“Soft rock.” Think about that dread phrase for a moment. This is a genre of music that has largely slipped under my radar over the years. It was, I had always presumed, music for people who didn’t like music, the sort of people who might view the entire concept of music as being somehow equivalent to wallpaper. Take a look, for example, down this list of soft rock artists and songs. There are occasional pearls hidden within that list. 10cc, whose arrival at the centre-stage of the British music scene in the middle of the 1970s just before punk rock and disco arrived to offer a much needed breath of fresh air into an increasingly stagnant music scene, for example, were open to occasional moments of inspiration, whilst underneath the shiny surface of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” sits the fascinatingly incestuous story of a band whose members had all gotten to know each other rather too well.
On the whole, though, soft rock lives down to the bad reputation that precedes it. Anodyne musical arrangements jostle for position with vocal delivery which, somewhat ironically, sounds all the more like a day at the office for its producers the more heartfelt it is. Perhaps, we might pre-suppose, the quality of soft rock is determined by the amount of cocaine ingested by those who performed it. With the aforementioned “Rumours”, for example, Fleetwood Mac hit something of a sweet spot between the arrogance tha comes with its regular and prolonged use. The vast majority of the rest of the soft rock army, however, produce music that is sounds like an Excel spreadsheet, the aural equivalent of business meeting set to music.
All of this leads me neatly to the subject of Air Supply. So, what do I know about Air Supply, before I put their greatest hits album on the gramophone sit back to listen? Well, I know that they’re Australian, and I know that there were only two of them, so I strongly predict the beige hand of session musicians. And I know their biggest hit single, “All Out Of Love,” which reached the lofty position of number eleven in the UK charts in 1980. Before we start, though, let’s take a moment to consider that title. “Making Love – The Very Best Of Air Supply.” There, in those eight words, lays a fundamental truth at the heart of soft rock. For most bands, “Greatest Hits” would be a perfectly serviceable title for, well, a greatest hits album. But not for Air Supply, dear me no. Air Supply want to emote. They want to emote in my ears, and quite probably all over my face. Air Supply are the sort of band who call any sort of sex “making love.” They’re the sound of a futile attempt at rekindling the spark of a loveless marriage and then walking meaningfully along a canal when said rekindling inevitably fails. They’re the sort of band who use the phrase “Making Love – The Very Best Of Air Supply” without any apparent irony.
“All Out Of Love” is hidden away on track eight of “Making Love”, which may be somewhat surprising when we consider that it was by some distance their biggest selling single in the UK, but which might even hint at an insecurity on the part of those who put the compilation together in the first place. “What if”, you can almost imagine the conversation going at the record company as the track listing was put together, “we put “All Out Of Love” on as the album’s first track and no-one who buys it bothers to list to any of the rest of it?” It’s a good and fair question. It is, and there’s more than an element of twelve bald men fighting over a comb about this, the album’s stand-out track. It eschews use of the phrase “making love,” for one thing, and it builds to an almost- not quite, but almost – satisfying swell for the chorus before dying away again. It’s bombastic, melodramatic nonsense, of course, and the middle eight lyrical question of, “What were you thinking of?” feels somewhat more rhetorical than it was probably intended to, but this is a song which at least gets stuck in your head, which is more than be said for the rest of the album, which floats by with such a sense of forgettableness it’s possible to wonder whether you’ve hallucinated listening to the damn thing at all.
And here’s the problem with Air Supply, and it’s the biggest of a multitude of problems with soft rock in a broader sense. The music slips in one ear and out through the other without even pausing to say “hello”, and the lyrics give every impression of having been written by the office intern at the Hallmark birthday cards factory. Its production is accomplished, but polished to the extent that all of the life has been buffed out of it. It’s music for people who prefer whale sounds to music. It’s the very antithesis of those who kickstarted rock and roll barely two and a half decades earlier. Yet somehow or other, rock and roll music made this journey in an extraordinary short period of time. In the white heat of that tumultuously rapid journey, however, something fundamental was forgotten. Somewhere along the line, it lost the energy that brought t to life in the first place and, whilst younger people were happy to go off and channel their energy on something that their parents could scarcely hope to understand, soft rock rolled its jacket sleeves, grew a moustache, and whispered repeatedly in your ear on the subect of how it was going to “make love” to you. Not if you were the last men on earth, Air Supply. Not if you were the last men on earth.
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