Sloop John B
|"Sloop John B"|
|Single by The Beach Boys|
|from the album Pet Sounds|
|B-side||"You're So Good to Me"|
March 21, 1966 (US)|
April 15, 1966 (UK)
|Recorded||July 12–December 29, 1965|
|Studio||United Western Recorders, Hollywood|
|Songwriter(s)||Traditional, arranged by Brian Wilson|
|The Beach Boys singles chronology|
"Sloop John B" is a traditional folk song from the Bahamas, also known as "The John B. Sails". The 1966 folk rock adaptation by the Beach Boys, which was produced and arranged by bandleader Brian Wilson, served as the lead single of their 11th studio album Pet Sounds. The song peaked at number three in the US on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, number two in the UK, and number one in several other countries.
Wilson based his version on the 1958 recording by the Kingston Trio, but took some liberties with the song's arrangement, changing a few lyrics, and at the suggestion of bandmate Al Jardine, modified one part of the song's chord progression to include a supertonic chord (ii). The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson and Mike Love share lead vocal duties. The instrumentation was provided mostly by the session musician conglomerate nicknamed "the Wrecking Crew".
The song remains one of the group's best-remembered recordings of their mid 1960s period, containing an unusual and elaborate a cappella vocal section not found in other pop music of the era. In 2011, the group's version of "Sloop John B" was ranked No. 276 on Rolling Stone's list of "The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time".
The Kingston Trio's 1958 recording of "The John B. Sails" was recorded under the title "The Wreck of the John B." It was the direct influence on the Beach Boys' version. The Beach Boys' Al Jardine was a keen folk music fan, and he suggested to Brian Wilson that the Beach Boys should do a cover version of the song. As Jardine explains:
Brian was at the piano. I asked him if I could sit down and show him something. I laid out the chord pattern for 'Sloop John B.' I said, 'Remember this song?' I played it. He said, 'I'm not a big fan of the Kingston Trio.' He wasn't into folk music. But I didn't give up on the idea. So what I did was to sit down and play it for him in the Beach Boys idiom. I figured if I gave it to him in the right light, he might end up believing in it. So I modified the chord changes so it would be a little more interesting. The original song is basically a three-chord song, and I knew that wouldn't fly.
Jardine updated the chord progression by having the subdominant (D♭ major) move to its relative minor (B♭ minor) before returning to the tonic (A♭ major), thus altering a portion of the song's progression from IV — I to IV — ii — I. This device is heard immediately after the lyric "into a fight" and "leave me alone".
So I put some minor changes in there, and it stretched out the possibilities from a vocal point of view. Anyway, I played it, walked away from the piano and we went back to work. The very next day, I got a phone call to come down to the studio. Brian played the song for me, and I was blown away. The idea stage to the completed track took less than 24 hours.
Wilson elected to change some lyrics: "this is the worst trip since I've been born" to "this is the worst trip I've ever been on", "I feel so break up" to "I feel so broke up", and "broke into the people's trunk" to "broke in the captain's trunk". The first lyric change has been suggested by some to be a subtle nod to the 1960s psychedelia subculture.
Context in Pet Sounds
"Sloop John B" closes the first side of Pet Sounds, an album commonly interpreted as a romantic and introspective concept album. This decision is argued by many to contradict the album's lyrical flow, as author Jim Fusilli explains: "It's anything but a reflective love song, a stark confession or a tentative statement of independence like the other songs on the album. And it's the only song on Pet Sounds Brian didn't write." However, Fusilli posits that the track fits musically with the album, citing the track's chiming guitars, doubletracked basses, and staccato rhythms.
Author Jim DeRogatis suggested that the song does fit in the album due to its key lyric "I want to go home" reflecting other songs themed around an escape to somewhere peaceful — namely "Let's Go Away for Awhile" and "Caroline, No".
