A General Guide to Soft Rock

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Rock and Roll evolved from the ‘white hot mix’ of sounds that defined the American musical landscape through 1940s- swing, jazz, country and blues. By the mid-1950s it was firmly established as a stand-alone genre.

Rebellious fantasy with a hint of danger, it was mostly dance and make-out music for kids that by the early 1960s had gone from shouting ‘Golly Gee’ to whispering ‘Fuck You’.

Popular music emerged from the 60s innocence lost but altogether more knowing and self-aware and by the end of the decade Rock and Roll’s bad little brother Rock was flexing its muscles and giving birth to a diverse wealth of sub-genres that included the burgeoning Soft Rock scene.

Over beers with Musician Matthew Bannister I poised the question:

“How do you define Soft-Rock?”

After some thought Matthew replied: “Soft Rock is pop music for adults.”

“Lets start with that then,” I said.

Soft Rock has a definitive core surrounded by fuzzy outlines where it touches other styles in that strange murky place where musical ideas mix and blend.

It fuses pop and with subtle infusions of rock. It can sound like Rock, it can taste like Pop, but it remains something different with a vibe all its own.

Soft Rock is first and foremost an American musical movement with its hey-day in the 1970s and 80s, an AM Radio format concerned with themes of sex, love and romance.

Peter McIlwaine- Broadcaster and Educator: Soft Rock is Rock with the hard edges taken off. Less guitar driven, more keyboard and melody orientated.

Guitar Man – Bread

With a laid back beat and emphasis on melody, Californian band Bread were the quintessential Soft Rock act.

Under the tutelage of chief songwriter David Gates, Bread scored 13 US Top 40 Hits between 1970 and 1977.

Their 1973 compilation album, The Best Of Bread, sold 6 million copies on release and has sold a whole more since.

The band, a staple of easy listening radio, struggled with egos and eventually called it quits in the late 70s, reforming from time to time to shore up the finances with reunion concerts and such.

Guitar Man, (a sentimental ditty about a journeyman Guitarist past his glory days), looks exactly like a Rock song until David Gates starts singing. His forlorn falsetto/ tenor is the antithesis of the ‘rock snarl’ and draws a firm line between genre and sub-genre styles and mores.

Time, cancer and heart disease have not been kind to Bread, but David Gates still thrives.

 

 

Tin Man – America

Crosby, Stills and Nash are often referred to as a Soft Rock act, but this is a misnomer. Though they can cast a compelling Pop song, their collective musical soul is shaped from the ascetics of rock, both in the way they arrange their music and deliver it.

Imagine Crosby, Stills and Nash without the talent, ego and cocaine and there you have America. Soft and somewhat wimpish, these London based American’s were one of the first great trailblazers of the Soft Rock movement.

They are still touring today.

 

 

Hall And Oates

Hall and Oates were of Philadelphia, a tough and grimy city that produced savvy, street- wise music. ‘Philly Soul’ partly informed the style of Hall and Oates, who sold some 13 million albums in their hey-day. Their influence helped to broaden the scope and appeal of Soft Rock.

Their ten year run of chart topping hits ended in 1990 with So Close, their last significant hit.

The hair, the shirts, the jackets, the slacks and all over attitude in this video for their 1976 hit Rich Girl says a great deal about Soft Rock style and sensibility.

 

 

WINTEC Media studies lecturer Paul judge was asked for his opinion of the Soft Rock phenomenon. He replied via email:

Paul- My gut feeling with the idea of ‘soft rock’ is that it is a derogatory term and I can’t think I can contribute to that particular concept. I associate the idea with the term ‘easy listening’ which also implies supermarket muzak, commercial radio and so on.

There are certain bands who are only really known for their radio hits…Boston for example (More Than A Feeling) and maybe they are soft rock…unfortunately a lot of progressive music of past eras, such as The Byrd’s or Simon & Garfunkel say, who have become ‘soft rock’ by way of constant exposure on commercial radio, but I would consider that a derogatory term as I said, to describe historically important and innovative music.

