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White Rock III:
Towards an Aesthetic of Musical Softness

[1]4,534 words

Greg Prato
The Yacht Rock Book: The Oral History of the Soft, Smooth Sounds of the 70s and 80s
London: Jawbone, 2018

“They kind of moved it away from just mellow/hippie/campfire music and into something new – something that was consciously pursuing the aesthetic of softness. It’s kind of hard to move into that territory if the whole culture is telling you that’s not something you should be doing. So, I respect their choices to consciously explore that territory—no matter how much people may have made fun of them.” — Steve “Hollywood Steve” Huey

 

You’ve heard it most of your life, perhaps all of your life. You may or may not like it; some people loathe it. If you had to put a name to it, you’d likely say, “California music from the ‘70s and ‘80s.” Though that name is more or less accurate in spatial and temporal terms, it doesn’t really say very much about the essence of the phenomenon; and it’s not very catchy.

How about: Yacht Music?

Yacht Music (let’s go with the name for now) dominated the charts in the US and to a lesser extent other parts of the Anglosphere, such as Australia; then, as happens with most genres of pop music – punk, disco, New Wave, hair metal, grunge – it faded, more or less quickly, to be replaced by another, supposedly much better genre, and the previous enthusiasm became an embarrassing memory, to be denied vociferously, except among a tiny handful of faithful adherents, who endured the scorn and bided their time until it would resurface. Sort of like National Socialism.

But a YouTube comedy series (of course) spawned new interest in this retroactively named genre,[1] [2] manifested in CD compilations (themselves a bit of a relic now), playlists [3], and even a touring tribute band [4]. Oh, and gear; lotsa gear [5].

All this was news to me – living as I do in an abandoned glove factory in Rustville – but then I recalled this must have been what Frank recommended for the boat the gang bought, cleverly disguised as a reference to “boat music [6].” [2] [7]

What brought this to my attention was finding a recent book by one Greg Prato, author of a disgusting number of music-related books,[3] [8] entitled – yes – Yacht Rock. But although it piqued my interest in the genre, I can’t really say the book was very satisfying. In fact, I must say it’s a rather bad book.

See, it belongs to a genre of its own, the so-called “oral history” of some cultural phenom. In the right hands – say, Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk [9], or the granddaddy of them all, George Plimpton’s Edie: American Girl [10] – it can be illuminating, or at least interesting.

I see now that Edie is actually listed as “by Jean Stein,” with Plimpton as editor. And that’s the thing: I remember Plimpton because it’s all in the editing. Yacht Rock, however, seems – as another review puts it [11] – “like instead of editing, Prato just kind of sorted.”

It kinda reminds me of the reason someone gave for why Bruno Walter’s “Indian Summer [12]” recordings for CBS sound so great: it was the early days of stereo, and not a “prestige” project, so the engineers just turned on the tape machines, put their feet up on the consoles, lit a cigar, and let the music record itself.

But that only works if you’re dealing with Beethoven, Bruckner and Bruno; with the material Prato is working with, you’d best get your blue pencil and scissors, or the digital equivalent.

The main problem is that either through disinterest or, frankly, death – it was almost fifty years ago, and pop musicians are not famous for longevity – there are severe limits on what Prato can get on tape. Thus, we don’t hear from John Oates (Hall and Oates) – who apparently hates the name and the idea of Yacht Rock – though we do get John Hall (Orleans), who’s OK with it, and in fact loves talking about it. From the Eagles we get Don Felder, not either Glenn Frey (d. 2016) or Don Henley. We get no one from Fleetwood Mac, despite being listed as one of the essential YR bands (the others being The Eagles, Steely Dan, and The Doobie Brothers). We don’t get Donald Fagen, but luckily – he died shortly after the book went to press – we do get Walter Becker. And we get both Toni Tennille and Daryl “The Captain” Dragon (the latter died in January of this year).

