Photo: enhanced cover of One Step Closer

The Doobie Brothers: The Warner Bros. Years 1971-1983

Sure, the Doobie Brothers story is really about two separate bands, but let's be honest: it truly is hard to have a bad time when listening to the Doobies.
The Doobie Brothers
The Warner Bros. Years 1971-1983
Warner Bros.

The story of the Doobie Brothers can really be broken down into a tale of two bands: the original Doobie Brothers and, of course, the “McDoobies”. When the band started making the rounds in their early California days, they befriended a lot of bikers and played every motorcycle tavern you can think of, their richly melodic and Southern-indebted sound enduring them a fanbase right off the bat, easy rock radio staples soon rolling out of them on a consistent pace. However, in the mid-’70s lead singer and frontman Tom Johnston had to step out, which lead to the recruitment of Michael McDonald. McDonald would soon turn the band’s sound completely, rendering the group more soulful and pop-friendly, but losing a lot of their rock roots in the process. To say the band’s legacy is divisive to this day even to hardcore fans is nothing short of an understatement.

Thus, with the Warner Bros. Years 1971-1983 box set, every notable Doobie memory is gathered in one place, and let’s face it: outside of some fun reunion bits with the entire ensemble on stage in the late-’80s and early-’90s, the Doobie’s short-lived Capitol Records days are nothing much to write home about. The same could be said about their oft-forgotten 1971 eponymous debut, which is well-intended but awfully slight, despite songs like “Feelin’ Down Farther” introducing that addictive shuffle-strum riff style that would so define so many of their latter day hits. Songs like “Nobody” are still catalog favorites for obvious reasons, but when the band tried to leave their comfort zone for something a bit more hard-edged on “Beehive State”, they ended up their easy knack for satisfying harmonies behind, ultimately leaving the group’s debut album as more “proto-Doobies” than “proper Doobies.”

It’s really no fault of the band that casual fans still think of the group’s 1972 effort Toulouse Street as their “official” debut, because this is when the group really honed in on what made them special, and, arguably, this is their greatest accomplishment. It’s hard to top any album that opens with an anthem as iconic as “Listen to the Music”, but even slight, lighter fare like the pseudo-islander fare “Mamaloi” has a confidence that was altogether missing from their debut, and although the percussion work of Michael Hossack and John Hartman was never the band’s secret weapon, their straight-forward, sparse arrangements made it so that the rest of the group’s instrumentations had space to breathe. Although “Jesus is Just Alright” is Toulouse Street‘s other major winner, true fans never discount forgotten numbers like the melancholic title track (which has some textural shades not too far removed from CSN) and the great “White Sun” (that sustained note after the 1:00 mark, guys) both of which were acoustic-driven numbers that showed the full depth of the band’s talents.

Growing with confidence, 1973’s The Captain and Me proved more of a holding pattern than a true step forward for the Doobies, despite it producing two of their biggest hits: the oft-imitated “Long Train Runnin'” and the echo-riffed rocker “China Grove”. The great acoustic numbers here were more mid-range than mournful (like the great Zeppelin-flavored “Clear As the Driven Snow”) but The Captain and Me was all about the rockers, as “Without You” and “China Grove” were clearly made with stadium-rocking in mind. However, songs like “Ukiah” started showing what would eventually become the band’s kryptonite in their later days: gravitating towards impossibly cheesy keyboard sounds. Some bands could synthesize them into something profound and defining of the era, but as it stands with the Doobies, more often than not they just sounded like products of the era instead, some of these synth sounds irrevocably dating the band and lessening their impact.

For fans and radio programmers alike, the lead verse riff of “Eyes of Silver”, the second single from the excellently-titled 1974 set What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits, really felt like it was aping the sounds of older Doobie hits, but, as it turned out, Vices proved to be the group’s most underappreciated effort by a long shot, despite featuring their fluke number one hit “Black Water”. At times very soulful (like on the fantastic opener “Song to See You Through”) the band truly began testing out the limits of their sound, the dancing guitar interplay of “Spirit” showing just how in-tune the band had become with each other. The album wasn’t perfect (“Down in the Track” tried to boogie, but instead just came of as a tired retread) but the success of “Black Water” opened the band up to even more avenues, content that they could have a hit simply by being themselves in whatever style they please.

The last album released in the group’s “classic” era, 1975’s Stampede, was one of their lowest-selling in some time, anchored by one genuine hit (the “Proud Mary”-aping “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)”) and an A-side that had the group playing to what they know best, but without much progression in their sound, leaving it feeling slight and repetitive. The album’s B-side, however, is fascinating due to moody, darker tones of the material included, specifically “I Cheat the Hangman”, a slowly-ascending story song that features the group’s vocal harmonies at their most choir-like. “Rainy Day Crossroad Blues” has one of the thickest, funnest basslines the group ever rode on, and, when coupled with the flashy “Double Dealin’ Four Flusher”, makes for a satisfying end to one of their most surprisingly inconsistent discs.

