soft rock discussion

150-200 words

Does “soft rock,” as a category, belong in a course on the history of rock? Why or why not?

Art Rock

Inspired by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album, many rock musicians of the early 1970s aimed to create concept albums, or a collection of songs on one LP that are linked thematically. Often, the songs on a concept album will be longer than a conventional three-minute hit single, will have unusual formal structures (eschewing the standard verse-chorus-bridge of a typical pop song), and may flow from one to the next (instead of the usual pause/silence between album tracks). If ‘60s psychedelic rock, with its emphasis on LSD use, had encouraged the exploration of the inner world and subconscious mind, then art rock was its apogee, truly “head music.”

Some musicians, particularly those with conservatory or art school training, aspired to raise rock music to new heights of sophistication, drawing on European classical music for inspiration to create ever-longer, more complexly-constructed compositions with electronic sounds and lush orchestrations. Pete Townshend of The Who, for example, explored film, poetry, performance art and multimedia in his music, eventually creating the “rock opera” Tommy (1969). The Moody Blues recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra to create lush instrumental sounds in Days of Future Past (1967).

Emerson, Lake & Palmer experimented with the Moog synthesizer to create otherworldly songs in their albums. Other groups in the art music category include Yes and Pink Floyd. Remarkably, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) is one of the best-selling albums of all time, despite its spacey, emphatically non-radio friendly songs, and lack of any hit singles that would normally drive album purchases.

The art rock genre was a largely British, and white, phenomenon. With the notable exception of Dark Side of the Moon, the appropriation of classical and experimental music techniques by rock musicians appealed to a small, if zealous, minority of rock music aficionados. While its devoted fans were fascinated by art rock’s musical experimentation, critics charged that the genre was self-indulgent, pretentious, and elitist. In any event, art rock had strongly distanced itself from rock ‘n roll’s gritty roots (and vice-versa). If art rock claimed superiority to formulaic and commercial pop music, then heavy metal, punk and hard rock would assert their own claim to worldliness and authenticity later in the ‘70s, as we will see next.

Soul Music

At the end of the 1960s, as the Civil Rights movement was dissipating, soul music experienced a parallel decline in popularity. Explicitly political lyrics and messages of black pride (such as James Brown’s “Say it Loud”) became less common as the more radical elements of the Civil Rights movement were suppressed.

Yet by 1972, soul was experiencing a resurgence. Album-oriented African American groups sold well and had crossover audience appeal. Soundtracks from the Blaxploitation films such as Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), and Trouble Man (1972), featuring the music of Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye respectively, were also successful. These films were controversial. While they provided opportunities for black actors in Hollywood, they tended to represent African Americans in stereotyped ways (e.g., as hypersexualized, as drug dealers and pimps, etc.). Nevertheless, the soundtracks were significant musical achievements that prompted a resurgence of interest in soul music from black and white audiences alike.

Curtis Mayfield, who wrote the score for Super Fly, was known for a musical style that linked folk with gospel & rhythm ‘n blues in socially conscious “sermon songs.” Note the driving brass riffs in this song (similar to James Brown).

In the early 1970s, a “softer soul” sound, emphasizing love ballads, emerged and was particularly associated with Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love was the home of Sigma Sound Studios, among the first to be equipped with a 24-track recording console, the Mighty Three Music publishing company, and the Philadelphia International Records (PIR, 1971). The songwriter/production team of Kenny Gamble, Leon Huff and songwriter/arranger/producer Thom Bell, churned out major hits by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and the O’Jays.

As for Motown, the Detroit-based center of African American music in the 1960s, it was no longer the musical powerhouse that it had been. However, it still achieved some major successes in the 1970s. Among the most important Motown artists from this period were The Jackson 5, whose first four releases went to #1 on the pop charts in 1970.

Stevie Wonder (1950– ) became one of the first Motown artists to gain artistic control of his own music and publishing rights from Berry Gordy. Blind from infancy, Wonder was a child prodigy whose piano playing and singing earned him a record contract with Tamla (Motown’s subsidiary) at the age of ten. At age 21, Wonder signed a new contract with Gordy and acquired his royalty payments, and invested $250,000 of his own money to produce Music of My Mind (1972), which marked a significant departure from his childhood and teenage music.

