It was a warm autumn afternoon that I stumbled into the rambling topography of a murky ocean replete with Mayan pyramids, fish swimming in mid-air, and a four part suite about…um, something to do with Hinduism. I was still in my teens, a new student at the University of Florida, and it was the first time (and last, until recently) I heard Tales from Topographic Oceans, the 1973 album by Yes. The music that day cleared a room of 10 people and rendered another temporarily dazed. Somehow I came through, my faculties more or less intact.
If topographic oceans could talk, what tales would they tell? Yes ostensibly tried to relay that information to us, but what does that title mean? Pretty much nothing. Of course, the original title was going to be Tales from Tobographic Oceans. Which doesn’t mean anything either, the word “tobographic” invented by lead singer Jon Anderson. It may just as well have been called Tales from Pornographic Onions, …Psychopathic Muffins, …Sympathetic Dustbins, …Ethnographic Lotions, …Democratic Notions, …Ectoplasmic Orphans. Or, Tales of Orthopedic Bunions (a concept album about the foot troubles experienced by Buddha on his travels). I could go on, and I’m sure you could too (it’s fun – give it a try!)
But, back to that autumn day. The university’s student union building had a communal listening room which doubled as a study room. On one wall was an additional row of closet-sized private listening rooms, each equipped with a pair of headphones and just enough space for a chair and a small built-in table. In the main room was a service desk staffed by a revolving cast of part-time student employees filling the role of unluckiest DJ in the world. All day long he/she had to play music for the main room based on requests. If the DJ didn’t like Duran Duran, too bad – the girl studying for her psych midterm wanted to hear “Hungry Like the Wolf”, and, “like, now, totally!” Meanwhile, other students would look through the printed catalog of available albums (printed on an old dot-matrix printer – ah, the early stone-age days of computers…) and choose one of the scratchy vinyl records to hear in their own listening booth. So, not only was the DJ at the whim of any student’s taste in music, he was also playing music he couldn’t even hear.
I used the listening rooms the way we use the Internet now to discover new music. I remember working my way chronologically through the Doors records at the time, and I’d always choose the end room because it had a window and so wasn’t as claustrophobic as the others. The window looked down on the rolling campus lawn and I’d sit there with my books open – there to study, but instead listening to Jim Morrison ramble on about lizards and shamans while I watched the parade of students and professors walking by below. The invariable hapless freshman with a map wandering around lost, girls with big 80s hair and heavy backpacks, frat guys with their Greek-letter-emblazoned shirts. A parade of orange and blue – the university colors – to accompany The Soft Parade, the Doors album I kept getting stuck on. I wanted to like it, this unremarkable album, and thought repeated listens might reorganize my listening synapses and I’d grow to appreciate it. But, no dice.
So, it was on this particular day that I wandered up to the service desk and leafed through the record catalog, determinedly flipping right past the Doors and finding myself in the Y’s. There was one Yes album listed: Tales from Topographic Oceans. I always liked Yes’ “All Good People” when it came on the radio, so Tales must be good too, I reasoned. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Tales, a long double album at that, is often considered one of the most pretentious and tedious progressive rock albums ever made (giving Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s catalog a run for its money). Don’t get me wrong – I like a lot of prog and Yes’ previous album Close to the Edge is now one of my favorite works by any band. I also think their 90125 is one of the best pop rock albums of the 80’s. But, Tales, ah- what happened with that one? Partly, it was the result of a band out of ideas, with too much money and too many grand ambitions. Reading the Wikipedia entry on the album is almost like reading the script for another This is Spinal Tap movie. In fact, one of the scenes in Spinal Tap was inspired by Yes’ Topographic Oceans tour. Some highlights:
–The album is a concept album based on a footnote in an autobiography of a yogi. Not the book itself, but a footnote.
–Some of the band wanted to record in the country, some did not. So, the studio in London was outfitted with potted plants and fake cows to create a country feel. Engineer Eddy Offord recalled “About halfway through the album, the cows were covered in graffiti and all the plants had died. That just kind of sums up that whole album”.
