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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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“More, more, more! How do you like it? How do you like it?” – The Andrea True Connection

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good morning

The first thing I noticed was that the light was on. This seemed very strange to me, as I could see daylight through the window, and I could tell I was lying in a bed. Why would I be in bed with the light on during the day? It made even less sense, in those first few seconds of consciousness, that not only was I lying in that bed during the day with the light on, but I was wearing jeans, a flannel shirt and sneakers. Also, my arm was bent behind my head at such a severe angle that my shoulder burned and my upper arm was numb.

Awareness flooded through my senses, and as strange as the light and the clothes seemed, the most shocking realization came a second or two later: I was in my own bed, just a few feet from Bob’s bed, inside our yellow cinder-block walled dorm room! This was all so confusing because just minutes before … no, SECONDS before, it had been nighttime, and I was awake, enjoying myself drinking beer at a party a few blocks away! It made no sense!

wake up

I sat up quickly. “Think! Think!! I was in that apartment, with team mates from baseball, I was with my friend, Dave (not Dr. Dave but a different Dave, who actually went to high school with Dr. Dave, but that’s another story), and I was … what was I doing? We were at that party, I remember that. I was talking to that guy … How did I end up back in my dorm? Wait … this is getting weird …”

A head appeared in the doorway, which opened into the kitchen of the 4-bedroom suite – the typical dormitory for freshmen at this college.

“You alright in here? Sounded like you might have overdone it last night.” It was a suitemate, “Heat” – so-nicknamed because to the seven immature 18-year old suitemates of his, the conflagration-hued hair atop his 22 year old head, coupled with his large-frame 80’s style spectacles, immediately brought to mind the character Heatmiser from the classic 70’s TV Christmas special The Year Without a Santa Claus.

heat 2

I attended Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science for two years after high school. It was a small school, about 1,200 – 1,500 students, located in the University City section of West Philadelphia, just a couple blocks from Penn and Drexel, the schools that gave the neighborhood its name. It is now known as The University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. I had come to Philadelphia from a rather rural area, and I had led a rather subdued life. I didn’t go to parties in high school, I didn’t get together with friends and drink alcohol, I certainly didn’t take any drugs, apart from those prescribed to control my asthma … I was kind of a dork.

Wait! That’s inaccurate. I was TOTALLY a dork, and in fact, a famous movie was made about my transition to college.

When I got to Philadelphia, I decided to try to hide the fact that I was a dork. This was a futile effort, really, no matter how cool I tried to be, as any school with the words “Pharmacy” and “Science” in the name is sure to attract a significant number of dorks, geeks AND nerds and in a school full of them, the only title one is truly striving to be is “King of the Dipshits.”

farmer ted

(I think the fact that this didn’t occur to me is probably the best evidence of all of how dorky I was!)

But be that as it may, I wanted to try to be somewhat “cool” in my new environment and I decided to start saying “yes” to The Herd – a group that I had usually avoided (but whose approval I secretly sought) during the first 17 years of my life – even when I thought The Herd was making unwise decisions. I started going to bars, like The Track & Turf
and Off the Wagon, which apparently got shut down in 1992 – unsurprising, since it served alcohol to pretty much anyone, as long as they could provide ID (Identifiable Dollars). I went to frat parties, apartment parties and house parties. I found out that I liked to drink beer. I discovered a fondness for tequila. I liked the sensation of getting tipsy, the way it seemed to magically enable me to speak to people – even women! – and make them laugh. I began to notice that I’d show up at parties or bars with my friends, and I seemed to be someone people enjoyed talking to. Sometimes people would just come up to me and – get this – start talking to me! People I had never even met!! This was all very exciting and new.

