Thursday, January 31, 2013

Consideration of Works Past: Yes

(Picture is from Roger Dean's fine website and is tiny and only for fair use. I hope he doesn't mind. If you want to see Roger Dean's work, go here.)

Back in the seventies I was obsessed by this band.

I don't mean in an unhealthy way like I was stalking Jon Anderson or laying in wait for Chris Squire or hiding in Steve Howe's bathroom. I mean I was obsessed with their music.

Let me set the stage.

We moved from California to Alabama in 1964. The closest approaches of the sixties to my life was the faint wisps of WLS Chicago coming through after midnight or abortive material on the Ed Sullivan Show. The radio's big claim to fame was Tom Jones.

I learned how to play orchestral bass. When one of my friends needed a bass player for a garage band I volunteered, without knowing anything about what I was getting into. I got an electric bass and he loaned me some records: Spirit. Jefferson Airplane. Guess Who. The Who. Things like that.

I'd been playing piano since I was four. Not well, mind you. But continuously. And I was deep into Baroque music and Broadway show tunes. Playing in the band was an enormous amount of fun. But at the time for me it was only fun in the band. Outside of the band I'd listen to some of the music but mostly I went back to Bach, Scarlatti and West Side Story.

The band didn't last long. I heard the music when I went visited friends but didn't much listen to it otherwise. In 1969 we moved to Seattle. There I was introduced to more material by another friend of mine who was in a band. But I was still more into Bach than Beatles. Though I began to listen to a lot of Franz Liszt. This turned out to have a bearing on things.

I started at the University of Missouri in 1970. A lot of things happened in the first year involving sex and... well, other things being done in the American colleges in 1970. I'd started playing classical guitar-- couldn't take my piano to college and the pianos in the dorm were pretty poor.

In 1971 the Yes album Fragile hit. I went nuts.

I even liked Anderson's consumptive, yet compelling, vocals. His lyrics weren't Blake or anything but who listens to rock music for the lyrics?

First off, the naked precision of the album just floored me. At this point in the Yes history Rick Wakeman (keyboard) and Steve Howe (lead guitar) had joined the band line up. Wakeman had studied music at the Royal College of Music. Howe had pursued classical guitar for some time though I can't find any indication he had any formal training. This had a strong influence on the band. Fragile is, essentially, a series of tone poems that I thought were inspired by the Liszt tone poems. (I have no idea if this is actually true though there's a good analysis of Yes music here and there's mention of Liszt in the footnotes.)

The second thing about Fragile was that this was music that was intended to be listened to. Not danced to. Not driven to. Not as a back up to a show. In the fine tradition of classical concert music, you had to pay attention. It had something to say musically. You don't have to know German to pick up on the exultation on the Ode to Joy section of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It's celebration is obvious. But Beethoven understood the underpinnings of what he was doing. He knew he was communicating something profound to his audience. Music of this sort requires the mind to engage not just the glands. I'm not saying anything against raw sensual music. There's not a thing wrong with Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode. But this was a different sort of music requiring a different sort of understanding.

I've been reading Nate Silver's book The Signal and the Noise (highly recommended!) He makes an interesting distinction between accuracy and precision. To use a shooting analogy, accuracy is hitting where you aim and precision is grouping the shots together. To stretch this idea to music, accuracy is how close you get to the artistic target of the work and precision is the craftsmanship of the work. Up to Fragile, Yes had been accurate but not precise. By bringing Howe and Wakeman to the band to shore up Anderson and Squire's artistic vision they achieved both accuracy and precision for what I think is the first time.

I followed Yes religiously for years. Close to the Edge looked like a concerto crossed with a suite to me. I anticipated them attempting a symphony-- which I'm convinced is the intention behind Tales of Topographic Oceans and a portion of Relayer. The biggest shortcoming of the music was that it was limited by only having five performers. There's power in an orchestra. I tried my hand at transcribing TOTO for orchestra but gave up. I didn't have the skill or talent. But it turns out that has been done now in the Symphonic Albums-- though I would have done it differently.

Finding Yes opened up other similarly interesting attempts at something similar. For example Deep Purple's Concerto for Group and Orchestra. The Who's Tommy-- I know it came out before but it was Yes that made me revisit it. Most of these attempt fell short of their goal either in accuracy or precision. But I found I loved the attempt even if they didn't quite succeed. It was an introduction to me regarding how much more one could learn from a failure than a success.

Something about the Tormato album bothered me. I think I had become too enamored in the classical influence on their music and when they branched out I just wasn't able to follow. This was  1978. I went to Clarion SF Workshop, got my Master's.  I entered the workforce. Disco seemed to dominate the music scene: a place I would not go willingly. Disco was followed by Reagan and Punk Rock. I crawled into my musical bunker of Bach, Beethoven and Liszt and left the pop music world behind.

Fast forward thirty years.

I've spoken here about my obsession with Hatsune Miku and J-Pop music: Hatsune Miku and the Magic Turing Test, Hacking Music 1 and Hacking Music 2. Given how this more modern music seems to connect back to Yes and other progressive rock bands of the seventies, it shouldn't come as a surprise that I'd revisit Yes.

I feel like Gandalf talking to Bilbo: You haven't aged a day.

The material before Fragile is dated somewhat. I mean it's not like the Moody Blues which, in my opinion, have become unlistenable. But the early techniques and approaches are crude. Squire and Anderson were working beyond their abilities. They needed Howe and Wakeman to give them the tools they needed.

Tormato and Going for the One now sound better than they did when I listened to them years ago. Drama has similarly improved but I still think it's strained. It sounds as if they were running out of steam. The recordings haven't changed so it must be me. Possibly I'm less rigid than I was back then. Less ideological in my apprehension of music. Less obsessed-- or obsessed with other things. I'll talk about obsessions another time.

Since I quit listening after Drama the subsequent albums, 90125, Big Generator, Union, Talk, The Ladder, Magnification and Fly From Here are new to me. I can't say I understand them yet. 90125 and Big Generator seem more like progressive pop albums rather than progressive rock albums. They still have much of the same accuracy and precision of the earlier work but the target isn't something I'm all that interested in. I mean it's good pop music. But isn't there enough good pop music in the world?

I'm still working on the remainder.

But this is a consideration of works past and that runs from Yes to Drama.

And I have to say it's better than it ever was.

Additional Links:
A history of progressive rock
A complete review of everything Yes ever did
The Complete Yes Discography


  1. Did you ever give Wakeman's Six Wives of Henry the Eighth album a listen? That album let my mother decide my music wasn't so bad after all...

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    2. I did at the time. I thought it was an ambitious failure but I haven't revisited it yet. I'm finding myself revising my opinions on a lot of this stuff.

      Not so much on Steve Howe's Beginnings. I still think he's better with the ensemble.