When something called the Sail Rock Tour comes to town, it's all too easy to make fun. Just write about facial hair, album covers featuring shirtless dudes and faux-sensitive lyrics that barely disguise the singers' prurient interests. Mention the Yacht Rock online program. If you're like me, you might also mention the Seinfeld episode where Newman books Christopher Cross for his millennium party. Hit send. Wait for check to arrive in mail.
But the fact is, '70s-style soft rock has been far more resilient than anyone expected. Whether termed "yacht rock," "mellow Gold" or "easy rock," you can still hear it on the radio and in dentists' offices from coast to coast. There are faint echoes in the modern-day works of Ariel Pink, Destroyer and Wilco (whose "Jesus, Etc." sounds like a lost Alan Parsons Project production). Members of local bands like Middle Class Fashion and Dive Poets have no problem admitting this music as an influence.
This is a marked change. Once, this type of soft rock was reviled. Punk rock thrived in America specifically as a response to this music. Yet the artists on the Sail Rock tour — Cross, Orleans, Firefall, John Ford Coley, Gary Wright, Player, Robbie Dupree — sound way better now than they should. Why is that?
"It's possible that we've heard too many bands that can't really play," says Keith D'Arcy, who works in music publishing as a licenser and producer. He is also something of an aficionado of obscure soft rock, to the extent that he contributed a few songs to WTNG 89.9 FM: Solid Bronze, a 2012 Nuggets-style compilation. "There's also enough distance so that no one who knows it's uncool is reminding us of that every ten minutes."
To John Ford Coley, who made a series of hits with partner "England" Dan Seals (brother of Dash Seals, formerly of Seals and Crofts), the answer is simple. "They were really good melodies, and people could sing along," he says. "People felt as if they were part of the radio. It's difficult to do that now, because the melodies are not there. They just aren't dominant anymore."
It's been decades since Coley and Seals first sang "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight," "Nights Are Forever Without You" and "We'll Never Have to Say Goodbye Again." Since then, Coley's had a lot of changes in his life, including Seals' death a few years ago. He has continued making new music, but in a more spiritual vein. But, he says, he has absolutely no problem with the old hits, and he still enjoys singing them.
"I love those songs, and I play them in the original way, because that's what people remember and want to hear," he says. "I absolutely never get tired of playing those songs. I can't ever remember a show when I thought, 'I don't feel like doing this anymore.' As far as I'm concerned, God blessed me."
Interestingly enough, Coley makes much of his money in Asia these days. Both solo and with other period bands like Ambrosia ("How Much I Feel"), he remains a big star in Malaysia and the Philippines.
"It's absolutely amazing," Coley marvels. "There was one song that Dan and I wrote called 'Just Tell Me You Love Me.' Well, I get over to Asia and find out that every schoolchild in Asia knows this song! At one concert, I just stepped back and let 'em sing. I took my wife to Malaysia a couple of years ago and said, 'This is hard to explain, but...'"
And what's the most creative misunderstanding of the chorus to "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" that Coley's ever heard?
"Oh, I can't repeat it," he laughs. "I hear things like, 'I'm not talkin' 'bout the Lennon,' 'the millennium' or 'M&M.' I recorded a new version of it in the Philippines, and the producer said, 'You got the lyric wrong. You sang, "There's a warm wind blowin', the stars are out." It's "blowin' the stars around." I just looked at him and said, 'Trust me.'"
One interesting aspect about this type of soft rock is that it's almost entirely confined to the 1970s and very early 1980s. As of about 1983, trends and production values had changed. Some blame it on MTV, which placed a new emphasis on visual style. This worked for Duran Duran, who appeared on a literal yacht for the "Rio" video. But Christopher Cross? Not so much.
"Although certain of these groups had some success there, including Chicago, Paul Simon and solo members of the Eagles, kids didn't want to see dudes with beards singing about tropical-island romance," D'arcy says.
"It was really a 1970s invention," agrees blogger Jason Hare, whose "Adventures Through the Mines of Mellow Gold" series remains one of the most informative and witty analyses on the subject. "While there were a few artists that would most likely proudly lay claim to starting the gentle movement, I'd say it started with Bread. They hit number one with 'Make It With You' six months into 1970. The lyrical content makes it a perfect fit. 'Make It' is a fantastically wimpy way to talk about banging."
Of course, this was a period of considerable turbulence and societal change in the United States, especially with regard to sex and gender roles. To a certain extent, you can see how the battle of the sexes was waged through the era's adult-contemporary hits. Helen Reddy declared "I Am Woman"; Bread's David Gates meekly asked if he could "Make It With You." Carole King: "One of us is changing, or maybe we just stopped trying, and it's too late." Paul Davis: "Just let me hold you by the firelight. If it don't feel right, you can go."
"There was really no emotional middle ground in Mellow Gold," Hare says. "You needed the ability to cry over a broken shoelace. Ambivalence was not an option. Every emotion was passionate, even if all you were talking about was how you had no idea what the hell was happening around you, like in Ace's 'How Long.'"
Ultimately, Hare prefers not to use the term "yacht rock." "From a pop-culture standpoint, the only thing that differentiates yacht rock from mellow Gold is that hipsters weren't involved in mellow Gold. The music is the same; the interpretation is different. Yacht-rock lovers listen ironically; mellow Gold lovers listened to it even when they knew it would get them beaten up. I think mellow Gold needs to be a just-right combination of wimpy music and wimpy words. A lot of the music involved with yacht rock has the right sound but not the right lyrical content.
"This music preceded disco and endured into the early 1980s," Hare adds. "Punk didn't kill it, which is amazing when you think about it."
For Coley, there's been just enough renewed interest in his brand of music that he's noticed a younger crowd. He's even spotted a few sailors' hats. But, he makes clear, just performing to appreciative crowds is enough. He related a story about a previous tour, where one of the fellow acts demanded to headline. "I said, 'Wait a minute. You're calling me up to ask if I would open the show because someone else is demanding to close it? Don't ever call me like that again. Just put me on the show. I just like to play. I don't care where.'"