June 5, 2023 Musicology 1 Comment

Influence is not infringement. Nor is it copying. Nor should artists need to pretend they’re influenced by nobody, lest they get sued. When the Jonas Brothers say they’re influenced by the records that played in their house growing up, let them. And when you think you hear those bands in “The Album” (that’s what they call their current record) enjoy that. That’s fun. And it’s nothing but cool that you can play that game with the whole album.

I expect to be asked about Blurred Lines, Dark Horse, Stairway To Heaven as soon as someone finds out I’m a forensic musicologist. Slightly older people bring up “My Sweet Lord.” And we probably just added “Thinking Out Loud” to the list, rounding out what I expect to be the modern pantheon of music copyright for a while. But it’s possibly because we’re heading into the post-Memorial Day yacht rock season that I’m hearing about the Jonas Brothers’ “Waffle House.”

I didn’t know the Jonas Brothers’ record and I had no answer, but I promised I’d look into it, and here we go. It turns out the whole record is seen as something of a Yacht Rock homage. A podcast I like a lot called Switched On Pop did a whole episode on it and even interviewed the bros themselves.

Everything on this record sounds a little like something. Again, fun. But nothing sounds too much like any one thing. That’s how influences are supposed to work. I’ve never really listened to these guys, and this record is growing on me quickly.

But I was asked about Waffle House specifically, so let’s get to that. And if like me, you haven’t heard it, here you go.

And yep, indeed, “Waffle House” contains elements most associated with the pop music of the late 70s and early 80s, after Led Zeppelin’s influence waned and keyboards began to dominate popular songwriting. A lot of what gets played on the Sirius XM radio Yacht Rock channel comes from that period which, in my own view, was most characterized by the development of polyphonic synthesizers and the resulting influence and role of keyboards in pop songwriting. “Polyphonic” meant you could play more than one note at a time. Previously, synthesizers were monophonic. Frankenstein by Edgar Winter, Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and The Entertainer by Billy Joel all featured synthesizers in the early 1970s, but Joel and Palmer’s Minimoogs and Winter’s Arp 2600 could only play one note at a time.

In 1978, Yamaha, Sequential Circuits, and Oberheim were producing synthesizers that could play eight notes at once. That changed the sound of pop. 1978 is a pivotal year.

The Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes” came out that year and is one of my favorite songs of all time in no small part because of the polyphonic synthesizer sounds Michael McDonald played on an Oberheim 8-voice. (Ignore that he has a Sequential Circuits keyboard atop his Yamaha piano in this official video.)

And yep, there are a couple of bars of very “What A Fool Believes” type vamping going on in Waffle House. In fact, I’ll go back and forth for you. Here’s four bars of Waffle’s keyboard part followed by four bars of Fool followed by four of Waffle again, and then four more of Fool.

But what you’re mostly keyed on is the harmonic rhythm in this groove. “What A Fool Believes” plays this sort of figure throughout a lot of the song, but it’s not the least bit repetitive. It’s a very harmonically sophisticated composition and this very simple figure that’s anything like Waffle House on a note by note basis only appears when they sing the words “What A Fool Believes.” And McDonald didn’t linger on it anywhere near as long as I just did in the illustration. An accusation of copying would be a bit like the Thinking Out Loud claim, just four chords and harmonic rhythm. And that was silly.

The more prominent “Waffle House” three-note figure, at the start of the chorus when they sing “Figured Out” and then “Waffle House,” is more relatable to “Physical” by Olivia Newton-John, and this other 1982 track, Gloria, by Laura Branigan.

And while we’re at it, if you really want to hear something that sounded a lot like the signature figures from “What A Fool Believes,” let me remind you about “Steal Away” by Robbie Dupree, which came out in 1980.

Steal Away was a top-ten hit, but the Doobies didn’t sue for infringement. The melodies and lyrics were nothing alike, and to a piano player like Michael McDonald, comping figures like the ones these songs share were common devices. Years earlier, The Captain gave us…

“Waffle House,” and other tracks on The Album call to mind Yacht Rock stardard bearer Toto as well, just in a general sort of way. It’s a compliment.

In forensic musicology though, presentation elements, like the choice of synthesizer sound, are less “blue chip” certainly than melody and harmony. A song like “Africa,” also specifically nominated as sounding like “Waffle House,” doesn’t share melody or harmony with it. It’s more the style we’re hearing. The Toto sound that you associate with “Africa,” and across the 1982 “Toto IV” album is made mostly by Steve Poccaro and David Paich, playing synths from Yamaha. The “Africa” sound was so common that a keyboard from Oberheim that I owned many years after Toto IV would load up a soundalike patch actually called “Toto Brass” on startup that sounded just like the one Poccaro plays at the beginning of “Africa” on a Yamaha CS80. Though in this video, he’s playing a Yamaha GS1. (When you’re a kid, you have time to memorize all these model numbers.)

It occurs to me that another song from Toto IV called “Make Believe” is probably a closer match for “Waffle House.” We can keep doing this.

Hey, know what Jackson Browne’s biggest hit song was? Not Running On Empty. It’s…

And I saved this one for last though it popped into my head first. It’s harmonically more on the nose with that first ba-da-DA figure in “Waffle House.”

Small world, Jay Ferguson wrote the theme to The Office and produced a lot of other music for TV.


Even smaller world! Previous to Thunder Island, Jay Ferguson founded a group called “Spirit,” which produced the song “Taurus,” and “Taurus” is the song Led Zeppelin was accused of infringing with “Stairway To Heaven!”

So, we’ve sorta come full circle now. Did the Jonas Brothers steal What A Fool Believes? No. Are they actually infringing on anyone? I doubt it. And it’s certainly not because of figures like the ones employed in Waffle House’s chorus. Those riffs were in countless songs forty years ago.

Other songs popping into my head still.

Hey Google, when did Pat Metheny Group release “Phase Dance?”

I’ll be darned. Sure enough, Google says “1978,” the same year the Doobie Brothers released Minute By Minute and What A Fool Believes. We could probably do this all day.

Written by Brian McBrearty