Progressive or Excessive?

Uneasy Tales from Topographics Oceans

John Covach

Progression Magazine

Winter 1996


Mention to fellow progressive-rock connoisseurs that you consider Yes' Close to the Edge of 1972 to be a key LP in the history of progressive rock and you're not likely to meet with much resistance; only the die-hard Canterbury Marxist, resenting the commercial success of the album, will challenge such a claim.  Certainly for the members of Yes at the time, Close to the Edge seemed a real arrival point: this was how they had always imagined Yes would sound.  Almost immediately after this album was completed, however, drummer Bill Bruford left the group to join King Crimson.  Not long after that, keyboardist Rick Wakeman was to become increasingly dissatisfied with the course that the group was on; he subsequently left the band over differences that were reportedly not only musical, but also had to do with Yes' vegetarian lifestyle. 

At the heart of the controversy surrounding the group was their 1974 release, Tales from Topographic Oceans.  This two-LP concept album is ambitious by any musical standard. On Close to the Edge the title track takes up all of side one (side two features two tracks, "And You and I" and "Siberian Khatru").  But with Tales the listener is faced with four tracks on four sides, and these tracks are inter-related both in terms of the lyrics and the musical material.  In short, Tales was conceived on a grand scale--a scale that might rival large orchestral symphonies like those of Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, or Jean Sibelius.  Critics claimed that with this album Yes had gone "over the edge" and were "adrift on topographic oceans"--and these were the sympathetic ones!  For Yes' harshest critics, Tales was more proof that Yes were self-indulgent poseurs with unbearable classical-music pretensions. 

For many Yes fans (this one included), however, it is Tales from Topographic Oceans, not Close to the Edge, that is the real point of arrival for the group; I have nothing against the earlier LP--which any Yes fan over the age of thirty-five has probably purchased in three or four formats over the years--but it is Tales that marks the high-water mark of the Yes sound for the first half of the 1970s.  This is the album in which it all comes together.  Tales is serious music--seriously conceived, seriously performed, and it rewards serious listening.  The playing is virtuosic throughout, the singing innovative and often complex, and the lyrics mystical and poetic.  All this having been asserted, I think that even the most devoted listener to Tales is also forced to admit that the album is in many ways flawed.  Tracks tend to wander a bit, for example, and the music therefore is perhaps not as focussed as it might be.  While Steve Howe's playing on this album set a new standard for rock guitar, Rick Wakeman is less featured throughout Tales than he had been on Close to the Edge and Fragile, and seems often relegated to the role of sideman.  If Tales is a kind of masterwork, then, it is all the same an imperfect one.

In order to understand how Yes got to the point they were at with Tales, it's helpful to trace the history of the group.  As the story goes, bassist Chris Squire and singer Jon Anderson met in a small Soho club called La Chasse.  Each had been in a couple of bands up to that point and they found they held a common admiration not only for the Beatles and the Byrds, but also for Simon & Garfunkel, The Association ("Never My Love," "Windy"!), and the Supremes.  I mention these last two groups especially because, in all the talk about how much Yes music owes to classical music, it's easy to forget that Anderson and Squire also had deep roots in pop music.  These pop roots are most apparent in the first two albums the group recorded, Yes (1969) and Time and a Word (1970).  While it's possible to detect on these LPs the beginnings of the Yes sound that developed as early as their next release, The Yes Album (1971), the tracks on these first two records clearly arise out of the pop mileau of the late 1960s.  In addition to covering tunes by Ritchie Havens ("No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed"), Lennon and McCartney ("Every Little Thing"), and Stephen Stills ("Everydays"), Yes also recorded a version of Leonard Bernstein's "Something's Coming" which was even released in Holland in 1970 as an a-side!  (In 1972 the group recorded a cover version of Paul Simon's "America," which Steve Howe has remarked was one of Bruford's last recordings with Yes.)

