It was in the summer of 1978, when I first laid my roving perfunctory all-seeing eye of Agamotto and picked up a cassette copy of Yes Tales from Topographic Oceans while I was spending my pre-high school summer vacation at Laguna Beach, California. Yes, it’s hard to believe that once upon a time that I was once a teen age Orange County fledging, living the hang ten surfer life but I wasn’t one to back himself up into a Beach Boy corner and pluck his guitar to the tuning fork of Good Vibrations on a hatchback of a Woody. I spotted the ‘pink’ cassette at a store in Laguna Beach called The Record Shed, that was located along the Pacific Coast highway not too far from a bookstore named after Ray Bradbury’s most famous book, Fahrenheit 451. Once I plunked down a $1.99, I made while babysitting some army officer’s bratty kids that my Aunt Megan set me up with I made my way up the hill from the beach to her cottage (My other aunt lived out in Westminster otherwise known as New Saigon these days) and probably didn’t emerge from her guest room for days on end with nothing but smoking Marlboro Reds and the cassette player I brought out from New Jersey.
I never heard anything like this before, but I doesn’t necessary remember if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but yet it had a profound effect on me enough to go seek out exploratory forms of music.
On December 1973, Yes had probably released their most ambitious project yet some heralded by the die-hard fans as an instant masterpiece but others such as critics and record shop keepers derided it as complete garbage. Fortunately that last bit of bad karma turned out to be unsubstantiated, as Yes’ double album opus, Tales From Topographic Oceans went soaring to the American charts to number 1 – without the release of a hit single. In fact, even though the band released a double album the grooves could only fit one song per side.
What? One song on one side of a record?
What gives, you may ask? Most of today’s audience are so pacified on kiddie porn music like Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, or Katy Perry- how could they rip off people back then with a double album with nothing but four songs? Wouldn’t that mean, you’d have to flip the vinyl every five minutes or so?
Well little atom ant acolytes the answer is real simple. Each song was close to or over twenty-minutes long. That means that you could put on one of these songs on in your portable CD player at work – leave your desk to go out to lunch and when you come back: the song will just be finishing up. A good way to establish a good employee/employer working relationship, don’t you think?
The bulk of the material on Tales from Topographic Oceans stemmed from singer Jon Anderson’s acquisition of a new age book called the Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda – another religious charlatan who could very well have been the predecessor to L. Ron Hubbard’s scam tactics. He also bilked money from naive people to pay him all sorts of money by setting up bogus retreats on the shores of California beaches called the Self Realization of Fellowship. Nevertheless Anderson found some merit to Yogananda’s method of astral traveling physics and spirit channeling that he and guitarist Steve Howe wrote under candle lit sessions a four-part movement built around the Schastic scriptures covering various aspects of religion and life.
The band itself was looking to extend its musical horizons, and they branched into other areas on this double album: witness Anderson monotonic Gregorian chanting that opens the title track, The Revealing Science of God – Dance of the Dawn (now that’s one scary title for a rock n’ roll song ) before the rest of the band slowly enter in as keyboardist Rick Wakeman lets a repetitive descending motif loose with his minimoog. Alan White and Chris Squire were headed in rhythmic and percussive territories never explored before on vinyl as they conjured rhythmic tribal spirits on both The Ancient (Giants under the Sun) and Ritual Nous Sommes Du Soleil. However it was the quasi-philosophical lyrics and the pretentious direction that the band seemed to be headed that made Wakeman want to take a powder. Wakeman got so disillusioned with the tour and the music that Wakeman took to eating curry as a joke on stage in order to piss off Steve Howe during his guitar solos (listen for Howe reprising a few themes from Close to the Edge on Ritual) while slouching behind Roger and Martyn Dean’s specially designed stagecraft. Also Wakeman was all hogwild on the side with Newcastle’s Ale and trying to drink for England’s entire football league at the time. Much to the rest of the band’s chagrin, Wakeman, on his twenty-fifth birthday left the band in a huff and concentrated on his ever increasingly popular solo career. Rick Wakeman already a record contract with A & M records where he delivered such stellar selling classics such as the Six Wives of Henry the VII (which was another album that I had inherited from my Aunt Megan because she didn’t like it), Journey to the Center of the Earth, and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table which ultimately proved too taxing for Wakeman to take on the workload of an entire orchestra and a shitload of ice skaters that led him to have an early heart attack later at the age of twenty-five.
