Book Review: Close to the Edge: How Yes's Masterpiece Defined Prog Rock by Will Romano

Author Will Romano goes deep into the making, meaning, and impact of Close to the Edge, still a beloved album after 45 years.
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roman.jpg"Just Say No to Yes" may not have been an actual bumpersticker in '77, but it should have been. At the time Yes were kings of the Prog mountain, and after such pomposities as Tales From Topographic Oceans they had much to answer for. Or so it seemed at least, considering the beat-downs they were taking in the hip rock papers. Of course those very same magazines had swooned over Close to the Edge five years earlier. From Richard Cromelin's original review in Rolling Stone: "It shines with a freshness and crispness that doesn't seem likely to tarnish quickly". Standing nearly alone today among such discarded prog artifacts as the career of Gryphon or the sunflower stage attire of Peter Gabriel, the love for Close to the Edge is strong as ever. In his new book Close to the Edge: How Yes's Masterpiece Defined Prog Rock, author Will Romano goes deep into the making, meaning, and impact of this legendary long-player.

CTTE was the band's fifth album. Serious Yes fans may shout blasphemy, but some of us rather more casual listeners tend to dismiss their first two efforts, Yes (1969) and Time and a Word (1970) as practice runs or warm-ups for what would follow. For them, the arrival of Steve Howe is where the Yes story really begins. That would be The Yes Album (1971), which contained such brilliant tunes as "Starship Trooper," "Your's is No Disgrace," and "I've Seen All Good People." 1971 was a banner year for the band, as they managed to released Fragile that year as well. With the recruitment of Rick Wakeman (keyboards, robes) for Fragile the "classic" Yes lineup of Jon Anderson (vocals), Chris Squire (bass), Steve Howe (guitar), Bill Bruford (drums), and Wakeman finally came together. Fragile featured the hit "Roundabout," along with "Long Distance Runaround," and "Heart of the Sunrise" among its many gems.  

In the first two chapters Romano provides a glimpse at the early lives of the founding members, details the formation of Yes, and generally brings us current circa early 1972. He then dives deep into the words and music of CTTE. Believe it or not, one of the things I look forward to when reading a book published by Backbeat are the chapter titles. Coming up with the most creative ways to use lyrics or titles as headers is a big thing with them, and figuring out the sources can be fun. For example, the respective titles for the third and fourth chapters are "The Spiral Aim: Inside CTTE," and "What's A Khatru?: Wordplay." Consider yourself a true fan of the album if you know the references. These chapters are also some of the most thorough examination of the words and music of Yes that I have read. It is a real plus that Romano knows when to puncture some of the pretentious hot air that occasionally wafts around this band, although there are times when even his own statements seem a bit "helium-filled".

The fortunes of a rock band are notoriously fickle, so the best advice is to enjoy the good times while you can because you never know how long they will last. While this has been a show-business adage since the dawn of time, the fickle finger of fate has been particularly cruel to Yes. They had not even reached the summit yet when lightening struck. The lightening was the departure of drummer Bill Bruford, which he announced while the band were mixing the album. In that instant the classic lineup of Yes was gone, with Bruford off to join King Crimson. Adapting to a new drummer (Alan White) while making their commercial breakthrough turned a time of triumph into a difficult period of adjustment. Romano has a hard time staying objective about this turn of events. In fact, he doesn't even really try, which is fine - but interesting in the fact that he invests so much drama into the departure of Bruford. This wasn't just another personnel change in a band with a different set of players on nearly every album, this was the "Pivotal Prog Moment". You may recall my earlier "helium" comment at this point, because our author sees Bruford's exit from Yes as only slightly less significant than Churchill's decision to fight Hitler.

Yes fought on of course, and overcame the exit of Bruford in the time-honored manner of "Go big or go home.". Their very next studio album would be Tales From Topographic Oceans (1974), which was either the ultimate progressive rock disaster or its greatest victory, depending on your perspective. I have always ignored the music and lyrics in order to concentrate on the Roger Dean extravaganza masquerading as cover art. It is truly amazing - a screen saver before the need for them even existed. Speaking of Mr. Dean, he warrants his very own chapter, the delightfully-titled "Valleys of Endless Seas: Roger Dean's Floating World."

There was a piece of product to sell in the midst of all this angst, and in "The Journey Takes You All the Way: Breakthrough Record, Whirlwind Touring" we see how it was accomplished. To quote the opening sentence of the chapter, "Close to the Edge surfaced into a strange and dangerous world torn by political scandals, the rise of radical terrorism, and war." Indeed 1972 was a very long time ago, and it is easy to forget just how polarized the world was at the time. Romano reports on two bomb threats against Yes concerts during this tour (probably Bruford fans), and an expensive heist of the band's equipment in London (more Bruford fans, or perhaps Steve Jones arming the future Sex Pistols). A little-known country-rock band named The Eagles opened some of the dates, and Close to the Edge peaked at #3 on the US Billboard chart. Along the way a film crew documented the band in concert for the upcoming Yessongs feature film and triple-live soundtrack album. The departure of Bruford was amicable enough for Anderson to attend his wedding reception, where he met another member of King Crimson, one Jamie Muir. The meeting is notable for the fact that Muir bestowed upon Anderson a book titled Autobiography of A Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. In Anderson's hands this little book was the well from which sprang Topographic Oceans.

"They Regard the Summit: The Impact of Yes and CTTE" is the final chapter, and in it and the Epilogue we are shown the long-term effects of prog on rock. It isn't, I take that back. Romano is obviously a big fan of progressive rock, his previous book was The Prog FAQ (2014), and he knows his stuff. What I like the most about his writing is that even though he is so clearly a fan, he calls 'em as sees 'em. He jokes about some of the excesses and asserts his opinion of CTTE being heavily influenced by Herman Hesse's Siddartha pretty strongly. He also paints an unflattering picture of Emerson, Lake and Palmer as sort of a "Yes copycat" band, which I found amusing.

1972 was a hell of a year in rock, some of the stumbling blocks CTTE encountered on its rise up the charts included Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple's Machine Head and Made in Japan, and David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Yes were clearly firing on all cylinders at the time, and for anyone who may somehow have missed it, there is a rare version of Simon and Garfunkle's "America" (10:31) that was recorded between Fragile and CTTE  and originally only available on an Atlantic Records compilation. It is an exceptional rendition of the song and highly recommended.

As a fan of the band, and of this album in particular I was very excited to read this book. Will Romano put together a pretty fascinating tale of not only the recording of a rather pivotal album, but of the progressive rock genre as a whole as well. There is even a moment where he describes a time (most likely in 1976) where New York City is paradoxically one of the last bastions of prog on the East Coast, as well as the nascent home of US punk. He sets the scene of a night in which one could see Emersaon, Lake, and Palmer at Madison Square Garden one evening, then go to the Bowery to finish the night off watching Television at CBGBs.

By the way, with a running time of 9:58, the Television song "Marquee Moon" is definitely a nod in the direction of prog. It is unfortunate that all those punks tossing rotten tomatoes at Yes album covers did not realize just how all-encompassing prog is. We are all Children of the Sun, as Billy Thorpe would say. It is so easy to slip back into those halcyon days of massive compositions performed by men in capes, and I look forward to reading the next tome from this author. If I may offer a suggestion Mr. Romano, how about the story of  "Mr. Roboto"?