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Sunday, 15 September 2013

Jon Anderson of Yes raids rock vault, talks "Topographic Oceans" 40 years on

Though it had the distinction of being the first U.K. album to be certified gold prior to its release, Tales From Topographic Oceans divided Yes fans and critics alike upon its 1973 release—and continues to do so forty years later.
Yes’ sixth Atlantic studio album saw the ambitious British quintet flexing their creative muscles to the fullest. They’d had already scored chart hits (most notably with “Your Move / I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Roundabout”), recorded with an orchestra (Time and a Word), and started embracing longer, less commercially-viable songs. The group’s first live album, Yessongs, captured its transcendent onstage energy while showcasing songs from The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge across three vinyl discs.
What would be next?
Coming off the epochal Close to the Edge—still regarded one of the genre’s most seminal works—Yes determined to appease diehard followers and flip the proverbial bird to naysayers with a batch of even longer, more mystical tunes. Championed by the band’s spiritual centre, singer Jon Anderson, the sessions for Tales yielded four sprawling expositions, each exceeding eighteen minutes and occupying an entire album side of the 2-LP set. Atlantic gave the record a massive promotional push with a flurry of ads in trade periodicals—and by erecting billboards adorned with Roger Dean’s distinctive sleeve art. Meanwhile, the band launched its largest, most lucrative tour ever.
Tales From Topographic Oceans climbed to #1 in the U.K. and peaked at #6 on the U.S. charts: Not a bad for an album completely devoid of potential singles.
Tales marked the studio debut of drummer Alan White (ex-John Lennon) but would be the last Yes title with Rick Wakeman for a while; the keyboard whiz didn’t care for the band’s new direction and—being a drinker and unrepentant omnivore—felt alienated from his pot-smoking, vegetarian brethren.
Still, the music was phenomenal, with Tales’ four interlocking suites chock full of trademark Yes virtuosity, crackling instrumental interplay, poignant acoustic segments, and Anderson’s most metaphysical musings to date. Many Fragile and Close to the Edge fans lapped it up, while others scratched their heads and wanted for another radio hit a la “Roundabout.” Charges of self-indulgence, pretentiousness, and musical bloat were neither unfounded nor easily rebuffed by the musicians, and even band biographer / confidante Chris Welch called it a “fragmented masterpiece.”
Yes performed at least two of the new epics each night on the subsequent Topographic Tour but retired the material immediately thereafter (and wouldn’t revisit it again for decades). Wakeman flew the coup, and even Anderson became convinced the scope of the music was a bit much, even for the most tolerant Yes listeners. When prog rock succumbed to punk and New Wave in the ‘80s, pundits pointed to the excess of albums like Tales as the reason for the decline.
Issued the same year, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon went on to become a perennial bestseller and secured a place for that band in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yes would reinvent itself for the ‘80s and ‘90s, but Tales From Topographic Oceans—unlike Fragile or Close to the Edge—was rarely brought up again. And when band members or music critics did throw a few quotes or paragraphs its way, they usually weren’t kind.
Tales is more highly-regarded these days, its reputation having improved over the ‘90s and ‘00s against the backdrop of musical revolution and commercial reformation. Technical facility of the caliber wielded by Yes in their prime is being shown new appreciation in an era of computer-enhanced cookie cutter pop and punk poseurs who can barely play their instruments. And the proliferation of digital media (with its ephemeral, can’t-touch-this electronic file formats and lure of easy access) has unwittingly turned consumers back to obscure, outlandish, and just plain different music on vinyl.
We’ve always loved Tales From Topographic Oceans, even if it’s taken years to even begin wrapping our mind around its magical melodies, enchanting rhythms, and heady teleological themes. Heck, maybe that’s precisely why we love it; its level-of-difficulty listening factor demands careful, prolonged, and repeated evaluation—and duly rewards listeners for the attention.
So perhaps—on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary—Tales deserves fresh appraisal and critical consideration.
We phoned up the Voice of Yes himself, maestro Jon Anderson, to help with our assessment (gladly playing Aeneas to his guiding Virgil), and in doing so obtained new insight into the making of one of the band’s loveliest—yet most criminally derided—opuses.
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Thanks for taking the time to revisit Tales from Topographic Oceans with us. Can you believe it’s been forty years?
JON ANDERSON: Oh, wow! No! It seems like it was a long time ago. But forty years—you can’t really capture forty years right now. It seems like just a couple years ago to me, because time flies, you know?
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