Popular swing time and jazz standards of the 40s, the ‘Classic American Songbook’ type of stuff, such as Rod Stewart, Bryan Ferry, Robert Palmer and countless others have mined for material, have delved into as an exploration of genre and musical roots. This could be ‘soft’…its certainly a music open to ‘softness’ of experience. Is that a definition of soft, that you’re not banging your head against a punter next to you or taking nosedives into the audience?

Is Carly Simon soft rock compared to Liz Phair? Is Janis Ian soft rock? Or Carole King? I wouldn’t say so, and again, because of its emotional intensity, creative ambition, complexity of lyrics etc ….so soft rock could be music that has none of the above qualities.

 

Musician and WINTEC Media Studies Lecturer No.2, Matthew, replies:

“Yes, I think it started as a derogatory term, but these days I don’t think the old hierarchy of genres applies really. Everything’s available and people make of it what they will.”

 

New York

Canaan – Carole King

New Yorker Carole King began her career song writing for other people. A massively successful and reliable 60s Pop song hit maker, she transformed into a confessional singer/songwriter for the duration of the 70s. Her 1971 album Tapestry contained some of the craftiest and most persuasive Soft Rock ever set to vinyl. To this day, Tapestry remains one of the biggest selling albums of all time.

 

 

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover – Paul Simon

Simon and Garfunkel tended toward a NY flavoured folk-style with Pop outlines. Later, as their sound matured and evolved, they produced moments of Soft Rock, notably-Bridge Over Troubled Waters, but the style was never as an overarching theme in their music.

Later when he went solo, Paul Simon adapted Soft Rock to his needs and become the genres ‘adult conscience’ for decades to come. Simon’s 1975 album Still Crazy After All These Years, marks his arrival as ‘boy made man’. It’s a world-weary affair laced with cynicism and dark ice. Holding nothing back emotionally, Still Crazy is about as ‘real’ as Soft Rock gets.

50 Ways To Be Your Lover went to the top of the US charts. Meanwhile Garfunkel got arrested twice for pot possession and scored Britain’s biggest selling single of 1970 with song Bright Eyes from the soundtrack of animated film, Watership Down. Bright Eyes is not soft rock.

Later he walked across The United States, and having enjoyed the experience considerably, later walked across a whole lot of other places.

Both men still flourish. Sometimes together, mostly apart.

 

 

Billy Joel is often categorised as Soft Rock, but his career has not been so straightforward. It can certainly be said that this hit maker appealed to the 70s and 80s Soft Rock audience, but his catalogue is too diverse and accomplished to be easily stamped ‘one thing or another’.

Like Harry Nilsson, Joel belongs to a NY song writing tradition that includes luminaries like Irving Berlin and Carol King. 

Coconut – Harry Nilsson

NY Swede, the late great and highly celebrated Harry Nilsson, was a songwriter/ performer with a rock and roll life-style. He is not Soft Rock but could do Soft Rock; in fact he could do anything, and often did.

The theme song to the film Midnight Cowboy, one of the big Hollywood films of 1969, earned Nilsson a Grammy and a massive hit. Everybody’s Talking is officially designated as Folk Rock so we’ll turn to another song for our example of Nilsson in Soft Rock mode. There are several candidates including One (is the loneliest number), Without You and the 1971 hit song, Coconut. Designated a novelty song, Coconut is perhaps better described as a subversive adult styled pop tune with rock undertones. A knowing wink and  nod  that demonstrates that Soft rock can have a sense of humour

 

 

Larry Summerville: Media Studies Tutor / Radio Industry Luminary: “It’s not a definitive format, it’s a cross over scenario that straddles Middle of the Road, Pop, Rock and Easy Listening. It means, ‘I don’t know what I am really into’.

 

California

The Beach Boys and Burt Bacharach were not Soft Rock, but their collective influence heavily informed the burgeoning Californian Soft Rock scene, as did the work of composers and arrangers like Jack Nitzsche, Van Dykes Park and Jimmy Webb. The laid back and reflective West Coast vibe is an essential element of Soft Rock.

 

Wichita Linesman – Jimmy Webb with Glen Campbell.

Campbell was the busiest session guitarist in L.A, (and sometimes member of the Beach Boys), and Webb was a whizz kid songwriter/producer with a growing reputation.

