The Vinyl Diaries: Yes, “Close to the Edge”

Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder; to each his or her own; different strokes for different folks; one man’s trash is another’s treasure; you ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right. All this I mention in the interest of noting that the five guys in Close to the Edge-era Yes were not conventionally handsome blokes (with the exception, I suppose, of drummer Bill Bruford, who shouldn’t count, because the drummer always gets first pick of the chicks, unless you were the drummer in Blue Oyster Cult; in that case, it was the drummer for the opening band who got dibs on the babes). Jon Anderson was a harp-strokin’ elf who could quote from Paramahansa Yogananda’s footnotes as easily as Bon Scott could quote a filthy limerick. Steve Howe looked like Margaret Hamilton in full witchy-poo regalia, minus the green skin. Chris Squire could have used some green tannin; his froggy lips stood out against his pasty pallor. And if the be-caped Rick Wakeman wasn’t auditioning for the role of Merlin in Unidentified Flying Oddball, he sure as hell dressed the part.

U-G-L-Y: the Yes-men had no alibi. Yet, I argue that the music they made contained moments of exquisite, perhaps overwhelming, beauty. And I offer Side One of the aforementioned Close to the Edge as Exhibit A. Say what you will about prog, its pretensions, its pseudo-classicism, its swordplay and faerie-wooin’, and its off-putting bombast. You’re right about all of it, sure as Greg Lake’s corset cries for mercy to this very day. But there is also beauty amid prog’s clamor. Exhibit B: Soft Machine’s Third. Exhibit C: Camel’s The Snow Goose. Exhibit D: the Strawbs’ Bursting at the Seams. You betcher Tarkus, boys ‘n’ girls.

Back to Exhibit A. “Close to the Edge” has just about everything prog-haters decry in their run-ins with the stuff. First of all, it’s not just a song, but a side-long, four-part, 18-minute suite (already, you’ve lost the three-minutes-and-out pop folks). Secondly, its lyrics are gibberish (Dylan and Kristofferson folks have just cleared the room, though the Leonard Cohen set are sticking around, just out of curiosity). Third, it begins with a completely bombastic, explosively fartastic three minutes of sturm und drang, gee-tar-twiddlin’ twaddle (which clears out the Allmans’ fans, though a 20-minute blues solo typically has more than its share of fartasm). It also includes the castrato-testification of Jon Anderson, supplemented by Chris Squire’s slightly lower-timbre mirror vocalizin’ (alienating fans of singing, in general).

But it’s beautiful. Absotively, posolutely beautiful, and it so perfectly entices the listener to slide into the spiky yet tuneful prog of Close to the Edge, the album. Yes have made some other quality records (Relayer, Fragile, Going for the One, Drama) and some not-so-great ones (Tormato and … well, Tormato—so bad it should count twice), but none grab the ears quite the same way as Close to the Edge does.

Side One is the money shot, minus all that pesky foreplay (I know, that’s a disgusting image when placed in the same column with a discussion of Steve Howe and Chris Squire’s looks). The song begins with a pastoral soundscape, with water rushing and birds chirping and synthesized wind chimes chiming, a new-agey intro that explodes into a storm, a maelstrom of noise and whomping percussion—in prog terms, total freakout shit. It’s hard to keep up with what Howe’s fingers are doing; it’s all independent of any melody, or of anything being played by Wakeman at the moment. Squire tries to keep up, gives up, and eventually goes his own way as well. Only Bruford seems to be keeping any real consistency in his contribution. A choir of heavenly Andersons chimes in, in relief, with a lovely “Aaaah,” as in “Ah, a respite from the chaos. Let me sing, ‘Ah’ again!” And he does. Or they do—the choir of heavenly Andersons.

The dissonance comes to a crescendo and falls into the first main theme of the song, where syncopated guitar and gurgling bass give way to the first lyrics of the track. And oh, what lyrics they are:

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar,
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.
And assessing points to nowhere, leading every single one.
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun,
And take away the plain in which we move,
And choose the course you’re running.

Down at the edge, round by the corner,
Not right away, not right away.
Close to the edge, down by a river,
Not right away, not right away.

Now, the English-speaking among us can feel completely justified in responding to such a verbal osmotic bowel expulsion with a robust “What the fuck?” Turns out that Anderson—Yes’ chief lyricist—loosely based “Close to the Edge” on Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, to which Hesse, had he survived another ten years in order to hear Anderson’s tribute, would likely have also responded with a robust “What the fuck?” Time and several confessional interviews have revealed Anderson’s lyrical penchant for using words for their sounds and cadences, as opposed to, you know, their meaning. That’s right, folks, he wrote the line, “And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace” because it sounded good.

