The news of Yes bassist Chris Squire’s unfortunate (though not entirely surprising) passing yesterday took the wind out of my sails. As I’ve mentioned before, Squire had a reputation for being extremely unpleasant to work with, and I’m not entirely fond of how he put his legal control over the Yes name to use, but none of that changes the fact that it’s always sad to lose someone of such tremendous talent. Yes’ music has been a part of my life for 25 years, and Squire’s contributions formed an essential part of that. He’s also, I think, the first musician whose music I obsessed over as a teen to pass away, and with so many of them creeping into their 60s and 70s, I realize this feeling of loss is a sensation I’ll be experiencing quite a lot in the coming years. Sigh.
On the plus side, this news was the nudge I needed to get my ersatz “anatomy of Yes” writing back on track after letting it go untouched for, um, whoops. 11 months!?
The monolithic green cover of Close to the Yes offered me my first impression of Yes; my mother recommended I give them a listen based on my growing interest in artsy rock music, and she had a few albums on vinyl — being a fan of the band ever since seeing them on the ’72 tour. (I will never not be envious of her for seeing the band on their ’72 tour.)
The front cover art didn’t impress me much — it’s just a big green slab fading to black. Like The Beatles but for fans of night golfing. Boring, right? Then I opened the sleeve and was met with this brilliant gatefold painting by Roger Dean:
Well, OK, I thought. This was more like it.
Now, I can’t help but visualize this illustration whenever I listen to Close to the Edge, especially the title track… “Close to the Edge.” It opens and closes with the sound of a waterfall, and the music itself is vast and dotted with interesting little details. It is, arguably, Yes at peak prowess — everything you either love or hate about the band.
Let’s deal with the obvious fact first: Close the Edge contains a total of three tracks throughout its entire length. Yes, the sleeve says there are 11 tracks, but that’s just chicanery to satisfy the music label, who back then wrote contracts based on the number of tracks a band produced. Yes wanted to break away from the 3-minute radio-friendly format, and they certainly did, but they also banded the record to create the illusion that each side had far more individual tracks than were actually present so that they could be paid.
“Close to the Edge” itself has a running time of 18 minutes. The band had always dabbled in songs a little too long for airplay, but this was a definitive statement: The title track of their new record could only be excerpted, if it played at all. This was not a band about singles or radio hits or Billboard Top 100; it was a band about music and compositions. Pretentious? Yes, but gloriously so.
The all-in approach of this album represented a commitment. “Close to the Edge” was by no means the first rock song to push this sort of length, but it was the first to do so without a radio-friendly B-side to back it up. And it was the first to feel like a single, structured, meaningful composition. Epic-length tracks before “Close to the Edge” generally fell into one of two different categories: Extended grooves (“Inna-gadda-da-vita” by I. Ron Butterfly and “Halleluwah” by Can) or collages.
The latter was the de facto prog rock approach until this point. Van der Graff Generator’s “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” is one of my favorite pieces of music ever, but it was almost never performed live in its entirety, because the band crafted it out of many separate bits of music. Likewise Pink Floyd’s “Echoes,” a mishmash of pieces composed by different members of the band whose working title was “Nothing,” “Son of Nothing,” and eventually “Return of the Son of Nothing.” Even Close to the Edge‘s contemporaries in 1972 — Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” and Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick feel like a bunch of different songs that simply segue together, similar to the suites on side two of Abbey Road.
“Close to the Edge” has a different character altogether. While it definitely consists of discrete passages, they have a more symphonic relationship with one another than in other works of this type. Despite the difference between “The Solid Time of Change” (the wall of noise that opens the song) and the ethereal “I Get Up, I Get Down” (which mostly involves vocal harmonies over staccato pulses of cathedral organ), every part of the song shares themes and connections with the rest. If you were to compress the 18-minute work down to three minutes, it would actually resemble nothing so much as an ambitious, but traditionally structured, rock song: Fierce intro, choruses and verses, bridge, refrain, coda. But by stretching to the length of an entire album side, each section becomes its own movement — practically a song in and of itself. The band gets to explore and develop musical ideas. It has room to breathe.
And it’s wonderfully paced, alternating between ferocity and caution in just the right measures at just the right times. “I Get Up, I Get Down” serves as the song’s central passage, and it’s not entirely different from the aimless breaks that appear in the middle of “Echoes” and “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers” — but again, it feels like a composition rather than space-filling noodling. And it’s a tremendous contrast to the bookends of the song, which feel like all five members of the band playing their own individual solos as ferociously as possible and, somehow, falling into line with one another just when it seems the whole thing will splinter into chaos.
This is the work of a band of virtuosos at the peak of their skills and confidence. It’s an incredible piece of music.
And, shockingly, the second side of the album is every bit as good. The two songs that comprise Close to the Edge‘s back half — “And You And I,” also divided into four sub-tracks for the sake of bookkeeping, and “Siberian Khatru” — would be best-of-career level creations for any band. They’re far more focused, being “only” about 10 minutes long each, and equally stunning.
Of the two, “Siberian Khatru” is the more straightforward, somehow maintaining a fiery pace almost without interruption for its entire length; the one bit where it calms down a little maintains the same driving pace as the rest of the song but most of the band steps back to allow Rick Wakeman to belt out a harpsichord solo (!), which then segues into an emotive steel guitar line that would make Dave Gilmour envious. While usually overlooked on compilations simply for being a great piece rather than an all-time masterpiece like the rest of the album, Yes picked the chunky live version of “Siberian Khatru” to open their ’72 tour album Yessongs for good reason: It’s easily the most blistering the band ever got outside of a few portions of “The Gates of Delirium.”
“And You And I,” on the other hand, couldn’t be more different. It focuses more heavily on a clean, acoustic sound. A liquid-sounding synthesizer line weaves in and around Steve Howe’s Spanish guitar chords, much as Jon Anderson’s clear soprano ducks and weaves amidst a countermelodic chant sung by Howe and Squire, which repeatedly builds into this sort of grand, almost orchestral motif played by the band in unison, made all the more powerful for being one of the few instances on the entire album of the whole group playing the same melody at once. And then, just as the ponderous melody reaches its pinnacle and threatens to overstay its welcome, the band pulls back and returns to the simple, stripped-down, acoustic sound.
Although Yes would produce some phenomenal albums in the years to follow, nothing they ever did quite worked as well as Close to the Edge. If the group had dissolved in 1973, this record would have gone down in history as the culmination of a brilliant, short-lived group that found its inspiration and explored it to its utmost. As their next studio album would demonstrate, something like Close to the Edge walks a precarious balance, and it’s easy to go over that proverbial edge.