Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Nature Prance: David Thomas' solo albums 1981-87

Sloop John B

As mentioned, The Sound of the Sand, though credited to The Pedestrians, also features three other ‘bands’ – The Golden Palominos, The Eggs and The Trees. ‘Sloop John B’ is by The Eggs: Thomas, Chris Cutler, Thornton and Ravenstine. Interestingly (or not) this band is also credited in the sleevenotes with playing on ‘I Didn’t Have A Very Good Time’, a song that actually does not appear on the record, but which was released as a (transparent, silk-screened) one-sided single at the same time (I have seen suggestion elsewhere that this single came free with Winter Comes Home). Whether the song was considered a downer (not impossible) or there was no room on the 45 rpm 12” album, is… just is….

It was probably an appropriate move to lose ‘I Didn’t Have a Very Good Time’ from the album, as it is not actually a great song (and also – here once again we run into problems – ends with Thomas singing a snatch of ‘Moon River’, which might perhaps have required a royalty payment or at very least, copyright clearance. That Cutler then opted to release it on a very limited edition one-sided single on his Re: label indicates though does not prove recognition of this as an issue).

More internet reading has suggested to me, firstly, that Thomas’ ‘Sloop John B’ is a Beach Boys cover. It isn’t; it’s a traditional West Indian song the Beach Boys also covered. Wikipedia ( tells me that The Beach Boys’ version was the first to use the line ‘this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on’ in place of ‘…since I’ve been born’, and Thomas sings that, but generally speaking this rendition is close to irreconcileable with the Beach Boys’ one as possible. He makes deliberate deviations from the Beach Boys’ version, too: ‘I feel so broke up’, for instance, becomes ‘I feel so broke down’. Also, for reasons unfathomable, Brian Wilson took the line in earlier versions about the ‘people’s trunk’ and turned it into the ‘captain’s trunk’; Thomas makes this into ‘the captain’s bunk’.

I have read, too, that this is the same version of ‘Sloop John B’ that was found on the b-side of the aforementioned David Thomas 12” single Vocal Performances (thanks for that description!), recorded a capella on cassette in a London hotel room; but with additional overdubs. I don’t have a copy of this release to hand, but my memory tells me of some differences* – for instance, the Sound of the Sand version includes some distorted, slowed down (or backwards?) tape manipulation towards the end, perhaps little more than tacit acknowledgement of the band’s genius in fitting their playing to a pre-existing and very individual vocal. Since I am talking about Thomas as a featured, solo singer, here seems as good a place as any to note the fairly pedestrian (ahem) cover art, by Martyn Lambert, to the album – a microphone, on a stand, on the beach, some people playing in the distance. Why?! As with the (presumably) last-minute removal of ‘I Didn’t Have a Very Good Time’, there seems to have been some ad hoc surgery done on this cover, too – there is a photo credit, but no photo.

The Beach Boys’ ‘Sloop John B’ is an unreasonably uptempo song, given the trauma and misery it details. Thomas’ version is sea-sick and feels far more true. Chris Cutler, in particular – making his debut as a Thomas collaborator, a partnership that would last for the rest of the decade including the recasting of the Wooden Birds as the late-80s Pere Ubu – demonstrates his expressive talent herein. 

Pere Ubu had already recorded original songs under titles of famous ‘standards’ – ‘Sentimental Journey’, for instance, and ‘Drinking Wine (Spodyody)’. The group did covers – their version of the Seeds’ ‘Pushing Too Hard’ is justifiably legendary – but their records had only contained originals (unless you want to push the definition and describe ‘Life Stinks’ as a Peter Laughner cover; but Laughner had once been a member of the band, of course). This is, in a manner of speaking, the ‘real’ song. Thomas has fairly recently suggested that his work with Pere Ubu ‘exists within the world of pop music,’ thus:

Cutler, easily one of the best drummers of his generation and one of the most dazzlingly experimental of any generation, is a star of this ‘Sloop John B’. The other is Eddie Thornton, who creates (?) (or at least conveys) a lively nautical trumpet figure which takes the track out. It’s a whole retake of the song, and Thornton’s own Jamaican roots perhaps give him the clearest right of all participants to pull this track – a Caribbean ballad – back away from the Beach Boys. The effortless way in which he achieves this tends to make one wonder why he is not noted, himself, as a songwriter but rather as a versatile accompanist (not that that’s not a wonderful thing to be). The one interview I have managed to locate online with Thornton doesn’t mention the Sound of the Sand at all, but it does confirm that Thornton is a committed Christian, which may have given him some added connection with Thomas at this time, though that’s just extrapolating.

I will write about this further in a few weeks, but I note also that the Variations on a Theme album also features the same riff in one song… as does the song which follows ‘Sloop John B’ on this album, ‘Man’s Best Friend’.  Perhaps even at this early stage, Thomas was already stealing from himself.

*Update 21 September 2014, I had a chance to compare the two versions, and I have to say that the Vocal Performances version sounds substantially different, to the degree that it's almost certainly a different performance altogether. It also has background noise and perhaps even tape edits; why would Thomas insist a band record to his cassette-recorded vocal which would in any case have to be edited and reworked to fit the new song? That said, the back sleeve of Vocal Performances most decisively claims that 'A copy of that performance was overdubbed with drums and trumpet and appears on the album, "The Sound of the Sand & Other Songs of the Pedestrian" by David Thomas and the Pedestrians." The copy released here is a direct reproduction of the original acapella [sic] performance but edited.' So who am I to disagree. 

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