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65th Favorite: Close to the Edge, by Yes

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Close To The Edge. Yes.
1972, Atlantic Records. Producer: Yes and Eddie Offord.
Purchased ca. 1984.

close edge

hamster nutIN A NUTSHELL: A progressive-rock masterpiece full of music and performances that demand repeated listening to take it all in. There are only three songs on the album, but they are epic, twisting tales reminiscent of mythical sagas. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but if you’re of a mind to experience something different, and allow yourself to be carried away by it, you and your fellow travelers be rewarded handsomely at the end of your Quest.
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{Blogger’s Note: This is an epically long post. Somehow, it only seems right.}

footballThe house that I grew up in has a good-sized backyard, large enough for running deep post patterns for my dad’s tight spirals. It was a good size for family cookout croquet matches, although the lawn’s gentle slope demanded an accounting by players in the strength and speed of their strikes, or else a seemingly flawless ball rolling toward a wicket could lose steam and curl away in the final foot of approach.

wiffleIt was also perfectly-sized for wiffle-ball games, and featured a (somewhat-but-not-perfectly-maintained) forsythia hedge that bounded the back of the property providing a natural, albeit difficult to reach, home run fence for the backyard ballfield.

forsythia
Beyond this hedge was an undeveloped lot owned by our lovely neighbors, the Rank family. It was perhaps an acre, groundhog about the size of a large, but not huge, lot for my rural area. The field, which my family always referred to as “The Field,” was an empty pasture of scrubby grass, and The Ranks allowed us to use it for stuff like family volleyball games, pitching a tent for mid-summer “camping,” and the hours of fungo sessions my dad held with me. It also featured a pile of wooden, creosoted telephone poles stacked to one side. Mr. Rank worked for the local electric company, and I don’t know if the forty-foot long poles were pilfered from his workplace (That’s a joke – Mr. Rank was an honest man.) or if he stored them as a favor to the company, but I do know they provided a great cover for the many grundsows who lived among them.

Beyond the The Field, about 60 yards from our hedge, was a decent-sized woods. woodsLarge enough to spend the afternoon exploring, but definitely too small to be a forest, this long rectangle of old trees ran parallel to our homerun hedge, extending about an eighth of a mile, all the way from Kercher Ave. on the west to Kochenderfer’s Church on the east. It wasn’t very deep, but it provided plenty of cover for traveling deer and all the kinds of wildlife associated with a Pennsylvania woods. My family always referred to these woods as “The Woods.”

modhairI was 20, in my sophomore year at college, and I peered over the hedge across The Field, scanning The Woods. The bear was much larger than I thought a bear would be, and it agilely galloped back and forth in front of The Woods from which it had emerged. It was shaggy, too, its black and brown fur seemingly longer than bear fur should be, like a Mod-Hair Ken version of a bear. It also seemed shabby and sloppy, its fur matted in some places, and with swaths missing in others. It was a bear, but there was something strange about how it looked and acted. And it shouldn’t have been in The Woods. Not these woods. A deep feeling of dread welled up within me as I watched this animal in The Field. But I knew that Butch was a Pennsylvania Game Warden, and that he would know what to do. I alerted him and strung my recurve bow while I waited.

All of the men around me in my childhood were hunters. It was the tradition where I grew up, archerysuch that to meet a man who didn’t hunt, at least in some capacity, was a curiosity akin to meeting a visitor from a foreign country. At 20 I was still struggling with my hidden distaste for hunting, but I did enjoy archery. It was something of a pastime in my family. My dad and mom had gone shooting at archery courses while they were dating, and my sisters and I had our own little bows as kids. The Field, with its distance apart from houses and unpeopled woods beyond it, had always been a safe site for a couple of hay bales and a target – often handmade by my sisters and me from the cardboard circles inside frozen pizza packages – for archery practice. So I was comfortable shooting my bow in this field, although I’d never shot an animal with one before.

I nocked an arrow – a target arrow, with a dull metal point and feathers that had been mounted and cut by my dad on his own basement fletching apparatus – buzzardand as I drew back the string, a lazily flying large bird, with a large beak and small wings, caught my eye. It glided high in the air, set against the late afternoon sun like an image from a child’s drawing. An instinct deep within me, vestigial from the genes of scores of generations of hunters before me, took control of my body and sent that arrow flying, scoring a direct hit. The bird fell to earth, pinned to the ground in the middle of The Field, a lepidopterist’s specimen magnified.

