Sloop John B
"Sloop John B" is a song by the Beach Boys and the seventh track on their 1966 album Pet Sounds. It was originally a traditional West Indies folk song, "The John B. Sails", taken from Carl Sandburg's 1927 collection of folk songs, The American Songbag. Brian Wilson sang, produced, and arranged the Beach Boys' recording. Released as an A-sided single two months before Pet Sounds, it peaked at number 3 in the US and number 2 in the UK. In several other countries, the single was a number one hit.
The Kingston Trio's 1958 recording of "The John B. Sails" recorded under the title "The Wreck of the John B" was the direct influence on the Beach Boys' version. The Beach Boys' Al Jardine, who was a keen folk music fan, suggested to Brian Wilson that the Beach Boys should do a cover version of "Sloop John B". 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. 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."
Working in the key of A-flat major, Jardine updated the chord progression by having the IV (D♭ major) move to its relative minor (B♭ minor) before returning to the tonic (A♭ major), 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". 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.
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 with Hal Blaine on drums, Ron Swallow on tambourine, Lyle Ritz on string bass, Carol Kaye on electric bass, Al Casey, Jerry Cole and Billy Strange on guitars, Al De Lory on organ, Frank Capp on glockenspiel, Jay Migliori on clarinet, Steve Douglas and Jim Horn on flute and Jack Nimitz on baritone saxophone.
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.
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 #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 #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 #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.
Pet Sounds context
"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".
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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 alternative takes, one with Carl Wilson singing lead on the first two verses, and one with Brian singing all parts. 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 Wilson's arrangement has since become the basis for many subsequent versions of "The John B. Sails".
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