Growing up in the ’90s, before ever hearing Yessongs, I didn’t know what progressive rock was. The term was probably mentioned but, if it was, it was done in hushed tones, quieted immediately. Born in 1988, I didn’t see the dawn of Nirvana and grunge in general but I was a young boy when it fell, a young boy with a dad who was a former studio musician and so an avid music fan who stayed abreast of rock music. On the day Kurt Cobain died, my dad drove to the store and bought every Nirvana album available. They were played alongside the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin of his catalog, a broad agnosticism to smaller internal trends within rock music, interested instead in that mythic fiery core that manifests itself over the many genres. It was also played alongside his jazz and orchestral records, my mom’s folk records, the heavy metal and rap records of my cousins, and the strong influence of punk and experimental music of the ’60s, ’70s and beyond from my uncle. I was very lucky to be born into a house not just of general musical interest but an almost sociopathic devotion to the medium, having stacks of LPs, cassettes, CDs and more going back decades before I was born, something I try not to take for granted. Even despite this breadth of music I was exposed to, as well as a million and one terms surrounding it, “progressive rock” was suspiciously absent. Punk had killed prog decades earlier, sure, but the cultural perception hadn’t even really changed, and grunge, for all the incredible music it produced, seemed to replicate some of the attitudes of the dawn of punk at least in mainstream rock circles.
This was a shame to me. I grew up loving Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, the former explicitly a prog band even if few would have called them that in the ’90s, while the latter drew deeply from it. Even the moments where members of Led Zeppelin would praise the works of Yes or Pete Townsend would praise King Crimson (In the Court of the Crimson King in specific!) were carefully omitted from the popular tale of those bands, even as their influence was coming back to dirtier and earthier rock bands. Even the choice of Rush songs on the radio skewed toward their poppier material, something I didn’t appreciate at the time and became a later large barrier to my eventual deep love of their entire discography. The fact that Pink Floyd survived this purge of the influence of what was considered the most self-indulgent genre was a mystery, partly predicated on the overall quality of their work and partly, I suppose, on the face that it wasn’t nearly as technically demanding as prog could sometimes be. There is a valid point to one of the insights of punk and later grunge, that that technicality does not automatically equal quality and that there are many great and important and emotionally necessary things that can be done in music without necessarily knowing how to shred shifting scales in odd time signatures in suiteform. But this sometimes is extended to an unreasonable level, that technicality somehow becomes an automatic barrier to sincerity and worth. This is a ludicrous notion, as ghoulishly stupid as the condescension some prog fans to have toward mainstream music listeners. If you want to be smart about it, it’s a question of context; more simply, it’s whether it makes a song that’s moving or feels like it contributes to the intended aesthetic or imagistic or emotional aim of the work. Music isn’t rocket science.
Pink Floyd intrigued me deeply as a young music lover. It’s not so much that other music didn’t intrigue me either, and in fact I saw quite a lot of what I loved about them in other groups, but there was a sublime and mysterious majesty to album-length song suites like Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here and Animals and The Wall. I was lucky enough to find my dad had a deep collection of early Floyd as well as so was privileged to grow up having heard “Echoes” and Ummagumma and A Saucerful of Secrets and others, all of which only deepened my fascination with their rich, nearly-symphonic and subtly complex rock music. But with the words “progressive rock” excised from the collective vocabulary of everyone I knew and every voice I could find talking, from magazines to MTV and more, I had almost no way to consistently track this ephemeral thing down. One of the first places I found it was in heavy metal, the strange complexities of early Metallica tickling me much in the same way as Pink Floyd, and the tie of heavy metal to progressive rock is largely what influenced my very loud and notable love of the former, not the other way around. It lead me to Radiohead when the music video for “Paranoid Android” dropped when I was about 8, prompting me and my brother to buy OK Computer on release with our allowance. And eventually it led me online to the music end of a forum my childhood best friend introduced me to.
