Yacht Rock: A Love Letter

I come not to bury Yacht Rock, but to tell you why it’s fucking awesome.

And no, I’m not joking, this is not a parody post, and I ain’t takin’ no shit from any haters, here.

So get yourself a tall glass of something refreshing (preferably with an umbrella in it), make sure you know your iTunes password (’cause you’re gonna be buying some music) and get comfortable, because we’ve got a lot to talk about, and there’s no point in wasting time.

The term “Yacht Rock” first surfaced for many of us some twelve years ago, as the brainchild of a handful of SNL-wannabe millennials on a site called Channel101 (before YouTube swallowed up all the also-rans that swam in its wake in those days). They made a mockumentary series that chronicled the birth and eventual death of what they deemed “Yacht Rock” – their term for the highly polished soft-rock music popular from the end of the seventies and into the pre-“Thriller” early 1980’s.

The term eventually caught on in spite of (or maybe because of) the amateur fratboy-prank footage that comprised the series and before most of us realized what was happening, the term “Yacht Rock” had managed to elbow its way into the musical vernacular.

So, since it now actually means something, let’s first agree on the definition of the term, shall we?

Yacht Rock (n.): A subset of popular (largely American) music generally released between the years 1976 and 1983 whose practitioners generally valued highly sophisticated chord changes, lush arrangements to include a very dry drum sound with very little decay and no bottom heads on the toms, usually a prominent Wurlitzer or Fender Rhodes keyboard sound, generous use of strings, horns and layered vocal harmonies. Practitioners of Yacht Rock from a production standpoint included Ted Templeman, Mo Ostin, Lenny Waronker, Kyle Lehning, and others.

Yacht Rock actually has an extensive (but thin on actual content) Wikipedia page, which defines it as:

“… broad music style and aesthetic identified with soft rock. It was one of the commercially successful genres of its era, existing between the mid-1970s and early 1980s.  Drawing on sources such as smooth soul, smooth jazz, R&B, funk and disco, common stylistic traits include high-quality production, clean vocals, and a focus on light, catchy melodies…”

As time has passed and the term has become evergreen, misconceptions about the term have grown over time. Many folks have used it as an umbrella to cover everything from Cat Stevens to Kenny G to Coldplay and, frankly, folks, that shit needs to stop.

LET THE RE-EDUCATION BEGIN

The single biggest mistake people allow themselves to make is to lazily categorize bands as being “Yacht Rock Bands”.

While it is true that some bands spent far more time in the Yacht Rock Mines than others, there is one universal truth that we have to acknowledge here, or this whole missive is pointless.

SONGS are “Yacht Rock” before BANDS are. BANDS can have SONGS that fit the category without being a “Yacht Rock Band”.

THE SONG ALWAYS COMES FIRST.

Shall we take a look at some examples?

AMERICA – “Horse With No Name“? No. “You Can Do Magic“? YES.

STEELY DAN – “Reelin’ In The Years“? No. “Peg“? Absofuckinlutely.

EAGLES – “Already Gone“? Not even close. “I Can’t Tell You Why“? YES.

HALL AND OATES – “Sara Smile“? Nah. “You Make My Dreams“? YEP.

KENNY LOGGINS – “I’m Alright“? No. Damn never everything else? Well…

you get it by now, right?

What we’re establishing here is that even the most conspicuous practitioners of the form are capable of stepping outside the Marina – just call up Steve Perry, record “Don’t Fight It” and shake off that stigma!

WHAT CAME FIRST – THE YACHT OR THE ROCK?

You may ask yourself – how did we get here?

Well, when looking at the music of that period in time in context with what came before, it’s not terribly hard to see how we landed our craft on this particular dock. The decade or so that preceded the advent of Yacht Rock was one of the most creatively fruitful in the history of popular music, and you gotta know that shit ain’t gonna last forever. But some of the explosions in the fabric of popular music that occurred in the early Seventies laid the groundwork for the delicious evolution of the Smooth Monolith that was Yacht Rock. If you factor in the fusion chops of Return to Forever and Mahavishnu, throw in a healthy dose of Gamble and Huff and the Philly Soul/TSOP catalog, a little Motown arrangement sensibility, and the accessibility and harmony of the pop music of the time – the only thing that could come from that casserole would be Yacht Rock.

Sure, that period in pop music history could be described as a lull between Woodstock and Punk if you need to call it something…but man, there were some great songs, some great singers, and some great bands turning out records during Yacht Rock’s heyday.

So let’s jump into the water, shall we?

THE SONGS, THE SINGERS, THE STORIES

My single biggest gripe with most of the know-nothings who like to throw the term around, on social media and elsewhere, tend to fall into the same trap. They all name check the same handful of artists over and over again, and while some folks have earned the label, other acts who deserve it seem to endlessly dodge the label and are left out of the conversation.

