I meant to write about Yacht Rock, I really did. I like the word ‘yacht’ on account of how definite it sounds when anybody says it and I like how it’s spelled. I don’t particularly like yachts themselves but nor do I dislike them especially. I don’t know much – no, I don’t know anything about yachts. I don’t even know when a boat is a ship, let alone what are presumably subsets of one of those things. The reason I didn’t end up writing about it is because it turns out that I didn’t know what Yacht Rock was either.
I was, as usual, full of good intentions and I must be quite a long way down that road to Hell by now. Anyway, I had a sort of vague idea that it was, basically, Middle-Of-The-Road pop music (MOR). And, in a way it is. But, as all labradors are dogs, but not all dogs are labradors, I thought that all MOR was Yacht Rock, which turns out not to be the case which is a shame because, in learning what Yacht Rock actually is, I also learned that I don’t actually like any of it.
What I thought was Yacht Rock turned out to be fairly bland Country & Western from (mainly) the 1970s that people who own yachts would no sooner listen to than keel haul themselves naked in the Barents sea.
I started off thinking that Yacht Rock was, more or less, Guilty Pleasures. I’m well out of the loop of what’s happening, even among my doddery age group, and I think Guilty Pleasures as a concept has probably run its course and now all the older hipster farts are into Yacht Rock or something. Which, in a lot of ways is the same thing but having ditched the guilt. It’s a bit like the love that dare not speak its name and, once its name had been said, there was no unsaying it.
A point was reached, I don’t know how far into proceedings – probably not far – at which somebody asked why we should feel guilty about listening to Hall & Oates and ELO? By then the Emperor’s New Clothes had been pointed out anyway and I suppose Guilty Pleasures is to cottaging as Yacht Rock is to Pride Marches. And good for everybody, you know?
I suppose the thing about Guilty Pleasures/Yacht Rock is that it’s something that’s never going to go away as long as young people adopt effortlessly cool personas by putting quite a lot of effort into pretending they don’t like some things, and older people reach a point at which they stop giving a shit about convincing people that they’re edgy.
I’d love to be able to say that I never gave a shit what people thought about me, but I did. I suppose I still do to an extent, even it’s not quite to the extent that I tried to pretend I didn’t in my youth. And, like everybody else, I did – and do – like quite a lot of things that I mainly kept quiet about in front of my (presumably equally) cool mates.
Not all of them though. Dave in particular really didn’t give a shit – or gave a shit in a different way at least – about listening to the right records, reading the right books and watching the right films and a bit of that rubbed off on me, I suppose. Eventually.
These are the records that I always liked, even though they were a bit MOR, and ones I kept quiet about when I was trying too hard to look like I wasn’t trying.
- Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show – Sylvia’s Mother.
My parents listened to the radio when I was a little kid but it tended to be a local station that played very little music at all. There was a Country & Western programme on Sunday afternoons that my Dad didn’t mind but most of the time it was just halfwit DJs wittering interminably while jockeying an absolute minimum of discs. One of the records they did play though was this, and my parents hated it to the extent that they’d turn it off when it came on. As the radio was just left on in the kitchen regardless of whether either of them were around, I’d potter around in earshot and that’s where I first heard all of it. I suppose my parents’ aversion to it, coupled with never really having heard it might have had something to do with its illicit appeal to me, but as I’m allowed to listen to what I want now I’m a big boy, I still do and it’s not just nostalgia that drives me to it.
I also vaguely recall Kenny Everett doing a pastiche of it in which he took the piss that I enjoyed but I can find no evidence that this ever existed outside my fetid imagination so that’s a very vague recall I’ve got there, eh? Looking back at the video, I don’t see how you could parody it because it’s beyond that already. I suspect that I saw this video and assumed it was a parody of mawkish Country & Western weepies.
The video above is the one and it’s great, even though it’s as daft as a brush. My first thought was how old they all were. I don’t know how old they were when this video was shot and probably the prevailing fashions of the day don’t do them too many favours in the looking young stakes but my first thought was that he looked a bit old to be going out with a girl who still lived with her mother.
