Gathering the ingredientsPosted: September 24, 2014
So here’s my next bit of YES analysis, longer and – if I may flatter myself – even more tedious than the last instalment. I try to live by the immortal words of Dogberry, from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing: “If I were as tedious as a king, I would give everything to you, your Worship.”
You may not want it all, of course. If you need to go trim your toenails, I won’t be offended. I totally understand.
At the University of Chicago, where my husband did his graduate work, they had a hilarious teaching tool for PhD candidates. One of the most daunting parts of thesis-writing, besides the research and time commitments, was the formatting of the thesis itself. The standards were draconian and rigorously enforced, but fortunately some wise-acre had written up a demo PhD thesis showing how to do everything correctly.
This demo thesis was about YES.
I kid you not. My husband let me read it because he knew it would make me laugh. I don’t remember all of it (and I wish I could find it online!), but it had all kinds of high-quality, University of Chicago-calibre gags, like:
fig. 1 — YES
fig. 2 — NO
I actually laughed out loud at that. My sense of humour has never been calibrated quite correctly.
The author of this mock dissertation knew quite a lot about YES and was clearly a fan. They even attempted to make a stab at an actual thesis, and this was it: Fragile is a wonderful album and could have been YES’s masterwork if not for Rick Wakeman’s solo, “Cans and Brahms,” which sucked so much it was like a carbuncle on the face of music.
I read that and thought to myself, “I, too, hate ‘Cans and Brahms’ — but why? It’s not the choice of Brahms; that’s an excerpt from my favourite of his symphonies, in fact. The problem is that Rick Wakeman seems occasionally enamoured of some really gross synthesizer timbres. I mean, what is that supposed to sound like? It’s like a piano and an organ and a farting marmot, all squished in together.”
And those were my first steps down an astonishingly deep rabbit-hole. I’ll spare you most of it. The two important points are: 1) I began thinking about the members of the band as individuals and listening carefully to how they fit together, and 2) I realized that YES (and I) had a particular preoccupation with timbre.
Timbre, for those of you without musical backgrounds, is what makes an instrument sound like itself, the piano-ness or guitar-ness of it. It has to do with which harmonics are ringing in what proportions, which itself has to do with the shape of the instrument and how the sound is produced. That article refers to “tone colour,” but I tend to think of timbre as being more akin to texture or flavour. Maybe that’s my own synaesthetic quirk, I don’t know.
Anyway, music can be made up of a lot of different elements — melody, harmony, rhythm, lyrics, dynamics, timbre. I suspect musicians are a lot like writers: they have to be able to employ all the elements of their craft, but there’s usually one or two that they find particularly compelling (I like setting and theme, for example, but grudgingly acknowledge that the story is better when it’s made of more than that).
The members of YES seem to really enjoy experimenting with timbres and how they interact. They’re not unique in this; far from it. Consider one of the timbre-obsessed greats, Frank Zappa. Here’s a live performance of Inca Roads, and a more timbre-riffic piece you will never find; it’s got xylophone, flute, sax, and ugly synth timbres that would make Rick Wakeman gnaw off his own foot in envy.
And there’s FZ, front and centre, conducting the Mothers like they were an orchestra. Sure, every band member contributed, but the organizing principle – the ultimate arbiter of taste and tone – was FZ himself.
YES doesn’t operate that way. They use what’s been called a “democratic” model, meaning all members of the band contribute equally. This can make it much harder to determine who is driving the musical bus. Sometimes (lookin’ at you, Tales From Topographic Oceans) you can hardly tell whether the bus is going in any particular direction, or it may appear that they’re enjoying the sounds of their own instruments so much that they don’t really care whether the listener can follow them.
Personally, I have no problem with this. Your mileage may vary, however.
This is one reason it occurred to me that the best comparison for YES is food. Food is one art form where texture and flavour are paramount; nobody expects their sandwich to have a driving beat or comprehensible narrative. As an eater, you expect to savour the contrasting flavours and interplay of textures. A particularly good meal may be evocative of some emotion or significant moment in your life.
Let me take a brief moment, therefore (BRIEF? I lost all my brevity cred an age ago), to discuss the ingredients in our upcoming sandwich. I’ve chosen a song with the “classic” YES lineup, but there are many possible combinations (which I would love to compare to each other, but not now! Restraint!). Here’s who we’ll be eating next time:
Jon Anderson – vocals
Did you ever see that Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode where they parody the X-Files? A slender, glowing alien comes wafting out of the woods and says in a flutey little voice: “I bring you love!”
The first time we ever watched that, Scott turned to me and said, “It’s Jon Anderson!”
Anderson has one of those high tenors that were popular during the 70s. I find his voice a bit bland, honestly, but it’s also very consistent, making it a nice canvas upon which the rest of the band can paint. His singing may be spiced up a bit with evocative lyrics, layering on a kind of semantic timbre, as it were. The texture of meaning. “Semantic timbre” is probably not a thing, but I could make it one. I should publish a paper in the Journal of Crackpot Musicology.
