A View To A Keel: The Art of 'Yacht Rock'

Hailing from across the Atlantic, yacht rock has filtered through to the sounds of today’s most popular acts. Meaning even if you haven’t heard of the sub-genre in name, you’re definitely familiar with its sound.

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Punk rock gave us a lot of good stuff – fast, short songs, good haircuts, a commendable DIY attitude – but one of the worst things it inflicted on several generations was a crippling self-consciousness about music.

It’s not enough for this band or this song to be “good” or “fun” or “better than hearing ‘Blurred Lines’ for the thousandth time”. It has to be right as well. It has to be morally pure. Is it too sophisticated? Too hedonistic? Too American? Is the singer posh, or rich? Would Joe Strummer approve? How about Alex Turner? Meanwhile, your poor brain is just enjoying the tune, and making itself feel bad about it.

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That sort of cognitive dissonance is what gave us the “Guilty Pleasures” phenomenon of the Noughties. In digging up lost radio hits from the Seventies by The Carpenters or Captain & Tennille, or one-hit bizarros like Pilot or Sherbert, DJ Sean Rowley showed how absurd the very idea of guilt in music is.

But Guilty Pleasures was only the low-fat, decaf, extra mild filtered version compared to the full-strength, high tar, triple espresso experience of enjoying the forbidden pleasure that is yacht rock.

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The proudly luxurious, ultra-smooth mid-Seventies American sound we now call yacht rock has resurfaced semi-ironically through acts like Haim, Phoenix, John Grant, Todd Terje and, of course, Daft Punk. (With its epic strings, leisurely riffs, ruinously expensive sessions, almost comical sincerity and atmosphere of blinding sunlight and glinting chrome, Random Access Memories is way more yacht rock than it is dance music). And you can see the appeal.

The essence of yacht is a “fuck you” to the hair-shirt brigade and a celebration of the idea that music is fun or it’s nothing. No wonder yacht came back into focus during the longest recession since the Second World War. The best way to forget that you’re poor is to imagine that you’re rich.

The term itself is of recent coinage, initially made popular by a Los Angeles comic actor called JD Ryznar who took it as the title for his mockumentariesm, spoofing the supposed lifestyles of soft rock acts like The Doobie Brothers and Kenny Loggins. Nobody described the mega-ballads, opulent soul pastiches and freeway reveries on US radio as yacht rock at the time.

Back then it was either adult-oriented rock or middle-of-the-road, the latter an especially ridiculous description given that everything about this music was built on extremity and excess.

From the musical palette (gigantic string sections, walls of brass, endless studio sessions where money’s no object) to the lifestyle (mirrored aviator shades, California casual, everyone shagging everyone else’s wives, mountains of cocaine) to the subject matter (the aching, empty hearts of rock’s new millionaires, the spiritual wasteland of LA, yet more cocaine) this was a lavish, laid-back, luxurious and lascivious world. By the Eighties it’d become even vaster and more sumptuously produced – see Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night for music so slick it almost slides off the surface of the CD.

Where better to listen to it, or The Eagles, Michael McDonald, Chicago or Toto, than on an actual yacht? What do you mean, you don’t have one?

This was rock as it’d never been heard before and, to many, a heinous betrayal. Elitist and disconnected, and happily lacking in conscience, yacht offered an escape from the national humiliations of Watergate and Vietnam into another America where everything was mellow and nothing bad ever happened.

Hammered by the oil crisis and terrified by crime and poverty, the Me Generation wanted to turn inwards and, y’know, get in touch with its feelings, maybe over a little blow. And for all that solipsism, some of the tunes were amazing. “Kiss on my List”? “I’m Not in Love”? “What a Fool Believes”? Elton John’s LA years? For those still troubled by this music’s essential hollowness, Steely Dan were on hand to satirise it with their own literate brand of “clever yacht”.

Like an open sea, yacht is there to be discovered. And if you’re not already on board – figuratively, if not literally – you’d better shift your espadrilles. Universal Music released a TV-advertised, triple-disc box set for the masses called Yacht Rock in June. In the meantime, you could explore further with the frankly spectacular yacht compilation Too Slow To Disco from German connoisseur DJ Supermarkt.

Too Slow To Disco avoids the obvious selections – Hall & Oates, McDonald, Loggins – in favour of a more off-the-map set which confirms that yacht is at least as deep a genre as vintage soul or reggae.

A track like “Let’s Put Our Love Together” by Micky Denne and Ken Gold (even the names are amazing) has a string-driven lilt and lacquered fabulousness that sounds positively revolutionary next to today’s fetish for laptop noise.

Many of these tracks reach a pitch of sonic weirdness that wouldn’t disgrace the most out-there electronic producer – see Jan Hammer’s “Don’t You Know” for what sounds like Al Green meets Brian Eno – and the songwriting too proves this stuff was anything but radio-pandering hackwork.I’d always been sceptical of the LA sound.

Too Slow To Disco changed my mind.

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