Yacht Rock Radio

Crosby, Stills & Nash 1974 concert | credit GrawLIN via Wikimedia Commons

Smooth Sailing

Musical tastes always ebb and flow in a never-ending shift of trends. Personally, I love it when older music makes a comeback. Take yacht rock, the name now commonly given to soft rock music from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. It’s all the rage these days, especially with boaters, which suits me fine, because I grew up listening to these songs. Maybe you did, too. The backstory to it all is fascinating, so put on your captain’s hat, grab a cold one, and I’ll tell you how it all came about.

Writers Create a Tongue-in-Cheek Video Series

The yacht rock story begins in Los Angeles in 2005 when a group of young music and TV comedy writers devised a short video series for the fledgling internet film network Channel 101. Remember that YouTube was just getting started back then, and film artists of all sorts were exploring how to tap into the promise and power of the Internet to showcase their work and reach new audiences.

They called their series “Yacht Rock.” It imagined funny backstories behind the making of soft rock classics by musicians such as Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, and Hall & Oates. One show, for example,pits musicians in a Los Angeles back alley sing off. Things take a turn for the worse and one of the bystanders accidently is impaled by a harpoon.

 According to J.D. Ryznar, the main force behind the series,the writers were poking fun of the music but at the same time wanted to re-introduce the tunes they liked to a new generation. Ryznar called it yacht rock, because it was the kind of smooth, mellow music a yuppie listened to on a yacht back in the 1980s.  The friends never expected the series to be a hit. Many of the musicians featured in the series, however, became fans. Viewers ate it up. And Yacht Rock became one of the channel’s top shows during its run from 2005 to 2010.

A Band Looks for a Spark

In the fall of 2007, the Atlanta-based pop band Y-O-U was looking for inspiration. After 10+ years, the band hadn’t caught a big break and its members were thinking about calling it quits. Drummer Mark Cobb had burned a CD of songs he referred to as “The Dentist Office Mix,” by old soft-rock artists such as Christopher Cross, America and Little River Band, and thought it might be kind of fun to play the songs at a show.  

According to Cobb, it was meant to be a one-time diversion.He had seen the Yacht Rock series on the internet, so in addition to performing soft rock music, the band dressed in ‘70s fashion: bell bottoms, white belts,vests, aviator sunglasses and wigs.

Turns out, this was just the spark the band needed. The crowd at Atlanta’s 10 High Club loved the show, and the one-night stand turned into a weekly gig. It took a while for these serious musicians to truly embrace the yacht rock vibe, but as they moved from playing in bars to amphitheaters in front of larger audiences, they began to appreciate it and realized they were onto something.

In 2008, they formed the Yacht Rock Revue, very likely the country’s first official yacht rock tribute band. They even trademarked the term “yacht rock.” By 2011, they were yacht-rocking full time and not just in Atlanta.

An Internet Radio Executive Sees the Potential

In 2015, Brooklyn resident Jessica Besack became director of music programming for SiriusXM in charge of conceiving, developing and managing unique new programming ideas for the nation’s largest satellite and onlineradio company. She’d seen the original Yacht Rock series on the web and liked the polished music rooted in jazz and R&B. Under her tutelage, Yacht Rock radio station premiered that summer.

The program was supposed to run only through Labor Day, but fan interest persuaded Besack to extend it a couple more weeks that first year and renew it seasonally going forward. It was so popular that there’s even a rumor around about one Yacht Rock super fan urging President Obama to issue an executive order to make Yacht Rock a year-round thing.

Yacht Rock Today

Whether you’re a fan or “nyacht,” yacht rock has some serious staying power. Though President Obama did not issue a yacht rock executive order, SiriusXM now features the music 365 days a year on its Yacht Rock Channel 311. You can also find yacht rock on Spotify, Pandora, Apple music,Amazon music and just about anywhere else you go for your jams.

Yacht rock tribute bands have proliferated like crazy, too.Bands with witty names like Yachty by Nature, Thurston Howell Band, Three Sheets to the Wind, and The Docksiders pay tribute to the likes of Toto, Boz Scaggs and Steely Dan, often in nautical or ‘70s attire. To better understand the phenomenon, I paid a visit to a yacht rock concert by Philadelphia BoatHouse Row band at the Rams Head On Stage in Annapolis, MD.

I wasn’t quite prepared for the scene I walked into — it was jam packed with people of all ages. About a third of the crowd were in yachting caps. The younger guys wore them backwards or at a jaunty angle. I particularly appreciated one older gentleman sporting a sequined royal blue blazer and a nascot!

It was a festive audience; one I’d wager knew the words to just about every song the band played. I know I did, transported as I was back n time to a summer night in 1979 when I had a 32” waist, shaggy blonde hair,and my biggest worry was whether I’d be carded for buying beer.

Boat House Row was excellent, focusing on songs with incredible vocal ranges, multi-part harmonies and strong sax solos. People sang and danced. The drinks flowed. Everyone was feeling the Yacht Rock magic.

One of the sexagenarians at my table hopped onto a chair after the final song and flicked on her Bic cigarette lighter to encourage an encore. A few young ‘uns gasped, but the seasoned yacht rockers just smiled and nodded approvingly at this old-school tradition that felt so right for the night.

And that, my friends, is Yacht Rock’s secret sauce —nostalgia, memorable music and a momentary tongue-in-cheek escape from the blunt truths of life. I don’t know about you, but I certainly could do with fewer hassles and more smooth sailing these days.

Looking for a Yacht Rock Playlist?

Here’s a yacht rock sampler from Philadelphia Boat House Row guaranteed to float your boat.

“Baker Street” – Gerry Rafferty
“Southern Cross” – Crosby, Stills & Nash
“Baby Come Back” – Player
“Reminiscing” – Little River Band
“How Long” – Ace
“Rich Girl” – Hall & Oates
“Heart to Heart” – Kenny Loggins
“Reelin’ in the Years” – Steely Dan
“Brandy” – Looking Glass
“What a Fool Believes” – Doobie Brothers
“Still the One”
– Orleans
“Africa” – Toto
“Turn Your Love Around” – George Benson
“Ride Like the Wind”
– Christopher Cross
“Lovely Day” – Bill Withers

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