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The Doobie Double

"Cycles. The return of that classic high-spirited, uninhibited, good time rock 'n' roll sound only the Doobie Brothers can create. Cycles. Reuniting the founding members of the legendary band. Cycles. Resulting in the same great guitar sounds, smooth ensemble vocals and sparkling songwriting. Cycles!"
--from a recent Capitol Records press release

Well, the sessions for their new album, Cycles, certainly didn't feel like a big, long-awaited reunion for the original Doobie Brothers--no matter how much hype their record company was trying to stir up.

After all, hadn't these guys just seen each other at last year's benefit for Children's Hospital at Stanford Medical Center? And hadn't they "reunited" for this charity event annually ever since the final line-up of the Doobie Brothers officially called it quits in 1982? And hadn't the original Doobies--along with latter-day additions Michael McDonald and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter--already played some eleven concert dates in 1987 in something also touted as a "reunion tour?"

Fact is, the dozen musicians who've at one time or another called themselves Doobie Brothers have never managed to keep from bumping into each other long enough to have a big, momentous reunion.

"We never completely lost touch with each other," explains Tom Johnston, the group's original lead singer and guitarist, in a recent phone interview. "Over the years, the various members have all played together, and Pat [Simmons, another original Doobie] and I even recorded together. So getting back into the studio to do another album wasn't really the big reunion everybody thought it was."

Rather, when Johnston and the other original Doobies assembled to record what would become their first album together as a unit in fifteen years, it was more like, well . . . "It was like going back to work," says Johnston, the man responsible for such early-Seventies rock classics as "Listen to the Music," "Long Train Running," and "China Grove." "Writing songs again, recording. We just looked at this like a job, like it's always been."

The Doobies' original producer, Ted Templeman, was the foreman who called the crew back to the job site (although production chores on Cycles would eventually go to southern-rock specialist Rodney Mills). "[Templeman] wanted this particular unit's sound," says Johnston. "The way we sound when we're together playing."

That early rockin'-down-the-highway vibe was just what the combo delivered. To the note. Barreling out of radio speakers with digital clarity and a punchy late-Eighties mix, Cycles' first single, "The Doctor," sounded like a sleek, restyled version of "China Grove." A pricey, refined Nissan 300ZX to "Grove"'s durable 240Z. To follow it up, the band rolled out a remake of the Isley Brothers' "Need a Little Taste of Love," which came out like a similarly refurbished "Eyes of Silver" with a couple of "Listen To the Music" luxury features thrown in.

Indeed, critics have charged that Cycles, jam-packed as it is with all those trademark three-part harmonies, chunky rhythm guitars and honky-tonk piano parts, is just Best of the Doobies rewritten. That the band, in a calculated attempt to ride the wave of its success on classic-rock radio, is pressing all the right memory buttons without really pushing itself to create anything new. That a sampler fed CD's of the band's catalogue could've made the same record.

Johnston, however, insists the album's familiar sound came about more naturally. "It sounds like the old records because we're the same people who made those other records," Johnston, 41, says. "The same people who played 'em, the same people working together. And the same people who wrote the songs in the old days--Pat and myself--are the ones writing now."

Still, when Johnston and his co-workers punched in at the ol' job this time around, the business climate had changed considerably from the one that had prompted their extended layoff. Freed of the hostile takeover threats that disco, punk and new-wave issued to the Doobies' brand of mainstream pop in the mid-to-late-Seventies--and getting back to business after half a decade of enshrinement on classic-rock playlists--the founding Doobs were able to open shop just by selling their strongest items. The sunny harmonies. The good-timey lyrics. The big, whopping double-drummer sound and the back-porch guitar strummin.'

And if the single that took Cycles to the Top 20 in the summer of '89 sounded just like "China Grove" with some new lyrics and a hotter drum mix, so what? Johnston opines. After all, he's proud to note, as of 1987, "China Grove" has been played on the radio over one million times. Weren't the legions of rock fans who apparently just couldn't get enough of that record about due for a sequel?

"If there wasn't a need for it, people wouldn't be so happy to hear it, would they?" says Johnston tersely, stressing the Doobie Bros.' new policy of customer satisfaction. "It all comes down to entertainment. If people are happy with what they hear and I'm entertaining them, then I'm fulfilled. That's all I need to do."

"PEOPLE OUGHT TO CUT the Doobies a little slack," says Fred Jacobs, a Detroit-based radio consultant. "Bands like the Doobie Brothers have been criticized a lot because so much of their new material sounds like their vintage hits. And yet, the Stones come out with an album that sounds, to most people, like the old Stones, and it seems to be fine. I mean, isn't that `vintage sound' what we all want to hear from these old bands anyway?"

As the man credited throughout the industry as the pioneer of the classic-rock format, Jacobs admits he feels partly responsible for the current glut of reunited rock dinosaurs roaming the earth. "For the past five or six years, people have been hearing all the old hits by these groups on classic-rock radio, and they want to know, `What do these guys sound like now?'"

But Jacobs, who currently consults for classic-rock stations in New York, L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and several other major markets, knows enough about the format's audience to accept a certain lack of experimentation from these resuscitated rock giants.

"It's hard to make the new music okay for this audience," he says. "On the one hand, there's obviously an interest in hearing the new music of these classic artists. It gives the average 25- to 49-year-old listener a sense of being in tune with today, of being here now."

On the other hand, these oldsters don't want to punch the classic-rock button on their car radio and hear Bob Dylan rapping with Kool Moe Dee. By those criteria, an album like Cycles is custom-made for classic rock. A station can play a "then and now" back-to-backer like "China Grove" followed by "The Doctor" without administering the slightest future shock to even its stodgiest listeners. At the same time, those listeners will feel hip for sampling something that's actually been played on MTV within the last decade. "I think it was a good strategy for the Doobies to do an album like this," Jacobs says. "At least it's putting them back on the map. It'll be interesting to see if they'll do another album now and experiment a little more."

That, says Tom Johnston, is the second part of the Doobie Bros.' strategy. "This album was mostly to get us re-established," he says. "I even brought in some songs that were judged too far-fetched for this album. But as soon as we come off this tour, we're gonna start working on a follow-up. And we'll probably stretch out a little more on that one."

In keeping with the guitarist's stage-as-workplace ethic, you could say Johnston and company, after capitalizing on their strengths with Cycles, are geared up to show some expansion and diversification during the upcoming quarter. Most of all, though, this re-organized partnership of original owners wants its customers to know it'll be here in the years to come, continuing to offer the same dependable Doobie Bros. product.

"The way we all look at it," Johnston says, "we're musicians. This is what we do for a living. So what's the big deal if you come back after a few years with a new album? It's like, if you're over 23, you're not supposed to rock 'n' roll anymore?"

Johnston's voice takes on the tone of a feisty old company veteran steamed over the prospect of surrendering his office to some young upstart M.B.A. "Well, I'm not gonna quit doing my job just 'cause I've reached a certain age," he says firmly. "I don't see any point in retiring.