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.


Anonymous said...

Topographic Oceans is by far my favorite Yes and perhaps the best rock album of all time. So progressive and ahead of its time, the album is still fresh and alive in August 2012 as it was in 1973.

Chris Jones said...

Thanks! It's a conundrum for me, I both love AND hate it. Even more perversely I like sides 2 and 3 - possibly the most 'difficult' of the whole album!

soulquest7 said...

This is also one of my favorite if not my favorite album of all time. I don't consider it a radical departure from Close to the Edge, but it will definitely test some peoples attention span. The main reason it was considered controversial is because rather than hammer home guitar riffs (which was the ethos of 70s rock), the first two sides of this album emphasized mid tempos and melody over catchy riffs, especially the ethereal Remembering. Yes continued to have great artistic success with this long-form song style, such as The Gates of Delirium (1974), Awaken (1976), and Mind Drive (1997). Yes won many awards in the British press around this time (1973-75)-- as instrumentalists, as composers (Anderson/Howe), and as a band. Yes were selling out stadiums in the US when punk at its height was playing in clubs. And all these Yes epics are considered amongst their fan base as their best work. I was never bothered by experimental music, but attracted to it. Free jazz, avant garde electronic, sound collages, spoken word, the Art of Noise, performance art, world music-- I was open to all that stuff, along with pop and folk. Prog was my preparation for a lifetime of listening, as had been The Beatles in the 1960s, and I couldn't have asked for a broader education. So to me, Yes' epics were not that much of a stretch, unless you think pop can only be verse/chorus verse/chorus bridge/chorus. There's nothing wrong with that or the even more abbreviated punk version-- I liked the New York Dolls debut at the same time as YES (and Bowie, and Carole King, and the Allman Brothers). Which is why I never ever bought the idea stated or implied in your article that prog had "gone to far" and "gave birth to punk." 1973 was the peak of prog, not it's downfall. The idea that prog had to fall because of some ethical deficiency is preposterous. Prog was a musical phase, and like all before it, a collection of practitioners gathered around it, explored it, peaked it out, and laid it to rest... for a while... and to let knew or reinvented old forms provide diversity for the public. Prog could follow an experimental mind twister with a folk ditty-- it spanned that range. And most importantly, they were excellent arrangers. My position is that there is good, mediocre, and bad music in all genres, and YES were one of the best in their's. As for the lyrics, they were nothing different than what Jon had been doing all along, so I don't see what the big deal was there either.
My only question for you is, was the book going to be a disrespectful attack on TALES, or a balanced review that looked at it from many perspectives? If the former, it could have joined the dreadful ranks of Clinton Heylin's The Act You've Known For All These Years which purported to "prove" that Sgt. Pepper wasn't really a great album after all. And if prog wasn't a good genre, how to you explain the success of Sigur Ros and Sufjan Stevens in the 2000s?

Chris Jones said...

Hi soulquest7
Many thanks for taking the time to comment. You raise some very interesting points. I'll try and address the main ones!

For this reason this comment/reply comes in two parts!

Firstly, to answer your question: no, the book wasn't planned as disrespectful in any way, but was intended to be as balanced as possible. My first love as an adolescent (along with Bowie) was prog and the book was an attempt to reconcile both the glory AND the silliness of this often-misunderstood genre and pinpoint how it got that way.
For me Tales... is the epitome of the vaulting ambition (good) and the pretentiousness (four sides about the meaning of life itself?!?) that prog became.
I'm well aware that the genre continued well after '73 to achieve both plaudits and huge success. Some of these bands did it by rigidly sticking to their guns, while others (ie: Genesis) re-defined their sound to become more mainstream. Yet, just as we shouldn't judge any music on its album sleeves, we shouldn't mistake success for validation. Punk was arguably far more successful long after most of the original bands imploded. Audiences always lag behind...
And don't get me wrong, I LOVE prog, or at least the 'classic' texts of the genre. King Crimson are possibly my all-time favourite band. But, for me, Yes' last truly great work in terms of ambition and execution was Relayer. I'll happily admit that Going For The One is pretty good too, but by that point my interests had moved on. The ideas and values represented by prog bands were better represented by jazz and experimental artists.
I too see no distinction in types of music as 'valid' or 'non-valid' - that would be the rankest snobbishness and hypocrisy. Good music is good music, whether it be Miles Davis, John Cage or Hank Williams.
The point I'm trying to make (and remember, this was an INTRODUCTION, not a finished work) was that while I loved Tales... (and in some ways still do), I was always fascinated by the notion of any music taking itself this seriously while operating in the sphere of pop/rock (all of these bands still wanted to make a decent living).

Continued in next comment...

Chris Jones said...

continued from last comment:

From a strictly historical standpoint, although it's undeniable that most of the winners in the music press polls of '73 (and 74 and 75) were of a 'prog' background, this doesn't make '73 the peak of prog. I'd argue that for sheer creativity and daring, the years '69-'72 represent prog's heyday. Many articles of the period proclaim 'progressive rock' to be an outmoded term. Things changed fast in those heady days!
And that's precisely my point in this introduction: '73 saw prog go massively mainstream. I'd argue that any creative process excels best when it feels it's got something to prove. By '73 the notion that 'musical proficiency and complexity' equalled 'excellence' in popular music was already wearing thin and explains why many of these acts either changed direction, covered old ground (ELP) or simply (as in Fripp's case) quit completely.
As a work of almost platonic perfection Close To The Edge is peerless. The more edgy and jazzy explorations of Relayer were sadly abandoned, leaving us a band that sure as hell could play, but could never recapture the heady heights of their previous work.
But Close To The Edge had a very painful and lengthy genesis and led to an exhausted Bill Bruford fleeing the band! Tales... bears all the marks of a band striving to bravely move forward yet floundering with weariness and discontent (especially Wakeman). It's this conundrum that fascinates me. Steve Howe's guitar playing is wonderfully ambitious (to the point where he sometimes fails - hardly any other musicians push themselves this hard), some of the melodic themes are exquisite (Anderson always had a way with a tune - Olias of Sunhillow is packed with great ones), yet it feels bloated, meandering and stitched together in places. One can't help feeling that (very much like today's Hollywood movies) length has been used as a substitute for importance.
As for your final comment regarding prog's continuance as a 'good' genre as evinced by Sigur Ros and Stevens, I'd heartily agree (while pausing to point out that you missed out Radiohead, Chrome Hoof, Muse Motorpsycho etc. etc. as well as the entire genres of 'post-rock' and 'math-rock'). My only beef with prog today is that as a definition it has become meaningless. You correctly point out that all styles in the 21st century are there to be pilfered, enjoyed, mashed-up and combined. We'll have no snobs here! But what I DO object to is any slavish devotion to prog as 'the one true church,' so to speak. Any bands which purport to be 'prog' in this day and age hold no interest for me whatsoever.

Thanks again!