If ever a pair of decades had the social upheaval of the times reflected in their music, it was the ’60s and ’70s. In between the British Invasion, Motown, and metal on one end, and punk, funk, disco, and hip-hop on the other, there was room in the middle for a more mellow zone on the airwaves. Driven by acts like The Carpenters, this new brand of soft rock had broad appeal. So much appeal, in fact, that it carved out its own chain of stations. This is the story of the rise of soft rock radio.
Rock and roll had been growing and changing since its inception. Ballads were always part of the mix, but those were songs that were deliberately written as love songs or down-tempo numbers. As the basic set-up for rock artists tilted toward the guitar/bass/full drum kit configuration in the 1960s, songs overall got a little harder and faster. That didn’t stop the big bands from letting up on occasion; The Rolling Stones had “As Tears Go By,” of course. But as more and more artists entered the field, each act expressed a different relationship with dynamics. Some went hard all the time, and others found a lighter path.
A forerunner to the softer rock was the Easy Listening format. Built on instrumental music and orchestra-backed vocalists like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, the “beautiful music” style earned its own chart at Billboard in 1967 as popular music’s various subgenres grew further apart. Easy Listening would eventually be discontinued as a chart and would be replaced by Adult Contemporary in 1979.
When the term hard rock came into use in the mid-to-late 1960s, it was applied to British Invasion acts like The Who and The Kinks, English blues scholars like Cream, and American acts like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Iron Butterfly. Soft rock started to get referenced as a term surrounding the artists who were more influenced by pop and folk rather than the blues-aware, four-on-the-floor “hard rock” bands. A prime example were The Bee Gees; as a band, they veered to the pop side of things, but then started to lean more heavily on balladry with 1967’s “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “To Love Somebody,” and 1968’s “Massachusetts” and “I Started a Joke.”
A number of other artists began to coalesce around the lower end of the Mohs scale while hitting higher places on the charts. Established hitmakers like Neil Diamond, Carole King, and The Hollies were lumped into the “soft rock” descriptor. Up and coming acts that would expand the category included The Carpenters, John Denver, Carly Simon, and Anne Murray. Folk artists like James Taylor and Cat Stevens were also considered soft rock in terms of radio airplay, as were artists moving into pop from other fields, like Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow. Fifty years ago this summer, one of the keystone songs of Soft Rock, “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts, shot to #6 on the Hot 100. Also in 1972, Neil Young (supported by Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor on backing vocals) took “Heart of Gold to #1;” the only #1 in Young’s storied career, it’s been consistently listed among the best of soft rock classics.
While the songs had popular success on pop radio formats, it wasn’t until 1973 that KNX / FM 93 in Los Angeles made the bold move of switching its entire playlist to what they called “mellow rock.” The station would be instrumental in creating awareness of artists like Janis Ian and Steely Dan while playing the familiar mix of acts like Elton John, Joni Mitchell, and others. It was an influential move, as a number of other stations across the country (like Denver’s KIMN and Chicago’s WBBM) gravitated to a lighter sound. The acts played were in diametrical opposition to bands that blew up in the 1970s like Kiss and Led Zeppelin, and were entire universes removed from the disco, punk, and hip-hop bubbling up in New York. Seventies soft rock fairly boomed with acts like the reconfigured Fleetwood Mac, America, and Air Supply.
The heyday of classic soft rock ended by 1983 when KNX and many other soft rock stations went Top 40. The wholesale changeover was a result of the wild success of MTV. The channel, launched in 1981, largely ignored the soft rock artists and quickly created a flood of popular new artists drawn from the U.S. and the U.K. A combination of established stars (Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen), newer faces (Prince, Madonna) and TV-ready English bands (Duran Duran, The Police) flipped the landscape overnight. Much like rock had dethroned easy listening on Billboard in the 1950s, the MTV artists pushed aside soft rock. Perhaps the greatest exemplar of this was what happened to Christopher Cross; the singer-songwriter won five Grammys and an Oscar in 1981, but couldn’t land any further Top 40 hits after 1984. Shifting tastes and an emphasis on video sent Cross, er, sailing out of the mainstream.
Though the tides of music shift every ten years or so, the pinnacle period of soft rock still holds a place in the hearts of fans. The closest approximation to the soft rock sound today is probably found on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, where acts like Adele, Celine Dion, and Ed Sheeran reign alongside veterans of the format wars like Elton John. Even that chart is changing, though, as younger acts like The Weeknd have experienced major success; his “Blinding Lights” spend 35 weeks at #1 across late 2020 and 2021.
Despite these shifts, websites like TheMellowSound.net painstakingly recreate the listening experience of KNX-FM 93 in its prime, and the biggest songs of the era are only a few clicks away on various streaming services. So even though the charts change and listening methods evolve, that same summer breeze can indeed make you feel fine.
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