I saw myself in a new light.

leo d

“You alright in here? Sounded like you might have overdone it last night,” Heat (under)stated.

heatmiser

Indeed. I had overdone it. I had overdone it in a way that I would continue to overdo for several years to follow. I had overdone it to a point where several hours of my existence had been deleted from my hard drive. I could query to my heart’s content, but all that would be returned was this:

error

It was frightening. A little booze had been fun, and exciting, but there seemed to be a point at which adding booze no longer increased the fun and excitement, but began to have a negative effect: it began to erase portions of my memory, hours at a time. I had overdone it, and whenever I overdid it, I saw myself in an even different light:

college photo

I bring this up about myself as evidence that I deeply understand the concept of “overdoing it.” Of doing something too much. I am extremely familiar with the concept of taking a good thing, and doing it more and more until it becomes … well, a bad thing. Making a good thing a bad thing. It can happen before you know it. For example – this paragraph you’re reading right now …

Overdoing it in music is very common, and it can happen in a few ways. I’ll go over some of them, with the help of YouTube. (And I’m not saying that overdoing it is necessarily bad – I like some overdone stuff, but I’ll get to that later.)

At the basic level, one can overdo the construction of a song. Too many verses, for example – when an artist feels that the listener needs to hear about those “haunted, frightened trees” and “circus sands” the seventh and eighth time through the melody instead of just leaving it be with two nice lines about “swirling ships” and a “dancing spell,” which clearly was all the song needed.

Artists can also run through a song’s riff too many times, or add extra sections to songs, or extend the fade-out for extra minutes. The Grand Funk Railroad song “I’m Your Captain (Closer to Home)” employs all these tactics AND throws in scary mutiny-at-sea lyrics sung in the first person which are themselves overdone. This song may be the best example ever of taking a pop song construction, and adding too many sections (all with hyper-repetitive lyrics) and doing each part too many times – and creating an overdone Frankenstein’s Monster of a song.

frank sings

If the song had just been cut down a bit, it would have been really cool, I think. But try to sit through the whole thing without thinking, at some point, “Wait … Is this still that same song?”

Pay particular attention to the section from 2:00 to 2:20. It sounds like they started playing that riff and forgot that they were actually recording a song. Like they were just grooving along, digging that riff, man, each with a couple bowls already in their lungs, a smoldering pipe resting on the amp, imagining themselves cruisin’ down a wide-open, redwood-lined Highway 101, on a custom Hog, the old lady ridin’ bitch, everyone’s hair a-flyin’, and no sign of The Fuzz anywhere in sight …

chopper2

… oh SHIT! We gotta get back to playing the song again, bro! Sorry, dudes!

At that point there are still about 7 and a half minutes left to go in the song – and the listener is already wondering if the needle is stuck in the groove (if this were 1970).

Overdoing song construction is only one way of overdoing it. Another way is to add extra instrumentation to the song, anything from a tambourine to full orchestration. A good example of this is the Beatles’ famous song “The Long and Winding Road.”

beatles

Brief Beatles Lesson: when the band broke up, it had the Let It Be album recorded, but it wasn’t mixed. Apple Records hired famous producer and as-yet-not-a-murderer Phil Spector to finish things off, and one of the techniques he employed was to add a whole lot of orchestra. The Beatles weren’t thrilled … so much so that in 2003 Paul remixed the album with all the orchestration (and a few other things) removed and released it as Let It Be … Naked. To demonstrate what Paul felt was “overdoing it,” let’s hear both versions of “The Long and Winding Road.”

Phil Version.

Paul Version.

Sometimes these additions work, and sometimes they don’t. And much of it – like all music appreciation – boils down to personal taste. Again, although the words “overdoing it” have a negative connotation, I’m not saying I think it’s always a bad thing.

For example: “Progressive Rock.”

prog

Prog Rock artists from the early 70s, like Yes and ELP and Rush, were HUGE proponents of overdoing it, and they overdid it in ALL WAYS POSSIBLE. Unnecessary verses, unnecessary instruments, unnecessary sections, even unnecessary sound effects!!

