The cyclical nature of pop time means music is never out of style for long. But when it comes to the provocative sound of yacht rock, maybe the music never went away. As a new breed of dancefloor producers fall under its super-warm, slo-mo spell, Jim Butler traces the music’s origins, discusses its dubious name and highlights its enduring and timely appeal…
For James Alexander Bright, one-half of Bright & Findlay, it’s like a warm embrace: “An audio hug.” JIM, the new alter ego of Crazy P’s Jim Baron, describes it as “a joyful noise”. DJ Supermarkt says the sounds have repeatedly soothed him in times of trouble. “Every crisis I had, I survived with that music.” Benny Sings, the Dutch musician, calls it an identity thing. “It’s like saying this is who I am. I want sunshine, I want bright colours. I do live in a concrete, rainy environment but this is who I am.” Lou Hayter, meanwhile, spies its presence everywhere. “It’s in so many great records.”
As for Ned Doheny, that classic Californian troubadour who was best friends with Jackson Browne, ran with The Eagles and Joni Mitchell, and whose music has arguably been best-served by the sound’s persistent resurgence, well, he can’t abide the term. “It sounds kind of dismissive,” he laments. “As if it’s a bunch of rich people disporting themselves. A lot of the music that was made was the by-product of lifetimes’ devotion and deserves a bit better call than that.”
Welcome to the contentious world of yacht rock. A music which for the first 30-odd years of its existence was, if not the genre with no name, then certainly known by other descriptions: AOR (Adult-oriented rock), smooth soul, soft rock, jazz pop… The name yacht rock only came into being on the back of a YouTube video series that began in 2005. An affectionate lampooning of the super-airbrushed, joyously self-indulgent and stylised studio sounds proffered by the likes of Steely Dan, Toto, Kenny Loggins, The Doobie Brothers, Bobby Caldwell, Christopher Cross, Hall & Oates and co, the ‘Yacht Rock’ show retrospectively gave a name to, and subsequently reawakened interest in, a music that had previously been scorned for its supposedly non-rebellious – square – properties.
Although the creators of ‘Yacht Rock’ loosely defined the music’s time in the hot, hot Californian sun as between 1976 and 1984 – heralded by Michael McDonald and Loggins co-writing ‘What a Fool Believes’ – those musicians, DJs and producers that fell under its spell in the 00s stretched the timespan to incorporate the likes of Fleetwood Mac, America, Carly Simon, the Eagles, even Carole King, the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills and Nash. They also went the other way too, bringing modern acts like Phoenix and Zoot Woman to the party.
Crucially, however, the cratediggers – as is their wont – went deeper. DJ Supermarkt discovered less-heralded – in some cases almost obscure – musicians such as the aforementioned Doheny, Browning Bryant (whose 1974 self-titled album was produced by the imperious Allen Toussaint) and Matthew Larkin Cassell.
“I thought I’m not the only one that needs to know about Ned Doheny,” DJ Supermarkt (Marcus Liesenfeld) reflects today. “I’m not a musician, but I am pretty good at sharing things I find because I don’t keep them for myself. There were a few songs that really started the decision to make it a label (Too Slow To Disco) and Doheny’s ‘Get It Up For Love’ was one of them.”
If yacht rock today has a creative linchpin, it is the Berlin-based DJ Supermarkt. His ‘Too Slow To Disco’ compilations – to date he’s released 10 albums (including the ‘Neo’, ‘The Ladies Of Too Slow To Disco’, ‘Brasil’ and ‘Yacht Soul’ off-shoots) – have helped legitimise and crystallise the sound. Significantly, it’s also highlighted a correlation between the music and the dancefloor – a sonic signpost that’s not lost on several modern artists as we shall soon see.
Back in the 90s, Liesenfeld was one of Berlin’s biggest electronic artists. Alongside Holger Beier he was one half of Le Hammond Inferno and the pair founded the Bungalow label. They would DJ on the main floor in clubs across the world. And while the highs of such a lifestyle were stratospheric, the lows were conversely deep. It was listening to the music broadly described as yacht rock that enabled him to reach some sort of equilibrium while stuck in another “shitty hotel or shitty airport”. He began noticing a pattern among other globe-trotting DJs.
