Close To The Edge

Back in the day, Anthony Cartouche and I were somewhat into … I don’t know what we called it; progressive rock, art rock, whatever. There was a period when Yes way up on our agenda. From Fragile through Yessongs, we eagerly awaited every release (and every new Roger Dean cover). Their material from this period doesn’t get much airplay because a lot of it is too long for today’s radio programmers. With the exception of truncated versions of a few songs like “Roundabout” or “I’ve Seen All Good People,” they tended to be anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes long.
Close To The Edge, inside cover
It’s kind of too bad, because it was an era with the kind of ambition you just don’t hear anymore. Sure, it tended towards pretentiousness, but at least they tried.

So thank goodness again for XM Radio, which over the last week has played all eighteen minutes and forty-two seconds of “Close To The Edge” at least twice.

Well it’s interesting for me because shortly after this and “Tales From Topographic Oceans” I gave up listening to rock music almost entirely for about ten years. Hearing it now I can see very clearly what it was I was looking for in musical experience, and how the Yes guys were trying to put something like it out there. Also interesting because it points out the built-in characteristics of popular music that make it impossible to achieve what they were trying to do — at least in the way they were trying to do it.

That’s pretty opaque, isn’t it? Let me explain.

One thing that indelibly labels a casual listener from someone who really knows music is how they use the word “song.” Listening to a Brahms symphony, say that you “like this song” and you’ll immediately mark yourself as someone who won’t be taken seriously.

That’s because “song” is to “symphony” as “painting” is to “sculpture.” Don’t think it’s a judgment of quality or purpose; it’s a differentiation between two different things. If you looked at the Mona Lisa and gushed over what a wonderful “sculpture” it was, well, it would be difficult to do much more than smile politely at you and disengage from the conversation at the first opportunity.

A song is one of many musical forms. Wikipedia’s definition is as good as any to start with. Songs are vocal settings of a specific text, one that is usually poetic, frequently with a number of stanzas or verses alternating with repeated choruses (optional), sometimes an introduction or coda, or a bridge leading from the last chorus to the last verse.

Think of the overall structure of a typical popular song, and you’ve got the model for everything from Schubert to Britney Spears’ latest: an introduction, a verse, another verse, a chorus, another verse, a chorus, a bridge, verse and out.

Other musical forms are very different. Music conservatory students probably spend two solid semesters learning about them in all their permutations. It’s a difficult subject with a steep learning curve, but once you get up there the view is sensational. Among the more common are sonata-allegro; rondo; theme and variations; fugues; minuet and trio (or similar A-B-A forms). These common units can be combined into multiple-movement works like symphonies or concertos. A typical concerto might have a first movement sonata-allegro, a second slow movement in an ABA or variations form, and a concluding rondo. For example.

Frank Zappa was trying to do new things back then, too. I never really got into him, he always seemed too tongue-in-cheek for me. A few guys in college were deeply into this band named “Gentle Giant,” but by then I was too cool for rock music at all. (Note: that was a tongue-in-cheek remark.)

Now a song can have a great deal of inner complexity. But structurally it is what it is and can’t be something more. And this is where Yes hits the wall. Within the strictures and commercial limitations of popular music, the possibility for really interesting development and growth is pretty limited — and these remain songs. By virtue of not having any thematic material shorter than four bars to develop, they’re limited to simple modulations and reharmonizations. Fine as far as it goes, but it’s not Brahms’ Fourth. Plus, a lot of what I thought were their cooler musical effects were derivative of stuff done 100 years before.

Still, it was good to hear the old stuff again. It gave me a little bit of insight, and nostalgia even. Go figure. But if Proust could get six novels out of a cookie, I can linger over an old album side a little.

Maybe I can find “Topographic Oceans” on Limewire or something.

Tom McGee has been building web sites since 1995, and blogging here since 2006. Currently a senior developer at Seton Hall University, he's also a freelance web programmer and musician. Contact him if you have the need for a blog, web site, redesign or custom programming!

