Soft Rock, Strong Approval

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It’s Winter of 1977-78.

Young Ozmoe loved   to listen to the radio.

Everything from the singles from Saturday Night Fever, to Queen’s We Are Are The Champions.

But it always came to a screeching halt with the start of a soppy, soggy song.

A pianist lackadaisically played what sounded like a knockoff of Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken, before came these lyrics:

“You ask me if I love you
And I choke on my reply

I’d rather hurt you, honestly
Than mislead you with a lie …”

Preadolescent Ozmoe rolled his eyes. “How corny can you get?!”

It got worse with the chorus:

“And sometimes when we touch
The honesty’s too much

And I have to close my eyes and hide

I want to hold you till I die
Till we both break down and cry

I want to hold you ’til the fear in me subsides.”

“Are you kidding me?!” thought Ozmoe.

He’d heard mushy ballads from males like Barry Manilow before.

But nothing so needy and emotional as this.

By the time it ended, the singer sounded like he was yelling the last word into a canyon for an echo:

“Yuck!” Young Ozmoe concluded.

And yet:

Sometimes When We Touch by Dan Hill was huge.

The million-seller peaked at number 3 for two weeks in March 1978, kept from the top only by Love Is Thicker Than Water by Andy Gibb and Night Fever by the Bee Gees.

Clearly, somebody liked it.

And that song now serves as part of a title for a documentary about soft rock, a genre for which I have mixed feelings at best.

Yet to my surprise, I really liked it.

I think you will too.

  • Dan, Toni and the Rest:

Sometimes When We Touch:
The Reign, Ruin and Resurrection of Soft Rock

is a three-part miniseries available on the streaming service Paramount Plus.

As you’d expect, the first part focuses on its reign, the second its ruin and the third its resurrection.

The “reign” is correct in associating soft rock’s ascension in part to the mellow singer-songwriter trend of the early 1970s such as Carole King. However, they somehow overlooked the first group to flourish in the genre:

Bread (Make It with You…)

… and many more hits.

The filmmakers recover from that oversight by covering the Carpenters, (of course,) plus pinpointing a key development in soft rock history.

Two songs by established rockers topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1973, and were so easygoing that anyone’s grandparents back then probably listened to them without any problem.

The first was Paul McCartney’s My Love

… Followed by The Rolling Stones’ Angie.

From there, the gold rush was on.

In the documentary, we get new interviews with most key figures in the movement still around, with the very noticeable exception of Barry Manilow. The most affecting ones are from Toni Tennille of the Captain and Tennille … and, yes, Dan Hill.

Toni is frank – often painfully so – about her marriage to the Captain (real name Daryl Dragon), and how it was frustrating and unfulfilling despite their public image otherwise. She happily sang Love Will Keep Us Together and more with the Captain backing her on piano…

… but the reality was that Toni was wed to a man who was just as uncommunicative and remote with her in private, as was his public persona.

Strangely, I felt empathetic for both of them.

Then there’s Dan Hill:

It’s not too surprising to learn that the earnestness of his lyrics for “Sometimes When We Touch” grew out of his love for a woman. But the full story involves much more than that, which he explains in a well-stated manner. I had new respect for him after hearing his tale.

  • The Decline and Rebirth:

The show on the genre’s “ruin” is quite on the mark. Soft rock flourished on the pop singles chart after the demise of disco in 1979, but its fortunes slipped two years later in the wake of two events.

The first was the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose demeanor some in the media interpreted as a retort to the “sensitive male” image often project by male soft rock singers.

The genre was categorized by some in the press as “wimp rock,” a phrase that definitely made it seem out of step with the rise of such macho movie stars as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The second was the advent of MTV, a cable channel showcasing the harder rock sound in its presentation of videos while shunning lighter fare.

Graham Russell and Russell Hitchcock of Air Supply complain about being banned from MTV followed by the channel’s former president claiming that wasn’t the case.

Take it from someone who was there – MTV didn’t play Air Supply.

  • A Resurrection:

As they lost their top position on the charts, many of the soft rock acts disbanded. Members went into different areas of music or left the industry throughout the 1980s. They all felt that they were history by the start of the 1990s.

But the third episode on “resurrection” delineates how they found themselves somehow returning to prominence – largely from an unexpected source.