“Whenever I played it to someone, they either thought I was crazy, or they asked who it was,” he recalls. “But a lot of people admitted that they did the same. I met 2manydjs at that time, Peaches, Erol… those kinds of people, and it’s funny, they all did the same. All of them.”
After his discovery of Doheny (“I’d never heard of him. Even in the 70s nobody had heard of him”) and other music released on major labels (Doheny’s eponymous 1973 debut album came out on David Geffen’s Asylum, his follow-up, ‘Hard Candy’, on Columbia), Liesenfeld put together a mix of music from that period. He assembled it like a radio show from the 70s, replete with weather forecasts and adverts from the time. He uploaded it to a house blog he was involved in, and it just exploded.
“It was the most downloaded thing we ever put on there. I ended up doing two more mixes and we sold them in Rough Trade. The second mix was called Too Slow To Disco.” And then came the compilations. Tellingly, he didn’t use the term yacht rock.
“I always thought yacht rock was the wrong word,” he explains. “There is no rock. It’s almost like an anti-rock movement. I think it was a good name for the ironic show, but it doesn’t really capture what I love about that music. It’s more pop. Actually, it’s more soul music. They have so much soul.”
On the cover of the first TSTD compilation a sticker was attached which read: Late-70s, Early-80s West Coast Yacht Pop You Can Almost Dance To. The description, while cumbersome, was perfect. Here was a music that was slow – sometimes really slow – but you could dance to it.
Benny Sings is another who finds the insertion of rock problematic. “The least-listened-to genre on my Spotify is rock,” he explains. “I’m not a big fan of the distorted guitar so I wish there was another term. But I love yacht rock [the sound], so let’s go.”
Across eight albums – his latest, ‘Young Hearts’, came out this spring on Stones Throw – he’s indulged his love of this music, but his entry point wasn’t that original coterie of musicians, but the hip hop producers who sampled them.
“I was a fan of Jay Dee (J Dilla), and he used Bobby Caldwell samples,” he says. “In those rap songs I always loved the choruses the most – which was generally the sample. So, my first idea was I want to make music that just consists of the choruses of the rap songs and then the verses I’ll sing as well. What I didn’t know I was doing was essentially recreating yacht rock.”
After his first album, 2003’s ‘Champagne People’, journalists kept asking him if he was a fan of artists like Donald Fagen, Toto et al. He wasn’t aware of them, so he did some digging and he soon realised he’d found his calling. With one exception. “The production is hip hop, but yes, it’s from the school of yacht rock.”
Self-proclaimed Steely Dan aficionado Lou Hayter believes that hip hop is key to the music’s sustained popularity. She points to Fagen and Walter Becker’s band being sampled by hip hop royalty including De La Soul, MF Doom, Ice Cube and Kanye West.
“I grew up with De La Soul, so when I heard ‘Peg’ for the first time, I already knew it,” she says. “The more I listened to Steely Dan the more I was hearing things I already knew from hip hop. Then you’ve got Warren G’s ‘Regulate’ [featuring its Michael McDonald signature sample]. That sound is in so many great records. It’s very much woven into the fabric of popular music through hip hop and then people just tune into it.”
This criss-crossing of music and the dialogue and exchange that’s embedded in popular culture also makes itself apparent in the fact that Toto – whose ‘Africa’ hit is either the apogee of this self-congratulatory, cheery sound or its nadir, depending on how many Guilty Pleasures-themed nights you’ve experienced – were not only vital studio musicians for the likes of Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs, but wrote ‘Human Nature’ for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ album.
“So, it’s been there all along,” says Hayter, whose superb 2021 debut album ‘Private Sunshine’ unapologetically paid homage to the breezy world of yacht rock.
But it’s not just Hayter from the dance/electronic world who has gleefully embraced it. JIM, the infectious new project from Crazy P’s Jim Baron (aka Ron Basejam), wonderfully evokes wide-open Californian vistas and nautical (mis)adventures.
