A Trio of Smooth, Genre Defining Rock Bands

Eagles, Can’t Buy a Thrill, Toulouse Street.

The year 1972 was a prosperous one for great rock albums. Three in particular signaled a titanic shift in music for the rest of the decade. Let’s not use the term “yacht rock” because these groups could rock.

The Eagles debut album was simply called Eagles.

Country-rock is what it’s usually called, maybe the first really complete example of this sub-genre. Smooth riffing, easy on the ears, but these guys could also put muscle behind the guitars. That would became more potent in a few years with the arrival of Don Felder and Joe Walsh. Even without the additional guitarists, this album packs exceptional musicianship by the four-member band.

Don Henley and Glenn Frey would become one of the most sophisticated and successful songwriting teams. Their lyrics were insightful and socially attuned, while they painted strong musical motifs that became stronger with each listen. They weren’t the only songwriters, as Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner contributed their share, and friends like Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther and Jack Tempchin were writers or co-writers on occasion.

“Take it Easy,” “Witchy Woman” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” were the high-charting singles from the album and defined the band as laidback, SoCal soft-rockers. If you looked a little deeper, the harder edge was there.

The album was skillfully recorded, under the supervision of veteran English producer Glyn Johns. These guys were talented musicians too, backing up Linda Ronstadt. Tons of musicians were trying to break into the big-time. Just getting a recording contract didn’t guarantee success.

The Eagles had a vibe that connected with the youth market; not kids, but those who found the imagery in the songs akin to their adventurous spirit. These were young people on the cusp of adulthood, but who weren’t ready to be domesticated. The opening lyrics of “Take it Easy” convey that wonderlust of possible romance.

The Steely Dan that began the decade was look and sound quite different in the latter 1970s.

In the beginning, Steely Dan was actually a band, and Donald Fagan wasn’t the primary vocalist. What? Yes, true.

A better debut single than “Do it Again?” I don’t think so. The song introduces several strengths of the band. In the early days, Steely Dan was more a guitar band, and why not, they had great players in Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias. They would bring others in as needed, like Elliott, Rick Derringer, Hugh McCracken, Randall, Dean Parks and Larry Carlton. In time, keyboards and horns became more prominent, while bass and percussion continued to drive the songs.

Words were important, but layered harmony vocals were secondary to the intricate musical interplay. Later on, vocals would play a bigger role.

From the beginning, the beat, rhythm and the bass line were important elements in Steely Dan. Rarely, did Fagan/Becker write conventional rock and roll. Their music seemed to retrofit R&B grooves, blending it with rock or jazz. Perhaps that’s why they used veteran session players like Wilton Felder and Chuck Rainey who had a long musical history with Motown R&B and jazz labels.

In the early 1970s, jazz-fusion grew to be popular, even rockers like Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck into the genre. Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin and others shaped successful careers following their own path.

In the mid 1970s, Steely Dan parked the tour bus, dissolved the band and carried on as Fagan/Becker and studio musicians. Like the Beatles a decade earlier, this duo crafted their songs painstakingly, shuttling scores of session players in and out, in search of a very specific sound.

The first several albums did not feel gritty, but by comparison to Aja and Gaucho, the early albums felt warmer, less machine-made. That’s my one complaint about Steely Dan, success bred the desire for perfection.

Toulouse Street was not the Doobie Brothers debut album, but this sophomore release was much different and more mature than their first album, which didn’t sell and nearly got them kicked off the label.

“Listen to the Music” and “Jesus is Just Alright” are still hits on classic rock radio and concert favorites. This album introduced Tiran Porter as bass player, which also integrated the band and gave them three vocalists. Michael Hossack joined as a second drummer, giving the band two drummers like the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead.

The Doobies’ style gelled on this album as they settled into the studio, benefited from touring and solidified their songwriting. Besides the phenomenal guitar work, the vocal harmonies came together with Porter on board. Guitarist and main songwriter Tommy Johnston brought a dynamic rhythm guitar, the smooth, fluid “chunka-chunka” style of playing as he called it. Patrick Simmons, the other guitarist and songwriter had a fingerpicking style, a rootsy country-folk element that complimented Johnston.

Even though the band projected a tough biker image, that’s really not who they were. The bluesy, R&B edge to some of their songs did not blunt the tight, melodic structure of the music. This was not a jam band or endless soloing. Their songs were hummable and Ted Templeman’s production made them perfect for contemporary radio.

All three of these albums signaled great things ahead. The singer-songwriter period was peaking and disco was mainly in the clubs at this point. Heavy metal, hard rock and progressive rock were just getting started, but had their own trajectories. Not only did these three bands enjoy decades long success, but they influenced many other bands to broaden the tight radio format, and their appeal to wider demographics.

By the early 1980s, the Eagles were in drydock, the members of the band sick of each other and off enjoying solo careers. I would bare say they had peaked creatively. The Long Run (1979) was not much of trailblazer, and it’s hype did not match the result. The Doobie Brothers had a massive hit with Minute by Minute (1978), but underperformed with One Step Closer (1980) which was the last album by the Michael McDonald version of the band. Gaucho (1980) did not live up to Steely Dan’s successful Aja, but it was no slouch. Not much would be heard from Steely Dan over the next 20-plus years.

Each of the three bands is active, although many as touring bands. The Doobie Brothers occasionally release a new recording, but all three are mining the vaults for older studio and concert material for release. These are legacy bands that still pack venues with their positive vibes.

Okay, I said I was not going to mention “yacht rock” again, but I’m going back on my word for a moment. It is hard to understate the longevity and appeal of these three bands in a medium that quickly disposes of artists like paper cups at the water fountain.

“Fusing softer rock with jazz and R&B, very polished production, and kind of being centered around the studio musician culture in southern California … It’s not just soft rock, it’s a specific subset of soft rock that ideally has those elements.”

Greg Prato’s 2018 book, The Yacht Rock Book: An Oral History of the Soft, Smooth Sounds of the 70s and 80s.

I believe Prato’s quote is on the money. It was also something else. Maggie Serota in a Mental Floss article wrote, “Yacht rock was never edgy, nor did it ever feel dangerous. Yacht rock didn’t piss off anyone’s parents and no one ever threatened to send their kid to boot camp for getting caught listening to Kenny Loggins’s ‘This Is It.’”

Yes, definitely not edgy, just keeping you in the edge of your seat, because you want to get your mojo in sync with the groove.

2 thoughts on “A Trio of Smooth, Genre Defining Rock Bands

  1. This fairly recent term “yacht rock” cracks me up. Like you said, all three of these bands, especially the Doobies, emphasized electric guitar and could rock hard. When I hear “yacht rock” I think of maybe four acts: Christopher Cross, Pablo Cruise, Little River Band, and Toto. I’m convinced ridiculous labels like “yacht rock” are created by suits sitting around desks in faceless media conglomerates to carve up music for musical neophytes in order to increase their cash flow.

    Liked by 1 person

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