When I was a young music fan learning about rock history, most of what I loved was called pretentious by the music press. This bothered me. Close To The Edge?, that had to have been received as a masterpiece, no? The consensus said it hadn’t, and wasn’t. According to the Rolling Stone Record Guide, it was about the same quality as Steve Forbert’s second album and nowhere near as good as Willie Nile. Way worse, even, since nobody ever said that Forbert or Nile were pretentious. Their reach did not exceed their grasp. This was the tenor of the time: terror that bands would pretend to qualities or abilities or concepts that were beyond their ability to fully realize. Why rock critics were so intent on policing ambition was never 100% clear to me. It might have had something to do with radical democracy, or a belief that Shake, Rattle and Roll was what rock music was all about and any departure from youthful simplicity was a violation of the sacred code.
I love Shake, Rattle and Roll. Most of the time I can hear the argument that rock music is about cars and sexual frustration and that a songwriter complicates that formula at her great peril. Popular music is kid’s stuff in the best possible way, and that’s because the kids are alright. Through the lens of that understanding I can sorta see progressive rock as an affront to the verities, or to simple common sense, and I begin to understand why critics deemed the moondog and the march hare inappropriate to the enterprise. But I can’t help noticing that the writers who ran down Genesis and Rush and Marillion and Van Der Graaf Generator and the other groups that excited me were the same guys (and it was always guys) who insisted on canonizing their favorites in a Hall of Fame. Surely museum ossification was a greater affront to the very concept of youth music than Jon Anderson singing about Eastern religion, no? Couldn’t rock, generous as it is, accommodate some wondrous stories, too?
Besides, it never felt like pretentiousness was the issue with Yes, if there was any issue at all, which I’m telling you pal there wasn’t. Any group that would choose its moment of commercial ascendancy to record a double album with a single song on each of its four sides is going to get knocked for impracticality, and I can see how that would look very much like entitlement to blue collar heroes in the press. But the swell thing about Jon, as I understand him, is that for him, there was never any other possibility — he was going to sing about what moved him, and that was that. He wasn’t ever trying to impress anybody with his knowledge of the shastras, or of shining flying purple wolfhounds; he wasn’t a damned pseud. He read some holy books and was deeply moved, and this was the music that poured out of him. To me, that’s the very definition of soul. Obviously he wanted to sell records, too — his approach to showbiz was never all that esoteric. It just wouldn’t have dawned on Jon that the average man wouldn’t have been excited by the cosmic encounters he was having. Knock him for his taste, or his hippy-dippyness, but his pretenses weren’t the problem.
As for the rest of the musicians in the band, well, sure, they showed off. It was the era; guys in basic blooze bands showed off, too. But more often than not, they took a hokey, community-theatre approach to Jon Anderson’s storytelling. He’d sing “lost in the city”, and they’d drop in a few bars of wandering, rootless, lost-in-the-city music, or they’d knock over a big pile of automobile parts in the studio to simulate the “war” section of “Gates Of Delirium”. Squire may have felt that his frontman’s lyrics were googly-eyed, but he did his best to reinforce their dramatic significance. It was this absolute faith in the communicative power of the grand sonic gesture that really distinguished Yes; not just among progressive rock bands, but among Seventies acts in general. My feeling is that Jon, innocent Lancashire farmboy that he was, drove most of this cheese to market. But I rather think Howe and Wakeman and even Bill Bruford were predisposed toward illustrative playing, too. Sometimes they tried to get over on complicated bullshit, but it was rarely subtle and mysterious bullshit. They just wanted to take you high and blow your mind and leave you agog like any other bunch of shamen; they’d shake that medicine rattle right in your face.
Yes remains my very favorite band. I’m as big a fan as I was when I was 14; maybe even bigger, since I dig parts of the catalog that I used to find compromised by the endless lineup changes, or commercial considerations. I still consider Close To The Edge a masterpiece, and while critical consensus hasn’t exactly come around, I’m happy to say I’m not alone. Most of the pro musicians you’ll meet will confess to an appetite for prog; Scott Miller, to give you one example, could quote you Jon Anderson chapter and verse, and even appreciated records like Relayer and Going For The One that critics still like to slam for density and pretension. Echoes of Yes are intended to be heard straight across all the music I’ve ever made in every group I’ve ever played with, and I think the only reason why I’m never called pretentious is because I’m not good enough at my instruments to make anybody think of prog-rock. But all of my projects wear their pretensions pretty boldly, and of course they do, because how am I ever going to make myself into something dazzling if I can’t pretend, unconscionably I’m sure, to be dazzling first? Even if I never get there, I would like people to remember that I tried.
Much as I’d love it to be, “The Prince Of Daylight” isn’t really a prog-rock song; there’s no widdly-widdly Moog solo, it’s not in a tricky time signature, it isn’t a multi-part epic, there’s no Roger Dean drawing that would suit it well. It takes place right here on earth — in New York City, where a kid is wondering if he’s permanently estranged himself from a God who might not be listening, anyway. That’s a pretty far cry from cars and sexual frustration and I can’t get no satisfaction. But I don’t drive, and I don’t flatter myself that anybody would be interested in my adventures in romance. And sometimes I *do* get satisfaction; certainly not every day, but often enough that if I’m being honest when I’m writing, I’m bound to inscribe those moments when the combination lock to reality suddenly clicks into place and snaps open. That’s what we’ve got here, and all references to Yes, and Pink Floyd, and Fish-era Marillion are absolutely intentional. Alex Lifeson, too, I mean, Jay Braun plays guitar on this number.