Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes Paperback – Sep 1 2008
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'Fascinating... book of the month' Record Collector'(Welch's) insider's eye view makes for a refreshing account of the times.' Mojo.
About the Author
Chris Welch is among the UK's best known music journalists. After a long and distinguished career on Melody Maker, he became editor of Metal Hammer magazine and has also edited Rock World. He ws amongst the first British writers to champion Yes in the late Sixties. He has travelled and toured with them and interviewed them on numerous occasions. He has also written books on Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Peter Gabriel and Genesis. He lives in Kent.
Top Customer Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The major "problem" with the book is that Mr. Welch is clearly a fan of the band, and the writing tends to be geared more toward a press release, with very little critical view of either the personalities or the music. Almost every album is mooted as "their best yet," and highlights of the various songs are then presented. Each musician to come and go is praised for contributing, but rarely is that contribution put much into the context of what "Yes music" might all be about, and whether that contribution was really what the band needed. Someone left, someone came in to replace him, and it's all to the good.
Yes's music has always been very forward-looking, life-affirming, spiritual and positive, so it's entirely possible that all the members are just wondrous chaps who delight in each other's respective companies, but the various cracks and hints here and there argue that it isn't always so. None of these cracks, hints and arguments are explored with any great depth; we do hear about Rick Wakeman's disappointment with "Topographic Oceans" and the fact that no one--no one--seemed to like the "Union" album. Bill Bruford's frustration with the Yes direction is explored, and though Jon Anderson was sometimes referred to as a "Hitler" or a "Napoleon" there's not a lot here why people would call him that--he comes across as a nice guy who wants the music to be good. (Who would object to the music being good?) Otherwise they just meshed perfectly and created the "Yes sound" each and every time.
I don't want to sound too critical of this book; it's well written, I enjoyed it and it is remarkably thorough as a history of the band and its fortunes. Mr. Welch was there when many of the events in Yes's career actually happened, so there's no third-hand filter. It just seems a little too smooth, a little too hesitant to probe, a little too much like a bio a record company might release in advance of a tour.
Recommended for its impressive arsenal of facts, insider knowledge and interviews with a band that's always seemed very private, even when they were conquering the world.
Since this is a history book, I suppose it's fair to include all the dirt you can dig up. I had to give it a two star rating for all the research that must have gone into the writing. However, I found it rather depressing to focus for hours on end about every inter-band squabble, fights with managers, financial disputes, and detailing elaborate insults of the band's music. By the time you are done reading the book, you just want to throw it against the wall. This stands in complete contrast to Yes' music itself, which is so filled with hope, love, and a cosmic view of life, that you just want to absorb it more and more. But then again, that contradiction is at the core of Welch's historical analysis of their career-- the high spiritual ideals in the music versus the cut-throat functioning of a rock band in the superstar 70s when money flowed like milk and honey. The story goes like this: band pursues an idealistic vocation in the arts, is popular and in demand but didn't tour long enough to get ahead financially (according to their manager Brian Lane), spent freely (well, at least one of them), then collided with the changing winds of music fashion and couldn't adjust to the financial realities, shattering the band in half. Enter the Drama period. It's a perfectly valid history to pursue, but an unbalanced one that gives short thrift to a band's art. With Yes you get a total artistic experience: from the high quality music, the elaborate harmony vocals, lyrics inspired by eclectic theologies, the surreal album covers, the innovative concert stages, epic poems in their tour programs, even interviews filled with counterculture ideas about spirituality and vegetarianism. There were few bands that used every artform and platform to envelop you in another dimension of life. It was mystique to the nth degree. Yes were the higher order thinking of the rock world. Welch's task was to peak behind the mystique and expose the foibles, which he is successful at, but he does so at the expense of the art.
The editorial policy of Chris Welch seems to be quite simple-- their first two albums are excellent, the third one, The Yes Album, is astounding, Fragile is great, but after that it's mostly downhill with the exception of Going for the One. Oh, and he loves 90125. He hated Topographic Oceans and loved 90125-- do you really need to know much more than that? For a supposed fan of progressive rock, he comes off as a real lightweight in terms of his tastes: you can embellish songs with instrumental tangents but nothing more. Stemming from this, counter-viewpoints are rarely heard (he does mention that Trevor Horn likes Topographic and Relayer) and this is bound to piss off a lot of fans for whom the "high prog" period of the mid 70s is their favorite because it represents the peak of their creative freedom and ambition to push boundaries. Unfortunately, literally ANY attack the band members made about any album or song immediately seems to be put in the book. It's such a mud-slinging fest it's hard to keep track of all the insults. At least, this is the way it comes off, especially for someone like me who likes virtually all the different styles they have explored and doesn't have a rigid template the band has to adhere to (and which in any case can be the death to creativity).
