Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hall & Oates: Something Silly From Philly

Michael McDonald was one white guy trying to sound black. Imagine two white guys trying to sound black. Although, on their first album, Whole Oats (ha ha, get it?), Hall & Oates sounded surprisingly Loggins & Messina-esque:

It wasn't until their second album, Abandoned Luncheonette, and its hit single "She's Gone," that the boys really showed the world what they were made of:

After an awkward pairing with producer and fellow Philly legend Todd Rundgren on War Babies (featuring such memorable song titles as "Beanie G. and the Rose Tattoo," War Baby Son of Zorro," and "Screaming Through December"), Hall & Oates hit their late '70s stride. Many of their biggest '80s hits, including "You Make My Dreams," "Private Eyes," "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," and "Maneater," would eventually be co-written by Hall's longtime girlfriend Sara Allen, the subject of the beguiling "Sara Smile":

Then there came the day when they realized they could rhyme "rich" with "bitch." The dollar signs began flashing right in front of their eyes:

But as the '70s wound down, our ambiguously gay duo hit a rough patch. No, not until the calendar flipped over into that magical decade of synthesizers and hairspray would the pair become an unstoppable force the likes of which pop music had rarely seen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Loggins/McDonald Alliance Is Born

Lennon/McCartney, Jagger/Richards ... Loggins/McDonald. Doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it? But probably more Grammys.

In 1979 the Loggins/McDonald alliance revealed itself to the world with two irresistible slices of AM majesty. Although released on Loggins' solo album Keep The Fire, "This Is It" was co-written by (and features prominent backing vocals from) a certain Doobie Brother. You may assume that this pure chunk of late '70s smoothness is a simple, generic love song. However, you would be wrong. From Wikipedia:
At one point in the song's evolution, its melody was underway, but the lyrics were incomplete. Loggins moved it forward after a visit to his ailing father, who had undergone a series of surgeries for vascular problems stemming from small strokes and was discouraged at the prospect of another. His perspective on the lyrics then changed: "'I've got it,' I announced to Michael, it's not a love song. It's a life song."
Yes, Kenny, a "life" song - from two men who truly know a thing or two about life. Although the one needing medical attention might be Kenny and not his father. He can't even breathe properly. "Theeeeeere've been times in my liiiiiiife/I've been wondering whyyyyy/Still somehow I believe we always surviiiiiiiive." Somebody get the man a doctor.

The second major collaboration, "What A Fool Believes," as initially released on Loggins' solo album Nightwatch, doesn't sound like much - maybe a filler track at best, or a Steely Dan B-side.

McDonald must have heard this version and thought, "Jesus, Kenny, what the hell did you do to our song?" (As one YouTube user put it, "Kenny Loggins Is My Dude...But im Sure A Gang of Yall Agree...He Aint Fuckin Wit Micheal Mac on This Joint.") Because in the supple hands of the Doobie Brothers, "What A Fool Believes" became a beast, with more hooks than a fishing supply store. This brutal combination of stately piano, wobbly synthesizer, judiciously placed hand claps, soaring falsetto chorus, and a poignant lyric of unrequited love pushed disco from the top of the charts for a couple of weeks in 1979. Disco! In 1979! Allegedly, one of the soaring falsetto vocals in the background is Michael Jackson, but the army of multi-tracked McDonalds is so overpowering, it's hard to tell.

For our Yacht Rock heroes, what a long, strange trip it had been. Ah, but while Loggins and McDonald were slowly rising to glory in Los Angeles, thousands of miles away, in the gritty city of Philadelphia, another fateful pairing was laying down a challenge.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Rise Of Michael McDonald

Once upon a time, there was an early '70s rock band called the Doobie Brothers. Led by Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, the Doobies played a mixture of countrified, good ol' boy blues rock in the mold of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Grand Funk Railroad, maybe with a dash of the Band and CCR thrown in. The Doobies could blow out your car speakers with a killer riff a la "China Grove":

Or they could slow things down with a sweet Southern ballad like "Black Water":

Given their success in this style, it seemed like the Doobies could have gone on as boogie rockers for a while. But around 1975, lead singer Tom Johnston began experiencing health problems and took a leave of absence. Guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, who had recently joined the Doobies from Steely Dan (after Donald Fagen and Walter Becker turned Steely Dan into a studio-only enterprise), recommended one of Steely Dan's back-up singers to potentially take Johnston's place.

Enter a white guy with a beard who thought he was Ray Charles: Michael McDonald.

McDonald had been kicking around for a while when he became a favorite of Becker and Fagen. His most famous Steely Dan appearance is probably "Peg":

Suddenly, with the addition of McDonald, the Doobies got a little less bluesy and a little more...smooth. McDonald hijacked the band's sound with his soulful yet silky pipes:

Old Doobie Brothers fans cried foul, but thousands of new fans flocked to the smooth grooves of the McDonald sound. Little did he know, but McDonald would suddenly find a new, unexpected ally in smoothness.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Rise Of Kenny Loggins

Once upon a time, there was a band called Buffalo Springfield. Featuring three songwriters in Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay, Buffalo Springfield were one of the more promising California folk-rock bands, arguably rivaled only by The Byrds. But the band never quite capitalized on the momentum generated by their one big hit, "For What It's Worth" (otherwise known as "Stop, Hey, What's That Sound"):

By 1968, the band was falling apart. Enter a Texas musician named Jim Messina.

After kicking around in several obscure bands and learning the tricks of the recording studio, Messina ended up being asked to produce what would be the third and final Buffalo Springfield album. But in addition to producing the album, Messina ended up playing on it, essentially becoming a member of the band. While Stills and Young drifted off into obscurity (I mean whatever happened to those guys?), Furay and Messina decided to start a country rock group named Poco. After three mildly successful albums of mellow California goodness, Messina left the group, unsure of where he wanted to go next.

