People think it’s easy to slam together 20 minutes of music that holds up under scrutiny. Build slowly from a soft beginning, jam this part together with that one, add an organ solo here, change keys, go to a different time signature, stitch in a guitar solo and a big climactic ending. It’ll work.
Except it usually doesn’t. Sure, disparate parts gain new, sometimes interesting meanings when placed in unexpected contexts. But really, to sustain a listener’s attention over the course of a whole album side? Most of us are hard-pressed to name something that long that we’ll actually listen to, with the possible exception of side two of the Beatles’ Abbey Road.
Jon Anderson, longtime singer and co-founder of Yes, a British progressive rock group that pulled off the long-form rock song as well as anyone, recently returned to writing suite-like music with “Open,” a piece that will be released in April.
“I think I got interested in longer forms when I first started listening to classical music,” Anderson, who performs a solo show at Infinity Hall on March 14, said from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. “I liked that you could go on a journey for a long period of time... When Yes started, we would do 10-minute songs onstage, but they were well-structured. It was part of my understanding of Yes as a group that we had this stage presence, instead of ‘Let’s go make a hit record.’”
In the early days of the band, Anderson began thinking about how classical composers would build music based on themes, stanzas and variations, the standard building blocks of music. As time went on, Yes added guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman, both classically-trained musicians who understood where Anderson was coming from.
“They could understand the idea of long-form piece,” he said, “so we jumped on the idea of creating 20-minute pieces that really held an audience. You take the highs and lows of music, build things up and end up with a climax. That was something that I enjoyed doing.”
Yes’ 1971 album, Fragile, reached number seven on the British album charts and number five in the U.S. In total, the group has sold nearly 50 million albums over the years, making them one of the most commercially successful progressive rock bands in history. Over time, Anderson, whose distinctive countertenor has become as recognizable as any other vocalist of his era, found himself pushing for structure in the group’s sometimes unwieldy sonic tapestries.
“I was very instrumental in making these things happen,” he said. “I just got things done and I didn’t take any prisoners. The money was secondary; It was always music first.”
Progressive rock is a term generally used for rock music’s interaction with classical models – and, to a lesser extent, modern jazz – in terms of instrumentation, musical form and style, avant-garde conceptualism, or any combination of the three. In the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band – a song cycle, if not technically a concept album, whose individual tracks are unified by musical-poetic themes and formal devices – British bands like Yes, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, even the Who, fully embraced the larger format, finding themselves free to present increasingly elaborate musical ideas.
Sgt. Pepper similarly demonstrated the growing importance of innovative cover art to an album’s critical and commercial success and that the conscious – though largely superficial – borrowing of concepts from classical music could elevate rock into the realm of “serious” music. (Yes album covers, created by Roger Dean, have become as iconic, perhaps even more so, than the music.) Occasionally drawing inspiration from avant-garde musical trends such as minimalism and chance music, Yes and other proggers from the late 1960s and early 1970s expanded upon the instrumental virtuosity and artistic seriousness of late 1960s-era rock.
“I would write songs for the band that were very, very simple rather than bringing in something that was already complex,” Anderson said. “I just knew the other members would be very creative. The mystery of the complexity is that everybody had their own style. I’d say, ‘Don’t worry that we were a rock band. Play what you want to play and it will fit.’ Somehow we were the right people at the right time to play together. It needed some organizing, so I did that. Just do little bits, I’d sing the ideas. They were so receptive.”
Pretension crept in. Along with melodic invention, harmonic adventurousness, and orchestral textures, shows incorporated capes and fog machines. (Anderson said he knew it might be time for a change when he first saw Spinal Tap.) Progressive rock lyrics stayed away from the usual romantic themes of mainstream pop, focusing instead on spiritual, religious, political or technological topics; even a song like Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart” seems to have a mechanical sub-theme, as though the heart is a piece of machinery that requires a user’s manual. Women stayed away in droves (although it isn’t entirely fair to suggest there isn’t a female prog-rock fan base).
“Progressive rock went through a period of being very hip and in,” Anderson said. “Then it was punk, disco, electronic music, then Nirvana, and so on. There’s this constant recycling of music to a certain degree. Progressive music is always around, and it wasn’t always rock. It was electronic, spiritual, and so on. It doesn’t resonate with some people … But we stayed the course.”
With the possible exceptions of Yes, ELP and Jethro Tull, most groups existed on the fringes of the pop mainstream, and few critics have been sympathetic to the genre. With the exception of Genesis, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has completely shunned prog. “It’s very simple,” Anderson said. “They don’t feel like Yes is important. Maybe in a few years time... For me, I’ve never really invested too much into it. When it happens, it will happen... The people in charge didn’t like progressive music, and they’ve stuck to their guns.”
Anderson is no longer with the group he co-founded. “I left the band three times because of the outside elements,” he said. “When it’s not music, it’s about money, partying and so on, that’s when it’s time to leave. I just feel redundant. I just want to get out.” These days, Anderson has a large, diverse audience that has cultivated a taste for longer forms.
“I think the freedom of the audience is to go listen to what they want to,” he said. “I see a lot of young people at my shows. Then there are people who have been coming for the last 35 years. They got used to the adventure, so it comes naturally that they are open to longer pieces. Generally there will always be pop music, but it’s not what I do.”
Jon Anderson, March 14, 8 p.m., $56, $76, Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, Route 44, 20 Greenwoods Road, Norfolk, (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun