1 June 2016

London Welsh Male Voice Choir - Sloop John B/ Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay

Label: Philips
Year of Release: 1973

That this single exists perhaps shouldn't be that surprising. Of all the sixties groups - Beatles aside - The Beach Boys probably picked up the most admiration from "proper" non-pop and rock musicians, finding their work reinterpreted faithfully by Easy Listening orchestras and performers of all kinds (even The King's Singers). Their arrangements were intricate and packed with so much detail that they survived the jump in genres without losing too much in translation - and so much has been written about Brian Wilson's spectacular arranging skills that it barely seems worth highlighting them again. It feels a little like emphasising the songwriting prowess of Lennon and McCartney - "They were quite good, weren't they?"

Still, you wouldn't necessarily expect a Welsh Male Voice Choir to have any interest in The Beach Boys. And this version seems inspired by Wilson's arrangement of the traditional seafaring tune, but adds seventies keyboard work and a slight bit of swing. The boys in the choir do a fine job of harmonising and adding emotional punch in the right places, and it's a unique listen - but obviously for my money, nothing captures the heart so much as The Beach Boys yearning original, which genuinely sounds like a pleading lament from a soul lost at sea. Not for no reason did it sit so well on an album along with tracks like "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"; most of the LP sounded like a distress call, a cry for the lifeboat to be deployed. The London Welsh Male Voice Choir put a different spin on things and sound rather more like a bunch of tough men who have been whipped into exhaustion by their seafaring plight - and to be honest, that's the kind of interpretation you'd expect them to put on it, really, and the only possible choice to make, but it somehow doesn't capture the imagination as much as the Wilson version.

The B-side "(Sittin' on) The Dock Of the Bay" is perhaps more bizarre and unexpected, bringing to mind a troupe of Welsh ex-miners stood on the docks in Cardiff bay idly following a series of redundancies. "Watching the ships roll in/ then I watch them roll away again" sounds despairing in their hands, as indeed it possibly should be - the lyrics never were full of fizz and optimism in the first place, despite Otis's nonchalant whistling. 

Somewhat amazingly, both sides were partly produced by Rod Edwards and Roger Hand, aka Edwards Hand, who released some well-regarded George Martin produced LPs of their own. Prior to their work as Edwards Hand they also produced some great popsike sounds as part of Piccadilly Line, of which my favourite is possibly "I Know She Believes".

As for the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, they're based in the London Welsh Centre, where I coincidentally recently spent some time at a Christmas office function. Londoners can go there to learn Welsh, watch Welsh drama productions, or the Young Welsh Singer Of The Year competition, and various public discussions. Perhaps more surprisingly, 1973 was a stellar pop-tactic year for the choir, as they also featured as guest vocalists on Roxy Music's British number one LP "Stranded".

Equally bizarrely, I was once part of a lock-in in a pub in Neath (mid-Glamorgan) where a group of the regular drinkers began singing "Sloop John B" in a Male Voice Choir style, acapella. To this day it remains one of my most unexpected pub treats, and unfortunately this record can't really match up to the warmth and spontaneity of that performance.


richard gray said...

re Sloop John B,I'm sure you know it wasn't a Brian Wilson song,but much older.Lonnie Donegan had a hit in 1960 with the same song,which he called I Wanna Go Home.
I love the blog.

23 Daves said...

Yes, that's why I said "inspired by Wilson's arrangement" - a lot of the other arrangements are very different indeed. He was reluctant to cover it at first, I think I'm right in saying, but soon saw its possibilities...

Gareth Davies said...

Somewhere in the BBC archives is a clip of the 1971 lions singing this song- it was a rugby club favourite. I have a rather joyous memory of singing it on a bus trip to watch Newport play Bristol with my brothers and dad...

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