The Captain illustrates another problem. I suppose we can’t ignore The Captain & Tennille in a history of Yacht Rock, and The Captain has some interesting stuff to tell; I learned he was the son of Hollywood Bowl stereo spectacular recording artist Carmen Dragon, and toured with and almost joined The Beach Boys, both facts relevant to the background of a Yacht Rocker – but mostly he just reveals what a weird and kinda disturbing guy he is (was), and why it was a miracle Toni Tennille stayed married to him.[4] [13]

My point is that some of these guys – and except for Toni Tennille, it is all guys – are a bit peripheral, and can only contribute so much. One reason is a characteristic of Yacht Rock – one of the defining points, as we’ll see – a reliance on session men; again, they are all men. Great musicians – an emphasis on musicianship is another characteristic – but often not really seeing the big picture.

As the book goes on, Prato seems to get more and more desperate for material, throwing in chapters on what’s not Yacht Rock,[5] [14] what’s almost Yacht Rock,[6] [15] and even a whole, endless chapter where Billy Joel’s drummer – not Billy Joel himself, who’s no doubt too busy writing anti-white songs [16] and being an asshole in the Hamptons to talk to rock journalists, and isn’t really Yacht Rock anyway, as was already detailed at length in the previous “nyacht rock” chapter – yes, his drummer, discusses a series of Joel tracks that, again, aren’t really Yacht Rock; but hey, he was available, he’s talking, and there’s space to fill, dammit!

And if I can mention one more peeve, it’s that despite the peripheral nature of so many of the folks here – all good and talented people, I’m sure – Prato only bothers to identify them once, on a roster at the front. It’s often impossible to tell what “the band” is that someone is referring to, since we don’t remember who he is; and I had to keep reminding myself the John Hall doing the talking is neither (Daryl) Hall nor (John) Oates.[7] [17]

I don’t mean to suggest there’s nothing here; in fact, Prato gets to talk to Rupert Holmes and Christopher Cross, both the key players in defining the genre, and the chapter devoted to Holmes’ recollections of how “Escape (The Pina Colada Song) – arguably the iconic Yacht Rock song [18], along with The Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” – is gold.

But what, I hear you asking, is Yacht Rock anyway, and why should we care? And the final result of Prato’s non-editing is that you won’t really find out from this book. I mean, the clues are there, but it’s left up to the reader to put it all together. It’s like a detective story missing the last chapter [19], or one of those “the solution is left to the reader as an exercise” things.

Of course, perhaps the is no “essence” of Yacht Rock to be defined; perhaps we need to rely on Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance [20],” especially given the kaleidoscopic shifting of band members and session men making up the recordings.[8] [21]

Nevertheless, picking up this and that throughout, in my paranoiac-critical [22] way, a pattern did begin to emerge.

Perhaps the best approach is to take the via negativa and approach the question by looking at the one song that everyone agrees is Not Yacht: Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville.” And it’s not just a random song that isn’t Yacht; so is “In the Mood” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or “Heart on Snow.” But this is the song that normies, as we would say, always finger as, “Oh, you mean that song.” And aficionados of Yacht are insistent that it’s Not Yacht.[9] [23]

Here’s Steve “Hollywood Steve” Huey of the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast:

We hate Jimmy Buffett. Fucking hate that guy. . . . His lyrics are dumb, the escapist fantasies that he paints are just lame. . . . I conceive his audience as middle-management types who dream about quitting their jobs [24] and going to hand out with other white people on the beach. And the biggest thing about why we don’t consider him yacht rock is his music is very, very simple. It’s three and four chord country-ish songs – it doesn’t take very much talent to play or compose. When we were making episode #11, with ‘Footloose,’ and Kenny Loggins gets kidnapped by Parrotheads, just having to listen to the playback of that Jimmy Buffett medley while we were shooting was fucking torture.

