Thursday, 22 September 2011

YES: Tales From Topographic Oceans


(#137: 5 January 1974, 2 weeks)

Track listing: The Revealing Science Of God (Dance Of The Dawn)/The Remembering (High The Memory)/The Ancient (Giants Under The Sun)/Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil)

It begins, as so many records of this period begin, with electronic howling winds ("Sounds like the Arctic!" remarked Lena). Eventually a lonesome guitar comes stumbling - or tripping? - into the picture, playing some lonesome single notes, like Hank Marvin stranded at the North Pole. This is an agreeable enough, if entirely unoriginal, beginning, but then the rest of the band comes in and I can't tear myself away from the knowledge that Jon Anderson's Accrington voice, possibly slightly speeded up for the record, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to that of George Formby. Then they start chanting...

It had been going well enough up until that point but then a young man in the audience raised his hand. and asked: "Are you going to be doing this with every bloody record?"

Baffled, I replied: "What do you mean?"

"Going through it minute by minute, word by word, note by note, gesture by gesture, until you've wrung all the surprise and beauty out of it? Three years we've been here now, and where have you got us? What have we learned? You're the sort who thinks that Concise is the capital of Nebraska. You're killing these records!"

Calmer, I responded: "It's killing something, but never the music. What you have to grasp is that this is, in great part, a detective story, a mystery; I'm trying to find something, and to do that I have to go through all the evidence that's available to me. Including, I might add, the ancient trick of conjuring up somebody in an imaginary (or is it?) audience - the Unreliable Listener, I could call you - in order to get things a bit, or a lot, further. The peril is the risk of missing something that might be the answer. Take your time; despite what the rest of the world tells you, it's there for the taking."

"But it's still killing something?"

"That in itself is the greater mystery, and unless you stay with me for the ride, you'll never see the solution. But rest assured that one aim is to get rid, or abolish, or force to abdicate, something that has been holding music down, and by extension us down, for far too long - so long that it has almost starved us. Patience, my twenty-one-year-old self, patience!"

With that he resignedly sat down, and drifted temporarily out of this story. But a deeper source of his pain and anxiety made itself apparent to me by re-listening to Tales From Topographic Oceans, namely that rarely - at least, so far - has a number one album been so anxious and meticulous to prove itself, and yet so shambolic in the proving. A double album, one track per side, which followed quickly on a triple live set, and would itself be succeeded later in the year by a three-song concept album (Relayer, which is cryptically alluded to within the misty midst of "The Remembering"). At their peak, they were as prolific and long-winded as any blogger!

Listening to it now, I feel variously boredom, frustration, annoyance and sympathy. Its eighty-one minutes drag by as slowly as the sixty minutes of Down Drury Lane To Memory Lane, yet contain so many minute moments of invention, coherence and foretelling that it is irritating that the group did not seek to expand them further. But finally I sympathise because hitting Yes is like punching a peanut which thinks it is a coconut; these are, or were, honest lads trying their best to (as they doubtless saw and still see it) push music forward.

But side one's "Revealing Science" lays out all the flaws. There's the chant, then a synth sea shanty ("Maid Of Orleans"! Who says that fifteen-year-old Andy McClusky and Paul Humphreys weren't devouring this in their bedrooms?), and then a random grab-bag of styles which could almost be termed postmodern or even prophetic, except that such an ingenious ploy is plainly outside the group's scope; they think they're writing Beethoven's Tenth. Thematically, it's the trusty old where-is-the-world-going meme, with several references to raping the forest, an unusual concentration on the word "moment" which seems to serve as a baton for changing musical gears, and reams of woolly semi-thinking about saving the world. They try their hand at folk-rock, space rock, even some pale fusion (but they most certainly are not Weather Report; see 1974's Mysterious Traveller by the latter for stark confirmation) and some old school sixties beat echoes; inevitably there are Peppery moments but ELP and especially the Moody Blues, with that damned mellotron, are recalled far more speedily. It cranks up for a rockout, then Rick Wakeman takes it down again with some cocktail Moog, and unlike the long Abbey Road medley, with which it shares a certain boue ("What happened to this song we once knew so well?"), there is no real sense of continuity or true cohesion.

The opening of "The Remembering" meanders forever - Chris Squire's bass is by far the most interesting thing going on here, and little wonder that the twenty-something Trevor Horn, then compelled to play "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" every night in a cabaret band, wanted to be him (and indeed sound like Anderson) - before settling again for mish-mash; there is a recurring synth leitmotif, meant to represent the topographic oceans but seemingly dropped into the piece at random. Again there is the ying and yang of loud bit followed by quiet bit, with essays in medieval lutism and touchy prog workouts, concluding in layered choirs and missed profundity. Lyrically it wanders around the plains of non-specific yeasaying, including a passing reference to Anderson's school days ("School gates remind us of our class"). But again there are touches of things greater; early in the lengthy instrumental introduction, Howe does something on his guitar, or touches the right pedal, which appears to invent the Cocteau Twins. Elsewhere there are echoes of the Beach Boys - "Sail On Sailor" as it might have been in abler hands - and more semi-random scrabblings building the path to Architecture And Morality. But all of these last but a few seconds apiece before being swept away in the next guitar solo, or Moog flourish. The album is half done, and that is not merely a statement about its duration.