Enter Kenneth Clark Loggins.

Could there be a better last name for a '70s California country rock musician than "Loggins"? Think about it. From Wikipedia:
Jim Messina, formerly of Poco and Buffalo Springfield, was working as an independent record producer for Columbia Records in 1970 when he met Kenny Loggins, a little-known singer/songwriter who was signed to ABC-Dunhill. The two recorded a number of Loggins' compositions in Messina's home living room. When Columbia signed Loggins to a six-album contract (with the assistance of Messina), recording began in earnest for Loggins' debut album, with Messina as producer. Messina originally intended to lend his name to the Loggins project only to help introduce the unknown Loggins to Messina's well-established Buffalo Springfield and Poco audiences. But by the time the album was completed, Messina had contributed so much to the album - in terms of songwriting, arrangement, instrumentation, and vocals - that an "accidental" duo was born.
Together, Loggins & Messina spun their soft rock magic throughout the early '70s. They could burn the house down with an uptempo 12-bar blues rocker like "Your Mama Don't Dance":

Or they could break your heart with a folk-rock ballad like "Danny's Song," written by Kenny as a tribute to his brother, who was having his first child:

But ultimately, Kenny wanted more. He wanted worldwide glory and fame. Mostly he wanted to create Smooth Music. Maybe Stevie Nicks wasn't the new partner he was looking for:

No, it wasn't until he teamed up with another '70s Mellow Rock icon that Yacht Rock was truly born.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Yacht Rock

What is Yacht Rock?

This may be one of the key questions of our existence, along with "What happens when we die?" and "Why do fools fall in love?"

One way to answer the question is to say that Yacht Rock isn't so much a style of music as it is a state of mind. Yacht Rock is an ice cold beer on the beach. Yacht Rock is a cruise down Highway 1 as the sun sets. Yacht Rock is a swim in a Pasadena pool on the Fourth of July.

To be more specific, Yacht Rock is, according to Wikipedia, "an online video series following the fictionalized lives and careers of American soft rock stars of the late 1970s and early 1980s."

It is, quite simply, the greatest online video series of all time.

The Wikipedia article elaborates:
In the musical sense, yacht rock refers to the highly polished brand of soft rock that emanated from Southern California during the late 1970s and early 1980s. In part, the term relates to the stereotype of the yuppie yacht owner, enjoying smooth music while out for a sail. Additionally, since sailing was a popular leisure activity in Southern California, many "yacht rockers" made nautical references in their lyrics, videos, and album artwork, particularly the anthemic track "Sailing" by Christopher Cross.
With my respects to Jeff Foxworthy:

If you know that Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald wrote many songs together which they did not necessarily record together, then Yacht Rock may be for you.

If you know that Toto helped Michael Jackson make Thriller, then Yacht Rock may be for you.

If you know that Jeff "Skunk" Baxter was in both Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, then Yacht Rock may be for you.

If you know that Warren G and Nate Dogg sampled Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near)" as the basis for "Regulate," then Yacht Rock may be for you.

If you know that Giorgio Moroder produced "Danger Zone," then Yacht Rock may be for you.

Even if you don't know any of these details, Yacht Rock may still be for you. But as a shameless aficionado of late '70s/early '80s soft rock, I am, quite simply, the target audience of Yacht Rock.

Yacht Rock captures the thrill of being a knowledgeable pop music fan. My dream is to one day write a book called "1969," in which I write about all my favorite acts from my favorite year in music (1969), and one segment would link to the next, since so many of the musicians of the late '60s were actually friends with each other. I love the idea of an era of pop music almost being like a little gang, where so-and-so played with so-and-so, who was friends with so-and-so, who was also produced by so-and-so. Yacht Rock is like Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald banding together to save the world.

And what's an internet TV series without an AMG guy? That's right, the "host" of the series is a man going by the name of "Hollywood Steve," otherwise known as AllMusic's own Steve Huey. I would say that Huey is one of the better AMG reviewers, almost on the level of Erlewine or Unterberger. Here, for example, are his reviews of Black Sabbath's Paranoid, The Sex Pistol's Never Mind The Bollocks, Violent Femmes' Violent Femmes, Pearl Jam's Ten, and Dr. Dre's The Chronic. Whenever I read a Steve Huey review, I feel that I am in good hands. On camera, however, he clearly has a snarky, juvenile, and disturbing sense of humor, looking for all the world like Weird Al's long-lost brother.

The production values of Yacht Rock are about on the level of the production values in my own film making group - arguably even lower. Quite how the show got the rights to all these extremely commercial hits is unclear. Perhaps they didn't.

My plan is to share some of my favorite episodes of Yacht Rock with you, dear readers. However, concerned that you may not grasp many of the references, I have decided to offer a brief Yacht Rock refresher course. Soon you will know more about Christopher Cross and Hall & Oates than you ever wanted to know.

In a sense, the origins of Yacht Rock go back to the origins of pop music itself. But for the sake of expediency, I will begin our history in the late '60s.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Act IV, Scene 20 (He He)

Was Shakespeare A Stoner? - Slate's Browbeat Blog

What next? "Milton Was A Meth Head"? "Edmund Spenser Sniffed Glue?"

Monday, July 4, 2011

The '80s Tape: Playlist Version

Now that the complete track listing of The '80s Tape has been posted (I assume you are still recovering from its blinding magnificence), I am going to attempt to satisfy the request of a certain loyal Cosmic American Blog reader by putting together a "playlist" version, so that readers can, in effect, listen to these YouTube clips as if they were listening to a genuine mp3 mix. In certain cases, I have swapped out video clips with non-video clips that feature higher sound quality, in order to improve overall listenability. Let's see how this works: