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Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 5: Yes - Tales From Topographic Oceans

I have a love/hate relationship with what is called “prog rock”.  I love it because without it, I likely would never have gotten my beloved Sex Pistols.  The punk movement was a direct reaction to the excesses of progressive rock.  

Okay, that was a cheap shot, I admit.  In actuality, I'd do like some "prog rock", especially when the music takes me on a journey (preferably non-drug induced).  At the same time, I hate the vast majority of it because to me, it feels like a bunch of musicians just trying to show how technically great they are.

With Yes, it’s even more convoluted for me.  While I hate some albums, I love others.  In some cases, there are albums where I can’t stand ninety percent of what’s there but one song will be so good I can’t get it out of my head. 

Tales from Topographic Oceans is not one of those albums.  It’s hailed by fans as one of their greatest achievements.  It’s derided by critics as ego-driven bombast.  Amazingly, both things are more or less true but it makes the list of bad concept albums for me for a number of reasons.

Let’s start at the beginning though.  Yes had been climbing in prog rock circles for some time.  Every member of the band was/is a masterful musician.  These are people who dedicated their lives to becoming the best they could be on their respective instruments.  Their previous six albums had already produced songs that still play on rock radio today (“I’ve Seen All Good People”, “Roundabout”, “Starship Trooper”).  Each album had been more successful and more technically accomplished than the last.  Detractors said the music had no heart and was losing that primal connection the best rock music always had.  Fans of progressive rock saw them as a band that could potentially write an album that would stand up there with the greatest compositions of our time.  In fact, some thought they could surpass the classical masters.

Unfortunately, singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe bought into that latter vision but instead of involving the rest of the band, they decided to write their masterpiece mostly themselves.  Anderson was reading a book called Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.  He became fascinated by a long footnote and started writing the concept.  He enlisted Howe and the two began hammering out basic musical ideas.  The result is the purest example of rock and roll excess that I know of.

Tales From Topographic Oceans is a double album.  Each album side contains only one song or suite as the case may be.  Each song speaks to a different spiritual subject.  Since there are only four songs, let’s take a quick look at each with a little help from the band themselves as they describe what’s going on.  WARNING:  Things are going to get snarky.

Track 1 – The Revealing Science of God: Dance of the Dawn (Running time – 20:23)

This track is based on Hindu scripture called the Vedas which are “revealed” to the practitioner.  Anderson is quoted as saying, “It should have just been The Revealing, but I got sort of hip.”

Hip, indeed!  Nothing is more "rock and roll" than a nine word song title with a colon.

Track 2- The Remembering: High the Memory (Running time – 20:35)

This track refers to epic poems called “smriti”.  Anderson described it as, “A calm sea of music”.  He supposedly directed the band to “play like the sea” with “rhythms, eddies, swells and undercurrents.”

Remember, none of the other musicians were included in the writing so being directed by their singer on what to do became a little bit of a sore point.

Track 3 – The Ancient – Giants Under The Sun  (Running time – 18:37)

This track is supposed to be about ancient times and supposedly contains eighteen “ancient” allegories.  Anderson commented on this one by saying, “Steve’s guitar is pivotal in sharpening reflection on the beauties and treasures of lost civilizations.”

Yes, you read that right.  You're supposed to be reflecting on the "beauties and treasures of lost civilizations" while listening to this track.  Remember, this is only fifteen years after Buddy Holly sang about the beauties and treasures of Peggy Sue.  

Track 4 – Ritual – Nous Sommes du Soleil (Running time – 21:33)

The final track is about the rituals or rites of the Hindu religion.  Anderson described the bass and drum solos as a representation of the struggle between “evil and pure love.”

I've been to a lot of concerts and I've been in more than a few bands.  The bass and drum solos I've heard have always been a struggle between "yawning" and "Beer-run".  

(That was for you, Tommy Warren.)

All of the examples cited above bring up another point about concept albums in general and Yes as a band.  Rock music was born from and has ultimately always been about two things:  Sex and Rebellion.  Maybe the song lyrics weren't specifically about sex, but the guy singing usually portrayed himself as a rebel, whether he wore a leather jacket or a cardigan.

When it comes to concept albums, the majority of them usually happen when an artist takes himself/herself way too seriously.  Even the most successful concept albums are rarely fun as concepts.  Most are trying to pass along some lesson or truth within their story.

Yes as a band embodied this "taking yourself too seriously" concept long before Tales From Topographic Oceans.  The result is that when they are "on", they make fantastic music but when they are "off", they're so full of themselves that it really lands with a thud for all but their most devoted fans.  

What I'm saying is that your mileage may vary based on how much you love Yes, which is what I meant earlier when I said the album can be described as both a success and a failure. It reached number one on the UK album charts and number 6 on the US album charts, however critics gave it mediocre reviews overall.

No matter how you look at it though, one thing is absolutely undeniable.

Tales From Topographic Oceans is 100% completely full of itself.

Keyboardist Rick Wakeman left the band after the tour because he felt his contributions had been pushed aside for Howe and Anderson’s vision.  However it’s his frustrated quote to a journalist that sums up this album better than most. 

When asked why he was leaving, he supposedly said, “I got tired of fans asking me what the hell that album was about.”

If you want to hear the whole thing in one hour and a half shot, here's a link to it on YouTube.

Next week we're going to change things up a bit.  We're going to start looking at success stories for the last three entries in this series.  For many of you, there will be some surprises in here.

Speaking of surprises, why not check out my book, The Wash.  It's available on Amazon and I guarantee there are at least a few things in it that you won't see coming.

See you next week!


Anonymous said...

Anderson's voice gets on my nerves. Something was always off about Yes for me. I did a bit of reading and found out why - a bunch of vegetarians! I imagine these guys running around with a bunch of plastic swords speaking in fake accents living in fantasy worlds and wearing glimmering fabrics. They are all right musically, just not my cup of tea.

Who would win in a bar fight, Styx or Yes?

Cary said...

Styx would take them. Styx is from Chicago if I'm not mistaken. I think the murder rate speaks for itself.

Anonymous said...

That's what I thought too. I figure James Young would do most, if not all the damage.

In 1977 or 1978 there was a known band on tour that played a rehearsal set for a noontime concert at my middle school. It was short, like 20 minutes. I tried to verify with a buddy (he vaguely remembered it). I swear the band was Styx. It was my first amplified music experience. I am pretty sure it wasn't a cover band, and they were not that big yet, on the front end of Grand Illusion. I also remember a man child, who I think was Tommy Shaw. Two tour dates do coincide.

Tom said...

I have to listen to this right now!

Cary said...

"Have to" is strong language, Tom. :)

Actually, like I said it's an album that's beloved by some Yes fans (I work with one who worships it) and shrugged off by others.

Also, to Willy-P's point about Jon Anderson's voice, I have a similar issue. On many songs, I'm fine with it. On some though, it irritates. My favorite period of Yes though absolutely rankles the serious Yes fans I know. I like their 80's stuff when Trevor Rabin took over guitar duties and shared vocals with Anderson. Mostly, I like it because of the shared vocals, his tendency to pull them in a more rock/pop direction and the fact that he could fucking shred on a guitar when he wanted to. I remember seeing him on MTV playing "Starship Trooper" with them and matching every note from their original lineup, while playing with more fire and passion than the originals.

Anonymous said...

Topographic Oceans. Hmm, we want to cook something up. Let's put every ingredient that is in the kitchen all together in one pot. MMM, yum!

I proclaim a title revision:

Topographic Poor Judgement: Oceans that Lack Discretion

Tom said...

Jon Anderson's voice is a sweet lullaby compared to, say, Geddy Lee (and I'm a Rush megafan) .

Lisanne Harrington said...

My favorite part of your whole article is the line: Nothing is more "rock and roll" than a nine word song title with a colon. That actually made me giggle out loud!

While I'm not much into most of the bands you've been talking about, I do enjoy learning about the concept albums and all the behind the scenes stuff.

Can't wait for the next installment.

Anonymous said...


Does it change things for you knowing that this blog and all comments are auto generated in our Russian Bot factory?

Cary said...

You wish your Russian Bot Factory could come up with content this good!

(which is exactly what you would expect a Russian Bot Factory to say in order to muddy the trail)