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Close To The Edge

I have been watching YouTube quite a bit lately. Mainly to try and research new stories for my blog, but also just seeing what is out there in the vast wasteland of “vidiocy”. One of the things that has captured my attention is something called “reaction videos.” The ones I like to watch are videos of people reacting to hearing a song for the first time, and their subsequent opinion afterwards. The first one I watched was entitled “Classical composer reacts to Close To The Edge,” by the band Yes. This song is near and dear to my musical heart. I was first introduced to Yes by my brother back in 1973. He had seen them in concert at the legendary Winterland theater in San Francisco and they totally blew his mind. At that time Yes was doing a tour to promote their album of the same title, “Close To The Edge,” an album considered by many to be the ultimate in progressive rock. There are only 3 songs on the album, the title track which is over 18 minutes long and takes all of side one, and on the flip side there are2 other extended pieces “And You And I,” and “Siberian Khatru.” Recorded back in the dark ages of 1972, “Close To The Edge” (CTTE) stands the test of time as a truly remarkable piece of music. That first video I watched featured a classical composer, Doug Helvering, listening and then giving his analysis of the song, and it was actually pretty cool. “Close To The Edge” is a very complex piece of music, with a lot of key and time signature changes, and since I’ve loved the song ever since I first heard it, I really appreciated his insight into the bones of the song. I remember back in high school I took a music appreciation class, and one day the teacher told us that we could bring in any album we wanted to and he would give it a listen, so I brought in another Yes album, “Tales From Topographic Oceans” which is a double album with four compositions each around twenty minutes long. My teacher, who was a classical music aficionado, was unimpressed with the record, he thought it was boring. So ever since then I’ve had a kind of prejudice against classical music buffs, because while some people may find Yes music pretentious, you most certainly cannot find it boring, there is just too much going on, layer after layer of sound. Helvering’s reaction to the song was refreshing, he loved it! To me that was a vindication that this is indeed a great song. So, after that I ran into a bunch of other “reacters” who have posted their reactions of hearing CTTE for the first time. The results are really interesting, (I couldn’t believe these people had never heard about CTTE before, or any of the members of the band. Then I realized what an old fart I am and came back to reality.) From a young couple maybe in their late 20’s, to a hip-hop artist, to a 50 year old English guy, the videos run the gamut of ethnicity and age. The one that I liked the best was from a channel called “Polo Reacts” who proclaimed after listening that CTTE was the greatest song he had ever heard, another guy, Popenyco was in tears after he heard it. Like I said, I’ve been listening to Yes music for 50 years, have seen them in concert a half a dozen times and still listen to them regularly even today, so the reaction to the song was heartwarming. Yes was part of the musical explosion that happened in the late 60’s to the early 70’s. Heavily influenced by The Beatles and the The Beach Boys, Yes combined instrumental virtuosity with amazing vocal harmonies to help pioneer the progressive rock genre. Along with bands like Genesis, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Pink Floyd they thumbed their nose at the 3 and a half minute hit song, and instead focused on lengthy experimental songs that forced the listener to actually pay attention. CTTE, I feel maybe the best example of this. Starting out with what sounds like birds chirping, Rick Wakeman’s synth quickly gives way to Steve Howe’s unearthly guitar. Almost jazz-like in its discordant phrasing, Howe sounds like he is channeling some sort of space alien as he riffs over a bizarre keyboard and a rhythm section powered by the terse drumming of Bill Bruford and Chris Squire’s always melodic bass. The reactions to this intro always make me laugh because I know what’s happening and everyone else is in the process of getting their minds blown. The next section introduces the vocals to the mix. Very few of the “reacters” dare to delve into the meanings of Jon Anderson’s ethereal lyrics, for instance, the first verse goes “A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace, and rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace, and achieve it all with music that comes quickly from afar, and taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.” Anderson’s lyrics are basically stream of conscious, but if you do try and delve into them, he does tell a story. It’s not necessarily the words that matter however, it’s how the words fit into the feel of the song and coupled with his unique falsetto, gives Yes music it’s distinct character. At this point Chris Squire’s bass takes center stage, the bass line he sets down is at once funky and dirty sliding up and down in a syncopated time signature that drives the song. Howe utilizes an electric sitar to produce a unique rhythm for Anderson to sing over. The composition is divided into 4 parts, after the second movement the whole piece settles down to a mystical quiet, where Rick Wakeman uses his keyboards to craft a musical picture. The original vinyl album package includes some amazing surrealistic artwork by Roger Dean, one of which depicts his vision of what a Close To The Edge world might look like. This 3rd movement of the song always brings me to that illustration, it’s what makes the album a complete work of art. Coming out of the 3rd section, Wakeman is again featured this time on a church organ blasting powerful chords reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera, he builds a crescendo with Anderson singing the cryptic refrain “I get up, I get down” ending on an impossibly perfect high note. That simple little phrase, “I get up, I get down” has always intrigued me with its meaning, for me I always like to think of it as getting excited or “up” and then getting down, like getting down in the 70’s vernacular, sort of “gettin’ down, and getting’ funky, if you know what I mean. I’m probably way off base, but who cares, that one of the cool things about Yes music, you can always supply your own interpretation. Wakeman then launches into one of his best solos leading into the final 4th movement. The song then sort of reprises the first 2 movements before if finally builds to a resounding crescendo, with Anderson once again proving why he is regarded as one of the best singers around. After the crescendo the piece dissolves back to the original nature sound with Wakeman giving a little 6 note phrase as the song fades into silence. For a person like myself who has no formal training in music theory, this composition has always amazed me. This group of supremely talented musicians came up with something so unique, yet timeless, daring, yet beautiful, truly is a testament to their creativity. My brief description of this masterpiece doesn’t begin to describe all the texture and layers contained in it, so this isn’t a spoiler, hopefully its an enticement to give it a shot.

The beautiful thing about all of these reaction video’s is that people who would normally never consider listening to Yes, get exposed to this incredible music. Listening to them you can hear the influences of The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but you can also hear the influence of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra in the spacy, jazzy style of Steve Howe’s guitar, Howe is the master of what I like to call “the freaky lead solo” and is further exemplified in the side two track “Siberian Khatru.” I’ve never heard anyone phrase a solo like Steve Howe, who despite the complexity of Yes music is self-taught and can’t read sheet music. The band itself has been home to a great many different, very talented musicians, with 2 of their longest tenured players, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White having passed away. White in particular always astounded me, after original drummer Bill Bruford quit the band shortly after completing CTTE, White was brought in to replace him just days before they started the tour in support of the album. White was able to fill the position seamlessly, even though his style of drumming was dramatically different then Bruford’s, (every drummers style is dramatically different then Bruford’s unique style.) The band didn’t miss a beat, pun intended, the proof is in the 3 record live set they put out after CTTE, called Yessongs, another truly incredible album that showcased their live show, and features performances by both White and Bruford.

A lot of progressive music has been rightly derided as an excuse for virtuoso musicians to show off their skills at the cost of a meaningful song. With Yes you get that, there is always a showcase for the individual musician to show his wares, but It’s always done in the context of the song, it’s the song that matters, not how many notes you play. I think that is a major reason why all of these “reacters” come away, blown away by the song. If you have never listened to it, you should. If you love music like I do, even if you’ve never been interested in the genre, do yourself a favor and give an open minded listen to the music of Yes. Like all of these “reacters” I think you’ll get up and get down and be blown away as well.

Rock on Y’all

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