Time And A Word: The Yes Story, Martin Popoff (Soundcheck, 2016)
Bitches Brew, George Grella Jr. (33 1/3, Bloomsbury, 2015)
Whatever you think of Yes and their music, there’s no doubting that they have been popular and influential in their time, with a surprising longevity. (A version of the band is still touring in 2016, and they last released a studio album of new songs in 2014.) What is surprising is that there has yet to be a decent book about them. From Chris Welch’s excruciatingly written and researched biography to Bill Martin’s academic treatise, the band has been subject to the worst excesses of pseudo-intellectualism, rambling lyrical interpretation, and bonkers fandom.
Martin Popoff’s book continues that tradition. The book, rather like rather like Tim Morse’s Yes In Their Own Words, is a kind of collage of critical and musicians’ quotes, along with some brief notes and reviews by the author, that relentlessly ploughs through 40-plus years of the band’s existence, including brief excursions into solo and alumni activities and recordings. The net cast to capture this material is, however, incredibly thin considering what is out there; and there is a strange kind of slippage in time at work, where contemporaneous material is placed next to later interview material, not to mention Popoff’s often fairly caustic and shallow reviews, which appear to have been specifically written for the book.
The reviews more than anything suggest that Popoff is not actually a fan, and that this book is some kind of jobbing volume, assembled to fill a gap in the market. I don’t want a fawning, pat-on-the-back biopic, but Popoff is especially dismissive of two of Yes’ most-loved albums, Tales from Topographic Oceans and Relayer, and rather disingenuously spends little time on them in comparison to later poppier work which a lot of fans have little time for. The general feel of this book is that it is rushed, serviceable and that there has been little heart or effort put into it.
George Grella Jr. discusses time and the slippage thereof in Bitches Brew (one of the latest additions to the brilliant 33 1/3 series, which is now published by Bloomsbury), particularly in relation to notions of music as a recording of an event in time, and of social and musical context. His is an articulate and thought-provoking book that ponders and explores Miles Davis’ double LP (as originally released, anyway) of the same name.
To be honest, I know I’m not alone in thinking Bitches Brew comes between Miles’ great albums rather than constitutes one; I’d rather have Miles in the Sky and On the Corner any day, or the immediate predecessor In A Silent Way, to be honest. But Grella thinks otherwise and makes a good case, although relistening this morning, I found the album as shapeless and unfocussed and aurally unexciting as I previously have. Grella quite rightly says it is neither rock nor jazz, nor really fusion, but to me is this inbetween-ness is its Achille’s heel not its strength: it pleases no-one, and seems adrift rather than ahead of any game, is not staking out any new or avant-garde territory.
Grella is good on social context, particularly in his conclusion, and good without being geeky on some of the recording and production techniques and studio process. He is also expert at placing the album in the wider trajectory of Miles’ music, and that of the musicians he worked with. I would, however, have liked him to further explored how he believes Miles though of his music in relation to musique concrète and space/distance, to non Western music[s], and to ideas of marketing, audience and fashion. These tend to be mentioned in passing here, without much development of detail.
Grella also writes well about the music on the album itself, providing a readable and non-technical description of musical themes, repeats and splices, offering insight into the construction and development of of ideas and the construction of individual tracks and the album as a whole. If it didn’t make me change my opinion upon listening again, it did at least get me to the point of wanting to relisten. The 33 1/3 series may perhaps see oddball album choices as part of their trademark, but there is a serious question to be asked about whether the chosen album by a given artiste can facilitate a discussion about their whole oeuvre or not. Grella does pretty well here, making a case for a period of transition being important, but he also left me wanting more and asking ‘why Bitches Brew?’ But then again, why not? At least he got me thinking.
© Rupert Loydell 2016