Death by Power Ballad: Queen, “Sail Away Sweet Sister”

Written by Music, Power Ballads

Rob Smith explores the great Queen ballad “Sail Away Sweet Sister” in the latest installment of Popdose’s Death by Power Ballad.

Brian May was the perfect foil for Freddie Mercury. Quiet and clinical where Mercury was outsized and flamboyant, May’s carefully assembled, multilayered guitar constructions were the ideal symphonic backdrop for his singer’s emotive pronouncements and crowd-stoking declamations. The guy could also rock when called upon to do so, as everything from “Stone Cold Crazy” to “Fat-Bottomed Girls” to “One Vision” can attest. As ’70s guitar gods go, May had a niche he had carved for himself—one part prog, one part metal, one part Page, one part Wagner. Shaken or stirred, it was distinctive, not to mention wildly successful.

What he wasn’t, though, was much of a singer. Yes, he had taken lead vocal duties on  “Sleeping on the Sidewalk” (among others), eventually had a solo hit with the moderately cool “Driven by You,” and contributed to the Queen choir that accompanied Mercury’s lead on every Queen record and covered his missed high notes live. But when it came down to hearing a voice in front of Queen’s sturm und drang, May’s thin chirrup was somewhat insufficient.

It did, however, fit in certain settings, such as side two of Queen’s The Game, on the May-penned ballad  “Sail Away Sweet Sister.” The Game, as a whole, featured a toned-down Queen; theatrical flourishes had given way to disco-funk (“Another One Bites the Dust”), faux rockabilly (“Crazy Little Thing Called Love”), crunchy metal (“Dragon Attack”), power pop (“Need Your Loving Tonight”), and synthy balladry (“Save Me,” “Play the Game”). The variety paid off—the album went to Number One, as did two of its singles, and, at 4 million copies sold, became the band’s best-selling studio record in the U.S.

“Sail Away Sweet Sister” was ostensibly written by May “to the sister I never had” (according to the epigram on the lyric sheet), but the lyrics are, at best, ambiguous—is he singing to a sibling, or perhaps a lover? What might run in the May family, besides full heads of curly locks and the propensity for excellence in astrophysics?

A quiet piano opening clears the mist around May as he beholds the sweet female of indeterminate relation before him:

Hey little babe you’re changing
Babe are you feeling sore?
It ain’t no use in pretending
You don’t wanna play no more

It’s plain that you ain’t no baby
What would your mother say?
You’re all dressed up like a lady
How come you behave this way?

Set aside for a moment how hearing a dignified possessor of intellectual super powers like May use the word ain’t feels akin to seeing him pick his nose on camera. We’re left wondering here what he and the sweet female of indeterminate relation have been playing that has left her sore. If their “game” is what I think it is, then yes, it’s probably plain that she’s no baby, unless the age of consent in England is considerably lower than it is in the Colonies. “How come you behave this way” is a mystery—what has she done? Is the fact that she’s “all dressed up like a lady” part of their game? Indeed, how come she’s behaving that way?

It doesn’t matter. The chorus kicks in, in full-on power mode, distracting us from any questions of impropriety:

Sail away sweet sister
Sail across the sea
Maybe you’ll find somebody
To love you half as much as me
My heart is always with you
No matter what you do
Sail away sweet sister
I’ll always be in love with you

Okay, we don’t totally lose the ambiguity, but who cares when we have those power chords, that Roger Taylor backbeat and cymbal swat? It’s followed by a pretty bit of acoustic guitar work, fashioned into a solo, calming us down until we get to the quiet second verse:

Forgive me for what I told you
My heart makes a fool of me
Ooh, you know I’ll never hold you
I know that you gotta be free

The sweet female of indeterminate relation is free—thank God—and there’s more than a hint of regret in May’s voice when he sings “My heart makes a fool of me” (might also get him 20 years in the pokey, but no matter). And with that bit of regret, that weak warble, it suddenly becomes clear why May is singing this and not Mercury—Mercury didn’t do regret. He couldn’t have warbled if you’d offered him a tray of cocaine on the head of a naked dwarf to do it. Warbling was May’s thing. Besides, the second chorus ends with hope that the sweet female of indeterminate relation will be returning in the near future:

Take it the way you want it
But when they let you down my friend
Sail away sweet sister
Back to my arms again

Ooh … no regret in that sentiment. Nope. It’s almost uncomfortable now. How to get out of this situation? It’s called a middle eight, boys and girls, and it’s ceded to the master, Mister Mercury:

Hot child don’t you know you’re young,
You got your whole life ahead of you
And you can throw it away too soon
Way too soon

By referring to the sweet female of indeterminate relation as “hot child,” Mercury pwns May a full two decades before anyone had ever heard of pwning. Uncle Freddie gets out in the open the sexualization of this “hot child,” whereas May dances around it like the children dancing to the pipes of Pan around Stonehenge. At the same time, Mercury pretty much tells her she shouldn’t be hanging around with May, much less running back to his arms. Cornered, May does what he does best, multi-tracks a guitar solo to bump Mercury out of the spotlight and off his line of argument.

One more chorus and the whole nasty thing is over—synthesizer waves lap the sand and Mercury’s piano chimes into the fadeout. One can imagine May looking out at the horizon over the ocean, willing his sweet female of indeterminate relation, his “hot child,” back to him, to no avail. He pauses to reflect on the situation, and on Mercury’s role in it.

“Fuckin’ bollocks,” he thinks to himself. “I’ll bet Paul Rodgers wouldn’t give me that kind of shit.”