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From the Beginning

Close to the Edge by Yes

One Saturday morning in September 1972 shortly after my thirteenth birthday, I accompanied my brother Tony on the weekly ritual walk into Barrow town centre, normally a simple round of the book shops. This Saturday was different, though I didn’t realise it at the time. It was life-changing; the beginning of an obsession with progressive rock that continues to this day.

Tony is three years older than me and I wasn’t entirely sure what music he had been listening to though I knew some of his school friends were interested in music. At that time most of the music floating around our house was jazz. Our father was a keen fan and though his preference was for swing and big bands, the radio provided sufficient variation to give us an appreciation of the different styles. The only interesting rock act that I’d taken any notice of was Roxy Music performing Virginia Plain on Top of the Pops, the staple British music TV show, in August 1972. On that September morning we went into Kelly’s, an electrical appliance shop with white goods on the ground floor and a record department, accessed by a narrow wooden staircase on the first floor, opposite a display of a small number of musical instruments and amplification.

Tony enquired if we could listen to a rather interesting looking album, Close to the Edge by Yes. We were allowed to take the gatefold sleeve into the listening booth, with its dearth of information; six photographs and the names of the band members and the instruments they played. We were both intrigued by the waterscape depicted inside the open sleeve, but nothing prepared me for the amazing music that came out of the speakers. This was rock of symphonic proportions: a single piece of music divided into four distinct sections with thematic continuity and reprise; it was quite evident that the musicians were extremely able, if not virtuoso; the musical production was faultless, with all the instruments and Jon Anderson’s vocals crisp and distinct; and with exceptionally well-crafted album packaging. Alan Farley writing in 2004 conveyed exactly how I had felt holding the album sleeve and listening to the album for the first time, “[Close to the Edge] is a monumental and stunningly brilliant album. ...particularly in the large format of the old vinyl records, opening the vivid green gatefold cover was like entering another world. In my view the title track ranks as one of the most significant pieces of music ever recorded...” and Bill Martin neatly summarises Close to the Edge as “perfection”.

Roger Dean's artwork for the inner gatefold of Close to the Edge

One of the striking differences between Close to the Edge and most other music around at the time was the lack of a feeling of ‘maleness’. That’s not to say the music was flimsy or feeble, because Chris Squire’s opening bass lines are forceful and punchy, riding high in the mix. Even without analysing the lyrics (we didn’t have access to the inner sleeve with the song words handwritten by Roger Dean) it was obvious that this was not run-of-the-mill rebellious rock ‘n’ roll but a form devoid of references to love or sex; the first time I’d heard head music.

In 1972 I was not aware that Close to the Edge conformed to sonata structure though it was obvious even to my untutored ears that this piece of music was different from everything else I had ever heard and that it was really special. At the time I was also unaware that this was an example of progressive rock, but it marked the start of a lifelong journey of musical exploration, and Close to the Edge remains my favourite album of all time. I genuinely felt that I had connected with the vanguard of a musical movement and not only did I need to spread the word, I had to find other music that moved and challenged me in a similar way.

So, what next? An obvious choice was to listen to the back catalogue of Yes, and Tony received Fragile for Christmas that year. School friends who had moved beyond pop or straightforward rock introduced new directions and this helped us discover The Nice. Record stores became a regular haunt. There were two established shops in Barrow, Kelly’s and Wells, but the move away from the single towards the LP format encouraged other shops to give up space for album racks: Boots the chemist, Woolworth and even Blackshaw’s, a local hardware shop better known for selling nuts and bolts and lawnmowers, converted around 100m2 of the upper floor into a record department with hastily fabricated chipboard racks. Earthquake Records was established in November 1976 by an ex-Barrow student who ended his academic career when he failed to find funding for a PhD. The store was fairly rough and ready, but was housed in the brutalist Civic Hall complex next to Barrow’s indoor market and where, for the princely sum of 5p, you could join the Earthquake Music Club. I still have the handwritten note, “Congratulations punk, you have paid your 5 pence. You are now in the club.” I can’t actually remember what this entitled you to, unless it was for the coach trips to a variety of northern cities for live gigs. I went to see Peter Gabriel on his first solo tour in Liverpool (with Robert Fripp as Dusty Rhodes on guitar) and Genesis during the Wind and Wuthering tour in Manchester. Earthquake closed down in 1983.

Album sleeves sometimes indicated a potentially interesting band. Based on the cover of Close to the Edge which enclosed a real gem, anything that looked as though it could be interesting was scoured for possible clues to the direction of the music. The logic behind this 'interesting sleeve – interesting music' hypothesis was that we believed that progressive bands were interested in presenting their work as a total concept: the music; the package; the live stage show. Assuming that each of these elements was given equal weight by the band, a 'good' sleeve (or to put it less subjectively, a professionally presented album cover) suggested to us that if the band cared about the presentation of the outer package, they cared for the music inside.

This strategy didn’t always work. For instance, the early pressings of One Live Badger, the first album from ex-Yes organist Tony Kaye released in 1973 had a really stunning Roger Dean sleeve that included a pop-up Badger. Badger bassist David Foster was a former member of the Warriors (along with Jon Anderson) and contributor on the second Yes album Time and a Word, but the music didn’t challenge and the lyrical content tended towards the religious, rather than the spiritual. Equally, there were favoured bands that had awful album covers, such as Gentle Giant’s 1971 offering Acquiring the Taste.

Gentle Giant's Acquiring the Taste - There's no mention of the artist anywhere on the sleeve

We looked for the instrumentation of bands that we’d not heard. Multiple keyboards were regarded as a key requirement, but unusual instruments were also considered acceptable because we were interested in bands with a wide sonic palette. Song titles sometimes hinted at what had inspired the artists: Bo Hansson had brought out Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings but his next release Magician’s Hat included Elidor and Findhorn’s Song, suggesting that not only did he like Tolkien, but he also read Alan Garner. Hansson would subsequently release Attic Thoughts (which included the two part track Rabbit Music) and Music Inspired by Watership Down. Naming pieces of music after books or literary characters I admired had an encouraging effect because it seemed as though I shared some connection with the musician, simply by virtue of the fact that we were reading the same authors.

We called this music ‘techno-rock’, referencing both the technical ability of the musicians and the use of (predominantly keyboard) technology employed by the bands. Though the term ‘progressive’ had been used by a couple of groups by that time, it wasn’t until a few years later that ‘progressive rock’ and ‘prog rock’ were descriptions in common usage.

Whatever the descriptor, the genie had escaped from the bottle.

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