The Doobie Brothers
Long Train Runnin’: 1970-2000
Lord spare the ’70s. While the advent of disco, satin suits and glitter continue to obscure one of the greatest decades in American pop, national heroes like The Doobie Brothers remain trapped in a veil of faint memory until Rhino Records documents their careers with a boxed retrospective that reminds the average ’90s listener that the music they’re currently fond of has its roots firmly planted in the fertile soil of an era that suffers mainly from nothing more than an undeserved bad rap. The ’70s gave us an abundance of pure crap, no doubt–crap that, incidentally, has found its way onto countless soundtracks and other archival recordings during the ensuing two decades, much to the delight of radio stations, senior proms and gay bars across the country. But there were extreme bright spots as well. One of these, all uneducated biker-band and pot references aside, was the revolving-door collective known as The Doobie Brothers. Their string of 16 Top 40 hits and pair of number-one singles between 1972 and 1980 remain irrevocable proof that the Doobies are one of the most prolific and important rock bands of all time, especially in light of the fact that they’re still going strong today. Their trademark country-rock-blues sing-along sound defined the teenage years of many a Boomer, and transfixed AM and FM radio listeners alike. It’s a sound that reverberates today, albeit mostly on oldies and classic rock stations, and in elevators everywhere. But, as Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson once said, “You haven’t made it until your music’s been arranged for Muzak.”
In 1970 in South Bay, Calif., former Moby Grape guitarist Skip Spence teamed with singer/guitarist Tom Johnston, drummer John Hartman and bassist Greg Murphy in what was supposed to become a Moby Grape resurrection. But that never happened. Instead, Dave Shogren replaced Murphy, San Francisco singer-guitarist Patrick Simmons joined, and The Doobie Brothers were born. Their fusion of good-time pop melodies, signature harmonies and soulful rhythms quickly translated into a different kind of hit machine than what American audiences were used to. Their uncommonly solid musicianship and whimsical songwriting ran in stark contrast to most of the music of the day, and they set in motion a musical force to be reckoned with.
For the next 29 years, The Doobie Brothers would weather countless lineup changes, farewell and reunion tours, and several complete shifts in sound that have resulted in a body of work that’s not only impressive, it’s downright infectious. Long Train Runnin’, in true Rhino fashion, sums up their career in semi-complete, give-the-people-what-they-want-and-more fashion. Featured here are more than 80 tracks—including all the hits—encompassing a career that, by most standards, is unfathomably diamond-encrusted. Discs One through Three trace the band’s lineage from the early-’70s heyday through the white funk days of former Steely Dan sideman Michael McDonald to the present (their new album is forthcoming on Pyramid Records). Disc Four shines as platter containing a buffet of outtakes, rough tracks and demos that are a must for any Doobies fan and an inside look at a band that helped shape a generation of radiophiles.
What’s missing is material that should be missing anyway: uninspired leftovers from the period immediately preceding the Doobie Brothers’ 1982 breakup and much of the muddled material from their reunion tour and album five years later. A generously illustrated 80-page booklet accompanies the four CDs, making the set a mantelpiece as well as a well-crafted historical document. It’s time to start listening to the music, and this is where to begin.
Long guilty of mistaking notes-per-second as bona fide soul, Blues Traveler harmonica player John Popper gives up the groovaliciousness of his day-job band in exchange for a sound that’s heavy on “look what I can do” and short on any semblance of musicality. Zygote is largely unlistenable, as Popper blows his brains out through the diatonic and chromatic holes in his mouth harp. If Charlie Musselwhite were dead, he’d be rolling over in his grave.
Popper’s voice is as unmistakable as his harp passages, but both are shamelessly overwrought on Zygote, to the point where the listener is driven to nothing short of a tri-state killing spree. Even his occasional duels with keyboardist Rob Clores come across as so many fingernails across a chalkboard.
There was really no reason for Popper to make a solo record other than his own boredom with H.O.R.D.E. tour obscurity and an overabundance of hippie dancing that would wear on just about any touring musician. But with Zygote, all Popper has accomplished is offering the shoeless hippie hordes more fodder with which to become one with the ceiling or sky. He’s a talented player to be sure, but Zygote is an entirely unnecessary reminder of his virtuosity. And with the recent death of Blues Traveler bassist Bobby Sheehan, one speculates—and lies awake in fear—about the possibility that we’ve all just been sentenced to a life of more harmonica than we deserve. Damn the future. Damn it to hell.