Harken Derm

Yacht rock makes for better boating

Published on July 28th, 2019

Summer time, and the listening is easy. Also breezy. And, some might argue, cheesy.

Such is the mixed musical blessing that is yacht rock, the much-maligned and also much-loved musical genre devoted to the mostly soft, semi-jazzy pop-rock that dominated the radio airwaves in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s the way the mimosa pitcher rules the brunch table.

And while the smooth sounds of the Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)” and Christopher Cross’ “Ride Like the Wind” are always just a teeth cleaning away, yacht rock really comes into full, Hawaiian-shirt flower in the summer.

SiriusXM satellite-radio rolled out its yacht-rock radio station in late May, and it will have you cruisin’ with your Wayfarers on (baby) until Sept. 2. Like those Long Island Ice Teas of our misspent youths, yacht-rock music goes down easy while also giving you a perception-altering kick upside the head.

“I remember watching the Grammys (in 1981) the year Christopher Cross won everything and thinking, ‘This is grandma music,’” said Kevin Stapleford, vice president of programming for Live X Live, which launched its yacht-rock station in 2013. “I hated him at the time, but I have a lot of respect for him now. The music is impeccably produced, and those songs are beautiful songs.”

Like a lot of the taste-makers, Stapleford stumbled upon yacht rock via the 2005 web series that coined the title and launched the concept. Created by J.D. Ryznar and Hunter Stairs, the low-budget, totally irreverent “Yacht Rock” explored the fictional origins of such (future) classics as the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes” and Toto’s “Rosanna.”

The series spawned a hipster fandom and sparked a nostalgic love for the meticulously produced songs that many music snobs dismissed at the time (Here’s looking at you, “Private Eyes”) but are happy to crank up to 11 now. Just ask the indie gentlemen from Weezer, who covered Toto’s “Africa” last year and watched the airplay roll in.

SiriusXM debuted its yacht-rock channel in the summer of 2015. It was so popular that its planned two-week run was immediately extended to by a couple more weeks. The following year, SiriusXM let the yacht-rock play on for the entire summer. It’s been a seasonal source of Ambrosia, Al Stewart, and America ever since.

“The response to Yacht Rock Radio over the years has been huge,” SiriusXM Director of Music Programming Jessica Besack said via email. “Our subscribers get positively frothy around May waiting for it to come back on the air. There are campaigns to bring it on the air all-year-round. I think they love the seasonality of it. It’s like summer vacation for those of us who aren’t in school anymore.”

There are debates over which songs and artists belong on the yacht-rock deck and which do not, and the bar is set surprisingly high. Like the classy vessels that gave the genre its name, yacht-rock music is expertly constructed and engineered for maximum sleekness and sophistication. There must be a carefully calibrated mix of jazz and pop, with a warming dash of soul. Extra points (and chart power) for Michael McDonald backing vocals.

And while all musical surfaces are polished to a blinding sheen, genre masters like Donald Fagen and the late Walter Becker of Steely Dan always infused hits like “Hey Nineteen” and “Deacon Blues” with the kind of louche, lyrical darkness that separates the yachts from the dinghies.

When it’s good, yacht rock makes every day feel like a beach-side blowout on someone else’s tab. When it’s just a little bit bad, it’s even better. And when it leaves your inner critic up a creek without a paddle, it’s working.

“I was listening to our yacht-rock station on the way to work today, and I heard ‘You Are the Woman’ by Firefall,” Stapleford said. “It is the corniest song with the dopiest flute solo in it. I would not listen to a song with a flute solo in it if it wasn’t in the context of yacht rock. I don’t know what the magic is, but it’s there.”

 

Source: San Diego Union Tribune

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