A little while back the AV Club had a Q&A based around the question:
What’s the funniest time your parents banned a piece of pop culture from you?
Some of the answers are pretty funny (Christian rocker Carman? Really?), but it made me think of a different angle on the question. That is, does being prohibited from consuming some piece of pop culture at a young age set you up to better appreciate it when you’re older? I think it might.
There wasn’t a lot that was off limits in my house growing up. Part of that is down to my parents not being stuck up moralists fighting a losing battle against the moral decay of the world around them (or whatever turns people into censors). Part of it, also, was down to the fact that I had older brothers – one 10 years, the other 13 – who were old enough to handle just about anything, so stuff inevitably found its way to me. There must have been some control exercised somewhere along the line, but with one exception, I can’t remember any.
That exception involved, of all things, Yes.
Let’s go back to the spring of 1974. After a lavish tour for the equally lavish double album Tales from Topographic Oceans, keyboard player Rick Wakeman has had enough and leaves Yes. His replacement turns out to be Swiss ace Patrick Moraz. Equally skillful, he deploys a sonic pallet that’s a little more edgy and brings in some influences of jazz fusion to the band. His one studio album with the band, Relayer, sounds like nothing else in their catalog and is, to some (me included) the last really great Yes album.
One of my brothers had it on vinyl and, one day in my misspent youth (I was either in late elementary or early junior high school), I was recording it onto cassette. Back in those days, kids, if you were recording something like that it took as long as the music lasted. In other words, you listened while you recorded. I was in the middle of side one when my mother showed up. Somehow she figured out (probably because I told her) that side one of Relayer is an epic called “The Gates of Delirium.”
That was all my mother needed to hear. It was about drugs and I wasn’t supposed to be listening to anything like that.
And that was that. Relayer was out of my reach, at least for the next decade or so. I returned to it in college, when I discovered the progressive underground online and really started exploring music. What struck me about Relayer – all of it, not just “Gates” – is how damned weird it is.
Yes, for as much as I love them and as big a part they played in the development of progressive rock, have never been one of the weirder outposts of the genre. Even of the Big 5 King Crimson and (arguably) Emerson, Lake, & Palmer went further out there than Yes did. What Yes did was traffic in classically-inspired epics of precise arrangement and performance. It was pushing some boundaries of rock, but not all of them.
Relayer is different. It’s wooly and wild in a way that Yes albums before or after were not. As I mentioned above, the sounds Moraz generates are fuzzier, spikier, and just more rude than Wakeman. Throw in the fusion influences and much of Relayer (3/4ths of it, at any rate) sound like it’s about to vibrate up off the planet at any time. Yes hit heights during their long career afterward, but not like this.
What’s clear to me is that had I really tried to get my head around Relayer when I was in junior high I probably couldn’t have. I would have written it off as “too weird” and moved on (I nearly did that with King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk,” which I heard somewhere and thought “what’s this shit?”). So my mother’s impulse to censor probably turned out well, in the end.
As for the motive? “The Gates of Delirium” isn’t about drugs at all:
“THE GATES OF DELIRIUM,” with Yes (RELAYER, 1974): Based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” this album-opening nearly 22-minute composition famously erupts into this lengthy all-instrumental battle scene only to finally settle into a quiet peace prayer called “Soon,” which was later edited out for a single. Recorded with keyboardist Patrick Moraz, after Rick Wakeman’s departure, Relayer has a harder, more guitar-oriented sound — something nowhere more obvious than during the cacophonous middle section. The tune, Anderson says, was constructed in tandem segments.
Anderson: I sort of wrote the thing on piano, very badly, then went in and played it for them – again, very badly – but they understood it. I told them how we would start it, then made the thundering sounds. I talked about this enormous energy, and then went into the battlefield section, then out of that we would all sing ‘Soon.’ We all worked on it together. They started working on the first section, then I would work in the second section and so on. We stayed ahead of the rehearsals. Steve and I wrote all the parts out on cassettes, and I would be listening and working on the next part so we would keep the structure. Thankfully, they got it.
Regardless – thanks, Mom! You probably helped me better appreciate a late-prog masterpiece!