24 July 2008

Sloop John B

The Beach Boys story has returned to TV and thankfully I spotted it in the schedules. I’ve been waiting 18 months for this documentary to come back so I could copy it to DVD. The Beach Boys in general and Brian Wilson in particular were geniuses. I put them up there with the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Simon & Garfunkel and you might be surprised to hear, the Bee Gees. All of these groups produced stunning, complex records. I never just listened to the basic music. There was always something behind the obvious soundtrack. Complex chords and subtle new dimensions to the normal music which was being churned out, so to get the story behind the various Beach Boy hits is a real bonus.

One of the classics is, of course, Sloop John B and hearing it again took me straight back to 1968 when I joined a car company called Rootes direct from school (Rootes were very soon after bought by Chrysler). There are a multitude of stories about the 4 year apprenticeship I completed as a Management Trainee but the relevant one here is that Rootes’ personnel department had some budding psychologists who worked out a theory that if they took on 20 management trainees and developed them as a team, then in several years time we’d all be running different parts of the factory and would bring a more cohesive management approach to what was then a very troubled industry. The theory was brilliant, the implementation was crap – most of us were made redundant as soon as Chrysler took over !

However, the interim period between joining the company with 19 other bright-eyed, bushy tailed apprentices and our employment demise is a part of my life that I look back on and smile. I’ve only really had 3 jobs in my 40 years of employment, Chrysler which gave me the confidence to realise that I could aspire to a real managerial career, IBM which taught me how the world works and BT where I learnt that it wasn’t what you know but who you know that counts.

But back to Chrysler and those 20 aspiring managerial candidates. Within weeks we’d be in windowless vans heading into the highlands of Scotland to be dumped in the middle of nowhere with tents, cooking facilities and food and told to meet the van 4 days from then about 50 miles away. Along the way we had to climb mountains and pick up information which would prove we had actually completed the course. Now this wasn’t in the midst of summer – this was in the depths of winter where, in order to follow the prescribed trail, sometimes we had to strip naked, wrap our clothes up and walk, chest deep through mountain streams which had virtually iced over. Sometimes we ran out of food and had to find edible berries on the slopes (we had been given a basic 2 week course in map reading and mountain survival), sometimes we came across mountain bothies where we could have a ‘proper’ bed for the night and sometimes we came across tragedy with some of my colleagues having to carry the dead body of a young girl down the mountain. All in all it was tough but character forming and to the physiologists’ credit we became closer and closer as a team.

A couple of the guys (Gary and Dougie) were excellent guitar players and despite the weight of their rucksacks they insisted on dragging their instruments with them. It was on certain nights when we were all cold, hungry and morose, desperate for home that we would all sing the song ’Sloop John B’ and when it came to the line ‘I wanna go home’ it was sung with great gusto.
The picture at the start of today’s blog is of a reunion we had 25 years after the start of our apprenticeship. We held it in Glencoe where we were at our lowest as a team. Cold, hungry and the haunting image of some of our group carrying a lifeless body down the slopes meant that we would never forget that place. We all wanted to return and exorcise our ghosts.

No comments: