Tag Archives: BBC Four

Genrefication, yacht rock & the BBC’s I Can Go For That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock

I rather enjoyed the BBC’s two-part series on yacht rock, broadcast over consecutive Friday nights recently on BBC Four.

Katie Puckrik was an engaging presenter, and while her insights weren’t massively original (the argument that America turned away from let’s-change-the-world music to songs of comfort and consolation in response to the failure of the counterculture, the election of Nixon and, a bit further down the line, the 1973 oil crisis is one many critics have advanced before, not least Barney Hoskyns, who was one of the interviewees), I’d not argue with anything she said over the course of the two episodes. And if the director overdid it a bit with the golden-hour lighting, the soft focus and the slow-mo montages of Puckrik roller skating, at least the films had an aesthetic (so few music documentaries do).

What I wanted to talk about was the validity of the genre label “yacht rock” itself, as fully 15 years after it was coined, there still seems to be some resistance to it. In the documentary, the talking head most aggrieved by the term was Toto guitarist Steve Lukather, who still appears quite offended by the label and the Yacht Rock IFC show that gave rise to the term in the first place (“it started with the bad YouTube thing”).

That there was a seam of music that played as pop but consisted of equal parts white rock and black R&B influences seems to me entirely self-evident. That a lot of it was made in the same LA studios by the same musicians is unarguable point of fact. That in the digital age, as an act of librarianship, music fans should choose to categorise this music together after the fact is also, to me anyway, completely unobjectionable.

The name that was settled on commented upon the music’s well-upholstered lushness and its semi-implied visual aesthetic. Which was, I guess, a little cheeky of JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair (the men behind the Yacht Rock series – Steve Lukather’s “bad YouTube thing”*), but no more than the moment Dave Godin decided to call the semi-obscure pre-disco R&B and pop that he loved “northern soul”.

Northern soul is, of course, the defining instance of after-the-fact genrefication in pop music. The “north” in question wasn’t even in the country where that stuff was written and recorded. The term gained traction in the UK because it filled a linguistic need felt keenly by the people who loved that music and didn’t have a satisfactory name for it. All neologisms take off because they fill a gap in the lexicon; to fight that is a losing battle. The same is now true of “yacht rock” – fans, critics and professors who would be baffled by a reference to Koko’s lucky harpoon have all adopted it as a useful shorthand without knowing where it came from.

The thing that’s a little unfortunate is that Lukather seems to feel (as I think some of his peers have too) that it’s being used a term of ridicule. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth, actually. Yeah, the original films were knowingly ridiculous, but their deliberate amateurism and shaggy-dog origin stories for songs like Rosanna and What a Fool Believes quite clearly come from a place of love. They satirise the music fan’s fantasy that songs are all written as very literal responses to actual situations. It’s not the actual music that’s the target of the mockery; it’s evident whenever JD Ryznar talks about this music how much he loves it.

So anyway, I’d recommend the BBC show (it’s called I Can Go for That: The Smooth World of Yacht Rock), and if you’re curious, I’d recommend the Yacht Rock series, too. It’s great, very silly, fun.

H&O
Yacht Rock’s breakout characters: Hall & Oates

*Yacht Rock, the series, was not made for YouTube but instead premiered at Channel 101, a monthly short film festival devised by Dan Harmon, the creator of Community and Rick & Morty. Harmon didn’t like Yacht Rock, but the format of Channel 101 was that the shows that got the best response got to come back in a “prime time” slot, so its creators, JD Ryznar (Michael McDonald), Hunter Stair (Kenny Loggins) and Dave Lyons (Koko), kept making more. They even got Harmon to appear in one eventually, as Doobie Brothers/Van Halen producer Ted Templeman.

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Halo of Ashes – Screaming Trees

‘What did you think?’

‘They were screaming!’

‘Yeah. They were great!’

‘They were screaming!’

‘They’re from Seattle—’

‘Yeah! [Feigns deafness] What?’

‘But I’ll be honest with you – I was kinda scared.’

So ran the conversation between David Letterman and his bandleader Paul Shaffer in 1992 after the Screaming Trees performed an intense, and apparently rather loud, version of Nearly Lost You, live on late-night network television.

Even in 1992, when some pretty uncommercial prospects had major-label record deals and all the TV appearances they could hope for, Screaming Trees were an odd fit for the world of talk shows and smart-alec comedians with house bands. It’s worth remembering that by and large the frontmen of the really big bands from that era, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell and Kurt Cobain and so on, were photogenic dudes, and that Vedder and Cornell were never above taking to the stage shirtless. Even Layne Staley was OK-looking before he got too cadaverous. Mark Lanegan, on the other hand, just looked permanently angry, and as for the rest of the Trees, well, as Van Connor so memorably put it in Hype!, there may have been tons of bands in Seattle, but the Screaming Trees were a ton of band. The Connor brothers were two enormous guys, so big they made their guitars look like toys, windmilling, thrashing around, rolling on the floor and beating each other up.

