A bit of history
What is yacht rock? First, let’s give credit where credit is due: the term “yacht rock” was coined around 15 years ago by writer-actor J.D. Ryznar, who co-created a web show of the same name shortly after. The Yacht Rock series was a fictitious and hilarious Behind The Music spoof focused on a handful of smooth rockers of the '70s and '80s. Earlier in his life during the early 2000s, Ryznar had become enamored with the velvety baritone of singer Michael McDonald and scoured dollar bins for vinyl records on which McDonald had done background vocals, amassing LPs from smooth rock stalwarts such as Steely Dan, Christopher Cross, The Doobie Brothers, Kenny Loggins and Toto.
Zeroing in on a particular place and time in music history (e.g. California, between 1975 and 1985) Ryznar and his friends started to notice recurring traits in a specific branch of soft rock they cherished. As these patterns emerged, the groundwork was laid for what would become a new genre… named decades after the fact.
Yacht Rock rules
Let’s start with the obvious: in yacht rock, nautical references are plentiful. See Christopher Cross’s “Sailing”, or husband-and-wife duo Captain & Tennille, or Loggins & Messina’s “Full Sail” album cover. This prevalence of allusions to the sea can easily be explained by the fact that many of these artists recorded their albums in sunny California, or were simply from there (namely Toto or The Doobies). And while sea references aren’t present in all yacht rock songs, there’s certainly an inordinate amount of them if you look at the genre as a whole.
Second, if you look at the liner notes of yacht rock albums, you’ll notice that a lot of the same musicians show up on each other’s records, in a sort of interbred merry-go-round. Particularly, members of Toto are the glue that holds the entire genre together. They appear all over the place. Michael McDonald is another, of course: his background vocals elevated many yacht rock artists to higher plateaus. Other mainstays include Kenny Loggins, who was part of Loggins & Messina (pictured above), but who also wrote a song for McDonald and vice-versa. You can also look at most of the session musicians used on Steely Dan records – for example, guitarist Jay Graydon, who also appears on albums by Christopher Cross, George Benson, and Hall & Oates. However, yacht rock isn’t limited to these particular musicians, as other bands have stumbled upon the yacht rock sound on their own. It’s also even possible for artists in other genres to make yacht rock – Michael Jackson and Paul Anka both made yacht rock songs, though it must be mentioned that they got a little help from Toto along the way.
Needless to say, the musicianship on yacht rock records is usually phenomenal. Elite players were sometimes called in to audition for one particular solo – especially true for Steely Dan records. Some yacht rock bands started reaching out to other genres, summoning jazz virtuosos such as David Sanborn, the Brecker Brothers or Lee Ritenour to play on their records.
Thus, jazz and R&B influences show up not only in the songs’ performance but also in the songwriting itself – surprising chord changes, structural detours or intricate flourishes abound in yacht rock. And somehow, these relatively complex compositions infiltrated radio airwaves, nestled alongside straightforward pop and disco hits of the era.
Production-wise, yacht rock songs are mostly kept smooth: clean vocals, sparkling electric pianos, light use of the distortion pedal, rich harmonies. The sound is airy and pristine; luxurious without becoming garish.
And this smoothness extends to the lyrical aspect of yacht rock. If there is resentment, it will not be expressed outright angrily. If there is desire, it will be displayed with restraint (see the very polite “I’d Really Love To See You Tonight” by England Dan & John Ford Coley). If the narrator has dark or evil thoughts, they will be buried so deep in layers of oblique references that only the most attentive listener will be able to detect them (see: Steely Dan). You can think of yacht rock as the direct lyrical opposite of Motley Crüe.
To summarize the genre in a few key points:
- Yacht rock mainly happened between the mid-70s to the early 80s, especially in California.
- Nautical references, while not mandatory, are definitely a trope of the genre.
- The presence of certain musicians in the liner notes definitely ups the chances of a song being yacht rock.
- The genre combines expert musicianship with jazz or R&B influences, all of which is then crystallized through pristine studio work.
- Yacht rock is lyrically smooth or restrained. Its protagonists are often forlorn, naive or distressed. Bonus points for the use of the term “fool” (see the Doobies’ “What A Fool Believes” or Jim Photoglo’s “Fool In Love With You”.)
Reeling in the years
But how has the definition of yacht rock evolved through its short teenage life? Because while the music itself is pushing 45, the parameters of the genre were only laid out around 15 years ago.
In the past decade or so, yacht rock was co-opted by various platforms including traditional radio and streaming, and its nitpicky definition was broadened to include contemporaries such as Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles – which J.D. Ryznar and crew regard as too straightforward to be included “on the boat”. Much to their chagrin, yacht rock has lost a bit of its elite luster to become more inclusive.
On the live side of things, a tribute band emerged from Atlanta, naming itself the Yacht Rock Revue. Their stage performances feature song covers of many of the artists mentioned in this article, but the band also stretches the definition of the genre even more. They go as far as to include acts such as The Bee Gees (too disco), Paul McCartney’s Wings (wrong place) or Whitney Houston (wrong time) under the yacht rock umbrella.
