Doobie Brothers’ Tom Johnston Reflects on ‘Listen to the Music’ at 40
In 1972, the infectious strumming riff that opened âListen to the Musicâ introduced fans to the uniquely American sound of the Doobie Brothers. Their blend of rock and R&B produced a string of hits throughout the next decade. At age 40, âListen to the Musicâ remains a classic rock radio staple and the Doobies — with founding members Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons — still maintain a busy tour schedule.
Johnston, who wrote âListen to the Music,â told Ultimate Classic Rock that the musicians around the San Francisco Bay Area helped mold the bandâs sound.
What was the influence of the Bay Area on your music in 1969?
The music scene, by the time I got up to San Jose, was centered around the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane and to an extent Moby Grape and the other bands that had pretty much started to fade. Grateful Dead was still a force to be reckoned with, and still is for that matter, because they had such a huge cult following, but the other bands were on their way out.
I played with a lot of guys who were in the Santa Cruz Mountains, a lot of jam sessions, and I also met Skip Spence from Moby Grape early on. Jammed with him quite a bit; he was responsible for putting me together with John Hartman, who was the original drummer in the Doobie Brothers. He put us together because John had come out from Washington, DC looking for people for a Moby Grape reunion.
Moby Grape had a cult following as well, and I was one of the cult. And so was John and so was Pat and so was Tiran [Porter, Doobiesâ bassist] and so was everybody else I knew.
What was the influence of the Grape on the Doobiesâ music?
They had three-part harmonies, they had guys that were able to fingerpick, they had a driving drummer, they had all these facets that nobody else had. The songs were really good, well-crafted, well-thought-out songs. I love their lyrics, theyâre incredible. They werenât just dumb-headed lyrics.
Unfortunately they burned out really fast but in the small snippet of time they were around, they put out a couple of albums that were just phenomenal. The first one to me has yet to be equaled. I played the grooves off of that one.
What are some of the songs where a listener can hear the Grape influence?
I would say âNealâs Fandangoâ is one of them. That song jumps out at me right off the bat because that has a real Moby Grape flavor to it.
What is your writing process? Do you write the music first or the lyrics?
The music is always first for me. People that can write words first and then write music, theyâre beyond me. I donât know how they do it. Iâve had ideas of a lyric but then I still have to go write the track and see how I can fit that lyric into it.
How did you come up with the âchunka-chunkaâ strumming style?
It was just a way to drive a song. It was a way to have a drummer without a drummer being present. With that kind of strumming, youâre playing drums while youâre playing the rhythm part. I had my foot doinâ the kick drum, the snare drum was in the downbeat on the rhythm and then the rhythmical part was really a cross between all the influences of R&B players Iâd listened to for years.
âListen to the Music.â How did you come to write that?
The chord structure of it made me think of something positive, so the lyrics that came out of that were based on this utopian idea that if the leaders of the world got together on some grassy hill somewhere and either smoked enough dope or just sat down and just listened to the music and forgot about all this other bulls—, the world would be a much better place. It was very utopian and very unrealistic (laughs). It seemed like a good idea at the time.
War was raging, the Cuban Missile Crisis, marches, there was a lot of stuff going on then. This was my way of saying, “Really, come on guys, what if you just brought it down a couple of notches and just try to get along?” My version of Rodney King, I guess.
The guitar riff that opens the song is immediately identifiable. Was that the first thing you wrote?
Yes it is, that strumming part that opens the song is just exactly how I wrote it. That is one song, probably the only song, that I didnât change at all once we got it in the studio. I had all the lyrics, I had all the chord changes. I called Ted [Templeman, producer] up at three in the morning, blazing away on guitar and said, “You gotta hear this. This song is a hit.” Itâs the only one Iâve ever been right about. That one I flat said, “This is a single.”
What was Ted Templemanâs contribution as a producer?
Ted gave us tremendous ideas. He was a very creative producer. He had great drum ideas in particular âcause he was a drummer but he would also come up with good singing ideas. The same thing with lyrics.
Most of his stuff was about embellishing what was already there. He would say, what if we put, for example, strings on âDark Eyed Cajun Womanâ or âTake Me in Your Arms,â something like that. Or he took âBlack Waterâ and had Novi [Novog] play that incredible viola part on that.