12 thoughts on “Close To The Edge”

  1. Nice. I sure did use to love me some Yes. I still have a soft spot for those wankers.

    The Rhino label reissued most of the classic Yes catalog on CD. I used to want to get Tales from Topographic Oceans on CD but it always rankled me that I’d have to pay for a 2-CD set, as the whole work was about 82 minutes long, just over the 79 minute capacity for audio CDs. But I succumbed and bought the Rhino edition a couple of years ago–you should too. The sound is excellent in all its pretentious and transcendent glory.

  2. In 1974 after purchasing this album at J.P. Snodgrass I anxiously put it on our home stereo which meant that I made my whole family listen to it in our small Brookpark house. They all fled to the far corners of the house until it had played through. I was underwhelmed by it at first but it grew on me and I even purchased it on itunes a few years ago. I like it for it’s lush atmospheric soundscapes more than it’s beat or rockiness. The sound makes me think of a rainy October woods. It was the last Yes album for me. I said No to their later efforts.

    But now in my dotage I think I’m finally over my too cool for whatever phase and I’ll catch up with Yes’ post Close to the Edge stuff.

  3. One thing about what you said about the meaning of the word “song”. There is apparently a wide range of opinions on it.

    According to Johnny Mercers biography, the idea for the “Songwriters Hall of Fame” was Johnny’s. So he got a few friends/colleagues involved, but the colleague that he really wanted to be involved was Irving Berlin. He hoped that Berlin would be the front man that would generate some intere$t in the project.

    In fact, Berlin was the one man that Mercer wanted to honor most with this project. The first time they pitched the idea to Berlin might’ve been in the form of a letter or maybe someone was sent to talk to Berlin. At any rate, Berlin rejected the idea because according to him, a songwriter was someone who wrote both the lyrics and composition of a song. And that wasn’t exactly what Johnny had in mind. He saw people who were only composers or only lyricists being songwriters too.

    The fly in Johnny’s ointment was that singers got all the glory for songs they didn’t even write, while the songwriters, who according to his definition included lyricists and composers, got little if any credit (other than monetary) for a songs success.

    After Berlin refused that first time, Johnny sent somebody else as his emissary, and this time that person just begun to say Johnny Mercer’s name and Berlin said “Oh, allright!” and got on the bandwagon. Berlin wasn’t portrayed as a pompous man at all in the book, altho he isn’t talked about much either, but on the meaning of the word “songwriter” Berlin had principles. Principles which he overcame with just the mention of Johnny Mercer’s name.

    I’m not sure what became of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Maybe you guys do. I hope it hasn’t evolved into a sellout like the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame has.

  4. Um, i see some familiar names listed as inductees, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Elton John among others, all deserving.

    But i think it unfair that The BeeGee’s are not on the list. Yes, i’m serious. They wrote some terrific “songs” for themselves and others. This is an outrage!

  5. The first name i looked up on the Songwriters Hall of Fame website was Kris Kristofferson because i think he’s one of the best songwriters of our time. He was inducted in 1985.

    Right now i’m reading Ellen Burstyn’s autobiography, and Kristofferson is in it. He was in some movie with her. He didn’t like his acting so he kept insisting on more and more takes to get it perfect. Ellen asked him “you don’t think you’re a good actor, you don’t think you’re a good singer, so what are you good at?” . He answered, in typical Kristofferson fashion, with a succinct “I’m a poet.”

  6. Well Irving Berlin is full of it, and it wouldn’t be the first time. He’s quibbling over something that’s just a technicality; lyricist, songwriter, composer — where do they separate? Schubert wrote the best songs, and I doubt he composed a lyric in his life. Mahler and Strauss wrote songs and they were all based on pre-existing texts (and by some pretty damn good poets too). The great classical composers knew enough to stick with what they did and crib words from the experts.

    Meanwhile back in our own times, Sheryl Crow’s first big hit, “All I Wanna Do,” is based on a lyric she read in some off-the-wall poetry journal somewhere. So she’s not a songwriter? Ira Gershwin wasn’t a songwriter? Oy.

    I notice my man Tom Waits isn’t in the Hall Of Fame. Screw that. Neither is George Harrison. The Bee Gees are there, just under their individual real names. So I think it’s unfair that they are on the list, but George and Tom aren’t.