Neither were Soft Rockers but their collaborations helped set the agenda. In 2 short years between 1967-69, 3 songs, Wichita Linesman, By The Time I get to Phoenix and Galveston laid serious groundwork for what was to follow. Their collaboration was ambitious and artful and has seldom been bettered.

Webb still writes, tours and collects truckloads of royalties. After a glorious and long -lived career, Campbell now exists in a secure facility for advanced Alzheimer’s patients.

Later Campbell hits, Rhinestone Cowboy and Southern Nights, (not written by Webb), are both notable entries in the Soft Rock cannon.

 

 

Ebony Eyes – Bob Welch

In the late 1970s, Californian Bob Welch hit the top of the US charts with a run of hit singles.

Welch: “We thought, (Welch and producer John Carter), we had found the winning formula and that the hits would continue forever ……….we were wrong.”

Welch’s first big break came when he was enlisted into the ranks of British Blues band Fleetwood Mac 1971. The band had recently relocated to California and he helped them to develop a more commercial sound, but he left just before they went mega.

Later when they inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, his 5-album contribution to the Mac catalogue was left out of the official story.

Welch: “My era was the bridge era, it was a transition, but it was an important period in the history of the band. Mick Fleetwood dedicated a whole chapter of his biography to my era of the band and credited me with ‘saving Fleetwood Mac.’ Now they want to write me out of the history of the group. It hurts.”

The hits petered out for Welch and years of booze and drugs and general fast living followed. He recovered and spent his remaining years writing for other artists. On June 7th 2002, he left this life of his own volition.

Sentimental Lady is a Soft Rock classic that is well worth a visit. In the video Welch, shirt unbuttoned to waist, oozes across the screen and plants some sexy kisses on a hot babe. The whole production says a great deal about 1970s soft- porn influenced sexual mores.

Ebony Eyes is a rocked up and adult themed Pop song from 1978. In this live performance, Fleetwood Mack’s Stevie Nick’s joins him on stage at the Roxy Theatre LA in 1981 and together they kick up a storm.

 

 

Rockers Fleetwood Mack can do Soft Rock, Dylan has done it and Sinatra tried it on for size. The Who can’t and neither could Nirvana but it turned out R.E.M could and so can Coldplay, but none of these are ‘true’ soft rock acts; artists working exclusively in the genre.

 

Lonely Boy – Andrew Gold

Andrew Gold, (1951-2011), epitomised a certain kind of Californian Soft Rock Vibe. His biggest song, Thank You For Being A Friend, was themed to a hit television show about four late age women called The Golden Girls. Only a minor hit on initial release in 1978, the song has gone onto become something of a Soft Rock standard by courtesy of syndication.

 

 

Paul Judge: “Soft Rock probably doesn’t rock, so pick all the music that doesn’t rock and there you have soft rock”.

 

Gold – John Stewart

John Stewart was a journeyman songwriter from the Californian school who made the big time when the Monkees took his song Daydream Believer to No.1 in 1967. He did it again in 1979 with Gold, a song about the realities of being a professional tune maker.

Ostensibly a Soft Rocker with a penchant for stylistic diversity, Stewart never scored so well again but his songs have been widely covered by a variety of artists through the years.

 

 

The Eagles could seriously Soft Rock but their ascetic was way to Rock for them to be easily consigned to the Soft Rock box. Jackson Browne is the more ‘informed’, politically aware end of the Soft Rock spectrum and the late great and crazy Warren Zevon was more songsmith than rocker, rebel than conformist.

 

Werewolves Of London-Warren Zevon

Another view of Californian Soft Rock is the late Warren Zevon. An anarchistic rebel, a musicians musician, a mercurial jokester; Zevon is of the Soft Rock ‘alternative’. Zevon was highly influential, but not widely known beyond his one breakout song, Werewolves of London.

From 1998 album Excitable Boy, Werewolves of London was a sizeable hit and something of a novelty, a tag that has dogged it ever since, but this song is no novelty, it’s razor sharp observational satire whose only equal is Stealers Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You.

