Monday, May 04, 2009

Mountains Come Out of the Sky

I love the "Shuffle" feature on the iPod. Mostly I love it on my own Pod because it reminds me that I possess such amazingly excellent and eclectic taste in music. But also, it forces me to explore bits and pieces of my collection that I rarely visit. This morning, on my way to deposit the family's recycling at the town collection center, "Shuffle" upturned what I think might have been the very first music I ever downloaded from the Net: one single huge MP3 file that contained the entire Yes album "Fragile."

I decided to let it play, see what developed. This would be my first listen since approximately 2000, and my second since I was about 20.

I developed an onus against Yes (and pretty much all prog-rock) in my late teens. At the time, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, and post-punk songwriters had inculcated into my head that a "proper" song goes verse/chorus, verse/chorus, middle eight, verse/chorus and get the fuck out. Three minutes, tops. If a guitar solo followed the middle eight, it must be precisely eight bars long, and restate the melody in some coherent way, or you're wanking.

(I still have very little problem with this formula. Worked for Buddy Holly, works for me.)

So this Yes thing was an interesting challenge. Was I going to be able to forgive my slobbering teenaged fan-boy self, who thought that the longer a guitar solo was, the more "meaning" it had? Especially if the guitarist had what Zappa called the "blow-job" look on his face (i.e., the more I look really concerned that this 72-bar solo I'm engaged in will change lives and embetter the world, the more likely I am to receive a grateful blow-job from a willing female audience member after the gig).

I found myself in a state of doubt and fear during the first track, "Roundabout." I was once again, after a spell of many years, quite floored by it. There's so much movement in the accompaniment, so much tension and release, so much drama in the architecture. How had I been so misled? How had my Punk Purity buttons been so badly pushed in my late teens? This stuff rocks hard!

Steve Howe's guitar is so delicious. It actually sounds like a guitar plugged into an amp in a room somewhere. It evinces a quality so badly missing in modern recordings: the actual dynamics of a plectrum hitting a string fingered by a very good musician. There are tiny errors in the playing, eensy-weensie little fluctuations in tone, like he just barely mis-hit a certain note -- but these only serve to emphasize that an actual human being is playing the instrument -- and doing it very, very well. His tone -- a tiny bit of overdrive, allowing for lots and lots of pure chewy guitaristic deliciousness -- is clearly the product of a man gloriously, regally, on top of his instrument. The dude in his heyday could shred, and his playing is so arrestingly precise, every note painstakingly sounded, fretted perfectly, like a fine needlepoint embroidery. Bill Bruford's drumming is nonpareil in its precision, clarity, simplicity. Chris Squire's (admittedly busy) bass, likewise, sounds so completely un-processed, so natural, so organic, that you just want to take it home and frame it and put it up on your wall: This is what reality sounds like.

"Roundabout" ended -- on a Picardy third, no less! I'd forgotten that detail! How yummy is that?

So why the hell did I take such a punky antipathy to these guys? Why? Why?

The second cut cued up.


Now I remember. "Cans and Brahms (Extracts from Brahms' 4th Symphony in E Minor, Third Movement)" (Brahms, arranged Wakeman).

Because Rick Wakeman, that's why.

Afterthought: Jesus, look at me. Hobbits and Yes. I'm thirteen again.


Kate said...

I thought the "blow-job" look described the face guitarists have during their shredding solos that look like they are getting a blow job, not getting one later or changing lives and bettering the world. But then again far be it from me to question Zappa.

Mike said...

Thank you. As I read this, much laughter ensued.

This would have been released around 1974, right? Jesus, I must have been taken with Emerson, Lake and Palmer at the same time as Yes. And Wakeman's mellotron and synthesizers, were just the happening thing.

Redemption must have come from that being the year that Blood on the Tracks was released. That and I was also listening to a lot of Hot Tuna, both the acoustic and the electric with Papa John Creach on fiddle. Certainly Jimmy Page was at a peak around this time. And a well-worn cassette of the 1972 Ann Arbor blues and jazz festival, with all the greats. Muddy, I remember. Albert King. Many others. Even some Sun Ra.

I hope all is forgiven.

Linkmeister said...

One thing about the digital age; it's so much less hassle to skip tracks on albums than it was with vinyl. Leaping up to lift the tonearm, then manually placing over the next track you WANT to hear, then lowering the tonearm. . .

Homefront Radio said...

I'm glad you brought this up, actually.

I too share your vision of a 'proper' song, though i'd extend the time limit to about 3:40, and that intro better be any longer than 8 bars and preferably have a very hooky, melodic line leading into the verse.

The only problem is it kind of means every song I write is very similar in structure, which worries me a lot, especially if i'm planning an album.

However, this is such an ingrained classic song format, (even older songs, which are Vhorus / Vhorus / Bridge / Vhorus + Coda are still basically the same old idea), that I think it must have developed that way for a good reason.

