Late 1970s Yacht Rock: The Raw Power of Really Smooth Music

Excerpt from the Crosby, Stills, Nash song Southern Cross (1982):

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
You understand now why you came this way.
‘Cause the truth you might be runnin’ from is so small.
But it’s as big as the promise – The promise of a comin’ day.

My friend, the late Steve Gursky, had worked as recording engineer on some Stephen Stills projects. Since Steve kind of knew Stills, I asked him about the meaning of the lyrics to The Southern Cross. I posited that it was maybe about some sort of spiritual feelings about being from the southern United States. Steve burst out laughing and said: “That was the name of his boat–The Southern Cross.”

Well, there you have it. Musically I was born a decade too late. The american Top 40 in 1967 contained some of the finest pop/rock ever made, while the late 1970s brought what I considered the scourge of the top 40: smooth rock, mellow rock…yacht rock. Apparently many musicians in those days took their first $20,000 record company advance, purchased a boat, and wrote songs inspired by their time upon the water.

I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was quite discouraging. In any case, sometime in the late 1990s, I spent countless hours in a certain internet forum liberally populated by professional recording engineers, including Gursky. Somebody, I think his handle was Spock, pointed out the hilarity of the Yacht Rock series of mocumentaries, and I checked it out, much to my delight.

I consider these to be masterpiece short stories. Each episode begins with a setup from ‘Hollywood Steve’ who becomes crazier in each subsequent episode. The video then states the problem, shows people struggling with it, and then its resolution, making lavish satirical use of film cliche.

While there is some artistic licence taken in the details, such as exaggeration of interpersonal conflict, all of the major music industry characters presented in these videos have acknowledged that the stories are to a large degree true. If you find the first video as hilarious as I did, I commend you to go on youtube, or channel101 (where they came from) and see the rest. Be sure to search for the HD versions of these masterpieces. Also, be warned, ample use of the vernacular (coarse language).

In the first episode, we find Michael McDonald needs to write a hit song pronto, or he will get kicked out of the Doobie Brothers. In the second video, we see the Back Alley Songwriting Duel of 1978 which leads to tragedy for an advocate of smooth rock, but the discovery of a new smooth musician. And now, taking a iconic quote from one of the videos, I present to you the “raw power of really smooth music.”

Chrissy Hynde curses the furies!

To my thinking, the greatest intellectual contribution of the Ancient Greeks  was the way they wrestled with the one of the most confounding existential mysteries of the human condition: Man’s inability to escape suffering, and more pointedly, the uselessness of righteous living as a talisman against tragedy.

For hundreds of years considered a core component of a good education, modern educators have determined that Greek philosophy and theatre are not very useful for Marxian didacticism, and hence the material is accessible to most only in elective college classes. Ancient Greek thought has much to offer us, as its sophistication, comprehensiveness of topic, and remoteness in time (2,500 years ago) provides insight into the universality of the human condition, occasionally doing so with a sublimely dark ironic wit.

Significant in Ancient Greek theatre was the notion of man mightily struggling against his fate.  The Greeks imagined mythical Fates and Furies who used their godlike powers to torment man, and explored the notion that man has a fixed and pre-determined fate that he is powerless to escape.

Classics professor William Arrowsmith suggested that Greek Tragedy posits that in man’s struggle, and inevitable defeat at the hands of fate, we behold that which is most noble and heroic about human existence.  While not an uplifting philosophy, it is very durable in the face of disaster, and is distressingly difficult to dismiss.

Whether she knew it or not, Chrissy Hynde, singer for The Pretenders, devestated by her  fate, cursed the furies, proving herself the equal of any ancient human hero of Greek mythology.

The Pretenders, a British band had some success in the early 1980s. In their prime, they created a number of catchy New Wave tunes and moved a lot of vinyl. However, to me their crowning achievement was the 1982 ballad Back On The Chain Gang. Peaking at #5 on the US charts in 1983, the song is said to have been inspired both by Hynde’s relationship with Ray Davies, of Kinks fame, father of her daughter, and also the 1982 overdose death of The Pretender’s guitarist. I also hear anecdotally that Hynde doesn’t like to perform it live, due to the painful memories it invokes.

