Monday, August 06, 2012
Nous Sommes Du Soleil: Drowning in the Topographic Ocean
About six months ago I wrote an introduction to what was going to be a book on Yes' greatest folly (if you discount anything they did after about 1978): Tales From Topographic Oceans: an album that to this day divides most of western civilization. The introduction was part of a pitch for the prestigious 33 1/3 series on notable albums.
The idiots rejected the proposal for what would undoubtedly have been a keystone of any cultural history of the second half of the 20th century (maybe). But being the caring and sharing sort, I thought I'd reversion the piece for public consumption. So here's my initial thoughts on Tales... Enjoy!
Tales From Topographic Oceans: An introduction
‘I know when I started I would have been happy to sound like the Beatles or Joe Tex or whoever. You want to sound like most bands, you want to sound like their records and that's how you learn your chops.’ - Jon Anderson
1973 was a turning point; not only in the history and development of what was known as ‘progressive rock’, but in popular music in its entirety. This was a world where glam was already fading fast, 60s veterans were either in disarray, dead or becoming bloated with their own legendary status and disco and punk lurked around the corner. It was a world where some mythical ideal of ability seemed to have replaced the normal value system of teen thrills, danceability or as an accompaniment to love’s first fumblings. In short, prog was briefly KING.
This was (thankfully) not to last. From its first stirrings in the loftier ideals of late psychedelic groups such as Procol Harum and The Moody Blues, to the knotty and often impenetrable work of its main proponents, this was always a sub set of popular music that had its card marked. And Tales From Topographic Oceans is remarkable, not for its content or artistic value, but as a representative of the point where hubris outstripped ability, and ridicule was waiting in the wings.
The story of Tales From Topographic Oceans is the story of how the ideals of the young northern author of the quote above became so unrecognisably warped as to give us a double album with a mere four songs, each one clocking up a concentration-sapping 20 plus minutes.
Like their equally serious peers and contemporaries, Yes were a band with easily identifiable roots in the beat boom, in love with the Beatles, Motown and the 5th Dimension. Their earlier works had displayed a snappier dynamic, albeit one increasingly stretched and complicated until, with their previous opus (and they would have loved to think of it as such), Close To The Edge, they’d reduced the ‘album’ form to three songs. One a whole side’s worth. The next step HAD to be bigger, weightier and ‘difficult’. Tales… delivered this in spades.
I can merely attempt to contextualise Tales… within the zeitgeist from which it sprang as well as the worldview of a wide-eyed 13-year old who unwrapped a copy of this album on Christmas day of that year. Yes, I was a fan at an early and important stage of my musical life. My heroes (as odd as it may seem now) were both Yes AND David Bowie. And I spent a good deal of that afternoon (and weeks to come) musing over a piece of music based on the writings of an Eastern yogi.
Let’s examine that last statement. Should the inexperienced reader doubt size of the band’s ambition it’s always useful to refer to the very sleeve notes by Jon Anderson which possibly did most to sink the project before it had time to flourish in the eyes of a public waiting for the next revelation:
‘We were in Tokyo on tour, and I had a few minutes to myself in the hotel room before the evening's concert. Leafing through Paramhansa Yoganada's "Autiobiography Of A Yogi" I got caught up in the lengthy footnote on page 83. It described the four part shastric scriptures which cover all aspects of religion and social life as well as fields like medicine and music, art and architecture.’
So, no pressure there, then: Just a work that addresses ‘all aspects of religion and social life as well as fields like medicine and music, art and architecture’.
To be clear about this, Yes were, by no means, the first to try such things. Other bands had attempted to raise their game in this way many times before. The Moody Blues had made an orchestral album about an entire day (Days Of Future Passed) while side two of Procol Harum’s Shine On Brightly had contained a suite about life, death and reincarnation ('In Held ‘Twas In I'). And in the hipper corners of the contemporary music press the whole idea of ‘progressive rock’ and the concept album was already seen as somewhat passé. No real new ground was being broken here, but by the close of 1973, with the UK heading into recession this was perhaps not the time to be rolling out such high-minded stuff.
Tales… not only tipped the genre into ridicule but also simultaneously proved to ardent believers that their path towards greater dexterity, trickier (and longer) arrangements and weightier subject matters than young love was the true path. This may seem wrong-headed today, and the album may have turned away the hipper cognoscenti, but it still backed a hugely successful world tour and sold in healthy quantities.
The first question with Yes’ Tales… should not be why? But how? How did a record so weighed down by its own self-importance reach the shelves?
And as to whether it’s any good? Frankly that, dear reader, is entirely up to you. It’s safe to say that, for me, Tales… is both musically fascinating and wonderfully, fabulously silly. By its own creators’ admission (notably Rick Wakeman and Chris Squire, who were far less involved in its genesis than Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe), Tales… is a step too far. It’s too lacking in the democratic methods of composition that the band had previously employed (which ironically had driven out former drummer Bill Bruford; exasperated by the painstakingly slow process of recording) and has, in several major sections, a tendency to wander and procrastinate: almost another candidate for George Martin’s famous observation about the Beatles' White Album: it would have made a great single album.
But there’s far more to be extrapolated from this record. Tales… becomes a perfect starting point for unwrapping the whole wonderfully silly and simultaneously majestic story of ‘rock’. The Tales… do indeed tell a tale. To fully understand the very existence of such a thing is to understand a cultural knot so dense and indigestible that it’s become a byword for the worst excesses of the time: not drugs, not groupies but SHOWING OFF.
To modern ears (and eyes… ouch, those clothes) prog has become synonymous with egotism and a wilful desire to drive away musical tourists. Snobbism in 12’’ form. Only to a minority does the term still hold artistic credibility, making it one more ghettoised genre with its own uniform and codes of conduct. But another look at that quote above gives a lie to that fallacy. In 1973 prog wasn’t elitist, it was actually thought of as a bold way of ‘developing’ our musical evolution. And these bands sold out wherever they played.
Everything about Tales… can teach us about how the business of making music worked at that point in time, from the choice of studio and the amount of time spent working on the album’s creation to the design of the sleeve and the famously elaborate supporting tour’s stage design (both by prog’s in-house designer of choice, Roger Dean): it is at once terrible and still makes one breezily nostalgic for more innocent times.
In short: there’s an argument that any study of Tales… will tell you all you need to know not only about the state of popular music in 1973 but also how, a mere four years later, that landscape had changed so drastically. Yes, King Crimson, Genesis: all of these bands still had something to give, despite the oft-repeated slur of being branded dinosaurs by their younger siblings. But for anyone who still wonders where it all went wrong (and, more importantly, why if you mention progressive rock people have a tendency to snigger at you), the year 1973 holds the key.