The Story Behind Jon Anderson's debut solo album Olias Of Sunhillow
In the summer of 1976, Jon Anderson released his first solo album, Olias Of Sunhillow – forty years later, he talks us through its complex creation
One morning, around dawn, in spring 1976, Jon Anderson burst into tears. Yes’ lead vocalist was in his garage/home studio in Buckinghamshire, recording his first solo album, Olias Of Sunhillow. The singer had spent days attempting to synchronise drums, bells, voices and what he calls “a Middle Eastern guitar” to create a vital passage of music. In 2016, this would all be done at the touch of a button. Forty years ago, it was still a painstaking process. Anderson was also playing every instrument on the record.
Late one night, after trying to co-ordinate the tracks yet again, Anderson dozed off at the console. When he awoke, he had no idea if the process had worked. As the dawn chorus began outside and hazy sunlight peeked through the studio window, Anderson pressed ‘play’.
A perfectly synchronised one‑man mini-symphony floated out of the speakers. Anderson felt a rush of relief and joy, after which the tears flowed. “I was in a state of madness making that album,” he says now. “But whenever I listen to it, I thank the gods.”
Jon Anderson is revisiting Olias Of Sunhillow on its 40th anniversary, which also coincides with the release of Invention Of Knowledge, his collaboration with The Flower Kings’ bandleader Roine Stolt. The two albums are connected, and not just by having Anderson’s name on the cover. Invention Of Knowledge is another stage on its co-creator’s spiritual journey. The 71-year-old Jon Anderson still marvels at the power of nature and the human mind, just as he did four decades ago on his debut solo LP. But the story of Olias Of Sunhillow began long before he ventured into his garage/home studio.
“I’d been thinking about Olias Of Sunhillow for a long while before I actually wrote it,” says Anderson today, speaking from his current home in San Luis Obispo, California. “When [sleeve artist] Roger Dean started creating artwork for Yes, I saw the ship he’d drawn sailing around the planet for Fragile [in 1971], and thought it was a very interesting concept.”
Anderson then spent “a period of a year” composing a story about a magician/hero who rescues his people from their dying planet in a galleon-style Noah’s Ark-cum-spaceship.
I was in a state of madness making that album. But whenever I listen to it I thank the gods.
In the meantime, though, his day job meant he was still busy conquering his own planet. Yes’ imperial phase began with Fragile and continued, unbroken, until 1974’s Relayer. Each of the five albums they released during this period, including the live Yessongs, went Top 10 in Britain and Top 20 in the US, with Tales From Topographic Oceans reaching No.1 at home.
These figures make sense of the commercial and musical landscape in which Jon Anderson created his brain-boggling concept album. Yes were a huge hit group, so if Yes wanted time off to each make a solo album – even the drummer – their label, Atlantic Records, indulged them.
Yes’ temporary separation began on 24 August 1975, the day after they headlined the Reading Festival above Supertramp and southern rockers The Ozark Mountain Daredevils. “We’d been touring and recording for five years solid,” explains Anderson. “It was time for a break. I’d been waiting for a space in which to make my own record, and that space came.”
His bandmates had the same idea. After learning about Yes’ planned solo albums, NME warned its readers to prepare for “Five versions of If I Ruled The World”. Guitarist Steve Howe’s Beginnings, an album of knotty guitar solos and rather harsh vocals, arrived in October ’75. Bassist Chris Squire’s Fish Out Of Water, a collection of anthemic art rock featuring a full orchestra and the St Paul’s Cathedral organ, followed a month later. Drummer Alan White’s understated Ramshackled – basically White drumming in a band with his non-Yes mates – turned up in the New Year. Not that Anderson was paying much attention. “I sang on Alan’s album,” he recalls, vaguely. Anderson and Steve Howe contributed to White’s version of poet William Blake’s Spring – Song Of Innocence. “I liked the other band members’ records,” he adds. “But I was in such a strange state of mind I wasn’t very connected to anybody.”
After the Yes tour, Anderson returned to the seven-bedroom country house he shared with his first wife Jenny and their children, in the Chiltern Hills, some 25 miles from London – and stayed there. “Seer Green, Buckinghamshire, was in the country, so I didn’t have to bother with the city any more,” he says. “I was surrounded by trees, birds and bees, and started living a hermit‑like existence.”