I closed my eyes in frustration and fear. gamewardenHadn’t I just called Butch, the Game Warden? Didn’t I know that hunting without a license was a crime? Couldn’t I foresee that Butch would have to arrest me? I had put Butch in a difficult position. As my aunt’s son-in-law, he’d feel compelled to let me off easy, but he also knew that he had a job to do. The feeling of shame was immense, paralyzing: for myself, my actions, my callous indifference. And now that shame colored this entire sequence of events. I returned from the house with my dad’s hunting license pinned to my shirt just in time to see the bear make its charge toward the pinned bird. Or was its target my hedge, my yard, me? I threw my bow to the ground and sprinted into The Field to find out.

antMy heart boomed in my ears and I couldn’t even feel my legs moving as a manic energy carried me toward what felt like certain death. It was exhilarating and frightening, and stood all my hairs on end. The charging bear’s sloppy, shaggy fur horrified me, but the horror dissipated when a tranquilizer dart dropped the beast in a heap. Butch had arrived in penguintime to fire a payload of M99 into its neck. He and I looked at the bear. Before either of us could speak, it began to wriggle and shake. It curled and uncurled, twisted like a wet towel being wrung, and it growled as it grew into an ant the size of a mid-sized sedan – an ant that retained the shaggy, shabby coat of fur. Butch, the game warden, looked at me and said, “That’s the biggest penguin I’ve ever seen.”

I awoke. I laughed to myself.

I’ve always been a vivid dreamer. daliI generally remember my dreams, at least for a little while, and many – such as this one – have remained with me for years. As a child I learned to appreciate the sagas and images my unconscious brain chose to share with me. Whether the dreams were incredibly wonderful, incredibly scary, or just plain weird, I’d awake and in an instant think to myself, “That was really cool.”

What fascinates me about dreams is probably what fascinates everyone about them. The feelings are so real – the dread of seeing a threatening animal, the shame of breaking the law and troubling a relative, the excitement of rushing toward potential death – while the actions are so absurd, and the information so inaccurate. It’s true my family liked archery, and The Field and The Woods lay beyond my wiffle ball field, but Butch wasn’t a Game Warden. I couldn’t shoot a bird out of the sky. Birds and bears and ants and penguins don’t exist in any way close to how my brain depicted them for me. Dreams seem real and unreal at the same time, and that may be the best way I can describe why I find myself liking Yes’s Close to the Edge so much: it seems real and unreal at the same time.

I got into Yes in high school. The band is 80swell-known for its long history of changing members and musical styles. I became a big fan during their 80s version, a reinvention from their history as a progressive rock, AOR staple to a flashy, top-40 competitor to Madonna/Michael Jackson/Huey Lewis. It was a bad era for music on the radio. Sure, some of the songs are fun to look back on, or fun to hear at an oldies dance, but a look at the top 100 songs of, say, 1984, reveals that, for the most part, even the songs by the respectable artists would – in the parlance of the time – “gag me with a spoon.”

My reaction to the music around me was to start exploring the music of the past two decades, and so, being a fan of the “new” Yes, I decided to check out the “old” Yes. I immediately was sucked in to their musical world of intricate and wide-ranging guitars, complex rhythms, strange lyrics, and harmony vocals. In a simile I’m sure I’m not the first to make, their songs are the aural equivalent of fantasy novels like The Lord Of The Rings or the Narnia books. Their musical worlds draw on the recognizable to create the beautifully bizarre. My attraction to the music was intensified because I was the type of nerdy teenager drawn to remarkable displays of talent – jugglers, magicians, pro athletes – and the virtuosity displayed by the Yes band members was striking and daunting. These guys could play parts on their instruments more complex, and faster, than almost anything I’d heard, AND they’d sing harmonies while doing it!

Yes enhanced the otherworldly feelings conjured by their music by having artist Roger Dean conjure Other Worlds and draw them as album art. This inside gatefold from the vinyl version of Close To The Edge shows a world that's, well, close to the edge.

They were also decidedly NOT of the “Less-Is-More” mindset when it came to songwriting. Why not change key in the middle of a verse? Why not have an organ solo last three minutes, AND have a guitar solo last four minutes … in the same song!! Why not pause an upbeat song and play five minutes of slow, moody passages before returning to the upbeat part again? Yes has always pursued a path that interested themselves yes concert2musically, and what’s resulted are several full-length albums (even double-albums) containing a few 20-minute songs!

Close To The Edge has exactly three songs. Now, you may remember buying several cassingles back in the 80s and early 90s, and so think “What’s the big deal? Lots of cassingles had a third “bonus track” song on them!” But the difference is that Close To The Edge is a full-length LP. The title track is nearly 19 minutes long, and took up the entirety of Side One on the vinyl and cassette versions of the album. Why don’t you run to the bathroom and maybe grab a snack before we dive into this behemoth! And don’t worry: it’s true that dreams can be unusual, hard to understand, even scary, but I will be your guide through this dreamscape of songs, so you have nothing to fear. We will get close to the edge, but I’ll make sure you don’t fall over.

Right off the bat, I’ll tell you this: I’m not sure I’m as huge of a YES fan, as I am a huge STEVE HOWE fan, the band’s extraordinary guitarist. He plays innumerable styles: finger-picking, classical, super-speedy fret-burning, subtle soundscapes … there’s nothing he can’t do. The first part of the song “Close to the Edge” steve howeis titled “The Solid Time of Change.” Indeed, Yes songs are so long, and have such varied parts, that the band actually titles the different sections of the songs to keep things straight!!! “The Solid Time of Change” begins with an aggressive solo by Howe. Actually, the solo starts at about 56 seconds because the band – in typical, over-the-top fashion – begins the song with about a minute of woodland sounds of birds, insects, a stream … The peacefulness is broken by the beautiful cacophony of Howe’s guitar. The solo begins with an introductory cadenza, then reaches full furor at 1:21, as the bass, drums and organs pound away behind him. And it wouldn’t be a Yes song without singer Jon Anderson piping up in the middle of an instrumental section with a vocalization – here it’s an “AAh!!” at 2 minutes. After this, bassist Chris Squire amazingly doubles Howe’s guitar solo part, an ascending digital workout. Another “Aah!!” and more craziness from Howe and the whole band, as the energy increases, straining the limits of rock music (and, frankly, good sense – it’s sections like these that are dreamlike to me) until we reach the 2:57 mark, at which point Howe plays a melody that will serve as a touchstone for the entire 19-minute track.

stopwatchYou see, here we are, three minutes into a song – a length of time greater than some of the best rock songs ever recorded – and Yes haven’t even reached the main melody of the first section of the first song!!! Being a Yes fan takes patience and concentration, but you are rewarded for your efforts. Patience because the songs are so long, and concentration because sometimes – if you’re not paying close attention – it’s difficult to hear how all the parts fit together. Usually the bass, drums and keyboards are each playing ridiculously intricate parts at the same time. But at 3:00 of “The Solid Time of Change,” a very nice section of pop-rock jon andersonnormalcy is exhibited. It’s a bit baroque sounding, with individual instruments playing frilly, light parts. After another minute, just after 3:54, the vocals begin – harmonies by Anderson and Howe, with Squire joining on the chorus. Anderson is one of those helium-voiced 70s singers that pose a large problem for many rock fans. But really, if you’ve listened this far – 4 minutes of woodland sounds, weird guitar, a jumbled knot of instrumental chaos, and faux-baroque powdered-wigcraft – don’t let a high pitched man drive you away.

One of the reasons I find Close To The Edge so dreamlike is that for a good two years of my life, I would come home from college classes and play it in my headphones and fall asleep – well, sort of asleep. I’d travel along that strange sleep/wake border, and Close To The Edge was my traveling music. So Howe’s guitar parts are ingrained in my head, and the solo he plays at 4:54 is one of my favorites. It’s actually two different solos that he plays over top of each other, and when Anderson picks up singing the next verse, he continues to fill in with nifty figures and runs.

We’re now at the 6:00 point, still not as long as “Hey Jude” or “Hotel California,” but then again, bill brufordthis song isn’t yet a third of the way complete!! The song has now entered Section Two, titled “Total Mass Retain.” This is actually a pretty cool, nearly funky section, with syncopated bass and drums. It’s only a bit over two minutes long, but it may be my favorite part of the song. If you listen to only one section of this song, it should be this section. You’ll hear how each instrument plays a different part, how drummer Bill Bruford somehow manages to keep it together, and how they sing harmony while they play this stuff!! It probably sounds ridiculous for me to say, but there’s a fifteen second section – from 7:10 to 7:25 – that gives me CHILLS when I hear it, every time! Maybe it’s from the years of subliminally listening while sleeping. I don’t know. But it has an effect on me, dear reader.

There’s some more powdered-wigcraft from 8:00 to 8:30, rick wakemanand then … Okay, I get it. You’ve been listening to the same rock (ostensibly) song for 8 and a half minutes – about as long as CCR’s “Suzie Q” – but we’re not even at the halfway point. You might need a break. Now would be the time to take it, as we enter Section 3, “I Get Up, I Get Down.” It’s a subdued, magical hippy-trippy section, with water drip sounds and a medieval forest vibe. It has some nice harmonies, but I feel like they could’ve skipped this section and gone right to keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s second (yes, SECOND!!) pipe-organ solo. I’m hoping by now it doesn’t surprise you that Yes would decide on TWO pipe-organ solos in this song, actually played on an organ at a famous church, the Monty Python-esquely named St. Giles-without-Cripplegate church (I shit you not.) This second solo starts at about 13:10.