What's your ideas on this? Mix the structures up more? Or just accept the fact that's how a good song goes and not worry about it.

ade said...

Earlier this year the BBC aired an ace documentary about Progressive Rock which featured (amongst other artists) an extremely portly Wakeman, a very well preserved Bruford and a disturbing scarecrow cadaver that turned out to be Steve Howe.
Bruford described how Yes were essentially a blues covers band until Jon Anderson decided to try his hand at songwriting. Short of ideas, Anderson allegedly poached stuff from all manner of sources. At one point during rehearsal of a new Anderson composition, Bruford pulled him up and remarked; "We can't play this, it's the theme tune to Bonanza!"
Things didn't improve as I'm pretty sure that somewhere during side one of Tales from Topographic Oceans Rick Wakeman plays the theme tune to The Rockford Files.

Tom W. said...

Cue Tull and Hesse.

Kevin Wolf said...

My older brothers introduced me to Yes and this album. (It was released in 1972; I was 12.) I saw Yes on tour around 1974. (Picture Wakeman on an asinine contraption that turned him and his keyboard around and upside-down while he played. Was supposed to blow my little mind.)

I'm with you on the whole Prog Rock thang - I can do without most of it and in fact never got into most of it (King Crimson, etc).

But I enjoy some Yes and I particularly love Fragile. It's mostly nostalgia I guess; I can't even be objective about it. I listen to it about twice a year, and I have a similar reaction: It rocks. Despite all the trappings and excess they sound like a rock band.

And, yeah, you can always skip certain tracks.

Neddie said...

Homefront: How long is a piece of string?

The answer, I think, comes in redefining "chorus," "verse," "middle eight," and so on. Our man Mr. Partridge does a masterful job of this. In, say, "Chalkhills and Children," can we confidently point to any discrete part and say what role it plays? The song's all bridges...

There's a quiet passage in "Roundabout" that employs exactly the same Mellotron -- what's the word? patches...? -- used in "Strawberry Fields Forever." It was a joy and a wonderment to recognize it.

XTCfan said...

Gotta comment, because I spend many hours studying this and other Yes albums.

Fragile was released in '71. It's imperfect. The great songs on it (Roundabout, South Side of the Sky, Long-Distance Runaround, Mood for a Day, and the glorious Heart of the Sunrise), are GREAT. The others -- "Cans and Brahms" first and foremost among them -- are filler. The band's masterpiece, never to be surpassed by them, is Close to the Edge.

Prog Rock, like all genres, has its limitations. At its best, it's everything you describe about Roundabout. It's "intelligent music with balls." (That's the same reason I love XTC, btw, and why they share so many fans with Prog.) At its worst, it's overblown, pretentious crap. (Though we can thank that quality for helping to inspire the Punk movement, right?) Get inspired by the best, avoid the worst. Just like most things in life!

Ade, you should read Bruford's autobiography, which came out (from Morrish's publishing house, no less) not too long ago. A very amusing, enlightening read.

Homefront Radio said...

Maybe it comes down to how individuals hear music. In terms of structure, I hear 'Chalkhills and Children' as being fairly simple:

"I'm floating over strange..."

"Still I'm getting higher..."

"Chalkhills and children..."

"Even I never know where i go when my eyes are closed..."

The second instance of the turnaround melding seamlessly into the bridge is classy writing, but not unprecedented. A good example of the same thing can also be heard in 'Changes' by David Bowie.

Probably the coda is the only part of the song that I'd point out as being particularly Patridgian structurally, with the thematic hooks stated earlier in the song recontexualised as simultaneous countermelodies.

I find bands who use lazy structure as uninteresting and unfocused. It's like the house has no strong foundation, and i don't want to spend any time inside it.

As for longer rock songs, it very rarely sound integrated to my ears, usually just sounding like a bunch of different songs pieces stuck together.

Strangely, classical pieces don't.

bobby lightfoot said...

1. Pity th' poor artist who wants nothing but to be Steve Jones and finds out to his chagrin that his talent is too big to be contained in 3 chords.

What constitutes pretention at that point? I'll tell yez what- playing three chords.

2. Kids today are great for helping one reaquaint oneself with old guilty musical pleasures. They are unencumbered by the milieu in which th' music was first concieved and hence unconcerned with cool. I dig that.

But being called pretentious because one likes to achieve ones potential is just so NME.

True story: The Malarians opened for The Damned in 1988 and they were a-holes. When we came offstage after fuckin' KILLING I told Rat Scabies "you guys were AWESOME at Woodstock". Hyork.

bobby lightfoot said...

Unacquainted. ed.

Neddie said...

As for longer rock songs, it very rarely sound integrated to my ears, usually just sounding like a bunch of different songs pieces stuck together.

