Bullet Train to Velveeta
One recent evening my wife and I were out on the deck for a pleasant evening after she sous cheffed, and then I grilled. For musical entertainment I got lazy and just hooked up our little deck speakers to Pandora. I haven’t really even made my own play list, so during dinner we listened to some jazz on the David Sanborn channel. It was quite nice.
After dinner, I decided to do a thorough cleaning of the grill, and decided not to play the Mark Knopfler channel for the umpteenth time, although I knew I would like that. I opted to go more mellow, the Dan Fogelberg channel.
I’m sure you know how these channels work. You start off with several songs by the artist themself, and then it starts to mix in artists they feel you should like based on your main choice. It’s often interesting, albeit weird. I have hit the “thumbs down” button often on the Knopfler channel, since the Pandora choices for similar artists often are baffling.
The Fogelberg channel takes you into the very dicey musical waters of 70’s singer-songwriter soft rock. Not yacht rock, that is usually just plain shitty overall, and is plain and simply useful mainly for parody. But there is a much greater dichotomy in the Fogelberg channel playlist, which can jarringly go from classics to sappy treacle, even by the same artist themself.
Fogelberg himself is a great example. Like most artists in this category, the song that introduces them to the public and makes them famous is generally at least good, and often outstanding. If they have staying power, they generally will produce good music but virtually no one is immune from dropping into icky sappiness. “Part of the Plan” made Fogelberg a star. I very much like his best work and even reached back to his first unknown album.
I think “Part of the Plan” is a great song, and contains some lyrics that reflect a strong part of my worldview, so it’s a favorite of mine. But pretty much after two more albums I was getting off the team. It often became pretty gooey going with “Heart Hotels”, “Leader of the Band”, “Hard to Say” and the like. But millions of people liked those, too.
Generally, I like soft rock artists that have credible rock chops to go along with the soft part. There may be no greater example of that than Chicago. They don’t really fit into this genre, but they are perfect to make the point. Purveyors of some soft rock classics that I absolutely hate with a passion, they truly could be badasses too. Particularly early before Terry Kath blew his head off playing Russian Roulette, they could really rock.
There is a famous story told in a documentary about Chicago. Early in their careers they were playing a club date and Jimi Hendrix went to the show. He sought them out after the show backstage and loudly told them… “You guys are MOTHERF#$@ERS!!!!!!”.
But much of that same crew put out their string of monster hit ballads, most of which, in my mind, suck. Early soft stuff like “Color My World” was quite good, but “Baby What a Big Surprise” or “If You Leave Me Now”???? C’mon, man. But I’m sure their accountants and ex-wives are quite pleased.
Certainly the 70’s singer/songwriter types would never be mistaken for “motherf%@#ers”, but certainly many were consistently excellent. But still, from Gordon Lightfoot to America to Jackson Browne to The Eagles, they were all dancing the dangerous dance when you are riding the soft rock wave. There is always an element of cheese, but it’s up to you to define the quality of it. One off note, one sour turn of phrase, and you are on the bullet train to Velveeta.
America is a great example of the dichotomy. “Horse with No Name” and “Ventura Highway” are by my, and most accounts, fine songs. “Horse with No Name” suffers from perhaps at the time of its release being one of the most overplayed songs in history (“Brown Eyed Girl” wins the lifetime achievement award), but it’s a great effort, and fits into the “first song might have been the best” category.
But unfortunately, well to me unfortunately, they also served up “I Need You” and “Daisy Jane” among others. They also had the serious misfortune of having the Carpenters cover one of their early writing efforts “Muskrat Love”, the cover being one of the all time most icky hits, complete with synthesizer cutey-pie rat noises. YIKES!!!
It should be pointed out of course, that some of my examples of what I perceive as goo, might just be a favorite of yours, and hell, the songs are only known because millions of people loved them. I almost threw “Sister Golden Hair” into the hopper, but it might just be on the right side of the cheese line.
These things are fun debates. Not like debating the quality of a distant cousin like power ballads (a whole other blog if I cared enough), because finding ones that are actually any good at all is more the enterprise there. Generally bad bands going outside of their limited wheelhouse. Many of the soft rock artists are great, they just work in a very tricky area.
Who should we credit, or blame, for kicking off this period that is one of the keystones of baby boomers lives??? It still sells product. The current Folger’s ads where fathers and sons peel through generations is backed by a generic soft rock tune. Ed Sheeran certainly would have fit right in back in the day.
I’m going to go with Bread as the real standard bearers at the outset. David Gates cranked out one excellent tearjerker after another starting in 1970. “Make it With You”, “It Don’t Matter to Me”, “Baby, I’m a Want You”, “If”, and “Everything I Own” were all top ten hits within 18 months, and they all pass muster with me. But even soft rock titans like Bread can start to leak oil. “Diary” is borderline, and “Aubrey” has a whole pine tree of sap.
But a fun enterprise if you were a fan of Bread is to get their greatest hits album. All the soft hits are on one side, and their more rock oriented songs are on the other. While hardly headbangers, they are pretty damn good. I’ll listen to “Let Your Love Go” and “Mother Freedom” any day.
If you are looking for a band that might have gone undefeated in avoiding schlock in this genre, it might just be The Eagles. Probably not even thought about as purveyors of soft rock, since they really can rock out, far more of their hits are soft. I’m not even that big a fan, but I’m hard pressed to hit thumbs down on the old Pandora button on any of their efforts.
One thing that really helped artists who made a dent in this area and stuck is that it was such a gold mine for record companies that they supported acts like Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin and others with big promotion and the best session musicians and backup singers money could buy.
From the aforementioned sax man David Sanborn, to drummer Russ Kunkel to bassist Kenny Passarelli, those are just a few of the names that are all over the singer/songwriter albums. The stars also sang and played on each other’s records repeatedly. On Dan Fogelberg’s album “The Innocent Age” alone, the backup singers included Glen Frey, Don Henley, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, Chris Hillman and Richie Furay.
Most of the really bad stuff from this era’s height was, not surprisingly, produced by one hit wonders. Crap like “Seasons in the Sun”, “Chevy Van”, “Key Largo”, “Moonlight, Feels Right” and many others did not launch long careers, or even one more hit, thank goodness.
But the Godfather of Cheese, the song that can bring down an entire genre, has to be “Afternoon Delight” by Starland Vocal Band. The band is the horrible answer to the trivia question, “Who did Aerosmith lose out to for the 1976 Best New Rock band Grammy?”, and the song speaks for itself. How could anyone have liked it????? Well, millions of people can’t deny they did, since it was a freaking number one record. Thankfully, that was it for them.
However, even the greats aren’t immune. My first favorite rock band was Cream, my first favorite rock song was “Sunshine of Your Love” and my first record purchase was “Live Cream Volume II”. How could the man who tore through that iconic guitar part, Eric Clapton, serves us up “Wonderful Tonight”?
It does first a pattern. Check out what you might think is the sappiest tune written by a favorite of yours. It likely will be like this song, written for a brand new lover. In this case Patty Boyd. The things we will do for love, and love was usually the fallback for guys admitting they liked any soft rock stuff. “My girl likes that”.
I won’t do that. I like quite a bit of it. It is hardly my favorite genre, but there is a lot of talent in play there. And I admire the guts, because there is enough risk in it for me to write a blog about. That’s right man, gutsy soft rock.
Now I’ve got to go figure how to keep Terry Jacks off of my Dan Fogelberg channel.