–“At one point during the recording stage, Anderson wished for a ‘bathroom sound’ effect on his vocals and asked the band’s lighting engineer, Michael Tait, to build him a plywood box with tiles stuck onto it. After Tait explained to Anderson that the idea would not work, Tait ‘built it anyway’. Sound engineer Nigel Luby recalled that tiles would fall off the box during recording takes.”
–“In one incident during the last few days of mixing, Anderson left the studio one morning with Offord carrying the tapes. Offord placed them on top of his car in order to find his car keys, and proceeded to drive away, forgetting about the tapes. They stopped the car to find the tapes had slid off and fell on the road, causing Anderson to rush back and stop an oncoming bus to save them.”
–Keyboardist Rick Wakeman wasn’t happy with the album and “His boredom and frustration from playing the whole of Tales from Topographic Oceans culminated during a show in Manchester where he proceeded to eat a curry on stage.” This from the guy who was fond of wearing glittery capes and gave us such overblown works such as The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
–And let’s not forget the Spinal Tap moment when, during one show, an elaborate fiberglass structure around drummer Alan White failed to open, leaving him trapped inside.
Anyway, there I was. I had made my selection. Unfortunately, my normal end room was taken, as were all the other private listening rooms. The DJ guy, about my age, but even more naïve looking than me (if that was possible) asked in an enthusiastic way if I wanted him to play it in the main room. He had no idea what it was, but thought the cover looked “bitchin’” as he sat there in his Huey Lewis shirt. I went and found a seat at the end of a table – the last one in the room, which was full of students studying for midterms. As the first track, “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)”, spun on and on I could sense the uncomfortableness beginning to hang in the air, the shifting in seats, the glances at unlucky DJ guy. Few if any knew it was me that had requested the album that was currently wallpapering their ears.
Unlucky DJ guy was obligated to leave the record on though – it was his job. He was going to have to listen to all of Tales. Everybody was. Because I was going to make them. Not out of malicious intent, or lack of empathy. Not even because I liked the music myself. But for two other reasons: one, the air was starting to feel hostile and I didn’t want to give myself away as the person responsible for subjecting them to Anderson crooning “Dawn of love sent within us colours of awakening among the many / Wont to follow, only tunes of a different age, as the links span / Our endless caresses for the freedom of life everlasting.” And two, what if it suddenly got better? What if song #3 (there were only 4 songs, though the album is almost an hour and a half long) had an incredible guitar part fifteen minutes in?
If you’re familiar with Tales, you know that there were no such revelations. At least not for me, or for my unwilling cohorts. By the middle of the last song, the album had cleared out the room and I was alone but for unlucky DJ guy who had a glazed look in his eyes as he tried to remember if topographic oceans were something he needed to know for his geography class. Me, I’d made it to the end and felt a better person for it – for now having that additional musical knowledge. At least, I like to think that’s how I felt. I really don’t remember – by that point I just wanted to get the hell out of that room.
I hadn’t attempted another listen to Tales in all the time since then, until last week. I found the full album on YouTube and thought I’d give it another chance. Sometimes we can return to music and it connects with us because of a different listening environment, different life experiences since first hearing it, or changing musical taste. The album started out not too bad, but I couldn’t make it to the end of the first song without skipping ahead. I dropped in here and there with my curser, but the whole album at once? A pretty definite ‘no’. It had already stolen an hour and a half of my life 20 something years ago.
I went back to the listening room a week or so after the Topographic Torture, maybe I’d give The Soft Parade another try, maybe I’d just skip ahead to L.A. Woman. As I thumbed backwards through the catalog towards the Doors, I passed the Y’s…in heavy black marker, Tales was crossed out.
Tales gets a re-release this month, remastered by Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, who seems to be making a rewarding second career for himself remastering classic rock albums. But will these polished tales tread new water? Is the world ready for a new dunking in torpid benthic oceans?