We’re gonna fix that today.

OK, let’s review the typical name-drops first.

STEELY DAN

Listening to Steely Dan’s landmark AJA album, it’s hard to argue that they haven’t earned a place at The Marina with the rest of Yacht Rock’s finest, and I seldom bother to argue about their inclusion. But if we accept the premise that the Yacht Rock Badge is awarded to songs over artists, we have to look at their catalog and consider songs like “Dirty Work“, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number“, “My Old School” and others and admit to ourselves that they don’t really carry the typical Yacht-like benchmarks. So sure, they dallied – perhaps much longer than they should have – at the docks and created some classics of the genre – “Hey Nineteen“, “Deacon Blues“, “Peg“, “FM“, and many, MANY more.

HALL AND OATES

Hell, they even made the original mockumentary, as did The Dan. And yeah, some of their material lives up to the descriptors of the genre, hands down. But dig a little further back into their catalog and take a look at songs like “How Does It Feel To Be Back” (an early single from their “Voices” album – one of their first to dip its toes into the waters of The Marina) or just about anything from “Abandoned Luncheonette” and it becomes clear that they had more depth and dimension than could be considered fair to be pigeonholed.

THE DOOBIE BROTHERS

This one makes me fucking crazy.

I have to assume that the same folks who consider the Doobies to be a Yacht Rock band probably would drop cash at the record store for a copy of Genesis’ “Wind and Wuthering” expecting to hear Phil Collins ballads on it.

Not unlike Genesis, we have to acknowledge that there are really two bands by the same name in both cases – just as there was Genesis before and after the Phil Collins Non-Hostile Takeover, we have to acknowledge that there are two separate bands – the Michael McDonald Version and the Other Band.

This might be an odd point in this diatribe to introduce this sidebar, but if you’ve bothered to read this far, it’s vitally important that you recognize, accept and acknowledge the Singular Universal Truth of Yacht Rock.

THERE IS NO YACHT ROCK WITHOUT MICHAEL MCDONALD. HE IS THE JESUS, ELVIS, MICHAEL JORDAN AND MUHAMMAD ALI OF YACHT ROCK.

The Doobies are often stigmatized in the genre due to the fact that the Messiah spent a few albums’ worth of his career as a member of the band – and also because the fucking National Anthem of Yacht Rock still carries their name on the sleeve:

Record of the Year at the Grammy awards in 1979, folks. Written by Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins (the Lennon and McCartney of Yacht Rock) and a classic, undeniable hit record if ever there was one, this song put the genre on the map and is still one of the most perfect examples of everything that makes Yacht Rock great.

So that’s definitely a thing that happened.

BUT….BUT – before this, there was “China Grove“. There was “Jesus is Just Alright“. There was “Long Train Runnin’” and “Listen To The Music” and “Rockin’ Down The Highway” and DAMMIT I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO POINT THIS SHIT OUT TO PEOPLE, FOR CRYIN’ OUT LOUD GO TO THE MALL AND STOP PRETENDING TO GIVE A SHIT ABOUT MUSIC….

OK, sorry. I had to get that outta my system. Now…let’s get to some of the folks who have EARNED the Yacht Rock distinction.

YACHT ROCK HALL OF FAMERS

Some folks have carried the Yacht Rock banner high and proudly over the years – maybe not necessarily embracing the title, but staying true to their musical stripes and proudly plying their trade…in some cases, playing the old songs alongside new material that they’ve continued to release in the time since the apex of their popularity.

One of those is Christopher Cross.

A short medley of what makes Christopher Cross a true badass.

Christopher Cross hit the ground just as the Yacht Rock Revolution was hitting its stride and carried the momentum into the 80’s with one of the classics of the genre, “Sailing” – which may be responsible for the label in the first place. His first two records (his self-titled debut and the stellar followup, “Another Page“) are absolute must-haves. His debut contains his first single, “Ride Like The Wind” as well as “Never Be The Same“, all radio staples. The follow-up had singles in “No Time For Talk“, “All Right” and “Think of Laura“, but every song on that record is amazing – the duet with Karla Bonoff, “What Am I Supposed To Believe” is achingly beautiful, as are “Nature Of The Game“, “Talking In My Sleep“, and the album closer, “Words of Wisdom“.

Unlike some of the other band who richly deserve to be filed under the Yacht Rock category but seldom come up in conversation, Christopher Cross seems to have earned the designation for his namesake song, but his early work is a rich vein of smooth goodness.

Now, let’s talk about some other bands who are richly deserving of the Yacht Rock moniker, but who seldom come up in conversation.

How about Ambrosia?

It could be argued that Ambrosia tripped and fell backwards into the Yacht Rock pantheon, as they had a long and storied history before the series of records bearing their best known songs were released in the late seventies.

