Tales from a Topographic Yacht Rocker

It’s the 70s calling – they want their music back


In the same week the Beatle Industry released yet another remix of Sgt. Pepper’s in time for its 50th Anniversary, I went to see the Battle of the Bar Bands at the Commodore, which is a fabulous event for Vancouver lawyers that I have yet to be invited to play drums at. Perhaps no one knows I played on a very obscure (but collectible) 1972 indie-album called “George McDowell and the Lads’ play the Wig ‘n Dickie.” I was the Lads’ backup drummer on Friday and Saturday nights when I was 15. As my father owned the Wig ‘n Dickie in Victoria, I was exposed to the benefits of nepotism at an early age, and became a better drummer for it. 

I drummed to all of the sing-along English-pub hits of the 1940s because, like Victoria in those days, it was still the 1940s in the 1970s at the Wig ‘n Dickie. “I Belong to Glasgow,” “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and “Campbeltown Loch I Wish You Were Whisky,” were the mainstay of our nightly repertoire. 

Wartime British sing-along music wasn’t the music of my youth so much as it was the music of my father’s youth. But it was his club. So, after the Beatles broke up, I yearned for something more “modern.” I stumbled on a Waldorf Salad of Moog synthesizers, long songs and strange lyrics called progressive rock (prog rock); a genre once described as a waste of talent... and electricity.

But prog rock is becoming interesting again, not so much because the music was really good, but because, to many, it was really bad. There’s a new book out called “The Show That Never Ends” by David Weigle. I haven’t read it yet, but James Parker’s review in the Atlantic should be required reading for all writers; even legal ones.

Parker calls prog rock’s priestly robes, terribly pampered proficiency, pompous lyrics and its air of Englishness the “whitest music ever.” He describes the theatrical approach of ELP’s Keith Emerson to his keyboard as “vandalistic” (a word I now use). 

It’s a musical genre that in Parker’s opinion, is “hated, dated and sonically superannuated.” Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, he says, “is an experience so unintelligible and close to unbearable, it’s like being read aloud a lengthy passage of prose with no verbs in it.” But, in fairness to Yes, Topographic Oceans is low hanging fruit. That album marks the moment when prog rock jumped one shark only to be eaten by another: punk rock. But truth be told, I’d still rather listen to “Lucky Man,” “I’ve Seen All Good People” and albums by Genesis and Pink Floyd than anything by the Sex Pistols or Devo. 

Life goes on. In the 80s, I migrated to jazz; particularly Pat Metheny and Michael Franks. In the 90s, I happily listened to Baby Beluga and other children’s songs, because of course, I was raising small kids. Other than the Spice Girls (which my daughter liked), Sting and Peter Gabriel (which I liked), I have no clear recollection what 90s music was. Or for that matter, the 00s.

As for this decade, I’m still a jazz addict and stream “Dinner Jazz Excursions” on the web (no commercials!). It’s where I discovered jazz pianists like Jessica Williams. Ici Musique fills the gap left by Radio 2 when the CBC gave the middle finger to its loyal audience of early morning and late afternoon classical music and jazz listeners (and it’s where I discovered Caravan Palace).

But I confess in July and August (and only then), I listen to “yacht rock”; ironically, from my boat. Yacht rock is a big tent of nostalgia that is despised almost as much as prog rock and includes Christopher Cross and Steely Dan. It goes well with very late middle age, wine and... yachts.

Despite all that, the 70s still call. I think I want to learn how to play the theremin. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to get me into a lawyer’s bar band.

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