Wednesday, October 23, 2019

The California Sound - Taking a Stand

I object to the absurd categorization of anything, with, of course, the genre names attached to music the heart of this tirade. I've long hated the term "Classic Rock." Rather than simply categorizing the music produced from 1966 to 1975, the term places a stigma that suggests that this is "your parents' music" rather than its timelessness. It's interesting that for young people there is this idea of "parents' music" until there’s an artist they embrace, someone like Neil Young, Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin. The reality is, popular music today, along the lines of Taylor Swift and her mediocre disciples, suggest instead that young people are already listening to parents' music, and they're not parents yet. I am ashamed of 16 and 17-year-old boys whose favorite artist is Taylor Swift; the musical equivalent of a guy having The Notebook as his favorite movie (yeah, yeah, I know I’ll hear about that one).

Of the genre-specific terms, my least favorite is "Yacht Rock." The moniker is pretentious, inaccurate, and derogatory and it makes far more sense, if categorization is a necessity, to refer to the musical type as The California Sound, which in itself is a misnomer but at least suggests an accurate musical category. The term Yacht Rock intimates the type of music that the yuppie-set of the 70s listened to, supposedly on their yachts, essentially inspired by the Beach Boys' "Sloop John B." or the most famous Yacht Rock song of all, "Sailing" by Christopher Cross.

The California Sound was a direct result of FM picking up where AM left off, essentially FM's top 40. The Wrecking Crew, those studio musicians in L.A. who are responsible for the incredible musicianship of those 60s AM Hits found their talents less necessary as AOR (Album Oriented Rock) took over the FM airwaves, and started creating their own bands, like Toto, or working on a full-time basis with the artists of the day. The California Sound represented those musicians who still work primarily in the studio or were borrowed from bands of other genres. The perfect example being Steely Dan.

Steely Dan, with the exception of its first three LPs, Can't Buy a Thrill, Countdown to Ecstacy and Pretzel Logic, wasn't really a band but an ideology, a coming together of musical artists, not unlike The Alan Parsons Project with a jazz sensibility. Here the term Yacht Rock is at its most offensive. Like Alan Parsons, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker recruited members for the band and into the studio. Bringing along with them, more often than not, jazz fusion musicians like Wayne Shorter, Larry Carlton, and Jaco Pastorius. The high production values certainly fit that Yacht Rock mold, but the terminology cheapens what could be described as the most sophisticated music of the 70s.

My point is to put an end to foolhardy categorization. Should we need to put everything into neat little cubbies, The California Sound is far more broadly appropriate term without the derogatory implication. The California sound held a distinctly popular sound, a recognizable musical motif that fit into that FM top 40 mold. And while it encompasses, on a popular level, artists like Ambrosia, Boz Scaggs, Kenny Loggins, Gerry Rafferty, Andrew Gold, Seals and Crofts and the Little River Band. As an extension of The Wrecking Crew ideology, many musicians, particularly jazz musicians, ventured out of the commercial realm to work with artists like Steely Dan, Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell. Not one pejorative thing can be said about any of those artists; enough with the corny monikers.

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