JUST SAY NO! | Prog Rock & Me

Recently a friend let it slip that her estranged father had spent some months in the 1980s playing guitar on tour with Yes. I was much more impressed with this snippet of news than I should perhaps have been. After all, in the prog wars, Yes guitarists are nicknamed the ‘twenty minuters’, such is their career expectancy.

You can fit what I know about the band Yes on the back of a matchbook. I know that the fantasy artist Roger Dean designed their album covers for them because mail order book clubs used to really push the fact in their full-page adverts in the Radio Times. Even as an impressionable teenager his images of strange coloured worlds, populated by flying dragons and alien stick humans, left me cold. I was a child of punk. How did this Tolkein-lite eye-tosh relate to my daily struggles on the mean streets of Leeds?* Here be monsters indeed…

In the school sixth form there was a couple of Yes heads who no doubt looked down on the Pink Floyd contingent as being too lightweight. (Unlike today’s all-embracive melting pot, these were tribal times: hearts were literally worn on sleeves, though for hearts, read beer towels and for sleeves, read arses!)  Invariably these wildly unkempt trolls would be cueing up the first side of the latest Yes offering as I gratefully skipped off to English. I would come back after an hour of hand to hand combat with Philip Larkin to find the same track would still be playing, my earliest encounter with the concept of the extended mix!

As a fully paid up pseud, I sneered at such baroque profligacy, secure in the knowledge and belief that The Clash wouldn’t be caught dead releasing a triple album of self-indulgent nonsense!** The NME was my hipster bible of choice and it had no truck with bands like Yes (or much else for that matter, punk having quickly lost its appeal now that us Northern plebs had heard of it!) They mocked that Yes gave their songs titles like Total Mass Retain and The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn). “What is this shit?” they might have asked if they had been plundering Greil Marcus that particular week and not Roland Barthes (quelle est cette merde?)

Time makes fools of us all, of course. By 1990, Orde Miekle was dropping Yes into his legendary weekly sets at Glasgow’s Sub Club and I was in thrall to The Orb who had a track called A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld which ran to nearly twenty minutes in length. It was bound to be all change after that, and thus it proved to be.

Perhaps the most bizarre manifestation has been the adding of shell-suited scallies to the traditional patchouli oil stained gatherings at prog concerts. In the obsessive compulsive pursuit of ever greater obscurity, it amuses me to think that Yes are probably just too commercial a proposition these days. I wonder what the resident hobbits in our old sixth form would have to say on that subject?

* The urge to embellish grows stronger as I get older. My personal experience of said mean streets involved being laughed at by girls for wearing a dog collar and chain with a demob suit and having my nose knocked out of line by the school bully. He ended up working as a grave digger for the local council apparently.

** Which is exactly what happened in 1980 when they brought out Sandinista – sample lyric: “Naughty mobster shoots a lobster.” Quite!

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