Under appreciated.

 

 

Fly Like an Eagle – Steve Miller

He had been grafting away for years and as the 60s turned into the 70s, Californian based Guitarist/Songwriter Steve Miller stood on the cusp of the big time. He was an adequate blues/rock man who was finding his feet applying his skills to pop tunes.

Over a 10-year period he released a series of iconic songs. Infused with the psychedelia he had absorbed from his time in Haight Asbury, (San Francisco’s Hippy District),  they included: Joker Man / Jet-Airliner / Take The Money And Run and Jungle Love, peaking in the mid-80s with the Synth driven Abracadabra. Fly Like An Eagle went to the top of the US charts in 1977 peaking at number 2, beaten out for number 1 by Barbara Streisand.

Fly Like An Eagle is Soft Rock for Rockers and Rock for Soft Rockers.

 

 

Summer breeze – Seals and Crofts

Out of Texas, touring musicians Jim Seals and Dash Crofts found their destiny in California where they became Bahai’s and multi-million selling recording artists. Before they disbanded in 1980, they produced a number of notable hits including the iconic Summer Breeze, a song that says almost everything there is to say about California and Soft Rock.

Jim is brother to the late Dan of England Dan and John Ford Coley and the daughters of Seals and Crofts record and perform as The Hummingbirds. The men themselves are planning a new album. This is Remix Specialist Philip Steir’s spin on the classic

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b26mI-LwxoU 

 

Myrddin Gwyneed, Journalist: “Pop is about energy and the here and now and is aimed at the commercial mainstream where is Soft Rock is a more niche orientated style.”

 

Brandy – Looking Glass

Out of the Jersey Shore School of Music, Looking Glass were short lived one hit wonders who recorded a song that has gone on to become a Soft Rock standard.

With exposed chests, beards and stylish threads, the band makes a mint of this wry and observational tune about unrequited love. Released in 1974, Brandy shifted a million units and that was that.

Singer/ Vocalist Lurie went on to build a successful career in the movie business and still plays Brandy for loose change.

 

 

Barry Manilow could do soft rock, but his true designation is Pop built with sensibilities derived from Broadway, Vegas, and MGM Musicals.

In 1974 he released what turned out to be one of his seminal tracks, Brandy, whose title had to be changed to Mandy so as not to be confused with the Looking Glass song.

Oddly, NZ Soft Rock crooner Bunny Walters took his 1972 version of Mandy to the top of the Kiwi charts under the name Brandy.

Australasia

Brandy – Bunny Walters

From Katikati in the Bay of Plenty, Bunny Walters had a number of New Zealand hits during the 1970s. His best-known songs are Brandy, Take The Money And Run, and Nearest Thing to Heaven. He has appeared on iconic Kiwi Soap, Shortland Street, apparently.

 

 

You Ought to Be In Love – Dave Dobbyn

Kiwi legend Dave Dobbyn is one of those truly idiosyncratic musical artists who defy easy categorisation, but this one album demonstrated this erstwhile rockers versatility as a writer.

Set to a kiwi style rhythm, one infused with an indefinable hint of Polynesia, the album is a Soft Rock masterpiece, deftly mixing Pop and Rock into mainstream Soft Rock Territory.

The soundtrack to the animated film Footrot Flats produced two massive hits. Slice of Heaven, which went number one right across territory, and You Ought to Be In Love, which scored in NZ.

From 1986, this song exemplifies the changing face of Soft Rock through this decade with its avid use of technology.

 

 

All You’ve Done – Sneaky Feelings

These boys grew up listening to Soft Rock, it was part of their musical landscape. They saw it on the TV shows and heard it on the radio. They were also listening to their parents stash of 60s pop, rock, folk and lending their ears to the ‘underground alternative’. They were picking up soul and disco and exploring the Beatles.

Signed to independent/alternative label Flying Nun, Sneaky Feelings second album, Sentimental Education, was greeted by the labels godfather Chris Knox as “Wimpy Soft Rock.”