Onward the song wends through its first two sections, code-named “The Solid Time of Change” and “Total Mass Retain” (recalling the “total mass retention” teachings of the Gautama Buddha, who ameliorated the extreme asceticism of Sramana faiths by encouraging his followers to eat Snickers bars. Yes, I just made that up), into the churchy waft of the third section, “I Get Up, I Get Down.” The segment begins with dripping water effects and atmospheric synth chords—maybe we’re in a cave; maybe the cave is in us. Squire and Anderson trade vocal leads that start on this ponderific note:

In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly looking.
Saying that she’d take the blame
For the crucifixion of her own domain.

I get up,
I get down,
I get up,
I get down.

I’ve dated a few women with crucified domains in my time, but none of them were as pretty as the sounds the band coaxes from their instruments during this portion of the song. Rick Wakeman is really the star of this piece, shuttling from synth to cathedral organ to Hammond organ, round and round again. Indeed, his work here lends credence to the rumor that he hid eight arms under his wizard cloak—two to play the cathedral organ, two to alternate between Mellotron and Moog, two to play the Hammond B-3, one to pick the cape wedgie out of his buttocks, and one to hold the massive turkey leg from which he drew protein and sustenance during these long fucking songs.

It all comes crashing back into the fourth section, for some reason dubbed “Seasons of Man,” which returns to the “Total Mass Retain” theme, with the bass figures from the first two sections repeated and more imponderables pondered in the gibberish lyrics. It all ends where it began, though—with the synthesized sounds of nature cascading all around us, getting up and getting down. My God, but I can imagine the prototypically spaced-out teenager listening to this thing on headphones back in 1972, stoned off his gourd, closing his eyes and seeing the Buddha delivering takeout manna to Jesus and Ridwan and Rin Tin Tin somewhere in his own temporal lobes. It’s ridiculous and impenetrable and also beautiful, the former two feeding into the latter with alarming and appealing strength.

And that’s just Side One. Flip the record over, and you have another four-part epic to greet you—“And You and I.” Though half as long as “Close to the Edge,” it possesses as many gorgeous moments, and as much outlandish lyrical absurdity. And then there’s “Siberian Khatru,” classic rock and guitar nerd staple with the exquisitely nonsensical refrain, “Even Siberia goes through the motions.” It also ends with a dance between Wakeman’s spacey synths and Howe’s clean-toned guitar, a swirling tandem that concludes the record on a note of splendor that befits all that precedes it.

Close to the Edge might not convince prog’s detractors, but to the converted, it’s a grand thing, indeed.

  • David_E

    Steve Howe, in fewer words: Elrond.

  • EightE1


  • Matt

    Awesome stuff, Rob. And on a side note, Steve Howe makes me feel like a pretty man. 

  • Chris Holmes

    This album is easily one of the crown jewels of prog. Between this and “Supper’s Ready,” which I believe came out in the same year, it must’ve been bliss for prog fans back in the day.

  • Beau

    I’ve seen some sprawling and sometimes insightful dissections of CTTE’s lyrics, including this:

  • Jonny the Friendly Lawyer

    Somehow, the fact that Anderson’s lyrics are based on something makes them even more hysterically endearing (to me).  But, the music on CTTE is so stellar, complicated, well-played — beautiful, in a word — that Anderson could just as well have recited the phone book and it wouldn’t have mattered.  I admit a soft spot for some prog albums and subscribe to the “I-get-why-you-can’t-stand-this-but-I-love-it” school as to most of them.  But, even if you’re a prog hater, you have to admire the compositions and musicianship happening on Close to the Edge.  Very little else can be compared to it. 

  • MichaelFortes

    Another beauty, Rob. 

  • EightE1

    Thank you, Michael.

  • EightE1

    I am a fan of much vintage Seventies prog, unapologetic and all that. CTTE is a wonderful album, all around.  I do, however, understand why many of my friends don’t get it, the same way many of my friends don’t get jazz or country or blues or whatever. To each his/her own, as I say in the piece. I’m withya, Jonny.

  • Old_Davy

    My favorite Yes album and one of Prog’s greatest achievements.

  • EightE1

    Yeah, I’ve seen that.  I pretty much discount it; I think the author has, if it’s possible, put more thought into the lyrics than Anderson did, and, as a result, has found more meaning in the verses than even Anderson had intended. 

    Thanks for posting.

