Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Tales of a 13 Year Old - Yes in My Teens

Steve Howe on the Sunset Strip, 1973
Rock critics tend to harp on a single aspect of music and deride everything that doesn't fit their obsession. In the 70s, the predominant bent was a critic who, as a "purist," felt that rock derived its energy from its rebellious stance, embraced Iggy and the Ramones, and insisted that anything else was "for girls." Progressive Rock, therefore, was girly as all hell, it took its cues from symphonic girly music, and who had the energy to slam dance to a twenty-minute opus? There was nothing less rebellious than classical music. One can only imagine the critic sidled up to the bar at CBGBs drunk-talking about Lou Reed ready to punch anyone who listened to sissies like Camel or Yes. And indeed, fists flew when Yes released Tales From Topographic Oceans.

Now keep in mind that in 1973 I was thoroughly immersed in progressive rock and as a teen, plunking down the funds for a double LP meant I was going to like it or else, so forget the fact that Tales comprised four 20+ minute rock songs about the meaning of life as derived from Eastern spirituality that assumed we had no homework and could sit around for 85 minutes to have the science of God revealed; I plain wasn't going to do my homework and Pamela Dumouchelle liked someone else, so yeah.

When I first heard it, it was admittedly a bit boring, but I was high and fell asleep and then there was that pretty French theme about the sun and that incredible guitar on "The Ancient,"- indeed Howe's riffs and finesse were endlessly inventive - and by listen number two (really angry over a Pamela phone call designed only to get my goat), I started to understand and appreciate the nuances hidden in within the heady incumbrances. But why would a young man with a girl on his mind find anything even remotely appealing about Tales when he could have easily sat for the same length of time and snuggled in the teenage angst of Quadrophenia? I had no clue, but I suddenly couldn't get enough of it. It was the same kind of feeling when in college, still high, I discovered that I understood A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (or more intrinsically Dylan Thomas' A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog). It was difficult, and that was ultimately intriguing. In retrospect, oddly, I find "The Revealing Science of God" to be nothing more than a simple rock song, dronelike in its adherence to rock's favorite E major. And that was Tales in general, simple, if oddly syncopated; rock songs with oodles of adornment.

While far from the greatest progressive rock LP, if you're looking for the ultimate prog album (penultimate maybe; I'm thinking Pictures at an Exhibition might have those bragging rights), look no further. Tales is quite simply awe-inspiring in its bombastic conception and delivery, which was no simple task considering that Wakeman hated the album and confessed to contributing little (still managing to offer some of the finest Yes keyboard work). One of the drags of the original LP was the muddled production that sounded like runny watercolors, merky and dull, but that's where we're in luck: two words – Steven Wilson. Here Wilson's remixes (Tales, 2016) make an overwhelming difference and truly bring the LP to life. Keep in mind that Tales is no AM10, and realistically only squeaks over a 7, but often what emerges from the LP is the best that Yes had to offer (the first two minutes of "Science" are sublime). Bottom line, to enjoy Tales of Topographic Oceans, one needs an attention span, patience with the repetition of themes and a bottle of wine. Jon Andersons lyrics are typically naff, impenetrable rubbish that only mean anything when you're high (is that a bad thing?), nonetheless these esoteric Tales are a great place to get lost.

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