Hypnotize me, Van Dyke,"
"Cut the shit, Brian, you're a songwriter. That's what you do. And I want you to sit down and write a song for me."
"Hypnotize me, Van Dyke, and make me believe I'm not crazy, convince me I'm not crazy."
"Cut the shit, Brian, and play the tune."
"What's the name of the tune?"
"Sail On Sailor."

In 1985, the Beach Boys did a TV special to celebrate their 25th anniversary as a band. This special sums up everything that made the band great, and also everything that makes them a laughing stock today. There were some wonderful, heartbreakingly beautiful moments, like Carl Wilson singing 'Heaven' in memory of his late brother Dennis, but the TV special was also full of badly scripted 'comedy' routines, gratuitous shots of scantily-clad women (and even worse, shots of Mike Love topless) and 'surprise guest spots' by celebrities, all introduced as if in shock by band members - "Wow! It's the Fabulous Thunderbirds!" "Belinda Carlisle! What are you doing here?!"

But there was one moment in this cringeworthy 'special' that makes me treasure the bootleg DVD of this show I have, and that is when Ray Charles does a quietly dignified performance of Sail On Sailor, backed by the band. That is a special guest. That is special music. Not Glen Campbell very obviously adjusting his genitalia in his tight shorts and singing The Little Old Lady From Pasadena. One only wishes the band themselves could see the difference...

I sail an ocean
Unsettled ocean
Through restful waters
And deep commotion
Often frightened
Sail on, sail on sailor

In 1973 Van Dyke Parks was working as an executive for Warner Brothers Records, and putting out very occasional albums of his own, when the Beach Boys brought in their latest album for the company, Holland

Recorded in Holland, with practically no active participation from Brian Wilson, the album they brought in consisted of a couple of classic Dennis Wilson tracks, some filler from Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar and (to quote the Rolling Stone album guide) 'a veritable shit-load of meditative drivel', along with a fairy story narrated by the band's manager, Jack Rieley.

Even Warners, which for a major label in the 70s was prepared to take a chance on some remarkably uncommercial material, couldn't release this album as it was. It needed a single, a strong track to stand out among the dross. That's when Parks remembered an old tape he had, from a few years earlier, of Brian Wilson begging to be hypnotised and the two of them writing a song together...

I am a singer
A gospel singer
I sing for people
I sing for pleasure
Only a dreamer
Who came from nowhere
Sail on, sail on sailor

There's a lot of debate about who wrote what on Sail On Sailor, and since that original tape has never shown up, we can never be certain. Van Dyke Parks claims that Brian Wilson came up with the verse, while he came up with the bridge and middle eight. Given that the verse is nothing more than a shuffling between G and C chords, this would make the song about 90% Parks', at least in the first version. However, to my ears (without wishing to cast doubt on Van Dyke Parks, who in our one meeting and few brief email conversations seems one of the few truly decent individuals in the music business) the bridge/chorus chord sequence (Ebmaj9 Am7/D Ebmaj9 Am7/D Ebmaj7 F G ) sounds far more like Wilson's work.

Van Dyke Parks wasn't aware, though, that when he brought that tape in for the band's consideration the unfinished song on that tape had already been completed, recorded and released. Ray Kennedy, a friend of the band's, had completed the song as a soul track with his 'supergroup' KGB. In this version, the first to be released, the bare bones of the song are all there, but the track sounds almost like Curtis Mayfield. The lyrics, rewritten by Kennedy, follow the same general direction as the originals, but instead of being literally about a sailor, they tell a rather confused story of a gospel singer trying to get out of the ghetto ('just like my mama said, Ray, you better pray/that you can be free from that ghetto someday'). A fascinating track, with an interesting string line, this version fell into obscurity.

Caught like a sewer rat, alone do I sail
Bought like a crust of bread, and oh do I wail

Jack Rieley, the Beach Boys' manager at the time and frequent lyricist, set to work on Parks' original tape, completing the song with Tandyn Almer (with a resulting credit of Wilson/Parks/Rieley/Kennedy/Almer), adding some of his pseudo-mystical ideas and turning a song about a sailor into a song about struggle, with the sea being a metaphor for the problems life can throw at someone. These new lyrics, comparatively simple for Rieley, perfectly fit the rather angst-ridden tone of Wilson's music and life at the time, and turned the song into a true classic.

Mike Love was never keen on this song, calling it a tuneless dirge (although that didn't stop him, along with Terry Melcher, stealing the flattened sixth-flattened seventh-root hook for their 1985 hit Getcha Back) and so recording the song fell to the Wilson brothers axis in the band.

Brian Wilson was uninterested, so Carl Wilson recorded a backing track with touring band members Billy Hinsche and Ed Carter, along with temporary band members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar. Dennis Wilson recorded a first stab at a lead vocal, before quitting and going to the beach, so Chaplin ended up taking lead (easily his best vocal ever). The backing vocals were recorded later by Carl Wilson, Chaplin, Fataar, Hinsche and Gerry Beckley of the band America - Brian Wilson supervised this session by phone.

The song was only a minor hit (on its second single release it scraped the top 50 in the US), but helped make the album the most successful the band had had in years, and remains a staple of all three Beach Boys bands - sung in Mike Love's Touring 'Beach Boys' by Chris Farmer, by Hinsche in Al Jardine's band, and by Brian Wilson in his own shows. This song was possibly the last gasp of the Beach Boys as a 'serious' rock band, before Mike Love led them into the pit of nostalgia from which, occasional gasps like Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue or The Beach Boys Love You notwithstanding, they never really escaped.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you struggle, you have to give in to the forces that are trying to sink your ship.

And just as I typed that line, the last line I intended for this writeup, my MP3 player, on random play, moved on to a live version of the song by Brian Wilson, recorded at a gig I attended on June 13, 2002. At that gig Wilson looked and sounded genuinely happy, had overcome the demons that led to the writing of this song, and had overcome the need to be a nostalgia act. Sometimes, even if you give up, you win in the end.

Created for E2 Quests: Songs and Lyrics

This song is available on:

The Beach Boys Holland
The Beach Boys The Beach Boys In Concert
The Beach Boys with Rodney Crowell Nashville Sounds: The Making Of Stars & Stripes Vol 1 (DVD)
Various Artists The Carl Wilson Tribute Concert UK 1998 (performer Stealth Munchkin)
Darius Rucker, Mathew Sweet and the Brian Wilson band An All-Star Tribute To Brian Wilson (DVD)
Al Jardine, Family And Friends Live In Las Vegas

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