Been listening to a good bit of yacht rock lately. No, I hadn’t heard the term either until I stumbled upon it in a magazine. But it turns out yacht rock is indeed a thing, it has fans and its own subculture, and it’s ready to make you feel better in these troubled times.
The term may have been used as far back as the late Eighties, but it got its 21st-century rev with a podcast created by four guys who were sending up those oddball radio formats: “the Quiet Storm,” “the Wave,” etc. Then something even odder happened. The snark began to recede, the tongues pulled back a tad from the cheeks, and people began rediscovering “yacht rock” music for real — and rediscovering that they loved it. There’s an entertaining oral history of the genre that I gulped down in two hours. Jimmy Fallon does regular TONIGHT SHOW segments on yacht rock. There’s a compilation album (I object to some of the selections, but that’s what music pigeonholes are for). Yacht rock has its own Sirius XM channel. There’s a band from Atlanta, the Yacht Rock Revue, that does enthusiastically received live tribute shows. The genre has already been parodied by Bill Hader and Fred Armisen (who wrote the intro to the book) in their beautiful series DOCUMENTARY NOW! It started as a goof, but when more and more people play along…
Let me see if I can pin down the concept. Yacht rock is that smooth, silky, lavishly produced, harmony-driven stuff that ruled the radio in its Seventies and Eighties heyday. We used to call it “soft listening,” “mellow rock,” “the California sound.” By coincidence many songs have nautical themes, inspiring the term, but yacht rock doesn’t have to take place on the water. (It all ipso facto sounds great when it’s blasting on the deck of an actual yacht, but it also works anywhere else.) Many songs are soft, but some have big dynamic range. Many of them are ballads but some are uptempo pounders. They get you still, chill, make you feel nice for a few moments.
The great pyramids of yacht rock were erected in the Sixties by the Beach Boys. But the post-hippie flowering included Toto, Loggins & Messina, America, Bread, Hall & Oates, Poco, Boz Scaggs, Linda Ronstadt, Little River Band, Air Supply, Seals & Crofts, Christopher Cross (his record “Sailing” is yacht rock supremo). Get the idea now? Then there are the “one-hit wonders” (they’re not really; more later) of yacht rock. “Baby Come Back” by Player. “Brandy” by Looking Glass. “So In To You” by Atlanta Rhythm Section. “You Are the Woman” by Firefall. “Break My Stride” by Matthew Wilder. And the giants, the Fab Four of the genre: the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers, the post-Peter Green Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, and Steely Dan. Damn near everything they have is yacht rock.
There are other contemporary acts which don’t quite rise to the yachtific level, but they’re close. David Clayton-Thomas-era Blood, Sweat & Tears. Chicago. Dave Mason. Jim Croce. Three Dog Night. Don McLean. And the paragon of what they call “nyacht rock,” Mr. Billy Joel.
You may well disagree with some of the membership of these categories, just as I have several beeves with the compilation record. That’s the whole point; it’s something else to debate about. You even may dislike “soft rock” altogether: if so, keep moving, nothing to see here. But as any charted music act well knows, you don’t pick your hit records, the fans do. You can rock as hard as you like in your live shows and it still might not matter. For example, in the book Ronn Moss of Player recalls opening for Eric Clapton on his Slowhand tour. They’d added lots of more rocky (in other words, nyachty) stuff to their stage show to fit in better with the headliner. They were getting over so well one night that a sloshed Clapton ordered the plug pulled during their set! Yet what we remember from Player is still “Baby Come Back.” If you hit huge with a ballad, then that’s you.
An amazing amount of yacht rock was played by the same musicians, studio cats who migrated from session to session. This was the generation that succeeded the legendary Wrecking Crew of Sixties pop non-fame (by now sidemen were getting album credit; did you know that Toni Tennille was a singer on Pink Floyd’s THE WALL?). A bunch of session players even formed a band that worked out pretty well: they called it Toto.
The oral history wastes too much space on a discussion of rock fashion and a report on the political career of Orleans’s John Hall, who served two terms in Congress — they don’t have anything to do with the subject. But it’s crammed full of tidbits like Rupert Holmes’s recollection of recording what author Greg Prato calls “The Yacht Rock National Anthem.” He’d written a story song called “Escape,” which had the line, “If you like Humphrey Bogart.” On the spot, over the mike, Holmes decided that “escape” meant getting to an island paradise, and the color the lyric needed was “pina colada,” a drink you would only ever order on a relaxing vacation. The public chose “Escape” as a huge hit, and that’s what it said on the first pressing. But store clerks reported that they had trouble finding this record the kids were asking for: “the pina colada song.” So now the official title is “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” He didn’t realize it then, but with that instant decision Rupert Holmes set sail for the mystic land of yacht rock.