Yacht Me On the Water

Yacht Rock? What the daylights is Yacht Rock?

Chances are you’ve heard it, and maybe even liked it. Yacht Rock is a music subgroup (yes, another) that focuses on the soft rock/jazz fusion/easy listening sound that was found on FM stations from around 1975 to 1984. It’s the kind of music you might expect to hear on a yacht as you cruise around the southern California coast, music that often evokes themes of sailing, or escape to somewhere else – songs like Rupert Holmes’s Escape (The Pina Colada Song) or Christopher Cross’s Sailing.

Yacht Rock, of course, can trace its roots back to The Beach Boys and surf rock, but more directly is the result of J.D. Ryznar’s comedy web series Yacht Rock, which ran in L.A. back in 2005. The show imagined the lives of the real yacht rock stars as a group of friends hanging out and writing music as they lounged around Marina del Rey, and it brought back all the music. Yacht rock emphasizes the Southern California sound, and almost all of the musicians were working from California (the exception being Hall and Oates, who stayed in Philadelphia).

Like anything subject to opinion, there’s always an argument to be made if something belongs in a category or not (and there’s “Classic” yacht rock and “Newer” yacht rock, which expands the genre). Myself, I don’t see Foreigner (too heavy) or Billy Joel (too pop) as part of that scene, but they are included under “newer.” Certainly, many artists have at least one song that could be included. Generally speaking, yacht rock is defined by:

  • Strong production and direction
  • Electronic piano
  • Breezy, light lyrics
  • Light emotions – she left you, but that’s okay
  • Emphasis on melody over beat
  • Catchy tunes
  • Too often full of syrupy sincerity
  • Upbeat rhythm (sometimes termed “The Doobie Bounce”)

Often the song is about a heartbroken man, and the words fool or foolish are thrown around (The Doobie’s What a Fool Believes, Steve Perry’s Foolish Hearts, Elvin Bishop’s Fooled Around and Fell in Love). Many of the songs are about sailing (Chris Cross’s Sailing, Crosby Stills and Nash’s Southern Cross) or the thrill of an escape (Little River Band’s Cool Change, Robbie Dupree’s Steal Away, Toto’s Africa).

You can say various resurgences in music are caused by films (Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody hit the charts four times, twice from the films Wayne’s World and the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody) or television (Kate Bush), or sometimes social media drives a song (Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up), or Baby Boomer (and now Gen X) nostalgia, but the swelling of yacht rock popularity since 2015 (both IHeart Radio and Sirius XM have Yacht Rock stations, and Amazon Alexa will also tune in) is often attributed to a desire to escape from the negativity and stresses of the last several years. Yacht rock is calm and upbeat, evoking a sunny carefree day of lounging on a yacht gently swaying on the water, a fresh breeze ruffling your hair, not a care to be had. Your girl left you? Your job went sour? Your town on quarantine? Don’t let it get you down. Come on, we can steal away and find something better.

Yacht Rock is the highlighted music feature for July. Check out songs by these and other soft rock/jazz musicians:

The Long and Short of It

Music and its forms have always been in a state of flux. While operas often dragged for hours, recording them, when the means became available, was a different problem. When temperamental wax cylinders gave way to 78 rpm shellac discs, you had 5 minutes of music before you ran out of groove and had to turn it over.  Post-WWII, when brittle shellac gave way to more forgiving vinyl, record speed dropped to 33 rounds per minute, allowing up to 22 minutes per side on a 12” “long-playing” record (or LP, for short.). When the 45 rpm single – cheaper to produce, cheaper to purchase – became standard, music averaged 3-5 minutes a side.

If you wanted to get airplay on a radio, music had to be submitted on a 45, thus most popular songs were limited to around 3 minutes in length (Hence Billy Joel’s line from The Entertainer: “If you’re gonna have a hit, you gotta make it fit, so they cut it down to 3:05”). Albums could play for as long as 20 minutes a song on each side. Jump up to CD, and you can now go to 100 minutes. Streaming? The only limit is your tolerance.

So what’s the long and short of it? What are the longest and shortest songs on the road to success? The 50’s and 60’s, with the advent of transistor radios to make music portable, saw an explosion of short catchy tunes, meaning more could be crammed onto the radio, which meant more airtime, more commercials, and thus more money all around. Elvis consistently comes in under two minutes (Let Me be Your Teddy Bear1:43, Are You Lonesome Tonight, 1:25) as do the early Beatles ( From Me to You, 1:56, Please Please Me, 1:59), Summer Time Blues by Eddie Cochrane (1:58), and Hit the Road, Jack by Ray Charles (1:58).  

Albums play around more – If you’ve got 18 minutes of music, but can squeeze one more short track in, you fill it. Styx’s legendary Paradise Theater album has 3 blink-and-they’re-over tracks (AD 1928, 1:07, State Street Sadie – a flash at 33 seconds, and AD 1958, 1:06). Pink Floyd, who loves to drag out a tune, logs in at 1:25 with Pigs on the Wing, a beautiful melody on the Animals album. Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s legendary Welcome to the Pleasuredome album clocks in two blips – Snatch of Fury, at 36 seconds, and The World is my Oyster, which is 1:02, perhaps 45 seconds longer than the track needs to be. 

 

But just how long can you carry a tune? Well, outside of perhaps an opera or symphony (Beethoven’s 9th is about 70 minutes long). American Pie takes up both sides of a 45 at 8 minutes 32 seconds, and Hey Jude clocks in at 7:11, perhaps the longest singles on 45s. But when you hit albums and their longer tracks, if you count all nine parts of Pink Floyd’s ethereal “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” from the album Wish You Were Here, it totals 26:01, the longest segment being over 13 minutes. You could add Rush’s 2112, at 20:33, Yes’s Close to the Edge at 18:30, or the legendary In a Gadda da Vida by Iron Butterfly at 17:05 – three songs that can carry you clear across the state.  Meatloaf’s I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That) made it to Number One on the Charts with a time of more than 12 minutes, so length does not affect popularity at all. 

With the pandemic, streaming of music and even live concerts has increased in popularity. While the current trend is to make shorter songs for the attention-short listener, it will be interesting to see in the next five years or so if, freed from the limits of physical media, musicians will increase the length of their songs or not. Genres are losing their hold as streaming crosses boundaries (ie, Jimmy Buffett gets mixed with a lot of country), 24-bit audio capacity has lead to quieter music (less digital noise on soft tracks and streaming services even out loud tracks anyway), music labels are losing importance as musicians self-release songs, and songs are even breaking up their ages-old format and frequently starting with the chorus instead of a verse. We might cringe at the pace of the changes, but in the end, for the musicophile, it’s a wonderful time for variety and a widening range of music.