Yes: The Remembering

From the album Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973).

The full title is ‘The Remembering – High the Memory’.

Together with ‘The Revealing Science of God – Dance of the Dawn’, which it follows and completes on this double album, and ‘The Ancient – Giants Under the Sun’ and ‘Ritual – Nous Sommes Du Soleil’, the two remaining songs, or movements, on the same album (the album whose title, it should be said, is a somewhat strange linguistic construction, although it does seem to have a kind of explanation), this is the supreme achievement of symphonic progressive rock. This genre is the highest sub-genre of progressive rock, which, in turn, is the highest genre in rock, as it were, for the simple reason that it is not really rock at all, or because it is defined by its striving to progress beyond that problematic genre into something altogether different, better, higher. In other words, this is a high point in music in general.

I have called Yes the apotheosis of hippiedom, but using apotheosis in the original Greek sense which implies a transformation – in this case from all-too-human hippiedom into something divine, or at least more divine. They are certainly not a culmination of hippiedom. But perhaps they were never really hippies at all. Or even “rock stars”. At least some of them had a “classical” education in music. I remember how I was immediately attracted when, in the mid-1970s, I heard how they were vegetarians and spent free time on tours peacefully, back in their hotel rooms, drinking – milk. And, in the case of Jon Anderson, reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, “the lengthy footnote on page 83″ of which he mentions on the cover of this album. 

Yes were influenced by the vague spiritual longing that, when it was real, was about the only thing that was to the hippies’ credit. But they, or at least some of them, were obviously rising above the ordinary, lowest romantic spirituality of the hippies, the drugs, the general lifestyle, and had begun to take spirituality more seriously, in life as well as in their art. Yes are the apotheosis of hippiedom in the sense that they transform it into something that is almost exclusively a realization of its only valuable potential, the spiritual. Their name indicates it. Much of their work is a serious attempt, from the perspective of that generation, and with the musical and lyrical means at their disposal, to affirm and express the reality of spiritual awakening and spiritual enlightenment, and to do so in contrast, by no means neglected, to the painfully real but, in that ultimate perspective, lesser reality of the darkness of ignorance and illusion of life in this world.

They are not perfect. There is still too much rock, or one should perhaps rather say too much electric guitar and drums – in the Yes sound picture, they are subdued and deeply embedded in a non-rock totality, and it must be said that also in themselves the guitars for the most part have a distinctly non-rock quality. Still, not even Yes have progressed far enough beyond rock, have fully developed and established the new genre as a wholly independent and separate one. In their worldview is also still found too much of the characteristic, modern, new agey romanticism of the period; they remain caught in some of the general illusions of their time, although this is not so evident in their main sequence of albums in the 1970s.

But in their best work, there is a clear movement away from lower and ordinary forms of this kind of modern romanticism to one aspect at least of what can be called higher romanticism; their affirmation includes a dimension of transcendence. It is the maturity and fullness of their vision, even more than the sublime, relative perfection of its artistic realization in their main sequence, that puts them far ahead of other symphonic progressive rock bands; none comes even close. And in that sequence, the Tales album is the most important. It is so because it is the most fully developed, the one which progresses the most beyond rock. It must be the most advanced piece of music ever played with these instruments – and when I say this I have in mind neither the mere technical skill of the musicians, which is often much too one-sidedly focused on in the Yes literature, nor just compositional complexity as such.

The Beatles helped stimulate and inspire in the second half of the 1960s the development of serious rock and even progressive rock; and they too were drawn to spirituality, and showed some interest in both Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Yes certainly arose to some extent out of the post-Sgt Pepper musical and cultural milieu. And yet, saying that an ordinary pop, rock’n’roll, and ultimately even to some extent serious rock group like The Beatles is sometimes like Monteverdi, and that some of their songs are better than Schumann’s, as did the literary critic and professor of American and English literature at Rutgers, Richard Poirier, is clearly exaggerated. But the situation is at least to some considerable extent different with the masters of symphonic prog at their best, for reasons not yet fully explored in the Yes literature.

Because of the spiritual-religious vision it expresses, as well as its melodic level and compositional structure, it could at least be suggested that the Tales album is the Bach B minor mass of symphonic progressive rock. The hymnic quality (which we of course find in other works of Yes too) is in important respects the same. Bach’s mass isn’t perfect either. But it is hard to imagine that any of these works will be surpassed in their respective genres. If you do not already understand and appreciate works of music which have in common what these works have in common, you will have made spiritual progress if you devote your life to trying to learn to do so. Here is Anderson’s impressionistic interpretation of the Vedic shastra on the album cover, explaining the theme of the album and of each of the four movements:

“We were in Tokyo on tour and I had a few minutes to myself in the hotel room before the evening’s concert. Leafing through Paramahansa Yogananda’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. For some time I had been searching for a theme for a large scale composition. So positive in character were the shastras that I could visualise there and then four interlocking pieces of music being structured around them. That was in February. Eight months later the concept was realised in this recording.

While still on tour, first in Australia and then the U.S., I had spelled out the idea to Steve. He liked it and the two of us at once began holding sessions by candlelight in our hotel rooms. By the time we reached Savannah, Georgia, things had come together very clearly. There, during one six-hour session, which carried on until 7 a.m., we worked out the vocal, lyrical and instrumental foundation for the four movements. It was a magical experience which left both of us exhilarated for days. Chris, Rick and Alan made very important contributions of their own as the work evolved during the five months it took to arrange, rehearse and record.

1st Movement: Shrutis. The Revealing Science of God can be seen as an ever-opening flower in which simple truths emerge examining the complexities and magic of the past and how we should not forget the song that has been left to us to hear. The knowledge of God is a search, constant and clear.

2nd Movement: Smritis. The Remembering. All our thoughts, impressions, knowledge, fears, have been developing for millions of years.  What we can relate to is our own past, our own life, our own history. Here, it is especially Rick’s keyboards which bring alive the ebb and flow and depth of our mind’s eye: The Topographic Ocean. Hopefully we should appreciate that given points in time are not so significant as the nature of what is impressed on the mind, and how it is retained and used.

3rd Movement: Puranas. The Ancient probes still further into the past beyond the point of remembering. Here Steve’s guitar is pivotal in sharpening reflection on the beauties and treasures of lost civilisations, Indian, Chinese, Central American, Atlantean. These and other people left an immense treasure of knowledge.

4th Movement: Tantras. The Ritual. Seven notes of freedom to learn and to know the ritual of life. Life is a fight between sources of evil and pure love. Alan and Chris present and relay the struggle out of which comes a positive source. Nous sommes du soleil. We are of the sun. We can see.”

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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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