In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look back at an album that stretched progressive rock to the limits: ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans‘ by Yes, a double album that contained just four songs. One per side. It turns 40 this week.
“Leafing through Paramhansa Yoganada’s ‘Autobiography Of A Yogi,’ I got caught up in the lengthy footnote on page 83. It described the four part shastric scriptures which cover all aspects of religion and social life as well as fields like medicine and music, art and architecture.” – Jon Anderson
If the above quote doesn’t sound like a good starting point for an album, then the legendary band’s 1974 opus Tales From Topographic Oceans may not be for you. Also, if the idea of four long songs – each taking up the length of a vinyl LP side – doesn’t sound appealing, you may also want to avoid this one.
If you’re still reading this, you’re probably a died-in-the-wool fan of progressive rock in general, and Yes specifically. Yes was, after all, no stranger to lengthy compositions: their previous album, 1972’s Close To The Edge contained only three songs: the title track, at 18:33, took up all of side one, with the two remaining songs splitting side two. But it’s worth mentioning that “Close To The Edge” would have been the shortest song on Topographic by a few seconds.
Bass player Chris Squire (the only member of Yes to be a part of every incarnation of the band) recently spoke to Radio.com about the album. “We were very much an experimental band, we always were. It was a slightly tricky album, and very ambitious. We were just making ‘art,’ I guess.” But he recalls that it was a labor intensive album.
“It was an album where we came in each day and recorded a minute or two of music, and then edited it onto what we had done the day before. It was definitely very much [like] throwing paint on the wall and seeing what stuck and organzing it after the fact, rather than before. it was definitely an ‘arty’ thing to do.”
Yes fans then, as now, were an intense bunch. But Squire says that Tales tried the patience of many of them, and it separated the true fans from the lightweights. “The die hards were definitley very receptive to it. But the fringe fans, we probably lost some of them, because it was quite deep in a few ways. I remember doing concerts on that tour and watching people sleeping. We’d wake them up with ‘Ritual.'”
The album also caused issues within the band: Squire recalls, “[Keyboardist] Rick Wakeman didn’t really like it.” In fact, he ended up spending time in an adjacent studio with Black Sabbath, playing on their 1973 album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.
After the album’s tour, Wakeman would quit the band… for the first of many times. And while Tales doesn’t surface in the band’s setlists very often – although “Leaves Of Green” (a section of side three’s “The Ancient – Giants Under The Sun”) was performed as recently as last year – it was still an important album for Yes. For one thing, it was drummer Alan White’s first studio record with the band, and he’s been with them ever since. And for another, it took them to the limits of epic-length songs.
Eventually, Yes would return to tight, radio-ready songs (notably on 1983’s 90125). But they never really deserted the epic length tune. 1996’s Keys To Ascension featured “That, That Is” which came close to the twenty minute mark; 1997’s Keys To Ascension 2 featured “Mind Drive,” topping 18:30, and Squire notes that the longest Yes song ever is the title track to their last album, 2011’s Fly From Here, at close to 24 minutes.
Forty years later, Yes fans are disappointed that the band wasn’t voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (although they were on the ballot). But life goes on; they’re currently working on a new album, their first with new singer Jon Davison. But they may not have made it this far without Tales, despite the sleeping fans and disgruntled keyboardists. “If we hadn’t have done it, if we’d carried on doing another ‘Roundabout’ or more pop or rock album, maybe Yes wouldn’t have existed for another 40 years, as we have.”
Tales is part of the recently released box set, The Studio Albums 1969-1987.
— Brian Ives, Radio.com