For some reason, it came over me to dig out a CD of some 1971/1972 live recordings of Yes ( Göteborg 1971, Columbia, Maryland 1972) and give it a spin. Now, like all ageing prog rock fans, once I became a father, I had wrapped this item in lead foil, placed it inside an old biscuit tin and buried it under 4 feet of soil in the back garden. Parenthood brings its share of responsibilities and protecting innocent children from Jon Anderson’s lyrics and Rick Wakeman’s dress sense comes fairly high on the list. Before any Yes fans reading this go into paroxysms of rage at my cavalier treatment of their heroes, consider the fate of my ELP collection; hurled into a tank of slurry at a disused colliery in County Durham.
Of course, we have all listened to a lot of embarassing crap over the years; after all, how do you know what’s good unless you’ve experienced what isn’t? And, to be even-handed about this, I attended more than my fair share of terrible punk gigs in the late 70’s at convenient venues like Eric’s in Liverpool and The Electric Circus in Collyhurst. I say ‘convenient’ venues simply because they were like conveniences….
But punk bands often revelled in their own incompetence; it didn’t matter how shit they were musically, because ‘attitude’ and demeanour counted for at least as much (if not more) than musical expertise. Not so with the Prog bands – they were expected to be virtuoso players, able to handle tortuous staccato riffs in deranged time signatures, able to switch from guitar to oboe or cello in mid-riff, able to fill their interminable solos with quotes from Dvorak or Khachaturian and perhaps more than anything else – able to avoid the blues cliches trotted out by a million other blues/rock ensembles from Cardiff to Calgary.
So, where does the finger of blame point? What was the first prog album? Should we blame The Beatles? ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’ maybe? Or perhaps those early Pink Floyd singles…‘Arnold Layne’ and ‘See Emily Play’? Hard to say, but my vote would go to The Moody Blues, not just for their ‘Days of Future Passed’ album (let’s face it, a classic prog album title) but for the album that followed it, 1968’s ‘In search of the lost chord’.
Hayward & Lodge of The Moody Blues; two ludicrous haircuts for the price of one
Let’s go to our Prog checklist……drug references? Tick…that singalong epic about Timothy Leary. Cod-oriental mysticism? Tick…..a song called ‘Om‘. Say no more. Mellotrons? Tick……keyboard player Mike Pinder worked in the bloody factory near Fort Dunlop where they actually made the things. Multi-instumental noodling? Tick…..cellos, flutes, sitars etc. Spoken word recitations? Tick….pseudo-profound doggerel, all delivered by drummer Graeme Edge in a trademark Brummy twang. All pretty damning.
In fact this area has a lot to answer for where prog is concerned. Sometime, off & 0n member of Traffic, Dave Mason, who came from Worcester, sullied the otherwise good name of Steve Winwood’s new band with the dreadful ‘Hole in my shoe’ and two other tracks of embarassing tweeness on the band’s debut album.
Dave Mason with sitar. Enough said….
Which brings us to Yes, who weren’t from round here at all, but came from all over the place. Singer Jon Anderson; he of the improbable contralto and impenetrable free-verse lyrical tosh, originally came from Accrington or somewhere thereabouts, which has always struck me as quite extraordinary, but maybe Accrington’s that kind of town – sort of Glastonbury North. In terms of the Prog checklist, they were guilty on the mellotron front, but any attempts to interpret the content of their lyrics are likely to induce migraines.
The first Yes album, entitled……you guessed it, came out in 1969 and was largely ignored by everyone. At this stage, they were playing a sort of post-Beatles pop with lots of cover versions and high-pitched harmonies. Peter Banks played the guitar in a style largely free of blues inflections, drummer Bill Bruford already had a distinctive style that emphasised speed and dexterity over power and Chris Squire played the bass in a style that emphasised the treble range of the instrument.
From the left; Banks, Anderson & Squire on stage, circa 1971
1970’s ‘Time and a Word’ drew more attention because of the unlikely juxtaposition of the theme music from a Western (‘The Big Country’) with a song by black American folkie Richie Havens (‘No opportunity necessary, no experience needed’) and a powerful but airy piece called ‘Astral Traveller’ which featured a tremendous guitar solo from Banks and thunderous Hammond from Tony Kaye.
By the time ‘The Yes Album’ appeared in 1971, Banks had been replaced by Steve Howe. Howe shared Banks’ aversion to anything that might evoke B B King and slotted in to a line-up that was increasingly finding its range. It was by no means a perfect album , but it did feature 2 epic songs – ‘Yours is no disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’ – that saw the band abandoning their pop roots for good in favour of the dark and mysterious uplands of Prog. Sandwiched between these two monoliths was a simple three-minute acoustic guitar piece by Howe called ‘The Clap’, which if it didn’t disperse the pomposity completely, at least helped to dilute it. The music press of the time adopted Yes as one of their favourite new bands but no-one could explain what Jon Anderson was singing about. Anderson himself seemed disinclined to do so at any rate.
The next album – ‘Fragile’ – came out in 1971 and was a disappointment in some ways, though it was notable for being the first Yes album to feature that trademark Roger Dean artwork. ‘Roundabout’ got things off to a solid start, but with solo ‘interludes’ for Howe, Squire and new member Rick Wakeman, the overall impression created by the album was one of fragmentation. The 11-minute ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ just seemed too bombastic for its own good and Anderson’s lyrics became yet more obscure. Ominously, the gatefold cover featured a lavish booklet which showed the band members at home in their country retreats with ludicrous quantities of guitars and the whiff of conspicuous consumption.
Despite that, the next Yes album (‘Close to the Edge’) was their finest hour and, for me, the best Prog rock album of all time. The three tracks are all perfect in their own way and encapsulate all the best things about the band. The BBC recently screened a slightly sardonic documentary about Prog and in it there was a great interview with Bill Bruford who said that when they were making ‘Close to the Edge’, the band had heard how Simon & Garfunkel had taken 3 months to make their ‘Bridge over troubled water’ album. It was immediately decided that they would take 3 months and one day to make ‘CttE’. He also said that he knew when they were finishing up the recording and mixing process that they had ‘cracked it’ and were never going to be able to top this album – so he immediately left to join King Crimson. A brave man, and – as it turned out – a wise one.
Yes continued with new drummer Alan White and recorded their next album ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ in 1973. The headlong dash along the road to excess continued unabated as this double-disc monster had one song per side and featured the most obscure Anderson lyrics to date. The band toured the world with this album and I saw them at London’s Rainbow Theatre some time late in 1973, complete with a Roger Dean stage set and more pseudo- mystical claptrap than a Scientology convention. I mean, they played a recording of most or all of Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ suite as a preamble. Rick Wakeman wore a golden cape for chrissakes and played a jolly medley from his ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’ solo album. The sound was thin and awful. I was bored by the newer material.
Yes onstage in 1973 – Wakeman in gold cape to the right and what looks like a giant piece of sushi above the drum riser. Phew…..Rock’n’Roll….
All of this was, shall we say, immortalised on a triple live album (‘Yessongs’) which lumbered out into the world the following year and was a bridge too far for me. Hubris is OK for a while if delivered with a modicum of humour, but things had all become terribly po-faced and serious in Yesworld.
In all probability, Johnny Rotten was already clearing his throat…….