“It’s an attachment I feel fits the music,” he happily concedes of his ‘Love Makes Magic’ album. “And it’s not because I’ve got any experience of being on huge yachts taking heavy amounts of cocaine. For me, it’s very uplifting. The production is so tight. The orchestration. The harmonic content. It’s a very specific sound built around those elements.”
Baron is providing his take on yacht rock, but he could easily be talking about ‘Love Makes Magic’. Indeed, it’s one of those albums that effortlessly accrues instant classic status. Tracks like ‘Oxygen’ – which employs a fluid groove Doheny would applaud – ‘Still River Flow’ and the irresistible ‘Then We Do It Again’ merge Baron’s dancefloor savvy with classic songwriting licks. So why are so many electronic producers taking a holiday among yacht rock’s dusty boulevards? Baron has some thoughts.
“If you’re looking back to disco there’s a direct comparison musically with what’s going on,” he suggests. “Maybe not stylistically, but in terms of what’s going on with the harmonies and how the songs are moving around. I’d probably say that if you’re into disco it’s a very short jump over to the yacht rock sound.”
And when Steely Dan were supposedly employing 50 musicians and engineers to bring their ‘Gaucho’ album into existence, the sleek sophistication of that production mirrors disco’s ostentatious flamboyance.
“Exactly right,” says Baron. “They spent a lot of money on string sections, on orchestration, making it sound as big as possible. And disco was the same. It was a cast of thousands on most of those records. There’s a link there definitely.”
“Musicians today can’t believe how good those songs sound,” says DJ Supermarkt. “There’s no budget in the world nowadays. You can’t do it.”
Although one could argue Daft Punk gave it a good go when employing their ‘cast of thousands’ on their final opus, ‘Random Access Memories’, another album on speaking terms with the sunshine-soaked possibilities of yacht rock, and, not coincidentally, also recorded in Los Angeles.
Another explanation of yacht rock’s influence on contemporary dance music takes in the term slo-mo disco. Like ‘Too Slow To Disco’’s ‘pop you can almost dance to’ narrative, slo-mo disco couches the music in that familiar chuggy, almost-Balearic, dancefloor sound. It’s a description Bright & Findlay (James Alexander Bright and one-half of Groove Armada Tom Findlay) subscribe to on their excellent, and fittingly titled, debut album, ‘Everything is Slow’.
‘Slo-mo disco sounds like a nice space for us to be in,” admits Findlay. “I can lean into those grooves and it subsequently brings in a lot of crossover that you hear in dance music. So, if we get led down a New York Morgan Geist road for a day, that’s OK. It makes you realise how fluid that sound is.”
Bright points to modern artists such as Bibio and Dâm-Funk as carrying on that “soulful, almost Balearic early hours-of-the-morning vibe”.
He explains: “A lot of artists, whether it’s with plug ins or not, they like to create that hazy, almost like a snapshot – a Polaroid – which I guess we do with tape decks and old reel-to-reel recording, to regenerate a warmth and a yesteryear sound with modern production. It’s comforting and instantly puts a smile on my face.”
Comforting aural hugs are something we could all do with right now. So maybe it’s no accident that the music seems to be in the spotlight once more.
“When the music came to prominence in the 70s,” says Findlay, “I think it was to do with an existential unease in America at the time – Vietnam and things like that. I don’t want to get too meta about the whole thing, but I wonder, we’re going through difficult and challenging times right now and having something that feels like a big audio hug is something we need in our lives.”
That today’s take on yacht rock is also ever-evolving and amorphous – much like its Balearic cousin – also speaks to modern dancefloors. As Baron says of his JIM alter ego: “If you’re DJing by the pool on a Sunday afternoon at Pikes it’s perfect tackle for that.”
And if you’re looking for a closing – for now – chapter, DJ Supermarkt suggests finding it in the booming sphere of re-edits. He points to edits by the likes of Luxxury, Late Nite Tuff Guy, Duff Disco and Flight Facilities helping keep the music relevant today. “I like stuff that is alive,” he states.
Today, he doesn’t play the older artists he first discovered back at the fag end of the 00s. It’s all about musicians like Poolside, Kraak and Smaak, Roosevelt, L’Impératice, and Bertrand Burglat (the latter two both appearing on his TSTD ‘Neo – En France’ collection). “It’s important to find a new angle so I don’t become a jukebox.”
