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.”

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