Anderson went into the garage and began creating. Roger Dean’s artwork for Fragile was one inspiration; another came from the painter and mystic Vera Stanley Alder’s books, The Finding Of The Third Eye and The Initiation Of The World. Both had been published in the 1930s, but had found a new readership among the spiritually inclined pop generation – even Elvis was a fan.
“Vera Stanley Alder talked about the connection we have with the third eye,” Anderson explains, referring to the ‘invisible’ inner eye through which some believe humans can access a higher state of consciousness. Anderson, a devotee of meditation since the early 70s, regarded the third eye as “a beacon – like a radio satellite connection – to all that is divine”.
Meanwhile, in The Initiation Of The World, Alder posited the theory that there had once been four “nature tribes” on the planet. “There was Negro, Asian, Oriental and Nordic,” says Anderson. “And that’s where the four tribes in Olias Of Sunhillow came from. But my four tribes were not physical tribes, but music consciousness tribes.”
Anderson’s tribes – Nagranium, Asatranius, Oractaniom and Nordranious – existed, he said, “through music, rhythms and tempos”. Their planet, Sunhillow, was on the verge of collapse after a volcanic disaster. The titular hero builds a ship, the Moorglade Mover, to transport his people to a new planet. He’s helped in his endeavours by fellow magicians Ranyart, the ship’s navigator, and Qoquac, the four tribes’ appointed spokesperson. As Yes’ producer Eddy Offord once divulged: “All of Yes – apart from Rick Wakeman – smoked a lot of dope.”
It’s a vibrational energy. You have people singing, dancing, crying and loving to music. It’s more than just Top 10.
But open the window and let out the bong smoke, and what you have is a story about Anderson’s long-held belief that music is more than just music. “It’s a vibrational energy,” he insists. “You have people singing, dancing, crying and loving to music. It’s more than just Top 10.”
The album’s eco-conscious message also seems relevant in the era of global warming. The nature-loving, eco‑aware Anderson was ahead of the curve. In 1975, The Green Party was still called The Ecology Party and was widely dismissed in the mainstream press as a haven for cranks and hippies.
Like the story, the music was also personal. Having made seven studio albums with Yes, Anderson wanted to write on his own and play everything on the record. Olias Of Sunhillow was the music inside his head, uninterrupted by, say, Chris Squire’s earthquaking bass.
By this time, though, Anderson had met his future collaborator, former Aphrodite’s Child keyboard player Vangelis. After Wakeman left Yes for the first time in 1974, Vangelis joined them for a jam session/audition in Paris. However, the Greek maestro was too much for a band that already contained several large egos. “It was crazy,” laughs Anderson. “Vangelis was a one-man band anyway.”
Anderson and Vangelis’ friendship led to later speculation that he played, albeit uncredited, on Olias Of Sunhillow. Not true. “I had been spending time with Vangelis and I’d learned a lot,” points out Anderson. “But I wanted no one else on the album. Vangelis never heard the record until it was finished.”
The mythical Vangelis/Olias connection came from Anderson contributing to Vangelis’ solo album, Heaven And Hell in late ’75. Anderson sang on So Long Ago, So Clear, from Heaven And Hell Part One. But its choral vocals and waterfall keyboard effects do sound like a forerunner to Olias Of Sunhillow.
Anderson now describes the time he spent making Olias Of Sunhillow as “going to music school”. Yes’ studio technician and live engineer Mike Dunne worked the desk, while Anderson took care of vocals, percussion, guitar, harp, Moog, sitar, flute and a Turkish lute-style instrument known as a saz.
“What I learned was that you can play instruments and it works, even if you don’t play them incredibly well,” Anderson says. “You don’t have to be that good, but you can merge a guitar with a harp or a sitar or a flute and create new sounds.”
Borrowing from Vangelis’ tireless work ethic (“That guy never stopped”), Anderson worked 10 hours a day, with only Dunne allowed to hear the music they were making: “I didn’t play it to anyone else, not even my wife.”
Anderson also banned Atlantic Records’ president Ahmet Ertegun, whom he describes as “a father figure”, from hearing a note of his new music: “The record company kept phoning - ‘What are you doing Jon?’ I said, ‘I can’t tell you.’”
