Jon Anderson on Sure’ Prog Epic ‘With reference to the Edge’: ‘It’s Nonetheless Contemporary’


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When Jon Anderson appears on screen, he radiates a Yogi-like serenity. “I’ve written down all my things I have to think about every day,” he reflects through his high, distinctive rasp. “Humility, being a good listener, respect, flexibility, positivity…”

The surrounding visual chaos is distracting: a home-studio space joyfully cluttered with various musical toys, including a harp and what looks like a hammered dulcimer. “I’ve had a studio now for about 20 years or so, and it got so messy,” he says with a laugh. “I had a couple guys come up and upgrade my studio—and it’s still a mess.” 

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The physical room reflects the singer’s brain: sprawling, full of life, constantly buzzing. You could say the same about “Close to the Edge,” the most ambitious and cinematically orchestrated rock song ever recorded. 

Yes had become one of prog’s elite bands by 1972, flying high on the success of their fourth LP, the prior year’s Fragile, which reached No. 4 in the U.S. and spawned a legitimate radio hit: the euphoric and relatively bite-sized “Roundabout.” But the band—Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, drummer Bill Bruford—was clearly itching to travel somewhere even more expansive than earlier mini-epics like “Heart of the Sunrise” and “South Side of the Sky.” 

The first seeds of “Close to the Edge” were planted during the marathon Fragile tour, as Anderson soaked up an array of mind-expanding influences—including the spiritual journey of Hermann Hesse’s 1922 novel, Siddhartha; Wendy Carlos’ ambient synth album Sonic Seasonings; and Jean Sibelius’ one-movement Symphony No. 7. It all coalesced into the free-flowing, 19-minute marathon—bits of folk, jazz-fusion, church music, classical, heavy rock, sound effects—that occupies the first half of their acclaimed fifth LP. 

Over a half-century later, you couldn’t blame Anderson for being a bit foggy on the details. (Or, for that matter, a bit distracted: At the time of our chat, he’s gearing up for a tour of Yes’ “epics” and “classics” with the Band Geeks, and their new album, TRUE, is out Aug. 23. That’s not to mention his ongoing project “Opus Opus”: “I’m finishing that slowly. A friend of mine who is a wonderful orchestra guy put some orchestra on it. All I need now is a 20-piece choir. [Laughs.] That’s all I need.”) 

Instead, his memory is vivid as we stroll through one of the twistiest corridors of prog history. 

Guitarist Steve Howe, singer Jon Anderson, and drummer Bill Bruford playing with Yes at London’s Rainbow Theatre on Jan. 14, 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Inspirations

We were on the Fragile tour. And on tour, you have plenty of time to think about stuff during the day as you’re traveling. I actually had a suitcase that opened up, and it was a boombox. I had my own studio with cassettes and things. I realized I was listening to Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7 two or three times a day, and then on headphones. I just got mesmerized by the fact that it was like living in a sort of emptiness—you never know what’s going to come next. [Rock] songs are basically six or seven minutes long, or less for radio, and you hear it and know what it is. But when you have a piece of music that’s ever-unfolding: No matter how many times you listen to it, it’s still coming up with a surprise here or there. 

I talked to Steve about it, and he actually started writing some ideas down. I remember we were in the Holiday Inn somewhere, and I was going to breakfast and walked past Steve’s room. The smoke was coming underneath the door—an early joint or whatever. He’s playing this guitar idea, and on the way back I stopped and said, “What are you doing?” He said, “I’ve got this thing. It goes ‘Close to the edge / round by the corner.” I said, “Is that it?” I said, “Carry on with the chords. ‘Down on the end / Round by a river.’” I’d just been reading the beautiful book Siddhartha, [about a man of the same name] who journeyed everywhere to find connection with god. Eventually he found it within himself by a river. I started singing ideas to him, and slowly but surely, by the end of the tour, we had some little sketches of ideas. 

Band Chemistry

The great thing about working with Steve is that it was very compatible. He’s an incredible guitar player, and I could strum three chords by then—that was my bit. I remember getting into the whole idea of structure, and Chris and Bill would be doing stuff while Steve and I would be doing stuff. We also had Rick, of course. I kind of heard them doing a riff [vocalizes]. I kept hearing it over there by the side of the studio, and I remember going, “We’re going to go from this right to that. How do we do that? I don’t know!” [Engineer/co-producer] Eddie Offord was there, which was brilliant. It was one of those times where everybody was really receptive to abstract musical reality. We jumbled around with things on Fragile, but I think by the time we got to Close to the Edge, we were able to memorize a lot of music—and then get on with the next piece and then the next piece. 

I do remember that we were recording the music we had before the middle section, which became the surreal section. The interesting thing is that they would really concentrate on everything being so tight. I loved listening to them, and I’d be thinking about the next part. Walter Carlos, who I met later on as Wendy, had Sonic Seasonings: this surreal nothingness music, and I just liked that idea. I think Bill and I came up with some ideas, and Eddie Offord came back with a tape of sound effects and things. So we finished up with a surreal, scenic sound board. Bill was clanging away on empty milk bottles. 

The Full Sonic Spectrum

It’s a kitchen sink in there! [Laughs.] We used to say that: “Is the kitchen sink in there yet?” It’s very interesting singing the song with School of Rock [the student musicians whom Anderson previously toured with]. This music was made 50 years ago, and these really young musicians are digging it. I come charging in: “A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace / And rearrange your liver to the solid mental grace.” What words! “Rearrange your liver” is to rearrange your physical self into a more serene reason for living. If you just live because you’ve gotta live? No. Everybody’s got the same potential. It’s just the question of how you get there. We’re all searching, and I think that’s where [Indian-American monk/yogi Paramahansa] Yogananda comes into the lyric. 

There were about two or three movements before we got that, but I just knew I was guided by everybody. I didn’t say, “Now we’re going to do this.” I would say, “What were you doing before? Can we do something with that?” That’s something you build on. After a half-hour/45 minutes, you’re recording it. The greatest moment for me in the whole evolution of the piece is right in the middle. Steve brought in some chords, and I remember writing, “Two million people, barely satisfied / Two hundred women watch one woman cry / Too late.” I think it was that period where people wanted to save the world from starvation. This energy was out there—why not sing about it? The eyes of honesty can achieve / How many millions do we deceive?”

After we’d recorded the song in the middle, I said, “We’re gonna do one more “I get up, I get down.” I’ll go up for a higher note, and that’s when we’re just gonna crash into the side part of the studio like a thunderous roar, and then: Rick Wakeman, solo! It was also later that Steve said, “I actually wrote a song with these chords.” He sang, “In her white lace / You could clearly see the lady sadly looking.” I said, “Let’s go record it!” I’m sure it will fit me singing what I sang because I’m not singing on your front bar. It worked out perfectly. He just went in and sang it, and then Eddie just pressed the button, and I started singing my bit. It was like, “Thank you, whoever is in charge!” [Looks up to the heavens.] 

The Genius of Eddie Offord

[The success of the piece] had a lot to do with Eddie Offord, who was so unique at capturing the sound of everything. We actually got to a point—I think after a month—where it was down to editing it together. We’d piece it together as an idea, as another idea. By the time you get to the seventh idea, you say, “Where did it start?” But eventually, [there was] some method to the madness of how it was constructed. 

You’d have a 24-track, which is about three inches wide, and you’d record on that tape. And then you get the mix sounding really good, and that transfers to a quarter-inch tape, and you have your mixes on a quarter-inch tape. Nothing to do with computers! But Eddie would number the sections, of course, and then tape them to the wall. You’d walk to this other end of the studio, and there were about two-dozen lines of tape with numbers on them. I’d say, “Eddie, I hope you know what you’re doing.” He’d say, “I’ve got it sorted out. Here, have a joint.” [Laughs.] 

By the time we got to the actual end of mixing, I think we were mentally and physically strung-out but eager to know how it worked. We’d edit sections [together], and eventually you could sit back and listen to 10 minutes, 12 minutes. “Wow, we’re only halfway through. So much to do!” We can’t just end on “I get up, I get down!” A lot of [the lyrics] were just spontaneous. I’m already talking about the scene: “The time between the notes relates the color to the scenes.” 

The Cleaning Lady Episode

[We were near the end] of editing of “Close to the Edge,” and I remember it very vividly: I looked up, and all these streams of quarter-inch tape were hanging down from the wall with numbers and everything. Eddie was very on top of it. About an hour earlier, this lady who lived next door to the studio, she came in to clean up every Friday. I think her name was Lizzy. She’d come in and say: “Hey, you people. Move around—I’ve gotta get my brush underneath your chairs here. I’ve got my work to do.” It was like Monty Python. Edie said, “OK, I need the next [one.] It’s not here. It was the part just before “Seasons will pass you by / I get up”—it goes to the high note, but it’s not there. We’re all looking on the floor, and we said, “Lizzy was just here, cleaning up.” 

Eddie went, “Oh, fuck.” He ran for the door, and we all ran out, and it’s raining. He’s in the bins, pulling all the tapes out. He found it—”Here it is! 32—got it!” He takes it back into the studio, wipes it very clean. We were so tired. Mixing can take all day long for like 10 minutes of music. We stuck it together and prayed, and it worked. Then we could actually listen to the whole piece of music all the way through. That was bewildering. You forget what goes where. Before you know it, you have that feeling—”This is a monster. This has totally taken on a life of its own.” I just remember him being so incredibly good as a producer—as the guy with the tape. He just knew where he was going. 

How It Changed Him 

It was a dream come true for me—and I think a dream come true for a lot of people who latched onto the idea that music doesn’t have to be on the radio. [Laughs.] It’s music that survives. When I do the tour with the teenagers, I just say, “We’re gonna do a song now that was made 50 years ago,” and it’s still fresh and alive for some reason, whereas some music on the radio 50 years ago may have been forgotten about. You’ve got to know about a Beatles song. You’ve got to know about the great R&B period of the ’60s. “Close to the Edge,” for some reason, has [preserved] the idea of Yes and of music not just being a radio song.

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