Through that forum as a loud and precocious 11 and 12 year old, I was shown the music of Opeth and Mr. Bungle. I think the intent of the show was to frighten me off, given that most of the users were teens or in their 20s, but it had the opposite effect. I was a young child on the spectrum in love with experimental music who’d dug through my dad’s old psychedelic rock collection and kept on digging, through local record stores and the Columbia Record Club pamphlets that would come in the mail. I wanted out-there shit, and the progressive folk/death metal hybrid of Opeth and deep avant-garde metal and rock of Mr. Bungle was precisely what I had always wanted. Still, any kind of genre tag eluded me. Opeth triggered my first deep dive into death metal, finally connecting fully with a style of music my older cousins and late-night channel surfing through MTV and VH1 had introduced me to, to my reeling terror as a small boy. Mr. Bungle pushed me back into the arms of Frank Zappa, a beloved figure by my father who still refused to name the genre Zappa’s work was most associated with. (I grew up thinking of him within the context of jazz rock.)
It was years later when I was about 15 that I posted on the forum with a question that had been nagging me for a while. I had loved bands like Pink Floyd and Tool and Opeth and Mr. Bungle for a long, long time and always wanted more music that sounded like them. The more I dug into classic rock and contemporary rock and heavy metal, the more bands I found, some interesting and some not, but none capturing this undefinable thread I could sense between them. I needed help. That’s when someone first uttered the phrase “progressive rock” to me. It felt like a door had burst open, some gate to heaven long-locked by forces beyond my strength that preceded me in time. At last, I could search deep through the treasured canonical records, the overlooked gems and the middling mediocrities of this new genre space like I had with many others before. So I asked for a good place to start.
Someone told me Yes.
This was the emotional equivalent of stealing a billion dollars from a Swiss bank and then driving off a cliff seconds later. Yes to me was the band that wrote and performed “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” an obnoxious and cheesy slice of everything I found gross and boring about the ’80s as an extremely opinionated and not always informed teenager. I likened them in my head to Genesis and Phil Collins (a staggeringly ironic connection to make in this context) as bad pop purveyors who my childhood idols of Soundgarden and Alice in Chains and the like had successfully overthrown. I not only didn’t see how they were connected to the dark, technical and emotional complexities of bands like Pink Floyd and Opeth, it seemed to openly be a troll.
I was assured this was not so, that they sounded an unmarked “different” in the ’70s and that, like many bands in the ’80s, they’d changed to survive the shifting tides of popular consumption. This seemed understandable to me. I loved Led Zeppelin so, like many young Zeppelin fans in the ’90s, had fallen down the hole of solo work from the three surviving members from the ’80s onward, only to find that while much of it was good, none of it sounded quite the same. I also was a fan of the final two studio albums by Pink Floyd, A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell, and knew keenly how different those were compared to their earlier hoarier psychedelic work and how divisive those changes could be. I figured I’d give it a shot. Worst thing that happened was it sucked ass and I got rid of it.
My parents had shared their records with my older brother and me from the time we were very young, playing them on my dad’s expensive multi-part hi-fi stereo that he bought with the kind of money you get from making it to your mid-to-late 30s without any kids. For years, I had assumed the ungainly and unsorted stacks of various music media were the complete collection, given how staggeringly many albums there were. But on one of many urban spelunking experiences in the dark corners of boxes in the basements of the homes of our childhoods, the kinds of trips where you find strange heirlooms and inexplicable ephemera and pieces of nostalgia from your own nearly-unrecollected infancy, my friends and I discovered a stash of LPs that hadn’t been brought upstairs in the decade and a half that we’d lived in the house. I flipped through them idly at the time but paid no close attention as it turned out most of the albums were good but easy to find elsewhere, like mid-period Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell. I noticed a bright red cover, dug the art and almost heavy metal-style illegible band logo, but didn’t pick it up.
