Soft rock or lite rock was a prevalent genre in the period 1970- 1985 and originated on the West coast of the US, the sound was smooth, with a soft bassline and minimal drums, and combined elements of funk, jazz, and R&B, usually relying on simple melodic songs with big, lush productions. The piano usually carried the melody but often gave way to gentle acoustic or electric guitar or the ubiquitous saxophone solo, the lyrics explored such themes as living the carefree life, but melancholic themes also recurred, particularly yearning or unrequited love. Below left to right – Bread, Hall and Oates, Steely Dan.
Early practitioners of the genre in the 1970’s included Bread (Make It With You, Baby I’m – A Want You, Diary, If), Seals and Croft (Summer Breeze, Diamond Girl), Steely Dan (Do It Again, Reelin’ In The Years), the Doobie Brothers (Black Water, It Keeps You Running and What A Fool Believes), Hall and Oates (Rich Girl), Barry Manilow (Mandy, I Write the Songs) The Carpenters (Close To You, We’ve Only Just Begun, For All We Know).
Several Australian acts also made their mark in the soft rock genre, including Helen Reddy (I Am Woman, Delta Dawn, Leave Me Alone(Ruby Red Dress)), Olivia Newton-John (I Honestly Love You, Have You Never Been Mellow, Please Mr. Please), the Little River Band (Reminiscing, Lady, Cool Change) and of course the huge body of work of the Bee Gees throughout the decade. Variations of soft rock gradually emerged in the 1980’s as FM radio stations revamped their playlists, preferring catchy tunes that were aimed at the drivetime listener and reinforced goodtime images of blood-orange sunsets, white sandy beaches, pina coladas, tequila sunrises, doing the lambada, and just chilling out, you can almost hear Bertie Higgins (Key Largo), Rupert Holmes (Escape (The Pina Colada Song)), Billy Ocean (Caribbean Queen), The Captain & Tennille (Do That To Me One Time), Phil Collins (In The Air Tonight), and Sade (Smooth Operator) – crooning away to a lush musical accompaniment playing in the background.
The Australian contingent was also well-represented amongst the ranks of soft rock successes, as Olivia Newton-John continued to have hits into the 80’s (Magic, Xanadu, Physical), and was joined by Air Supply ( Lost In Love and All Out of Love and The One That You Love ), Little River Band (The Night Owls, Take It Easy On Me), while the Bee Gees kept the hits coming, (How Deep Is Your Love and Too Much Heaven) along with their little brother Andy Gibb (I Just Want to Be Your Everything and Shadow Dancing). Left to right Andy Gibb, Little River Band, Olivia Newton-John
Air Supply would dominate the US charts from the late 1970’s to the mid- 80’s, selling over 40 million records, the Little River Band were also successful with ten top 20 hits stateside and global sales of over 30 million in the same era. But the soft rock genre would come to be dismissed by many as uncool and schmaltzy and be consigned to wedding parties and theme nights. The genre was ultimately conflated into mainstream music trends, so that in the eighties, the radio format evolved into what came to be known as adult contemporary, a format that had less overt rock bias than its forebears, and used synthesizers, gated reverb percussion, and various sound compression techniques more extensively.
While dance-oriented, electronic pop and power ballad-oriented rock dominated the 1980’s, soft rock acts still enjoyed success, Sheena Easton, Player, Richard Marx, Lionel Richie, Phil Collins, Christopher Cross, Dan Hill, Leo Sayer, Jim Diamond, Billy Ocean, Julio Iglesias, Chicago, all had hits. Locally, soft rock songs from Gyan, Billy Field, Wa Wa Nee, 1927, and the Rockmelons, all enjoyed success, but hit songs were ephemeral, rarely spending more than 3-4 weeks at #1 on the charts in the 1980’s, by the 2000’s a #1 hit would rarely enjoy a tenure atop the charts that exceeded 1-2 weeks!
By the 90’s soft rock performers from the previous decade continued to chart, Phil Collins, Genesis, Richard Marx were but a few, and as the “unplugged” era dawned such artists as Eric Clapton, Mr. Big, Extreme and even Nirvana re-invented themselves as soft rock artists. Into the 90’s Australia’s Savage Garden emerged as a major global soft rock act and by the 2000’s the wheel had again turned, as music-streaming services such as iTunes, Spotify, and Google search all confirmed a steady climb in the demand for soft rock songs from earlier eras. Current acts such as Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk, Mark Ronson and Tame Impala, are confessed fans of the genre and reflect its influences in their music today. Left to right below Mark Ronson, Pharrell Williams, Kevin Parker (Tame Impala).