We Need Yacht Rock - Now, More Than Ever
by Amy Kilgus Chamley
As I tried to make sense of this historic and traumatic week I drifted back once again to the smooth comfort of Yacht Rock. This music has seen us through troubled times before, and it only seems logical to turn to it once again as we try to come to terms with the serious issues we need to deal with together, as a nation. No one can tell what the future holds, but we make the choice of how it goes.
I didn’t realize it until recently, but Yacht Rock is my comfort music. It's the background music of my tween years, when my musical tastes were coalescing and solidifying. I was busy listening to Duran Duran and the Violent Femmes, the Police, Clash and U2. But Yacht Rock was always there - at the grocery store, the dentist's office, the AM radio in the garage - seeping into my subconscious, ready to deploy when I reached (early) middle age and needed it most. In this emotional rollercoaster of a week, I didn't turn to Bono or Sting for solace. I didn't seek the aid of the Durans. No, I turned to Steely Dan, Toto, and the rest of the crew to throw me a lifesaver and get me safely to shore.
It's no coincidence that peak Yacht Rock - when it was most popular, most productive, and smoothest - occurred during another dark time in our country’s history, the late 70's and early 80's. We, as a nation, were struggling through an energy crisis; economic recession; the threat of communism; the beginning of the AIDS crisis; and a president whose deepest roots were in entertainment, not governing. We needed music that would calm and soothe us, and the Yacht Rock crew came ashore to see us through.
In 1978 Ambrosia, Steely Dan, Gino Vanelli and Pablo Cruise were all on the charts. You know what else was going on in 1978? A blizzard killed 51 people in Ohio; Larry Flynt was shot and paralyzed; Anita Bryant convinced St. Paul, Minnesota to repeal its gay rights ordinance; the Unabomber struck for the first time; Love Canal, a neighborhood built on a toxic waste dump was evacuated; the Soviet Union was taking over Afghanistan; the Iranian Revolution resulted in an American oil crisis, which increased inflation and brought on the recession of the 80’s. And if that wasn’t enough, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated and 909 Americans died in the Jonestown Massacre. God, no wonder people craved smooth music.
On the surface, the best Yacht Rock songs are notable for their smoothness - the production, instrumentation, tempo, vocals, lyrics all blend together to create a wave of sonic pleasure that leaves you relaxed, calm, floating... But a deeper listen uncovers important truths that will guide us as we navigate the stormy seas that are surely ahead for our country.
We Gotta Try
Yacht Rock songs are not known for the deep and profound messages hidden in their lyrics. But, sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti, there are lessons to be learned, if you just listen. OCs (Original Captains) Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald are masters of challenging us to take a chance, work a little harder, be our better selves. "You think that maybe it's over? Only if you want it to be," Loggins and McDonald sing in "This is It", a battle cry to remember who you are, stop being a fool, make a choice, and stand up and fight for it. Get it, America? Give another listen to "Heart to Heart", "Keep the Fire", and of course, "I Gotta Try" and try to resist the urgent call to arms that's so deftly masked by sweet electric piano, mid-tempo percussion and soulful vocals.
We Can Work Together
Yacht Rock gives us a model of bipartisan unity and success. Just because you were a Toto, didn't mean you couldn't cross the aisle and play with other artists. The very foundation of Yacht Rock is a group of musicians sharing their ideas, skills and god-given talents all in the service of creating masterpieces of smooth rock. "What a Fool Believes", considered by some to be one of the greatest songs ever written, wasn't the work of Michael McDonald alone. It was created by a coalition of McDonald and Loggins. The Yacht Rock catalog is filled with countless examples of musicians contributing to rival artists' work in order to create a better result. Would "Bad Sneakers", or "Ride Like the Wind" be the treasures they are if Michael McDonald hadn't stepped in? If Jay Graydon, David Foster and Bill Champlin had thought they were above working together, we wouldn't have "After the Love Has Gone" and what kind of world would this be? The Yacht Rock model shows us that we can't retreat and isolate ourselves. We must reach out to members of other bands, or parties, and work collectively for the greater good of our country.
Be Persistent in Working Toward Your Goal
Steely Dan has more lessons to share with us than can possibly fit in this piece. But at this time, the most important thing we can learn from Mr. Becker and Mr. Fagen is persistence. Their goal was to create the smoothest music possible, by any means necessary, no matter how long it took. They worked doggedly in the studio, going over minute details endlessly in pursuit of musical perfection. As they were producing "Peg", Steely Dan didn't give up after hearing seven different guitar solos that didn't quite match their vision. They kept at it until Jay Graydon showed up and played arguably one of the most notable guitar solos in rock music. Becker and Fagen knew what they wanted, and kept working until they achieved it. We must do the same, figure out what we want, work tirelessly until we're satisfied, and success will come.
Look Beyond Your Community
On the surface, Yacht Rock appears to be dominated by white males with questionable facial hair. But if you dig a little deeper, you'll find the contributions of a culturally diverse group of artists. Musicians with backgrounds in soul, jazz, R & B, and funk, like Quincy Jones, George Benson, the Pointer Sisters, Greg Phillinganes, the Brothers Johnson, Chuck Rainey, Patti Austin, and others all made important contributions to the Yacht Rock sound. The creators and producers of Yacht Rock understood that including and honoring diverse ideas and sounds would only make their music richer and more accessible to all. In this spirit it is our responsibility to look beyond our communities and encourage all people to work together to heal our nation.
There Is a Larger, Unknowable Presence at Work, Guiding Us through This Time
In "Yah Mo B There", the songwriting team of Jones, Temperton, Ingram and McDonald remind us that we are not alone as we face our rocky future. They know that this long hard road will lead to a brighter day. They relentlessly urge us to keep pushin' on, even when dreams slip away. It's never too late for change. We just need to reach out and call his name - "Yah will B there." Whoever your personal "Yah" is, it's important to remember that he (she?) is watching and protecting us all.
Keep Your Heart Open
In an election season filled with racism, sexism, bullying, offensive language and an overwhelming sense of negativity, Pablo Cruise reminds us that love trumps hate. It may take some time to get past the pain of seeing our hopes for the first female president dashed. We may be feeling like fools for believing that America would do the right thing. Our dreams might be falling apart. Our goals might need to be rearranged (or postponed) a bit. But we will be all right. Now, more than ever we must be true to ourselves and open our hearts. Love WILL find a way.
It is a rare to find art that both comforts and inspires, but such is the power of Yacht Rock. In this confusing and frightening time we must remember that smooth music helped us navigate through the dark times of the late 70's and 80's and it will see us through again. We must take to heart the lessons shared by the masters, we must work together and we must keep the fire.
Some say America will never be that shining city on a hill that Ronald Reagan referenced in his farewell address to the nation. I say, that’s what a fool believes.
(photo credit: http://www.fabphotography.com)