Considering that their first two albums consisted of collections of pop-oriented singles--albeit in extended and creative arrangements--it is all the more astounding that The Yes Album sounds the way it does.  The album contains four Yes classics, "Your Move/All Good People," "Starship Trooper," "Yours is No Disgrace," and "Perpetual Change."  Add to that a solo guitar piece that has become a kind of Steve Howe warhorse, "Clap," and you have a good part of most of the mid-1970s Yes live shows (the Tales tour excluded).  The one remaining piece, a short tune entitled "A Venture," seems to recall the earlier two albums and serves to highlight the great distance the group traversed between their second and third LPs.  Certainly the addition of Steve Howe to the group, replacing Peter Banks, was one major factor in the transformation that took place in the Yes sound.  Howe's multi-stylistic virtuoso playing drove the group towards extended instrumental passages that pushed at the boundaries of the rock style; these were not long pentatonic excursions over a repeated blues riff in the style of Eric Clapton, but rather more composed and complex instrumental episodes that evoked by turns Jimi Hendrix, Barney Kessel, and Chet Atkins.  It hardly seems possible to overstate the impact Howe's playing had on rock guitarists and especially on progressive-rock guitar playing.  Robert Fripp was intelligent and exacting and Steve Hackett the master of the precise sound, but there was nobody like Steve Howe for sheer eclecticism and virtuosity.

If Howe's playing in part propelled the group forward on The Yes Album, it was the addition of Rick Wakeman on keyboards, replacing Tony Kaye, that put the last piece in place and solidified what most listeners identify as the Yes sound.  Wakeman added his Mini-Moogs, Mellotrons, electric and acoustic pianos, and Hammond B3 to Fragile (1972), Yes' fourth album.  Unlike the other members of Yes at the time, Wakeman had been trained as a classical musician, though he admits that he figured out very early in his education at the Royal College of Music that he'd never make it as a concert pianist.  While he quickly drew attention for his fiery Hammond solo on "Roundabout," Wakeman's classical background can be heard most prominently in his piano interlude on "South Side of the Sky."  Wakeman also recorded a multi-keyboard version of part of a Brahms symphony movement for the Fragile LP (for contractual reasons he was not permitted to record one of his own works), but this displays less his creativity than it does his ability to read score.  At the time, Wakeman was constantly compared to Keith Emerson, mostly because of his use of state-of-the-art synthesizers, his classical training, and his showmanship and virtuosity.  But what really made Wakeman perfect for Yes at the time was his ability to blend into the Yes sound; amidst the strong egos in the group, Wakeman was able to devise keyboard parts that played off the strengths of his fellow band members.  Perhaps it was all the sessions he had done in the period preceding his joining Yes, but Wakeman had a knack for knowing when to step out and when to lay back. 

Which brings our story back to Close to the Edge, which--it's worth remembering--was released only nine months after Fragile in September of 1972.  It's also important to note that Close to the Edge was released only eighteen months after The Yes Album.  Over this roughly two-year span, Yes had come a long way--things had happened, musically as well as career-wise--very fast, maybe too fast.  The group had recorded their most successful album only to be knocked for a collective loop by the departure of Bruford.  As Yes legend has it, Alan White stepped in and with three days' practice opened the US tour in Dallas on June 30, 1972.  White's ability to quickly master the complex Yes arrangements certainly lessened the practical strain of Bruford's departure days before a major tour, but the group probably felt the emotional strain for months afterward.  Add to this the feeling that must have dawned on everybody in the band after the release of their fifth album: What next?  How do we top Close to the Edge?