Probably the worst example of this book's style is how Bruford is used to pummel the band. Welch makes it clear that Bruford is his favorite drummer at the time of prog's heyday. Fair enough-- we all loved him. But does this mean that eveything he says should be trotted out no matter how illogical? According to Bruford, because Yes was always chasing their financial tail, they could never create good art, except when he was in the band, of course. But miraculously, after that their music stagnated and they, and all prog bands, should have ceased to exist. Their music was always compromised, as opposed to his band, King Crimson, which only ever produced respectable art unhinged from financial concerns. Now get this-- Bruford says in the book that he NEVER HEARD Tales from Topographic Oceans, AND that he loved "Owner of a Lonely Heart"!!! How are we supposed to respect someone's opinion that Yes' music was compromised by rank commercialism when he admits he NEVER listened to their most complex masterpiece, Tales from Topographic Oceans, but loved their radio-friendly chart topping dance single "Owner of a Lonely Heart"? He actually manages to discredit himself as any kind of expert on Yes' music, yet Welch never even questions this obvious logical inconistency. I don't even want to get into comparing King Crimson's output versus Yes' catalogue over the decades, but I'll stick with my Yes collection anytime, anywhere, and I have quite a bit of both bands albums and admire both groups. The only reason nonsense like this is put in the book unquestioned is because Welch agrees with it: 90125 is wonderful and Topographic Oceans is not to be mentioned unless you are insulting it. Do you still want to read it now?
The comments by lighting man Michael Tait are nearly as infuriating. According to him, Tales from Topographic Oceans is no good because the band ran out of ideas, and there are no "songs" on it, by which he means simplistic verse/chorus structures. Nonsense. There are plenty of songs on Topographic Oceans, even if knitted together with one another as well as adventurous musical passages, all interrelated over four sides of music. This isn't allowed in progressive rock? All Topographic Oceans did was peak out the genre with a more symphonic approach, and only Mike Oldfield came close to topping it with his incredible double album Incantations. Tait also says that their solo album period was a complete mistake. Never mind the contradiction between "running out of ideas" and the fact that all five band members churned out solo albums just after having cranked out Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans (a double album), and Relayer-- all spiritually inspired albums of complexity and depth. I guess we're supposed to assume that Tait's remarks made it into the book because Welch agrees with it, as there is no serious discussion of the excellent music on these beloved solo albums that in many ways were the icing on the cake of their mid 70s period. "Running out of ideas" should not have been the theme here-- overflowing with ideas is more like it.
This book is more of an assault on the band's art than anything else, and not a particularly logical one at that. It reads like this: Steve Howe hates Yeswest, everyone hates Union, their epics are "indigestible," Trevor Horn hates "Don't Kill the Whale," Wakeman and Welch hate Topographic Oceans and Relayer, everyone in the known universe hates "Circus of Heaven," Howe hates Relayer (this one I find hard to believe considering he performed almost the entire album for three years), most of them hate Tormato, Trevor Rabin hates "Holy Lamb," Open Your Eyes was a rush job, blah blah blah blah blah blah. What's never acknowledged is that Yes doing a rush job, recording under the gun of a deadline, throwing two bands music onto one album, taking a chance on a rock album with a symphonic scope, or even trying for a hit single, will nevertheless produce more magical music than most bands will ever be able to muster. Now that's a talent worth writing a book about!
Another annoying thing is the way Welch selectivley uses Yes' awards in the Melody Maker polls to buffer his opinions. He glows about the awards they won in 1973 after Close to the Edge, but fails to mention that in late 1974 the same polls awarded Anderson and Howe #1 for Best Composers, while Tales from Topographic Oceans won the #3 position for best album. This selective use of facts is suspicious at best. Topographic Oceans is a much-loved work, and when Prog magazine recently had their readers vote for their top 100 prog albums of all time, Topographic Oceans came in at #22 and Relayer came in at #19. That's hardly evidence of a failure on the band's part to create an interesting work of enduring value. And both these albums out-polled Welch's apparent favorite, The Yes Album, which came in a #32. What is it that progressive rock fans are able to see in Topographic Oceans that Welch can not? At other times, he unwittingly reveals he doesn't know their epic works at all. At one point he says that Roger Dean's painting for Relayer is based on some lyrics from the Relayer album, which he quotes. Only the "lyrics" he is quoting are actually a poem by Donald Lehmkuhl that was on the inside of the gatefold cover and did not appear in the lyrics of Relayer's three superb tracks. Lehmkuhl receives no mention in the book, despite the fact that his fascinating philosophical poems were a major highlight in two of their US tour programs, and he was the main writer for Roger Dean's book The Flight of Icarus.
