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(1974 Album) Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans

We move from one the finest ever rock operas in “Quadrophenia” to one of the dodgiest concept albums in existence. However, as dodgy as the concept of “Tales from Topographic Oceans” undoubtedly is (based on no more than a footnote from ancient Shastric scriptures) it remains – somewhat bizarrely – my favourite ever Yes album.

I’ll be honest and say that my attraction to this album was enhanced by the terrific cover art by Roger Dean. Although he had been working with the band for some time and had produced other beautiful covers for them, “…Topographic..” was the first time I REALLY noticed his artistic skills.

Skills which I openly admit I tried to emulate. Skills and ideas which – at least from the previews I have seen – James Cameron appears to be ripping off wholesale for the general appearance of vistas in his new movie “Avatar

The album itself is a four-part opus split over two slabs of vinyl. The four cuts are as eccentrically named as the album itself…

“The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)” (Part One / Part Two)
“The Remembering (High the Memory)” (Part One / Part Two)
“The Ancient (Giants under the Sun)” (Part One / Part Two)
“Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)” (Part One / Part Two)

… and none can be strictly described as ‘songs’. They’re more like noodly compositions that go off an a million-and-one flights of fancy. They were all written by singer Jon Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe and it has often been suggested that the only reason fellow band members Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White are credited is because they complained so loudly about their lack of involvement in the process.

It’s certainly not an album for everyone. I remember one of the best reviews of it (and there were lots of negative vibes about it in the music press at the time) said something along the lines of it having ‘no warmth’ and that’s about the best way I can describe it too.

You can’t sing along to it, you can’t dance to it and about the best you can do is mime along to the finger cymbals that make an appearance from time to time. If truth be told I can’t really explain why I like it, but I do. It and “Fragile” are the only two Yes albums I have listened to and stuck with over the years… so it must have something going for it?

It feels haphazard, several pieces sounding as if they’re just made up on the spot, almost freeform. Undermining this though are Anderson’s later public remarks about the recording, saying it was done with meticulous precision. Rick Wakeman has subsequently been VERY critical about it, saying that for much of the time they spent in the studio supposedly laying down tracks he was in a room next door drinking and playing darts. (He left the band following the “Tales from…” tour)

Despite gaining an unfair reputation that this album represented all that was excessive and bad about Prog Rock, it shot to Number 1 on the UK album chart and spent over six months on the American album chart, topping out there at Number 6.

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January 7th 1974

“Berfday. Got lamp, pygamas, £2 from Mormor – bought Stranded – Roxy – Smart!”

So the wild and crazy out-of-control teenager turns 16 and celebrates with … erm… some pyjamas (mis-spelled), a lamp (a lamp??) and a couple of quid from his Danish grandmother.

However, it seems like I made up for it a little later in the day, treating myself to the merest glimpse of Marilyn Cole’s nipples….erm, I mean Roxy Music’s third album, Stranded

Stranded was the group’s first album without Brian Eno, he and Bryan Ferry having fallen out over who was really ‘leading’ the band. With all due respect to Eno, I do feel as though the ‘better man won’ in that regard. Ferry is a stylish crooner in comparison to Brian’s somewhat grotesque “Addams Family” appearance and thin vocals.

(In time, Eno would turn out to be a MUCH bigger hero of mine than Ferry, but we’ll save my feelings on that until reference to him appears in my diary pages)

To enter the grooves of  Stranded one must first get by the striking cover art. Another Anthony Price photo shoot, another superb piece of glamorous titillation. Despite coming from Portsmouth in England, model Marilyn Cole grew up to be a very attractive woman indeed. She was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in January 1972 (indeed, hers was the first full frontal centrespread to appear in the magazine) as well as Playmate of the Year in 1973.

Although dating Bryan Ferry at the time of the photo shoot (but not by the time of the album’s release), it is alleged she was *ahem* actively pursued by Playboy boss Hugh Hefner but ended up marrying the then head of the organisation’s London operations (and renowned playboy in his own right) Victor Lownes.

 

Lucky blighter that Victor!

No Eno. Jobson!