    I can’t believe Johnny Mercer would so glibly dismiss royalties. Could you tell me without looking it up who first sang “Moon River”? Sic transit gloria, ya know. But royalties are where the money is. Copyrights last as good as forever these days (as long as Florida has a senator willing to go to bat for Disney, they’ll keep on extending Mickey Mouse’s, and everyone else’s, copyright protection forever).

    So if you had taken the precaution of writing, for example, “Yesterday,” you and your kids and their kids might never have to work a day in their life. That is not a trivial reward when after a while everybody forgets who first sang “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” but everyone knows who wrote it.

  7. I don’t know for sure who first sang Moon River. Probably Johnny himself or the composer he worked with. But other than that i would say it was Audrey Hepburn. In the book they say that while Audrey sang it first in the movie, there were so many others that did after her, but Johnny Mercer always thought that Audreys version was the best.

    Did i guess right or is this a trick question?

    Johnny didn’t dismiss royalties at all. In fact he fought to have the copyright laws changed to extend the length of time they were in effect. But he just wanted songwriters to get their due credit.

    Do you not think The Bee Gees are deserving? Or are you just saying that they should’ve come after Waits and Harrison?

  8. Just saying that Waits and Harrison deserve it too, and probably first (though really, does anybody pay attention to these things?)

    Ironic that the rock-and-roll era brought in precisely what Mercer wanted. Once the singer/songwriter model took over everyone knew who the writers were. Even in a lot of acts that didn’t write their own material, people paid attention.

  9. I don’t usually pay attention to these things altho i did pay attention to the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame inductees and still do to some extent, altho every year it gets to be more and more of a joke.

    But never even knew about the Songwriters Hall of Fame (altho i’m sure i’ve heard the term) until reading the book and then decided to look see who was in there.

    The singer/songwriter model is what is referred to as “the end of Tin Pan Alley” then.

  10. Speaking of George Harrison, have you heard they’re getting ready to announce the release of a CD of the “Lost 15”, which is 15 songs recorded live by The Beatles in a German club in 1962?

    And 8 of these songs have never appeared on a Beatles album before. One of them has George Harrison on vocals. Why do you suppose they didn’t use him more on vocals? He was a good singer. Just as good as the big two. I still have a hard time differentiating between Lennon and McCartneys voices. I have to listen a few seconds or more to figure out which one it is. Harrisons voice was different.

    This is the link to the article, which includes a link to soundclips of the songs:

  11. Looks interesting. I wonder if any of them are in German?

    So yeah, the end of Tin Pan Alley. In the rock era, it didn’t matter anymore if the singer had a great voice. Just had to have that rock-and-roll spirit. Neil Young would have always been a great writer, but he couldn’t have gotten arrested in the ’40s.

    But you know, talent always gets recognized. I was in my local mega-chain coffee house this morning (you’d recognize the name instantly, no pun intended) and they were playing Sinatra, “That Old Devil Moon.” Nelson Riddle is justifiably well-known for his killer arrangements. So not just singer, lyricist, composer, “songwriter” … you can also add arranger. And probably producer, too.

  12. A lot of people, myself included, are aware that there are other people behind the scenes that make a “song” a success. Rarely do they (I) know the names of those people who wrote the music or lyrics, or arranged it or produced it. I think there are more people that are like that than are like you. You pay attention to those things because they matter to you. There are a few names I know. One that pops into mind is Dolly Parton. Stop laughing! Everytime Whitney Houston sings “I Will Always Love You” Dolly laughs all the way to the bank. She’s actually a very smart business woman. The dumb blond act is just that.

    At any rate, these behind the scenes people are beginning to matter to me to. I’m learning a lot from you. I’m also looking for a good Alan Lomax book, having just finished that Ellen Burstyn bio. Will do some research on Nelson Riddle. Maybe he’s got a story.

    BTW, Neil Youngs vocal stylings are another of those which are an acquired taste. Not sure i’ve completely acquired it yet. Something nerve-grating about his voice. Whiny or something.

    Going to arrive in CLE tonite and then off to PA tomorrow morning btw. Folks are back in PA. Back to CA on Tues.

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