How the Internet Saved Yacht Rock

Revisiting the unsung heroes of a subgenre that remains as vital today as it was 30 years ago

June 12, 2020 6:09 am
Steely Dan, Thundercat, yacht rock

Whether you were an adherent right from its mid-’70s starting point, a convert after encountering J.D. Ryznar’s genre-coining web series in the mid-2000s or a recent acolyte thanks to its resurgence over the last half decade, one thing is certain: yacht rock has become an unavoidable aspect of the smooth-music multiverse.

Originally the province of West Coasters crooning lightly over soft-rock grooves, the genre bubbled just under the surface of a string of yuppie-baiting hits for almost a decade, never overtly named until J.D. Ryznar paid it tribute with a web series of the same name in the mid-aughts. Although its crowning moment was Christopher Cross’s 1981 Grammy and Oscar sweep, the movement played a significant role in boosting the careers of stars like Michael McDonald, Steely Dan and Kenny Loggins.

By 1984, yacht rock had slipped back beneath the pop-music waves, barely a blip in a cultural consciousness that was tilting increasingly toward the brasher sounds of new wave, hair metal and early hip-hop. Most of its heavyweights would continue to evolve their sound in order to remain chart friendly and stay in the good graces of their respective record labels, but for every Hall & Oates dabbling as deckhands, there were dozens of dedicated yacht-rock auteurs who never felt the urge to leave the smooth waters where they had found a home.

How does such a rich genre disappear almost completely overnight, only to be recognized in retrospect nearly 25 years after its relevance had faded from the musical landscape? The answer lies in the fundamental difference between the music industry’s FM music directors and label gatekeepers at that time and today’s internet-enabled curation and tastemaking. 

While the latter has allowed for unprecedented levels of connection between fans and artists who toil outside of the Top 40 spectrum, in the original yacht-rock era an artist choosing to stick with a fading niche was akin to career suicide. This was true no matter how well-connected one might have been, or how deep their roots might run through the yacht rock scene.

No Hits, No Help

Californian Ned Doheny would be the first to be signed to perhaps the
smoothest label of the era: David Geffen’s original incarnation of
Asylum. After a rough ride from his original A&R, Doheny’s 1976 album
Hard Candy on Columbia would turn out to be a yacht-rock treasure, with
tracks like “Get It Up For Love” and “A Love Of Your Own” serving as
prototypes for more successful acts to capitalize on soon after. The record plays like a foundational document for anyone who would dare to don the captain’s hat for the rest of the decade; “A Love Of Your Own” would even climb to #35 on the US R&B charts when rerecorded by Average White Band the following year. 

It’s the kind of album that today would be revered as the starting point for a scene, but in ’76, Asylum’s dismay at the lack of a successful single couldn’t be overcome by Doheny’s talent or the star-studded list of contributors to the Hard Candy sessions (including no less than three members of the Eagles, as well as Linda Ronstadt). Doheny was summarily dropped by the label, causing him to retreat from the music world entirely until reviving his career in Japan at the tail end of the 1980s. 

It was to become a familiar pattern for yacht-rock diehards. As labels moved quickly to chase the next chart trend, acts were hard-pressed to convince anyone to stick around for a few more mojitos after the sun had gone down on their cultural moment. In many ways it was the beginning of the end of the industry’s investment in building and breaking acts that didn’t seem to readily exist in FM-radio audience surveys.

It Doesn’t Matter Who You Know …

Despite having smaller careers on the American charts, the trajectories of several failed yacht-rock lifers — those whose aspirations were comfortably bound by the soft-rock rhythms and grooves that embodied its laid-back culture — were also often intertwined with those of larger lights. Such was the case with Peter Allen, an Australian star and songwriter of varied tastes who would collaboratively create “Arthur’s Theme” (along with Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager), which snagged the previously mentioned Oscar for Christopher Cross. 

Allen was no stranger to seeing others prosper with his words and music, having previously penned major hits like “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “I Honestly Love You” in the 1970s. Following his divorce from Liza Minelli, however, his music began to trend towards the softer side of the spectrum, first with the album I Could Have Been A Sailor in 1979, followed by 1980’s Bi-Coastal.

It was here that Allen would team with David Foster to produce his most resonant work to date. Americans swayed gently to the sounds of “Fly Away,” which made the middle of the Billboard Hot 100 and would prove to be the singer’s only lasting dalliance with popularity outside of his native continent. “Not The Boy Next Door,” his 1983 follow-up, would mix yacht-friendly breeze with a medley of other genre-of-the-month efforts, but the public’s cool response to a sound that had left the zeitgeist would quickly send Allen to Broadway.

1983 was also a cruel year for a brand new soloist born of yacht-rock royalty. Patrick Simmons was a foundational member of the Doobie Brothers, having weathered the group’s move from album-oriented rock to the softer sounds brought on by Michael McDonald joining as lead vocalist and songwriting collaborator in 1976. 

Simmons decided to follow McDonald onto the pop charts, disbanding the Doobies in the process, but his album Arcade was the right record at exactly the wrong time. Despite strong harmonies and arrangements from his brother-in-arms, including the genre classic “Why You Givin’ Up?” and the Loggins-soaked “Don’t Make Me Do It,” Simmons discovered that the music scene had pushed him away from the pier without even enough kindling aboard for a Viking funeral. It would be the last record from the once-distinguished guitarist for nearly a dozen years.

It’s All About Access

There’s only one reason you’re reading an article about yacht rock in the year 2020, and that’s because of the internet. This goes beyond the obvious fact that this article is appearing in a digital medium — both the recognition of the genre and its revival can be tied directly to the online efforts of Ryznar and labels like Numero Group, giving second life to a period of music that had been entirely ignored by archivists and the mainstream alike.

Perhaps more importantly, digging up yacht rock’s roots and spreading them across the web has allowed for a host of new artists to explore their own nautical vibes. Unleashed in an era where repurposing not just the sounds but the entire aesthetic of bygone musical movements has become a cottage industry, smooth rockers like Thundercat, Mcbaise and Drugdealer look back from the future through a digitally tinged lens.

Whether created as an homage, satire or as part a genuine desire to add to the lyrical lexicon of the gentle breeze blowing through your hair beneath a tropical sunset, Yacht Rock 2.0 stands entirely outside the market pressure that once crushed its inspiration. Artists are now largely in control of the online distribution and streaming that forms the backbone of boutique genres. Much as the Internet exposed an entirely new generation to smooth music, so too has it guaranteed that those who want to listen to it will be able to find a way to do so without running afoul of a major label’s profit and loss sheet, now and forever.

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