Strength in Numbers

Do the Doobies have too much time on their hands?

I've always liked the Doobie Brothers. Not for their music but for the simple fact that they were one of those bands that at their peak had too many members. You'd look at the cover of one of their successful late-Seventies albums and see all these people milling about and know instinctually that something was wrong. It's an unwritten rule in rock and roll that with the exception of Van Morrison (and, some would argue, Bruce Springsteen, but I maintain no one needs two keyboard players), nobody should form a band bigger than five members. Additional session musicians didn't help the Rolling Stones. The Beatles didn't need more than four. Elvis, The Who -- you go down the list and the rule is true. Heck, Bob Dylan is only one guy. It may sound cruel or superficial, but there is an obvious aesthetic difference when you add too many members. Don't believe me? Three words: The Grateful Dead. Need more proof? Two more words: The Eagles.

Now the Doobie Brothers have smartened up. Maybe it was all those years of watching the monetary pie get sliced into too many measly portions, but as of Doobie 2000, according to their Website, there are only five members in the official band, with additional guys to “round out” the sound, who I'm sure they pay in dames and dental care. Barry Alfonso excitedly states in his liner notes to the Doobies' new box set, Long Train Runnin' 1970-2000: “The Brothers' ranks have included no less than four guitarists, three bassists, and five drummers/ percussionists. Overall, there's been some fourteen members since the group began.” See, the stats really matter. In keeping with the crooked numbers the Doobies prefer to put up, the current touring lineup includes two drummers (Keith Knudsen and Mike Hossack).

But it isn't just the odd lot of players that attracts me to the Doobies. At their peak they consistently recorded dreck of the highest caliber. “Listen to the Music,” “Long Train Runnin',” “China Grove,” “Black Water,” and “Takin' It to the Streets” all qualify as typically ersatz Seventies music, from bogus boogie to hippie harmony to white-man funk. That the band accomplished this run while changing lead singers and instrumentalists, even their entire approach, proves their dedication to one nation in for a snooze.

The Doobie Brothers, elder statesmen of Seventies rock
The Doobie Brothers, elder statesmen of Seventies rock

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They began harmlessly enough, from the evil land of California. I refer to founding member Tom Johnston's innocuous comments: “This band is about feel-good music. I think there's too much music out there that's negative and angry....” And just like Up with People and other pseudoconservative, quasi-religious propaganda, the music reflects this empty-headed aesthetic to the max. Dose a few cubes with Quicksilver, Big Brother, and the Dead and you've got Muzak before Muzak was cool. Hallmark sentiments the entire family can enjoy. “Whoa-whoa-whoa -- listen to the music,” my boy.

It may seem quaint today to consider that Warner Bros. released four singles to promote the Doobies' fourth album, What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits (including a song from their debut album), finally connecting with Simmons's “Black Water.” Imagine what musicians' careers could be like today with that much support. (Interesting to note: Hossack was soon to leave for his own band, Bonaroo -- one album on Warner Bros. -- and what do the Doobies do but replace him with another drummer, Keith Knudsen!)

The addition of former Steely Dan guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter (finally at six!) bolstered the band's studio craftiness and more noticeably their visual appeal, as Baxter's droopy mustache and long, straight hair was the archetype of the music biz circa 1975. But while the resulting album, Stampede, may have been a progression for the group, it did little to further their commercial potential.

Founding member Tom Johnston unofficially quit and former Steely Dan keyboardist and backing singer Michael McDonald entered and the band quickly shifted gears at the perfect time. With disco picking up where R&B left off, and slick, studio-perfected rock replacing its sludgier forebears, McDonald's winsome L.A. pop positioned the Doobies perfectly. Takin' It to the Streets from 1976 went platinum, and they quickly cashed in with a Best of that's gone on to sell more than ten million copies.

But it was 1978's Minute by Minute that solidified their new position while simultaneously capping the Doobies' rise. “What a Fool Believes,” written by McDonald and Kenny Loggins, went on to win a 1979 Grammy Award for Record of the Year. The album sold more than three million copies, and turmoil led drummer John Hartman and guitarist Jeff Baxter to call it quits. The usual reshuffling and occasional releases aside, the group was finished. A second Best of the Doobies in 1981 suggested as much, and a farewell tour in 1983 confirmed it.

Aging rockers without plans of opening a restaurant must do something with their time, and the inevitable reunion surfaced a mere four years later, in 1987. A reunion album appeared in 1991 (Brotherhood) and they have since recorded another record to start this decade that should be released by Pyramid Records sometime in the near future. They've got nowhere to go but up, right?

 
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