Rap artists began to sample much of the soft rock they heard as children to use as backing in their hits…

… starting in 1994 with Warren G’s Regulate doing such with Michael McDonald’s I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near).

This section also does an excellent job of summing up how and why “yacht rock” became a term associated with the genre.

There’s much more to this miniseries than this overview can contain, of course. All I’ll add is that the archival footage is excellent, particularly the pre-MTV era when video appearances could be scarce. The interviewees are well chosen too.

Having said that, a lot of the music still isn’t my cup of tea. Too often soft rock is more the former and not enough of the latter, and the excerpts here bear out my contention.

Oh, and in case you were wondering:

Barry Manilow covered Sometimes When We Touch in 1996.

Was his version as histrionic as Dan Hill’s?

Don’t ask me.

Though I have more respect for the song from the documentary…

…that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to listen to it again.


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Virgindog
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January 16, 2023 9:27 am

Excellent write-up! While I’m not a soft rock fan, this sounds like something I’d watch.

I don’t have Paramount Plus and generally stick to freebie YouTube. If I weren’t such a cheapskate and wanted to sign up with a streaming service, which one has the best or most music documentaries like this?

dutchg8r
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January 16, 2023 1:19 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Paramount Plus has a bunch of updated Behind The Music’s they keep posting over the past year that VH1 did back in the day.

But honestly, Netflix always seems to have some good music documentaries whenever I’m looking for something to watch. The other streaming services amount of music content for concerts and docs really pales in comparison to Netflix.

Is AXS available via YouTube? It’s a basic cable channel with basically nothing but concerts and music docs. It’s my ‘when in doubt on what to watch, let’s check them out’ channel.

cappiethedog
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January 16, 2023 7:13 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I like the documentary about Karen Dalton streaming on Criterion.

Eric-J
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January 16, 2023 10:16 am

A few years ago Jonathan Coulton decided (for some reason I think even he can’t quite articulate) to Kickstart an album of soft rock covers. His intention was to replicate the sounds and production of the originals as closely as possible.

The result was “Some Guys.”

https://youtu.be/YAT0UAseWh4

Eric-J
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January 16, 2023 10:20 am
Reply to  Eric-J

On the 2019 JoCo Cruise, he talked with a couple of his collaborators about the project:
https://youtu.be/7mGEhssRE0Y

blu_cheez
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January 17, 2023 4:00 pm
Reply to  Eric-J

OMFG, this is INCREDIBLE.

mt58
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January 16, 2023 10:37 am

Terrific article, Ozmoe.

Back in my cringey, too-cool-for-school Prog Rock days, nobody among my crowd would be caught dead listening to the likes of Dan Hill or Air Supply. The hip ones among us would make fun of the genre derisively. And the really hip ones among us would pretend that they were baffled, had never heard of it, and didn’t have the slightest clue who any of the artists were.

However, if you found yourself driving a prospective girlfriend home after school as a favor? You made sure that you had the radio punched up to “Boston’s Softrock FM.”

You even had it on a preset, for credibility.

And you would accidentally on purpose take the long way and add a “shortcut”, and just happen to be driving by the McDonald’s on Route One Northbound, where you would offer up a spontaneous snack of French fries and a medium Diet Coke, if she were hungry, or something.

All the while listening to her joining along quietly to the Captains, the Tenilles, the Christopher Crosses and other weepy artists that comprised that particular “40 Minute Commercial-Free Softrock Block.” Because, as Jackson Browne could confirm: that girl could sing.

And then you would drop her off, go home, eat, hang with your brother, blow off your homework, and eventually fall asleep listening to the clock radio next to your bed. It was somehow, accidentally tuned to 103.3 FM. And you would decide to leave it there for awhile.

Because regardless of the content, it would be impolite to interrupt a 40 Minute Commercial-Free Softrock Block.

dutchg8r
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January 16, 2023 1:21 pm
Reply to  mt58

Lol. Not that you’d know anything about doing something as random as that, would you mt?! 🙃

mt58
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January 16, 2023 2:59 pm
Reply to  dutchg8r
Last edited 11 days ago by mt58
Aaron3000
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January 16, 2023 7:34 pm
Reply to  mt58

You paint quite a hypothetical picture there, sir.

cstolliver
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January 16, 2023 11:11 am

As will come as a shock to no one on this site or the mothership, I would be viewer #1 for this miniseries. If I had Paramount Plus. (I think I might be able to access it on a one-time-pay through Amazon Prime — I’ll have to check.)

