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Saturday, June 18, 2005
Sunday Morning Playlist: Soft Rock
While the term "soft rock" might seem applicable to any rock music that doesn't rely on volume to get its message across, in fact the designation refers to something much more specific.
Soft rock as a genre distinction has come to refer specifically to a style of rock that emerged in the early 70's, both as a reaction against the increasingly heavy music that dominated rock at the time, and also as a reflection of the changing priorities of the Baby Boom in the early 70's. Those who had been weaned on rock music in the 60's were entering their late twenties and early thirties, and many had become domesticated; they had grown up, gotten married, had kids of their own, and had begun careers.
So in one respect, soft rock was music for the uncounterculture; tuneful, hooky, commercial, hummable, inoffensive, non threatening, pleasant. It made the perfect accompaniment for such mundane activities as washing the dishes, making the bed, mopping the floor, folding the laundry, and other domestic chores. It also served as a workplace compromise; it was music that most people could tolerate, but it wasn't something that would dominate. It was music that could recede into the background.
At its heart, it encompassed most of the singer/songwriters of the day, including the likes of James Taylor, Paul Simon, and Al Stewart, among others. It also included melodic bands that used a basic rock lineup of guitar-bass-drums-keyboards but added immense amounts of production in the form of strings, horns, and airy, light backing vocals; including Chicago, Bread, and the Carpenters.
Some artists, like Billy Joel, Paul McCartney and Wings, and Elton John fell somewhere in between. What set 70's soft rock apart from its 60's counterpart, which for lack of a better word is usually just called "pop" is that in the 60's pop existed for those who simply didn't like rock; the 60's pop artists usually were vocalists who were stylistic throwbacks to the pre-rock era. Soft rock developed organically to suit the needs of those who did have rock listening experience; as such, it can be considered a bona-fide rock genre.
Demographically, its listeners were typically older and more female than hard rock listeners, although some soft rock artists, including Joel, McCartney, and especially Elton John drew a sizable number of teen listeners as well, also more skewed towards female.
Soft rock as a genre designation is usually limited to music of the 1970's. By the 1980's, tastes had changed and radio formats reflected this change; the genre evolved into what became called "adult contemporary", a pop categorization that bore less overt rock influence than its forebear.
There are far too many artists that qualify as soft rock to include in a list of ten; many are almost forgotten now, others are primarily remembered as representatives of other genres.
Some important/influential soft rock artists/songs include:
1. Billy Joel: She's Always A Woman iTunes
Joel has never gotten much critical respect and probably never will, but for a fairly lengthy span of time he was one of the most consistent hit makers around. His peak was from about 1976 through 1983, when he landed 20 singles in the top-40; his star began to dim after that, and he's been a spent force since the late 80's. Joel's image was an updated version of piano lounge singer, and he took his cues from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and the Beatles. "She's Always A Woman" was one of his most melodic, memorable songs, from his 1977 blockbuster The Stranger, which yielded four hits. On closer listen, one can detect one of the critics' biggest complaints with Joel; there's always been a streak of misogyny and patronization in his love songs. Still, his music was everywhere in 1977-1978, and The Stranger, produced by soft-rock king Phil Ramone, was his most consistent, enjoyable album.
2. Boz Scaggs: Lido Shuffle iTunes
Boz Scaggs originally tasted success as guitarist in the Steve Miller Band, appearing on their first two albums when they were playing psychedelic space rock. In 1968, he began his solo career, and released five albums before he finally found an audience with his 1976 album Silk Degrees. "Lido Shuffle" is a laid-back r&b tune, one of four hits on the album, which itself peaked at #2 on the pop album charts, and #6 on the Black charts. Silk Degrees is probably one of the most varied and satisfying soft rock albums of the 70's, providing enough changes of paces and surprises to please a rock fan. Scaggs was never able to follow it up, however; while his next two albums skirted the top-10, they weren't received as well, and by 1981 he was already a had-been. He's still active however, and in his career has managed to place a top-10 album on the pop, Black, blues, jazz, and independant charts, a testament to his restless virtuosity.
3. Elton John: Bennie and the Jets iTunes
Commercially speaking, no soft rock act can hold a candle to Elton John's massive popularity, which never really ebbed until the late 1990's. Indeed, John had managed to place a single in the top-40 every single year from 1970-1996, a remarkable achievement. From 1972-1976 he had sixteen top-20 hits in a row. The critics weren't with him most of the time, but when he was at his zenith, from 1972-1975, it was hard not to like his albums, an astounding seven of which went to #1 in that span, and were chock full of hooks on the singles and album cuts alike. "Bennie and the Jets" is a random pick; one could just as easily nominate "Your Song", "Daniel", "Rocket Man", or a dozen other songs to represent him. It reached #1 in 1974, and #15 on the Black charts, making it one of his biggest crossovers, and an enormous hit overall.
4. Bread: Everything I Own iTunes
Bread's memory has faded considerably in the three decades since their breakup, but during their 1970-1973 peak they were a big as any other hitmakers, placing eleven singles in the top-40 during that time. The band was led by singer/guitarist David Gates and singer/guitarist James Griffin and specialized in a rock sound that was heavier than the Carpenters, but softer than Elton John. Most of their hits were instantly hummable, featuring Gates' sweetly callow vocals and strings-heavy production. Griffin's contributions were somewhat closer to hard rock on the whole, but all of Bread's best remembered songs were Gates'. "Everything I Own" wasn't their biggest hit, reaching #5 in 1972, but it is their best; it has since been covered by many artists including Ken Boothe and Boy George. The band had an acrimonious break-up in 1974; they reconvened for one more album in 1977, and broke up for good.