That sense of barely restrained chaos still animated their live shows – with Lanegan the calm, motionless eye of the storm – but by the time that Nearly Lost You hit, the band’s recorded output was getting more controlled and focused, and was all the better for it. Screaming Trees are that rare band whose work got consistently stronger as they went along, and their last album Dust, from 1996, is their finest. (With some folk preferring their early SST records there’s inevitably some debate about this, but not in my house.)

Of all the records I listened to in my teens, Dust (along with Murmur) is the one where my relationship with it has most slowly evolved. With other records, I’d leave such long gaps between listens that from one listen to the next the record would seem completely different. WIth Dust, though, I’ve never stopped listening to it, even as I put heavy rock aside for a few years while I took the time to get educated in the canon*, so as I changed and developed, so did Dust seem to. I heard the reflections of so much music from the 1960s and 1970s in it, I came to understand more about the musical traditions the Screaming Trees worked in and rather than making the record seem shallower or retrograde, it brought it even more to life.

But it’s the energy of it, the renewed vigour, that gets me most now. Four years had passed since their last album by the time the Trees released Dust in 1996, and much had happened in that time, little of it beneficial. The group, originally intending to follow up Sweet Oblivion quickly, had recorded an album’s worth of material, but their hearts weren’t in it and the music wasn’t strong enough, so they junked the lot. They were sick of each other (a perennial Screaming Trees problem – they’d been going since 1985, so they’d put in some years already) and needed time apart. Lanegan had seen several close friends die, including Cobain, and come close to dying himself. Crack, heroin and alcohol were just the symptoms of an illness that had dogged him long before Dust and would continue to long after it.

But the album was written and recorded in the middle of a sober period (he would relapse hard in 1997) and it shows. The energy level is higher on Dust than on any other Screaming Trees album. On record, energy is a most intangible, evanescent thing, not at all related to how loud or fast the band’s playing (similar to how ‘heaviness’ has nothing to do with volume or amount of guitar distortion). It’s more the case that on some records the songs seem somehow animated from within. From the intro of Halo of Ashes all the way through to Gospel Plow, Dust just barrels out of the speakers. To my ears this energy comes partly from the physicality of drummer Barrett Martin, an upbeat, music-for-music’s-sake, jam-till-the-early-hours kind of guy, much needed in a band whose other members tended towards the depressive and argumentative, but mainly from Lanegan, who sounds uncharacteristically thrilled to be alive: ‘I’ve been a long, long time away, one foot in the grave,’ he sings, and his performance carries the fervour of someone who knows how damn lucky he is to still be here.

The second half of the nineties was short on records as life-affirming as this, and in retrospect much of that period’s pre-millennial tension, so hip in 1997 and 1998, looks a little ridiculous, mere juvenile posturing. Dust, on the other hand, looks bigger and grander every year, a little-anticipated album by a band of perennial also-rans that has ended up outlasting the work most of their contemporaries and leaving it in the, well, dust.

Oh, and it should go without saying that electric sitars are cool. Tablas, too.

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Screaming Trees in 1993, l-r Gary Lee Connor, Barrett Martin, Mark Lanegan, Van Connor

*Just a side note on ‘the canon’. By this term I mean all those ‘classic albums’ made by ‘classic artists’, the sort of music lionised and covered in depth by BBC Four and Mojo. For a guide to who’s considered canonical, just look at the cover stars of Mojo over the last few months (Dylan, Pink Floyd, Johnny Marr, Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, the Jam, the Smiths – from which we conclude that someone at Mojo really likes Johnny Marr). The worth of the idea of a ‘canon’ in pop music has long been a contentious issue. For me, it’s an inevitability. It’s simply there. There’s a canon, more or less, in every art form. Of course one would emerge from popular music.

However, that’s not to say we shouldn’t interrogate it, or that we shouldn’t be aware of the processes by which a record/artist becomes canonical, the distortions created by this process, and the nature of the gatekeepers to ‘canonicity’, from the print press to the record companies that reissue some records and not others – after all, if no one can hear a record, it;s rather less likely to become part of the canon (it does happen though: witness Tim Buckley’s Starsailor, its reputed ‘difficultly’ and unavailability on CD becoming a bigger claim to fame than the music it contains).

It’s interesting to note how artists rise and fall in esteem over time, how opinions are transmitted and received from one generation to the next. I wait to see, for example, if the death of Ray Manzarek prompts a revival of interest in the Doors, whose stock seemed to me to drop in the nineties and noughties. And will the new film about Ginger Baker, accompanied by a feature in Uncut last month (‘probably the best musical group ever to come out of Europe,’ says Baker; I’ll refrain from comment in line with my declaration of positivity the other day), rehabilitate a band whose critical standing has been in the toilet for a couple of decades.