I unapologetically love the soft rock genre. I also had a love-hate relationship with Dan Hill. I loved the album version of “Sometimes…” and “Never Thought (That I Could Love).” I hated the butchered “Sometimes” single and “Can’t We Try.”

As to Mr. Manilow, it seems to me that he’s stayed out of the limelight in the 21st century aside from an “American Idol” guest appearance. If he ever decided to do an autobiographical piece, I might watch — if he did so openly and candidly about being a heartthrob in the closet in his charting glory days. Somehow, I don’t think that’s a story we’re ever going to hear.

Last edited 11 days ago by Chuck Small
dutchg8r
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January 16, 2023 1:23 pm
Reply to  cstolliver

If you are patient enough to wait through the ads, you can get Paramount Plus for only about $5 a month (I think they’re still the only ones that offer ad vs ad free options at different prices)

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 16, 2023 12:32 pm

Great stuff Ozmoe. I’m coming from a similar place to you though I wasn’t old enough to appreciate the soft rock 70s heyday. Perhaps appreciate isn’t the right word as I’m definitely not a fan. But I enjoy a good music doc whether its a genre I like or not. I can set aside my distaste for the joy of learning something new and getting insight into the creative and cultural factors.

dutchg8r
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January 16, 2023 1:10 pm

Oh, oh, music documentary alert!!!

I’m glad you told us about it ozmoe; I’d have never noticed it otherwise (it’s all about ‘1923’ on Paramount Plus at the moment for me. I love me some hard-ass Dutton’s, can’t wait for Spencer to get back and give Ser Bronn Master of Sheep a mild talkin’ to….ha!)

It is funny how that genre of music is soooo not appealing to anyone under the age of 25. Yet, I know all the words to all those hit soft rock songs as soon as I hear them because they were just so prevalent. I did like some of it as BabyDutch, namely Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald, but like you I found it mostly too sappy and, well, gloopy. It’s not until you hit your 20s that those complicated gloopy feelings hold some weight and folks have ugly cries over how Air Supply gets them, they really get them…!

Soft Rock just filled a void we didn’t know we needed in the 70s, because it is 100% A Mood. I’ve come to appreciate wanting to be in That Mood sometimes as an adult now.

Awesome, now I’ve got some Paramount Plus viewing to hold me over until 1923’s return in a few weeks! Thanks for the heads up ozmoe.

Edith G
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January 16, 2023 6:27 pm

Thank you for sharing this Ozmoe, like many of you, I don’t have Paramount Plus but this documentary seems interesting, and I love music documentaries.

I actually like soft rock, but I’m not fan of Captain & Tennille for example,” sorry but I don’t care about their music.

cappiethedog
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January 16, 2023 7:12 pm

I know it’s a rhetorical question, Ozmoe, but that corny.

I never made the connection with Air Supply’s sudden demise and the growing popularity of MTV.

“Young Love” and “Two Less Lonely People in the World” both stalled at #38. To my ears, they both sound better than the higher charting “Sweet Dreams”.

#5?

If there is such a thing as an Air Supply deep cut, I would go with “Chances”, inexplicably not released as a single.

And is everybody aware that Air Supply covered Bruce Springsteen?

Wow. Barry Gibb was really in the zone, wasn’t he?

Here, Samantha Sang, you can have “Emotion”, I’ll just go write another top ten hit.

Aaron3000
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January 16, 2023 8:02 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

I liked “Chances”… I believe it still made it onto their 1983 greatest hits LP, which got a ton of play in my house.

I have a soft spot for “Sweet Dreams”. While it was charting, our elementary school did a musical about the different systems in the human body using rewritten versions of recent hit songs. “Sweet Dreams” was used for the brain/nervous system, Irene Cara’s “Fame” became “Food” for the digestive system, etc. My fifth grade class must’ve drawn the short straw, as we had to sing a version of Jimmy Buffet’s “It’s My Job” about the excretory system (“It’s my job to be cleaning up this mess…”).

cappiethedog
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January 18, 2023 12:14 am
Reply to  Aaron3000

I will always have a soft spot for Air Supply.

I didn’t mean to disparage “Sweet Dreams”. It’s just that there were better songs which didn’t fare as well.