Maestro Jon would have to find a replacement to tickle the electronic ivories. But, more on that tomorrow. Now let’s fill up some solid space with some wiki fun facts:
Tales from Topographic Oceans is the sixth studio album from the English progressive rock band Yes, released in December 1973 on Atlantic Records. It is their first studio album recorded with drummer Alan White after Bill Bruford left in 1972 to join King Crimson. Originally presented as a double album with one track on each of the four sides of the LP, its concept is based on singer Jon Anderson‘s vision of four classes of Hindu scripture, collectively named the shastras, based on a footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda.
Tales from Topographic Oceans was a commercial success; it is the first album in the UK to earn a gold certification based on pre-sales alone. It topped the UK album chart for two weeks and peaked at number 6 in the US. The album is noted for the divided reception it received, and the disagreements it caused within the band, resulting in keyboardist Rick Wakeman leaving to pursue his solo career after the supporting tour.
Although supporters argue that Tales From Topographic Oceans does have many beautiful moments that reward repeated listenings, the album is often held up as an example of all that is felt by many to be wrong with 1970s progressive rock. It has been described by some reviewers as directionless, pretentious, and self-indulgent. A couple of years down the line, the album was often referred to in a derogatory manner by several of the punk rock bands that emerged at least partly as a reaction to what was perceived as the out-of-touch and atrophied nature of much ‘dinosaur‘ rock music at that time. Whatever the consensus is, Tales From Topographic Oceans’s unconventional nature truly challenged their audience (and continues to), and separated the true believer from the casual fan.
The idea for the album’s concept came about in March 1973 in Anderson’s hotel room in Tokyo during the Japanese leg of the Close to the Edge tour. He was looking for a theme for a “large-scale composition” for an album and found himself “caught up in a lengthy footnote on page 83” of Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda that described four classes of Hindu scripture, collectively named the shastras. Anderson was introduced to Yogananda’s work at Bruford’s wedding reception by Jamie Muir, then the percussionist for King Crimson, on 2 March 1973. The footnote Anderson found refers to the phrase “shastric rules”, as Yogananda explains:
Pertaining to the shastras, literally “sacred books”, comprising four classes of scripture: the shruti, smriti, purana and tantra. These comprehensive treatises cover every aspect of religious and social life, and the fields of law, medicine, architecture, art, etc. The shrutis are the “directly heard” or “revealed” scriptures, the Vedas. The smritis or “remembered” lore were finally written down in a remote past as the world’s longest epic poems, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Puranas, eighteen in number, are literally “ancient” allegories; tantras literally means “rites” or “rituals”: these treatises convey profound truths under a veil of detailed symbolism. (It also serves as a double entrad as a pretty mean hand job, if one is perusing the massage parlors along the streets of Santa Monica)
When their tour progressed to the United States in April 1973, Anderson described the concept to Howe who took a liking to the idea of four “interlocking” pieces of music based around the concepts the scriptures spoke of. Anderson and Howe went on to hold “candlelight writing sessions” in their hotel rooms, completing the basics of the vocals, lyrics, and instrumentation after a single six-hour writing session that ended at 7:00 am in Savannah, Georgia. Anderson described the experience as a “magical” one, “which left both of us exhilarated for days”.
According to Phil Carson, then the CEO of Atlantic Records, Anderson was originally going to name the album Tales From Tobographic Oceans. He claimed he invented the word “tobographic” that was based on one of Fred Hoyle‘s theories of space. He mentioned the title while having dinner with Carson, who noted that “tobographic” sounded like “topographic”. Anderson liked the suggestion and changed the title accordingly.
