The reemergence of David Bowie, with his new album The Next Day is exciting. And while not a crazed Bowie fan, Station to Station and Heroes were vitally important albums to the teenage me, and I can still listen to them with pleasure. I took advantage of iTunes free streaming of the album a week or so ago and listened to the album through twice. While it did not annexe new territory musically, it has opaque meanings and an appealing wistfulness among the harder rock settings.
All this ‘Bowie reborn’ news has made me think about what I liked in the 70s. Interesting to observe how liking David Bowie is still cool. Unfortunately, along with the soul, reggae, punk, new wave and jazz I listened to in my teens, the music I was most crazy about was by the ‘progressive rock’ groups Yes and King Crimson.
Yes are definitely not cool. In fact they are generally considered particularly risible. They were wildly popular in the 70s, and I went to several of their concerts and listened obsessively to their albums as if my life and sanity depended on it. And I am not sure if they didn’t in a way. This was a complete world to escape into, hugely textured soundscapes that lasted up to twenty minutes a piece. Plus Roger Dean’s wonderful covers which provided an entire gravity-defying visual environment. (Dean’s work lately was scandalously ripped off in the film Avatar.) Growing up, my mother’s few records were mostly classical or jazz. I was listening to things like The Modern Jazz Quartet, or Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite before I developed my own choices. So long instrumental workouts, of the type favoured by Yes held no fear for me.
In London, from about 1977 admitting to liking Yes made you a laughing stock. Partly this was because of the emergence of Punk. While I saw no problem in seeing Yes and The Stranglers in the same week, many did. My brother and I saw Yes at the Wembley Empire Pool in 1977, and it was stunning. All breathtaking lasers, amazing playing and incredibly complex and wonderful pieces from their Going for the One album. The Stranglers at Camden’s Hope and Anchor, a few days later, had Hugh Cornwell wanking his throat, and sending a gob of saliva onto the low ceiling, compelling the audience to watch it drip as the band thundered out their exhilarating The Doors with a nosebleed tunes.
Both entirely wonderful experiences in their own way.
The fact that most people I know despise Yes has slightly saddened me. This is a group who have been almost uniquely vilified. And of course there is the fact, a running sore withYes fans, that despite selling gazillions of albums in the 70s and 80s they have stubbornly been barred entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
All the criticisms of Yes are true: the music was full of technical ability, and played brilliantly. Fine. Jon Anderson’s lyrics are obscure, ungrammatical and pretentious (that damning word useful to people who don’t want to think). Well yes, but as someone who has read and written published poetry for several decades, I can tell you that Anderson’s word choice was frequently excellent. Being a musician he first thought of the sound of the words he was singing, and the sheer strangeness and abstraction of the imagery painted pictures in areas of my head that I didn’t even know I had. And of course it didn’t deal with working people’s lives (as described, for example, by son of a diplomat, public school boy Joe Strummer).
Actually as someone who was at school in London in the 1970s, and had to deal with the reality of fascists lurking outside the school distributing British movement literature, meeting frequent racism because my girlfriend was black, of going to a crap school, power cuts, strikes, the rise of Thatcherism and other horrors, a bit of escapism was pretty welcome. I loved punk too, who wouldn’t love that rush of mad, anarchic excitement, but why did this suddenly invalidate Yes music? It was like criticising snakes for having no legs.
Ultimately the music of Yes taught the teenage me a useful lesson: even though everyone tells you what you like is rubbish, you never have to agree with them. You never have to accept a fashionable disenfranchisement of your personal taste and history, a narrowing of what is possible to conceive and love.
Good on David Bowie though. As well as being a fascinating musician, he has an amazing unrivalled ability to rise above and shape the forces of fashion.
Below Roger Dean’s image for the Yes album Relayer.