Well, there we have it. There are a number of things going on there, but I bet one that jumps out at ya was that “other white people” thing. It doesn’t come up again, but you can kinda sense it below the surface. This reviewer picks up on it [11], too, while trying to cobble together his own definition:

So what, exactly, is yacht rock? Prato doesn’t precisely define it, but his sources generally agree it’s the smooth rock music that enjoyed its commercial peak from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. Saxophones and Rhodes electric pianos are the signature instruments of yacht rock, which is influenced by jazz and R&B without being jazz or R&B. It was largely played and enjoyed by white guys, although there was a black crossover audience for artists like Michael McDonald – and a “yacht soul” sub-genre with artists like Earth, Wind and Fire.[10] [25]

It’s the sort of thing they can’t really admit or discuss, to say nothing of celebrate, because modern “woke” culture deplores whiteness. John Oates has a similar reaction to a similar phrase, and clarifies some of the issues:

I hate both of those terms [‘yacht rock’ and ‘blue-eyed soul’] for two different reasons. One is that blue-eyed soul is racist, and had nothing to do with what we do. Blue-eyed soul has the connotation that it’s white guys trying to sound like black people – and that’s really messed up. It’s small-minded, and I hate it. Soul music is music that moves you emotionally. I can hear ‘soul music’ in bluegrass. Bill Monroe? Nobody gets more soulful than Bill Monroe, or Dr. Ralph Stanley [26]. I hear it in Celtic music. I hear soul music in all sorts of ethnic styles. So, it has nothing to do with race and ethnicity, and I think it’s kind of a stupid phrase.

Yacht rock to me assumes that you’re relaxing on a boat and you wear funny clothes and a captain’s hat. I really don’t even know what the hell that is.

What’s really interesting is that he immediately clarifies what he thinks they were doing, thus:

To be honest with you, if you look at the music we’ve made over the years, it’s been pretty cutting-edge. I mean, we did things in the recording studio that no one had ever done – by combining digital technology with analog recording. We were using synthesizers in 1972, 1973. I don’t look at any of those things like that. We’re just who we are.

You might hear – and sneer at – “soft rock,” but Oates is talking about synthesizers, digital technology; the previous reviewer noted “influenced by jazz and R&B without being jazz or R&B,” meaning, I would say, a de-emphasis on rhythm while maintaining a sophisticated approach to chords and harmonies; sounds like the sort of thing I was highlighting some years ago, in an essay entitled “I’ll Have a White Rock, Please: Implicit Whiteness, Aryan Futurism, and the Godlike Genius of Scott Walker [27],”[11] [28] I discussed, among other things, New Age music as implicitly white, and suggested a new genre of Aryan New Age which would emphasize technical innovation and de-emphasize “rhythm” and other African elements.

Maybe that’s why Prato can’t really come out and say what Yacht Rock is; but we can read between the lines in all the things his interviewees keep coming back to: sophistication, complexity, professionalism.

Walter Egan:

They started thinking about it and creating more creative ways of expressing ourselves, as our generation began to experience more than just teenage lust. Of course, the folk music of the day and Bob Dylan and his songs created this atmosphere of, ‘Let’s make this music into more than just something to dance to.’ I would imagine it would have come out of some of the more pretty things that The Beatles did, and people took it and expanded on it from there.

John Hall:

Brian Wilson was big on moving harmonies against a chord. He was big on suspensions that a lot of young bands at that time . . . I mean, everybody in jazz knew about suspensions, and classical music. But in rock’n’roll, it took a little while to get from suspending a fourth or a second, to suspending a whole chord against a bass note. But the Beach Boys were doing that.

Daryl Dragon:

Brian Wilson – to me – is the Mozart of the twentieth century. He still may not realize it, but he’s better than The Beatles. He’s more unique by his literally, what I call, the initiation of his heaven-inspired, unique ‘harmony laws’ . . . thus creating an exclusive ‘Brian Wilson harmony’ sound [that became] standard in the pop music field. . . . But inside he was a romantic. If you look up the name Richard Wagner, the German classical music composer, you might agree that he and Dennis Wilson were tapping the same creative musical source. I always compared Dennis to Wagner, because Dennis’s music was coming from some other very evolved place.

Other noted elements, such as the reliance on studio technology and, most importantly, session players rather than “band members,” follow therefrom, because required by, these characteristics. Yacht Rock is essentially white music, because Yacht Rock is a product of the white soul. Blue-eyed soul, indeed.

