Music Features

Why I Love Tales From Topographic Oceans

Rock critics fall into different camps, each loving a particular aspect of the music and deriding everything that doesn’t exemplify their obsession. In the 70’s the predominant strain was the critic who felt that rock derived its energy from its rebellious pose and its adherence to the Black American experience from which it sprang. And so we had legions following the inimitable Lester Bangs, whose heroes were the anti-heroic Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, and Robert Christgau, whose soul was steeped in Soul, leading him to focus his considerable attention on Hip Hop and African/World music as time went on. These keen observers and others like them did not react well to the whole progressive rock thing, with its faux-Classical pretensions and its seemingly endless indulgence. Seen from this point of view one can understand their frustration. The 10-20 minute excursions that bands like Yes, ELP, Genesis and King Crimson were embarking upon took their cues from symphonic music as much as anything they heard in the late 50s and 60s. There couldn’t be a more “establishment” form by the time they were born than the Classical/Romantic tradition and so to imitate it could hardly be taken as a rebellious or revolutionary maneuver, and further, there couldn’t be a music more removed from the African American idiom than that of the 19th century composers from which they claimed so much inspiration.

But of course this is painting with a broad brush and certainly by the 20th century Jazz and even Blues had seeped into the works of major composers like Dvorak, Stravinsky and Gershwin, and so the idea of incorporating it into longer, organized forms was hardly new. But this blending ran against the current of critical rock opinion prevalent in the 70s which disliked the pretentious pose on principle and thought that the longer, “whiter” approach robbed Rock of its essential vitality. There was some truth to this and time only served to galvanize this opinion, crystallizing it in the 1984 film “This is Spinal Tap”, whose titular band sang about Stonehenge with dancing elves and recorded an album called ‘The Gospel According to Spinal Tap’, clearly modeled on Tales from Topographic Oceans. By now, Tales is so thoroughly dismissed that the few who even know about it mostly consider it a joke. But I’m here to tell you why the naysayers are wrong, and why I learned to stop worrying and love TfTO.

First, let me start by admitting that the critics are right to suggest that recording 4 20+ minute rock songs about the meaning of life as derived from Eastern spirituality is a laughably absurd and presumptuous notion. Who the hell did they think they were? Were we supposed to sit around for 100 minutes while some long-haired wanker revealed to us the “science of God”? It’s still funny to even think about. Keyboardist Rick Wakeman famously left the group in disgust after recording the album, though it’s hard to argue that he was offended by the pomposity since he quickly went on to present a musical version of the King Arthur legend performed on ice. So employing the axiom of sticking to what you know, a twenty something English rock star like Jon Anderson probably shouldn’t have expounded at such length on the Shastric Scriptures, using whatever info he could glean from a footnote.

But crucial insights into the meaning of life are not what I love about TfTO, and yes, I do love it. My problem is, I decided to write this ode to the neglected classic long before I figured out exactly why I loved it. When I first heard it as a rabid Yes fan in my teens I pretty much drank the Kool Aid; it was boring and bloated with a cute tune at the end of Ritual and some great classical guitar closing The Ancient. But the years have done strange things to my listening habits, and instead of always looking for the quick payoff I’ve learned to appreciate the value of sitting back and just waiting, reveling in the small things. To give you a concrete example, Steve Howe’s guitar work, here and elsewhere, is a constant source of amazement to me. He’s like the Charlie Parker of rock guitar; endlessly inventive, technically superior, and always buoyantly exuberant. Listen to the opener and centerpiece, The Revealing Science of God. The man never stops, and he drives the song along with his relentless riffing and varying tones. His opening guitar phrase, which serves as a leitmotif for the entire work, is a thing of beauty, descending, ascending and then descending again (think of how we jump for joy), all without a single chordal modulation.

And that’s the funny thing, because at root Revealing Science is just a great, simple rock song, almost dronelike in its adherence to E major. We’re not talking about twelve-tone music here, folks. Even when it veers off into its minor midsection, the changes are fairly conventional and hardly dissonant. No, the only thing required here is patience. If you listen to the song enough you realize that not one of the 20 minutes is wasted, which is admittedly not something that can be said for some of the other tracks.

Which brings us to The Remembering, a far weaker track but hardly dismissible. The mood shifts from anthemic to lingering, and its best to let the majority of it wash over you. Things start to pick up about 9 minutes in with a jaunty interlude followed by a propulsive groove. But on this track we start to realize the limitations of the conceit they are acting under, namely filling the space of four album sides with one song each. Mahler had much greater flexibility composing his 9th symphony for the concert hall, a work of similar length whose movements range from a more fluid 12 to 25 minutes. But just because not every song is as riveting for a whole side as Revealing Science is, doesn’t mean there aren’t riches aplenty to be found. Opening The Ancient over an idiosyncratic rhythm section is a lengthy doubled guitar passage which sounds to these ears like it’s all in thirds, giving it a spooky quality as it eschews typical harmonic rules, which would require that the intervals would change to suit the underlying chords. And as this slowly morphs into probably the greatest work Howe ever did on classical guitar, we find a good reason for any serious rock fan to love this band – they were constantly adventurous and vibrant, subverting expectations at every turn and usually rocking out in the process. This was the exact opposite approach of a band like Can, whose trance-inducing minimalist epics actually get a lot of rock crit respect. I guess it depends on the drugs you take, psychedelics or speed.

On side four the mood turns valedictory, perhaps a tad elegiac…ok, now I’m beginning to sound as pompous as they are. Ritual still makes an appearance at Yes shows and it’s not surprising since it has the most lyrical tune on the album. True, it is briefly interrupted by an extended drum workout that seems more like a bone thrown to new drummer Alan White than an integral part of the song. But otherwise this is a melodic and engaging song with a beautiful closing section (Nous Sommes du Soleil, which I guess is scientifically accurate at least). Before this though is my favorite part of the whole experience as the band starts to chugalug at the 12 minute mark until finally Chris Squire lets loose on the bass and Howe comes barreling in with one last guitar extravaganza in a minor key culminating in a sudden switch to major and a series of pull-offs up and down the neck that would raise the dead. This leads into White’s showcase which is redeemed by the wonderful transition from cacophony to beauty at 16:56. Nous Sommes is Anderson at his most McCartney-esque, and recalls Douglas Adams’ quip about Paul writing a tune for Linda and “wondering what to buy with the proceeds, and thinking probably Essex.”

Defenders of Tales all say the same thing, almost defensively; sure it’s a long trek through the whole thing but there are moments of great beauty to be found if you listen closely. That’s true enough, but I’d also argue that most of this album is worth listening to. Your patience and attention will be rewarded. Yes was the best progressive rock band because they could take 5 different musical ideas, all great on their own, string them together, call it a song and by sheer force of will make it work. That’s the same virtue that made Mozart, Beethoven and Mahler such great symphonic composers and while I’m not drawing a direct comparison with that level of genius, I am saying that these guys were good enough to write 20 minute rock songs in a similar vein and get away with it. Tales from Topographic Oceans is where they took this gambit to the limit, 4 songs on four sides, and were vindicated by the end product.