5. Barry Manilow: Mandy iTunes
Along with the Carpenters, Barry Manilow (Barry Alan Pincus) perhaps best epitomizes the softest edges of soft rock; nobody would mistake him for a rock 'n' roll artist. In the 1970's, he was huge; he had seven top-10 albums and fourteen top-10 hits. Even at that time, he was regularly lambasted by the critics for his big romantic ballads with some justification; surely a dictionary exists somewhere with Manilow's mug under the word "schmaltz". Still, his achievement is worthy of respect; an awful lot of people bought his records, which kept Arista records in business. His first noteworthy work was as a writer of advertising jingles in the early 70's; his big break came when Bette Midler hired him as her pianist and musical director in 1971. They toured the gay bath houses of New York City together before they hit big, and remain favorites among the gay audience today. "Mandy" was a re-write of a song called "Brandy" which was a hit in England for its co-writer Scott English. Manilow's version was his first radio hit in 1974, and ultimately reached #1 in 1975.
6. Air Supply: Lost In Love iTunes
Air Supply were one of the last traditional soft rock bands before soft rock evolved into adult contemporary. Their peak ran from 1980-1983, during which they placed eight songs in the top-10; "Lost In Love" was their second, reaching #3 in 1980, and is arguably their best. Less of a band than a vehicle for the duo of Russell Hitchcock and Graham Russell, from Sydney, Australia, the pair met at an Australian production of Jesus Christ, Superstar in 1976. They gained international attention when Rod Stewart used them as an opening act during a 1979 tour; their 1980 debut album, Lost In Love, yielded three major hit singles. Their music relied on lush romantic ballads with airy vocals, and like most of the others on this list, they received little critical praise. After running dry in the mid-80's, the duo broke up, but they have reunited periodically ever since.
7. Chicago: If You Leave Me Now iTunes
Chicago is second only to the Beach Boys as most commercially successful American group of all time, if judged by number of hit albums and hit singles. They have placed twenty albums and thirty-four singles in the top-40, a remarkable number. They are best known for their horn section, which featured prominantly on most of their hits; the band was among the pioneers of grafting a horn section into rock, contemporaries with Al Kooper and Blood Sweat and Tears. Their late 60's and early 70's albums were progressive rock, with a rough edge; while they were commercial enough to regularly hit the charts, they also made consistently interesting albums. By the mid-70's vocalist/bassist Peter Cetera began to dominate the group, which shifted them in a MOR/soft rock direction; "If You Leave Me Now" from 1976 was one of the results of this shift, a huge #1 and Grammy winner. The band has undergone countless personnel changes since then, but had a #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts as recently as 1997 before finally running out of gas.
8. The Bee Gees: How Deep Is Your Love iTunes
Younger listeners probably know the Bee Gees best via the 1977 soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever and its hit "Stayin' Alive" which came to epitomize the disco era. However, the Brothers Gibb (which is what their name stands for) actually date all the way back to 1958, when they relocated to Brisbane, Australia (all three are English-born) and started appearing at talent shows. Their recording career began in 1962 on the Festival label in Australia; they returned to England in 1967 where they had their first international hits, which leaned heavily on the influence of the Beatles. They continued in this vein for years, scoring twelve top-20 hits in America before running out of gas in 1972. This led to a re-invention of their sound, which tightened the rhythms and emphasized the danceable beats, but without losing the harmonies they were famous for. This led to their greatest period of success, and they had eight #1 singles from 1975-1979. "How Deep Is Your Love" was also from Saturday Night Fever, but bears more in common with their earlier soft-rock era; it was one of the biggest hits of the late 70's.
9. Wings: With A Little Luck
It's a little unfair to lump Paul McCartney into the soft rock category, considering his contributions to music history and the wildly eclectic nature of his music. However, in the 1970's he was in some respects the standard bearer for soft rock; his albums with Wings sounded like the Beatles minus John Lennon, which, of course, is pretty much what they were. It is sometimes forgotten that he was an excellent rocker too; some of the Beatles' hardest rock songs ("Helter Skelter", "I'm Down", "I've Got A Feeling") were McCartney's, and he carried this talent into Wings ("Junior's Farm", "Jet"). That said, his Wings hits (except for the two aforementioned) were generally soft rock tunes and ballads; they boasted strong melodies and big hooks, and fussy, intricate production. "With A Little Luck" came towards the end of the Wings days, going to #1 in 1978. Notable for its lushly tuneful synthesizer-based arrangement, it's one of his better softer numbers.
10. Seals & Crofts: Summer Breeze iTunes
The duo of Jim Seals and Dash Crofts are best remembered for a brief spate of soft rock hits in the early 70's, but they also go much farther back than many people realize. They met while playing with singer Dan Beard in 1958; Beard and the duo then joined the Champs, whose 1957 hit "Tequila" predated their arrival by a year. they remained with the Champs through 1965; in 1969 they began a recording career as a duo. From 1972 to 1976 the band had five gold albums on Warner Brothers, and six top-20 hits. Their anti-abortion album Unborn Child in 1974 got them into hot water with much of their core audience, and their devotion to their Baha'i faith eventually sapped their commercial instincts; they were dropped by their label in 1980 and pretty much vanished into thin air. "Summer Breeze" was their first hit, and is one of their most enduring songs; it peaked at #6 in 1972.
Sunday Morning playlist appears every Saturday night/Sunday AM.
Listen to Billy Joel: Vienna [live] (1977)