Which doesn’t mean that every white guy can play it; it’s a bell curve kinda thing. Remember Jimmy Buffet?

His lyrics are dumb, the escapist fantasies he paints are just lame . . . and the biggest thing about why we don’t consider him yacht rock is his music is very, very simple.

Or, as a previous reviewer puts it [11]:

Complex music with the occasional, tasteful reference to sailing or drinking . . . now that’s yacht rock.

Escapist fantasies are okay, as long as they’re not lame, but as complex as the music. That feature brings together this discussion and my previous one centered on Tiki Culture [29], where the book under review there[12] [30] describes the Tiki music genre Exotica thus:

Musicians of the era took the basic sound of jazz and big band and infused it with sounds that would make the listener – generally assumed to be the suburban American – feel as though they had been transplanted to a foreign land.

Daryl Dragon:

The Beach Boys’ music immediately and virtually took the listener—perhaps living in Kansas, Poland, etc. – to a warm, beautiful girls-swamped beach. . . . In other words, this music created an image in your mind.

Rupert Holmes:

I thought, What are the ‘escape’ drinks? Daiquiri . . . Mai Tai . . . piña colada. Suddenly, for those eight-bars, it becomes something that sounds like what you might imagine if someone said, ‘What would yacht rock sound like?’ That break sounds like a vacation in the islands. The rest of the song doesn’t. . . . I had already mentally decided that the couple want an escape, and what I was equating escape with was going to the islands, and having a drink – in a pineapple that has a flag of all nations sticking out of it, or whatever.

Whether the sounds and fantasies of Yacht Music are more or less sophisticated than Exotica I will leave to the partisan of each. Suffice to say, the combination of imaginary escape to a lost tropical Utopia, combined with technological sophistication, is a characteristic product of the Faustian Soul of Western man.

So, what happened? Why has Yacht Music, once chart-topping and Grammy™ winning, largely disappeared, other than, like Exotica, surviving in more or less ironic niches?

As with defining Yacht Rock, we get various observations rather than any kind of theory. Some opine that music changes every ten years or so, as kids want to listen to something different than their parents do.[13] [31] MTV is an obvious target, mentioned several times: Like silent film or radio stars – The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” is explicitly cited more than once – they just couldn’t make the transition to video (especially not in those shirts),[14] [32] nor were these dedicated musicians interested in visual art forms.

Of course, some, like Hall & Oates[15] [33] or Michael Jackson,[16] [34] were more than presentable, and there’s no reason to think a new crop of more camera-friendly, video-savvy kids couldn’t have risen up to take their place.

More interesting is a remark by Burleigh Drummond:

And then all of a sudden, in the 80s, Stewart Copeland comes along, and it’s like, everything changed. All the grooves were immediately ethnic, and had more syncopation. For me, that’s what was the major changing factor – was a band like The Police coming along.

As usual, “ethnic” means “non-white,” since white people have no ethnicity or culture. But what’s intriguing – literally – is the mention of Stewart Copeland, of all people. In Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & the Dark Heart of the Hippy Dream (Headpress, 2014), Dave McGowan tries to show that the Laurel Canyon music scene, and by extension the whole hippie phenom, was a CIA psy-op. In my review, “Allen Dulles’ Lonely Hearts Club Band: The CIA & the Construction of the Sixties Counter-Culture [35],” I suggested that while there’s something to the idea, a lot of the “connections” he draws between various musicians and the intel agencies is largely a factor of being Baby Boomers – a hell of a lot of their parents happened to be in the armed forces during a little thing called the Second World War.

But in his final chapter, McGowan looks at punk and New Wave, which replaced not only YR but all other kinds of rock – soft, stadium, and so on. And guess what: “the most critically acclaimed and commercially viable of the [New Wave] artists . . . owed their success at least in part to their association with one or more members of the Copeland clan.”

The “patriarch of that clan,” Miles Axe Copeland, Jr., “was magically transformed” at the outbreak of the Second World War from a working musician “into one of the founding members of the OSS” (the predecessor of the CIA). After the war, he was involved in numerous “nefarious activities” in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, including the 1953 coup that installed Shah Reza Pahlavi in Iran.

