Sunday, November 15, 2009

Yes - "Machine Messiah" - From the Album Drama

Yes Drama album coverNow here's a song that has no right to be as good as it is . . . .

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."

Yes as they looked in 1980
Love the tie, man.
Never mind all that, 'cause if you're gonna try and make the case that whatever is troublesome about Drama would have become moot if just the original players had been there, you're gonna find that the parts simply won't dovetail.

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


tad said...

Ah, Yes.... DRAMA is cer10ly the last Yes album I could stand 2 listen-2 all the way thru, even including those 2 trax that sound like a spacier Police(?), "Run Through the Light" & "Does It Really Happen?"
(& 90125 has 2 good songs on it, "Leave It" & "Changes," but I can't take mosta the rest....)
I always thot "Machine Messiah" was kinda in the middle of DRAMA's quality-range -- I liked "Tempus Fugit" fine, but the 1's that really got me were "Into the Lens" & the minimalist "White Car." Those both hadda nice mysterious feel 2 them. & my fave local FM station back then played "Tempus Fugit" & the 2 "Police-ish" trax just a little 2 often.
I've still got the album, & tho I don't play it much, I think U're right: The part of "Machine Messiah" that always got me was the sorta-chanted chorus (not the almost-spoken title part, the section with the line about those "dark, Satanic mills") followed by that rocking/lilting Howe gtr part that lifts-off out of it.... & parts of the song sure R DARK....
Loved yr bit on Asia, "a pox on music." & 2 think I was actually XCITED when those guys got 2gether. I got over THAT quick.
& U got thru TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS alive? I couldn't do it. (Or RELAYER, either. TORMATO?) Can't wait 2 read yr thesis on that 1 -- or NE of those.... Marvelous work as usual. Keep it up! -- TAD.
(PS -- Yr F'in Tommy Lasorta rant sorta helped give me the courage 2 go ahead & post that "Why 'F' is the new 'How ya doin?'" thing I did a few days ago. Thanx 4 the F'in inspiration. U're an F'in genius....)

rastronomicals said...

Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes calls "Run Through The Light" "Sting-influenced," but I myself don't necessarily hear it there, and I certainly don't hear it on "Does It Really Happen?" which is the song I meant when I originally mentioned the bass on "Tempus Fugit"

There's no Echoplex, for one. Alan White has not a prayer of playing like Stewart Copeland, and Chris Squire, although just as talented if not moreso than Sting, isn't gonna sound like Mr. Sumner in a thousand years . . . . I think the Rickenbacker precludes it.

Yeah, the thing I don't mention about Asia as I blame them for the decline and fall of prog is that when they first came out, I liked them. I guess I was such a Yes fan, these guys could do no wrong. Clearly it wasn't "Close to the Edge," but I forgave.

I remember going to this beach-party type thing thrown by the local Top 40 station (which I didn't normally listen to) and being excited when I got the DJ to play "Heat of the Moment."

But what do you want? I was not yet 17. When 90125 came out I was excited about that, too, seeing Yes on MTV and everything.

But at some point as I started incorporating the punk and the postpunk into what I was listening to, it became like, why am I listening to this crap?

Relayer and Disraeli Gears and a host of other albums I discovered in high school held up fine next to Sonic Youth, but Asia and New Yes, not so much.

So it is withoout question in retrospect that I make these pronouncements, sound as they are.

rastronomicals said...

(PS I read that "How Ya Doing" piece and wondered whether there might not be a connection to the Lasorda thing.

All kidding aside, I think you got the dialogue between That Dude and That Other Dude With The Crazy Old Lady down pat. I was totally there, opening a 20-ounce coke and listening to these guys shoot the shit. . . .)

tad said...

R: Guess mayB the FAST Dterioration of U.K. (whose 1st album is still pretty great, I think) shoulda clued me in that Asia was gonna B a hype, but I always liked John Wetton's voice & bass, & I figured w/him + Howe on gtr, they couldn't lose. (Course having Wetton & Eddie Jobson write all U.K.'s stuff after the 1st album didn't help THEM -- their 2nd album mostly sucked & their LIVE album was A PIECE....)
NEway, can still stand 2 hear "Heat of the Moment" & "Only Time Will Tell" 1nce in awhile, even "Don't Cry" if I'm pushed, but the rest was quite a disappointment. & when ROLLING STONE gave the album 1-1/2 stars I actually got angry -- I figured it was just their usual bias against prog, but on this 1 they were right....
NEway, thanx 4 the trip down memory lane. What's next? -- TAD.