This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #365: The Sloop John B. by The Beach Boys.
There is a lot to say about this song, the album it came from and the members of The Beach Boys so, there is no time to waste! Let’s go!!!
“The Sloop John B.” is a Bahamian sea shanty-type of song that was first written down over a hundred years ago, in 1916. It has been recorded by hundreds of singers and bands, including such well known acts as The Kingston Trio and Country star, Dwight Yoakim. But, it is The Beach Boys version that is the most famous and admired. The Beach Boys version of this song comes from one of the most famous albums ever created by any band, “Pet Sounds”. It is instructive to talk about why “Pet Sounds” is such a big deal, first and then, come back to “the Sloop John B.”. So, lets begin with The Beatles!
The Beatles and The Beach Boys both shared a fairly similar career path. In both cases, their early albums were filled with singles that could best be described as perfect little Pop songs. The Beatles has “She Loves You” and “Please, Please Me”, while The Beach Boys had “Surfing, U.S.A.” and “Fun! Fun! Fun!”, among others. But, as the 1960s unfolded, both bands released albums that changed the trajectory of their careers and added an whole new level of complexity, artistry and creativity to their music. For The Beatles, that album was “Rubber Soul”. For The Beach Boys, that album was “Pet Sounds”.”Rubber Soul” was released first. It was a creative warning shot across the bows of all other groups. “Rubber Soul” was revolutionary for many reasons but, two important ones relate to “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys.
First of all, prior to the release of “Rubber Soul”, albums were usually used as an additional way to package and sell “singles” which were the currency of the music industry at the time. In those days, albums often contained the successful singles and then, several tracks called, “filler” that were just included to help use up the space needed to balance out the time used on both sides of the physical album. *You may recall that earlier, when I profiled “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath that, that song was, originally, meant to simply be a “filler song” needed to complete their album. In any case, “Rubber Soul” was the very first album that contained no filler tracks. Instead, it was a unified album of songs that all connected by way of their musical construction and/or their lyrical theme. Because of the way The Beatles created “Rubber Soul”, it gave permission to all other bands to approach the creation of the albums bearing their name, with more artistic license and freedom.
Secondly, “Rubber Soul” introduced songs containing sounds not usually associated with singles of the past. “Norwegian Wood”, for example, used a sitar for the first time. There were bells, clocks and all sorts of new sounds integrated into the music The Beatles produced. This use of new sounds increased the parameters of what sounds were acceptable and usable in modern songs. When Brian Wilson first heard “Rubber Soul”, it blew his mind. He was the creative force behind The Beach Boys music. Once he heard how far The Beatles had expanded the range of what was possible in an album, he became determined to produce, what he deemed, “The Greatest Album Ever Made!” In order to start on a project of such magnitude, Brian Wilson stepped away from touring. He sent the rest of the group (Al Jardine, Mike Love, Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson) out on the road, leaving him alone in the studio. Once freed from the social dynamic of being a member of a group, he began to create music unlike anything that The Beach Boys had done before. In fact, he often has referred to “Pet Sounds” as a Brian Wilson solo project (and that is not far from the truth). Not only was “Pet Sounds” influenced by what The Beatles did on “Rubber Soul” but, also, by what producer, Phil Spector, was doing with his “Wall of Sound” production techniques. Phil Spector, despite what a poor husband he turned out to be, was very innovative when it came to how he used existing sounds to create new sounds and, by doing so, change the aural experience for the listener. This will make sense when you finally get to listen to “The Sloop John B.”
All of the songs on the album, “Pet Sounds” employ sound recording techniques that were new at the time and that helped create a full, rich sound experience. The song, “The Sloop John B.”, for example, has a big, bold sound for such a traditional sea shanty song. Part of how Brian Wilson did that can be seen in how he changed the way harmonies worked. If you think back to the Crosby, Stills and Nash song, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for a minute and compare it to a style of painting…..stay with me…….the harmonies on that song are like a Rembrandt painting. Rembrandt was famous for creating portraits that focussed on the subject’s face which was, then, surrounded by darkness thus, making it stand out. Crosby, Stills and Nash used the same technique with sounds. Their harmonizing focused solely on the words in the lyrics, to the exclusion of all other sounds. As you may recall, they started their harmonies crisply on a note and ended them just as crisply on a note. There were no attempts to change the sound of the words they were saying. They, simply, used multiple voices to speak as one……just as Rembrandt used light and dark to focus on one image.
Brian Wilson turned harmonizing on its ear. In “The Sloop John B.”, if you listen carefully to the harmonizing sections of the song, you will note how much sound manipulation is going on during the harmonies. There are voices coming in and going out. There are voices and sounds that appear at differing speeds. Sometimes, he used incoming voices to amplify the harmony of the existing voices. The effect of it all is that the harmonized sections of this song appear almost to be living and breathing. He changed the way harmonies used to be, from “many voices speaking as one” to, “many voices speaking as many voices, all of the time, in a myriad of ways, all the while, sounding in harmony”. If Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonized like a Rembrandt painting then, Brian Wilson built his harmonies like a Jackson Pollock painting.
There are whole books devoted to analyzing the creative genius/madness of Brian Wilson, as well as, examining the beauty of “Pet Sounds” as a near perfect album. I can’t replicate that in this post. But, what I hope to have done is set you up for a more critical listening experience when you hear, “The Sloop John B.” momentarily. If you do nothing else besides critically listen to the harmonies and see how nebulous they were in design, then I will have done my job with this post. When I listened to this song, I did so with good headphones. I am not sure if that will make a difference for you if you listen to it out loud via speakers. But, when I listened to it through my headphones, sounds seem to come at me from all directions. There were so many “tings” and “pops” and “jingles” along the way. The construction of this song is truly miraculous. Although I have not read this anywhere, I am convinced that Brian Wilson saw the sounds of his song in 3-D. I think he could visualize how the various notes fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. He was a musical genius, without question. Anyway, I hope that this post has set you up for future posts that demonstrate the growth of both, The Beatles and The Beach Boys. It is not by accident that they are heralded as innovators who changed the course of modern music. So, for your listening pleasure, here is “The Sloop John B.” by The Beach Boys. Prepare to be dazzled.
The link to the video for “The Sloop John B.” by The Beach Boys, can be found here.
The link to an excellent, behind-the-scenes video of the recording of “The Sloop John B.”, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Beach Boys, can be found here.
The link to the website for KEXP, can be found here.