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.”