The main thing about Sylvia’s Mother is, I suppose, that it’s nearly four minutes – not three, ironically – of a man, not so much crying as on the verge of tears. Starting as it means to go on, there’s that pedal steel guitar that’s on all Country & Western records because, presumably, it sounds like crying and that’s what Country & Western records are all about: crying. Or trying to look like you’re not crying at least. Especially this one – Sylvia, or the narrator, someone’s going to be crying by the end of it whatever happens. And the singer – I don’t know his name, probably not Dr Hook – is squeezing his eyes tightly shut because he’s in pain and he’s about to spend the next four minutes singing through tears. While a man in a cowboy hat, ludicrous facial hair and an eyepatch who looks like a partially humanoid Taz from Looney Toons shakes a maraca and harmonises the chorus with him, but he’s not crying, in fact he looks quite happy about it. He looks like the main problem he’s experienced recently has been a spot of pins and needles in his left hand when the cameras started rolling. Maybe he’s Dr Hook, I don’t know. Again, probably not.
There’s the Dr Hook & The Medicine show band playing gamely along in the video but they’re barely on the record – it’s mostly a string section that mirrors and anticipates the vocal melody most of the way through it, but arranged in such a way that it’s the sounds like the cellos and violins are deflating all the way through it. Like being let down, gently. And firmly.
I don’t know if its intentional or just sloppy camerawork but I like to think that the shakiness and the slow-to-focus close-ups aren’t supposed to represent tearing up vision. Like I said, this is a record about crying.
As the second verse progresses, at the point at which we’d expect a close up of the singer to see whether a lump in the throat can be captured on celluloid, we don’t. What we do see is a lingering tracking shot down the semi-humanoid Taz’s clothes. I don’t know what that’s about, but maybe if we’d seen the whole ensemble at once, that might have been too much for everybody. Starting on a close-up of a pair of keys hanging from his jeans, the camera slides down what turns out to be a pair of tassled flares to his shiny cowboy boots which we can now see are engaged in teeny-tiny dance steps. Like I say, what that’s about, I don’t know. What I do know is that, even now, I can’t take my eyes off it. Go figure, as he probably spent quite a lot of time saying in the early 1970s.
Even without the video, actually, especially without the video, Sylvia’s Mother is one hell of a song. It’s corny alright, but that’s because it sounds corny; lyrically, it’s great.
Without going into much depth about it – although I will – it’s the story of a telephone call made by the narrator to his girlfriend, or his recent ex-girlfriend, but he doesn’t get to speak to his Sylvia because her mother won’t tell her he’s on the phone. The bridge/refrain is him relating that the uncompassionate operator tells him he needs to put another 40 cents into the slot for another three minutes of joylessly trying to persuade Sylvia’s mother to let him say ‘goodbye’.
It’s great because it’s about one of the classic themes of songs – and almost all Country & Western songs (except those about death, which are also numerous) – lost love and, a bit like No Milk Today by Herman’s Hermits, it says virtually nothing and yet everything about heartbreak in a way that resonates with almost everybody.
The first verse sets us up with the story with an economy that wafflers like me can only dream of: Sylvia’s mother says she’s too busy to come to the phone because she’s busy and happy starting a new life on her own and why doesn’t the narrator leave her alone? It’s clever in that it doesn’t say much, it’s a pencil sketch, but it’s also all there from the start. The narrator’s hurt Sylvia and her mother’s protective of her.
Second verse and now Sylvia’s mother is saying that she’s moving away and getting married and “…please don’t say nothin’ to make her start cryin’ and stay…” What a line, eh? There’re depths in that line – the mother’s fears, based on the hold that the narrator has over Sylvia and hints of what’s happened in the past when he’s fucked up. But it gets even better.
Final verse and Sylvia’s mother’s still speaking, but not to the narrator because Sylvia’s walking past the telephone – not that it’s made explicit – “Sylvia’s mother says take your umbrella cause Sylvie, it’s startin’ to rain…” parasympathetically, and we know that Sylvia’s that close to getting to talk to our narrator and maybe he is going to get to speak to her after all. But he doesn’t because the last line before the final chorus is, “…Sylvia’s mother says thank you for callin’ and sir won’t you call back again.” And that’s great, isn’t it? It’s a short step away from her saying, “Sorry, wrong number.” She’s pretending it’s not him because what we’ve learned is that if the narrator did get to speak to Sylvia then he’d make her cry and she’d stay. And Sylvia’s mother knows that so he’s the one who’s crying.
Still, it’s Country & Western, as long as someone’s crying, that’s the main thing. Like I said, by the end of this record, somebody was always going to crying, whatever happened.
As it’s Country & Western, what that also means is that it isn’t really Yacht Rock, is it? Ah well…