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Dr. Smooth-Song, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Yacht Rock

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You might call it “adult-oriented rock,” or if you prefer, the “West Coast Sound.” If you’re like me, though, you lovingly call it “Yacht Rock.” It’s that infectiously smooth sound that packs a jazzy punch and puts the taste of piña colada right on the tip of your tongue. And with the warm weather and springtime sun hopefully coming back in a matter of weeks, it’s all I want to think about when writing new songs.

Spotify knows what’s up:

Whatever retrofitted name this genre goes by, it’s a treasure trove of groovy, detailed songs that hide a whole lot of virtuosic musicianship and songwriting smarts behind the smoke and mirrors of catchy, islandy vibes. As with other retro aesthetic artifacts, Yacht Rock is experiencing a bit of a revival among listeners who weren’t even born until long after its heyday had passed.

Let’s temporarily put aside whatever judgments we might have about the artists below, tilt our captain’s caps, and dive into the blue-green sea of some underrated pop gems to see how they tick.

Toto — “Rosanna” (1982)

To many listeners, “Africa” is Toto’s ultimate track. But to the band’s two Steves, keyboardist Porcaro, and guitarist Lukather, “Rosanna” is their undisputed masterpiece. A funky tale of a love that just won’t quit, the song boasts a dense arrangement of great musical ideas and performances and remains legendary among fans and drummers alike for late drummer Jeff Porcaro’s infamous groove and his undeniable fill that leads into every chorus.

But what we’re going to focus on today is the song’s chord structure. On the surface, it’s quite simple, but it’s based on a series of clever and subtle modulations that track the emotions of the song’s lyrics. The verse is built upon a descending I ♭VII VI– progression in G Mixolydian, which works out as G, F, and E minor. Midway through, however, the key center shifts from G down to F, and the same I ♭VII VI– phrase repeats as F, E♭, and D minor. Because that G-to-F change was already established at the beginning of the verse progression, it helps smooth out the modulation, making the E♭ feel consonant yet exciting. There’s also a sense in which the E♭ could be thought of as part of a modal change from G Mixolydian to G Aeolian, rather than a modulation to F.

(Lost? Brush up on your knowledge and understanding of tonalities and modes, chord extensions, and harmonic theory with Soundfly’s Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony courses!)

“Rosanna”‘s pre-chorus and chorus are a bit simpler, but notice that the band drops a changed G minor root chord when the lyrics are at their saddest. Of course, when you’re out on the yacht, none of this matters, but ashore you can take comfort in knowing that it’s this synergy between words and music that helps make this song so finger-snappin’ good!

The Doobie Brothers — “What a Fool Believes” (1978)

Arguably the Guernica of the genre, “What a Fool Believes” is a high watermark with a storied background. Penned by prime Doobie Michael MacDonald and Kenny Loggins, of “Danger Zone” and “Footloose” fame, it’s a poignant tale of a man who just can’t give up on an unrequited old flame. Michael Jackson claimed he worked on the final recording and was not credited. This was later denied by the Doobies. Classic.

Right off the bat, the song opens with the band grooving on a syncopated and sophisticated progression: A♭7, G♭Maj7, D♭/F, E♭–9, G♭/A♭, Aº, B♭–7, A7♯11. That final A7♯11 really adds some extra spice, wandering downwards to link up the more familiar chordal moves on either side.

There’s some added chordal complexity in the pre-chorus I don’t have time to delve into, but this is important because one of the ways the Doobies create their climax in the chorus is by simplifying it. This is an age-old songwriting tactic and perhaps why you’ve thought to yourself at some point, “why do all choruses sound the same?” It’s not that they are the same, it’s that they’re usually trimmed down harmonically to focus the communicative power of the vocal melody and lyric to act as a hook. Here, the simpler F♯–7, Bsus4, EMaj7, C♯–7 progression opens up some space, giving the vocal arrangement and rhythmic groove more room to work on the listener.

Another thing that the Doobies nail here is their arrangement. There are so many ideas packed into this song but it never feels like there’s too much going on at any given point. Take the intro, which hits us with a groovy keyboard melody based on the first, second, and third intervals of C# major. Ten seconds later, another synth lead pops into the right channel, and we’re not even 20 seconds into the song before MacDonald’s vocal enters. Halfway through that verse, another synth melody magically appears, but it’s now clear the arrangers have cleverly staggered the entry of each new idea.

Somehow, the density of this arrangement never feels claustrophobic. It’s a shining example of how to ride the crest of a groove while developing themes around a main melody so as to keep a central focus and not let the complexity interfere with the songwriting.

Steely Dan — “Peg” (1977)

Before the “West Coast Sound” exploded in the 1980s, the East Coast’s finest exponents of smooth groove were laying many of the genre’s foundations. Steely Dan’s braintrust of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen are a little like the Lennon and McCartney of Yacht Rock, credited for unwavering songwriting smarts and lyrics that toe the line between the symbolic and the emotional.

“Peg” is one of the deeper cuts off their landmark album Aja. It’s built off of a modified blues progression that demonstrates how new tricks can be discovered in old classics. Fagen analyzed it himself, but it bears repeating here, with a few extra insights. (We also covered this song in depth in our Song Kitchen recipe series, check that out if you’re interested to learn more.)

The basis of the song is a “stack of fourths” G major chord (G, D, A, D, G), played as a I  IV  V blues progression, but instead of twelve bars, it takes thirteen! The extra dimension in the chords comes from turning each chord in the progression into a movement. Specifically, each chord of the blues is preceded by two staccato hits of its relative IV chord with a major seventh. This gives the blues a decidedly un-bluesy sound, transforming a familiar favorite into something fresh and modern.

An additionally interesting aspect of this progression is how some of the chords that function as IV chords share the same root as the I that follows; i.e., the passage from Csus2 back to Cmaj7. It gives a subtle sense we’re shifting but also resolving.

These are only a select few of the underrated classics emanating from this relatively forgotten era of pop. As you can see, there’s a lot going on under the hoods of these songs and plenty of harmonic arranging tricks to glean as you write for any number of genres.

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Alex Wilson
Alex Wilson

Alex is a multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer from Sydney, Australia. He founded the post-rock band sleepmakeswaves, with which he has toured Asia, America, Europe and Australia. In his spare time he writes music for short films, produces bands and subsists on altogether too much coffee. Alex is the instructor of the free Soundfly course, Live Clicks and Backing Tracks.