As a teenager, I was drawn to these artists who overdid it. Give me 10 minutes of “La Villa Strangiato,” with its 6 different time signatures and 4 different solo sections … or 19 minutes of “Close to the Edge,” with all the extra bullshit PLUS the sound of a babbling brook and birds, and I was in heaven! It was mind blowing, man!!!!

lsd

However, even the Prog Rock sounds eventually got to be too much for me. Tracing a path of Yes songs from “Roundabout,” in 1971 (8 minutes long, cool; overdone compared to most songs, but pretty tame by Yes standards) to “Close to the Edge,” in 1972 (19 minutes long; definitely overdone, but really in a sweet spot for my ears) to “The Gates of Delirium,” in 1974 (22 minutes: what the fuck!?!), one can tell just by the song titles that things are spinning out of control. Comparing these songs to my drinking in my young adulthood, “Roundabout” is that first beer where I’m saying hello to the young blond woman who smiles back; “Close to the Edge” is about the third beer, where she’s laughing at my jokes and finding me somewhat charming; and “The Gates of Delirium” is the 12th or 14th beer, where I’m speaking to her incoherently about how nothing matters on Earth except Barney Miller, and that if my eighth grade guidance counselor hadn’t screwed me over I’d have gone to fucking Yale and you’re the only girl I’ve ever met who, wait, where did she go, wait, dude, is no one else left at this party? cuz I got a buck or two if anyone wants to go on a beer run, but my ride left so is that anybody else’s beer there on the back of the toilet? cuz dude it’s like almost full so I’ll finish it and do you care if I just lie down, this is your house, right? or whatever, man, I don’t care if the dog had her puppies on it, it looks comfortable just for me to rest on for a while …

(Extending the Yes Music analogy – waking up the next morning on a stinky dog blanket with no recollection of most of the past evening, and no familiarity with the other people sleeping in the house, no apparent way to go home, and mounting nausea and paranoia and self-loathing would collectively encompass the entire 1978 album Tormato.)

tormato

I’ve heard A LOT of overdone music during the last 14 months of CD listening, and I’ve come to believe the most egregious form of overdoing it is in number of songs. This happens when an artist records, say, 20 songs – maybe 8 of which are incredible, two of which are pretty good, and 10 of which suck – but decides to just put all 20 songs on the album because, I guess, “each song is like one of my children …” And okay, I get it. But this is why the artist needs people around to tell them the truth. Let’s face it, you might not be able to fairly distinguish between the characteristics of your own brood of kids, but your friends and neighbors know EXACTLY which one’s got “C.E.O.” written all over him, and which one’s got “D.O.C.”

Here are some albums that could’ve been whittled down to VERY EXCELLENT works if their makers had just had an honest friend in the studio to say, in essence, “We’re comfortable with Jim or Jane babysitting our child, but face it: Teddy’s a psychopath.”

In Your Honor. Foo Fighters.

in your honor

A double album. Rare indeed is the double album that IS NOT overdone. I actually like this record a lot. One disc is full of rockin’ songs and the other disc is full of mellow. And while there are 20 very good songs included, they could have chosen the best 12 and made an INCREDIBLE record. Let’s face it, Foo Fighters’ bread and butter is raucous, loud rock, and while it’s nice to see an artist stretch a little here and there, most of the songs on the mellow disc could have been reserved for something else. Maybe a bonus disc? B-sides? (Do they make B-sides anymore?) Songs like “Still” and “Miracle” and “Friend of a Friend” weren’t necessary to put on here. “Virginia Moon” … well, as far as Dave Grohl duets go, this song with Norah Jones is somewhere below his version of “Leather and Lace” with Will Ferrell.

They shoulda kept “Another Round,” “Razor” and “What if I do” and put those three onto the first disc, while ditching “The Last Song” and “Free Me,” and we’d be talking about one of the great records ever. On a scale of overdoing it, this record is somewhere around having a third martini, or taking a second shot of Jeagermeister on a dare: not terrible, but probably not a good idea.

Physical Graffiti. Led Zeppelin.

phys graf

I love Zeppelin, and I love this album, again a double. It’s got a ton of classics: “Custard Pie,” “Houses of the Holy,” “Trampled Under Foot,” “Down by the Seaside,” “Ten Years Gone,” “Boogie With Stu,” “Bron-Yr-Aur,” “Black Country Woman” and, of course, “Kashmir” … They shoulda stopped right there. But they couldn’t. They had to put out a damned double album, and they threw in songs (“In My Time of Dying,” “In the Light,” “Sick Again,” “Night Flight,” “The Rover,” “The Wanton Song”) that weren’t horrible, but that just weren’t as good as the others, and really served no purpose other than to make me think, “Man, this record’s too long …” Maybe this is where Foo Fighters got the idea? On a scale of overdoing it, this is worse than In Your Honor, because this would’ve been an even greater album without the overdone-ness. This record is the equivalent of filling your empty, recently-guzzled “Mad Dog 20/20” bottle with Pabst Blue Ribbon from the keg.

