music-o-mat,  transcriptions

Yacht Rock

As a big-toothed teenager, my peers and I rarely saw eye-to-eye on music (or much of anything else for that matter, but especially music). After all, what 10th grader willingly listens to soft rock? Many of these so-called friends worried aloud that I would grow into an adult who tied sweaters around his neck, or worse (rhymes with May).

It wasn’t that I hated other forms of music. What child of the ’70s doesn’t have an appreciation for the musical milestones of that decade, the soul music, the classic rock, disco, and even punk? I just liked other things too, things the parents liked, things that did little to boost my overall social standing. I liked Yacht Rock.

The term “Yacht Rock” only recently emerged as a catchall for the jazz-inflected pop stylings of the late seventies. It’s a boat whose passengers include Boz Scaggs, Steely Dan, Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Ambrosia, Toto, and so on. Most of these artists re-purposed the same army of A-list sessions players, had the same producers, and often, relied on the same composers. It was, in 1978, a brand with mass appeal and we all know roller skaters dug it.

I broke up with Yacht Rock when I discovered Jazz. I was 16. There were tears. In retrospect though, I’m rather amazed at how much jazz complexity the Yacht snuck past its censors. For this reason, it earns a Guilty Pleasures rating (seriously, it’s hard to forgive pastels and Farrah hair).

Take the mega-cheese sensation “Suddenly,” the love ballad from Xanadu — a movie I require my friends to love and watch repeatedly.

(love the YouTube comment “music for f*cking“)

True to the mission statement of this blog, here’s the Jazz Analysis!

The verses alternate keys. The male verse follows these changes:

Bbmin | Gbmaj  Ab11 | Dbmin7 | (2/4) Amaj7 | (4/4) Bmaj7

The female verse enters a whole step higher following same pattern (except for the turnaround at the end).

Cmin | Abmaj  Bb11 | Ebmin | (2/4) Bmaj7 | (4/4) Bb 11  Bb | (2/4) Bb 11 (v7 for upcoming chorus)

In both cases there’s a deceptive V7-i at the third bar, going minor instead of the usual major. That’s the first piece of ear candy.

The chorus follows a familiar 1-6-4 in Ebmaj with a IV-> iv turnaround. The dude harmonizes in 6ths.

Then there’s this clever bridge modulation:

Dbmin7  | Gb7/Db | Bmaj7  | Eb11 Eb7
Abmaj7   | Ab7         | Dbmaj | Bb7

and into the chorus again.

This bridge uses a cycle that goes from Db minor to Ab maj (implying a iv) which then becomes the subdominant to Dbmaj and then via another subdominant (Bb7) modulates back to Ebmaj for the chorus. Brilliant!

This does NOT happen in pop music anymore. I’m amazed that it ever happened in the first place. You’ll find similar chord math in hits like “How Deep is your Love,” “This Is it,” “Biggest Part of Me,” and “What a Fool Believes.” This owes much to the caliber of studio musicians they employed. Today, it’s computers and AutoTune; back then it was skill. It infected the music in interesting ways.

In solidarity for an era when musicians wrote full-bodied songs, cheesy or otherwise, I’m going to sling a sweater around my throat today. Even if it’s 98 degrees outside.


    • Fauxmat

      Officially indeed! I first heard the term from the Catastrophic band. Later I saw it as its own category in an Austin vinyl shop.

  • Shannon

    Okay, it’s obvious I’m late to this post (my inbox was quite full!) but DAAANG. I forgot about Xanadu. I believe I saw it in the theater with my friends possibly 5 or 6 times. I loved that movie. And that song. I never thought about the music exchanges, but seeing them explain the emotional buildup, still today. Nice post.

    You mentioned Toto. We were listening to an Andy McKee redo (incredible solo guitar) of “I’ll Be Over You” and I started singing the words. My husbands mouth dropped, “You KNOW this song?” Of course! It was awesome tune then, one where words (even) are required. Scott agreed, once he read the lyrics.

    I’m not sure if I’m copying the link into this box, or embedding the video…we’ll see.

  • John Edward Ross

    Since the late 90’s Seth Paynter and I have waxed philosophical and nostalgic about Yacht Rock, or “Cracker-Disco-Jazz” as we called it.

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