Tag Archives: genre

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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Veteran artists who went new wave

Jim Messina (the fictional version from Yacht Rock, not the real one) called it charming the snake. What does that mean, asked fictional Michael McDonald. “It means reinvent your image in a desperate attempt at relevance!” cried fake Christopher Cross, bursting through the garden gate with a pastel jacket and a Keytar.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, how else could you charm the snake but by going new wave? The odd thing was, some of those who did had the pop smarts to pretty much bring it off. (Yes, I am serious. No, you’re not reading Buzzfeed.)

Johnny and Mary – Robert Palmer
The crassness of Robert Palmer’s populist moves grate all the more in the knowledge that beneath the immaculate tailoring Palmer was an omnivorous music fan, with interests from across the spectrum; as well as securing the Comsat Angels a record deal, he covered songs by Gary Numan, Toots & the Maytals and even Hüsker Dü. That’s a deep music fan with broad tastes.

On his 1980 album Clues, Palmer hit the sweet spot between his commercial and experimental impulses. Apart from the aforementioned Numan cover (I Dream of Wires), it featured a Numan co-write as well as two of his strongest self-written efforts: the hyperkinetic Looking for Clues, which is close in spirit to McCartney’s similarly restless Coming Up and Talking Heads’ Remain in Light (all three were released within months of each other), and Johnny and Mary, which is a singular proposition indeed.

While punk in its first wave had been about aggression, many of the bands that came after the initial explosion (whether you call them new wave or post-punk or something else entirely) found much of their effect by stripping away overt shows of emotion, aggression included. It’s in its blankness that Johnny and Mary is most obviously new wave influenced. With no true bassline (there’s a synth playing a low register-ish line, but it’s quite trebly and thin), Palmer fills up the low end with his voice, never emoting, forcing his words to fit the mechanical metre and reaching down to his very lowest note halfway through each verse. There’s no chorus, so the tension never breaks.

Had Palmer allowed himself to sing more demonstratively, trying to force us to empathise with these two lost souls, the delicate spell would have been broken. Johnny and Mary is powerful because he sings the whole song in the same detached way, as if he was a scientist observing and recording human behaviour, or as the video suggests, an author who is making his creations behave this way. It’s a great, well-judged vocal performance for what is maybe his finest song.

I Know There’s Something Going On – Frida
In 1982, during the last few months that ABBA were still a functioning group, Frida (Anni-Frid Lyngstad) was recording her third solo album, and her first in English, in Stockholm’s Polar Studios (which was also ABBA’s based). Lyngstad had approached Phil Collins about producing her after falling hard for Collins’s debut Face Value, and its atmospheric single In the Air Tonight.

It was a wise move. Collins was a coming force in music (not quite yet the world conquering megastar), and working with him put stylistic clear blue water between her music and ABBA’s. The single I Know There’s Something Going On, with its huge gated drums and raw guitars, was an uncompromising statement of intent: sort of heavy rock, kind of new wave, a little bit whatever the hell In the Air Tonight was, and only pop music in as much as it was made by a popular recording artist.

You have to wonder what Bjorn and Benny, then hard at work with Tim Rice on the songs for Chess, made of it. Did they admire its nerve or disapprove of its lack of refinement?

Young Turks – Rod Stewart
OK, I always try to be positive here, and maybe if I’d been there in the early seventies, I’d hear his leering grossness more tolerantly. But I can’t think of a bigger star in rock of pop with less worthwhile music to his name than Rod Stewart.

Which is what makes Young Turks all the more surprising. Near miraculous, in fact. My basic problem with Stewart’s music is that his sexist public persona – which, we shouldn’t forget, he knowingly cultivated – doesn’t make his moments of sensitive balladry all the more touching. It merely makes them less believable. You don’t have to like a singer to like their music, but while you’re listening to them, your distaste for their public image can’t overwhelm the song. The only time I can listen to Stewart’s music and not find myself appalled by Stewart personally is when I’m listening to Young Turks. Apart from The Killing of Georgie, it’s the only time I ever truly believe him. When he sings “Patti gave birth to a 10-pound baby boy” and shouts “yeah!” afterwards, it’s the most human he ever sounded.

It’s the contrast between that humanity in the vocal and the semi-mechanised music that makes it work. Like Johnny and Mary (which many have cited as the obvious inspiration for Young Turks), it’s pretty much all played by live musicians, but they play it clean, precise and dead on. The band Stewart assembled after ditching the ramshackle Faces and moving to the US, featuring Carmine Appice on drums, was more than capable of playing it that way; indeed, Appice is one of the listed writers on Young Turks, and he’s the band’s MVP on this recording, no question.

How Do I Make You – Linda Ronstadt
Linda Ronstadt, like Palmer, was a musical omnivore whose genuine enthusiasm for new music was too easily taken for ambulance-chasing cynicism by her detractors.

Ronstadt wasn’t the only member of LA’s music establishment who wanted a musical overhaul in the late 1970s. But unlike, Lindsey Buckingham, she didn’t have a band to push and pull against. Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk is fascinating precisely because Buckingham wanted to do one thing while his bandmates were happy doing the same old thing. The tension between his songs and the exquisite, intricately woven likes of Sara and Over and Over are exactly what makes Tusk so compelling. Ronstadt, in contrast, was sole ruler of her musical domain. She hired musicians, told them how to play and they’d play that way.

So Mad Love, released in 1980, gets arguably closer than anyone else of her generation to an authentic punk/new wave sound. Yet something like How Do I Make You, while a pretty accurate facsimile of Blondie in Hanging on the Telephone mode, remains just a little too cleanly played*, and Ronstadt is a little too studied vocally. She downplays her vibrato and tries to leave some rough edges, but she’s singing against her instinct.

Three years later she’d try her hand at the Great American Songbook with more mixed success.

Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime – The Korgis
The Korgis formed out of the remains of Stackridge, a more-or-less progressive British band who’d been around since the early seventies. Its principal members by then in their early thirties, the Korgis in 1980 were a little too old, a little too paunchy and their hairlines a little too receding for their new threads and shiny updated sound.

They managed quite a good trick in sounding like an alternate path John Lennon may have gone down for Double Fantasy if he hadn’t consciously turned his back on the future to retreat into his own past (Just Like Starting Over, with its Sun slapback, is plain pastiche), leaving Yoko to adjust to contemporary music on her own. The band’s James Warren, with his pudding bowl haircut, long nose and round glasses even looked like Lennon.

If, in the long term, Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime (the band’s biggest hit) has endured in a way that leaves many music fans unsure who recorded the original, the Korgis’ reinvention was an example of how veteran artists can reinvent themselves without total artistic compromise of the Starship/Asia variety.

*Ronstadt’s band consisted of Russ Kunkel, Bob Glaub, Mark Goldenberg and Billy Payne, and the record was produced by the fastidious Peter Asher, so of course it was never going to be messy.