When Was 'Peak Yacht'?
By Timothy Malcolm
I’m a sucker for the Billboard Hot 100. As an extension, I’m a sucker for SiriusXM’s 80s on 8 “Big 40 Countdown.”
Recently the Countdown featured the top-40 from the week of Oct. 4, 1980. As I cruised in my sweet American-made compact car along winding New York suburban parkways, I cried tears of joy because the program was filled with an abundance of Yacht Rock and Soul.
Peep these tunes:
- 4. “Give Me the Night” by George Benson
- 11. “Real Love” by the Doobie Brothers
- 15. “He’s So Shy” by the Pointer Sisters
- 16. “Hot Rod Hearts” by Robbie Dupree
- 20. “Look What You’ve Done to Me” by Boz Scaggs
- 24. “How Do I Survive” by Amy Holland
- 25. “You’re the Only Woman” by Ambrosia
- 31. “Who’ll Be the Fool Tonight” by the Larsen-Feiten Band
Major players like the Doobies and Ambrosia are here. There’s a Woman of Yacht (Michael McDonald’s wife Holland), a Women of Yacht (Pointer Sisters), a combination of two guys together (Larsen-Feiten), Yacht Soul (Benson), a Yacht-postor (Dupree), and Boz! Something for every Yacht lover.
This startling combination of smoothness, studio professionalism and sentimental lyrical themes started my mind. I wondered: Could this be the greatest week in Yacht history (for this exercise I’m combining Yacht Rock and sub-genre Yacht Soul into the umbrella term “Yacht”)? Was this Peak Yacht, when the genre reached its climax among mainstream listeners, just after the death of disco but before the rise of new wave?
I couldn’t sleep until I had an answer. So, of course, I started researching. Because that’s what I do.
Scouring the insane website weeklytop40.wordpress.com (I love you guys), I started my (non-scientific and not definitive) investigation.
The early days of Yacht, filled with Steely Dan experimentation, McDonald’s ascension and David Foster’s first breakthroughs, never quite cut it. The sound wasn’t completely perfect yet, and mainstream audiences hadn’t fully accepted the tonnage of Yacht perfection. Here are some decent weeks:
Oct. 21, 1978: Early-Yacht staple “How Much I Feel” by Ambrosia is settled in at No. 11. Steely Dan is here, with “Josie” over at No. 26. Close by is “I Just Wanna Stop” by Gino Vannelli at No. 24. Hall & Oates’ Foster-produced “It’s a Laugh,” which has to rate close to 50 on the Yachtski Scale, is at No. 23.
How about Michael Johnson’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” which sounds so Yachty and comes in at No. 32? There’s an argument to be made for Paul Davis’ “Sweet Life” at No. 36. And Pablo Cruise’s “Don’t Want to Live Without It” is hanging at No. 40.
This countdown looks stacked, but how much of it is true Yacht, and how much is AM Gold that sounds a little like Yacht? Hard to say. I contend we’re still getting warmed up, and it’s impossible for Peak Yacht to be occurring this early.
Feb. 10, 1979: “What a Fool Believes” is starting its run to the top, this week showing up at No. 32. Nearby is Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love” (33). Also on this countdown is Nicolette Larson’s “Lotta Love” (10). But that’s it. Toto is here with “Hold the Line” (34), but it’s a little too rocking to be on the boat. The band’s next single “Georgy Porgy” wouldn’t reach the top-40.
1980-1982: First peak
The week of Oct. 4, 1980, is staggering. However, I found during my investigation that there’s an even better week slightly earlier in the year.
Sept. 13, 1980, has the very same songs as Oct. 4, but with one addition - “Sailing” by Christopher Cross, still in the top-10 because everyone was still stricken with with Cross Fever, acquired in the summer of ‘80.
Thus, Sept. 13, 1980, is better than Oct. 4, 1980. It has the bonanza artists, some good C-level Yacht Rock, Yacht Soul variety and, arguably, the biggest success of the Yacht Rock genre, Mr. Cross and his trademark tune.
May 2, 1981: This is a fun week, with Yacht Soul track “Just the Two of Us” hitting No. 2, Vannelli’s “Living Inside Myself” entering the top-10 (9), plus Steely Dan’s “Time Out of Mind” (22), Ray Parker Jr.’s “A Woman Needs Love” (25), and Christopher Cross’ “Say You’ll Be Mine” (31). And Toto-esque “Love You Like I Never Loved Before” by John O’Banion hits No. 28. Close but not quite.
Dec. 11, 1982: We never quite approach anything like 1980 in ‘82, but the end of the year is interesting with some strong material. Michael Jackson’s “The Girl is Mine” is here (5), along with Toto’s “Africa” (18), “Baby, Come to Me” by Patti Austin and James Ingram (25), Donald Fagen’s “I.G.Y.” (26), and Loggins’ “Heart to Heart” (31). Heavy hitters, to be sure.
1983-1984: Second peak
Feb. 5, 1983: Though it’s later in the genre history, one can argue that Yacht may have peaked here.
This wintry week in 1983 gave us “Africa” (1), “Baby, Come to Me” (4), “Heart to Heart” (15), “The Girl is Mine” (16) and Cross’ “All Right” (19), his sneaky great song.
Here’s the question: Is Peak Yacht a week when a staggering variety floods the charts (like in 1980), or a week when the cream of the crop places high on the charts? There’s no room for the Larsen-Feiten Band in 1983.
May 21, 1983: Three months later we get the final salvo of Yacht’s peak years. Toto’s “I Won’t Hold You Back” (15), Al Jarreau’s “Mornin’” (21), Champaign’s very Yacht Soul-esque “Try Again” (28) and Cross’ “No Time For Talk” (39) are here.
There is one other week.
Oct. 4, 1986: Six years to the day after where we started, we get - possibly - the final week of the Yacht genre as mainstream music. It’s on this week that, like two ships passing in the night, McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom” exits the countdown (36) and Toto’s “I’ll Be Over You” ascends (37). United together, these two songs say different things about the same cold reality.
In the end, there are two obvious high points in Yacht history: late-summer to fall 1980, when the early Yacht Rock sound seemed to peak, giving way to a host of overnight sensations; and winter 1982-83, when the sound reached its polished zenith thanks to tried-and-true, heavy-hitting artists and producers.
With more extensive plotting we may be able to see a pure trajectory of Yacht success, which could lead us to better conclusions. For now, however, I’ll contend that Yacht peaked once in the fall of 1980, then reached its ultimate peak in winter 1982-83, before steadily falling to where “Sweet Freedom” and “I’ll Be Over You” - songs on opposite poles of the Yacht spectrum but equally affecting - crossed and completed the journey.
Timothy Malcolm, the archivist of the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast, writes about a lot of things. Find his music writing at populistener.com, and much of his other writing at tsmalcolm.com. Follow him on Twitter at @timothymalcolm.