Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Tres: Day 130
Sat. June 8, 2013
“Sail On Sailor”
The Beach Boys
Who would have though it would be the help of collaborator Van Dyke Parks in 1973 that would bring Brian Wilson back from sabbatical and save The Beach Boys. 1972 was a bad year to be a California favorite lyrical sons, because of Altamont, Manson Murders and the Vietnam war the golden days of the 1960’s that birthed The Beach Boys had vanished. With the promise of the eventual release of Brian Wilson’s long lost epic Smile, The Beach Boys were snatched up and signed by Warner Bros. Instead, The Beach Boys minus Wilson turned in a very underwhelming version of Holland. Rejected by the record label, according to Domenic Priore in his book Smile: The Story of Brian Wilson’s Masterpiece, a call was made to Wilson’s former Smile collaborator Van Dyke Parks to save the band with the greatest Beach Boys single from the 1970’s, “Sail on Sailor.”
Van Dyke Parks explained the story to Priore, when he said, “I was in an A & R meeting when Holland was declared—and I quote—“unreleasable” by [WB label chief] Mo Ostin. ‘Everybody there said, “This is No Good.” NG—rejected. This is The Beach Boys! Mo said to me, “Can you guarantee me Brian?” and I said, “Yes! Absolutely! You know, that’s funny, because I have this tape at home of this song that I think could help.” The next week I brought it in, and they said, ‘This is sliced bread. This is It.”
Warner Bros. reaction wasn’t just hyperbole, the label was right; Van Dyke Parks collaboration with Brian Wilson was musical gold. But, did Van Dyke’s “Sail on Sailor” really save The Beach Boys in the 1970’s? Parks made his case to Priore when he explained, “If you look at the numbers from that time, what The Beach Boys could command in performance, I’m sure you could see that it slipped a considerable decrease. I know they went down; they went from hero to zero by the time I came and picked them up with “Sail on Sailor”.” Parks was there with Wilson, as he told Priore, how “Sailor” came to life, when he said, “I went over to Brian’s with my new Walkman and told him the name of the tune and sang those intervals, and he pumped out the rest of the song. That’s what saved their ass, by the way. It had an emotional impact. That was a tough moment for both Brian and me. I just went over to see how he was, and he wasn’t good. Of course, you couldn’t tell that from this song, because it represents such hope, but it came out of a very difficult time.”
You could understand Van Dyke Parks frustration, during the record of Smile and until today, he has been fighting for credit for his contributions to the creative success of The Beach Boys. It seems like Parks name and story was airbrushed from the historic re-release of The Smile Sessions in 2011. Worst of all, Parks had to fight for songwriting credits for, “Sail on Sailor,” the track he co-wrote and brought to Warner Bros and The Beach Boys, explaining in Keith Badman’s The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America’s Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio, “I came up with that lyric when I was working with Brian, as well as the musical pitches those words reside on. I did nothing with that tape until I saw The Beach Boys’ crisis at the company where I was working, earning $350 a week. Well, they recorded [“Sail on Sailor”], and it was a hit. And I’m glad that every one came out of their little rooms to claim co-writing credit on that song. But I never questioned it, just as I never questioned the various claims on the residuals.” In 2004, Parks finally won his battle and was added as one of the official co-writers of “Sail on Sailor.” “On the tape, it’s clear from the contents that I authored the words and the musical intervals to “Sail on Sailor.” It’s also velar that I composed the bridge, played them, and taught them to Brian.”
But unfortunately, Brian Wilson was no where to be found on the final version of “Sail on Sailor.” In fact, it was actually South African soul singer Blondie Chaplin, from the band The Flames, who sang lead vocals on “Sail on Sailor.” Chaplin told Badman how he came to be the vocalist on Parks and Wilson’s “Sailor” when he said, “Dennis [Wilson] tried it once but he wanted to go surfing. He gave it a shot and then literally went off with his board and went surfing. Then Carl tried it, and then he looked at me and said, “I think it sounds pretty good with my voice but why don’t you give it a bash? So I sang it and everybody thought that was the right timbre for the song. I think I did it in two takes and I was just getting warmed up, because there’s a mouthful of words in that song. I was reading and singing them at the same time and I said, ‘I’ll give it another shot,’ but after the second, Carl said, ‘No that’s fine.’” It was more than fine; Chaplin’s voice is the one you hear today.
Wilson finally took back “Sail on Sailor,” almost ten years ago, when he and Van Dyke Parks resurrected Brian’s Smile project during the Brian Wilson presents Smile tour of 2004. Brian is the one who proudly sung “Sailor” during the historic 50th Anniversary tour of The Beach Boys. “Sail On Sailor” is the song of Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks redemption. No matter what rough waters creatively or personally both Wilson and Parks have experienced they overcame when crafting the timeless affirmation that is “Sail On Sailor.” All you have to do is press play and let the buoyant like splashes of Parks and Wilson’s classic song of perseverance. You will overcome these waves of trepidation, all you need is “Sail on Sailor” and you will rediscover the song, co-written by Van Dyke Parks, that saved The Beach Boys in 1973.