Fifty Year Friday: September 1972
Yes: Close to the Edge
The distinction between dance music and listening music goes back before recorded history, and by recorded history, I don’t mean music recorded on tape, records or cylinders, but history captured through a preservable or lasting medium such as clay tablets, papyrus, paper or blog posts on the internet. The boundaries often merge between dance music and listening music and a great deal of dance music provides listening pleasure while much listening music encourages one to further experience the music through motion, even if only a slight swaying of the head or tapping of the foot.
In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, dance music and ceremonial music were incredibly important, and there we few cases where composers wrote music that was intended of audiences that would critically listen to music as a stand alone listening experience. By the end of the Renaissance, opera was introduced in Europe (some 14 centuries after Chinese opera had entertained the general public during the Three Kingdoms era), providing a visual spectacle, narrative and supporting music. Music was also played for gatherings and other ceremonies, often competing with dining and conversation, but over time attention was focused on crafting music that was the primary focus for the audience — music to listen to without dancing or in conjunction with some accompanying activity, ceremony or theatrical work. Over time more and more people got in the habit of attending concerts where one was seated with no other visual then the performers playing their instruments. Yes, attending such functions was an experience and social function, but by the nineteenth century, no one was supposed to talk or even cough and anything but the music itself was considered a distraction.
Player piano rolls, the radio, and the phonograph played important roles in providing both dancing and listening music, and made music so readily available that using music as background or as part of an environmental ambience became more and more common, with the art of listening rapidly declining in the general public. Yes, dancing music and listening music continued to thrive side by side, with big bands in the thirties and forties providing both functions; Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton bands provided particularly interesting and compelling listening music at the same time they provided very effective dance music.
At the beginning of the Beatles’ popularity, their primary focus was on dance music, but they also introduced more serious songs starting in 1965 — ballads not particular suitable for dancing such as “Yesterday” and “Norwegian Wood.” (“Norwegian Wood” was theoretically suitable for dancing to in its steady 12/8 tempo, but few rock and roll fans were particularly keen on waltz-like dancing.) “Nowhere Man” and “Michelle” followed these two, both in a 4/4 time signature that theoretically supported slow dancing, but one’s first reaction was to listen to these works not to dance to them.
The elements of listening music consisted of two parts, lyrics to which one listened to in order to understand the author’s message, and the music itself, which either supported lyrics, provided relief or interludes in relationship to the lyrics, or stood on its own as in the case of extended passages between lyrics or in purely instrumental music. The Beatles had a go at a single blues-based, relatively unimaginative instrumental, “Flying”, but on that same album, Magical Mystery Tour, there were several songs where the lyrics were considerably secondary to the impact and character of the music itself. When one first heard the Sgt. Peppers album and then, later, tracks on the Magical Mystery Tour album like “I Am the Walrus” or “Strawberry Fields Forever”, one didn’t exclaim “Wow!” as a reaction to the lyrics, but was primarily impressed by the bold, progressive qualities of the music. (Yes, their was a slight fixation with some around the initials of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, but it was at best a footnote to the reaction of the “new sounds” provided by the music.)
It was this emphasis on listening to music, by a band that had abandoned playing playing live due to screaming, fawning, and fainting fans effectively eliminating the listening aspect of live performances, that contributed significantly to other groups focusing on providing an LP-based listening experience, something not foreign to those musicians that had grown up in households where classical and jazz LPs were listened to attentively and often in reverence.
For my part, during my pre-teen years, I was exposed to Ravel’s Bolero, which I listened to intently from start to finish to sort out what changed with each repetition of the material, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue — and so it was natural to listen intently to Sgt. Peppers, then Abbey Road and then ultimately Yes’s Fragile and Close to the Edge.
By the time Close to the Edge was to be released, I was the proud owner of a budget LP set of six of Mozart’s later symphonies, and had listened to several works of Beethoven, Ravel and Debussy. Yes’s earlier album, Fragile, had impressed me for its balanced, classical-like attributes and musical preciseness supporting highly appealing and handsomely crafted material. Close to the Edge seemed to have embraced a more impressionistic, romantic ethos; it was a music that embraced elements of enchantment and imagery over precision and order.
About the middle of September 1972, right after Close to the Edge was released, my next door neighbor brought over the album, and upon listening, I was impressed more by the differences between it and the earlier Fragile, than any stylistic similarities, of which there were many. That first side to the title song was very much in the realm of classical music, recalling those wonderful orchestral tone poems of the late nineteenth century — yet brought up to date with lyrics and electronic instruments. “Close to the Edge” had a sense of thematic development, coherence and overall direction that, in my mind at that time, made this equal, and in the same category, of those fifteen to twenty-five minutes great classical works I so loved. Side two was a slight step down with neither of the two tracks on side two equaling the impact of the first side (or matching the best of the four main works on Fragile) but each was still musically impressive and compelling. To the credit of U.S. listeners, the album did quite well commercially, climbing up to the number three spot on the Billboard albums chart. In addition, all three works from the album had been captured in live performance for posterity from Yes’s 1972 tour and released in 1973, on the “Yessongs” album, providing another version for the serious rock-music listeners of that time.
Additional September 1972 Releases
Of the remaining rock-album releases in September, the most notable is Black Sabbath’s fourth album, simple titled Vol. 4, released September 1972. Guitarist and keyboardist, as well as primary composer, Tony Iommi pushes the band into new musical territory, sometimes exploring a harder, heavier sound and sometimes extending their previously established ostinato-based style. The first and lengthiest track, “Wheels of Confusion” is the most musically ambitious and varied, packed with a number of ingeniously layered and interlocking components. Also of note is the instrumental, “Laguna Sunrise”, a simple but effective composition with Iommi on both acoustic and mellotron.
With the band prepared to break up, the course of history changed completely for Mott the Hoople when after they had turned down David Bowie’s offer to allow them to record the newly composed, “Suffragette City”, Bowie quickly dashed off another song as an alternative potential single, furtively recording it with the Mott the Hoople band members in a couple of secretive sessions on May 14 and May 15, 1972. This would be the stand out track on the album named from that song, All the Young Dudes, and, importantly for the continuation of Mott The Hoople, a successful single peaking at number 3 in the UK and getting solid airplay on both AM and FM radio in the states. A version with Bowie as the vocalist for a guide track he had recorded during that May 15 session is now also available as a bonus track on later versions of the album.
Additional September 1972 releases included Seals and Croft’ Summer Breeze, an album filled with a variety of acoustic instruments and some electric guitar, released on September 9, 1972 with the initial track, “Hummingbird”, and its title track being played heavily on middle-of-the-road, easy listening and adult contemporary AM stations, Family’s sixth studio album, Bandstand, with its die-cut gatefold cover representing an old-style British television, the LP containing straightforward, relatively conventional rock songs (and the last Family album with John Wetton), Steeleye Span’s strong acoustic folk album, “Below the Salt”, and Sandy Denny’s second solo album, Sandy, with a varied assortment of arrangements highlighted by strong musicianship.