6. Cover Version

‘Sloop John B’ – The Beach Boys

Back in 2004, I was lucky enough to be at the Festival Hall when Brian Wilson and his band first revived the Smile album that had lain on the shelf for nearly forty years. The live show was in two parts with an interval between them. During the first half, as the Smile songs were unveiled, the mood in the audience was reverential but tense. But the performance was astonishing, triumphant, and for the second half of the evening the atmosphere became duly celebratory. The extraordinary band loosened up, running through a long list of Beach Boys hits and Pet Sounds songs. Sat at his keyboard as Sloop John B’s tick-tock intro sounded up, Brian yelped, “This is a song about a boat!” I often think about that: an observation that’s both hilarious and tragic in its plain-speaking.

Most of the songs on Pet Sounds use relatively complex chord progressions in order to get traction for the richness of the Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies. Sloop John B is the exception. The only song on the album not written by Wilson, it uses a simple folk tune as the basis for an exercise in harmony, in what can be squeezed from the minimum musical material. (To get a sense of how successful the exercise is, just listen to the Kingston Trio’s version, the recording Wilson used as his starting point.) Wilson’s instrumental arrangement is deliberately uncomplicated, the same five-note motif running throughout. The vocal harmonies, meanwhile, are trimmed down, leaner than on many of the other Pet Sounds songs – pure open vowels, less individual movement, they move in packs, like the five-part breezeblock that hits just before second chorus: “Sheriff John STONE…”.

When everything drops out for Brian’s line – “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on” (his own modification of the original lyric) – any pretense is discarded that this is a cover with the same concerns as its original. A song about music, about harmony? Perhaps. A song about the thrill of seeing one’s talent slip into the fast lane, or about panic at losing control? Partly. But a song about a boat? Not even for a second.

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