Tag Archives: yacht rock

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.

Advertisements

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved 2017, Part Four: Fool (If You Think it’s Over) – Elkie Brooks

Apologies for my elongated absence. I moved house last week, so it’s been crazy busy.

If you didn’t know anything about Middlesbrough’s Chris Rea, born into an ice cream-making family, or Salford’s Elkie Brooks, formerly an English Tina Turner-style screamer in Vinegar Joe and latterly an MOR Pebble Mill at One regular, you could easily hear Fool (If You Think it’s Over) as a species of yacht rock. Especially in Brooks’s version, it’s smooth, opulent, adult and eminently yachty. Have JD Ryznar and Hunter Stair claimed it as one of their own? Maybe they have.

Fool (If You Think it’s Over) was first cut by Rea for his 1978 debut album, Whatever Happened to Benny Santini. It’s an undeniable song, but I always feel like his version’s a little too slow, and as a result doesn’t feel quite as effortless as it could do. Elkie Brooks’s 1982 cover, from her album Pearls, picks up the tempo by a few bpm, and this makes a world of difference.

The same producer, Gus Dudgeon, was in the chair for both recordings, so it’s instructive to compare the two, even if we need to be a little careful in suggesting that the differences between the two versions amount to Dudgeon “fixing” the flaws he heard in Rea’s version. Especially as so much of it is the same. While the tempo is faster for Elkie’s version, the basic layers of the drum track are constructed in the same way, and it’s an excellent construction. Both recordings begin with drum machine, which runs throughout the track. The rhythm box on Rea’s recording is notably more lo-fi than on the Brooks version, but they sound like the same machine to me: the Roland CompuRhythm CR-78. You’ll have heard this classic drum machine on countless recordings from the late seventies, including In the Air Tonight, Heart of Glass and I Can’t Go For That.

With the drum machine in place to give the song a steady four-square chassis, on top are laid some sort of shaken percussion (shekere, I think) congas and then full drum kit. On both versions, the drummers are almost heroically understated*, just playing two and four with a good feel and keeping fills to an absolute minimum. Brooks’s drummer plays the odd pssst on the hats, a little double tap on the snare going into the chorus and a few gentle cymbal crashes.

It’s beautifully simple, but the effect when all the layers are added together is an ultra-smooth, great-feeling rhythm track (aided by some superlative bass playing) that has a machine-led tightness and a very human sense of power kept in reserve – and if you’ve heard Brooks belting her way through Proud to be a Honky Woman or Pearl’s a Singer, you’ll know how much vocal power she keeps on reserve during this song, too.

I almost never do a post like this when I don’t know the identity of the drummer on the recording, but unfortunately, since Pearls is a compilation album, three drummers are listed on the sleeve, and no resource I could find online breaks down who plays on which song. So the drummer was one of Trevor Morais, Graham Jarvis or Steve Holley.

Night Walker – Yumi Matsutoya

Yumi Matsutoya (born Yumi Arai, and known to her fans as Yuming) has been one of the biggest stars of Japanese pop music for forty years, having released her first single in 1972, aged 18. She’s sold 42 million records and was the first artist to notch up two million sales in Japan for an album. She continues to have hits, and to write them for other artists. Compare that to the commercial fortunes of her western equivalents (even artistic and one-time commercial giants like Joni Mitchell and Carole King) in the same span of time and the scale of that achievement becomes clear.

I first heard this song wwhen reading a thread on the I Love Music message board. Someone posted asking for recommendations for songs by jazz-inflected singer-songwriters; I guess they were thinking of stuff in the vein of Paul Simon’s late-seventies work. I’d never heard of Yumi Matsutoya, but I was intrigued to listen to a Japanese take on a Western form. It’s a very close take, too, but I’m not sure how the ILM poster heard this and thought, “Hmm, yes, jazzy”. Sophisticated, though, I’d have agreed with. The use of the orchestra suggest the influence of Barry Gibbs’s production work on Barbra Streisand’s Guilty, the steady mid-tempo rhythm suggests Fleetwood Mac (as does the use of the heartbeat kick drum pattern made ubiquitous by Fleetwood’s use of it on Dreams), there’s a bit of Boz Scaggs in there in the electric piano and soul-derived guitar licks – everything about it signified LA around 1979. That is to say, it was a live-and-in-the-wild Japanese take on yacht rock. It’s astartlingly accurate take on a form of pop music that was just beginning to recede in popularity at the song’s parent album, Reincarnation, was released. In 1983, smoothness – as exemplified by Scaggs, Kenny Loggins (pre-Footloose and post-Messina), Michael McDonald and so on – was out and the old guard were having to modernise to retain their careers as hitmakers. Few managed the transition in the US or UK as well as Matsutoya did in Japan. For all their longevity, Scaggs and McDonald haven’t sold 42 million albums.