A sampling of Ambrosia’s best known songs…

Lead singer David Pack had an expressive, distinct voice and their songs carried all the hallmarks of classic Yachtness – keyboard-centric arrangements that featured catchy melodies and densely layered harmonies over a tight, understated rhythm section. They created some incredibly memorable songs, but people seem to have complete amnesia when it comes to who recorded them.

So let’s move on to the two bands that are most deserving of Yacht Rock stature that NOBODY EVER SEEMS TO MENTION IN THESE FRIGGIN’ CONVERSATIONS BECAUSE THEY’RE TOO HUNG UP ON KENNY LOGGINS FOR SOME GODDAMN REASON:

The runners-up: England Dan and John Ford Coley!

Nobody…and i mean NOBODY – was smoother than these cats.

If you’ve ever ventured into a record store in modern times, one of the things you’ll invariably notice (whether it actually dawns on you or not) will be the sheer volume of albums that some artists have in their discography. I swear to Buddy Christ, I can’t think of a single reason for there to be so many damned Uriah Heep albums, but if you ever find yourself digging through the bargain bin at your local used record store, YOU WILL PONDER THIS QUESTION.

This can be said of a lot of acts for whom chart success or radio play was either fleeting or elusive altogether, but England Dan and John Ford Coley had one hell of a run. From their breakout hits like “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight”, “Nights Are Forever”, “Falling Stars”, “It’s Sad To Belong” and “Gone Too Far” through their latter chart hits like “Love Is The Answer” and “We’ll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again”, it seemed like there was always a song on the radio by these guys for a solid six or seven years.

So why don’t people mention them when the heavy hitters of Yacht Rock are being discussed? Is it the name? Is it too much to remember?

One of the mysteries of life, man.

But our grand prize winner – I’ll never understand why they’re not mentioned in the same breath with King Michael when the roll call happens.

Pablo Fucking Cruise.

Seriously, click this goddamn link, because you need to hear this.

If somebody went to Central Casting and said to the lady behind the desk, “Hey, listen…I need a prototypical Yacht Rock band…smooth grooves and lush, layered arrangements played by dudes in sandals and hawaiian shirts who sing great together…and they should look fuckin’ happy to be everywhere they go!” – she would’ve reached in her top desk drawer and pulled out an 8 x 10 glossy of Pablo Cruise and you’d be so happy you made that call that you’d jam a straw into the nearest pineapple.

Seriously – these guys created some of the most straight-up, unadulterated Yacht Fodder of the entire era, but people are too busy looking like idiots by trying to jam the Doobies down our throats to remember that these dudes deserve at least Thomas Jefferson status on the Yacht Rock Mount Rushmore, but for way too many people, they barely manage to earn Grover Cleveland status…which doesn’t get them on the mountain, but they damn well deserve to be.

Go back up there and listen to that clip if you haven’t – absolute Sailboat Gold, right there.

SAILING IN OBSCURITY – YACHT ROCK’S UNSUNG HEROES

Now that we’ve got you thinking – and hopefully, questioning everything you thought you knew about Yacht Rock – I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce you to a few folks who may have flown under your radar, some amazing songs that never got their due and should be considered classics in the genre, save for the fact that they just never managed to achieve critical mass.

(Amy Holland’s “How Do I Survive” from 1980)

You’ve likely never heard of Amy Holland – if you have, you may know her as Mrs. Michael McDonald, as they’ve been married since 1983 and have two children (who will inherit the Yacht Rock throne someday, whether they ever sing a note or not. It’s just how shit works.) This song barely made a ripple when it came out, but it’s textbook Yachtness is delicious.

(Chris Rea – Fool If You Think It’s Over from 1978)

I challenge you to try to get the chorus of this song out of your head after listening to it all the way through. Hypnosis might not even work. Rea enjoyed a long career as a recording artist in Europe, but this song was his lone American radio single…and it’s a great one.

(Terence Boylan – Did She Finally Get To You from 1980)

There are three versions of this video on YouTube, and combined, they have less than a thousand views – Terence Boylan isn’t exactly a household name, and only made a couple of records, including this single that came out on Elektra/Asylum in 1980. I found it in a box in the attic of a radio station I worked at in high school (along with Florence Warner’s brilliant Epic debut album from 1973 or so, but that’s a whole ‘nother diatribe for another time). Great chorus, very understated arrangement and maybe barely only qualifies for Yacht Rock status, but it’s my blog so I make the goddamn rules.

(Robbie Dupree, Steal Away – 1980)

1979 and 1980 were magical years for Yacht Rock – so many classics from the genre surfaced during those two years…it was like 1967, but with cocaine instead of LSD. Actually, it was nothing like 1967, so let’s abandon that premise and take a minute to appreciate a masterfully crafted recording with a cameo by Michael McDonald in the bridge. Swooning is both allowed and encouraged.