After rehearsals at Manticore Studios in Fulham, Yes were split in deciding where the album was to be recorded. Anderson and Wakeman wished to record out in the countryside, while Squire and Howe preferred to record in the city. With White having no preference, the band proceeded to record at Morgan Studios, where the country’s first 24-track tape machine, produced by Ampex, was installed. According to Squire, Brian Lane, the band’s manager, proceeded to decorate the studio like a farmyard to make Anderson “happy”. Wakeman described the studio, “There were white picket fences … All the keyboards and amplifiers were placed on stacks of hay.” At the time of recording, heavy metal group Black Sabbath were producing Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in the studio next door. Singer Ozzy Osbourne recalled that placed in the Yes studio was a model cow with electronic udders and a small barn to give the room an “earthy” feel. Anderson recalled that he expressed a wish to record the album in a forest at night, “When I suggested that, they all said, ‘Jon, get a life!'”
Eddy Offord assumed his role as the album’s recording engineer who had worked with Yes since 1970. Production duties were shared by both parties.
Wakeman took a dislike to the album’s concept and structure from the beginning. He made only minimal musical contributions to the recording, and often spent time drinking at the studio bar and playing darts. He played the piano and synthesiser on the Sabbath track “Sabbra Cadabra“. According to Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, Wakeman refused payment from the band and was compensated with beer for his contribution.
Yes began to produce longer pieces of music on Close to the Edge that features the 18-minute title track. Tales from Topographic Oceans is formed of four tracks, ranging between 18 and 22 minutes. The lyrics were written by Anderson and Howe; all band members made writing contributions to each track.
THE SONGS / TRACK LISTING
Anderson explains that “The Revealing Science of God – Dance of the Dawn” (Anderson/Howe/Squire/Wakeman/White) (Total time: 22:37 on the 2003 re-master with a two-minute instrumental introduction restored) is based on the shruti. Speaking in 1994, he said “It’s always delicate to start talking about religious things ‘The Revealing Science of God’ should have just been ‘The Revealing’. But I got sort of hip. A dangerous statement!” According to Howe, the track was originally 28 minutes in length before six minutes were cut. “It was the commercial or easy listening side of Topographic Oceans.” Howe states.
“The Remembering – High the Memory” (Anderson/Howe/Squire/Wakeman/White) (Total time: 20:53) is based on the smriti, literally meaning “that which is remembered”. Howe refers to this side as ‘the much lighter, folky side of Yes.
“The Ancient – Giants Under the Sun” (Anderson/Howe/Squire/Wakeman/White – Squire contributed lyrics to this particular track whereas Anderson and Howe wrote lyrics for this and the remaining three sides) (Total time: 18:35) is another word for Puranas, meaning “of ancient times”, is attributed to “The Ancient”. Howe’s interpretation of this side is ‘electronic mayhem turning into acoustic simplicity’.
And finally tantras serves as a definition of “Ritual – Nous Sommes Du Soleil” French meaning ‘we are the sun’ (Anderson/Howe/Squire/Wakeman/White) (Total time: 21:52) described by Howe as ‘trying to drive the whole thing home as a biggie.”
On the 2003 Double CD Re-master
Dance of the Dawn (Studio Run Through) (Anderson/Howe/Squire/Wakeman/White) Total time: 23:36
Giants Under the Sun (Studio Run Through) (Anderson/Howe/Squire/Wakeman/White – with lyric contributions by Chris Squire) Total time: 17:18
The album’s cover was designed and illustrated by artist Roger Dean, who had also created the artwork for the band’s previous records Fragile, Close to the Edge, and Yessongs. Each of those albums used a narrative thread which was not carried over for Tales from Topographic Oceans. Painted using watercolour and ink, the cover depicts fish circling a waterfall below constellations of stars. In his 1975 book Views, Dean explains the painting:
“The final collection of landmarks was more complex than […] intended because it seemed appropriate to the nature of the project that everyone who wanted to contribute should do so. The landscape comprised amongst other things, some famous English rocks taken from Dominy Hamilton’s postcard collection. These are, specifically: Brimham Rocks, the last rocks at Land’s End, the Logan Rock at Treen and single stones from Avebury and Stonehenge. Jon Anderson wanted the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza with the sun behind it, and Alan White suggested using markings from the plains of Nazca. The result is a somewhat incongruous mixture, but effective nonetheless.”