The sound of Matsutoya’s voice is the central appeal of this for me, as it must be when the language barrier prevents me understanding what she sings. I played the song to my friend Yo Zushi one evening after a recording session, and he confirmed something I’d read about her online, that her understated and unshowy voice is rather unusual for a Japanese female singer, among whom it’s more usual to adopt a cutesy, coquettish tone or emote stridently. From some fishing around on youtube it seems that the production of her records tended to shift with the times (perhaps lagging slightly behind fashions in US and UK record making, as we have observed of Night Walker). A shame, since her songs and voice were matched well with this type of arrangement. It’s a consciously adult sound and probably would not have sold many records after the mid-eighties, but reaching to far outside their comfort zones in a bid to stay relevant rarely did veteran artists any favours. Hopefully she never tried anything too desperate and dropped the pilot or charmed that snake.

yumi

Sail On – Commodores

Lionel Richie’s songwriting voice is a sappy, ballad-oriented one.

You’ve learned something already, haven’t you?

For some Richie will always be beyond the pale. And it’s true that he did essentially the same thing so often that even his fans could easily get tired of it. He staked out his signature territory with Three Times a Lady, which bores me by the first time he sings “Twice”, and has continued to cover that territory for four decades. Sure, he’s released dance-oriented records from time to time, but give Lionel Richie a piano, a blank piece of paper and a couple of hours, and nine times out of ten he’ll give you a ballad. He can’t help it.

In the late 1970s, the tension between his soft, smooth ballad writing and the harder R&B leanings of his Commodores bandmates eventually led to tensions in the band, which were added to by the fact that the group’s one-time sax player and maker of synthesiser noises had grabbed the limelight for himself. So his decision to go solo was not a surprising one. But he left his band with a legacy of strong love songs. It should hardly need saying that one of those songs is Easy, a record so wonderful that I am willing to give him a free pass, pretty much, for anything else he’s done, even Say You Say Me. But I’d like to speak up in favour of the country-tinged Sail On, from 1979’s Midnight Magic.

Richie’s talent is founded upon his ability to craft simple melodic hooks, both in the piano accompaniment and the vocal melody, and Sail On is a great example of this. The dual piano-and-guitar part that begins the song is one of those immediately identifiable, “Surely someone’s thought of this before?” moments that record producers and radio programmers say nightly prayers for. But Sail On is a song bursting with inspired moments, of which the intro is just the first.

Sail On one of Richie’s most obviously country songs. Even before he took a batch of old songs and remade them with country musicians a couple of years back (2012’s Tuskegee); before, even Kenny Rogers had a huge hit with Lady, there was evident in his songs an audible country-music streak, a legacy Richie’s childhood in Alabama: “I grew up with the Grand Ole Opry, Dottie West, Conway Twitty, Buck Owens … not realizing it was influencing me as much as it was.”

The harmony vocals of Richie and (I assume from the video) bassist Ronald LaPread are pure country from the outset, but as the two are singing in their lower registers, it’d be possible to miss it. When those higher voices come in (again, the video suggests these are drummer Walter Orange and guitarist Thomas McClarey, though all this may be artistic licence on the part of the clip’s director), it becomes unmistakeable. Lady aside, this was the most obvious song for Richie to dust off for his Tuskegee self-covers album*.

By the time we get to the final choruses, the song has found its way into territory that would come to be called yacht rock: smooth harmonies, horns, mellow vibes, nautical metaphors. So it’s an intriguing blend: downhome at the start and uptown-aspirational at the end.