We now enter the fourth and final section of this beast of a song, this veritable giant, dangerous, shaggy ant/bear-but-really-a-penguin of a song that I’ve listened to a million times and will listen to a million more: the rather heroically, if strangely gendered name of “Seasons of Man.” chrissquireIf you haven’t been listening to the song in its entirety, and you really want the full Bombastic Yes Effect, tune in to 13:10 and listen to the majestic build of the pipe-organ, the tension Wakeman creates up to about 13:55, where a synthesizer takes over and builds things up some more til it all flies apart in a fury at 14:12. (There are three notes at 14:12 – I think on guitar – that always remind me of the bells rung by the Philadelphia trolly cars at intersections in the mid-80s.) Howe reprises the melody he first posited way back in Section Two, this time in a minor key, and at the 15:00 mark, Wakeman returns with a blistering synth solo. We’re approaching the end of the song, and I still haven’t mentioned as much as I should have about bassist Chris Squire. Brother/Sister, if you’re a fan of bass guitar at all, you need to go back to the beginning and just listen to the crazy stuff he plays throughout the whole song, all Four Sections (while participating in three-part harmony, I should add!) What he does is truly stunning.

The song returns to another verse/chorus from Anderson, with harmony vocals and dazzling instrumentation, and concludes with a return to the gentle woodland sounds. Good heavens, I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted!! You’ve just made it through a song even longer than the famed “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and Yes didn’t even pad thingssleep with a three-minute drum solo, like Iron Butterfly did! You may have noticed that I didn’t discuss the song’s lyrics at all. Really, at this point, what is there to say? Jon Anderson writes very strange, yet cool-sounding lyrics, stringing words together like an 8 year old at summer camp with a lanyard and a new bucket of beads. I just listen and think, “Whatever, dude, sounds great …”, but if you’d like more insight into them, here’s an article in which he discusses them in-depth. He says stuff like “[The line] ‘A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace’ – that means your higher self will eventually bring you out of your dark world.” I’ll take his word for it. I like singing along, I like the mood the lyrics create, but I haven’t done enough drugs to allow me to attempt to decipher meanings!

Okay, look, we’ve still got two songs left, and they’re both epic, grand pieces of progressive rock. It’s been a long haul already. I don’t know about you, but I’m moving on. Please join me – we’ll do this together. Let us consider TRACK TWO (which indeed marks the beginning of SIDE TWO of the vinyl/cassette) … “And You And I.”

Believe it or not, this puny 10-minute song single ayaiwas actually released as a single! It was released as “Parts 1 and 2,” with the first quarter on Side A and the second quarter on Side B. It begins with Steve Howe tuning his 12-string acoustic guitar, and at about 1:12 flows nicely into a 70s singer-songwriter type of song with a lilting melody, and (of course) strange lyrics. This first section is called “Cord of Life,” and lasts until about 3:47, when part two, “Eclispse,” begins. Similar in feel to the “I Get Up, I Get Down” section in “Close to the Edge,” this passage is another psychedelic, ethereal journey howe andersonto the center of a British hippy’s mind. I particularly like Bill Bruford’s bass-drumming (of all things) in this slow passage.

Section Three begins (about 5:48) with a return to Howe’s acoustic guitar. It leads to the jaunty section, “The Preacher, The Teacher,” which I love for two reasons: 1) Steve Howe’s guitar, of course; and 2) Anderson’s kooky lyrics, such as “There’ll be no mutant enemy, we shall certify/Political ends our sad remains will die/Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you.” The famous Dr. Dave and I have spent hours giggling over lyrics like these. If you’re gonna be a big Yes fan, you can either defend Anderson’s poetry to all critics, or – like Dr. Dave and me – admit they’re pretty silly, but belt them out nonetheless. Or, like Hollywood impresario Joss Whedon, name your production company after them. Section Four, “Apocalypse,” consists of the final 50 seconds of the piece.

We are almost there, nearly experienced this entire, fantastic sphere of Yessian reality, but I know you must be tired. You may need a break. So here’s a cool clip of the early 70s Monday Night Football theme song for you to watch.

anderson 2The final song on this sojourn to the very edge of … rock music? Rock instrument virtuosity? Human listening endurance? SANITY!!?? Well, whatever the edge is, we are close to it, and as if things haven’t gotten crazy enough in the 30 minutes of music we’ve been enjoying, the band, and Anderson in particular, has now had to make up a new word to properly express what it is that is inside them. Thus, the song “Siberian Khatru.” Jon Anderson says Khatru is a Yemeni word meaning “as you wish.” (How Siberia fits in remains unclear.) Yes fans have other ideas about the word. Heaven knows, the lyrics themselves offer little, if any, insight. But we are in a dreamland, folks, and it doesn’t have to make sense to pick you up, give you a shake and kick you in the ass. And that’s what this polyrhythmic song does just fine.