Asked if he ever wished he had the rest of Yes to help him with the album, Anderson responds with a wary chuckle. “No! I didn’t want anyone to hear it as they might not like it. I was very cautious.”
Interviewed in 2000, Eddy Offord suggested that a lot of Yes’ creative tension came from former teenage session muso Steve Howe and some of the others questioning Anderson’s musical credentials. “Everyone criticised Jon for his lack of musical training,” said Offord, “but I think that’s one of his beauties.”
You sense that Anderson learning how to play the harp and driving himself insane trying to play flutes, sitars and a Turkish lute was a way of proving he was a ‘proper’ musician.
“I wanted to come out feeling like I had achieved something,” he admits, “because I was always relying on other people to create the work. Doing it on my own gave me the chance to create something unique.”
Anderson’s greatest instrument, though, was his voice, something none of his bandmates could match. Above all, Olias Of Sunhillow is a vehicle for some extraordinary vocals and lyrics. When confronted by their singer’s abstract words, Anderson’s bandmates often wondered what astral plane he was living on. But in the garage at Seer Green, he could sing what he liked, unchallenged. So much so that Anderson even created a new language for one track, Sound Out The Galleon. The lyrics, ‘Do ga riytan, sha too Raytan, gan matta sha pa… mutto matto mutto…’ have always fascinated long-time Anderson watchers – especially the permanently stoned ones.
“Those words were a solo for my voice,” he explains. “I couldn’t play a solo on an instrument so I used my voice instead.”
It wasn’t the first time Anderson had done this. We Have Heaven, his solo song on Fragile, was a repetitive vocal cycle and another forerunner to the ideas explored on Sound Out The Galleon.
“The different language was a vocal exercise,” he elaborates. “I still do that now. If I don’t have a lyric, I make a sound. On Olias, I sang it and sang it until we created 20 voices and finished up with this tangible energy.”
But after three and a half months in the studio, Anderson had reached his “state of madness”.
“There’s a point in the story where the four tribes have to board the Moorglade, and they come from different parts of the planet,” he recalls. “The music has to reflect that – but it drove me mad.”
Anderson had created different musical motifs for each of the tribes. He outlined these differences in his story/sleevenotes on the final album: “Nagranium – deep dark skinned stretch beat”; “Asatranius – jangled lines of monotone,” and so on. The result was, he says, “drums, bells from Asia, sitars, Middle Eastern guitars…” Anderson then had to transfer these sounds from four tape recorders into a 24-track machine to create around six minutes of music.
“There were no click tracks [electronic audio cues] then,” he says. “But I had a metronome, so I’d created everything in the right tempo.” The problem was that after four minutes, “the tapes would go out of whack”.
This went on for three days until Mike Dunne could take no more. “Mike was a wonderful engineer, but decided to go home. He’d been sleeping in the garage and I used to wake him up so we could try syncing these tapes again. It was driving him crazy. And I was getting so angry because I didn’t know how to stop trying.”
Anderson synced up the tapes on his own around 2am, but fell asleep before the recording finished. When he woke up at dawn and pressed ‘play’, he says: “I held my breath for almost six minutes, but it was perfect. And so I just cried.”
Anderson’s tears marked a turning point. “Before that, I didn’t know if what I was doing was any good. After all the pressure trying to get it right, I wanted to shoot myself. But that convinced me it would work.”
The final vital component was the album’s equally ambitious artwork. Yes had won the NME Readers Poll for ‘Best Dressed LP’ two years in a row (for Yessongs and Relayer). Artist David Fairbrother-Roe’s work on Olias Of Sunhillow took sartorial elegance to a whole new level. But he wasn’t Anderson’s first choice.
“I wanted Roger Dean,” he says. “In fact, I drove Roger crazy, asking when he could do it. But he was too busy.”
Instead, a friend suggested David Fairbrother-Roe. Like Roger Dean, Roe (who died in 2013) was an alumnus of the Royal College Of Art. His last commission, for Nazareth’s Hair Of The Dog LP, had been plastered across record shop windows in the spring of 1975.
Vangelis told me it was wonderful, a classic work. It felt good to hear that from someone I respected.
