1983, ATCO. Producer: Trevor Horne
IN 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.
(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.”
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.
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.
Neither 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.”
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!”
This 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.
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 youth 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.
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.
I 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. I 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.
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.
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.
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 conjure 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!!) Suffice 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:
“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. The 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.
(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. When 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.
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 musical 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.
This 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.
“Owner of a Lonely Heart”
“It Can Happen”
“City of Love”