But as is often the case, human misery is a cradle of creative brilliance, and Chrissy’s powerful and original metaphors transcend the trite writing that often plagues lamentations:

I found a picture of you. What hijacked my world that night. To a place in the past we’ve been cast  out of. Now we’re back in the fight.

A circumstance beyond our control. The phone, T.V. and the News of the World*. Got in a house like a pigeon from hell. Threw sand in our eyes and descended like flies.

Building to the penultimate moment whence she defiantly curses the furies:

The powers that be force us to live like they do. They bring me to my knees when I see what they’ve done to you. But I’ll die as I stand here today, knowing that deep in my heart, they’ll fall to ruin one day for making us part.

 

* The News of The World was a british newspaper.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s–A wry torcher from 1995

While the quality of pop/rock music probably peaked in 1967 and was running on fumes after 1985, we do find the occasional nuggets.

A couple of brothers from Texas, Todd and Tony Pipes, formed Deep Blue Something in 1992. They charted their one hit Breakfast at Tiffany’s, released in 1995, peaking at 5th on the American charts and number one in England in 1996. Song writer Todd Pipes reported the song was inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s performance in the film Roman Holiday, but thought one of her other movies would make a better title. I have always liked it for its touching and wry understatement. The protagonist’s girlfriend wants to dump him, stating they have nothing in common. He responds:

And I said what about “Breakfast at Tiffany’s?
She said, “I think I remember the film,
And as I recall, I think, we both kinda liked it.”
And I said, “Well, that’s the one thing we’ve got.

Aint No Grave

The first time I heard this on the car radio, it really put a hook in me. I did some reading and found that when Johnny Cash was near the end of his life, producer Rick Ruben set him up with a microphone in a living room sort of setting and recorded Cash, later adding minimal accompaniment. This traditional song from the Southern United States is a reflection on Judgement Day as described in the biblical Apocalypse of John, where the righteous, or saved, physically rise up from their graves in response to the angel Gabriel blowing his trumpet.

A close listen will reveal that Led Zeppelin, as they were wont to do, used the idea and some of the lyric as the basis for their anthem “In My Time of Dying”–which also put a hook in me the first time I heard Zeppelin play it at the Met Center in 1975.

I think one of Cash’s strengths as a singer was an honesty in his delivery, and that honesty powers this performance.

An ageless Torch Song from a young woman

When Jewel was dumped by the young man who took his coat off and stood in the rain, she doubtless felt it was a horrible low point in her life.  She couldn’t have known how that poignant moment, later immortalized in song, would transform her life into stardom–when at the age of 21, she entered a studio and recorded one of the finest Torch Songs of all time, Foolish Games.

Growing up in Alaska in a house without indoor plumbing, and later impoverished and living in a van while she travelled around earning money with street performances, she certainly paid her dues by the time she recorded her multi-platinum 1995 debut album Pieces of You. Foolish Games was released from it as a single in 1997, reached #2 on the charts, and remained on the charts for what was at the time a record 65 weeks.

Back in the day, I spent a non-trivial amount of time discussing the theory of pop music, with the late recording engineer/producer Steve Gurskey, and his view was that the singer and the song were the two most important elements in a great song–and this is a perfect exemplar of Steve’s view. Close miked for intimacy, with a spartan arrangement that highlights Jewel’s voice, the result is spellbinding. While youtube provides many nice live performances, I feel the studio version is the masterpiece and will feature that.

 

The Hollies, 1969. Party on top, serious below

I like to know and report the year that songs charted because they can be seen in their social context. Here we have a delightful 1969 Hollies lip-sync to their rousing Carrie Ann. Its a transitional time in musician appearance, and we see the band wearing the matching suits, previously obligatory for tv appearances, but there is a bit of rebellion going on in the hair department.

To this day, I never quite figured out what the British 1950s school game of ‘Janitor, Monitor’ was.