Again with the Steve Howe Guitar. And again with the Chris Squire Bass. And the Bill Bruford Drumming, and the Rick Wakeman Organ. At about 25 seconds in, Howe begins playing a little riff that he’ll return to throughout the song, and at 52 seconds he hits the main riff of the song, with Wakeman doubling on organ, while Bruford and Squire play around them. It all sort of doesn’t fit, but fits perfectly – like a shaggy bear tranquilized by my cousin’s husband.concert2

Anderson starts in with the melody (he may write goofy lyrics, but he sure writes great melodies) and the guys sing their harmonies. It’s a groovy song, with a strong, strong early 70s feel, and at billboard3:03 Howe blesses us with a brief sitar-esque solo, which ends in some major powdered-wigcraft: harpsichord (!) and bass interplay between Wakeman and Squire. Howe rejoins at 3:30 for an airy, breezy answer that breaks into a traditionally-picked solo at 3:48. It all leads to Anderson, at 4:14, gently inviting us to hold down a window to reveal an unspoken Khatru. (No, really. Look, you’d better be listening to this song, because it sounds WAY better than I can describe it!!) At 4:50 they’re rockin’ again, and you’d think they’d just go with it for a while. But we’ve learned that these dreams of Yes take all kinds of twists and turns, so by 5:21 they’re getting all slow and trippy again, and Bruford plays some furious, FURIOUSLY TIGHT rolls on the snare. At 6:21 they snap out of it, and return with typical abandon to their intricately crafted parts. But then at 7:21 they interject a hiccuping, yesbandvocal section, a part that, if this song really was a dream, is the part where you start to realize you’re dreaming, and if you liked the dream you try desperately to remain inside that world, and if you don’t like the dream you make the firm decision to wake up. It’s a sense that we’re reaching the end. By 7:37, the dream’s landing gear is down, Howe plays some of his coolest shit, as does Squire, and we gently glide our prog-rock ship into its proper berth.

There you go, dear reader! You are out the other side. I hope you didn’t find the dream too disturbing. I expect you may have found it weird, or it may seem like a place you don’t wish to revisit. Some of you may have enjoyed it greatly and hope to return again. I encourage you to do so, and find your own hidden paths and vistas within its alien world. Like our dreams, music is personal. It’s hard to say what it is about music that makes it relatable or moving. Close To The Edge is very different than many of the other albums on my list. But I love this bearantpenguin of an album, and it is with me forever.

Track Listing
“Close to the Edge”
~~i. The Solid Time of Change
~~ii. Total Mass Retain
~~iii. I Get Up, I Get Down
~~iv. Seasons of Man
“And You And I”
~~i. Cord of Life
~~ii. Eclipse
~~iii. The Preacher, The Teacher
~~iv. The Apocalypse
“Siberian Khatru”

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85th Favorite: 90125, by Yes

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90125. Yes.
1983, ATCO. Producer: Trevor Horne
Gift, 1983.

90125

chipmunkIN A NUTSHELL – Quintessential glossy 80s rock from 70s Prog Rock kings who somehow manage to cram all the characteristics of Prog (weird song structures, harmonies, virtuosity, bizarre lyrics) into 4 minute pop songs. If I hadn’t played it every day in 1984, it probably wouldn’t make the list! WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I had played it four times a day. Or if it had fewer sound effects, samples and Casio-esque keyboards.
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(Parts of this post were originally posted in March, 2013)

First, let’s hear Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters’ front man, Dave Grohl, on the concept of GUILTY PLEASURES:

“I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If you like something, like it. That’s what’s wrong with our generation: that residual punk rock guilt, like, “You’re not supposed to like that. [It’s] not cool.” Don’t think it’s not cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” It is cool to like Britney Spears’ “Toxic”! Why not? Fuck you! That’s who I am, goddamn it! That whole guilty pleasure thing is full of fucking shit.”

Amen.

I recall a discussion from early in my senior year of high school, in the fall of (gasp) 1984 (!!),with friends Rick and Josh about a report we had recently heard.

class of 85
The word from the radio, or maybe MTV, was that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin! Duh!!) had reunited to cut an EP. This was Earth-shattering good news. I myself was giddy with excitement.

plant pageNeither Rick nor (especially) Josh would ever be described as “giddy,” but they were both interested, though also cautioned (especially Josh, as he has always been wise beyond his years) that there was a decent chance the EP would suck.

I was incredulous at the suggestion. “How could anyone imagine this EP could suck!!???” I wondered. “Weren’t Robert and Jimmy half of the greatest hard rock band in the history of this world and Middle Earth?? Weren’t they such a kickass band that even their slow songs fuckin’ rocked?” I chuckled at the suggestion that anything produced by such a collaboration could suck. Sure, based on their post-Zeppelin output, I didn’t expect the EP to be as good as Led Zeppelin. But clearly, there was no way it would suck. Even the new band’s name, “The Honeydrippers,” boded well, as in my adolescent mind it was somewhat reminiscent of the vaguely raunchy lyrics from Zep’s “The Lemon Song.”

walkmanI chuckled to myself. “You’ll see,” I thought. “This will blow your walkman right off your belt clip!”