A quick word about the performance of Walter Orange, the unsung hero of Richie’s Commodore-era ballads. His syncopated bass drum work is a key element in what makes this track (and Easy) a fusion of R&B sensibilities with country (or in Easy’s case) pop ballad writing. Whether the feel is straight eights or a shuffle, country drummer’s play one and three on the kick, pretty much. They might sometimes do the Mick Fleetwood heartbeat thing (adding a second strokes on the kick on “and” three: one, two, and three, four), or the Neil Young thing (a second stroke on the quaver after one and/or three), but the feel is straight, unsyncopated. Orange (with LaPread locked in on bass) take a less obvious route, and give the song a definite funk/R&B underpinning. When Richie went solo and he lost these guys, his ballads were never again as interesting.

commodores

*Of course, it hardly needs saying that the original version is much the superior. For a start, it doesn’t have an ass-clown like Tim McGraw singing half of it. The drummer realised he wasn’t playing a heavy metal power ballad. Most importantly, it isn’t Auto-Tuned to within an inch of its life. Seriously, two voices in absolute, mathematically perfect harmony is a freaky sound. It’s not possible out in the real world. Please. Stop. Doing. It.

While You Wait for the Others – Grizzly Bear, ft Michael McDonald

Sorry for the lack of updates since New Year’s Day. I did try to write something yesterday but tiredness and lethargy got the better of me. I was unwell over the weekend, and spent rather too much of it feeling sick, or actually being sick, to be able to focus on writing. On the mend now, thankfully!

In 2009, Grizzly Bear released While You Wait for the Others from Veckatimest. The B-side was a second version of the song – the same arrangement, but with guitarist Daniel Rossen’s lead vocals replaced by Michael McDonald (the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan).

McDonald is the acknowledged harmony-vocal king of the seventies and early eighties and, if you’re into a certain kind of LA studio rock (and I am), his solo debut, If That’s What it Takes, is the ne plus ultra – we’re talking Willie Weeks, Steve Gadd, Jeff and Mike Porcaro, Robben Ford, Dean Parks, Tom Scott, Greg Phillanganes, Michael Omartian, Christopher Cross on backing vocals, Lenny Castro and Paulinho da Costa on percussion, even Edgar Winter on sax. And Steve Lukather, of course. As a guy who lapped up Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman records, and grew up on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Bad – of course this record hits me right where I live.

Grizzly Bear don’t, really. Something about them puts me off a little. There’s a certain lack of delicacy about their music that I find unappealing; everything is a little bigger, grander and less intimate than I’d like it to be, than it needs to be. I usually find myself impressed by their music, but seldom moved. Meanwhile, I know I’m supposed only to like Michael McDonald ironically, admire the craftsmanship but find the whole thing slightly synthetic and soulless. But no. Not at all. As funny as it was, and as much as it did to direct hipsters’ attention to music from the late seventies and early eighties that wasn’t punk or post-punk, perhaps Yacht Rock did guys like McDonald a disservice, giving them a revival that was even more deaf to the qualities of the music than the big band/swing revival of the late nineties, if such a thing were possible. Watching Yacht Rock, it’s sometimes hard to shake the impression that the band they liked most out of all those they portrayed was actually Van Halen (‘More Eddie! More Alex! More David! More of that other guy!’).

McDonald’s power as a performer comes from his passionate engagement with music. This is a guy who brings tremendous soul to everything he sings, someone who can locate the emotional nub of a piece of music, whether it’s an essentially dry and cerebral construction like the Dan’s I Got the News or a piece of second-rate Tempertonia like Sweet Freedom, which speaks the language of soul but gets far more from McDonald than it had a right to expect.

If only the Grizzlys hadn’t needlessly double-tracked his vocal…

What McDonald did for Grizzy Bear was to plug them into something that’s usually slightly beyond their reach. It was a cute concept, sure, but it actually worked on record. I wish more bands did this kind of thing.

Image

Grizzly Bear

Image

Michael McDonald

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 5

9) What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell

I wish I knew which of the three credited drummers on the album actually played the drums on What You Won’t Do For Love (which, as regular readers know, is one of my favourite songs). Alas, I haven’t been able to find out. Andy Newmark is one of the drummers listed on the sleeve, and it could be him, but I’m not going to take that leap here.

Still, the drum track is great. 16th-note hats, cool semi-quaver bass drum, the most damped, low-tuned toms in the history of popular music and some great fills in the extended outro, which (as with Careless Whisper) seems to have been extended just because the drummer caught a groove that was so undeniable it needed to be heard. And all of this while playing so tight the track could almost pass as programmed.