  • EightE1

    Steve Howe makes us all look beautiful.

  • EightE1

    True dat.  There were lots of cool prog records back then.  It was a glorious period for the proggiest among us. :^)

  • EightE1

    Agreed, absolutely. Thanks for commenting.

  • Beau Dure

    Probably! But the lyrics are wonderfully inspired. Compare that to “Roundabout” — I love the song, but I don’t think it’s quite as meaningful. Or, to compare it to another lengthy Yes effort, the more recent “Fly From Here,” which is really just a nice 5-minute song stretched out to an alternately repetitive or incoherent 20 minutes.

  • jbacardi

    Another longtime unapologetic Prog fan here, though I tend to lean towards Team Fripp rather then Team Yes, Team ELP, or Team Genesis…

    I listened to this album off and on for three solid months last year. I had heard it a few times growing up, but hadn’t really listened till then. I love it, even though, as you say, the lyrics are absolute gibberish. I love Relayer too…and I’m the one guy who likes Tormato as well.

  • Ozarkmatt

    I had a buddy of mine that was arrogantly proud of his anti-Yes stance. However, once on a long road trip back to town he and his wife picked up one of those “For Headphone Only” shows that AOR stations used to play every week. The next day, he called me wanting to know what that long-ass Yes song was (he recognized Anderson’s voice at least). Of course, his description narrowed it down not at all. I asked him what he remembered of the song, he figured it was called “I get up, I get down” since it was the only lyrics he could remember.

    A few days later he came over, we had a a LOT of alcohol and listened to CTTE, Relayer and TFTO all in a row. I knew I didn’t need to play any familiar songs, just the double digit minutes ones. He has been a huge Yes fan ever since. Well, of the 70’s version of Yes.

    So CTTE converted a fan some 30 years after its release. Hey, let’s see a Lady GaGa song do that in 2042.

  • Jonny the Friendly Lawyer

    Speaking of prog generally and Roundabout in particular, I find it endlessly amusing that the Wondermints recorded a song called “In And Around Greg Lake”.

  • Ted

    When I was a junior in high school, a friend of mine loaned me a copy of this album — which was my introduction to Yes.  I listened to it over and over one afternoon and found it a jumble of weirdness.  But after a few more spins, I began to find parts I liked, and then loved.  To this day, it’s one of a handful of Yes albums I own — and usually pick to listen to when I get the itch. 

  • EightE1

    Oh, YOU’RE the guy! I was wondering … :^)

    Team Fripp will have its day in this column; I have a lot to say about Red, though I need to find a vinyl copy — they’re not easy to come by in these parts.  Same with Team Genesis — I love Wind and Wuthering and Foxtrot, but my introduction to them was on CD and I haven’t found decent vinyl copies yet.  I do have a special place in my heart for Abacab and the 1983 record, though, and I have my old spinnable black circles of both.

    My relationship with ELP is more troubled; I vacillate between love and loathing. Same with Jethro Tull; used to be, the quickest way to get me to turn off the car radio was to play “Aqualung.”  Now, strangely enough, I lean more toward listening. And I grew to love Passion Play and Songs from the Wood.  Go figure.

  • EightE1

    Great story, Matt. I can’t name a GaGa song I want to hear right now, much less one I’ll want to hear in 2042.  Maybe “Bad Romance.” My kid used to sing that one a lot.

  • EightE1

    You’re right — the benefits of repeated listening really become apparent with this record. It’s a tangle of … stuff, but when its beauty opens up, it’s a fine, fine thing.

  • Robust54

    Oh, man, this is my favorite Yes album. This was “underground” at its finest. This old fart is old enough to have bought it and devoured it when it first came out, and I’ve been listening to it periodically for 40 f***in’ years! From the opening birds & waterfall to Wakeman’s cathedral organ work, it just blew me away. Yes may have gotten even more progressive after this, but they were never any better than on Close to the Edge.

  • Billy Shears

    Great review Rob. I was a “prototypically spaced-out teenager listening to this thing on headphones back in 1972, stoned off his gourd.” Back when Prog was king of FM-radio rock. My other 1972 classic LP of that ilk was Tull’s Thick as a Brick. Both albums are incomprehensible noise to the current iPod-addicted, MP3-downloading teenager, but they stand as monuments to a time when musicianship and originality (and experimentation) were valued in “pop” music. Today it’s all formulaic, homogenized pablum with a short shelf-life of about 6 months at best.

  • Race Baker

    Listen to the first 3 Tull albums.. less prog. More blues and jazz. But rockin’ and weird.