Strangely, classical pieces don't.
One of the very pleasurable things about this go-round with "Fragile" was that, since I know this thing nearly to the sub-molecular level but hadn't revisited it in many years, how the bits and pieces actually are very skillfully woven together, and how certain bits prefigure certain other bits. It's almost as if it had been composed by somebody who actually knew what he was doing.

Neddie said...

XTCfan: If the last few blog-days have taught me anything, it's this: Never, never, never dismiss an entire genre. Of anything.

While the moral scales are different, genre-dismissal is exactly the same impulse as racism.

Neddie said...

X: I'm downing the whole Close to the Edge album from iTunes now. I'd only had the title track before.

xjmueller said...

prog rock... I saw YES and ELP at the auditorium in Chicago (great classical venue)in 1971. Both were getting airplay on the local "underground" stations. great show. They flat ROCKED. Wore out Fragile and the ELP 1st. I never saw ELP again, but saw YES three more times, each time they were progressively worse. Interesting to note,and perhaps TMI, my girlfriend in 1974 or 75 got aroused at their show, iffen you know what I mean. I was unaffected. Last saw them in 79 at the ampitheater in Chicago - home of 68 Dem convention - on free tickets from a friend. By then I was into punk and new wavefor couple of years. Pompously boring doesn't quite describe the occasion.

Homefront Radio said... the bits and pieces actually are very skillfully woven together, and how certain bits prefigure certain other bits. It's almost as if it had been composed by somebody who actually knew what he was doing.That's a sense I get more from pre-rock music, or someone like Sondheim.

I think I heard to much bad prog growing up via my Dad. War of the Worlds anyone? (*shudders*)

RE: Bobby & Pretension

I only see music as pretentious when it's obvious that the musicians involved are in over their heads: "It's about nuclear war...." ala Hayzee Fantaysee

Kevin Wolf said...

Neddie, how you set us off...

Close to the Edge is good Yes, and my favorite therein is "Siberian Khatru," again jus'cause it rocks. I rather like the live version which starts the record (which live one?) after being paired with a pre-recorded orchestral excerpt from "The Firebird Suite." Because I'm a dork.

XTCfan said...

You're in for a treat, Ned. CTTE was one of my first desert-island discs, and it's managed to stay on the list, which is no mean feat.

Simon, funny that you say that about Classical music, because the best Prog really is inspired by Classical (listen especially to Genesis -- Nursery Cryme/Foxtrot/Selling England -- great stuff). It's one reason I was drawn to it.

Kevin, the album you're thinking of is Yessongs. Howe burns up the frets at the end of that one. Too bad there's so little Bruford on that album, but the version of "Perpetual Change" on it is worth the price of purchase (which at the time I bought it was substantial ... but it was triple album with cool artwork and a tri-gatefold sleeve ... oh, how many seeds got sorted out in those creases...)

Homefront Radio said...


Having a naturally curious mind, I spent this afternoon thinking over the matter. This is how I and I alone hear Prog, and I understand it's not how you'd hear it, especially as I'm sure you enjoy the pure musicanship on display. So no-one need get offended here. I respect your tastes.

What I think it comes down to is a question of Pomposity and Spectacle, and a barrier between the audience and the performers. Hence, Pink Floyd's "The Wall".

I think of prog as music for stadiums, with Big Important Gestures, but I don't get a feeling of community from it. There's some degree of audience alienation inherent in the style to my ears, which maybe is why it's a recurrent theme in real Prog, (Dark Side Of The Moon), or Faux-Prog, (OK Computer).

It's emotionally-detached, distant and prone to pompous statements by lofty gods either observing mortals from afar or pointing the finger of blame at everyone but them. There's no dizzy joy or the sense of connection with the songwriter for me, perhaps because the lyrical passages are interupted for minutes at a time with music.

By contrast, you probably find the instrumental sections dizzying.

But, back to my point, I feel like with Prog that the musicians are unaware of my very existence. Is there compassionate prog?

The three minute pop song simply seems to be more exciting, as if they're rushing to tell you whats on their mind as quickly as they can. For me, it often feels more direct, immediate and intimate. "I Want To Hold Your Hand". It's more a two-way conversation. They need to tell you something.

Even the smarter pop writers with more unique concerns form a strong bond with me too because, if anything, such specificality seems closer to the voice of an Author.

Heh. I just realised, Pop Music is gossip. Smart Pop Music is a Short Story. Prog is the Bible.

To me! To me!

Bill said...

"Close to the Edge" came on this evening. "I get up/I get down" like hell. Jon Anderson couldn't get down from a duck.

blue girl said...

There's no dizzy joyIt's nothing but dizzy joy to me! Pure, dizzy joy. It's the only kind of music where I don't even need to hear a single lyric.

Homefront Radio said...

That's classical music to me!

Isn't it weird how differently people perceive music and the unique emotional effect it produces for each listener?