"The Ancient" gives the group the chance for the obligatory percussive workout (I keep using the word "workout" in relation to this record, but it really does raise the same feelings as a listless day in the office). Despite Squire's valiant efforts to marry Jack Bruce with Stanley Clarke, this isn't exactly On The Corner in terms of world fusion as meltdown. In his sleevenote, Anderson talks about the piece being influenced by "lost civilisations, Indian, Chinese, Central American, Atlantean." Atlantean? Now hold on a minute; just because you call a track on your first solo album "Moon Ra" doesn't mean you are fit to wipe Sonny Blount's brow (especially if, so unlike Sun Ra, you are entirely lacking in humour), particularly in one of the many moments on this track when the band audibly feel as though they want to burst into "Atlantis" by the Shadows. We eventually encounter a beached whale of a rhythm track - puffing, bloated, oleaginous - over which Steve Howe does his best to get Robert Fripp chatting with Mike Oldfield (there is more than a fair scent of Tubular Bells throughout the record as a whole). And then there are more of these infuriating moments; two blink-and-miss-them upward harp-like flourishes that actually invent ZTT, a quietly probing guitar/echoplex/bass/drums interlude which foretells Bill Frisell's Power Tools a decade and a half later, even some Eno-with-a-Royal-College-of-Music-diploma Moog hisses from Wakeman. But then it's medieval time again, followed by a century-long Paco Pena tribute from Howe on his trusty acoustic. And then it rocks up again, and then it dies down. You could set your electricity meter by it.

"Ritual" is by far the best-structured of the four tracks, although everything is relative, since it begins with what could pass for a soundtrack to a BBC East Anglia documentary about sailing, presented by Cliff Michelmore, before moving into a melodic variant on "Gasoline Alley" for its main motif. Squire does a showoff bass solo. Then some more quiet. Then a dry run for the Police with some underlying evidence of 1964 Beatles still present (Squire's very McCartney-ish bass under the "at all" section). Then some Pet Sounds organ. Then a 5/4 rockout within which you can sense the band's collective urge just to say fuck it and move into "Louie Louie" (and it was largely Anderson and Howe's project; Wakeman spent most of his time in the studio hanging out with Black Sabbath next door, who were busy recording Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, before heading to the pub to play darts with Ozzy. Now Howe thinks he's Carlos Santana, but Caravanserai this is not (there's no joy). The music stops abruptly. Then a "Workshop" hammer n' tools percussive marathon, which I'm sure was great fun to play - actually it stops halfway between "Workshop" and "Antmusic." Then Wakeman revives his old "Space Oddity" tropes. Did I hear some scratching there? No, it's Rick trying to be Eno again. The mood now is one of an Anne Boleyn Secondary attempt at "Interstellar Overdrive" (you can smell the wood polish, see the teachers sitting with patient faces frozen in rictus smiles; Lena thought it was more like incidental music for The Six Million Dollar Man). Then we move back to unaccompanied, electric Howe. Anderson tries out for Jon and Vangelis - if I've studiously avoided analysing his lyrics here, it really is because I don't feel anything can be gleaned or learned from them; there are all the non-committal Moody Blues greetings card homilies about opening your eyes to see the sun, etc., some cod French, a confusing bit of business about whether he's going to call us or not, and finally lyrics which must have been threaded threefold through Babelfish (if only Babelfish had existed at the time, but really: "Look me my love sentences move dancing away"? "Hold me, around, lasting our"?), although the old calling still seeps through: "Hold me, my love, hold me," and, of course, "Flying home/Going home" (Anderson's multitracked harmonies do, admittedly, conjure up the Byrds). There is some liquidy piano, then a Tubular Bells-style build-up which wimps out at the last second and ends quietly, unresolved and unmoving.

So who bought this, apart from students and five-leaves-left stoners? Was it a quiet fortnight, or was its number one status the result of well-meaning Christmas gifts to teenage children? I can easily believe that the supposed epic nature of Oceans would look and sound big enough to beguile listeners just starting out, yet to learn about things like Future Days and Rock Bottom. Except that Yes had already, and repeatedly, proved that, when disciplining themselves, they were capable of superb songs: "Yours Is No Disgrace," "Roundabout" and "I've Seen All Good People" being only the three most obvious examples. Wakeman for one had had enough (but in truth he is hardly on there) and quit Yes after the record. But that distant pyramid, the lunar relics, the navy-blue sky - it was all an escape from grey, disappointing Britain. I still cannot work out what, if anything, the musicians on this record were striving to achieve, but after enduring its length we put on Aretha's Amazing Grace and it struck us that the title track achieved everything (and more) that Yes had been straining so hard to match; the effortless and natural move from one style to another, the unquenchable emotional openness, the happiness and laughter which comes from connecting with the world, even when it seems at its worst. So you see, the search, the ambition - both need to continue if a happy resolution, and perhaps even an ending, is to be reached.

7 comments:

Mark G said...

So, double album follows double album to the top spot. First time? Think so...

Marcello Carlin said...

Indeed - the next one won't be until spring 1975.

MikeMCSG said...

This LP has become the byword for 70s prog rock excess. Is it actually the worst (open question ) ?

Marcello Carlin said...

The only excess of which Yes are guilty here is exceeding their capacities. Punching above your weight (aesthetically) is no bad thing in itself (since, even if you get what you were trying wrong, you can still accidentally invent something else in the process) but here they were trying for something which they weren’t quite equipped to realise.

Where that leaves Rick Wakeman is a question to which I plan to return soon.

RichardL said...

Excellent job. My head spins. So many references! However, Tubular Bells was released later than this thing, so maybe the hypnotic catatonic sprawl that is Top actually originated with Messrs Howe, Squire and Anderson, actually from somewhere in a footnote to a reference volume of the 152-volume compendium of Tibetan drinking songs.

Marcello Carlin said...

Not in the UK it didn't; Tubular Bells came out in May '73 and TFTO in December.

RichardL said...

Marcello - You are, of course, correct.
My 70's memory (when I was a teenager) tends to place events a year later than when they really happened unless I remember the actual date.