For better or worse, what is or isn’t yacht rock largely depends on whom you ask.
So how does the Breezy Yacht Rock vibe fare when scrutinized under the genre’s specific parameters? While I was piecing the channel together, I straddled the line between the pure and sacrilegious. My song selection process, while firmly centered on the genre’s torchbearers, is also less nitpicky in its definition of what “makes or breaks” a yacht rock tune.
Sometimes, when in doubt, I would ask myself: “If I was on a yacht, looking wistfully at the ocean while a single tear rolls down my cheek from behind my aviator glasses, would [song X] be appropriate?” If the answer was yes, then damn it, I’d probably put it on there.
Songs with strong nautical imagery definitely got a pass, even though they might be considered straight-ahead pop songs, or too early for the genre (I’m looking at you, Randy Newman’s “Sail Away”). And yes, the oft-maligned Eagles are also featured on this channel, in part because of their friendly rivalry with yacht rock royalty Steely Dan.[i]
[i] The ‘Dan mentioned the Eagles in their song “Everything You Did”, in which a frustrated, cuckolded narrator has a heated argument with his wife and utters: “Turn up the Eagles, the neighbors are listening”. Later in “Hotel California”, the Eagles replied with the line: “They stab it with their steely knives, but they just can’t kill the beast”, perhaps a sly reference to their own superior record sales. I guess this is how smooth rockers quarrel.
Through the porthole
Whether or not you own a boat isn’t important. Yacht rock is a perfect complement to a lazy Sunday afternoon spent at home. Listen to the channel on your terrace, especially if you’re having shrimp and white wine. Perhaps you’re getting antsy in the dentist’s waiting room or at the airport? Yacht rock can certainly take the edge off. Its smooth tunes can also help mend a broken heart, or put the failures of life into perspective. Are you living up to your full potential? Maybe Pablo Cruise knows the answer.
And now, let’s sail towards the friendly seas with a few signature yacht rock milestones.
The Doobie Brothers – “What A Fool Believes” (from Minute By Minute, 1979)
Matey, this song has it all. First, it’s got those Michael McDonald vocals, which were laid out during his tenure with the Doobies. Also, note the presence of the “Doobie Bounce”, another term coined by J.D. Ryznar, loosely defined as a mid-tempo drumbeat overlaid with syncopated piano chords. Lyrically, the song is on point: the narrator encounters an old lover, and foolishly believes there is a chance for their old flame to rekindle. Oh, Michael, you’re only setting yourself up for more heartbreak!
Steely Dan – “Hey Nineteen” (from Gaucho, 1980)
At the tail-end of the first phase of their career, Steely Dan (aka the duo comprised of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker) was so obsessed with studio perfection that they mandated engineer Roger Nichols to build a drum machine that could utilize high-quality drum samples. This was unheard of at the time, but Nichols did just that – for a measly 150,000$. The drum machine, named WENDEL, is partly what you hear on “Hey Nineteen”. First, Fagen and Becker would have a session drummer (in this case, Rick Marotta) come in and lay down rhythm tracks in the studio. Marotta would then leave, and the ‘Dan would use the WENDEL to make the drum tracks flawless, for example by repeating their favorite sequences in Marotta’s playing (“looping”) or correcting tempo variations (“quantizing”). Marotta’s drum tracks were therefore sanitized, perfected – as were most of the drum tracks on the album. Interesting anecdote: when the album was awarded a platinum plaque, WENDEL also received one, perhaps as the Recording Association thought the name listed in the credits was a real person.
The smooth background vocals are supplied, as ever, by not only Michael McDonald, but also Grammy Award winner Patti Austin as well as Valerie Simpson (of Ashford & Simpson fame). Because, of course, nothing but the best is good enough for Steely Dan.
The song is about a man well into adulthood who becomes disenchanted with his 19-year-old flame. Over the course of the song, the aging narrator makes several missed references to soul artists he revers (sample lyric: “Hey Nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin/She don’t remember the Queen of Soul”). This is an obvious shout-out to some of the R&B greats who influenced Fagen and Becker themselves. The line between fiction and reality is blurred here and might make this particular song a bit too close for comfort. Did Fagen write “Hey Nineteen” from personal experience?
Nicolette Larson - Lotta Love (from Nicolette, 1978)
A silky smooth cover of a Neil Young composition, this was produced by Ted Templeman, also known for his work with The Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, and Carly Simon. Up until then, Larson was known for her background vocals, but this top 10 hit finally put her in the forefront. This is a pretty straightforward blend of folk, country, and soft rock, with a West Coast flavor.
Lyrically, the tone is ambiguous, offering a cautiously optimistic view of a relationship on the rocks. Larson’s vocals are supported by excellent studio work all around. Featured here are session musicians Andrew Love on sax (who could be heard on Wilson Pickett and Al Green records) and Plas Johnson on flute (heard on countless Henri Mancini productions). The R&B influence is also reinforced through the tasteful use of strings, without going into straight-up disco territory.