Yacht Rock

by Bill Tuomala



"When a friend is drowning in a sea of sadness, you don't just toss him a life vest. You swim one over to him."


In the past few months, friends have sent me literally dozens of links to various artists' live performance clips on YouTube.com and I've only watched two of them. ('Mats on Saturday Night Live, 1986.) Strange as it seems, I'd rather watch Jim Mora's "playoffs?" rant, Denny Green's "crown 'em!" tirade, or Richard Nixon's "I'm not a crook" proclamation over a clip of so-and-so rockers playing in a club back in the day before they hit it big or became a cult legend. Why? At first, I thought it had something to do with keeping the mystery alive for artists I love. Then I thought about it some more and determined that I'm: 1) lazy, and 2) not obsessively into rock 'n' roll like I once was. Still love it to death, but can go a day - though not a week - without listening to it. Rock 'n' roll has equaled out in my mind as an object of obsession; reaching the same sort of level as politics, Sioux hockey, The White Shadow, and cheap beer. I'll totally 'fess up and admit that I am more looking forward to the next broadcast of Hardball with Chris Matthews then I am of the next airing of the always-excellent Little Steven's Underground Garage radio show.


I also realized that I'm in some sort of transition mode with my infatuations; that rock 'n' roll may once again rise in my priorities, but it's not guaranteed. Aside from those brief moments in the car when I'm blasting the Hold Steady's "Southtown Girls" or gleefully singing along with the likes of Manfred Mann's version of "The Mighty Quinn" on the AM oldies station, the only time I truly feel connected to rock 'n' roll is during those late nights with headphones on and a beer 'n' vodka buzz going. It seems only darkness, confinement, and liquid depressants can coax me into a one-night stand with rock 'n' roll.


In such times of apathy and boredom, it's usually the rule that I embrace forms that are uncluttered sound-wise, such as fifties rock and classic country; or feature sonic explosions like those in raw blues and early metal. (It's no wonder that a few weekends back I broke out Deep Purple's Made in Japan double-live album - four sides, seven songs - for a special tracking.) And if it's not the above genres, then I find comfort in laughs.


Sadly, there's not enough laughs these days in rock 'n' roll. But lately I've been obsessing over one of the funniest things associated with music that I've ever seen. Yacht Rock is a web-based video series made by total unknowns. Ten episodes - so far - have been made, five minutes long each. What they lack in production resources they make up for in spades with wit and attention to the trivia of popular culture. They create a hilarious alternate history of the smooth music made in the seventies and eighties by the likes of the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Toto, and Hall & Oates. And - glory of glories - it's not some simple-minded attempt at irony. It's too smart for that. It's so well-written and conceived that it works by making Kenny Loggins an eerily charismatic figure with talent to burn, Journey's Steve Perry a supernatural shaman, and Michael McDonald a sympathetic protagonist.


The series revolves around the philosophy that smooth music is the pinnacle and perfection that a musician can reach. Hard rock and any type of hard beats are discouraged, if not outright banned. When a smooth artist is tempted by hard rock, the others react with dismay. But in Yacht Rock "hard rock" is a relative thing. Loggins's song "I'm Alright" and the Loggins/Perry collaboration on "Don't Fight It" are considered quintessential hard rock, leaving the heavy metallic sheen of early Van Halen to be downright evil. When Michael "hard rock has got me and Eddie drillin' more coots than Black & Decker" Jackson hires Eddie Van Halen to play guitar on "Beat It," Toto has to get the help of other smooth artists (and Vincent Price) to put a stop to Jackson moving away from smooth music. Silly? Yes. Have I watched it over and over? Of course.


Such team-ups are one of the factors that make Yacht Rock so much fun. You know how in Marvel comics, Spider-Man will be cruising around Manhattan and just suddenly runs into Thor? Yacht Rock works like that also. Nobody seems to have a car and most of the meetings take place in alleys, on sidewalks, and near open garages. No doubt that this was necessitated by the series' low budget, and it only adds to the overall comedic appeal. Team-ups and rivalries spring up constantly, also just like in Marvel: Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina (broke up, Messina living in an alley); Loggins and Michael McDonald (survives a feud over Loggins's "rocking out" for Caddyshack); Loggins and Steve Perry (they wear karate outfits and celebrate the eighties); Michael Jackson and Eddie Van Halen (derailed by Toto); Harold Ramis and Toto (deal sealed by $75 bribe); Ted Templeman and Van Halen (result of hypnosis.) I drew up one of those "rock family trees" that detailed the Yacht Rock universe and came up with an intricately-linked web.


Most episodes revolve around the songwriting process. But instead of being an actual process of writing, experimenting, re-writing, editing, etc.; a song will come down to a certain epiphany that the artist has. (McDonald: "Kenny - that's what a fool believes!") Each episode unfolds like a mini-musical, where characters speak and sing words. But in this case even the smooth and sometimes cringe-worthy tunes of Yacht Rock easily eclipse the tripe one hears in show tunes.


It's all impossibly frustrating to describe. Each episode is only five minutes long but has an abundance of laughs. Had it been borne a quarter-century ago, it could have easily found a home on SCTV. That Yacht Rock references said late-night-sketch gem and its send-up of Michael McDonald speaks volumes to its genius.


You can find it at YachtRock.com.






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