Tobogganing On Topographic Oceans


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!)

1974-12-01-yes-is-coming-baton-rouge-thumbBut, 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.

the_doors_-_the_soft_paradeI 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 YesTopographic 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.

topotourUnlucky 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.

yestourI 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?



8 Comments Add yours

  1. Troutman, Stuart says:

    I’m not sure which it was – either Yes or E,L, & P but likely one of them (and really, the sum total effect of both, plus others) made me reject that whole dreadful 70s trend of “progressive rock” as a load of dusty styrofoam & cardboard. Or, better stated: crap. To this day, I can’t any more tolerate a few seconds of that kinda crud, than I can bring myself to endure a few seconds of some lowly “disco” hit single of the time. I’ve said it many times before: I crawled out of the 70s. And I’ve always thanked the heavens above for the blast of refreshing “punk” that rescued Western pop music in those days.

    Of your assorted suggestions there, I like “sympathetic dustbins” the best.

    Stuart Troutman

  2. Rob says:

    Ha ha, thanks, Stuart (I think). Tales from dusty styrofoam and cardboard….

  3. steven says:

    Poor rock fan snowflakes. Can’t ‘tolerate’ even a few minutes of an ~80 mins piece of music, helpfully broken up into 4 interrelated parts. Better steer clear of ‘classical’…there’s this guy named Mahler….

    (I know where the incredible guitar parts are.)

  4. Nick Smith says:

    December 1973 Topographic Oceans album review

    Mike Channell reviews a new rock album

    Yes is an incredible musical time machine– and riding their TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS is a trip and a half.

    This double set, according to Jon Anderson’s cover notes, was conceived and nurtured through their tour of Australia and the US early last year. Based on the sacred Hindu writings of the Shastra, the concept fell into four sections– and Yes gave one record side to each. All the simplicity and complex brilliance of Close to the Edge is continued throughout Tales, but the compound of ideas in enlighteningly different. The four parts are intertwined, with each side a continuing piece through sets of related lyrics. The idea was basically Anderson’s and he initially spent time on the concept with guitarist Steve Howe– “holding session by candlelight in our hotel room…” Squire, Wakeman, and White contributed to the construction during the five months of preparation and recording. At first, the feelings they’ve captured strike as strange, especially during the opening harmonic sequences. Overall, there appears to be much more emphasis on vocal construction and effect.

    In the first movement, (Shrutis) “The Revealing Science of God/ Dance of the Dawn,” strings and guitar weave some interesting material from which Anderson leaps with his own brilliant solos. Wakeman continually lifts the height with extra-effective keyboards, Steve Howe gets some excellent Spanish-felt acoustic together and the stereo ride you get at this point is crash-hot value.

    The sprinkling glass effect of the opening to “The Remembering/High the Memory” (Suritis) leads to an almost hymn-like vocal construction, building into another classical example of Yes’s remarkable capacity for variation of construction. Perhaps, in places, this piece can become dull– but any lapse in concentration is suddenly snapped back by the musical hands of change and artistic variety. Thankfully, bassman Chris Squire seems to have expanded his role– with the extra prominence here only a further pointer to his ability as a master technician. I felt a tremendous emotional output from the final orchestral arrangement on side 2– very moving.

    Clashing cymbals, jingling bells– a musical storm brewing… side 3 and “The Ancient/Giants Under the Sun” (Puranas)– as Yes “probes beyond the point of remembering…” Ear to ear stereo effects here are incredible with Moog, drums, and organ building an insane foundation for Wakeman and Howe’s piercing electronics. Control of the listener’s mind appears to be the total object here– by the time the vocals arrive, you’ll be so into the theme. The total effect to the several minutes is far too much to untangle– Moog undergoes a series of chameleon changes; percussion turns off-beat to lay the base for a remarkably unique piece of construction.

    “The Ritual/Nous Sommes Du Soliel”– the fight of life– sparkles into snippets of loving familiarity with a few chords from Close to the Edge skipping through (deliberately) occasionally. The bass underline here is remarkable, and vocally, it’s pure Yes. Lyrically, this reads as the most personal song for the entire band– “Change we must as surely time does/ Changes call the course/ Held inside we enter daybreaks/ Asking for, asking for/ The Source, The Source, The Source/ Sent as we sing our music’s total retain/ As we try and consider/ We receive all we venture to give…” Toward the ending, Steve Hower creates a splintering buildup as drummer White unleashes an unreal sound effect-drum solo. Wakeman brings it all down again beautifully with his absolute mastery of the keys. Production is so good here you can actually hear the pressure puffs when he hits each one. The album is finalized lyrically by a delicate Anderson.

    Yes is perhaps the most creative unit in advanced music today. The scope of their mental and musical capacity appears unlimited. It bothers me to consider where this genius will terminate…

    1. Glenn Rogers says:

      Tales, as you have described it and the music that carries the words culminates in what I tell people is my religion. The science of the fact that we are stardust and that we are all made up of coalesced stardust, and we evolved out of the ocean… the first few minutes of the album, if anyone would really listen to the spoken words, and take the time to really listen to the words in the prologue several times over, you would come to the realization of the purity and the fluidity of the music. If you don’t align with the thoughts and this energy then you will not get this album… go away until you have meditated on the true meaning of life… when you come back you will realize that this is it.

  5. Peter says:

    Well don’t leave us hanging – did you ever listen to Steven Wilson’s remastering? Although a Yes fan I always filed Topographic under the “too excessive and too difficult” folder to bother with it, but his remastering is a revelation that really brings out not only the sophistication of the arrangements, but also how memorable and melodic the whole thing actually is. I appreciate some folk have always heard it like that, but the remastered version really allowed me to finally ‘get it’. Once you’ve got your head around the ‘symphonic’ scale of it, its far more accessible than its reputed to be – even the “challenging” fusion-meets-classical of side 3! I’m not really sure why my ears found any of it so difficult before…except that its ill-deserved reputation perhaps proceeds it?

    (I only recently listened to the Steven Wilson re-masters of TFTO hence why I am commenting on 4 year old posts!)

  6. Rob says:

    No, can’t say I’ve heard Steven Wilson’s remastering. The albums I have heard that he’s remastered sound great, though, so I suppose I should give it a try…

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