I have a memory of watching MTV when the channel unveiled the World Premiere of the video for The Honeydrippers’ new song. Maybe it’s a purely conjured memory, but in my mind I can see Mark Goodman welcoming viewers to the unveiling of “the first single from the new EP titled The Honeydrippers, Volume 1” (which indicated to me that more great volumes could be on the way!!), “Sea of Love!”

marc goodmanThis was it!! Page and Plant, together again!! YEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!” my 17 year old brain screamed, “ROCK AND ROLL!!!!!!!!!!! Hey, Hey, My, My, Rock and Roll Will Never Die!!! Long Live Rock!! I need it every night!!!”

And I settled myself down to watch Glorious Rock Majesty unfold:

Okay, I don’t expect you to watch every second of every video I post. But just watch the first minute. Twenty seconds is enough to realize that this is NOT going to be another “Immigrant Song.” And by the 42 second mark, when a coiffed, mustachioed and generally hairy dude in a Speedo appears, waving beaters over – but never actually playing – a xylophone, it was clear to my teenage self that everything I thought I knew about Plant and Page was completely wrong. This was not Hard Rock. This was not Rock and Roll. For Christ’s sake, this wasn’t even Soft Rock. This was not any kind of Rock that I could even imagine. This was music that my PARENTS would appreciate, and if there’s one thing I know that my parents DO NOT appreciate, it is ROCK MUSIC.

parents

beavisThis was … this was … THIS WAS BULLSHIT!! My wiser friends were right – there had been a chance the music could suck. And suck it did.

At the time I claimed to like the song, out of some sense of loyalty to Plant and Page, or maybe a kind of faith in Led Zeppelin. I claimed to like it, but I knew … It Sucked.

It took me a long time to realize that it didn’t really suck all THAT bad, and an even longer time to realize why such (apparently) debauched Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll guys like Plant and Page would make an entire EP of songs like this one.

It’s because it’s always high school in your brain. “Sea of Love” might have sounded schmaltzy and lame to me, it may be light years away from “Out on the Tiles” and “Achilles Last Stand,” but it’s a song Plant grew up to, a song that must have stirred something in him as a teen recordyouth that continued stirring throughout the intervening 25 years. What the song continued to bring to him was something my 17 year old, mostly-id brain couldn’t understand. But for Plant, the connection was still strong.

Your youth just stays with you, and you can’t really explain why.

elderly danceOne part of youth that has stayed with me (without me even realizing it until recently!) is the Yes album 90125.

It is an album that I hadn’t listened to in at least 25 years when I started this project. In fact, I had forgotten about it entirely, until I was trying to put together a list of albums that I figured would have been Top Ten for me back in 1984-85. I remembered I used to play the cassette, which one of my sisters got me for Christmas in 1983, regularly. For a long stretch I played it daily. I loved that cassette – every song.

I stopped listening to it sometime in college. During and after college, my musical interests began to change. I had grown to love The Beatles, but became less interested in other classic rock – especially acts that stressed virtuosity – and more interested in college-radio acts.

new bandsI became obsessed with melodic, punkier music by bands like REM and XTC, or Elvis Costello and the Attractions. By the time a friend loaned me a box set of The Clash (a band I’d heard before, but never really took seriously [after all, they had no intricate, 5 minute guitar solos, no confusing time signature changes, and their singer didn’t sound like his nuts were in a vise]) my entire perspective on music had been altered radically.

So I never thought much again about 90125 – or if I did, I scoffed and mocked my younger self for ever being so silly as to listen to it. 90210I reached a point where I couldn’t remember whether 90210 was the TV show and 90125 the Yes album, or vice versa. I also held a bit of a grudge against the album, actually, as it had been my entree into the bizarre, bombastic and rather ridiculous world of Progressive Rock, or “Prog Rock.” For a while I was quite embarrassed by a two-year deep dive I had taken into Prog Rock’s multi-chambered, cavernous world of Moogs, Mustaches and Music School Maiar. But in the interest of being as thorough as possible in documenting my musical tastes, I bought a used copy of the disc ($1.99!!). And when I put it into the CD player in my car, and the songs began to play, a wave of good feelings returned.

Obviously, not everything about adolescence is memorable, fun or positive, but I found myself enjoying the music, and thinking about old friends and old times that I hadn’t thought of in years. I sang all the lyrics to songs I hadn’t heard in 25 years or more. It all came back to me, including what it was I liked about the album. (Which isn’t always the case for me, when listening to favorites from my youth.) I felt like Plant and Page must have felt when they heard music from their teenage years, my parents’ teenage years. It stirred up that youthful excitement with just one play. Just as the younger me couldn’t understand why they’d play crap like “Sea of Love,” I don’t expect most readers to understand why I love this record. But I’ll try to explain it.

