YES: PROGENY – Seven Shows from Seventy-Two
You can laugh if you like, but Yes have been a constant musical presence in my life for the last 40 or so years, ever since I convinced a sixth former at school to lend me the copy of Tales from Topographic Oceans that he was selling to me for the night so I could see if I wanted to buy it or not. (I didn’t.)
I’ve seen them live many times over, including every night at Wembley one year, having queued up all night with some mates to get tickets, (getting in to serious trouble at school for missing the next morning’s lessons); a small festival in Devon; a half-empty concert hall in Plymouth; and three years ago at Hammersmith Odeon (I know it isn’t called that now), which was the last time I ever saw my friend Richard who got killed in a car crash a few weeks later. When I want to feel miserable and miss him, I play the YouTube video somebody posted that shows us both Dad-dancing happily in the crowd during the finale. Because of that I probably don’t want to ever see them live again.
I haven’t got a lot of time for those who write off progrock. The great triumvarate of Yes, King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator, made (and still make) fantastic energetic and intriguing music. Whatever people say, it wasn’t much of a jump from mid-70s progrock to the post-punk music of Magazine, XTC or early Simple Minds. As well as those already mentioned, my late 70s and early 80s musical experiences included visits to the London Musician’s Collective for improvised clanking, banging and far out jazz, as well as singersongwriters like Elvis Costello riding on the back of new wave, and what would become known as world music at the first Womad Festival and other events.
Who cares what’s hip, or right on, fashionable or popular? Each to their own I say. Of course Yes could be overblown and pretentious; they could also rock out (if that matters) and these days have been known to have a self-deprecating humour – you must have to play your greatest hits every two or three years to 3,000 middle aged fans all singing and nodding along. They know they’re pensioners, we know they’re pensioners, we’re all on a nostalgia trip together, knowing we’re never going to see those huge crab fibreglass stage sets or lazers from the 70s again, and that the biggish screen behind them, showing alternating views of their album covers with close-up shots of band members gurning over solos they’ve played a thousand times, is all we’re gonna get.
Despite bands lumbering on into old age (and why shouldn’t they?) and producing new albums of variable quality and interest, most have now realised that releasing official live shows from their glorious past is a way to capture the hearts and wallets of their ever-shrinking and aging fanbase. King Crimson have a nice line in sonically cleaned-up bootlegs they issue in their KC Collectors Club series and then in mammoth box sets, and now Yes have got in on the act with a set of seven concerts from the same 1972 tour packaged together in a bumper 14 CD set, highlights of which are also available as a triple LP and double CD.
Each concert comes as a double CD in a gatefold card sleeve, all seven of these slide into a box with an accompanying booklet. It’s a stunning object, with crisply reproduced Roger Dean images giving it an appropriate 70s vibe. The pictures are newly created but revisit themes familiar to Yes fans of worlds drifting through space, and forests or stone landscapes floating in unearthly skies.
The seven concerts are all from the autumn 1972 tour of North America, all focusing on music from their then new and best-selling Close to the Edge album, with some solo music thrown in (mainly Steve Howe guitar pieces and Rick Wakeman keyboard extravaganzas) along with a couple of tracks from both The Yes Album and Fragile. The setlist is consistent for all seven concerts, as is the amazing sound quality of the music, especially considering the age of this music. What’s interesting here is the detail rather than the broad sweep of the concerts.
Yes’ music was always made in the studio, often literally as bits of tape were stuck together to make longer songs or suites. The assembled music would then have to be learnt by the band for live presentation. It was often complex and demanding, rhythmically and dynamically, with plenty of room for improvisation over and through the work. It is this that holds the listener’s attention here, the way the band reinvents and augments their music, rather than simply reproduces it. Wakeman could sometimes be bombastic and over-the-top, but he also proves himself to be a master tone-poet, with exemplary colouring in and shading musical skills; Howe and Squire are both fantastic guitarists who bounce off and converse with each other through their instruments. Squire’s high-end bass is effortless and energetic at the same time, holding both the rhythm and a counter-tune of each song, whilst Howe’s guitar is busy and clever (but not smartarse), drawing on classical, flamenco and country music as much as rock and psychedelia. I’m not a fan of drumming, but Alan White is good at what he does, and there is plenty of percussion in the mix rather than just the normal bash bang of propulsive drums, whilst Jon Anderson is, well, Jon Anderson, a Lancashire hippy with a ridiculously angelic voice and a several octave range, singing wonderfully daft poetic lyrics. Joking aside, he is at the peak of his singing powers here, before illness, old age and new age bullshit got the better of him.
I know this review isn’t going to convince anyone who doesn’t like Yes to listen to them. I’ve got plenty of friends (hi Tim) who take the piss out of me for liking this band, and I’m aware they have never been considered as arty or experimental as Van der Graaf or as intelligent and heavy as King Crimson. But I like them, and I very much like this box set, however over-the-top and self-important it might be. This is a treasure trove of live recordings that reveals a band in their musical prime. A band full of energy, creativity, musical skill and ability. It gets a big Yes from me.
Progeny is also available as a slightly underwheming double CD edition subtitled ‘Highlights from Seventy-Two’