Frog, and Monsters University.
Newman’s music has appeared in hundreds of television shows, way too many to list. He wrote the theme song to the hit TV series Monk (“It’s a Jungle Out There”). He’s composed numerous hit records made famous by other artists. For instance, remember this song? The single charted at #1, in 1971. “Mama’ Told Me Not to Come,” covered by Three Dog Night, was written by Randy Newman:
This later version of same Newman’s song, covered by Tom Jones in 2002 (which is much better), also charted:
Then, there was this showstopper written by Newman, later made famous by Joe Cocker. As much as I loved Cocker as a singer and live performer, when I hear people say, “Oh, that’s a Joe Cocker song,” I say — no, that’s a Randy Newman song.” See if you recognize the tawdry rock classic, “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” Pure Randy Newman.
While Newman enjoyed stellar success as a lyricist and movie music composer, he’s somewhat lesser known as a solo performer. Newman’s most successful hit single even ignited controversy and protest. His 1978 surprise hit, “Short People,” charted as high at #2 on Billboard. However, the catchy tune with Newman’s trademark ragtime chords and wistful lyrics pissed off many disability activists and even triggered numerous threats by many critics who misinterpreted the lyrics as discriminatory and cruel. Newman later stated that he wish he’d never written the song, which he called the biggest mistake of his career. [READ MORE ABOUT “SHORT PEOPLE” AND THE FALLOUT HERE]
Long forgotten now are some of the outstanding solo albums Newman wrote and recorded, mostly during the 1970’s. Making my list of “100 Essential Albums” is Newman’s blistering 1972 musical masterpiece, Sail Away.
This album is undoubtedly one of the top 100 collections of pop music ever recorded, yet oddly enough produced zero hit singles. However, most listeners will easily recall several songs on it — three of which were later used as movie themes, and one which became the opening sequence of a popular television series. When Randy Newman stepped into Western Studios in Los Angeles to record his fourth album as a solo pianist after numerous collaborative projects (check out Nilsson Sings Newman HERE), he had no idea of the bountiful musical fruits that would flourish from these sessions.
Sail Away is an album filled with both mockery and endearment. He clearly adores America as the giant melting pot filled with many cultures and people pursuing their dreams, yet isn’t afraid to satirize every step of the journey along the way. Sail Away is filled with songs uniquely endemic to the American experience — about small towns, slavery, being a parent, religion, carnivals, growing old, Cleveland, sex, a dancing bear, and dropping a nuclear bomb. Yeah, that’s basically the album’s whole set list. Like with most great music, Newman doesn’t give us what we want. He delivers what we need.
Newman had no idea the songs on Sail Away would become indispensably attached to three major motion pictures. Each composition perfectly captures the mood we’re seeing onscreen. Here’s the first of the three movie tracks, “He Gives Us All His Love,” which appears in the opening credits of the much-underappreciated film, Cold Turkey. This 2-minute opening is brilliant for its stoic simplicity. The audience is introduced to the dying Midwestern town of Eagle Rock, Iowa. It’s a loving postcard to a way of life that’s in very serious trouble. Our guide along this dusty road is a shaggy dog. Would any song other than Newman’s fit here? Absolutely not! See if you agree:
Some will say Newman and moviemakers blatantly copycatted the 1970 opening from Cold Turkey in a more popular film released some twenty years later — Major League. The similarities between “He Gives Us All His Love” and “Burn On,” both pulled off the album Sail Away, are patently obvious. As with the previous example of dying rural America revealed in the video above, there’s also a gorgeous irony to Newman’s lyrics written in 1972, which goes “Cleveland city of light, city of magic,” against the agonizing visual backdrop of gloomy steel mills and bleakness. It’s perfect:
Newman was born in Los Angeles and will remain connected to Hollywood forever. Rightfully so, given he also wrote and performed the modestly successful, “I Love L.A.” But his real musical roots were nourished down in New Orleans, where he lived as a child and developed many of his most profound lyrical and stylistic influences. Newman’s voice and inflection are often unapologetically Southern. He purposely infuses blues and gospel sounds into much of his music.
Despite leaving quite a lasting legacy, not every track on Sail Away was met with acceptance. “It’s Lonely at the Top” was written by Newman specifically with Frank Sinatra in mind as the vocalist. Newman had envisioned Sinatra as the ultimate icon of success in the music business but also recognized fame and fortune came at a steep price. Newman was able to get an appointment with Ol’ Blue Eyes. He pitched the song in person to Sinatra in his office. However, Sinatra wasn’t at all impressed. As retold later by Newman, Sinatra’s one-word response to hearing the song was, “Next.” And so, it ends up on this album.
Perhaps the most outlandish track on Sail Away is “Political Science,” the ultimate jingoistic satire. Newman mocks the hawkish worldview of many Americans with the incendiary lyric, “Let’s drop the big one, there’ll be no one left to hate us.” Equal parts camp humor, catchy social satire, and scorching commentary, as with so many of Newman’s best songs he gives us something to seriously think about, without ever taking himself too seriously. He rarely preaches or scolds. Newman instead relies on the repetition of familiar chords and witty lyrics to convey a message.
A few other comments about songs on Sail Away: “You Can Leave Your Hat On” doesn’t have nearly the energy of Cocker’s version. It’s pretty laid back. “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear” was covered by several other artists and appeared in The Muppet Show. Finally, a testament to Newman’s uncanny ability to appeal to the widest possible audience, “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” somehow manages to come across both as a spiritual anthem as well as a mocking stab at religion and people of faith. Check out the comments section on YouTube. Half the comments praise Newman for the uplifting spiritual message. Meanwhile, agnostics and atheists applaud its mockery of religion. Nearly half a century after it was written, an obscure song from a Randy Newman album remains the hot topic of lively debate.
Rarely does an album blend a collection of songs so perfectly onto a single disc which makes such a deeply profound statement for its time and then somehow produces so many everlasting qualities. Indeed, such timeless albums are meant to be savored. In a quiet room. Headphones on. Eyes closed. Relaxed. With an open mind.
Then, permit yourself to Sail Away.
Here’s the title track:
Listen to Sail Away, the full album here:
Footnote: Some might insist Randy Newman’s prodigal songwriting talent rests in great genes. They could be right. Newman’s father, Alfred, composed the music on more than 200 movies. He was nominated for 43 Academy Awards and won 9 times, the third most of anyone in Oscar history.
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so. Check out my previous selections and retrospectives on each album here:
#97: Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back — by Frank Sinatra (1973)
#96: The Doors — by The Doors (1967)
#95: Ellington at Newport — by Duke Ellington (1956)
#93: Teatro — by Willie Nelson (1998)