90125 is very much, extremely, entirely and in totality a Time-Capsule-1983 work.

83

On grand display are synthesizers, multi-tracked and hyper-compressed guitars, flanging drums, and computer-generated sounds and effects of the type that today are easily embedded in everyday items such as greeting cards and bottle openers, but at the time seemed to have been created by a DARPA-funded team on loan from NASA. The music at times sounds entirely created by robots playing instruments that have been loaded with Artificial Intelligence.

robots

There’s a sterile quality to the album, apparent even in the album artwork. It has a sound that, were I to first hear the record today, I would find unappealing. I’ve become more devoted than ever to the sounds of instruments I can identify, with minimal effects placed between the artist and the listener. But I’m also a fan of songs and melody, regardless of how they are produced, and the great songs and melodies on 90125, coupled with the punch of memories and reminiscence, make the record a favorite – even though I’d forgotten about it for years!

The record opens with one of the most iconic 80s songs of all time, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” I feel confident calling it iconic (even though it didn’t make VH1’s Top 100 Songs of the 80s) because it is a song that exemplifies the 1983 rock sound, just as “Great Balls of Fire” says 1957, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” says 1967. “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” like Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” is a song that sounds like it could only have ever been a hit during one particular 10 -month stretch in history, from Spring of ’83 through Winter of ’84.

yes 83

It also has one of the more “artsy” videos of the era:

What the song really has going for it, beneath all the gunshot sound effects, synthesized string section blasts and drum samples from the band Funk, Inc., is Chris Squire’s super catchy bass hook (the same riff that’s played on guitar to open the song.) Probably the last adjective one would ever use to describe the band Yes would be “funky,” but in fact, this song does have a bit of funk to it. Enough for it to have been sampled by a few different hip hop acts, going back to 1985. As strange as it feels to write this, it’s a Yes song to which one might dance. (And in fact, a dance remix version of the song hit #9 in the UK a few years back.) It’s strange to write it because most Yes songs recorded in the 15 years prior to 90125 were … well, let’s just say NOT conducive to (non-interpretive) dancing.

There are many places for you to read about the varied history of the band Yes, but – befitting an act whose album artwork and musical stylings albumsconjure images of multi-part Fantasy Novel sagas – it would take up the equivalent of two-thirds of The Lord of the Rings trilogy to completely tell the story. (There is a lengthy Wikipedia page devoted solely to band members present and past! It even has a chart showing the timeline of all 19 members!!) trevor rabinSuffice it to say that the 90125 edition of the band had an 80s pop sensibility, but tried to keep the Yes sound (distinct vocals, inscrutable lyrics, excellent musicianship) intact. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was proof that the concept could work … for about 10 months. It has a catchy melody over the bass line, and if you don’t mind nut-in-vise male singers, then Jon Anderson’s vocals sound good, too. Trevor Rabin’s guitar work is mostly buried under all that computerese, but he is a great player and his solo on the song is weird and cool.

The next song on the album is “Hold On,” which caught enough of the tail end of that 10-month stretch of history to reach number 27 on the singles chart.

The main feature of this song is the vocal work among Anderson, Rabin and Squire (who, if you checked out that earlier chart, you’ll see is the only consistent member through all versions of the band). Its lyrics are a simple yet uplifting message about strength in hard times. (Although – as with all Jon Anderson lyrics – don’t look too closely at the lyrics because even seemingly direct meanings can be derailed by passages like this:

jon 2“Talk the simple smile
Such platonic eye
How they drown in incomplete capacity
Strangest of them all
When the feeling calls
How we drown in stylistic audacity
Charge the common ground
Round and round and round
We living in gravity”

When you’re a Yes fan, you learn to just deal with these types of lyrics, like a fan of Woody Allen movies just deals with the fact that he married his step daughter.) But another cool feature of the song is the bass and guitar work of Squire and Rabin. musicianThe song sounds like a basic 80s pop song, but if you are a fan of 70s bombastic Yes (as I am) you can pick out the musicianship on display beneath the 80s gloss and (frankly) fruity keyboards. Both players mix in some interesting fills and complex runs, and while I’ve never been a big fan of drummer Alan White (I much prefer the jazzy Bill Bruford in my Yes music) he also produces some rhythmic moments that aren’t your typical Madonna/Michael Jackson 1983 sound.

phys maxmax(Side Note: If you’re interested in Awesome 80s Style – including the strange hybird look of Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” video crossed with the Mad Max movies, check out this clip of Yes playing “Hold On” live in 1984!)

Continuing with the uplifting theme, the next song is “It Can Happen.”