Probably the final insult is how Welch is kowtowing to the endlessly rehashed viewpoint that punk killed prog, or that prog CAUSED punk because of epics like Tales from Topographic Oceans, and that punk somehow discredited prog. First of all, punk had very little influence in the US at all. For example, Yes performed to two full amphitheaters every year in Chicago in the 1970s, and that went on before, during, and after punk's heyday in the late 1970s, while punk bands were mostly playing in small clubs. New wave and techno-pop were much more the reinvention of mainstream pop in the US, helped along with their champions at MTV and newly restricted radio formats. Pop genres come and go as new generations seek a new identity through fads in fashion and culture, and there's no ethical dimension that can be attached to that, i.e. "good music" versus "bad music". British invasion wasn't good because the folk revival was bad, psychedelia wasn't good because the British invasion was bad, singer-songwriters weren't good because psychedelia was bad, prog wasn't good because singer-songwriters were bad, and punk wasn't good because prog was bad. All these genres produced some good art, and that includes Yes just as much as The Buzzcocks, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, or Joan Baez. But somehow, critics started this deranged idea that punk was good because it trashed the "excesses" of prog, and whenever I hear it regurgitated I just have to roll my eyes. Someone spearheads a genre and artists gather within it until the boundaries are explored, and then a new musical language (or reinvention of an old one) comes along. You would hope that Chris Welch, a Yes champion from day one, would be free of this nonsense, but you would be wrong. Maybe we should have expected this because of his anti-Topographic stance.
Don't read this book unless you are interested in the financial melodramas of Yes. To be quite honest, it's so compulsive in defaming their post-1972 work that after reading the section on the UNION album I found myself thinking, "they're right, that was a horrible album." But then I thought again-- why not just pop it on and half listen while reading? And you know something, it reminded me of all the good music on the album in spite of the way it welded together Yeswest and Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe. Demos that surfaced later showed that some superb ABWH tracks like "Take the Water to the Mountain" and "Dangerous" had been hatcheted almost in half, but overall there is still a lot of good music to be heard. Union may be an awkward album, but I would not let the subject pass without discussing incredible tracks from both camps, like the ecology anthem "Miracle of Life," the spacey and metaphysical "Angkor Wat," the inspirational "Without Hope You Cannot Start the Day" and "The More We Live- Let Go," as welll as oddities like "Silent Talking." None of these gets a mere mention let alone any serious discussion.
Probably the most bewildering aspect of this book is how little commentary there is by the two most consisent members of the band, Jon Anderson and Chris Squire. These two, along with Howe, have largely been responsible for the flood of positivity that has streamed forth from Yes like a benediction into the consciousness of their audience. If only this had come across from reading Chris Welch's book, there might have been an upside for the fans who will read it. He actually does make some comments along these lines in the early part of the book, but they get buried in the tsunami of insults and scandal to follow. Welch states, "Yes is much more than a joke about curry on the organ, or a series of internal rows about money, or the reasons behind its shifting personnel. It is about the power to create music that moves the heart and mind." If only he had remembered this as he was writing! What it desperately needs is a parallel analysis of their artistry that is free from the infighting and insults that dominates the writing. And the unbalanced trashing of their masterpiece, Tales from Topographic Oceans, is a historical and critical tragedy.
Perhaps I should have had a clue of what was to come when he reviewed Time and Word, their second album, early in the book. He liked the album, but not the title track nor it's orchestration. When people ask me what Yes' music is all about, I usually point directly to this song. It contains the essence of the idea that would sustain the band's entire career: "There's a time and the time in now and it's right for me, it's right for me, and the time is now/ There's a word, and the word is love and it's right for me, it's right for me, and the word is love." That joyous mantra, with horns and strings blazing along, is the central idea that Yes has been exploring all along, and they have sustained that feeling from basic rock songs like "Don't Kill the Whale" right through to their most challenging art,Tales form Topographic Oceans. If he can't see and point that out, it's dimishines what the rest of the book could have been.
Perhaps it is better to see Welch's book as just one viewpoint of the band's history, and wait for other books to come along to explore other aspects of their career. If it's an economic soap opera you are after, then this is a valuable book. If it's a celebration of their artistry, then look elsewhere.
This e-book needs proof reading to resolve the countless errors where words are sp lit. Annoying isn't it?
Overall I enjoyed the book and would suggest if you're a Yes fan, give it a go.
I think Chris Welch's writing can be a bit odd, and I don't think it's just because he's British. He just has a style that is a little unorthodox, plus he's an insider with the band and maybe he's just being a bit too familiar. The only other thing I don't like is some of the time the author spends discussing specific songs, detailing lyrics or how the band members played/sang. I would prefer biographical information without the disection of the music.
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