In Music of My Mind, Talking Book (also 1972), Songs in the Key of Life (1976), and other albums, Wonder secured major crossover hits, reaching black and white audiences alike. Wonder successfully forged a new sound that blended soul, jazz, funk, reggae, pop, electronic experimental music, and African and Latin rhythms. He was also among the first black artists to produce concept albums, unifying the music thematically and stylistically.

Marvin Gaye (1939–84) was another Motown artist who wrested greater artistic control from Gordy. Earlier in his career, he had worked as a doo-wop singer, and later as a session backup singer, drummer, and songwriter at Motown. In the late 1960s, he recorded a few major hits, including “I Heard It through the Grapevine” (1968). By the early 1970s, he persuaded Gordy to allow him greater artistic license; his album What’s Goin’ On (1971) was a concept album exploring important social and political issues, such as inner city blight and the Vietnam War. In Let’s Get It On (1973), Gaye explored more funk-inflected romantic songs.

Wonder and Gaye changed Motown by shifting its focus from centralized company production, pop song formulas, and a focus on singles, towards independent production and album-oriented releases. These and other Motown artists would contribute to the development of funk and more contemporary rhythm ‘n blues sounds.

Other soul artists that had been popular in the late 1960s faded from the limelight in the 1970s. In part, James Brown and Aretha Franklin produced music that was perceived as too “raw” for the “soft soul” audiences of the 70s. (Brown’s turn towards more conservative politics, and his endorsement of Richard Nixon in 1972, also alienated him from many African Americans, who tended to lean Democratic.) However, Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” (1970) and “Make It Funky” (1971), with their driving instrumental riffs, had a strong influence on the development of funk music. Both Franklin and Brown reemerged forcefully in the mid-1980s, scoring major Top 40 hits. Brown charted with “Living in America” (1986), which appeared on the Rocky IV soundtrack, while Franklin’s album Who’s Zoomin Who (1985) went platinum.

Singer-Songwriters and Soft Rock

The singer-songwriters of the 1970s were the logical inheritors of the folk music tradition, choosing pared-down production and a focus on the solo voice and sparse instrumental accompaniment (guitar, piano) over heavy orchestration, elaborate sound layers, and loud backup bands. In terms of lyrics, singers tended to turn away from the overly political content of the previous decade, emphasizing instead their personal experience and introspective thoughts and emotions. Relationships, love, and loss were prominent themes of these “confessional” songs. Important figures in this genre included James Taylor (1948– ), whose hits included “Fire and Rain” (1970); Carole King, who wrote “You’ve Got a Friend” (1971); Carly Simon (1945– ), whose “You’re So Vain” (1972) was a no. 1 hit, Linda Ronstadt, Cat Stevens, Gordon Lightfoot, and many others.

The music of such singer-songwriters was often categorized as soft rock. This is a curious genre label, one which sounds like an oxymoron: “soft” contradicts the loud, brash, and rough sounds associated with rock ‘n roll. On the one hand, the emergence of the singer-songwriter could be viewed as a response to the testosterone-heavy hard rock of the late ‘60s, dominated as it was by male artists. To some feminist critics of rock, the singer-songwriter movement was finally allowing women’s voices to be heard in new ways. On the other hand, the soft rock/hard rock binary could only serve to reinforce gender stereotypes (i.e., that all women are “soft,” introspective and emotional, while all men are “hard,” macho and emotionally detached), often making it difficult for artists who did not fit into these rigid categories to be taken seriously by critics, or to establish a foothold in the rock music marketplace.

Joni Mitchell (1943– ) was one singer-songwriter whose music problematized such simplistic soft/hard distinctions. Early in her career, she established herself as a folk singer; her song “Both Sides Now” was recorded by Judy Collins in 1968 and was a Top Ten hit. This set the stage for the success of Mitchell’s own recordings. Her now-classic album Blue (1971), on which Mitchell performs on both piano and guitar, was intensely personal (listen to “A Case of You”). Mitchell’s private life was frequently the fodder of fanzines and tabloids, sometimes distracting from the artistic integrity of her music. Nevertheless, Mitchell was an innovative (if underappreciated) guitarist, frequently developing unusual tuning schemes and surprising harmonies that leant her songs unique timbres. Her material from the late 1970s explored jazz idioms via a collaboration with Charles Mingus.

