The Yacht Rock Revolution (1980-1983)

Say ‘fusion’ to most music fans and it’s the classic early-‘70s jazz/rock of Miles or The Mahavishnu Orchestra that would probably come to mind.

But a decade later another kind of fusion was taking place, a mainly-American sound that drew on influences from R’n’B, jazz, pop, funk, AOR and MOR.

Yacht Rock was upwardly-mobile, multi-layered, widescreen, moneyed, beautifully-produced music, usually involving a string section and/or horns, generally West Coast-originated, driven by the lush production style of the time and effortless brilliance of the musicians involved.

The Yacht House Band generally centred around a few key members of the band Toto: Jeff Porcaro on drums, David Paich on keyboards and Steve Lukather on guitar. You’d also have to factor in guitarists Jay Graydon, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton, keyboard players David Foster, Michael Omartian, Robbie Buchanan and Greg Phillinganes, drummers John ‘JR’ Robinson and Steve Gadd, bassists Louis Johnson and Abe Laboriel, percussionist Paulinho Da Costa, horn arranger Jerry Hey, string arranger Johnny Mandel and a whole host more.

These were the greatest ‘rock’ musicians in the world, brought up on The Beatles, Beach Boys, Hendrix, Miles, McLaughlin and James Brown, making up their parts on the spot with the studio meter running, embellishing the basic chord changes with their own unique feel and voicings and bringing to life jazz-influenced compositions by some of the great songwriters of that or any other era: Kenny Loggins, Burt Bacharach, Michael McDonald, Carole Bayer Sager, Rod Temperton, Fagen and Becker, David Foster, Jay Graydon et al.

All kinds of singers got sucked in to this vibe, dialling down the operatics and dialling up the melody and behind-the-beat phrasing: George Benson, Patti Labelle, Michael Franks, Randy Crawford, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Manhattan Transfer, Leon Ware, Lionel Richie. Even a few Brits got onboard – George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Carrie’ are great stabs at the sound.

With a few notable exceptions, it was all over by 1984. The technology started running the show. Everyone was looking for the right drum machine, budgets were slashed and the great session musicians moved into production and songwriting. Stanley Clarke/George Duke’s heroic ‘Atlanta’ was somewhat of a finale for this kind of music; it’s quite affecting in a way.

Of course this stuff is way too laidback for some, the sound of clock-watching session musicians producing aural cotton candy, too close to muzak for comfort. It would be totally understandable to reach for the Throbbing Gristle after a while. But if it’s your bag you can really get lost in it – it’s pure comfort music, and brilliant for headphones.

Here’s a selection of the finest 1980s Yacht Rock artefacts for your listening pleasure. Ahoy there mateys, and wishing you a smooth sail.

Dedicated to James Broad.

Lee Ritenour: Rit

LeeRitenour Rit-FrontElektra Records, released August 1981

8/10

Is there a more wretched style of music than smooth jazz? We all know it when we hear it; there’s a good bet it will feature an insipid melody, usually played on soprano sax or clean-toned guitar, a dollop of white-man’s-overbite funk and usually a side order of cheesy slap bass too.

When the intricate, interesting jazz/rock played by the likes of Weather Report, Steps Ahead, Miles Davis and John McLaughlin started tanking in the mid-’80s, artists such as Bob James, The Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra took the classic fusion sound, sweetened it, added touches of light gospel and soul and repackaged it as yuppiefied, post-Windham Hill chill-out music, jazz for people who hate jazz. And they made a killing.

But a different kind of ‘smooth jazz’ had emerged a decade before, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a mixture of AOR, jazz harmony, classic fusion and Yacht Rock. It was the soundtrack for driving West on Sunset, decadent, expensive-sounding music full of dreamy Fender Rhodes playing and tasty grooves.

Musicians and arrangers such as Johnny Mandel, Jerry Hey, Tom Scott, Jeff Porcaro, Larry Carlton, Abraham Laboriel, Quincy Jones, George Benson, David Sanborn, Harvey Mason, Jay Graydon and David Foster thrived in this era when state-of-the-art production fused with jazz-tinged songwriting to create the missing link between Steely Dan and Earth, Wind & Fire.

lee ritenour

The unofficial headquarters of the sound was The Baked Potato, a nightclub in Studio City, LA, and one of the key musicians was guitarist Lee Ritenour (ironically one of the figureheads of the late-’80s Smooth Jazz scene proper).

His 1981 album Rit is a classic of its kind alongside George Benson’s Give Me The Night, Larry Carlton’s Friends, David Sanborn’s Hideaway, Casino Lights, Randy Crawford’s Secret Combination and Steely’s Gaucho.

This sort of music was America when I was 13 or 14. In my daydreams, I was scooting along the West Coast in a Pontiac, top down, loud music playing, palm trees – you know the drill. Had I been watching too much ‘Knight Rider’ and ‘Moonlighting’ and listening to too much Steely Dan? Quite possibly…

Although early Ritenour albums had been tricksy fusion, more in line with what George Duke or Alphonso Johnson were doing, Rit saw him concentrate on collaborations with gifted Stevie-meets-Fagen vocalist/songwriter Eric Tagg. To this writer’s ears, George Michael very definitely checked out Mr Tagg. The track ‘Is It You’ got to number 15 in the singles charts and features one of the great middle-eights of the era:

Drum fans will enjoy Rit too; the great Jeff Porcaro plays a blinding shuffle on ‘Mr Briefcase’ (another pop hit from the album) and produces a classic rock performance on ‘Good Question’. According to Wikipedia, MTV broadcast the videos of ‘Mr Briefcase’ and ‘Is It You’ during its first day on air (1st August 1981)!

When things get too mellow, Ritenour always seems to know when to insert a spicy solo (in the days when he delivered high-octane jazz/rock playing a la Santana or Larry Carlton). The instrumentals are an appealing mixture of early ’80s technology (Linn LM-1 abundant) and the sparky funk of Abe Laboriel’s bass playing and Don Grusin’s soulful Fender Rhodes. And Jerry Hey’s horn arrangements are instantly recognisable and a great addition.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Rit was an influence on Thriller (compare Rit’s ‘Just Tell Me Pretty Lieswith Jacko’s ‘Baby Be Mine’and various other Quincy productions later in the decade.

In 1982, Ritenour released the sequel Rit 2, which was almost as good and contained the superb ‘Roadrunner’. These are a couple of albums well worth revisiting.