Tales From Topographic Oceans was what came next, and the album contains four pieces on four sides.  Jon Anderson--as he tells us in the liner notes--was searching for a theme for a big piece (bigger than "Close to the Edge"?) and came across a footnote in Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi; the note briefly describes the four classes of writing found in the shastras.  These four classes as they are described in Yogananda's note form the basis of the titles of the four sides of the album: "The Revealing Science of God," "The Remembering," "The Ancient," and "Ritual."  Now it's worth pausing for a moment over Anderson's use of this footnote, especially since much is often made of the spiritual content of Yes lyrics.  First, it's interesting that Anderson finds the note in Yogananda's book--a book which, during the 1960s and 70s, was well known to those interested in Eastern philosophy.  Most readers who find inspriration in Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha--which provided the inspiration, in part, for "Close to the Edge"--will love Yogananda's Autobiography.  It's the true story of the spiritual training of Paramahansa, and it's filled with accounts of miraculous events.  (The astute Beatles fan knows that Paramahansa and two of his gurus are among the faces in the background of the Sgt. Pepper cover.)  Second, Anderson does not tell us that the footnote led him to actually read and study the shastric scriptures himself, but only that he liked the idea of the way that they were portrayed in the footnote.  Like many artists before him, Anderson locked on to what interested him about this description of the shastras, and this was enough to spark his imagination without worrying much about mastering the voluminous scriptures himself.  Tales, then, is not really about these scriptures, but is, rather, inspired by them.

From the moment the needle hit the vinyl it was clear the listener was in for something very different with Tales.  Side One begins with a rhythmic chant over fade-in guitar notes; it builds as more voices are added and bass, drums, and synthesizer enter, building tension to the point where the first real melodic theme of the piece breaks out.  (This theme, as it turns out, uses the same melodic pattern as the first melodic theme in "Close to the Edge").  There's something about the sound of these opening moments of Tales that is incredibly captivating.  In fact, there is a sound to the entire album that Yes never really created again--a bigness, a vastness, but also a clarity: there is so much there and yet you can hear everything.  This seems really to have been co-producer Eddie Offord's doing, and the recent digital remastering only enhances the overall effect I'm describing. 

But there were some strange things going on during the recording of Tales.  The album took a long time to record; four months reportedly went by without much progress.  Wakeman was becoming increasingly disgruntled, playing darts as others fussed endlessly with ideas for the album.  At one point, Anderson ordered walls to be constructed in the middle of the studio in an attempt to get a "bathroom sound," presumably for vocals.  Things were getting out of hand; more experienced onlookers must have wondered at the time whether Yes were in over their heads on this project.  But, despite the seeming confusion, the album was finished, and for many Yes fans, it's the best album the group has ever released.

Tales, however, is flawed in some ways; as I suggested above, it is a kind of imperfect masterpiece.  I think the problems that do arise in this album can all be reduced down to a common cause: in a certain sense, Yes developed too fast.  Only a few years earlier the group had been arranging the Beatles' "Every Little Thing," and now they were attempting to manage a four-movement work of almost 90 minutes' duration.  With Tales, they may have reached for something musically that was just beyond their collective grasp at the time; so much of Tales was so new, it might have been better if they had eased toward the scale of the album a little more gradually (this was, by the way, Wakeman's position all along).  All this having been admitted though, I would not for a minute give back a note of Tales; there reportedly were longer mixes of certain sides, and while many have called this album excessive, I would like to hear the longer alternate versions if they still exist.  Unfortunately, the Tales sides--unlike the pieces on Close to the Edge--never really got the live exposure that they deserved; except for "Ritual," the other sides were dropped from the live show after the Tales tour (at least, I never heard them do these tracks after 1974).   

Looking back at Tales from the perspective gained by twenty years' time, it is clearly a crucial album in the development of progressive rock.  Hats off to Atlantic, and to the Ertegun brothers, for not squelching what was clearly a very risky album at the time (however much they may have pressured Squire for a hit tune during the recording of 90125); now Atlantic is reaping the profits of repackaging, and so it's clear--in this instance, at least--that quality really does pay after all.  But the real credit needs to go to Yes; they were the ones who were willing to risk popular appeal for a music they believed in, even if that belief faltered at times.  However imperfect it may be, Tales From Topographic Oceans is a high-water mark in history of the progressive-rock style.