This weekend I plan to attend a reunion, along with several of my old classmates, with my high school journalism teacher from way back in the seventies. I haven't seen Miss Mootafes (who miraculously is still alive) in something like thirty five years, and I'm actually very excited about the meeting.
You see, Miss Mootafes (who we affectionately used to call "Miss Moo") was one of the first people I can remember that had a significant influence on my decision to pursue writing. She encouraged me, saying I actually had what she called a "gift." The thing is though, in addition to being the best damned teacher I remember from high school, she also had to be something of a saint to have put up with my type of shenanigans. Because "gifted" as this particular student may have been, I was also somewhat incorrigible and quite prone to getting myself in trouble.
I ran with the group of kids that anyone who went to high school in the seventies will remember as the "rockers." We were that long-haired, loutish bunch who blended with the stoner crowd, but separated ourselves by the music we listened to. Where the stoner kids preferred the spacier sounds of Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead, rockers were all about the volume championed by bands like Zeppelin, Sabbath, and Alice Cooper. For those in need of a reference point, I would highly recommend renting a DVD of the scarily accurate film, Dazed And Confused.
So on a typical Friday night, as a bunch of us would pile into our buddy's 65 Mustang for the weekend cruise, it was bands like this that were in heavy rotation on the 8-track tape deck. Every once in awhile however, the tape broke and you had to rely on the AM radio.
This is where the Doobie Brothers come in.
During the early seventies while Tom Johnston was still the engine driving the creative bus, there was simply not a rock band on earth whose songs played better on AM than the Doobie Brothers. In the seventies, when the 8-track tape broke, the Doobies were golden.
For us rocker kids, the Doobie Brothers were kind of like that perfect middle ground. While they were never as loud and adventurous as Zeppelin, or as bizarre (for the time) as Alice, they had perfectly serviceable guitar riffs. These were mostly played by Johnston and fellow guitar slinger Patrick Simmons. Plus they had a biker's sort of edge about them, which gave them the necessary sort of outlaw cred they needed — despite AM radio being their primary medium.
The other thing about the Doobies was that despite their songs being hooky enough to get them all over the AM band, they were never as sappy as the bands they shared the dial with. Where the soft AM rock of Bread and Three Dog Night catered to the chicks, and the formerly great Chicago Transit Authority had devolved into something my friends called "Shit-cago," the Doobies' songs like "Runnin Down The Highway" and the great "China Grove" just plain kicked ass.
Disc one of this great new hits compilation from Rhino is basically all about those days in the early seventies, commonly referred to by Doobies' fans as the "Tom Johnston era."
The Doobies had so many great, riff fueled songs back then you practically can't count them. But they are all here. In addition to "China Grove" and "Runnin Down The Highway," you've got the single that for many started it all (and remains an anthem today), "Listen To The Music." From there we have "Jesus Is Just Alright," a Byrds cover that the Doobies rocked up a little and made their own to the point that few even remember the original.
Showing themselves as no mere one riff pony, the Doobies musical diversity is displayed most prominently in their biggest hit ever (at least from this era), "Black Water," a tune so down home New Orleans in it's flavor that it could just have easily have come from someone like Dr. John himself. On one of their most under-rated songs, "I Cheat The Hangman", they begin by wrapping themselves around a haunting lyric with eerily similar harmonies, then end with a wallop of frenetic crash and burn guitars. The rush is as heady as that "wacky tobacky" celebrated in their choice of a band name.
By the end of disc one however, things start to go a little south — at least for diehard fans of the rock oriented "Johnston era." By the time of the album Takin It To The Streets, the musical winds of this band were clearly shifting, as was the identity of the man steering the creative boat.
Micheal McDonald brought not only a jazzier direction to the Doobie Brothers — with slickly produced horns and charts dominating where the riff had once been king — he also brought his voice front and center. Where Tom Johnston's vocals displayed a cleaner version of the shrill, high end typical of so many of the rock vocalists of that era, McDonald's deep, resonant voice had more in common with Philly R&B.
Although it was a rude awakening for many of the Doobies' fans back then (and still is for some), many of the songs of the so-called "McDonald era" hold up surprisingly well here, especially those at the end of disc one. The craft and musicianship of songs like the title track of Takin It To The Streets are of course undeniable. "It Keeps You Running" also still has a very nice haunting sort of quality to it all these years later.
Of course by the time of the Grammy blockbuster Minute By Minute all bets were off as the Doobies pretty much abandoned all connections to their rock past, and fully embraced commercial pop. A pretty convincing argument can be made that the McDonald led Doobies of this era would pave the way for such later horrors as Christopher Cross. This was also the time many longtime fans — myself included — pretty much got off the bus.
Not long after, with albums like One Step Closer, that "Long Train Comin" of the Doobie Brothers was headed for it's final stop. It is these songs of the so-called "McDonald era" — as well as the eventual reunion with Johnston — that make up the second disc of this collection.
For Doobies completists, you simply can't beat this collection for having it all neatly summed up in a nice two disc package. And even for those who favor the earlier stuff, as I do, the second disc provides a great perspective to how this band evolved musically, even as they eventually sold their rock and roll hearts out to the greener pastures of pop commercialism.
But when I drive out to meet "Miss Moo" — that dear old seventies high school journalism teacher of mine — this weekend, I definitely know which disc I'll have on the CD player.
If only they still had 8-Tracks…