Arts & Entertainment » Books

The big book of prog

Unapologetic confessions from a Yes-man

by

comment

It’s just the kind of question that sends music fans into hissyfits: If you could take one—just one—album along to a desert island, which would it be? The usual protocol is to offer a choice of three to five (see also: the mania for list-making in the movie High Fidelity), but argh, not on this salty sea-dog’s watch, me hearties. If push came to shove walking the plank with a flask of water and a personal compact disc player, which album above all others would you choose to play castaway with? The hero of Robinson Crusoe, stranded as he was in an era before sound recordings, at least had a Bible for spiritual sustenance. What would you listen to for your musical salvation?

Thinking about it yet? Okay, don’t laugh, because mine would probably be Tales from Topographic Oceans, the four-song, two-record cosmogonic concept album by Yes. Yes, Yes. I know what you might be thinking (“YES?! Is he kidding? I’d rather strangle myself with an eel.”), and I know I have some explaining to do. I have my reasons, chief among them being value for money (double albums are the way to go) and the fact that so few other people cop to liking Yes, and this album in particular, that I already feel like I’m living on a desert island. Musically, Tales is also an extremely intricate record that rewards each listen with the discovery of something completely new—and new discoveries might be in short supply on a few acres of coral atoll. I could easily spend a castaway’s lifetime trying to get to the bottom of what singer/lyricist Jon Anderson is really singing about in lyrics like “Getting over overhanging trees/Let them rape the forest/They might stand and leave them/Clearly to be home.” And another lifetime trying to play along on a coconut ukulele. Speaking of coconut ukuleles, here’s something else a few of you are probably thinking: “Dude, is there going to be any weed on this island?”

Stranger still, at least to the average Yes-scoffer, is that if I could only take a five-minute medley of must-have music along to the island, at least three of those minutes would also be taken up by parts of Yes songs. The stirring approach and triumphal entry into the “What happened to the song/We once knew so well?” part on side one of Tales—and tack on another 20 seconds to catch the reprise at the end. The “Sharp! Distance! How can the wind with its arms all around me?” movement from the rather less arcane “Heart of the Sunrise.” It takes up about half of side two on the band’s bazillion-selling 1972 album Fragile, but like many Yes songs it lends itself nicely to excerpting just the parts you want. Half of whatever time was left in the medley would then have to go toward the melody from Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, perhaps ten or fifteen seconds of the Adagio from Khachaturian’s Spartacus, and a few seconds of Saint-Saëns’s “Le Cygne” (preferably the theremin version played by Clara Rockmore). Throw in highlights from any five Hüsker Dü albums. Everything else would have to find a spot in the last minute—maybe even less.

Tough choices, sure. This is not supposed to be a fun exercise, because it wouldn’t be fun to be stuck on an island with only one record. Survivors of castaway experiences, incidentally, often develop a complicated fantasy life that can persist for months or even years after their eventual rescue. Ten years alone on an island with Jon Anderson’s alien falsetto as the only other human voice? One can only imagine.

Ugh, you declaim. What a pompous bunch of windbags, Yes. A band so driven by the clashing egos of its members that the second-best thing they could think of to call their precious, pretentious little private-school art pro-ject was Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe. Hey, I’m cool with your hostility, people, and if I seem frozen on the defensive in presenting my case, it’s only because in the case of The People vs. The Music of Yes the prosecution usually rests on smug put-downs and mock pity and not much in the way of substantive argument. I’ve heard it all, but that’s my choice and I’m sticking by it.

Bear in mind that this is not the same thing as asking what someone’s all-time favorite album is. Yes isn’t even my favorite band—not by a long shot. They’re just the composers (dare I say “architects”) of music that I can keep coming back to and always hear afresh. And, anyway, at least I’m willing to admit I like them even if it means looking like a dork. Some people just can’t get past the idea of Yes, synonymous as the band is with everything street-level rock is supposedly against. I recall a conversation I had with a friend of mine—your cool-conscious, downwardly mobile middle-class dirty rock type—at around the time when Buffalo ’66 was released. The movie, as you might remember, featured the opening riffs of “Heart of the Sunrise” prominently in its soundtrack. Salivating with excitement over this wicked but isolated bit of guitar pyrotechnics whenever it popped up in the movie, my rocker bud was crestfallen when he later found out that it was actually composed and played by none other than...

“Yes,” he sulked. “It was Yes. I couldn’t believe it. It was Yes. I was so bummed.”

See what I mean? Even though he loved the riff in a blind taste-test, he couldn’t even stomach liking it once he found out that it was Yes, and then his dirty rockeritis flared up with revanchist fury. He could express only contempt and disappointment that someone as discerning with the filthy riffs as himself could be fooled so easily. That his cool would lapse just long enough for some of the least-rock rockers ever to disavow a 12-bar blues to come galloping across his drawbridge singing about Hindu shastric scripture with an army of elves and woodland nymphs in tow.

Ha ha ha, I said.

The arc of history—musical history, even, and sincere apologies to Martin Luther King—is long, but it tends toward justice. Yes and their progressive rock ilk might not be due for a Top 40 comeback or a thoughtful reevaluation in the “Hot” issue of Rolling Stone, but at least they get a sheen of overdue—in my opinion—critical respectability in a new book called Progressive Rock Revisited. The eleven essays included in this volume reflect a cross-disciplinary spectrum of thought on the matter, ranging from Jonathan Sheinbaum’s examination of prog rock as an “inversion” of traditional rock values to editor Kevin Holm-Hudson’s assessment of recent indie favorites like Don Caballero as evidence of prog’s enduring influence. Yes merits two full chapters in the book—“Tales of Change within the Sound: Form, Lyric and Philosophy in the Music of Yes,” and “Precarious Pleasures: Situating ‘Close to the Edge’ in Conflicting Male Desires”)—as do King Crimson and two other bands—Rush and Pink Floyd—whose liminal progger status makes their inclusion in this book a somewhat controversial one.

Granted, a lot of these essays are written in the thick patois of academese, a language which can make any sow’s ear look like a silk purse through the lens of postmodern “reclamation.” All the same, I consider this a blow struck for justice. Others will say the music still blows regardless of what a bunch of professors say about it. But see how long it takes for someone to “reconsider” whatever pack of flavor-of-the-month assheads is currently plugging up your woofers. And when it finally happens, tell me if they make your dinosaurs of tomorrow look half as respectable as Progressive Rock Reconsidered makes mine from Yes-terday.

The classic Yes lineup—Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman and Chris Squire—is playing at the Star Theatre in the Spokane Arena this Tuesday, November 26. Ask me if I got my tickets!

Still think Yes is a ridiculous choice to bring to a desert island? Here’s what some other people have got duct-taped to their life jackets, and I think you’ll find that their notions of what awaits them on a desert island vary as widely as their tastes in music. The ship is laden with Slim Jims and double-AA batteries, and the following area music fans are heading out on a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour...

Easy. The Velvet Underground & Nico. It’s like the Cliffs Notes to the next 30 years of weird pop/rock. The playing on it is amateurish enough to make you think, “I could do that,” but the songwriting is sophisticated enough to make you think, “I wish I could do that.”
—Shane Hickey, Volumen

Provided this desert island had a few palm and balsa trees I think the record to have along would be Lightning Bolt’s 2000 classic Ride The Skies. It’s the sort of album you throw on when you need to get things done. And to anyone “stuck” on the proverbial desert isle, getting off is the priority.”
—Josh Vanek, Wäntage Records

Elvis Presley: The Top Ten Hits. What’s missing on a desert island? Excitement. Thus my choice. Elvis is unbeatable. Thirty-eight classics here, including the song with the best bass-guitar-and-drum sound ever captured on tape, ever: “Little Sister.”
—Garth Whitson, Shakespeare & Co.

I guess I’ll have to pick the 1972 double album History of Eric Clapton. It’s got stuff from a bunch of his bands—Cream, Blind Faith, Derek and the Dominos—and the work of some other great musicians: John Mayall, George Harrison, Ginger Baker, Duane Allman. I was 21 and living in a freezing apartment in France the winter of 1973 when I first heard “Layla.” It blew me away. Not just that wild guitar, but some quality in Clapton’s voice that got to me then and still does. It’s there in “Bell Bottom Blues” as well, but that song isn’t on the History album. So, maybe I’ll just have to take Eric himself to the desert island if I want to hear all of them.
—Kate Gadbow, author of the upcoming book Pushed to Shore

One disc? That’s really hard! I was seriously torn between Son Volt, Wide Swing Tremolo, and Terje Rypdal, Descendre. Terje creates a beautiful space filled with edges and colors on Descendre, his 1980 ECM recording, but in the end, I went with Son Volt, thinking I’d already be spaced out enough, peaceful enough, deep enough into the silence on this desert island, and that at times I’d just want to rock.
—Larry Hirshberg, solo performer and Tom Catmull collaborator

My choice would probably be Well Done and Rare by Al Kooper (not to be confused with Alice Cooper). My reason is the variety of production and music. He even covers Andy Partridge’s “Making Plans for Nigel.” There you have it.
—Andre Floyd of Mood Iguana

I’d gladly take Lou Reed’s drone-pop masterpiece, Street Hassle. Because, if I’m going to be sitting on a desert island alone, I want an album that has a full spectrum of feelings: from being mean-spirited (“Dirt”) to transcendent (“Street Hassle”) to decadent (the entire album).
—Montana Carl, former singer of the Shrimpers and current member of Veduta

If I listened to my favorite album, Springsteen’s Nebraska, on a deserted island, I’d probably slash my wrists with a conch shell within the first 12 hours. A much better choice would be The Best of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I could sing new lyrics every day.
—Ednor Therriault, aka Bob Wire of Fencemender renown

Add a comment