The precarious political climate of the moment may or may not bring on a resurgence of hard and angry punk rock and the like. But other genres provide a different kind of mood-altering mojo that can be just as powerful, if not more so.
I’m talking about a peaceful, easy feeling, folks, courtesy of chilled-out, feel-good music that takes you to another time. With so much to get pissed off at these days, maybe we need to find catharsis in going soft?
This past summer, Mara Schwartz Kuge made it her mission to celebrate the nuance, seduction and relaxed vibes of soft rock in Los Angeles with a hot monthly happy hour party called Soft Rock Saturday at Resident. It’s now a fabulous fall fete, Soft Rock Sunday at the Love Song Bar, and it flows nice and easy this weekend. It’s largely a nostalgia affair, but thanks to the DJ and music maven’s informed tastes, the soundscapes are as unpredictable as they are flashback inducing.
“There's a ton of clubs in L.A. where they play music from past decades, but if it's from the '70s or early '80s it's usually disco or punk or new wave,” says Kuge, who got the idea after hearing Alice Cooper’s “You and Me,” on Sirius XM’s 70s station and realizing there was a void to fill. “You can go somewhere almost any night and hear 'Heart of Glass' or a David Bowie song, but there was no place you could go to hear America or Debbie Boone, so I created one. In the '70s and early '80s, it was absolutely inescapable if you listened to the radio, watched any TV, or walked through a shopping mall. And a lot of people have great nostalgia for it, as evidenced by the huge success of the Yacht Rock series.”
Yacht rock is still totally hip, but related sounds like prog rock or “easy listening,” not so much. The differences are subtle though, and definitely debatable. How does Kuge differentiate?
“Soft rock was a genre of very popular pop music from the '70s and early '80s, characterized by soft, mostly acoustic guitars and slow-to-mid tempos,” she explains. “It was also very typically '70s in its lyrical concerns, with lots of tracks about relationships, taking it easy and living freely, which made sense in that newly 'free love/new divorcee/living together without marriage' era.”
She lists some of the best-known soft rock artists from that era: Bread, The Carpenters, The Eagles, James Taylor, Olivia Newton-John, Chicago, Ambrosia, Barry Manilow, Firefall. “Many, many songs on the Top 40 charts at the time were soft rock, and many of the era's best songwriters and producers were involved with it. Every Grammy Song of the Year winner between 1977 and 1982 was a soft rock song, including 'What a Fool Believes,' 'Sailing,' 'I Write the Songs' and 'Just the Way You Are.'”
Soft rock was such a chart success that a lot of non-soft artists created hits in that genre, Kuge points out, such as KISS' “Beth.” She also nods to Kenny Rogers in country and Lionel Richie in R&B as artists who took soft-rock-slanted turns towards chart successes.
The yacht rock phenomenon, however, in Kuge's estimation, rode a separate wave. “Yacht Rock is interesting because it began as a series of short films about a very specific group of musicians who wrote and performed together: Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, Toto, Steely Dan and a few others. And that was it,” she maintains. “But most people have generalized the term to mean anything kind of soft-and-'70s-ish, including artists like Rupert Holmes. Not all yacht rock is soft, either: Toto's 'Hold the Line' and Kenny Loggins' 'Footloose' are both very yacht rock but not soft rock.”
Chatting with Kuge about music is always educational (and fun) thanks to her enthusiastic nature and her experience. She’s worked in the music industry for over two decades, starting at major labels, moving through music writing at L.A. Weekly and Raygun, and eventually landing in music publishing. (Disclosure: She and I became friendly during her days at the Weekly.)
She ran the film and TV department at Bug Music for over eight years until their purchase a few years ago, signing The National, Grizzly Bear, Peaches, of Montreal, M. Ward, Sleater-Kinney and many other successful songwriting artists. Now she has her own company, Superior Music Corporation, an independent publisher with an emphasis on film and TV music placement, representing artists and companies ranging from Bananarama's Siobhan Fahey and one of David Guetta's co-writers to indie bands like Sisters, Prince Rama, Gardens & Villa and the Ruby Friedman Orchestra.
She’s no DJ-come-lately either, having spun for college radio at UCLA, and then at clubs and various events over the years. “I started at UCLA spinning vinyl, since that was the prevailing format at the time, then switched to CDs and eventually digital, but now I'm back to vinyl-only for Soft Rock Sunday,” she says. “I enjoy hearing sets from people with wide musical knowledge, who may be spinning songs that don't usually get played in clubs. I don't necessarily think everyone needs to be a DJ, especially if they're coasting on some other celebrity and don't have any out-of-the-ordinary music taste … but if someone is bringing an interesting set, I'm all for it. “
Though some DJs play the same stuff she does “ironically,” highlighting the hokey, schmaltzy or silly tracks in between modern jams, Schwartz-Kuge comes at her immersive nights with a nostalgic sincerity and ever-evolving interest inspired by others. “I thought everyone would go nuts over 'The Pina Colada Song' when I started, but nobody really seems to care when I spin it,” she says. “But people go nuts and sing along loudly when I play 'You Light Up My Life,' and my number one most requested song is George Benson's 'Breezin'.” Someone requests 'Breezin'' every single time.”
For Kuge, soft rock is about “admiration for great songwriting and production,” she says passionately. “It tends to be thought of as fluff, but so many legendary songwriters and producers were involved in its creation: Kris Kristofferson, Gordon Lightfoot, The Bee Gees, Neil Sedaka, Carole King. Soft rock was an amazing era of pop music production and song craft.”
Soft Rock Sunday happens the third Sunday of every month from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Love Song Bar, next to the Regent Theater. It's free. Next one is this Sunday, Nov. 20. More info.
Los Angeles native Lina Lecaro has been covering L.A. nightlife since she started as a teen intern at L.A. Weekly (fake ID in tow) nearly two decades ago. She went on to write her own column, “Nightranger,” for the print edition of the Weekly for six years. Read her “Lina in L.A.” interviews for the latest nightlife news, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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