Back to the album itself, which kicks off with “Street Life“, the only cut released as a single (reaching #9 on the UK Singles chart in November 1973). Moody atmospheric electronics start the track off, before it kicks into overdrive, and you’d be forgiven for thinking the “ghost of Eno” was still amongst the group. His place in the group had been taken by Eddie Jobson, a multi-instrumentalist previously with the band Curved Air. Whilst Jobson’s keyboard noodlings were never as innovative as Eno’s, his contribution to Roxy Music really came to the fore with his ability to play the violin, musically adding a ….erm… whole new string to Ferry’s bow.

“Street Life” is a real swaying cruncher of a song, despite only really having one chorus in the middle, and features Ferry almost growling out his thinly veiled allegorical lyrics. His attack on the media (in light of his new found fame and predilection for stunning female companionship) is palpable:
Hey good-looking boys – gather around
The sidewalk papers gutter-press you down
All those lies can be so unkind,
They can make you feel like you’re losing your mind

It’s a pop song which I feel has fully stood the test of time. Conversely, it’s really the only cut on Stranded which harked back to their previous two albums. I’ll admit that personally I think Roxy Music were a much more interesting act with Eno in the line up. It may be because Brian often managed to quell some of Ferry’s predeliction to overt romanticism, or at least disguise it somehow. On “Stranded” however, Ferry was holding on to the reins all by himself… and did a bloody good job!

Personally I’ve always been of the opinion that the rest of this album and the next two albums (“Country Life” & “Siren”) almost represented a kind of “Roxy Music Mk II”.

As if to prove my point – and to prove that Roxy Mk II could be every bit as good as Mk I – “Just Like You” is the next track. This song never fails to move me. It luxuriates in its own languid gorgeousness, Ferry’s crooning beyond reproach. The lyrics are a little bit “moon in june”-ish but he believes every single line and sings them with such conviction its impossible to criticise.

Just when Ferry has lulled you into a soporific state of mind, along comes the somewhat bizarre “Amazona“. It goes off on so many tangents, lilting and tilting here there and everywhere before almost settling on a driving rhythm at the 3-minute mark, then scaring you again with the world highest-pitched guitar solo from co-writer Phil Manzanera. An odd song, but a brilliant one.

Psalm“, closing Side 1 is alleged to be the first song Ferry ever wrote for Roxy Music back in the band’s formative stage. It starts with what sounds like a church organ overlaid with Ferry’s vocals. Slowly, drums, guitar, oboe, violin and a (real? electronic?) choir all contribute to what appears to be some kind of tribute to a multitude of different religions. The song is written – and Ferry sings it – in such a manner that it sounds like a traditional composition from the 40’s or 50’s (surely his intent?), his voice now starting to more regularly display that strange vibrato he does so well.

Side 2 opener is “Serenade“, probably my least favourite cut of the eight. The rhythm feels all wrong to me – always has – and I think the guitar solo halfway through is the only thing that vaguely redeems it.

Where “Serenade” fails, the next two cuts more than make up. “A Song for Europe” is, quite simply, a majestic work of art. Ferry’s immaculate phrasing underscored perfectly by the accompanying musicianship. The simple bass riff at the 3:24 minute mark sets up Mackay’s sax which then does battle with Ferry singing in a variety of tongues – I think it’s Latin, French and Italian? Somewhat weirdly, I often find myself muttering Ferry’s (somewhat awful) pun halfway through the number, where he alludes to Venice with “and the bridge… it sighs”

If that wasn’t enough, it’s followed by “Mother of Pearl” one of my favourite ever ‘corkers’ by Roxy Music, indeed it would almost certainly be one of my ‘Desert Island Discs‘ if I were ever invited on to the programme. Ferry’s lyrics are 100% top notch from start to finish, even if I’ve never really been certain what he’s banging on about. For me it’s just one of those songs that sounds right, if that makes sense?

Sunset” closes an almost perfect album, perfectly. It’s an ode to death, but it could just as easily be referring to the end of a lovely summer’s day. One word: GORGEOUS!

