(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #57)
When the Beach Boys recorded ‘Sail On Sailor’ in ’73, there could not have been a better metaphor than the sailor to characterize the band and its circumstances. The group was facing the possibility that some of its key members might no longer participate, and it had relocated to another continent in search of new artistic directions. In that context, ‘Sail On Sailor’ stands as a bold declaration of determination in the face of turbulence. And, like all great seafaring sagas, the story of ‘Sail On Sailor’ itself is full of improbable characters and unexpected occurrences.
‘Sail On Sailor’ has five credited co-authors: Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Ray Kennedy, Van Dyke Parks, and Jack Rieley. As with much of the Beach Boys’ history, how the song originated depends on whose version of events you choose to believe. Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night told Wilson biographer Peter Ames Carlin that Parks and Wilson wrote the song in ’71, and “air[ed] it out at his house”, with Almer (composer of the Association’s ‘Along Comes Mary’) and Kennedy adding their contributions “eventually”.
However, in a 2005 interview, Kennedy claimed that Hutton called him over to his house in 1970 because Three Dog Night “needed a hit” and “stuck me in [a] room with Brian for three days” to create the song. In Kennedy’s words, “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?’” Former Beach Boys studio engineer Stephen Desper has stated that some of the band recorded a demo of ‘Sail On Sailor’ in ’71; writer Brian Chidester, who was allowed access to some of the Beach Boys’ archives in 2014, indicated that the ’71 demo tape existed and had been heard by “several Beach Boys historians”. But the tape was “in the possession of a venerated Beatles collector” who disappeared with it.
In ’72, led by Carl Wilson and manager Rieley, the Beach Boys, their families, and their staff moved to Hilversum in Holland, with the intention of touring Europe and then recording an album. By that time, South African guitarist/singer Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar had joined the band. Carl had seen Chaplin and Fataar play in London in ’68 with their band The Flames, and had signed the band to the Beach Boys’ Brother Records as The Flame (to avoid confusion with James Brown’s backing band). Carl produced the band’s lone self-titled US album, but after it flopped, Rieley invited Chaplin and Fataar to become Beach Boys – not only because of the new energy they could bring to a group struggling to find its identity, but also so they could fill in as needed for the increasingly unreliable Dennis Wilson and the troubled Brian Wilson.
Holland, the album that the Beach Boys recorded in Baambrugge, was a definite departure from the band’s famous sun-and-sand songs. Tracks such as the three-part ‘California Saga’, ‘The Trader’, and ‘Steamboat’ were longer, more complex, and more adventurous. When Warner Brothers record executives Mo Ostin and David Berson heard the album, according to Nick Kent in the New Musical Express, they “immediately sent it back to the band with a memo to the effect that it wasn’t good enough to warrant release in this form”.
And here the stories diverge again. One version has Van Dyke Parks, then working a day job at Warner Brothers Records, going to Brian Wilson’s house with a Walkman cassette recorder, intending to get Wilson to write an additional song for Holland. The other version – which largely fits Parks’ description – is that when Warner Brothers rejected Holland, Parks already possessed a cassette tape containing a preliminary version of ‘Sail On Sailor’, which he had recorded during a previous meeting with Wilson. In this telling, upon hearing of the band’s quandary, Parks found the tape and played it for the Warner Brothers executives to show that the band had a salvageable song that could be added to Holland.
Parks says he gave the tape to Warner Brothers in ’72 and never saw it again. But published accounts of the tape’s contents describe Parks urging Wilson to “cut the shit and play the tune” and “write a fuckin’ middle-eight”, and Wilson asking Parks to “convince me I’m not crazy”. In between all that, though, there was enough resembling a song to convince Warner Brothers to pay for a further recording session. So the Beach Boys reconvened in the fall of ’72 in Los Angeles to record ‘Sail On Sailor’, with lyrics revised by Rieley.
