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Yacht Rock

Between a yacht and a hard place.

Yacht Rock stems from a golden period of a stable of Southern Californian musicians who invented a genre that combined R&B with a suggestion of longing to escape, aspiration for a better world and themes of melancholia. Not that they knew that several decades later this sound would come to called Yacht Rock. It’s defining epoch was the mid 1970’s to the early 1980s.


Yacht rock was originally categorized as the West Coast Sound or adult-oriented rock but then got associated with the popular Southern Californian leisure activity of sailing.

How to summarize yacht rock? Reach for your adjectives first. Saccharine, easy on the ear, catchy, high production values, unchallenging. Middle of the road. Steely Dan – in many ways the epitome of Yacht Rock – described their music as funked up Musak. It is cowboy music for a modern world. Ride Like the Way by Christopher Cross. Remember that one? Or elves sailing away from Middle Earth to a better place – We are sailing by Rod Stewart. The suggestion is that there is something wrong with the world and we are going to produce exquisitely recording paeons to a better world.

The quality of FM radio, multi-track recording and the shift from collective soul searching  Blowing in the Wind to a more individual introspection define the lyrical content.

Easy does it

In 2014 AllMusic’s Matt Colier identified the “key defining rules of the genre” as follows:

“keep it smooth, even when it grooves, with more emphasis on the melody than on the beat” “keep the emotions light, even when the sentiment turns sad ” “always keep it catchy, no matter how modest or deeply buried in the tracklist the tune happens to be.”

Tuning in to any yacht rock radio station or Spotify’s yacht rock channel will give you a feel for the artists. They usually meta tag the listings as ‘smooth sailing’ or some other similar corny headline. It is often an arbitrary decision as to what records hit the Yacht Rock playlist. Some defining characteristics are:

Use of top Los Angeles-based studio musicians and producers Use of electric piano Use of irony and wry lyrics Lyrics about heartache due to bad decisions and emphasis on the word  “fool” An uplifting rhythm known as the “Doobie Bounce” after The Doobie Brothers. Predominantly white bands – this was before cross-over.

Some of the most popular yacht rock acts include Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Steely Dan and Toto

There are some bands which we can say are definitely not yacht rock. Anything punk – Sex Pistols, New York Dolls, Iggy Pop, almost all Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground. Grateful Dead? Perhaps Trucking or Friend of the Devil. Leonard Cohen is very unlikely to be heard. More bands don’t fit into the genre than do, though some songs may sneak through such as Golden Brown by the Stranglers, a song about heroin addiction, or Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, another tune inspired by drug use. Producers in charge of the playlist have to be on their toes. Saccharine tunes are often laced with bitter poison.

Dark Yacht

There is a sub-genre known as dark yacht rock. Joni Mitchel’s The Hissing of Summer Lawns which is as jazzy smooth easy soft listening as you can get – except its theme is the emptiness of affluent lifestyles and marriages. My Name is Luka by Suzzane Vega is about child abuse – although this is at the very tail end of the genre in 1987. Steely Dan’s Everyone’s Gone to the Movies has a very dark center – more abuse. The Yacht Rock’s favorite Hey 19, also by Steely Dan, is about a middle-aged white man finding that even the fine Columbian (cocaine) and Jose Cuervo Gold cannot conceal the emptiness of his relationships with girls half his age.

What about Superyacht Rock?

Superyacht Radio is a channel dedicated to the Superyacht Industry, with an audience spanning 108 countries. The playlist includes One Direction which is definitely not Yacht Rock. Superyacht Radio also has podcasts of industry-related issues and advertorials (sponsored content). The station is embedded in the YachtNeeds App. The station mostly plays chart music, with a mixture of R&B, Soul and Classic Rock, to appeal to their wide and international demographic of listeners. The focus on music is sprinkled here and there with chat, industry news, job ads and interviews – all content is tailored to the superyacht industry and crew. Blue Revolution syndicates the station.

Providing musical content for a charter is never going to be easy as guests come in all ages, tastes, predilections and cultural preferences. There is no musical lingua franca. Though all superyachts have sophisticated audio and media content management, licencing rights have to be respected and how much music can you download onto your servers? In addition, connectivity is limited at sea.

On a charter you have to respect sensitivities. Rock the Casbah by the Clash is not going to find a home on some yachts for obvious reasons.

Paul Allen who owned the Octopus loved his rock so much that he employed his own musicians to rock out on his yacht. He would invite even rock luminaries such as Eric Clapton to jam with him.

Instagram, @tommy_chiabra

That, dear reader, is the spirit of superyacht rock.





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