Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Captain and Me

The Doobie Brothers
The Captain and Me

The Doobie Brothers had two distinctive lives. Initially, it was the Tom Johnston period. After 1976, the band morphed into the Michael McDonald era. 

The Doobies initially rose out of San Jose, California in the early 70’s as a hard driving but sweetly melodic guitar band that honed its chops playing clubs in the South Bay. Led by Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, the Doobies had a perfect blend of grit and sweetness. It’s the early period of the Doobies that I fell in love with. When Tom Johnston had to leave the band during a tour in 1975 due to health reasons, the addition of singer and keyboardist Michael McDonald changed the sound of the band dramatically. While very successful in terms of record sales, the new direction alienated me. It became much too commercial, slick, and “pop rock” driven. While I can certainly respect the talent of Michael McDonald, I’m going to risk the ire of many readers by admitting that I just never got into the Doobie Brothers after McDonald became the driving force. The early Doobie Brothers were a gritty, guitar driven rock band. The Michael McDonald Doobies became a “keyboard, hits driven” polished outfit that didn’t interest me.

“The Captain and Me”, was the Doobies third studio album that was released in 1973, and it still holds up as one of the better rock albums from an American band in the 70’s. 1973 was also the early beginnings of “AOR” (Album Oriented Rock). Radio stations in the early seventies began to start playing songs deep into albums, and not just a single or two from the album. They were a distinctly American band, with straightforward, hard rocking songs, to bluesy jams, mixed with a southern rock influence. The sound of, “The Captain and Me” was distinctive and one of my favorite albums as a young listener.  I rate “The Captain and Me”, and the follow up album in 1974, “What Were Once Vices are Now Habits”, as the two best Doobie Brothers albums that were produced by the group. Both albums show a great depth of songwriting and the material is strong throughout both albums, from start to finish.

The album was recorded at Warner Bros studios in 1972 and 1973, with famed producer Ted Templeman at the helm. Many of the tunes originally came from jams and old bits and pieces that Johnston or Simmons had developed over the last few years. One of Tom Johnston's songs, "Osborn", had been an improvisational piece that the band played live. After laying down the track, according to producer Ted Templeman. "We still really didn't have it, and I said, 'Make it about a train, since you have this thing about "Miss Lucy down along the track."’ So he came up with Long Train Runnin'."

The third track, “China Grove”, is a straight forward, three-chord guitar driven song that has now become one of the most played classic rock songs in history. It is still at the top of classic playlists to this day. The pure simplicity of the song is clear, but the result is dynamic, and seems to always bring a smile to your face when you first hear the raw, opening power chord riff. Pure, simple, and classic!  Another similar hard rocking song influenced by Johnston is, “Without You”.

Now, for those of you who still remember the experience of LP’s, you also remember how wonderful it was to listen to side one, then actually have to remove the stylus, and turn the record over to then listen to side 2.  It made the experience of listening to music interactive and involved the listener in the process. I love iTunes, but it is sad to reflect what we’ve lost, and why music meant more to previous music generations than today. Digital music is much more “disposable” to consumers today. But before I digress too far into the evolution of music over the last 40 years, the reason I bring all of this up is because, “Without You” was the perfect hard rocking song that kicked off side 2 of the LP. It signaled, “get ready, cause the rest of this album is going to kick some ass”! Tom Johnston stated, "It was kind of a tribute to ‘The Who’. We did it in concert for quite a while." Listen to it, it “totally rocks, dudes”!

“The Captain and Me” is littered with fantastic acoustic numbers, many highlighting the great guitar playing and styles of Patrick Simmons. “Clear as the Driven Snow,”, and “Ukiah” fit this description, with lilting, but intense acoustic lines interspersed with a tinge of acoustic southern rock. “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman” was a bluesy number by Johnston that was a tribute to B.B. King, and “South City Midnight Lady” featured, as a special guest, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of Steely Dan. He would become a full time member of the Doobies by the next album.

Early Doobie Brothers recordings are a must for the classic collector. They still sound great today, so make it part of your collection. Take it from a Winger Brother -
(But I recommend only pre-1976 Doobies!).

Eric Winger

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