Carl Wilson sang the lead vocal on the alleged earlier demo of the song, and Dennis Wilson took the lead on a few takes during the ’72 session – but Blondie Chaplin sang lead on the version of the song that was released. Chaplin told author Mark Dillon that ‘Sail On Sailor’ “has so many words to get around to make it flow into the melody, [and] that drove me nuts”. But Chaplin’s passionate vocal clearly drew on what Dillon describes as “frustrations stewing since his Apartheid-era childhood”, and on the stress of constant relocation and travel. Gerry Beckley (from the band America), Billy Hinsche, and Tony Martin Jr. contributed additional backing vocals to the track.
The finished ‘Sail On Sailor’ was deemed acceptable by Warner Brothers and duly added to Holland’s running order; the album was finally released in January ‘73. ‘Sail On Sailor’ was released as a single, but was not a success – it only got to #79 in the US charts, and was the B-side of the single ‘California/California Saga’ which reached #37 in the UK. However, the album and the single both received generally positive reviews, being recognized as a step toward musical maturity for the band. ‘Sail On Sailor’ was quickly incorporated into the Beach Boys’ live shows; however, as one reviewer commented in ‘75, “’Trader’, ‘Sail On Sailor’ and ‘California’ are The Boys now, but they have to be shoved into the middle of the set because not enough people pay them attention.” For much of the ‘70s and ‘80s, ‘Sail On Sailor’ remained the most recent song in the band’s live shows, until the vile ‘Kokomo’ became a #1 hit in ’88.
The next twist in the saga of ‘Sail On Sailor’ was its first (sort of) cover version. In ’75 – the same year that the Beach Boys re-released it as a single – Ray Kennedy became part of the group KGB, with Mike Bloomfield, Carmine Appice, Barry Goldberg, and Ric Grech. KGB’s lone album included ‘Sail On Sailor’, which also became a single – but KGB’s version was credited only to Wilson and Kennedy and had completely different lyrics than the Beach Boys’ version, chronicling the despair of a “coked-up” gospel singer. KGB’s instrumental arrangement of the song was also slower and more bluesy than the swaying, rhythmic Beach Boys arrangement. Kennedy later recorded his version of ‘Sail On Sailor’ for his ’80 solo album.
Covers of the song – the Beach Boys version – have been recorded by, among others, Golden Earring, the Bluetones, Jimmy Buffett, Lulu, Man, Madeline Bell, and Shawn Colvin. ‘Sail On Sailor’ has been played in concert by acts as diverse as the Chris Robinson Band, Susan Cowsill, and Mark Ronson with Sean Lennon; after leaving the Beach Boys in ’73, Chaplin also regularly performed the song in his own concerts. The song has been extensively anthologized in Beach Boys re-releases, and was included on the soundtrack of the Martin Scorsese film The Departed.
‘Sail On Sailor’ has also been included in many “all-star” and “tribute” events featuring Beach Boys and/or Brian Wilson songs. In this format, the song has been performed by, for example, Matthew Sweet and Darius Rucker (the 2001 All-Star Tribute to Brian Wilson), and Boz Scaggs (the 2015 ‘Brian Fest’). Two renditions of ‘Sail On Sailor’ from this body of work are particularly notable. In ‘86 Ray Charles performed an outstanding version of the song at the Beach Boys’ 25th anniversary concert; he was introduced by Brian Wilson as “the voice I had in mind when I wrote [the song]– a voice full of soul that only a great gospel singer could possess”. And in ’96 singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell – a man who knows his way around a good song – recorded ‘Sail On Sailor’ with the Beach Boys for a planned sequel to the band’s Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 album. The sequel never materialized, but Crowell’s performance is included on the Stars and Stripes DVD, and the audio of the track is available on YouTube.
Both Brian Wilson and Mike Love have autobiographies scheduled to be published this year – so, who knows? There may be more revelations to come about the epic history of ‘Sail On Sailor’. Meanwhile, the song continues to be featured in the Beach Boys’ and Wilson’s concerts, as each go on tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds. Sail on, sailors.