Is “Stranded” Roxy’s best album? Depends who you talk to. For me, it’s certainly the best of their output from this era, although there are cuts from both “For Your Pleasure” and “Country Life” I wish were on it too, just to selfishly make it 100% perfect.

I do think that, in 1974, I was in a weird minority of music fans. I knew lots of people at school who liked Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Roxy Music, but rarely both. It was almost as if everybody had to fit into one camp or the other. Likewise there seemed to be ‘rivalry’ between ELP and Yes fans, T.Rex & Slade fans, even Roxy Music and Bowie fans.

Me? I was just into it all.

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July 24th 1973

“Went to get £3.50 from the Halifax – difficult job. Went up Trev’s for the day and borrowed Fragile, Dark Side of the Moon + Greasy Truckers Party”

I wonder why it would have been difficult for me to have withdrawn £3.50 from the Halifax? Perhaps it threatened to bring down the entire UK banking system?

Both Yes’ “Fragile” and the live compilation album “Greasy Truckers Party” have been commented on in these pages before. The only thing I find odd is why I would have borrowed them both again – as those previous entries would seem to suggest I had already committed them to tape. Maybe I was forced to ration my own C-90’s, taping over recordings on more of a regular basis than I would have (probably) liked?

I’m not sure what I can add by way of online comments to the third album I refer to in today’s diary entry… but why don’t I give it a shot?…

Who, in 1973, could have predicted what Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” would achieve over the next 35+ years in terms of sales and/or influence?

Music industry figures suggest that this 1973 album has sold in excess of 45 million copies worldwide since its release. That’s Forty-Five MILLION copies!

At it’s time of release I guess it was relatively unique, most certainly in terms of its packaging.

Once again – just as they did with Floyd’s prior “Atom Heart Mother” and “Meddle” – Hipgnosis design founders Storm Thorgeson & Aubrey Powell conjured up something special. George Hardie was actually the artist who came up with the (now iconic beyond belief) prism cover, a design that, apparently, was ‘merely’ one of at least ten presented to the band for their eventual approval. (I wonder if we will ever see the nine rejected ideas?)

The album sleeve opened up to reveal how the prism’s light source had morphed into “heartbeat” soundwaves, accompanied by song lyrics. The prism design was repeated (but reversed) on the rear of the sleeve, specifically, it has been suggested – and this was a masterful decision if true – to enable record stores to display visually-impressive continuous lines of the album in their storage racks.

To complete the packaging, Thorgeson and Co included not just a pair of fold out posters inside the sleeve (both destined for dorm roon walls across the world ad infinitum), but also a pair of small peel-back (crackback) stickers depicting the prism/pyramid theme.

Pink Floyd’s name is mentioned nowhere except on the “concert” poster. Just as with their prior albums EMI hated this notion, but were forced to accept it as part of their contractual agreement with the band.

To say this album pushed Floyd into the musical stratosphere is something of an understatement. Sure, the band had enjoyed commercial success – of a kind – with “Meddle“, but DSOTM took them to an entirely different level altogether.

The cut “Money” was released as a single in the USA reaching #13 in the Billboard charts, propelling sales of the album beyond the band’s wildest dreams. (No singles were released in the UK).

It was the #1 album in America for – and this seems astonishing now – just ONE solitary week in April 1973, BUT then remained in the Billboard “Hot 200″ for 741 consecutive weeks thereafter (that’s 14 years and 3 months) before sales rules were changed and it was ‘demoted’ (stupidly in my opinion) to no more than a ‘back catalogue” album. Even now, some 26 years after its release, its estimated that it sells almost 10,000 copies a week in the USA alone. There are artists out there who would probably donate a body part for sales like that per ANNUM, let alone per week.

Not bad for a concept album about mental illness and what makes us mad.

I’ve listened to the album WAY too many times to even begin to remember what I might have initially thought about it in July 1973. (Not – as most of you will have come to realise – there’s much of a chance I would have remembered anyway, but you know what I mean)

There’s no doubting how much of a musical classic it is, even if parts of it have begun to grate on me over the years. “Money” is, sadly for me, another of those played-too-often-in-rotation cuts on “Classic Rock” stations across the entire USA… to such a degree that I am now heartily sick of hearing it. Also, and perhaps sacrilegiously for some, “Great Gig in the Sky” has always appeared somewhat ‘dirge’-like to me. When I used to play the vinyl, I would always listen to it, but when I got the album on CD it was a track I would invariably skip. (Now, I don’t think I even have the cut on my i-Pod?)

