Autobiographical Music

Remembering Chris Squire

csquire-1Chris Squire, the legendary bass player with Yes had died. I have few heroes, but during the gawky isolation of mid-teens when I listened to Yes obsessively, Chris Squire was my absolute hero.

He was born in Kingsbury, north west London where I happened to live as a teenager. He sang in the church choir of St Andrew’s church, which I passed on the 83 each day going to school. I used to look at that Church wonderingly. Could Kingsbury have spawned such a titan? Yet as a fan, I knew that his choir experience there maybe ten or so years before had taught him how to arrange the complex vocal harmonies Yes often employed.

For me listening to Yes was an otherworldly aural refuge.  I always heard the music through its relationship to Squire’s leviathan bass runs, or his subtle every-note-counts approach. I found his melodic playing sometime swelled full of a majestic pagan power which I found full of meaning. His one solo album, Fish out of Water is a lesser known gem too, full of stunning work.

Despite this reverence I only saw him play live perhaps six or seven times. The first time was in 1975 at QPR stadium, on the Relayer tour when I was fifteen. For me the juxtaposition of ‘cosmic’ Yes with the place that Stan Bowles and Gerry Francis got stuck in studs-first on the field was a bit jarring. An effect doubled when I and the school friend I was with were offered an enormous and aromatic joint by someone sitting next to us. We primly declined. But the event itself was enough to blow my head off.  It was utterly the best thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t wait to see them again, but I had to wait almost two and a half years till late October 1977 and the Going for the One tour. By then veteran of several gigs, as well as forays into gobbing punk, I took my younger brother and we saw what still ranks as the single best concert of any kind I’ve ever seen.

To quantify how much I worshipped Chris Squire, at the time I had a weekend job as a floor housekeeper in the hotel next to the what was then called the Wembley Empire Pool. A day or so before my concert, I was checking a room that was almost completely empty, opened the door of a cupboard and Squire’s unmistakable harlequin-like black and white stage clothes (see pic above) hanging in a wardrobe. Falteringly, I touched the great man’s trousers and left, feeling as if I had touched some potent religious relic.

But what is a hero? For me it someone who pioneers a path into new areas of the imagination. Squire reimagined the function of a rock bass guitar, in a way that changed the way bassists have played since and had brought joy to millions. In carving out new possibilities of music he will always be a hero for that alone, let alone for his excellent songwriting and general likeability.  What a guy.

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Two boyhood heroes: Steve Howe and Roger Dean

Steve Howe on the Anthology tour April 2015

I had a two for one deal on boyhood heroes at Trading Boundaries on the 12 of April. Not only did I see legendary guitarist Steve Howe but he was introduced to the stage by Roger Dean.

Steve Howe is a fabulous guitarist. His self-taught mastery of musical genres from classical to country blues, plus an extraordinary musical imagination, means he has always been my benchmark when listening to guitarists in any genre.  At Trading Boundaries I found his performance uplifting. I’d first seen him live in 1975, and several times since then, but not for perhaps ten years. For me it was heartening to see my boyhood hero, guitarist of Yes, in such an intimate and pleasant venue. He was relaxed, chatty and still playing exquisitely after all these years.

Then there’s Roger Dean. As a teenager I loved Dean’s fantastic landscapes and Dean’s Views was the first book by an artist I felt I could personally relate to. He also made me imagine what life in one of his organically-rounded dwellings might be like, opened me up to the possibilities of set design, and gave me a glimpse at the trial and error that went into the creation of a logo. Thanks to my mother, I was taken to galleries from an early age and by the time I did an A Level in art I was more German Neue Sachlichkeit than fantasy art. But to this day I have a Roger Dean poster in my study and his work is always something I have in mind, say when at the recent Peder Balke exhibition in the National.

The work of Howe playing with Yes and Roger Dean combined to form a sonic and visual environment that was a teenage refuge, a niche in the imagination that belonged to me. For that I am still grateful.

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The power of YES


The referendum in Scotland is poised dramatically. Any copywriter, however, will tell you that the word ‘Yes’ is a fantastic asset for those who want independence. We use it against tick boxes to encourage people to sign up: ‘Yes! I do want to enjoy a lifelong subscription to…” The territory of Yes is a broad sunlit highland. It is optimism condensed into a word. For by saying ‘Yes’ you are in the affirmative, you are saying yes to life. It pinpoints the moment you decide to act positively. Even the sound the word makes rises optimistically.

NO, of course, can be powerful too. It is a response to danger, the resistance to being imposed upon. NO is the assertion that the status quo should be maintained. It is negative, dour. Its vowel sound a muffled howl of grief. NO THANKS, as sported on the lapel badges of those like Alistair Darling who want to maintain the union, is even worse. It manages to appear prim, as if someone were waving away a plate of unsatisfactory shortbread biscuits.

If Scotland votes out of fear, surely it will vote No. If it votes out of optimism, and an assertion of its own identity, it has to vote Yes. This is not a political observation, just the nature of the words themselves.

David Bowie, Yes and The Stranglers

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.