A word about the lyrics: they are at their best, generally, the less outright sense they make. There is nothing more ham-handed than YES trying to make sense (exceptions are Drama and Talk, which I find both sensible and good). I could quote you some deeply embarrassing lyrics, but let us focus on the positive here. At their best, YES lyrics are impressionistic, dropping hints of motion, emotion, and sensory detail. One of my favourite examples comes from “Roundabout” – “Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there.” If you’ve ever driven south through Seattle on a clear day and seen Mt. Ranier suddenly appear as if out of nowhere, you’ve experienced the perfect aptness of this lyric.
(Honestly, I don’t know why there aren’t huge traffic pile-ups through Seattle on sunny days, but that’s a whole other discussion.)
Chris Squire – bass
Chris Squire’s bass-playing offers a counterweight to Anderson, an earthy anchor for the floaty vocals. I’ve seen Squire’s playing described as muscular; I think of it as liquid, almost gurgling at times. A grumbling, dyspeptic bass. Legend has it that one of the early YES albums was mixed incorrectly, leaving the bass much louder than it should have been, but the band decided they liked the sound and kept the more prominent bass ever after. I’d like to offer up their cover of “No Opportunity Needed, No Experience Necessary” as Exhibit A in my “holy crap, what is that bass line doing?” argument. Case closed.
(Whoa. That’s quite a video. Three things: 1) that’s Tony Kaye on keyboard, not Rick Wakeman, 2) you’ll notice Steve Howe gets very few close-ups, and 3) gee, I’m glad nobody fell out of the dune-buggy and got killed.)
Steve Howe – guitars
If Anderson and Squire form opposite poles of sound, the guitars and keyboards fill the space between with every weird thing they’ve got. In the song I’ve selected for my sandwich analogy, Steve Howe plays three guitars: electric, acoustic, and pedal steel. That’s right, one of these. Howe is, for my money, the best musician in the band, and yet he’s also one of the most unobtrusive. He manages to be simultaneously adventurous and unassuming, and I’m not sure how one pulls that off.
Rick Wakeman – keyboards
Rick Wakeman is the member of YES I have the most frequent aesthetic disagreements with, but I can’t deny that he makes more interesting music than Tony Kaye. Wakeman is where the virtuosity hits the experimental fan, and while the results are sometimes messy, they’re always dramatic. In his gold cape, with his four arms (no, really, I’m pretty sure he’s half octopus), he’s like Howe’s flashier evil twin. When he’s playing actual piano or harpsichord, I have zero complaints; he can rock a pipe organ like the end of the world. It’s when he gets all synth-happy, making sounds not found in nature, that he gets on my nerves. Another true story: the first time I heard the album Tormato, we were listening to it on cassette tape in the car. All of a sudden, there was this hideous warbling, and I said to Scott, “Quick, eject the tape! It’s being eaten!”
Scott said, “No, it’s supposed to sound like that.” The song was “Circus of Heaven,” and I still can’t stand it.
Ultimately, I think it boils down to a disagreement about what sounds are aesthetically pleasing. I keep wanting to tell Rick Wakeman what I’ve said so many times to my son: “Just because you CAN make that noise, doesn’t mean you should.” Still, I have to admit my YES experience would be impoverished without him. I like having someone to rail at.
Bill Bruford – percussion
Bruford was only with the band through Close to the Edge, whereupon he departed for King Crimson. This was probably the right move; if you read his Wikipedia page, he once got into a fist fight with Chris Squire over who had played badly that night. Conflicts aside, I’m not sure YES was ever the best showcase for Bruford’s particular brilliance; I think King Crimson’s precision and discipline suit his talents better. The job of the drummer in YES seems to be, as often as not, to hold everybody else’s warring personalities together, and that would be exhausting for anyone. If the “democratic” model was going to give way anywhere, it makes sense to me that it would be the drummer who burned out first. His replacement, Alan White, is arguably not as good a drummer, but he may be much better at herding cats, and thereby more useful in the grand scheme of things.
*GASP!* Finished! Ye gods. I could have gone on. I want to write someday about the YES-ification of Trevor Rabin, and the relative virtues of various albums, and… and… and…
This blog post is EXACTLY the kind of wretched excess that turned everyone off of prog rock in the late 70s. I’m as guilty as Wakeman’s gold cape.
Anyway, don’t expect your sandwich until next week, darlings. I’m out of town for a few days and will have no time to write. Meanwhile, if you want some homework (and why wouldn’t you?) go look up the song “Don’t Kill the Whale.” Is it brilliant, awful, or all of the above? Is it true that Rachel once found herself dancing to it at a concert, then realized what it was and laughed herself silly? These mysteries and more, next time!