Tales from Topographic Oceans was released in the UK on 14 December 1973 during the band’s 1973–74 tour of Europe and North America to promote the record. Its US release followed on 9 January 1974. The album was a big commercial success for the band. Following a change in regulations from the British Phonographic Industry for albums to qualify for a Gold disc, it became the first record to reach the certification based on pre-orders orders alone after 75,000 orders were made. It topped the UK album chart for two weeks and peaked at number 6 on the US Billboard Top LPs chart.
At the time of the album’s release, Wakeman expressed a dislike for the record. He criticised Anderson’s understanding of the Shastric scriptures after reading a single footnote. Speaking in 2006, he clarified that his total dislike of the album is “not entirely true”, thinking that there are some “very nice musical moments in Topographic Oceans, but because of the […] format of how records used to be we had too much for a single album but not enough for a double […] so we padded it out and the padding is awful […] but there are some beautiful solos like “Nous sommes du soleil” […] one of the most beautiful melodies […] and deserved to be developed even more perhaps.”
The album was remastered for CD by Joe Gastwirt in 1994. It was remastered again by Bill Inglot in 2003 for an expanded version on Rhino Records, which features a two-minute restored introduction to “The Revealing Science of God” and studio run-through of this track and “The Ancient”. It was released again 10 years later (on 2 December internationally and 24 December in the US) as part of the box set The Studio Albums 1969-1987.
I mostly have mixed feeling about the Tales of Topographic Oceans. Upon repeated listens I sometimes feel that this is the closest thing that I will ever have to a religious experience growing up mostly as an atheist even though that most of the religion that is explored here has been proven false or misguided, so to speak (but yet I don’t go around admitting listening to a twenty-minute plus rock out song with the word God in it – don’t want mislead any Christian rock enthusiasts who may be reading this). Like I said before in the opening paragraph I never heard of it when I was on the cusp of turning ten years old it didn’t enter my life until four and a half years later. The best recollection I have about winter and spring of 1974 is playing with my Mego action figures of Planet of the Apes and watching Star Trek reruns (back when it was really a cult phenomenon) and reading shitloads of Doc Savage and Shadow reprint paperbacks.
But ever since that summer of 1978, when I eventually came back to Northern New Jersey land I tried to impress a girlfriend at the time (named Diane?) and used to play it to our make out sessions. The girl, not really digging it ripped the tape right out of my tape machine and it unthreaded all over the place – I couldn’t thread the tape back into the cassette, so I took it to a television audio repair specialist who was working in the back of a Foodtown grocery store to see if he could fix it. He said it was a lost cause. So I eventually replaced it with a vinyl version during high school.
Whilst living in San Diego many years later, (circa 1989-1990) I met a woman a decade older than me who was really into this cult of Self Realization Fellowship. I had told her that he had heard of this book through listening to this Yes album so as a gesture towards brainwashing she me a copy for my birthday. Upon reading it, I was quite stunned to find where Anderson drew influences from these weird words in the track entitled ‘Ancient Giants Under the Sun‘ such like Ah Kin, Naytheet, and Gunes Grian. It was all footnoted. I made her a copy of the albums and soon thereafter great harmonic convergence of the G spot finding kind took place between us. But then she backstabbed me and got under my irritable prayer drum skin and got underneath the tunics of another SRF devotee and I immediately took the stupid book and burned it. So glad I didn’t go all out Hare Krishna and shave my head.
Tales From Topographic Oceans – it’s a piece of music that has the ability to send off me into a primordial rage at any given time, but with the 2003 re-mastered version, I have a more tolerable approach to it now. A lot of the melodies and themes are easy to pick up for me on the keyboards these days. I can mostly sight-read it with no difficulty or even recite some of it while I’m falling asleep behind my synths sometimes.