The instrumental section of the song was recorded on July 22, 1965, at United Western Recorders, Hollywood, California, the session being engineered by Chuck Britz and produced by Brian Wilson. The master take of the instrumental backing took fourteen takes to achieve.
The vocal tracks were recorded over two sessions. The first was recorded on December 22, 1965, at Western Recorders, produced by Wilson. The second, on December 29, added a new lead vocal and Billy Strange's 12-string electric guitar part. Jardine explained that Wilson "lined us up one at a time to try out for the lead vocal. I had naturally assumed I would sing the lead, since I had brought in the arrangement. It was like interviewing for a job. Pretty funny. He didn't like any of us. My vocal had a much more mellow approach because I was bringing it from the folk idiom. For the radio, we needed a more rock approach. Wilson and Mike ended up singing it." On the final recording, Brian Wilson sang the first and third verses and Mike Love sang the second.
Kent Hartman, in his book The Wrecking Crew, described Billy Strange's contribution to the song. Brian Wilson called Strange into the studio one Sunday, played him the rough recording, and told him he needed an electric twelve-string guitar solo in the middle of the track. When Strange replied that he did not own a twelve string, Wilson responded by calling Glenn Wallichs, the head of Capitol Records and owner of Wallichs Music City. A Fender Electric XII and Twin Reverb amplifier were quickly delivered (despite the shop they were ordered from being closed on Sundays), and Strange recorded the guitar part in one take. Wilson then gave Strange $2,000 to cover the cost of the equipment.
The Beach Boys
- Brian Wilson – lead and backing vocals
- Mike Love – lead and backing vocals
- Dennis Wilson – backing vocals
- Al Jardine – backing vocals
- Carl Wilson – backing vocals
- Bruce Johnston — backing vocals
Additional musicians and production staff
- Hal Blaine – drums
- Chuck Britz – engineer
- Frank Capp – glockenspiel
- Al Casey – acoustic rhythm guitar
- Jerry Cole – 12-string lead guitar
- Steve Douglas – temple blocks
- Carol Kaye – electric bass
- Al De Lory – tack piano
- Jay Migliori – flute
- Jim Horn – flute
- Jack Nimitz – bass saxophone
- Lyle Ritz – string bass
- Billy Strange – 12-string lead guitar, overdubbed 12-string lead guitars
- Tony (surname unknown) – tambourine
The single, backed with the B-side "You're So Good to Me", was released on March 21, 1966. It entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart on April 2, and peaked at No. 3 on May 7, remaining on the chart, in total, for 11 weeks. It charted highly throughout the world, remaining as one of the Beach Boys' most popular and memorable hits. It was No. 1 in Germany, Austria, and Norway—all for five weeks each—as well as Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, South Africa, and New Zealand. It placed No. 2 in the UK, Ireland (where it was the group's highest charting single), Canada, and in Record World. It was the fastest Beach Boys seller to date, moving more than half a million copies in less than two weeks after release.
In 1968, the recording's instrumental was released on Stack-O-Tracks. Along with sessions highlights, the box set The Pet Sounds Sessions includes two alternate takes, one with Carl Wilson singing lead on the first verse, and one with Brian singing all parts.
A music video was filmed set to "Sloop John B" for the UK's Top of the Pops, directed by newly employed band publicist Derek Taylor. It was filmed at Brian's Laurel Way home with Dennis Wilson acting as cameraman.
|Australian Singles Chart||17|
|Austria (Ö3 Austria Top 40)||1|
|Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)||5|
|Belgium (Ultratop 50 Wallonia)||39|
|Canada RPM Singles Chart||2|
|Germany (Official German Charts)||1|
|Netherlands (Single Top 100)||1|
|UK Singles Chart||2|
|US Billboard Hot 100||3|
Brian Wilson's arrangement has since become the basis for many subsequent versions of "The John B. Sails". As a solo artist, Jardine recorded new versions of "Sloop John B" for Live in Las Vegas (2001) and A Postcard from California (2010). Brian released a new version for his album Pet Sounds Live (2002).
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