Taking the elements of Pop Radio, Detroit Soul, Burt Bacharach, The Byrds, The Beatles and The Velvet Underground, they forged it into a new shape, and out there on the frontiers, Sneaky Feeling’s proved, like Webb and Campbell before them, that Soft Rock can be musically ambitious. From 1986, All You’ve Done.

 

 

The Little River Band
We can’t mention NZ without out least glancing at Australia. By the 70s, the booming Australian music industry was making inroads on the American charts and among the fortunate early few who broke through in a big way were Melbourne’s Little River Band.

Help Is On its Way went international in 1977 and the boys flew the flag for soft rock right through the mid-80s when Men at Work and Air-Supply took over duties.  One time River Band member John Farnham is another notable Australian Soft Rocker. His 1986 album Whispering Jack is still Australia’s all time biggest selling record.

Given Australia’s American style cultural ambitions, the countries huge Soft Industry is not a surprise.

The Little Band River Band is still going, sort of.

 

 

Paul Judge: Is ‘soft rock’ an emasculated term?

The British, the second major player in the world of English Language Music, were evolving their own Soft Rock brand through the late 60s and early 70s and added to the genre with their own unique stylistic tendencies and melodic traditions. Notable bands and artists include Foreigner, Marmalade, David Grey and James Blunt. British compatriot Elton John can Rock and Roll up a storm,  but Pop with a little dash of Soft Rock on the side is more his inclination.

 

Stuck in the Middle With You – Jerry Rafferty / Stealers Wheel

Described by some as a difficult bastard, a Scottish TV Documentary also finds him to be a highly thoughtful craftsman/songwriter who developed a cruel and antagonist disposition when he had been drinking.

The late Jerry Rafferty was complex man and one of the leading lights of Soft Rock, a genre ideally suited to the Scots and their penchant for self-reflective and achingly nostalgic Pop tunes.

Baker Street is the obvious song choice, but seeing as it is still amongst the most played songs on radio, I thought another song was in order.

From 1972, Stuck In The Middle With You is an acerbic and catchy pop song with rock dressings that gleefully sticks a knife into the world of Music as business. Ironically, it sold a million plus copies on release and became something of a money tree for Rafferty.

 

 

 

Year of the Cat-Al Stewart

Scot Al Stewart is officially designated as a Folk Rocker but to these ears his formative hits are straight out of the Soft Rock manual. Year of the Cat and Time’s Passages made so much money for Stewart that he was at a loss at what to do with it so he took up drinking fine wine. He became such a connoisseur that in 2000 he released a concept album about wine. It didn’t chart.

 

 

The Beatles were Pop and Rock but never Soft Rock. Paul McCartney and Wings could Soft Rock, (check out Live and Let Die and Jet), but were more a Pop band. McCartney’s whimsical songs are probably altogether too clever and esoteric to be easily parked in the Soft Rock zone.

Lennon was all Rock and Roll, a politically aware agitator who used his music as a platform from which to express his ideas about the world, much like Harrison who infused his music with the Eastern spiritual concepts and while he could craft a fairly decent Pop orientated Rock song, he had a heart that beat pure Rock and Roll.

 

Photograph – Ringo Star

Ringo is mostly Rock and Roll, in both style and spirit, but his musical inclinations are surprisingly broad. Photograph is Ringo doing Soft Rock, belting it out English style.

 

 

Rod Stewart

Stewart is a stylistic chameleon who dabbled with folk, tried out as a Beatnik then a Mod before setting off on a credible career in Rock. His journey has taken him through Pop, Soft Rock, Disco and Middle of the Road. Though not exclusively a Soft Rock artist, this latter day Crooner has created a number of the genres more notable tracks including: Young Turks, Downtown Train, Baby Jane, I was Only Joking and I Don’t Want To Talk About It.

Sailing was a massive international hit that failed to charm America.

 

 

Yellow River – Christie

From the cusp of the Soft Rock era is Yellow River by Christie. With a typically English beat and melody Yellow River was a million seller.

The band quickly petered out but not after producing one more memorable hit, San Bernardino. British contemporaries Smokey, (Living Next Door To Alice-1976), were Soft Rock as were Genesis offshoots, Mike and the Mechanics.