(Lauren Wood, Half as Much (1981)

Lauren recorded two albums for Warner Brothers, one in 1979 and the followup (which contained this near-perfect example of YachtRockery) in 1981 before vanishing for almost fifteen years, only to resurface with a song on the Pretty Woman soundtrack called “Fallen“. Her voice is an amazingly distinctive instrument and nearly every song on her two Warners records is a textbook example of the genre, but this one is something special.

(Jim Photoglo, “Fool In Love With You”, 1981)

Fool In Love With You” was the title track from Jim’s second record on the UA label in 1981, released after his first album managed to chart two songs, “We Were Meant To Be Lovers” and “When Love Is Gone” in 1980. As a label, UA had a short lifespan, but turned out to be the Motown of Yacht Rock, siring the careers of Photoglo, Robbie Dupree, and Christopher Cross.

(Franke and the Knockouts, “Sweetheart” (1981)

This song was literally everywhere the summer it came out. Maybe not where you lived, but between the rivers in West Tennessee, it seemed like it was on EVERY radio station multiple times a day. The band went on to make three records for their label (Millenium) before folding in the mid eighties. Drummer Tico Torres went on to play with a struggling hard rock outfit called Bon Jovi and lead singer Franke Previte wrote an obscure song called “I’ve Had The Time of my Life” for a movie that had some success called “Dirty Dancing“.

(Cliff Richard, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”, 1979)

Cliff Richard enjoyed Ricky Nelson-esque status as a pop star in the UK dating back to the early 60’s, but this song (along with his hits “Dreaming” and “Carrie“) were his Yacht Rock staples of the late seventies in the US.

(Greg Guidry, “Goin’ Down” from 1982)

By 1982, the smooth sounds of Yacht Rock had peaked, although you’d have a hard time arguing as much looking at the pop charts – but within the space of the next two years, the world would have to contend with Madonna, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince’s Purple Rain, Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, and the slowly turning tide of influence as MTV began to dictate what radio played instead of the other way around. This song, Greg’s only chart hit, reached the top 20 in 1982 as Yacht Rock’s reign began to fade.

YACHT ROCK’S TRAGICALLY OVERLOOKED SUPERGROUP

Rock and roll is cluttered with tragedies – artists who died at their creative peak without ever achieving any tangible success, records that were born of some magic combination of timing and talent that fell on deaf ears and never saw the light of day, musicians who couldn’t set aside their personal differences in spite of undeniable chemistry, and we’ve canonized some of the legendary stories of some of those artists over the past seventy years of popular music history.

Yacht Rock has its own tragic story of a blockbuster success that never was, a band whose recorded output culminated in a third album that has never been equaled in terms of sheer songcraft, musicianship and production qualities.

Nielsen Pearson was the Big Star of Yacht Rock.

They made three albums before disappearing into obscurity and oblivion, culminating in Blind Luck, their masterpiece that came out on Capitol in 1983. Unlike the Memphis power pop band who managed to achieve critical acclaim years after their dissolution, Nielsen Pearson never managed to harvest the success that the quality of their final album deserved. Their Wikipedia page is – quite literally – two sentences.

Seriously, TWO SENTENCES.

A long-abandoned MySpace page, linked at the bottom of their uncomfortably bare Wikipedia entry, rounds out the remaining information available about them online. Reed Nielsen passed away in 2014 after settling in Nashville and having some songwriting success here, and there’s no trace of Mark Pearson whatsoever (unless he and the Folksinger Mark Pearson are the same person, which seems preposterously unlikely).

Mystique abounds, however.

The masterful third album, Blind Luck, is somehow posted in its entirely on SoundCloud:

If you’re somehow still reading this voluminous love letter, then this record is my personal thank-you to you, dear reader. This record deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with Michael McDonald’s genre-defining solo debut, If That’s What It Takes or Christopher Cross’ masterful second album, Another Page.

This record captures two individually talented singers and songwriters operating in perfect harmony, both with easily identifiable voices but working together in sublimely complementary fashion. EVERY SONG is a textbook example of the genre – from the failed radio single “Hasty Heart” that opens up side one to “Carrie” that closes out side two of the record.

The only chart single the band would ever have was “If You Should Sail” from their Capitol debut, Nielsen Pearson…that song was a top 40 hit in 1980.

Obscurity claims so, so many talented folks – artists, writers, musicians, poets, actors – luckily for Reed and Mark, there was tape rolling while they were hitting their stride and these songs were preserved for those of us who know where to look.

So, fellow Yacht Rock lover, I leave you today to listen to this lost classic of the genre and ponder how we all missed out on a record that came so close to defining the entire genre, only to fall on deaf ears and almost disappear under the dust of years past.

Let us ponder the wonders of Yacht Rock for years to come…

…but seriously – don’t mention the Doobie Brothers if you want anyone to take you seriously.

One thought on “Yacht Rock: A Love Letter

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