With Johnston now suffering severe stomach ulcers during the Stampede tour, the rest of the band, unsure whether or not to call it quits, forged ahead with a recruit from the Steely Dan Career Jumpoff Program, Michael McDonald, who was happy to tour but unsure about what he could bring into the studio, eventually bringing in his own demos to see how they’d work with the band. Not only did the band record them, but the resulting album’s lead single, the title track of Takin’ It to The Streets, went right to the Top 20. At times, Streets feels hopelessly dated, as opener “Wheels of Fortune” uses yet another shuffle riff and yet another batch of group harmonies to get its point home, which at this point in their career, felt damn near uninspired, and even as McDonald’s own brand of piano pop sometimes took a turn for the saccharine (like on too-cutesy piano popper “Losin’ End”) there were some inspired moments on this LP’s B-side that showed signs of life, the Vegas-friendly “Rio” and the chilled-out mid-tempo ballad “For Someone Special” showing that even in this strange time of transition, the band wasn’t creatively bankrupt yet. That’s what Livin’ On the Fault Line is for.

Despite only penning three songs on Livin’ On the Fault Line, McDonald’s influence looms large, as the former biker badboys from California have now fully committed to going the inoffensive pop route, Fault Line truly feeling more like a Steely Dan album than something made by the Doobies (something that Johnston truly felt as well, leaving the group during the sessions). At times, McDonald’s keyboard sweetness proves quite agreeable, as it does on “Nothin’ But a Heartache”, but ultimately the aptly-named Fault Line proves too monochromatic to be considered interesting, as keyboards have replaced guitars and it’s hard to find the soul in such sleek studio production (save for closing lark “Larry the Logger Two-Step”, which truly feels like the most extraneous add-on ever to a tracklist). Still, McDonald actually shows a bit more empathy on “There’s a Light”, a first-rate ballad that, unlike any of his work on this or Streets, doesn’t reek of oversentimentality. It feels very raw, very real for him, and a rare moment of vulnerability that would seldom be seen again.

So distracted the group was over the lack of sales for Fault Line that shortly after the release of Minute By Minute, the band actually did break up, only later finding out that the fluffly keyboard plinks of “What a Fool Believes” actually did what only “Black Water” had done before the group and went straight to the top of the charts. Realizing it’s stupid to be broken up while you have the number one song in the country, the band got together and toured the hell out of Minute, which is a much more limber record than Fault Line was. It was as if after the band resigned itself to its new role as whitewashed soul kingpins, they might as well enjoy it. In fact, slight guitar rocker “Don’t Stop to Watch the Wheels”, which, like “Larry the Logger Two-Step”, feels like a concession that was tossed in just ‘cos McDonald was in a generous mood, bristles with an energy that the band hadn’t had for years, partially due to the fact that it’s a guitar song on a keyboard record, but also because it’s the first time the group so actively sought to recapture that classic Doobie sound in so long. After that, the backwoods guitar instrumental “Streamer Lane Breakdown” feels like a love letter to times of yore, and the record is all the stronger for featuring it.

Love it or hate it, “What a Fool Believes” helped relaunch the Doobies all over again, Of course, so popular was Minute By Minute that not only did it end up becoming the group’s second-best selling album ever (behind 1976’s Best of the Doobies, of course) but it also landed the group four Grammy Awards, including two of the night’s top prizes: both Record and Song of the Year for “Fool”. Unfortunately for the band, this was their absolute commercial peak, and they only had one more proper album in them: 1980’s much-derided One Step Closer. The smooth sax that opens up the album’s title track gives you a clear indication of where it’s going, and the fact that “Keep This Train A-Rollin’s” opening keyboard riff is a dead ringer for Minute By Minute‘s opener “Here to Love You” proved that even McDonald was starting to lap himself creatively. The band was deeply entrenched in yacht-rock territory at this point, and after one surprisingly indulgent live album (1983’s aptly-named Farewell Tour) the group called it quits for the time being, ending their historic run on somewhat of a lesser note.

Again, the Doobie Brothers’ story isn’t an easy one to tell, as getting the time periods straight of Before Michael and After Michael is already a divisive enough issue by itself. There will always be those that pine for the mullet-driven soul-rock of the group’s early days and those that enjoy the sleek radio candy that the McDoobies offer, but in these ten albums, those tensions and those occasional moments of brilliance are more than enough to intrigue and inspire. They weren’t perfect, but they were one of the most consistently fun bands in rock music, and while The Warner Bros. Years 1971-1983 may not be essential (but rest assured, 2007’s double-disc The Very Best of The Doobie Brothers absolutely is) it’s hard to think of anyone who would say no to this when presented to them. They weren’t always good times, but it truly is hard to have a bad time when listening to the Doobies.

RATING 6 / 10