In 1974 Jeff “Skunk” Baxter was at the Knebworth Festival playing with the Doobie Brothers, on a bill that featured the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Van Morrison and The Allman Bothers.
A founding member of Steely Dan, Baxter loved being on stage but due to Steely Dan’s reluctance to tour he found himself with enough free time to tour and record with the Doobies as well as Linda Ronstadt that year.
When he informed the Doobies at Knebworth that he was about to quit Steely Dan as they wanted to inhabit the studio rather than play live, they said “great you’re a Doobie now“. Baxter accepted their offer and promptly introduced his mate Michael McDonald to the band to create Doobies 2.0.
Baxter’s playing on the first three Steely Dan albums is pretty special and there are multiple highlights, with his solos on the track “My Old School” being a big favourite of the ‘Dan Loyal’
Baxter would go on to play on six Doobie Brothers albums as well as various sessions for Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and Todd Rundgren.
A keen collaborator, Baxter has also toured and played live with Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and Elton John and is renowned for his virtuoso plating as well as his pedal steel guitar, skills.
Baxter was a ‘studio rat’ for much of the 80s playing on numerous sessions including the guitar solo on Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” before forming a short lived super-group called The Best, with Joe Walsh, John Entwhistle and Keith Emmerson.
The talented Mr Baxter also carved out a second career as a military advisor working with the US Government’s Missile Defense Agency and in 2005 was invited to join NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration.
After dabbling with politics, Skunk has rediscovered his love for music and has released a new album supported by a US tour.
A common ice-breaker in the 70s was… “what kind of music are you into?”
Typical responses would be – Rock, Punk, Reggae, Soul, Prog, Glam, etc, but you’d rarely hear anyone reply…. ‘Smooth, light and catchy’.
However, if you were into the Doobie’s (Michael McDonald era), The Eagles, Hall & Oates or Christopher Cross in the late 70s then ‘smooth, light and catchy’ was fundamentally what you were buying into.
It was a sound that was initially classified as ‘Soft Rock’ or ‘Adult Orientated Rock’…. not a description you’d want to crow about.
Fast forward 30 years and the very same sound was revived, repackaged and re-christened as ‘Yacht Rock’ (YR) by a bunch of guys who set up a comedy web-series that both lampooned and paid homage to the genre.
‘Yacht Rock’ the web-series, is set in LA’s Marina del Rey and fictionalises the life’s of 70s musicians like Michael McDonald, Hall & Oates, The Eagles and Steely Dan as they hang out, bicker and make music.
The show quickly attained cult status, with John Oates crediting it for rekindling interest in Hall & Oates as well as introducing a younger fanbase to the band.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s fun and well worth a catch-up on YouTube. It’s an easy watch with each episode lasting about 5 minutes.
The golden-era of Yacht Rock fell between 1976 to 1984 and whilst it’s a tricky genre to define, the music can be characterised as smooth and melodic, typically combining elements of jazz, soul, and rock….. the perfect music to listen to whilst you chill out on a yacht basking in the Californian sunshine… quaffing a few margaritas.
In terms of identifying the archetypal Yacht Rock sound, the following factors commonly apply…
High production values. The inclusion of elite studio musicians and producers. Lyrics about heartbroken foolish men, with bonus points if the word ‘fool’ is featured. An upbeat rhythm driven by the electric piano, nicknamed the ‘Doobie Bounce’.
A perfect example of a Yacht Rock classic that ticks all the boxes is the Doobie Brothers… ‘What A Fool Believes’.
Following the web-series, the interest in Yacht Rock escalated and what started life as a parody developed into a bona fide genre, initiating documentaries, books, compilation albums, radio channels, playlists, live events, tribute bands and podcasts.
Initially an American phenomenon, Yacht Rock tribute bands and events are pretty widespread now and the inherent humour inspired by the web-series lives on, with bands like….. ‘Hot Dads in Tight Jeans’ and ‘Yachty by Nature’
Whilst the tribute-band scene flourishes in bars and smaller venues the appetite from the masses for the original acts is still very much alive. Guys like Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, The Doobie Brothers and Hall & Oates, are still selling out stadiums and larger venues whilst rolling out their 70s Yacht Rock hits.
It’s a tribute to its longevity and quality that the Yacht Rock sound is still actively being produced today, with new bands like ‘Young Gun Silver Fox’, and established artists, like Thundercat, who recently cut a track with Michael McDonald & Kenny Loggins on vocals.
