The way I remember it, there were three main Progressive Rock (capitals intended; indeed, obligatory) bands in the first year or so of secondary school, and you were supposed to pick one. My band were, naturally, ELP, which meant that Genesis and Yes got less attention from me than they should have done. I had a friend who was as much a Genesis obsessive as I was ELP, so I heard more of them, but Yes remained something of a mystery in those impressionable days – to my mind, a band for the slightly older boys I met in the Scouts, or older brothers (I didn’t have one of those, but some of us did).
The Scout hut was definitely where I first heard Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans was reverently passed round one evening when it must have been new. I’m not certain that there was a record player in the Scout hut, but I know that Tales coloured my impression of Yes, and I probably thought they were a bit too advanced for one of my tender years, so I must have heard some of it at some point.
I came to Close to the Edge, then, a little later than I might have done. I know I heard it – possibly borrowed it from the library (and I’m coming back to that) during that cacophonous late seventies period when I was listening to everything. Almost certainly the music of Yes was dreadfully out of fashion by the time I heard it, and I probably buried the cassette of this along with all the other uncool albums under my bed if ever there was a chance that someone would be inspecting my record collection, but it got in my head anyway, so that when I came back to it in the age of CDs and digital clarity, I was comfortably familiar with it and able to conjure up the feel of 1972, with wild experimentation the order of the day, mixed with the dying embers of psychedelia and hippy philosophising.
I think what I loved in those pre-punk years (and still clung to even as my tastes changed with the tides of fashion) was cleverness; music to make you stop and go back to see if you can figure out what was going on. Don’t get me wrong; I like a good tune as much as the next person, but I liked even more being made to work for the good tune; those music lessons had at least tried to teach me about themes and variations; development and recapitulation, and I liked to hear that in the albums I was listening to as well.
So when I did eventually settle down to listen properly to Close to the Edge, I was ready to hear all the things I never quite got round to hearing when Yes were number three on the pecking order.
Probably the most obvious thing to say about Close to the Edge is that there are only three tracks on the album, and that is just about the most 1972 thing you can think of. In fact, before I can even start to talk about the music, I find myself pausing to think about how these are ‘tracks’, not ‘songs’. When did that start? Every word I write about anything even vaguely Prog struggles against the charge of pretentiousness, but standing back to look at it, calling pieces of music ‘tracks’ definitely has the air of some private members club to which the rest of the world could only be admitted if they knew the shibboleths.
So, once you get past the strangely uninformative sleeve, and plop the record with its comfortingly familiar ‘Atlantic’ tricolour label on the turntable, what does it actually sound like?
Like nothing you’ve ever heard before, naturally. It opens with gently trickling water, but you’ve barely had time to adjust to the pastoral nature of the thing before all five band members enter, playing seemingly unrelated things in different metres and at different tempos. On first hearing, it’s a mess, and even on what may be my hundredth or thousandth listen as I write this, I find it hard to imagine a more off-putting way to welcome the world to your latest masterpiece. As soon as it settles down and some order and melody assert themselves, Jon Anderson is singing something about rearranging your liver…
At which point, the more sensible among you probably bail out. It’s a shame, because you’re missing some remarkable music, but I do get it. There’s nothing wrong with the three-minute pop song, and there are plenty of times I’m happy to bounce around in my chair to albums with only verse-chorus-verse to offer, but more often than not, I need music to overpower me and take me places I’d never think to go otherwise.
The tile track is eighteen minutes long, and if you’re still on board, returns you triumphantly to nature, having given you much to think about in the meantime. Of course the lyrics are impenetrable, it was – and I’ll never tire of saying this – 1972.
Oh, and delightfully, my second-hand vinyl copy has a scratch in the very last groove, so it never quite ends….
Side two is a little more approachable. Once again, it begins with studio chatter (there was some on Trilogy too, leading me to wonder if every album recorded in the wake of Revolver had to have some somewhere), but this time eases you in with gentle acoustic guitar and an actual hummable tune. Indeed, bits of And You And I were extracted and sold as a single in some parts of the world. Like pretty much every Yes song of the time, it works its way through several themes and builds to a redemptive climax. The difference between this and any number of other Yes songs is that the whole band were working together on the same journey. It’s worth remarking on, because the endless revolving door of Yes membership rarely reached such a point of literal and figurative harmony in the fifty or more years that it’s been a going concern. Or two going concerns, as has been the case more than once.
The album is rounded off with Siberian Khatru, more hippy philosophy, but this time with a fluid, almost funky bass line. The whole album is shot through with a kind of spiritual ‘back to nature’ worldview which was becoming a bit old hat by the time it came out, but which feels more or less timeless now – part of a tradition of English musicians exploring the outer edges of Eastern philosophy – something else which ties it back to Revolver.
I doubt I’m going to convince anyone not already sold on the idea to try this, but I hope I can convince you that this music speaks to me on a level that the Slade singles I was listening to when this came out didn’t.
But I loved the Slade singles, too.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
Well, at last count there were 21 official Yes studio albums (and that ‘official’ is important, believe me), and one scheduled for release shortly after this is posted which will feature exactly no original members of the band. It’s fair to say that not all of the twenty others is worth your time. If you like this, you should probably try Fragile and The Yes Album, if you want to follow my journey with Yes, the next stop (nodding to Topographic Oceans on the way past) is Going for the One, with its hit singles, and then you should probably listen to 90125 with that so familiar eighties sound.
Everything else is a matter of personal taste. There are Yes albums I’ve never heard, and one or two (Union comes to mind) I wish I hadn’t.
Compilations to consider?
Inevitably, there are almost as many compilations as there are albums. Contemplating them just now, I settled on Yesstory as perhaps the most representative, but as with most Prog bands, cutting their music into small chunks doesn’t really work; you have to listen to albums as a whole.
Yessongs is all you’ll ever need – of course it’s a triple album; of course it only covers a short period of their career (it came out in 1973) but it has never faded in its majesty and grandeur. These guys, it need hardly be said, could play…
Anything else? One day, some brave soul will take on the job of writing the definitive history of Yes. It’ll likely run to several large volumes, and will only be read by obsessives like me. In the meantime, Chris Welch’s biography, called – inevitably – Close to the Edge; the Story of Yes has its critics, but covers the main points and has been revised at least once to keep up with the band which apparently will go on forever.