10 Mars, the Bringer of War – Gustav Holst

To all the percussionists who’ve had the pleasure of hammering out the brutally exciting quintuple-metre drum pattern to Mars, from Holst’s The Planets, you lucky, lucky, lucky drummers, you!

A combination of reading material, current interest in odd metres and topicality (yesterday was the 95th anniversary of the Armistice) has recently led me to listen to The Planets, and Mars in particular, for the first time since my teens. So many allusions to it, quotes from it, uses of it on soundtracks and so on haven’t yet robbed it of its power to overwhelm. When two-thirds of the way through, the opening rhythmic pattern reasserts itself, louder than ever before, as if the downed Mars had suddenly sprung back to his feet, ready to finish things off this time, and the tympani and snare drums take a good battering, it’s hard to think of a more brutal, terrifying evocation of war.

Image

The Lee Shore – David Crosby and Graham Nash

One sure way to make me happy is to put something by David Crosby on the stereo. I love Croz – his voice, his tunes, his chords, his scat singing. His work, in sound, mood and atmosphere, is singular: no one else can do with a guitar and voice what he does (and, to declare a bias, many of my favourite artists are similar voice-and-guitar one-offs: Joni Mitchell, Judee Sill, Paul Simon). Get Graham Nash to sing a harmony on top and I’ll listen for hours.

It’s not just Crosby’s music that fascinates me; it’s his career, his place in the history of rock’n’roll, too. As one quarter of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young he was a part of America’s instant Beatles, the four conquering heroes of the counterculture. Yet to win their crown, all they had to do was turn up. They did not need to conquer the world one gig at a time as for example Led Zeppelin did, with their four tours in 1970 alone. They were all already famous from their time in their previous bands and their record had already been released, so they simply picked Woodstock as their coming-out party and made sure they played well enough to justify the hype. That performance alone secured their reputation, as well as introducing the world to CSNY. And in retrospect it is a pivotal moment in the West Coast scene’s move from the socially progressive idealism of the folk-rock mid-sixties to the cocaine-fuelled megalomania of the arena-rock mid-seventies.

By 1977, when CSN made their third album (simply called CSN), the first wave of singer-songwriters (of whom Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as individual artists, can all be properly judged to belong) had either ascended to a level of idiosyncrasy that made their music sui generis (like Young, whose ragged electric rock distinguished him firmly from his mellow peers, and Joni Mitchell, who was getting progressively jazzier) or were sliding into a mushy, inoffensive soft rock. Such was the fate of Crosby, Stills and Nash.

The tracks on CSN were all meditative relationship songs, Fleetwood Mac with a softer beat and the extremes of emotion removed. The cover picture was of the three of them sharing a joke on Crosby’s yacht and this kind of music, as we have discussed in relation to Bobby Caldwell, has come to be known as yacht rock, which is shorthand for a smooth and airy soft rock which spoke loudly of its authors’ success and privilege, symbolised by the yachts on which so many were pictured for album covers. The record’s all very pleasant and the craftsmanship is obvious, but something crucial has been lost here. While the music of the singer-songwriters was usually interior-looking – and by extension could be criticised as self-absorbed and narcissistic – it was still implicitly counter-cultural when so much of it was about quality of consciousness. To examine one’s own existence and in so doing admit that Western capitalism is not in itself enough to bring about peace of mind – let alone enlightenment – is in itself a political act. What infected the music of CSN (and they were far from alone in this) after around 1974 is complacency. The authors of these songs are no longer asking any questions, even of themselves. They seem unaware that there might be a need to.

The Lee Shore had been written as early as 1970, before this rot sets in. As he relates taking his ‘floating home […] from here to Venezuela’, Crosby – a keen real-life sailor – is once again caught on the horns of that old dilemma: to engage with the world and its inequalities and inequities on one hand, or just drop out and create an alternate society, away from everyone else’s rules, on the other. As a successful rock star, the option to do the latter was available to him. But it was a question he seems never to have resolved within himself. In the end, caught up in the inertial forces of his own addictions and his grief over his girlfriend Christine Hinton’s death in a car accident, he chose instead to bury the issue under cocaine and heroin and it cost him fifteen years of his life.

Image

David Crosby almost cut his hair once. He’s still wondering why he didn’t.

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?