 

 

Little Green Bag-George Baker Selection

We cant have a list of 70s Soft Rock without a Dutch group. Through the 70s, Dutch Soft Rock was a regular on the international charts. Pussycat and Shocking blue went world wide as did the George Baker Selection. Tarantino used this song in his 1992 breakout film, Reservoir Dogs. Highly influential, Little Green Bag is a bonafide Soft Rock Classic.

 

 

Stand Tall – Burton Cummings

Canadian Superstar Cummings started his career with iconic Canadian rockers The Guess Who but revealed his true colours through the mid to late 70s as a Soft Rocking solo artist.

Stand Tall, about a man scorned by a woman and struggling to hold it all together as he navigates the emotional aftermath, was an international smash hit.  Other notable Cumming’s tracks include Break It To Them Gently and I Will Play a Rhapsody. A journeyman songwriter who added class and compositional flair to the genre.

 

 

I’d Really Love to See You Tonight – England Dan and John Ford Coley

These laid back Texans tick all the soft-rock boxes. Lead guitar solo, a steady 4/4 beat, big melody, a couple of riffs and mature lyrical themes delivered with adult sophistication and big moustaches. I’d Really Love To See You Tonight is so catchy its ridiculous.

Dan Seals, (England Dan), passed away in 9908. Coley is still making music.

 

 

Elvis.

Paul Judge: “Elvis explores many genres and none of them are ‘soft’, unless you call the type of nostalgic and romantic ballad associated with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra ‘soft’. I wouldn’t ever consider him ‘soft rock’ because he is too emotionally intense.

In The Ghetto – Elvis Presley

You can’t easily pigeonhole Elvis. Versatile, aware and a master of many styles, this child of the American South spent the 70s jump-suited and Soft Rocking. Adding his own unique touches to the form, Elvis belted out some of the genres most enduring classics through his final years.

In the Ghetto from 1969 is the Soft Rock ballad template. A rousing masterpiece with all the bells and whistles, Elvis sings empathetically for the cause of those left behind by the American Dream. It’s an epic masterwork that presses all the correct Soft Rock ‘buttons’ and is a fitting epitaph to the man’s spirit.

 

 

Suspicious Minds

Another notable Elvis hit of the 70s was Suspicious Minds,  again Soft Rock but Elvis style. The song also made a fortune for proto-pop/synth Soft Rockers, The Fine Young Cannibals, whose version topped the British charts in 1985.

Atypically English in their approach, (theatrical and ironic), their brand of Soft Rock appealed greatly to the Americans who rewarded them with two number ones in 1989. After two albums and a fortune made, the band split having helped blaze the trail for 80s Soft Rock.

Their Suspicious Minds is a rare example of the copy being as good as the original.

 

 

Queen was not Soft Rock but could certainly Soft Rock out when the mood came upon them. You’re My Best Friend being an example. Bruce Springsteen is about as un-Soft Rock as you can get. With a swaggering muscular Rock and Roll attitude, he couldn’t do Soft Rock if he tried, and why should he? 

Epilogue:

My exploration of Soft Rock has revealed a genre of whose scope I was only half aware, and through the course of my journey my eyes have been opened to a world of fashion and culture that had not that long ago seemed somewhat inconsequential.

Soft Rock has produced many classic songs, some masterpiece albums and its fair share of dross.

It continues to flourish to this day with Hip-Hop and Electronica now in the mix.

As it always is with articles like this, often its not what you include but what you’ve left out, so a special mention to other notable Soft Rock Artists: as Albert Hammond, Christopher Cross, James Taylor, Kim Carnes, Player, Kenny Logins Pablo Cruise, Toto, Kansas and possibly Chicago.

 

“W·O·L·D” – Harry Chapin

 

To finish up, here is a sentimentally infused statement of irony about the twists and turns of life.

In his introduction, Chapin explains the shape of 70s music then proceeds to sing the rage of the middle aged man reflecting on his failures. “W·O·L·D” is another master class in soft rock balladry and an ever underrated classic.

New Yorker Harry Chapin wrote an number of hit songs before meeting his destiny on a NY highway in 1981. He has been posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal for his humanitarian works.

 

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