My favorite Yacht Rock episode: Steely Dan vs. The Eagles
I turned 40 last September, but it's only been in the last couple of months that middle age has seemed real. Aches and pains don't leave me, but set up shop like unwelcome squatters in my body. Every few days my right ankle feels like somebody whacked it with an aluminum bat. I don't even remember what minor injury brought this on, but the pain isn't going away. My knees creak and crackle when I sit down, my back is as stiff as Al Gore when I wake up in the morning. I still exercise and eat reasonably well, but those habits don't seem to be working as well at holding off my thickening midsection as they used to.
What I am noticing even more than my softening belly are my softening tastes. Yeah sure every now and then I want to put "Loose" by the Stooges on the hi-fi an let 'er rip, but I am just as likely to want to put "Right Down The Line" by Gerry Rafferty on the turntable. My activities this holiday weekend are a good example of my middle aged softening. On Memorial Sunday I had about an hour of time to myself while my daughters were upstairs failing to take a nap. (I tried, I really did.) I spent it sitting out on my screened-in back porch, drinking coffee and reading while listening to a genre of music known as Yacht Rock. (More on that in a bit)
There was a time not long ago when my Memorial Day weekends were very different. I remember traveling to Atlanta or Michigan to meet up with old friends while draining pints, growlers, and sixers of the finest brew. Before that, in grad school, it was three days of the same, just with more people and less travel. Things have changed, obviously, especially the music.
I was first introduced to the concept of Yacht Rock about a decade ago through the great and eponymous web series. (The guys from it now have their own music podcast, well worth checking out.) Yacht Rock is best described as the smooth LA rock music of the late 70s and early 80s best embodied by Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Hall and Oates, Steely Dan, and Toto. I knew the music already, I just hadn't really conceptualized it yet. The show made me laugh, mostly because of how seriously it took this music, which I thought (Steely Dan apart) was irredeemably middle of the road and cheesy.
Somewhere, somehow along the line I actually started listening to the music for its own sake, and even enjoying it. While the likes of 10cc, Gerry Rafferty, Fleetwood Mac, and songs such as Player's "Baby Come Back" aren't Yacht Rock by the narrow definition offered by JD Ryznar and the other creators of the show,* I added them to my rotation, too. I chalk it all up to my middle-age softening. At this point I am going to give myself over to it and stop fighting it, since there's nothing more pathetic than an old person trying to be young.
With all that in mind, here's my top five list of Yacht Rock songs (narrowly defined):
5. The Doobie Brothers "What A Fool Believes"
Here's the song that kicked off the Yacht Rock web series, and with good reason. The Doobies were yer typical 70s blues rockers, with a few hits to their name. In the late 70s they sold their souls to the Yacht Rock devil, going high on the charts by sanding the sharp corners and replacing their bluesy funk with something folks call "the Doobie bounce." Michael McDonald's otherworldly voice when he sings "Wise man has the power" launched a thousand yacht rock songs.
4. Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald "This Is It"
Now here's some smooth music with a little bite. It starts with Kenny and Michael, the two towering figures of Yacht Rock, singing all soft and coy, but then Kenny lets loose with some spunky emoting while Michael McDonald blasts forth with his tell-tale voice that "this is it!" How could you not believe him? This is possibly the smoothest song about fighting ever written.
3. Michael Jackson "Human Nature"
Few people know this, but Toto is ALL OVER Michael Jackson's Thriller album. Eddie Van Halen famously plays the solo on "Beat It," but it's Steve Lukather with the kickin' guitar riff that drives the song. On "Human Nature," however, the music is as smooth as the water of a placid cove. The gloved one singing on the bridge combined with the crystaline synth is awful dang pretty, like a sailboat on the blue horizon.
2. Michael McDonald "I Keep Forgetting"
This is probably the only Yacht Rock song to give birth to a gangta rap classic. ("Regulate" by Warren G and Nate Dogg.) McDonald was the king of Yacht Rock, lending his lead vocals to the Doobie Brothers and his backing vocals to just about everyone else, from Steely Dan to Christopher Cross. (His ubiquity gave rise to a classic SCTV sketch.) In the 80s he had a chance to show off his talents as a solo artist, and this song does not disappoint. His, shall we say, "unique" voice has the perfect bed of spooky electric piano and busy eletrobass to rest on here.
1. Steely Dan "Deacon Blues"
Let's get a little meta, shall we? Here is a Yacht Rock song about, of all things, being old. Steely Dan was my Yacht Rock gateway drug, I started digging them after a friend made me a mix tape (remember those?) with some Dan deep cuts on it. While the first Steely Dan records were not completely smooth, 1977's Aja was as smooth as Cary Grant in Charade. "Deacon Blues" is sung from the perspective of an aging jazz musician, one know living on the "suburban streets," never having found fame, but still playing his music. It contains some of Donald Fagen's best lines, from "I cried when I wrote this song/ Sue me if I play too long" to "They've got a name for the winners in the world/ I want a name when I lose/ They call Alabama the Crimson Tide/ Call me Deacon Blues." It's a song about sticking to your guns and being yourself, but from the perspective of wise middle age rather than callow youth. For that reason I love it.
*They see Yacht Rock as something very specific, more scene-related than sound related. The same studio musicians played on the narrowly-defined Yacht Rock stuff, and it had a heavy jazz influence