Monday, February 22, 2016

Beach Boys – "Sail On, Sailor" (1973)

Always needing
Even bleeding
Never feeding
All my feelings
Damn the thunder
Must I blunder
There's no wonder
All I'm under
Stop the crying
And the lying
And the sighing
And my dying

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.”

(That saying is sometimes attributed to John F. Kennedy, who said something very similar to that to a reporter after the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961.  He was actually paraphrasing Mussolini’s son-in-law and foreign minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, who said essentially the same thing – in Italian, of course – in 1942.)

Count Galeazzo Ciano
But when it comes to the lyrics for the Beach Boys’ “Sail On, Sailor,” it seems just the opposite is true.  The song’s lyrics are a train wreck.  (If you don’t believe me, just take a gander at the verse quoted above.)  But there’s no shortage of people claiming credit for fathering this musical child.

The liner notes for the 2000 reissue of Holland, the album that “Sail On, Sailor” was released on, stated that the song was originally written by Brian Wilson, the late Tandyn Almer (a forgotten genius whose greatest songwriting accomplishment was “Along Comes Mary”), and singer/songwriter/producer Ray Kennedy; that longtime Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks structured the song and added a “middle-eight”; and that the group’s manager, Jack Rieley, revised the lyrics at the last minute.  (All five of those men were given writing credits for the song.)

Brian Wilson later said that he wrote the music to “Sail On, Sailor,” and Kennedy wrote the lyrics.

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
But longtime Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks told a very different story.  Parks claimed that he came up with a rough version of the song, recorded it on a Walkman, and played it for Wilson.  According to Parks, 

I came up with that lyric when I was working with Brian, as well as the musical pitches those words reside on. . . . I'm glad that every one came out of their little rooms to claim co-writing credit on that song [but] I authored the words and the musical intervals to "Sail on Sailor."  

Author Peter Ames Carlin has said that the song was essentially co-written by Wilson and Parks in 1971, but that Kennedy and Almer contributed lyrics during some impromptu sessions at the house of Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton.  

Kennedy has said that he, Wilson, and Hutton wrote “Sail On, Sailor” – which was originally intended for Three Dog Night – over the course of three days in 1970.  According to Kennedy,

We went in and cut the basic tracks with Three Dog Night; we hadn't slept in about a week.  Then Brian got up with a razor blade and cut the tapes and said, “Only Ray Kennedy or Van Dyke Parks can do this song.”  And he left.  We all stood there looking at each other going, “What?” 

I understand Kennedy’s reaction.  Right now, I’m sitting here looking at my cat and going, “What?”

Here’s “Sail On, Sailor,” which was released as a single in 1973, but did better when it was re-released in 1975:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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