McGowan goes on to chronical the antics of his three sons, Miles III (who ran various “security consulting” firms until he suddenly decided in 1979 to “start over as an agent, manager, producer and record company for numerous new punk and new wave acts,” including IRS records and “Sniffin’ Glue, the most influential fanzine of the era”), Ian (who ran a whorehouse servicing Marines stationed in Lebanon – shades of Epstein![17] [36] – until, again in 1979, he founded Frontier Booking International – FBI, get it? – to handle Miles’ acts, for which he claims to have coined the phrase “New Wave”) and, yes, Stewart, who formed his own “punk” band, assembling the musicians only after first carefully crafting their name – The Police – logo, and album cover.

McGowan concludes with this observation:

The initial success of the Police in the US is what largely opened the floodgates for a new British invasion of punk and new wave bands. And that was in spite of the fact that the band was in no way a punk band and didn’t really even qualify as a new wave band. As the British press pointed out, band members were much too professional, and a bit too old, to really fit into the new scene.[18] [37]

One begins to suspect that the superseding of complex, smooth, professionally-produced white music by ugly, no-talent music played by ugly, no-talent people – and given “massive, fawning media coverage for 30 years despite virtually no one [liking] the music [38]” – had little to do with the natural passage of the generations and more to do with someone’s plan.

Speaking of such incestuous relations, a study of Yacht Rock might inspire a game of six degrees of Counter-Currents. For example, Toto provided music for David Lynch’s Dune, and Trevor Lynch admits [39] that “even the score by Toto managed to grow on me.”[19] [40] Toto’s big hit, “Rosanna,” was supposedly written about Rosanna Arquette (it’s not),[20] [41] who appears in both Pulp Fiction [42] and Crash [43];[21] [44] stretching the point, Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” connects to The Big Chill [45].

Anyway, call it Yacht Rock, soft rock, adult-oriented rock, West Coast sound; it’s all White Rock to me.

[46]

Notes

[1] [47] In Fred Armisen’s “foreword” (note spelling: all the titles in the book are lower-case, for some reason) he says that “from what I can see, it may have been named retroactively. I’m fine with that.” Armisen (or “armisen” as it is here), of course, brought us Portlandia, which made Portland seem cool until the antifa took over [48] and ruined it for everyone; see the Postscript added to my essay “The Gilmore Girls Occupy Wall Street” in my collection The Homo & the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics and Popular Culture [49]; edited by Greg Johnson; second, Embiggened Edition (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2017), pp. 125-125.

[2] [50] It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “The Gang Buys a Boat,” S03E06.

[3] [51] His GoodReads biography says that “Greg Prato is a Long Island, New York-based journalist, whose writing has appeared in such renowned publications as Rolling Stone. He is the author of several popular books, A Devil on One Shoulder and an Angel on the Other: The Story of Shannon Hoon and Blind Melon, Touched by Magic: The Tommy Bolin Story, Grunge Is Dead: The Oral History of Seattle Rock Music, No Schlock . . . Just Rock!, The Eric Carr Story, MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video, Sack Exchange: The Definitive Oral History of the 1980s New York Jets, Too High to Die: Meet the Meat Puppets, Dynasty: The Oral History of the New York Islanders, 1972-1984, and The Faith No More & Mr. Bungle Companion.”

[4] [52] When your wife says “I’m Amy and he’s Sheldon,” you know that can’t be good. To continue the TV metaphor, I was reminded of one of my favorite bits on The Office: “Silence! This is not Daryl Dragon story hour!” I also learned Toni sang backup vocals on Pink Floyd’s The Wall – go ahead, look, it’s right on the album cover.

[5] [53] “Nyacht rock” – I like the title, but it just seems like an excuse to hang out with more cool musicians.