Anderson met with Roe. “And David just got it,” he says. “He understood the story. When I saw the artwork for the first time, I said, ‘Oh my gosh…’”
Even now, it’s impossible to separate Anderson’s music from the images on that sumptuous gatefold sleeve, with its intricate landscapes and its Moorglade Mover – part dragonfly, part pirate ship, part alien vessel. Though nobody knew it then, Olias Of Sunhillow would be one of the last great, fiendishly detailed LP covers. Soon after, everyone, including Yes, would downsize.
By late spring 1976, Anderson had been creating for the best part of eight months. He’d planned to have the album out by Christmas ’75. Come the New Year, he was still re-recording most of it onto 24-track – “to ensure the colours and textures were right”. Then Yes told him they had to go on tour.
“We were supposed to play in Japan, but I had to say, ‘Sorry guys, I’m not finished yet,’” he recalls. “They wanted to make money, so that did not go down well at all. But I was mentally wrecked, totally exhausted.”
Anderson finally revealed Olias Of Sunhillow to the world on July 24, 1976, by which time Yes had begun their optimistically titled ‘Solo Albums’ US tour. Within a fortnight, though, their solo tracks were dumped from the setlist. Ocean Song, the opening track on Olias Of Sunhillow, was played only once as an introduction to the show. Even in 1976, it seemed audiences only wanted ‘the hits’.
NME’s prediction that Yes’ solo albums would be “five versions of If I Ruled The World…” was also wide of the mark. Yes ruled the world; the band’s individual members less so. Beginnings and Fish Out Of Water made the UK Top 30; Ramshackled and Patrick Moraz’s solo concept LP The Story Of I didn’t.
As the instantly recognisable voice of Yes, Anderson was in a stronger position than the others. Olias Of Sunhillow was a UK No.8 hit and made the Billboard Top 50. “An unashamedly romantic solo album that combines grace, taste and power,” wrote Yes aficionado Chris Welch in Melody Maker.
Welch also saw similarities between its fusion of “folk imagery and [outer] space” and science fiction writer Brian Aldiss’ novels Non-Stop and Hothouse. Like Olias… both books dealt with extraterrestrials, ancient civilisations and the elemental power of nature.
Anderson’s bandmates weren’t quite so effusive in their praise though. “We were all lost in our own little worlds. It was weird. Alan told me he loved it. Chris said he liked it…”
What about Steve Howe?
“Steve didn’t say much. But I wasn’t fishing for compliments.”
Instead, it was Vangelis who became Olias Of Sunhillow’s great cheerleader. “Vangelis told me it was wonderful, a classic work,” says Anderson. “It felt good to hear that from someone I respected, because up until then I didn’t know if it was good or not.”
Interviewed in 1976, Anderson told the music press that he hoped people “wouldn’t read too many hidden meanings” into the record, and was reluctant to discuss the story in too much detail: “He’s sufficiently aware of the cynicism prevalent in rock not to wish to be exposed to instant ridicule,” speculated Melody Maker.
Anderson is altogether less self-conscious nowadays. “It’s a wonderful experience whenever I hear any moment on Olias Of Sunhillow,” he says. “It still sounds fresh and different.”
That said, a planned sequel, The Songs of Zamran: Son of Olias, which Anderson last talked about in 2012, is still to be completed.
Much like its artwork, Olias Of Sunhillow is a flashback to a bygone era: a science-fantasy-driven concept album released just before such things became terminally unfashionable. It’s of its time. But with its trace elements of ambient, new age and world music, it’s certainly not the rock folly that it’s sometimes portrayed as. There’s also an honesty and innocence to the record. It was Jon Anderson doing what Jon Anderson wanted to do, regardless of whether it was a hit or not.
Soon after the release of Olias Of Sunhillow, Anderson was back in the studio with Yes recording 1977’s Going For The One (“a happy album”), after which, he sighs, “The business started getting heavy on me.”
Anderson stayed with Yes for two more years. After that he embarked on a solo and collaborative career, scored hits and misses, rejoined – and left – Yes, and sold his country house with its creative nerve centre-garage/studio to crooner Val Doonican.
But Jon Anderson’s solo story started here: on Sunhillow, a dying planet populated by four musical tribes, with three magicians and one mystical flying galleon.
Anderson offers a gentle, knowing laugh. “Sometimes I still think, ‘Where did all that come from?’” he smiles. “But, hey, it worked.”