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Why Steely Dan Can Never Really Be Yacht Rock

Eric Pettine By

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The website Really Smooth Music provides the definition of the term Yacht Rock as being "a variation of popular Soft Rock that peaked between the years of 1976 and 1984 (as featuring a) highly polished brand of soft rock that emanated from Southern California during the late '70s and early '80s. The term is meant to suggest the kind of smooth, mellow music that early yuppies likely enjoyed while sipping champagne and snorting cocaine on their yachts." This sounds like an exclusive highfalutin snobby affair that only the wealthiest boys and girls could share—while they watched their bridges burn.

As most of us who were tooling around in the late '70s and early '80s probably listening passively to the likes of Christopher Cross' "Sailing," Kenny Loggins' "This is It" or England Dan & John Ford Coley's "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" can attest, what we were hearing, like it or not, was soon to be our generation's version of supermarket music. The song titles and lyrics of the above mentioned songs could be taken literally—there were no hidden, subliminal or profound statements being made. The music was intentionally devoid of engaging the listener to think about what they were hearing. And really no musical entity was stripping away the glossy veneer of that music and those lyrics to expose the human condition at its ironic worst—no one with the exception of Steely Dan.

Stephen Thomas Erlewine from AllMusic, who listed Steely Dan's song "Gaucho" in his top 30 list of great Yacht Rock songs, most likely understood the ambiguity of the lyrics juxtaposed with the ironic smooth and spirited groove of that song. But for the majority of people sipping and/or snorting at sea in the 1980s, the actual meaning behind the lyrics and music of that tune and Steely Dan's even bigger hit, "Hey Nineteen," sailed sweetly by in the salinated sea air.

Steely Dan's Sophisticated Lyrics

Most of the lyrics for most Yacht Rock songs, such as "You're the Love," "Sailing," "Love Will Find a Way," are obvious in their depictions of love, relationships or minor adventures. They are minus metaphors and double entendres that were prevalent in Steely Dan's lyrics, for example: the mysterious "mystical sphere" from the song "Time Out of Mind," the bikers who "throw down the jam" from "Josie" and Aja and her friend who "throw out the hardware" from the song of the same name. Even a year before their songs would seemingly chronologically qualify as being Yacht Rock, the cryptic lyrics "the spore is on the wind tonight" from 1975's LP/CD Katy Lied figure heavily in the salty story behind the song "Rose Darling."

Where in Yacht Rock's oeuvre would one find the depth of storytelling techniques as evident in Steely Dan's 1976 "The Royal Scam" (which is a song about the discrimination people from Puerto Rico who emigrated to New York in the '50s and '60s felt upon their arrival in the US), "Kid Charlemagne" (a song whose story was inspired by Owsley Stanley, the first infamous chemist to mass produce high-quality LSD in the 1960s in San Francisco), and "Glamour Profession" (which features a narrative concerning drug dealing to well-heeled clients in Southern California)?

Unlike most Yacht Rock songs, unique and specific names for characters can be found in many of Steely Dan's songs such as: "Klaus and The Rooster" from the song "Here at the Western World"; "Babs and Clean Willy" from "Haitian Divorce," "Hoops McCann" from "Glamour Profession," among others. Most Yacht Rock lyrics are of a light and superficial nature. They rarely address tragedy, personal demise, or global issues (such as immigration, homosexuality, drug abuse, corporate greed, etc.) in oblique and witty ways. For example, Christopher Cross' 1980's "Sailing" opening verse's lyrics ("Well, it's not far down to paradise, at least it's not for me. And if the wind is right you can sail away and find tranquility"), while pleasant and comforting, are innocuous compared to Steely Dan's "Third World Man" (of the same year), which includes the lyrics: "Johnny's playroom is a bunker filled with sand. He's become a third world man." Another obvious model of the straight- forward and comparatively light-weight lyrics of most Yacht Rock songs can be found in England Dan & John Ford Coley's 1976's "I'd Really Love to See You Tonight" opening verse ("Hello, yeah it's been awhile. Not much how 'bout you? I'm not sure why I called. Guess I really just wanted to talk to you.") These lyrics could pertain to any number of tentative love relationships from that or any previous time in history. From the same year, Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne(s)" opening verse ("While the music played, you worked by candlelight. Those San Francisco nights, You were the best in town. Just by chance you crossed the diamond with the pearl. You turned it on the world. That's when you turned the world around.") immediately has the listener wondering just who the main character is, why is he in San Francisco, what is "crossing the diamond with the pearl" and how did he "turn(ed) the world around"? These lyrics read like an intense fictional narrative comprised of complex characters in seedy situations. They are a far cry from almost all Yacht Rock song lyrics.

Steely Dan's Sophisticated Music

The slickness of Steely Dan's music serves as an ironic juxtaposition to their troubling/tragic/sometimes warped lyrics. This cannot be said for the majority of Yacht Rock songs whose music is as benign as the lyrics. Not only do many of Steely Dan songs use more chords than most Yacht Rock writers, but their chords are more complex and varied. Also the melodic lines in most Steely Dan songs are more angular, feature more intervallic leaps and move more unexpectedly than most Yacht Rock melodies do (most notably in songs like "Gaucho" and "Glamour Profession," for example).

Where most Yacht Rock songs feature a brief understated, underdeveloped, and oftentimes, unenthusiastic saxophone or guitar solo, Steely Dan has always prided itself on painstakingly culling the best possible solo on any given song. Very often they have had several or more players create their own solos for the same song (as they did for the guitar solo in the hit song "Peg") and then decided which one best met their expectations. Or Steely Dan would seek the services of a specific soloist to provide a solo to best serve the song as they did by allowing Wayne Shorter's tenor saxophone to sparkle and Steve Gadd's drums deftly dominate the drive on "Aja."

Steely Dan even went so far as to prompt their brilliant Grammy Award-winning Chief Engineer Roger Nichols to create a machine called to provide some of the drum and percussion sounds on the song "Hey Nineteen" from the Gaucho album (and a few years later on Donald Fagen's 1982 masterwork, The Nightfly ). As far as this writer knows, there hasn't been another Yacht Rocker who has ever envisioned such an instrumental innovation such as what became called the WENDEL, to tastefully compliment their music. Also, it must be noted that Nichols' sonic innovations were ultimately utilized to enhance and not to override the musical aesthetic of Steely Dan's music.

Unglamorous Leaders

Unlike most Yacht Rock performers, throughout their career, Steely Dan kept their less-than-sexy faces off of their album covers. The album covers of Kenny Loggins' "Keep the Fire," Ambrosia's "Biggest Part of Me" or Orleans' "Waking and Dreaming" are showy and glamorous compared to any of Steely Dan's. Even Steely Dan's wearing apparel was dull and simplistic compared to other performers.' Their clothing neither gleamed nor glowed.

By 1974 Steely Dan stopped touring and became denizens of the recording studio and unlike most all Yacht Rockers, avoided the musical spotlight. Even at the height of their career (from 1977-80), they were absent from any television or video features. For any other musical act that should have been a coup de grace to their careers. Thankfully for the music world at large and for their fans in particular, Steely Dan has always placed the emphasis where it should be—exclusively on the music that has always defied easy categorization.

Photo credit: Kotivalo
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