[6] [54] “Nyacht so fast”—again, unnecessary but with some gems. It does contain some nuggets, such as the time Brian Wilson dragooned a bunch of musicians into performing various parts of an arrangement he had made of “Shortnin’ Bread,” until finally Iggy Pop ran out, shouting “This guy’s crazy!”

[7] [55] He’s a singer for Orleans (“Still the One”), and he too gets a whole unnecessary chapter, devoted to his abortive political career.

[8] [56] “Was a member of Toto involved” is one clue to something being YR.

[9] [57] One might compare the situation with Harry Partch, who was always infuriated when well-meaning listeners opined that his music sounded “very Oriental.” See “Our Wagner, Only Better:
Harry Partch, Wild Boy of American Music, Part 3
,” or the full essay, reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others: Traditionalist Meditations on Literature, Art, & Culture [58], ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents Publishing, 2014).

[10] [59] Far more interesting than Yacht Soul is Quiet Storm, another genre new to me (named after a Smokey Robinson LP of 1975), but also instantly recognizable. Here’s Hollywood Steve again: “Quiet storm kind of became this catchall tag for sophisticated adult R& B ballads of the late 70s and early 80s. It was supposed to be romantic music for grownups to cuddle to and enjoy their marriages with each other and that sort of thing. Because it tended to be sophisticated adult music, a lot of it was very jazzy and has unpredictable chord changes and harmonies. It was very much mood music, so it wasn’t always about exciting things. Above all else, it was supposed to create a romantic mood. So, sometimes, you would get a little bit of atmosphere over melody in the less successful songs. But there a lot of commonalities between the jazzy yacht rock ballads and the jazzier quiet storm ballads.” As a grad student at an “urban” university in that period, I instantly recognized the soul as typical of what you’d hear on the stereo at an upscale black home. As we’ll see, it’s the adult atmosphere of sophisticate musicianship that links it to Yacht Rock.

[11] [60] Reprinted in my collection The Homo & the Negro, ibid. See also “Light Entertainment: The (Implicitly) White Music of Scott Walker [61],” reprinted in my later collection The Eldritch Evola.

[12] [62]Con-Tiki: Torchlight Reflections on an Aryan Archetype [29],” a review of Adam Foshko & Jason Henderson, California Tiki: A History of Polynesian Idols, Pineapple Cocktails and Coconut Palm Trees (Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2018).

[13] [63] As adult Exotica gave way to teen-oriented Surf Music; see “Con Tiki,” loc. cit.

[14] [64] Although Fat Mac thinks Tommy Bahama shirts are not only stylish but they hide any unwanted fat (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 7.01, “Frank’s Pretty Woman”).

[15] [65] For Darryl Hall & John Oates (1975), the record company decided they should appear on the front cover for the first time, and hired Pierre Laroche, who had come up with the lightning bolt on Bowie’s Aladdin Sane. [66] Darryl Hall recalls: “He said, ‘I will immortalize you.’ Those were his exact words. And he was right – to this day, it’s pretty much the only album cover that anyone ever talks about.” The result, including its silver motif, suggest an alternate timeline in which YT could have developed along with Bowie’s music.

[16] [67] Hollywood Steve, discussing yacht/R&B crossovers, says that “a lot of the people who would go on to work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller” were part of George Benson’s “very, very yacht-rocky” Give Me the Night LP; again, the importance of session players for providing a professional, reproducible sound.

[17] [68] Jeffrey, not Brian, although . . .

[18] [69] “Too professional,” like Yacht Rock? McGowan makes much of the way Laurel Canyon bands relied on session men, insinuating that they were not so much musicians as CIA plants, but Prato’s discussion of their role in Yacht Rock provides a less sinister context. Prato’s own chapter discussing the Laurel Canyon scene now seems to have more relevance, rather than being yet more.

[19] [70] Fatboy Slim drew the lesson [71]: “If we walk without rhythm, we won’t attract the worm.”

[20] [72] Fortunately, as Rosanna turns out to be another [73] “I hate my fellow white people” Jewess.

[21] [74] Lynch says it’s her sister, Patricia, but IMDB say Rosanna; I can’t hardly tell the difference anyway.