Like a lot of other people though it’s an album I wouldn’t want to be without. I’ve almost lost count of how many copies I’ve owned since that (doubtless recorded) tape version in 1973. Several vinyl copies, a legal cassette version for the car and almost every CD issue and reissue. It’s almost impossible to calculate how many babies might have been conceived – or virginities might have been taken – or plans may have been hatched – to the aural sounds of this album, but I bet the figures are staggering. It’s just one of “those” albums that everybody has and thinks they should have.

I wish I had one tenth of one tenth of half the royalties/residuals Roger Waters receives every quarter for sales of – and to give it’s full and PROPER title… which not everyone realises – The Dark Side of the Moon

Finally, for this lengthy post… some Dark Side of the Moon irrelevant trivia…
• The album was originally going to be entitled “The Dark Side of the Moon” until Floyd and EMI realised that the band Medicine Head had just released an album of the same name. Waters retitled the album “Eclipse” but it was swapped back to TDSOTM when the Medicine Head album disappeared without trace in terms of sales or recognition.
• Wings’ guitarist Henry McCullough supplied the spoken line “I dunno, I was really drunk at the time”, whilst actress Naomi Watts’ dad was one of the insane chucklers during “Brain Damage” and “Speak to Me
• Some of the early profits from the album were used to help make the movie masterpiece “Monty Python & the Holy Grail
• Yes – and perhaps predictably – my wife and I have attempted the “Dark Side of the Rainbow” phenomenon which suggests that the album’s core concepts and lyrics line up perfectly as a mildly head-tripping soundtrack to the movie “The Wizard from Oz“. You need to try the experiment yourself and decide whether it works or not.

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March 7th 1973

“Arguverge > Argument” / “Dental Appointment 2.30” / “Went to see Pictures at an Exhibition, Emerson Lake + Palmer – damned brilliant. Plod – Scaffold – Funny. Grave New World – Strawbs – Crap”

Not just a double movie bill at the Regal, but a TRIPLE movie bill!

Actually, “movie” is a bit of a misnomer in this case….

Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” ‘movie’ was in fact no more than a filmed live concert performance – recorded at the Lyceum in London – from 1970.

In the cause of – *ahem* – research I hunted down a copy of the same film recently – on DVD – and wish to somewhat amend my 35-years earlier “damned brilliant” review.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed its musically-bombastic overkill , but visually it was bloody hard work. I guess chroma-key, together with fluorescent psychedelic tinting was all the rage in the early seventies… and it really grates!

It does show the band very much in their progressive ‘prime’ though, and its interesting to note that this stage recording was made over two years before their album release of the same name hit record stores.

The Scaffold were a comedy/poetry trio from Liverpool who had, by 1973, already enjoyed a pair of massive novelty hit singles (buoyed, no doubt, by the fact that band member Mike McGear was actually Paul McCartney’s brother)

Thank You Very Much” is a strange singalong ode – sung in a thick Liverpudlian accent – to a collection of English ‘treasures’ including love, the family circle, the Sunday joint, tea (the mentioned “national beverage”), the union jack, the Times newspaper, our “cultural heritage”, Liverpool FC (“our gracious team”), the Aintree Iron (a collection of pubs in Liverpool which, when viewed from the air, resemble the shape of an ‘iron’ horseshoe) and even for…. “playing this record”

Lily the Pink” was of an equally silly nature. It was an old reworked rugby singalong song about a woman invented a ‘medicinal compound‘ (aka “drug”) which could improve everybody’s lives.

All, it would seem, except the titular Lily who over-enjoyed her drink (a-drink-a-drink), became “Pickle-Lily”, and ascended up to heaven purely on the strength of her marvellous invention.

 Lily the Pink is renowned for not only featuring a certain Jack Bruce on bass, but also for including the word “efficacious“… unlikely to have appeared before – or since – in recorded music.

