Don't take that the wrong way, however.
I grew up with prog, fell in love with it almost as soon as I had my early teen Elton John phase out of the way. And I stayed in love with it, or at any rate I stayed in love with what it had been, even after it jilted me, and morphed into lame AOR pop/rock beginning in the early '80's.
Although my introduction to X and Black Flag at about that time changed everything for me, I've never stopped loving progressive rock of that earlier era, and I've never stopped loving Yes, or at least Yes in their classic phase, in their incarnations through the album from which our cut today is taken.
I mean, I have no idea what a Key to Ascension might be, and really, I'd stopped listening to new Yes about the same time Jon Anderson made the questionable decision to write a tune about the "harmonic convergence," whatever the fuck that might have been. But still, I'm pretty sure that my view of things is more or less canonical among the hardcore Yes fans who never got off the boat: Drama represents the last album of Yes' iconic period.
But, getting back to how I led off, if Drama is indeed "iconic," it sure overcomes a lot to achieve that status. It's a good record, but . . . how do I explain this . . . even as I say so, I can't help feeling that it's somewhat tainted.
And that's not a rip on Geoff Downes or Trevor Horn, or at least it's not a rip on them from these quarters. Never mind that Jon Anderson refuses to perform "Machine Messiah" or any of the other five songs on Drama to this day, and never mind that even Steve Howe called the lineup at this time "hodge-podge."
|Love the tie, man.|
If the day needed saving, who was gonna do it? Anderson? Well, the reason he couldn't make the Drama sessions was that he was busy making Short Stories with Vangelis--an album that is described by the superior minds (and the evidently more tolerant ears) at AllMusic as "underwhelming."
And Wakeman? Well, after he left the band in early 1980, he was so charged up about the creative differences which led to his departure that he immediately . . . did nothing. Wakeman released no music at all in 1980, so it's hard to say that Drama is lacking in the ideas Wakeman might have contributed. He doesn't appear to have had any at the time.
Instead of looking at who wasn't there, look at who was. Steve Howe is a freak, with fingers flexible enough to be rubber bands, and a compositional mind that came up with both the crankin'ness that is "Würm" as well as much of the labyrinthine complexity that is Tales From Topographic Oceans. But at the time of Drama, Howe was also less than 12 months away from joining the sessions that produced the first Asia album--a vapid arena-rock record that, in retrospect, I think we all understand represents a pox on music, and one that still, unfortunately, provides a handy template for any talented musician considering The Big Sellout. And on closer inspection, the keyboard player in those Asia sessions, on that Asia album, was the same as the one playing on Drama: Geoff Downes
Alright, I promised no Buggles jokes, but take a look at the bands with whom the other Buggle, Trevor Horn, would work in his second career as producer throughout the '80's. I won't name names, because they are best left forgotten, but at some point during that decade, the synthesizer went from being an emblem of challenging progressive rock to being a tool of the opportunistic would-be pop star, and Horn was an enabler as this happened.
Listen: Drama is haunted by the spectre of the commercial sell-out. This (finally!) is the taint of which I spoke earlier. Obviously, these people aren't hacks--they are enormously talented musicians. But three out of five of them have at some point demonstrated their willingness to co-opt their art for profit. 60% of the band are sellouts! And them who left were too lame to matter!
How is it even possible that Drama is a good record? Because somehow it is.
I was driving home from the Publix earlier this evening, and of course I've got Jr. playing, it was kind of briefly amusing actually, Jr. was playing Dinosaur Jr. "The Lung," but then the J Mascis thing ended, and at first I didn't know what the next song was, with the heavily cranked guitars fading in. I'd figured it out, though, by the time the first doom-like organ chords descend through the metallic haze. It's Yes, perhaps a bit heavier in spots, but--even with Horn's vocals--all constructed to sound as authentic as possible. Which is funny, considering how 60% of the band members would spend much of the decade to follow being inauthentic.
I love the circular church organ run at 2:07. OK, Geoff Downes didn't call in the part from some cathedral in Switzerland, it's probably Horn's Fairlight, but still, the whole thing sounds very Wakeman. And dig that whammy bar freakout from Howe at 5:22! The production is fantastic, too: at 5:46, and then again at 8:58,
are two immediate and vibrant acoustic guitar strums that, along with those from that unbelievably stark section midway through Floyd's "Dogs," represent some of the most gorgeous acoustic guitar sounds in all of prog.
That's how it is. "Machine Messiah"--and Drama in its entirety actually--hold up well, not only when compared to the rest of Yes' work, but also when held up against the light of the best in the entire progressive genre.
I sat in the car, listening to the music until it had roiled to its tympani-and-Les Paul conclusion, even after I had pulled into the driveway, even with the frozen pizzas inching upward in temperature back in the trunk. Transfixed with the tune, it'd been a while since I'd heard it, no doubt. Being reminded of it. "Machine Messiah" in its three parts is a great song, one of Yes' best. One of Yes' best and one of Yes' heaviest, even if no-one talks about Drama, or when they do it's about Squire's bass part in "Does It Really Happen?" But given the environment in which these people were working, given that most of the band were on the cusp of betraying the very kind of music this record contains, it all makes no sense whatsoever to me.
I've got this book, Yes: The Authorized Biography, written and released shortly after Drama came out. The author, Dan Hedges, concludes by calling Drama "Yes Nouveau," and "Yes after a 30,000-mile tuneup," as if the whole Downes/Horn thing was positive change that had recharged the bands' batteries.
We know better now. The UK tour was a disaster and Horn bolted at first opportunity. The follow up, 90125, made scads of dough, but also lost the band scads of fans (like me) that they never would get back. Drama and "Machine Messiah" did not represent a recharge: they were one-off miracles. Thirty years later, it's still hard to figure out how, exactly, they ever happened.
Yes - Drama - 01 - Machine Messiah.mp3
128 kbps mp3, up for six weeks (or more)
File under: Progressive Rock