Likewise, Bonnie Raitt (1949– ) was a highly-skilled and groundbreaking guitarist whose music was strongly influenced by blues and country. Although she released her debut album in 1971, her harder-edged sound, which you can hear in “Runaway,” was not widely appreciated until the 1980s.

Country Rock

Country music had long had an influence on the development of rock ‘n roll, with artists such as Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles incorporating elements of rockabilly into their music (see Unit 1). In the late 1960s, Bob Dylan’s career experienced a resurgence with the release of his album John Wesley Harding (1967). Some of the tracks feature members of The Band, a rockabilly group with whom Dylan toured. Other important country rock groups from this period include Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (Neil Young, like Stephen Stills, was also a member of Buffalo Springfield; Young also recorded solo albums and with the band Crazy Horse.)

The Eagles would become the most successful country rock group in the 1970s. Formed in Los Angeles in 1971, the group was made up of Don Henley (1947– ) and Glenn Frey (1948–2016), two of Linda Ronstadt’s former backup musicians, with Bernie Leadon (1947– ) and Randy Meisner (1947– ). Their hit albums included Eagles (1972), with singles “Take it Easy” and “Witchy Woman,” and Hotel California (1976), which produced hits from the title track, and “Life in the Fast Lane.” The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971–75) ranks as the top-selling album ever in American music. (Globally, it is third in sales behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.)

The success of the Eagles continued the ‘60s fascination with California and its music epitomized by the surfer music phenomenon. If the Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” glamorized the Southern California lifestyle and its version of the American Dream, so too did “Hotel California” seem to fit into that same category. (However, close listening to the lyrics of the Eagles’ song seems to suggest a darker side to California living!) It is ironic, however, that the members of the Eagles consisted not of native Californians but rather three Midwesterners and a Texan. And it is even more remarkable that somehow Southern California (not, say, Nashville!) had become the center of country rock! Country rock had been transplanted to a new cultural context by the ‘70s, and the music now appealed to an audience of upper class urban whites instead of lower class rural whites.

Southern Rock

Southern rock differs little from other rock subgenres in terms of its overall sound, though one might describe it as loud, blues-based, and inflected by country music (e.g., use of slide guitars, fiddles, etc.) Most important for southern rock bands are geography (their placement in, and invocation of, the American South), and the use of symbols and image (Confederate flags, cowboy hats, beards, bandanas, denim) that localize the band members as “southern.” The lyrics of southern rock bands tend to emphasize macho posturing and rebellion.

Among the groups associated with this category are the Allman Brothers Band, consisting of the brothers Duane and Gregg Allman, Dickie Betts, Berry Oakley and Jai Johanny “Jaimoe” Johanson and Butch Trucks. The band was particularly known for their style that blended soul, blues, country, and hard rock, and for their skilled guitar playing. Their improvisatory style was a strong influence on the jam bands of the 1990s. The Allman Brothers scored a hit single in 1973 with “Ramblin Man.” Two of the band members, Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, were killed in motorcycle accidents in 1971 and 1972 respectively. The band re-formed with additional members, and has continued to tour and perform.

Other southern rock bands to achieve success nationally are Lynyrd Skynyrd, whose hits included “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama” (1974). The latter song, which celebrates southern life, was written in response to Neil Young’s songs “Southern Man” (1970) and “Alabama” (1972), which had sharply criticized racism and the legacy of slavery. Tragically, three of the band members were killed in a plane crash in 1977 at the height of the group’s success.

Z Top was a southern rock band that was able to translate its success in the 1970s into the MTV-era of the 1980s (as you will see later in Unit 4). The album Eliminator (1983) featured Top 40 hits “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Legs.”

The Charlie Daniels Band is perhaps best known for their 1979 hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The Marshall Tucker Band, based in South Carolina, also had several gold-selling albums in the 1970s. Molly Hatchett is best known for their 1979 hit “Flirtin’ With Disaster,” on the album of the same name. Finally, “outlaw” country artists such as Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, who had turned away from Nashville’s glitzy commercialism, occasionally ventured into the southern rock arena.

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