Where was I?…. oh yes, the Regal cinema, 1973…

The Scaffold’s “Plod” was a half-hour compilation of Pythonesque comedy sketches performed by the trio. Research shows that it has never been released on VHS or DVD so is unavailable for reviewing to see if it has stood the test of time. My betting is “not”

I briefly mentioned The Strawbs earlier this year.

The band was a weird hybrid of rock and folk, and who somehow crossed over into the “progressive” arena. Probably on the strength of their 1972 album “Grave New World” which seemed to (IMHO badly) straddle the folk and prog genres.

A concept album (weren’t they ALL in the early seventies?) it tells the tale of one man’s life from birth to death. The album was lavishly packaged (check out that William Blake repro on the sleeve!) and reached Number 11 on the UK album charts.

It is perhaps best known as the first Strawbs album to NOT feature a certain Rick Wakeman on keyboards. He had left somewhat acrimoniously to join Yes, and it is often felt the song “Tomorrow” – with its lyric “You talked of me with acid tongue” – was written about him.

The film of “Grave New World” which I saw – and duly lambasted in 1973 is often credited as being one of the very first “rock videos”, pre-dating even Queen’s infamous “Bohemian Rhapsody“. It was little more than a full-length visual promo for the album which – again according to research – appears to have featured the same levels of high-intensity chroma-key nonsense which plagued the ELP movie.

Unlike the ELP “damned brilliance” I have no real desire to see “Grave New World” again. Unlike millions of others I never cared too much for The Strawbs, although I still own, and have a soft spot for, their later “Hero & Heroine” album. Indeed, it might even appear in these very diary pages when 1974 rolls around.

For those in need of a grave new fix of the Strawbs, here’s a performance from a reunion concert in 2006. IMHO, it’s crap too – and not helped by out-of-tune audience … erm… ‘participation’

What wouldn’t I give to be able to see a triple-header at my local multiscreen cineplex these days?! *sigh* Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

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January 26th 1973

“Got Melody Maker” / “Rob gave me back Fragile + another cassette to record Waves” / “Record player went up the wank – Dad fixed it for me”

“Up the wank”

Now, THERE’s a phrase I haven’t heard/used in a loooooooooooong time.

I can’t understand why.

Oh, wait… yes I can.

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May 27th 1972

“Recorded Yes Fragile. P.A.E – ELP ”

Ah, after all the weeks of apparently abandoning music for other teenage things, I’m back at the tape deck, sat silently in front of my record player.

Yes’ Fragile is perhaps their most complete work.  With its memorable Roger Dean sleeve artwork, it’s certainly the one which catapulted them into the imaginary prog-rock Hall of Fame.

At the time, the cut “Roundabout” was amongst my very favourite songs, its position at the start of the cassette useful for repeat rewinds and listens. Unfortunately, ten years of living in America and an over-abundance of plays (of the edited version) on “classic rock radio” (thank you Fox) has now made me – perhaps sadly – treat it with a response of “Aaaaaarrrrghhhhhh… not a-gain!”So, I’ll instead settle for the jazz-fusion meanderings of “Long Distance Runaround”, the short but wonderfully-quirky “Cans and Brahms” (which gave the world an advance glimpse into the theatrical keyboard leanings of band newcomer Rick Wakeman) and “Heart of the Sunrise”, a cut which always reminded me (vocal aside) of another prog-rock powerhouse of the time.

I give you Mr Emerson, Mr Lake and Mr Palmer.

P.A.E.refers to ELP’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, their live *ahem* prog-rock tribute to classical composer Mussorgsky’s most famous work.

The album had been released the previous year by Manticore – the band’s own label – at a bargain price (£2.49 maybe?) It’s FAR from ELP’s finest moment* , but there was no way you could even suggest that to me back in 1972, because everything they did was, according to me, “musical genius” (and other terrible cliches)

To say I was a fan of the band was an understatement, something that was only get ‘worse’ a few months later

In the meantime, here’s a public service warning about what growing your hair and going out in public in a groovy satin two-piece suit can do to you…

*I did warn you

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