In the UK, meanwhile, the re-edit duo Flying Mojito Brothers have given their own sun-baked take on “yacht-adjacent” sounds such as country rock, classic rock and swamp rock, arriving at a simpatico cosmic Americana disco. They’ve also collaborated with James Alexander Bright reworking – or what they term “refrito”-ing – some of his !K7 recordings.
Of course, the pulsing heartbeat of the disco – the groove – is the link that ties this oftentimes unwieldy story together. J.D. Ryznar, one of the people behind the notorious ‘Yacht Rock’ series once described the base of the music as R&B. “There [are] jazz elements,” he told the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast. “There can be complex, challenging melodies; the solos are all cutting-edge and really interesting. There’s always something interesting about a true yacht rock song. It goes left when you expect it to go right.”
Ned Doheny believes one of the reasons he might not have succeeded in the 70s and why he has been discovered at this later stage could have been because of this very cocktail in his songs.
“There was a teeny bit of jazz there, there was some R&B, it was all rhythm-based, even the slow tunes, so I was kind of, I wouldn’t say uncategorisable, but a little more difficult to pinpoint in terms of style. And maybe that’s what this late date interest in my tunes stems from.”
He continues: “A long time ago, Jackson (Browne) claims to have given me a compilation of ‘Motown’s Greatest Hits’. I dispute that. But let’s just say I’ve always loved rhythm. It seems if you engage someone’s body their mind is sure to follow.”
Back in 2015, DJ Supermarkt promoted a Ned Doheny show in Berlin as part of a European tour. That tour saw DJ support come from the likes of Balearic stalwarts Paul (Claremont 56) Murphy, Jason Boardman and Moonboots. For Liesenfeld that Berlin show was both a revelation and vindication. “I’ve never seen so many people crying. I was one of them,” he happily admits.
Since the mid-70s then, yacht rock has always been with us, you could say it’s just been hiding in plain sight. And if the name is troublesome, the sound is anything but.
Bugging Out To Smooth Yacht Rock!
In 2008 I deviated from my public image - promoting Bugged Out! - to become better known for playing yacht rock. I had an unlikely hit DJ mix on my hands for Resident Advisor. I’d been running a Bugged Out! New Year’s Day party for years where I often dipped into smooth yacht tunes by the likes of Toto and Hall & Oates. I was approached by Richard Chinn from RA who commissioned their weekly mixes. He wanted me to do one, “a bit like your New Year’s Day parties.” They had recently featured Derrick Carter and Laurent Garnier which worried me as I couldn’t mix, so I decided to focus on selection and “creative segues”. My excuse?: “You can’t really mix the tracks unless you want Michael McDonald to sing in an even higher falsetto by pitching him up.”
With a nod towards dance music, I included an Idjut Boys edit of Phil Collins and a Balearic version of Toto’s ‘Africa’; the French have always loved yacht so Phoenix’s ‘Too Young’ featured alongside The Paradise’s ’In Love With You’. The centre of any yacht Venn diagram – Michael McDonald – appeared across tracks by The Doobie Brothers, Christopher Cross and Steely Dan. After several attempts I sent it to Chinn. The following day I had second thoughts and called him to pull it. “What are you talking about? The office loves it.”
So, on 1 December 2008 RA No. 131 loaded into subscribers’ inboxes with the opening ‘Hill St Blues (theme)’ turning heads who were expecting some boompty boomp. From there it took off with a few techno obsessives citing it “a joke” but countless supporters who were pleased with the change from deep house or triggered with happy FM radio memories. Even Time Out reported on it, saying I “was responsible for bringing yacht rock to the dance music masses.”
It became a staple of afterparties and I started getting bookings. I played the bar of Ibiza’s Space and at Glastonbury and Bestival. I heard that DJ Sasha was a fan and when I ran club night, Sail On Sailor, he turned up to shake a leg to the Doobies. It’s had a pretty decent afterlife on Soundcloud with recent comments from Berlin, London and Los Angeles citing it their favourite RA mix. Except it’s not a mix, it’s a creatively segued selection.