“Listen to the Music”
Music and Lyrics: Tom Johnston
Producer: Ted Templeman
Recorded on their second album, “Toulouse Street,” this song peaked at #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1972. In June 2020, four members of the band released an acoustic version of the song on YouTube, with each performing from home during the coronavirus pandemic. It served as a benefit performance for Feeding America.
Johnston: I was just sitting around on 12th street and playing an acoustic guitar. And I remember the words came up for that song more rapidly than normal. I had a lot of the words written and the idea that I was trying to get across.
That song was an idea I had in those days of naiveté; if the world leaders and everybody got together on some hill and smoked a bunch of dope and sat around listening to music, they’d all get happy and they’d all get along. Obviously, that wouldn’t work but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I called our producer up; our erstwhile producer Ted Templeman. I woke him up and said that this song—actually, it’s the only song that I ever said this—might be a hit. He said, ‘Well, maybe with a few changes.’ I said, ‘No, it doesn’t need any changes. Just keep it like it is.’
Long time Doobie Brothers producer Ted Templeman and I sat down in his office in Burbank, CA in September 1997. Thanks to the kindness and perseverance of his secretary—who, by then, knew me by name—the interview finally took place in person. I greeted her with flowers as a small token of appreciation for her help.
Did you think “Listen to the Music” would make it as big as it did?
Templeman: I probably should have been able to hear that it was a hit when I heard the demo that they did. I copied it almost verbatim. I used some mic-ing techniques that I don’t think anyone had ever used on record before. I took [the demo] directly on the basic [track], then I mic’d the strings, and then put them on separate tracks. Then I added an acoustic guitar on top of that because it was in stereo, so you’ve got to give it this acoustic sound. A sound that I don’t think—I’m not claiming I invented it—but I’ve never heard it before. It just came together.
The other thing is that I really worked out the arrangement. I got the drums. Michael [Hossack] was a natural. He put in great fills and I didn’t even have to do anything.
Then, Pat [Simmons] had the idea to add banjo and steel drums and the guitars at the end. It was all Pat’s ideas to do those things.
What was the first thing that went through your mind when you heard “Listen to the Music” on the radio?
Johnston: Well, I remember the thrill to hear it on the radio and all that good stuff. Right after that, we were on the road constantly, so you don’t have a lot of time to sit there and dwell on it because we’d just been playing clubs all our lives, sometimes three or four a day. Next thing I knew, that’s all I did until 1975, and I said, ‘I have to get off this train. I’m losing it,’ and I took a break.
What was it like on the road?
Johnston: That’s such a crazy lifestyle. It’s kind of hard to explain. You don’t have time to sit down and say, ‘Wow! God are we lucky! Gee this is great!’ Everybody’s going, ‘Christ, when can I go home?’ You lose your life. It’s owned by somebody else for a while. You’re fortunate in as much as you made it.
I was fortunate in that I could go anywhere and not get recognized. A little bit, but certainly nothing bad. People that had to lead a life like Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Anybody that does that, God, I can’t consider that a life. I would loathe that. I would never want to be in that area. If I can just be a songwriter and stay in the background; if nothing ever happens again and I would just keep writing songs. Anything that works is fine, but anonymity is sweet.