Patrick comes in to sing the bridge on âListen to the Music.â It was unusual for the time to have a second lead.
That was Teddyâs idea. I think he wanted to change up. He wanted a difference because in the breakdown, youâve got the drums that go away from the regular rhythm of the song and so he said, “What if you had Pat sing that part?” I said, “OK, go, itâll be great.” We tried that and it worked really well. So these are the kinds of things that Ted was good for, helping make a song more than it was when he walked in the door.
Do you remember where you were when you first heard it on the radio?
Yeah, I was in my Volkswagen, driving down the road in San Jose. And I remember pulling over and going, “Jesus Christ, thatâs us.” It was a big deal at that time âcause weâd never had any hits, we hadnât done anything. That was our first song that got notoriety. We followed that up with âRockinâ Down the Highwayâ and âJesus Is Just Alrightâ on that album. Next album we had âChina Groveâ and âLong Train Runninâ.â
It changed your life financially, I guess.
Yeah, it changed your life financially, it also took your life away (laughs). Thatâs when you entered the whole era of you gotta have a studio album every year and you could be on the road the rest of the time (laughs). Thatâs the way everybody did it in those days, I mean, that was just the way it was.
Iâd like to ask about two of the songs that followed. What went into writing âChina Groveâ? I looked up China Grove, itâs not really a Chinatown.
Not at all, no. All it has is an ice house and feed store (laughs). It is exactly where itâs written about in the song, itâs right outside of San Antonio. As far as the whole Oriental cast to it, that was all based around a piano lick by Billy Payne. I still hadnât written the lyrics at that point. We laid the track down, which was unusual back then. We had this great track and he came in and put all the keyboards on it. And when he did that, I went, “Bingo! Oh man, what if â¦ ” and then I went off on this whole wackadoodle thing about sheriffs with a samurai sword.
In â72 we were touring in Winnebagos. We did play in San Antonio so the highway going into San Antonio has a sign along there that says âCity of China Grove.â I didnât remember seeing it but I think subconsciously I saw it and I think thatâs where I got the title.
âLong Train Runninâ.â What was your inspiration for writing it?
See, I never thought of that song as being a single. That was a jam song for us. We played that song in late â70, early â71. And I would make up different words to it every night. And it was called âRosie Pig Moseley,â it was called âParliament,â it was called all this other stuff, but it never had a name. Teddy heard us playing it and he said, “God, we should record that.” I said, “Really? Itâs just a jam song.” I really didnât think it was any big deal.
We got in the studio, laid the track down pretty much like weâd played it live, the cool part being that it had the rhythm structure and had pickinâ over the top of it. More so than probably any of those songs that we did that involved those two styles.
The words were written at the absolute last minute. I wrote them in the bathroom at Amigo Studios. Ted said, “Write something about a train.” I said, “OK! Thatâs a great idea” (laughs).
So I went in — I used to do that a lot, itâs just a great place to go get away from everything and if you had a singing idea, it had a great natural reverb in there, tile all over the walls. And youâd just sit down and write, just come up with these ideas. And so I wrote the words right there, about Miss Lucy losinâ her family and all that kind of stuff. It just all kind of gelled in that one time and place, which is how a lot of creative things happen.
Youâve got the rhythm part, the âchunka-chunkaâ thing on electric. Then youâve got the combination with Pat playing that picking acoustic part over the top of it. âListen to the Musicâ is similar; Pat had a picking banjo part on it.
How do you explain the longevity of âListen to the Musicâ?
I can only give you what I think because I donât really know. It gets played, number one. Number two, people can very easily sing along with it. And do. We can play that song anywhere, anyplace, any country, and people sing along with the chorus. Even if they donât speak English, doesnât matter.
In the old days, you had to have a hook, which was “Wo, wo, listen to the music,” as simple as that sounds. And you had to have either a chord change or a groove or both that would grab people. The rhythm pattern was new at that time, not now obviously, but I think thatâs one of the things that set it aside.
In the era weâre livinâ in, thereâs not a lot of positive things goinâ on, so I have to say that thatâs probably one of the things too. Anything thatâs positive, people gravitate to. Itâs a feel good song. You can play it anywhere and people are gonna respond to it, âcause it got all the sunshine. Thatâs the one that people all know.