I was delighted to find two Air Supply albums that, to my knowledge, were never released stateside prior to their American debut.

“We Are All Alone” is sort of great. Those background vocals. And there is a reggae beat. It’s the closest Air Supply came to sounding like The Police. I’m sort of embarrassed to fully-endorse “We Are All Alone”. It’s just worth a listen.

thegue
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January 17, 2023 9:31 am

I don’t have Paramount+…not going to pay for another bundled channels program, so I don’t know if this story is here….one I’m pretty sure I heard over in the Mothership’s comments.

…did Larry Graham have something to do with “Fallin in Love”, which became the basis of Drake’s “Best I Ever Had”? I thought Drake chose that song because of his uncle’s involvement.

LinkCrawford
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January 17, 2023 11:40 am
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I just learned that Drake is Larry Graham’s nephew.

lovethisconcept
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January 17, 2023 11:21 am

I enjoy many of the singer-songwriter predecessors of soft rock. Although I didn’t admit it at the time, I like quite a bit of soft rock. (MT’s ploy would not have worked with me, as I would have thought him hopelessly out of touch. I would have much preferred the prog rock.) But I have an irrational loathing for that Dan Hill song. I don’t think that I ever would have liked it, but the line about sometimes wanting to “break you and drive you to your knees” was just too much. No thanks, Dan, I think I’ll clear out now.

LinkCrawford
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January 17, 2023 11:49 am

Heeeeeey! Now we’re talking!

Your description of music that your grandparents would have no trouble listening to sounds like a perfect description of part of what makes me like soft, wimpy music. (Although Mick’s vocals on “Angie” are not something that I or your average grandparent in the day could stand. )

I love soft rock, but while I find some of it beautiful, I find some of it really boring. It’s a very subjective line, and one that I don’t even understand. Even as a kid I was ok liking soft rock and by college I kind of flaunted it. It was like counter-culture, since everyone else seemed to be experimenting with edgy heavy metal or rap. I was happy being “different”.

Thank you for the Bread shout-out. I think of them in tandem with The Carpenters as really making soft rock big in 1970, though Karen and Richard certainly have kept a larger cultural footprint than David Gates.

I’ll agree with you, though….”Sometimes When We Touch” was almost too much for me as a kid. (Same with “I Go Crazy” by Paul Davis). I like it now, though. (Also…Tom in the adjacent cube is a big fan of SWWT).

blu_cheez
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January 17, 2023 4:10 pm

As a child of the 70s, I came to my soft rock honestly: from my mom. She LOVED that stuff.

As a teenager, young adult, I had to pretend not to like it because it wasn’t cool alt. rock, but I secretly listened to my favorites, and, now, I don’t give a f— what people think and will enjoy it loud and proud. I’m not sure I’ll win over my kids, though – they still only listen and occasionally enjoy ironically.

BTW – nice to be in a comment section where I can use proper lines breaks (*cough, cough, Openweb*)

cappiethedog
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January 18, 2023 12:23 am
Reply to  blu_cheez

My mom loves “I’ve Never Been to Me”. I showed her how Lynne Ramsay used it in You Were Never Really Here. She didn’t get it.

“That’s the last song this dying man will ever hear!”

But if you like Charlene unironically, you miss the humor.

DanceFever
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January 17, 2023 4:18 pm

Well done, Ozmoe! Soft rock was the perfect way to wind down after
several upbeat numbers. You would put your arm around that someone special, move slowly to the music and if you had enough to drink, you might venture to softly croon the words as you held each other tight.
But of course Sly and Ahnuld would never be caught dead slow dancing.
Matter of fact, I don’t remember any dancing in their ’80’s heyday!
And,mt58,I should have copyrighted the “long way home” bit.

dutchg8r
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January 19, 2023 11:06 am

I finished up part 3 last night. Very well done. I always love seeing Daryll McDaniels in these types of docs (DMC from Run DMC), he has such a love for all types of music and is so enthusiastic about discussing music.

If I had been playing Name That Tune throughout watching this, my rating would have been at around 90%. I kept saying – “oh! I know this song! Oh, I know this song!”

Michael McDonald started out as a member of Chuck Berry’s band? That is WILD!

And I don’t care what anyone thinks – I friggin’ love the Pina Colada Song. 😁

Last edited 8 days ago by dutchg8r
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