mad dog

The Unforgettable Fire. U2.

unforget

I tend to think U2 are a better singles band than album band. I like a lot of their albums, and I own most of them, but I find I skip over many songs. It’s tough to call a single album of 10 songs overdone, but I place it here because the good songs are SO GOOD, and the bad songs are SO NOT GOOD! This coulda been the best EP ever!! I understand they put out Under a Blood Red Sky just before this and Wide Awake in America just after, so it’s unreasonable to think they would put out three EPs in a row, I guess, but why not leave “Promenade,” “4th of July,” “Indian Summer Sky,” “Elvis Presley & America,” and “MLK” off this record? Then it would just be “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Pride (In the Name of Love),” “Wire,” “The Unforgettable Fire,” and “Bad.” Perfect!! OR – why not keep “Indian Summer Sky,” which wasn’t too bad, and add “The Three Sunrises,” from Wide Awake in America? I guess that’s only 7 songs … This is a tough one, really, but it’s bothered me since I got the tape in 1984 that there was such unevenness. Maybe it’s not all that overdone after all. I don’t know – let’s call it the equivalent of three beers on an empty stomach after playing basketball for 2 hours: marginally overdone, but still regrettable.

Sandinista! The Clash.

sandin

Holy moley!!! When this came out in 1980, it was a TRIPLE ALBUM!!! That’s right, three big vinyl LPs in one product. Thirty-fricking-six songs!! Most bands don’t write 36 decent songs in an entire CAREER, let alone in one album. That’s a lot of songs to put out at once, and you gotta have a pretty big set of balls to do it. And Mick Jones and Joe Strummer certainly had ego to spare.

strummer jones

However, it’s not hard to see why they’d attempt such an effort. To this point in their career, they’d put out three LPs: The Clash, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, and London Calling, for a total of 43 songs, plus 5 singles, and Goddammit if all 48 aren’t at least Very Good songs! It was an amazing string of songs, really, which was topped off by the 19-song extravaganza of London Calling, perhaps the greatest rock record ever produced! (Aside from all the Beatles records.) From 1977 to 1979 The Clash went (pretty much) 48 for 48 in songwriting (and cover songs). Sure, not every song was a home run, but all were solid base hits, at a minimum, certainly no whiffs.

clash

So, if you’re in that position, why not expect that you could just saunter into some New York studio, with no songs written, no ideas in place, and just pull an album’s worth of hits out of your collective asses? And you know what happened? THEY DID IT! They wrote (or covered) 10 or 12 excellent songs, once again! “The Magnificent Seven,” “Hitsville U.K.,” “Junco Partner,” “Somebody Got Murdered,” “One More Time,” “Lightning Strikes,” “The Sound of Sinners,” “Police on my Back,” “The Callup,” “Washington Bullets,” “Charlie Don’t Surf,” “The Street Parade” … That’s a great fucking album right there! But you know what else they did? They kept writing and recording and writing and recording. And pretty soon they had 36 songs, not 10 or 12. And hey, if 12 is good, 36 must be three times as good, right?! The same as drinking shots of mezcal!

mezcal

Anyway, here’s Joe Strummer’s opinion of my opinion:

strummer

But the truth remains, this album was way overdone. Way WAY overdone. Extremely. It’s hard to overstate the overdone-ness of this record, but then again our drinking scale would terminate at the high end at Death by Alcohol Poisoning, and certainly Sandinista! isn’t in the same category as total systemic organ failure. So, let’s say this record is the equivalent of waking up in the morning in your own bed, fully clothed, with a light on and no memory of how you got there, and having a cartoon character smirk at you and say, “Sounded like you might have overdone it last night …”
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(Other CDs with too many songs include Teenager of the Year, by Frank Black, and Nonsuch, by XTC.)
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Please comment with any music you think is overdone.
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NOTE: I’m up to album #350 in my listening project. I think I’m into the final 20 – 30.

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