(It’s TOTALLY worth watching a little bit of that video, too, just to see the haircuts and outfits. This is classic 10-months-in-’83-’84 fashion.) I want to dislike this song, with its multiple sections of varying tempos, repetitious, nonsensical it-can-happen lyrics and background-keyboard whirr, but I can’t. The melody is catchy, there’s enough guitar and bass to keep me interested (especially the repeating high end bass flourish Squire adds), and the song builds nicely throughout. squireWhen it finally reaches the last chorus after the guitar solo (about 3:27) I find myself fighting the urge to pump my fist and shout along, as I probably did every day for that 10 month stretch. It shouldn’t be surprising that Yes crammed about 12 different melodies into a 4 minute song, as previous Yes albums included songs that lasted the entire side of an album, with multiple, named sections. But the fact that they were able to do this and produce hit pop songs with the formula is pretty astounding.

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Another characteristic of the “classic Yes” sound from all those 70s albums is the vocal harmonies. Part of the reason people like me begin to get obsessed with a band like Yes is the virtuosity. Yes displayed incredible instrumental abilities throughout its run (all 19 members, I suppose … although I only know about a dozen of them …) and on top of that, sang tight harmonies on difficult melodies WHILE THEY WERE PLAYING! It was like Crosby, Stills and Nash singing “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” while playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” on their guitars. (And I’ll admit, some of their songs sounded about as deranged as this description. But it was impressive.) This type of yes 84musical wizardry causes some people (the nerds, like me) to bow down and worship and causes other people (the punks) to want to hock a loogie at the band (and not in appreciation.) Anyway, this prog-rock staple of vocal harmonies was placed into a pop song format on the song “Leave It.”

(Another time-capsule video worth watching a bit of. The editing on this video was CUTTING-FRIGGIN-EDGE in 1984). It’s a song about being on the road, I guess, but once again, we’re dealing with Yes and sometimes the lyrics are best left un-read. Regarding the vocals, even though they are enhanced with studio effects, the singing on the song is pretty cool. So cool, in fact, that the band later released an a capella version of the song, which inspired a capella groups from every high school, college and community choir to record their own versions. Here are six of the millions.

Songs like this bring up the point that most of the cuts on this album – whether played by robots, or by guys with their nuts in a vise – just sound cool. Were I to hear them today for the first time, I may not appreciate the sound, but the 17 year old me found them really cool, and for some reason that sense is still with me today.

coolThis is why these a capella groups cover this song in particular, and why the album itself was so popular. According to Wikipedia the album sold around 6 million copies worldwide. It didn’t sound much like anything else out at the time (I can’t think of any other pop records that might have had a song like “Changes,” with its shifting 4/4, 6/8, 4/4, 12/8 time signature) but then again it sounded EXACTLY like everything else. The Yes sound was made palatable to the masses, and they liked what they heard.

“Our Song” is what passes for a Yes barn-burner – the closest the band ever gets to real Rock and Roll.

I keep saying one should ignore the band’s lyrics, but I can’t stop harping on them. They’re so amusing! I think this song is about the city of Toledo, and that the song is in the key of C. I know the lyrics rhyme “Britannia” with “grabs ya.” But whatever the lyrics, I sing along to this song all the time, and I don’t give a fuck what it really means. The guitar and bass work are really great, playing together like co-leads, like dueling guitars in a Southern Rock band. It’s a rocker and probably my favorite song on the record.

“City of Love” and “Hearts” close out the album. “City of Love” is a dark, throbbing guitar workout, with all the components I’ve already discussed on full display: excellent guitar and bass, tight harmonies, fruity keyboards, silly lyrics (“Justice/Body smooth takeover”), great melodies, and shiny production.

Hearts” is a sort of Yes 80s power ballad, in the same way that “Our Song” is a Yes rock and roller. That is to say – it’s not REALLY a power ballad. It’s slow and has some seemingly romantic lyrics (although: “Be ready now/Be ye circle” ??? I don’t envision many teenage girls in 1984 writing that on the back of their notebooks.) And it has a really great sing-along chorus, and multiple rocking guitar solos – all staples of the 80s power ballad. But it’s not exactly a song a couple could dance to, with its plodding, hiccuppy drums and strange keyboard interlude. But still, it’s a song that sounds really cool. As the entire album does.

90125 sounds like nothing else. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, upon listening again after so many years, I don’t know if I’d love it so much if I didn’t have such a strong, almost Pavlovian, response to it. But there’s no denying that it is a unique record, a melding of styles that shouldn’t fit together, but that somehow do. It’s the Centaur of rock records – a combination that sounds ridiculous, and is ridiculous, but somehow seems to fit.

centaur

TRACKS:
“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
“Hold On”
“It Can Happen”
“Changes”
“Cinema”
“Leave It”
“Our Song”
“City of Love”
“Hearts”

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