This Month in Music History – March 21, 1966: Beach Boys Record “Sloop John B”

Th e Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds found head writer Brian Wilson at his creative zenith. One listen to the album bears this out. Wilson was not only making good, toe tapping tunes, he was also crafting surprisingly complex pieces that plagued Wilson’s band mates as to how they would play them live. It is through the genius of Brian Wilson on March 21, 1966 the Beach Boys went into the studio to lay down ‘Sloop John B’

The year 1966 would see a sort of arms race between two of the world’s biggest bands, the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Both bands, speciflically Beatle Paul McCartney and Beach Boy Brian Wilson, were locked in a game of oneupping the other in song writing. The Beatles began the war with their 1966 album Rubber Soul, and the song ironically a John Lennon song ‘Norwegian Wood.’

It must have been in November of 1965. I was living in this house in the Hollywood Hills then, way up on Laurel Way, and I remember sitting in the living room one night talking with some friends when another friend came in with a copy of the Beatles’ new one, Rubber Soul, I don’t know if it had even come out yet. But he had it and so we put it on the record player and, wow. As soon as I started hearing it I loved it. I mean, LOVED it! 

I still remember hearing Michelle for the first time, and Girl. What an incredible song! Everything about the way John Lennon sang, and the lyrics he was writing. “Oh, girl, girl.” It sounded amazing. 

Norwegian Wood is my favourite, too. The lyrics are so good, and so creative, right from the first line: “I once had a girl/ Or should I say, she once had me.” It’s so mysterious. Is he into her, or she into him? It just blew my mind. And in the end, when he wakes up and she’s gone, so he lights a fire. “Isn’t it good? Norwegian wood.” Is he setting her house on fire? I didn’t know. I still don’t know. I thought that was fantastic. I can’t forget the sitar, too, I’d never heard that before, that unbelievable sound. No one had heard that in rock’n’roll back then, this amazing, exotic sound. It really did inspire the instrumentation I ended up using for Pet Sounds. “

‘The song ‘Sloop John B’ had quite a long life to it, even before Wilsonwould get to it. A Bahamian folko song, told from the perspective of a young black man caught up in the cruel grasp of slavers, the song was, until Wilson got it, a mournful traditional recollection, done as a warning to all travelers of the dark skinned variety.

Popularized by The Kingston Trio, who, like The Byrds four years later, would gain success by remaking serious folk songs into hum along ditties, Wilson wouldd layer a who bunch of Beach Boy magic over the song and thus distill all the bad mojo out.