Ironically, for a genre that started out as a bit of fun, Yacht Rock can be taken a bit too seriously by some YR aficionados who like to go into great detail about why certain bands or songs attain Yacht Rock status whilst others don’t. In answer to this, and with typical humour, a bunch of yacht rockers set up a website called Yacht or Nyacht? To help the uninitiated identify what’s yacht and what’s not! https://www.yachtornyacht.com/
Truth be told, Yacht Rock escapes exact definition, and it’s hardly an exact science. For many listeners, it comes down to a feeling or a mood that can’t be found in other types of music Simply put…. you’ll know a YR track when you hear it, but at least when anyone asks you what type of music you’re into you, you can now find a better way of saying ‘Smooth, light and catchy’.
I had fun collating a short Spotify playlist of some of my favourite Yacht Rock classics, (although a couple may be on the Nyacht list!) link below….
Bonus points for anyone who can identify how many tracks Michael McDonald features on?
(A look back at some of the things we used to wear in the 70’s)
Paul Fitzpatrick: London, March 2022
I can recall badgering my parents to buy me a pair of Wrangler jeans in 1971, a plea which fell on deaf ears, my Mum came home with a pair of brown cords from C&A, because she thought…. “they were a bit smarter!”
Maybe it was this early trauma that spurred me on to work in the jeans/denim industry for most of my adult life.
I did eventually get the Wrangler jeans I wanted in 1972, in what became an early example of… ‘If you want a job doing, do it yourself’. Off I went to Arnott Simpsons department store in Glasgow to purchase them, weighed down with pocketfuls of change saved from my paper round earnings.
I can still remember the shiny Western labelling, the leather branding on the back pocket and the smell of unwashed denim.
I couldn’t wait to get home to try them on.
I have to admit that my enthusiasm diminished a tad when I realised that my new jeans were stiff as a board which meant you had to break them in… a bit like the wild stallion on the jeans label, which in retrospect was a fantastic piece of subliminal branding.
The first couple of times I wore them was agony, it felt like someone was rubbing sandpaper behind my knees… I missed my comfortable, soft brown cords!
I found out later that this was a rookie-mistake and that I should have washed the jeans first to remove all the excess starch but I’d probably have ignored this advice anyway, I’d waited long enough.
By 1974, trends had moved on a bit and like my old monkey boots, abandoned in a cupboard somewhere, dark, rigid, unwashed denim was now a thing of the past.
In its place were faded, lived-in jeans that looked like they’d been worn on a sun-kissed road trip from Laurel Canyon to Woodstock, whilst the wearer was listening to the Doobie Brothers.
Truth be told, the look we were going for was Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin (but maybe without the extra padding!) whilst the girls had their own fashion inspirations from that era.
The big problem with attaining that worn-in jeans look, circa 1974, was that you had to do the hard yards yourself…. stone-washing hadn’t been commercialised yet, so if you wanted to get your jeans to look like you’d lived in them for 10 years, you either had to live in them for 10 years or launder them several times a week, and who did that?
This led some to experiment with bleach, usually with disastrous results.
Back then most of us obtained our jeans from the usual outlets… department stores, mail order catalogues or boutiques but then an amazing thing happened, a specialised jeans shop opened in 1974 – Slak Shack on Hope St, near Glasgow’s Central Station.
It was a denim Mecca offering a variety of jeans, jackets, shirts and dungarees with one item standing out from the rest …. patchwork jeans.
Yep, new jeans made up of ‘old jeans‘ that had been cut and sewn together again.
Yep, ‘Old jeans‘ like the ones we’d been frantically trying to recreate by washing them every 5 minutes, plus the Slak-Shack strides were baggy which was the current trend and it didn’t even matter that there was only one leg length – LONG – because we were all teetering about on platform shoes now!
As soon as word got out about this fashion essential we all headed to the Shack, who struggled to cope, with demand rapidly outstripping supply.
The really cool thing about those original patchwork jeans in my book was that due to the customised way they’d been produced no two pairs were the same, so you could spend ages sifting through the stock to select your preferred pair.
Also, because the jeans were produced by using pre-used denim they were wonderfully soft and comfortable…. as if you’d been wearing them for 10 years.
Like most fashion crazes, other retailers and manufacturers soon cottoned on to what was in-demand and within a few months there were cheaper, nastier versions hitting the streets. However, for a wee while in the autumn of 74, these personalised strides were like currency in Glasgow and Slak-Shack was the bank.