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Yes: The Real Story Behind Tales From Topographic Oceans

From the influence of an Indian guru to the loss of Rick Wakeman, Prog takes an in-depth look into the making of Yes’ opinion-dividing sixth album, Tales From Topographic Oceans

“I actually wanted to record Tales From Topographic Oceans in a tent in this beautiful wood that I’d found, miles from anywhere. I thought we could bury a generator 300 yards away under the ground so we could have electricity in the tent. We’d be able to record there and have all these natural sounds around us. That’s where my brain was at at that time. Of course, they thought I was totally crazy!” laughs Jon Anderson.

“Crazy” turned out to be one of the nicer things said about the sixth Yes studio album upon its release in December 1973. Although achieving Gold status on both sides of the Atlantic, it received a mauling from many critics. When the band played the four-sided opus live, many fans found it a challenge. But challenge is exactly what Yes thrived on. Always a band on a mission and in a hurry to push forward, Yes were keen to do whatever was in their power to be at the forefront of a musical movement where nothing that was worth anything stood still for very long.

Chris Squire observed that the build-up to Tales… had been going on for some time, with Heart Of The Sunrise marking the realisation of an ambition to produce something on a much bigger scale. With Close To The Edge, they went bigger still. An epic release, it meshed adventurous solo excursions with tightly knit arrangements. The punch Yes delivered came not from a single source but rather their collective force. Anderson was determined their music should avoid showboating licks for their own sake. “There were a lot of bands up there soloing forever but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to create music that had length and breadth and adventure, that would carry the audience through this experience. With lights and staging, you could take them on a journey.”

They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Tales From Topographic Oceans began with a single conversation between two characters at very different ends of the musical spectrum. There, in Bill Bruford’s London flat in early March 1973, along with dozens of other friends celebrating Bruford’s wedding earlier in the day, Jon Anderson sat perched on an open windowsill talking with Jamie Muir. “He was an unbelievable stage performer,” says Anderson of the eccentric King Crimson percussionist, known at the time for wearing bearskins, spitting blood capsules from his mouth and flailing his percussion rig and packing cases with heavy chains. “I wanted to know what made him do that, what had influenced him.”

Muir enthused about Autobiography Of A Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. The guru, who’d died in 1952, was well-known in esoteric circles, and had also made a more secular cameo appearance on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, wedged between HG Wells and James Joyce. Reading Yogananda’s words, Muir told the singer, had had a profound impact upon him. “He said to me, ‘Here, read it,’ and it started me off on the path of becoming aware that there was even a path,” says Anderson. “Jamie was like a messenger for me and came to me at the perfect time in my life… he changed my life.”

It was powerful stuff. Reading the book prompted Muir to quit music and become a Buddhist monk, and while the effect upon Anderson may not have been so extreme, it was the catalyst that took Yes into uncharted waters.

Discovering a reference to the different levels and divisions within Hindu scriptures in a footnote led to a ‘Eureka!’ moment for Anderson as the group toured Japan. Convinced he’d found the structural framework within which to place the large-scale ideas and concepts he’d been mulling over, he found a willing ally in Steve Howe. Having written Roundabout and Close To The Edge together, there was a real bond between the pair.

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