“Only one — there was one song that I was really excited about, and that would be ‘Listen to the Music,’” Johnston said the other day from his home in Marin County. When he finished writing the tune, the group’s first big hit from 1972’s Toulouse Street, Johnston immediately woke producer Ted Templeman from a sound sleep to play it for him.
Things moved quickly from there.
“We went into the studio and recorded it, and we didn’t change anything,” Johnston recalls. “Ted had to add some extra stuff like phasing, but the chord changes and the feel stayed exactly like it was when it was brought to life in my bedroom.”
The song was the first of many hits for the band, which formed in 1970 in San Jose, Calif. Johnston left for a solo career in 1977, citing creative differences, and returned for a 1987 reunion tour, five years after the Michael McDonald-led Doobies broke up. In 1989, he wrote their last Top 10 hit, “The Doctor.”
The group tours steadily, led by surviving members Johnston and Patrick Simmons (guitar, vocals) — though John McFee has been around since 1980’s One Step Closer. “It’s the joy of playing, the joy of being up on the stage and working the crowd and trying to get the people up on their feet,” Johnston says. “That’s the challenge, and I think we play better now than we did in the past.”
Johnston agrees that part of this improvement is attributable to knowing classics like “Long Train Running” and “Black Water” better than when they began playing them. “But the other part of it is that song — whichever song we would be talking about — is a different song every night,’ he says. “You might be in a different place Zen-wise, and we change up songs in the sets … although we’ve got a few songs that are always going to be played.”
The Doobies’ Aug. 25 visit to Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion is the last stop of their summer tour with Chicago. Fans can expect much more than an encore at night’s end, as both bands take the stage to trade songs for over a half hour.
“We did that for the first time in 2008,” Johnston says. The Chicago horn section augments “Taking It To the Streets,” “Rocking Down the Highway” and “Listen to the Music.” The Doobies three-guitar, two drum powerhouse then punches up “Free,” “25 or 6 to 4” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is.”
“It’s just going bang, bang, bang from one song to the next, and the crowd is really into it,” says Johnston, “and with 17 guys on stage — that’s pretty powerful!”
The performance will also include selections from 2010’s World Gone Crazy, a solid effort that revived “Nobody,” the first single from the Doobies’ eponymous 1970 debut. “It was Teddy’s idea,” says Johnston. “I’m glad we did because we basically just tore the song apart, put in a different drum and bass and then John [McFee] came up with a real cool picking part on the Dobro. ... All the way around, it’s a much better song.”
Sure to be on the set list is “China Grove,” whose title came from an Oriental-sounding Bill Payne piano lick played the song’s bridge. “That’s where I got the idea to call it ‘China Grove’ — and I wrote a lot of words that didn’t make much sense about samurai swords and all that sort of thing,” Johnston says.
Another reason occurred to him for writing a Japanese-flavored lyric set in Texas, of all places.
“There really was a China Grove right outside of San Antonio,” he says. “So the words came subconsciously from that even though I wasn’t aware of it at the time. A cab driver told me about that in Houston in 1974. I said get out of here! He said, ‘No, I’m serious.’”
As he pondered it over a period of years, other reasons helped cement the notion that it was more than Eastern mysticism propelling the song into his mind. “We were touring 1972 in Winnebagos and we were driving ourselves all around,” says Johnston. “We were near San Antonio at the time; I’m assuming we drove right past a sign that said — China Grove.”