The Infinite Jukebox: Yes’s ‘Wonderous Stories’

Sometimes it’s about being there at the time, and just marvelling. Marvelling at the quite clearly unbelievable.
Yes were a progressive rock band, utterly massive in the Seventies, part of my inescapable music education, be it round at my mate Alan’s on a Saturday, or at any of John, Ken or Steve’s in midweek, whosever turn it was to host. I never really liked them, but you couldn’t say things like that then. Not when you’re in a minority of one.
Yes, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Or, rather, ELP and Yes, in that order. Nos. 1 and 2 of the Progressive superstar, at least amongst my friends and acquaintances. I could get on with some ELP. But when it came to Yes… Rick Wakeman quit the band because he hated playing ‘Tales of Topographic Oceans’ but I bet he didn’t hear it as often as I did, and not one bit of any of its four sides ever made the least bit of musical sense to me. Not that I could ever say that, not with my reputation when it came to music.
And that was long before I got turned on by punk. That was a time that was a great rush, the best I’ve ever had in music, responding to the energy, the simplicity and the sheer fun of all those great records, five nights a week of John Peel, everything pouring in, further separating me in musical terms from all my mates. Then, in the midst of this, the sheer irony, Yes release a single, it reaches the top 10 – Yes, in the Top 10, which parallel Universe have I suddenly stumbled into? – and not only that but I like it.
The sum of the improbabilities that come together in this track exceeds the capacity of any calculator.
Given the entirety of their musical tradition, Yes work the not-inconsiderable trick of being utterly themselves yet melding and compressing themselves into a genuine song of mostly orthodox structure. The result is almost angelic, between the ethereality of the instrumentation and Jon Anderson’s high, almost soprano voice.
The lyrics, of course, are utterly mad. The first verse gives off the pretence of being a love song, albeit one conveyed in pompous words, with Anderson telling of how he awoke one morning, love laid him down by the river. There’s a sweetness to the music that matches the lyrics, the faint sense of a dream-idyll, expanded by Anderson drifting up the stream, bound for his forgiver. That must mean her, or rather Her, but far too quickly Anderson’s breathlessly eager words turn from that inference and instead imply that he is in search of a guru, a swami, a wise hermit who will place him in an adoring trance whilst he listens to the Master’s wonderous stories.
The rest of the song is all about this disciple-like yearning: like I said, totally mad but very much traditional Yes. Yet Anderson’s voice, soaring high above, holds the ear and entrances this listener just as much as the Anderson of the words is entranced by his teacher. The meaning is blurred by the ecstasy in his voice, until it’s that which we respond to instead of the actual meaning.
That we can so easily do so is a testament to the music created by the rest of the band, Messrs Squire, Howe, White and Rick Wakeman, whose unexpected return to the band was brought about by hearing early demos of this very song.
Initially the song is carried by subdued music, acoustic decorated by layers of subtle synthesizers, bright and thin from Wakeman. Percussion is minimal, buried deep in a mix in which Squire’s bass is a central element, disregarding rhythm for a major role that is not melodic as such – that element goes to Anderson, Howe and Wakeman – but is playing a counterpart to the song. When White does become more prominent, later in the song, it’s primarily with cymbals rather than drums.
The overall effect is to create a fantasia, an otherworldliness that, as I said, is typically Yes, yet is placed in service to an actual song. And one with notable commercial appeal. I just wish they could have been induced to play the single on Top of the Pops, but I suppose there are some improbabilities that can’t be made concrete or else the world might split asunder and turn into a Roger Dean gatefold cover… Amazing record.


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