Given the push by an online acquaintance, I went back down into the basement to retrieve that album that had caught my eye, which happened to be Yessongs by Yes, a triple-LP live record by the group. I hefted it out of its container, impressed by the weight of the three large vinyl discs inside and the clear care given to the art and packaging. My parents, it turned out, had two copies of the triple-LP, both of which were shrink-wrapped, a mystery they’ve still to account for a decade and a half after the discovery. I didn’t want to open a shrink-wrapped album that belonged to someone else; it felt wrong, like a violation, and I didn’t know if these were collectable or emotionally salient or what. But with two shrink-wrapped copies, it felt a lot more justifiable to pop one open. Plus, they’d been left down in the basement pushed into the obscurest, darkest, dankest back corner of a room that had seem progressively less and less use bordering on complete abandonment. It couldn’t be that bad.
So, I hoofed it upstairs to my bedroom with my newly-acquired record player and closed and locked the door. I didn’t know any of the material on the record, but I promised my online friends I’d give it a shot. I had a thing for long songs at the time (“at the time,” as though this somehow stopped) picked up from charming if imperfect pieces like “Black Rose Immortal” by Opeth or utter masterpieces like “Echoes” by Pink Floyd, so I decided to go for the longest track I could find and start there.
Glancing down the track-listing, I saw side E with the sole listing: “Close to the Edge.”
I slid the third platter out of its enveloped cardboard, marveling at the immaculate Roger Dean triple-gatefold and the numerous fantastical painted murals. It looked perfect to me, perfect, like everything I’d ever dreamed of—from music, from art, from meditation and drug use and serenity, from everything. Sure, they made “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” and that song fucking sucked (or so I thought at the time; I’ve since come to enjoy it). But this seemed worth a shot. Even if just one.
I placed the platter on the turntable. I slid the arm over to the outer groove and heard that warm crackle as the platter began spinning.
I laid down on the floor, arms behind my head, like so many of my great music-loving forebears have before enjoying a new record.
And over the next 20 minutes, my life changed. I fell in love.
I don’t wish to discuss the tracks or other elements of Yessongs at this time. Not because of concerns of length or pacing, but because as a live album, it’s largely comprised of material from three other previous Yes albums—The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge—all of whom I want to write about later. Touching too deeply on those now would ruin the splendor later. And anyway, what matters about Yessongs isn’t just the songs themselves or the spell-binding sequencing of the tracks assembled from multiple live dates into a single cohesive live musical statement that acted as a fundamental poleshift of my musical life.
What matters is that, on Yessongs, they proved every misguided statement about progressive rock wrong. They were a band on that album, a rock band, one that wicked off sweat and passion with every fiery lick and stratosphere-reaching vocal line. These were no bland technicians polishing their dicks for two hours while the audience stared at their navels. There was heat here, the same primal heat that burned off the best of Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane, the greatest Black Flag and Rage Against the Machine, the most superlative Tupac and Jay-Z. They were fucking working in a way that only a live record could show, where there were no backing tracks to hide behind especially in the very early ’70s. There were flubbed notes and strange mixes, physical distortion coming from the equipment they were playing through which only got more distorted by the transition to vinyl, all of which made every note and fantasy-flung Burroughs-esque Beat syllable of lyrics bleed rock and roll. This was psychedelia turned up to 11, then 13, before the dial broke and the surge kept coming. If early Pink Floyd took garage rock and exploded it outward to the stars, this was colonization, cities on the sun and warp drives and eternal life. This was the apotheosis. This was perfection. This was love.
In the Court of the Crimson King is the start of the story of progressive rock, but Yessongs is the start of my story of progressive rock, my atom bomb, my big bang, my return to samsara. I exited those transcendental 20 minutes of “Close to the Edge” a changed man, a newly-minted convert. I learned that Yes was a major influence to Cliff Burton, a dead god as far as I was concerned, as well as a band of interest to Kim Thayil of Soundgarden and John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers whom I’d loved growing up. I found out they played a lot with a band called Genesis who also used to make music like this and that they’d lost their drummer to a band called King Crimson who’d poached him just after Yessongs and whom had inspired Yes to shift from psychedelic folk/pop/rock to the harder stuff themselves. I felt like I’d cracked open the door to an entire hidden history of rock and roll, one which spoke to me on a profound and immediate level. It was one of the most singularly important discoveries of my life all wrapped up in a perfect, perfect, perfect 20-minute song.
I was listening to progressive rock.
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Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.