The Utopian World Tom Johnston Dreamt Up While Writing the Doobie Brothers’ First Hit “Listen to the Music”

When the Doobie Brothers released their eponymous debut in 1971, the album never charter, nor did its first single, “Nobody.” It took Toulouse Street to finally get the band on the map. The band’s second album, named after the famous street in the French Quarter in New Orleans, went to No. 21 on the Billboard 200 chart and earned the band their first hit, “Listen to the Music.”

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Tom Johnston’s Dream World

The concept for the song was simple, a romanticized vision of vocalist Tom Johnston’s perfect world: a sunny place where the music shined through and united everyone.

“It was all based around this somewhat utopian view of the world,” recalled Johnston in 2009. “The idea was that music would lift man up to a higher plane and that world leaders if they were able to sit down on some big grassy knoll where the sun was shining and hear music—such as the type I was playing—would figure out that everybody had more in common than they had not in common, and it was certainly not worth getting in such a bad state of affairs about.”

He added, “Everybody in the world would therefore benefit from this point of view. Just basically that music would make everything better. And of course, I’ve since kind of realized it doesn’t work that way.”

[RELATED: 8 Songs You Didn’t Know The Doobie Brothers’ Michael McDonald Wrote for Other Artists (1977-2017)]

“We Got to Let the Music Play’

Written entirely by Johnston, the lyrics play read out all the positives of music and how it has the power to unite rather than divide people.

Don’t you feel it growing, day by day
People getting ready for the news
Some are happy, some are sad
Oh, we got to let the music play

What the people need
Is a way to make ’em smile
It ain’t so hard to do if you know how
Gotta get a message
Get it on through
Oh now mama, don’t you ask me why

Whoa, listen to the music
Whoa, listen to the music
Whoa, listen to the music
All the time

Well I know, you know better
Everything I say
Meet me in the country for a day
We’ll be happy
And we’ll dance
Oh, we’re gonna dance our blues away
And if I’m feeling good to you
And you’re feeling good to me
There ain’t nothing we can’t do or say
Feeling good, feeling fine
Oh, baby, let the music play

Sitting in San Jose

The riff for “Listen to the Music” first came to Johnston while sitting in his bedroom in San Jose, California at two or three in the morning. “I had the opening riff to it, and I think I figured out all of the chord changes as well,” said Johnston. “I called Teddy [producer Ted Templeman], woke him up, and played it for him over the phone, and he was less than enthusiastic. I think it was because I woke him up.”

Johnston continued, “But he said, ‘Well, yeah, it might be pretty good. Needs a couple of changes,’ But we didn’t ever change anything. It stayed the way it was, the way I had it. The chord changes and everything we made are the same.”

“Listen to the Music” was the band’s first hit, peaking at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Doobie Brothers rerecorded ‘Listen to the Music” for their 2014 country tribute album Southbound.

Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images

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