Jul 112011

As any musician can tell you, it’s tough to build an audience of any size. Can you imagine how hard it must be to churn out million-selling albums and release singles that become radio staples for the next 40 years?

Now, imagine building that audience, selling all those albums, and garnering all that airplay with 8-minute songs involving complex time signatures and multiple “movements” while being sung by an elfin flower child with a high-pitched voice, spouting off fastastic tales of chess and outer space. (And this elfin prince of rock ‘n roll may be the best-looking guy in the bunch, despite the shocking results of a popular rock blog’s fan voting for Sexiest Man in Prog-Rock 40 years into the future.) Imagine taking these ingredients and producing actual songs with parts that could be sung, whistled, and hummed from top to bottom by an average 12-year-old kid.

I’m talking about Yes, of course, the most tuneful of prog-rock bands, and the band that made it possible for a half generation’s worth of classically trained musicians to earn their rock ‘n roll credibility and taste the same delights of rock stardom as any traditional, macho guitar-based band.

I’m not the world’s greatest Yes fan by any stretch, but in terms of degree of difficulty did any band in rock achieve wider public and commercial acclaim for such (on the surface, at least) unformulaic music?

The Grateful Dead may come to mind, but their few radio hits from their prime are the ones in a folky, country vein. The legendary “St. Stephen,” for instance, isn’t a staple of Classic Rock radio nor a song that even casual rock fans can hum out all the parts to. “You had to see them live,” and plenty of people did, but they did not necessarily absorb their records. In contrast, I bet a great percentage of rock fans, even those heavily opposed to prog rock, such as andyr and E. Pluribus Gergely, can cite all the key parts in “Roundabout” or “Starship Troopers.”


  57 Responses to “Degree of Difficulty”

  1. tonyola

    What helped Yes in the classic years was that it had a rhythm section that was both seriously muscular and able to handle the most complex passages with seeming ease. Chris Squire (bass) and Bill Bruford (drums) made quite a team.

  2. bostonhistorian

    Yes isn’t formulaic? I think there is always a market for music that seems to be smarter than it actually is and one can never overestimate the importance of drugs in establishing a fan base–which critic described the Grateful Dead as “an excuse of junior high school kids to take drugs”? My guess is that a venn diagram shows a substantial overlap between Yes fans, and, say, Libertarians.

    However, as a note on where I’m coming from: in 1983 a friend and I skipped out of study hall to go to the record store. He bought Yes’s “Tales From Topographical Oceans” (on cassette!) and I bought “Slash: The Early Years” on vinyl, which featured Rank and File, The Blasters, The Violent Femmes, X, and others….

  3. I need brutal objectivity here, historian. Can we put aside personal tastes? We’re talking more than a market. Sure, there’s even a market for Van Dyke Parks, but Yes set the market, and while ELP was there, they didn’t age well. Yes sounds as freshly ridiculous, you might say, as ever. And I bet there are easily 6-8,songs non-prog fans can hum out down to the tiniest details. I know I can.

  4. BigSteve

    Does Yes really have that many more classic rock staples than the Dead? Off the top of my head I can only recall 3 or 4 of their ‘songs.’

  5. tonyola

    Ahh, it’s the ever-famous “it’s music for druggies!” argument that I’ve been hearing for decades. Has it occurred to you that listening to music is ultimately a sensual experience? Much like eating. Now I like hot dogs and burgers as much as the next person. However, if I sometimes want to seek out exotic spices and flavors, does that mean I’m a substance abuser? Give it a rest and pass the horseradish and curry powder. Here’s your ketchup.

  6. tonyola

    Here are Yes songs you’ll regularly hear on “classic rock” stations:

    Starship Troopers
    Your Move
    And You And I
    Heart of the Sunrise
    Yours Is No Disgrace

    These songs are a little more involved than “Casey Jones”, “Ripple”, “Truckin'”, or “Uncle John’s Band”, aren’t they?

  7. hrrundivbakshi

    No “Owner Of a Lonely Heart”?

  8. tonyola

    Genesis in the Peter Gabriel era was arguably more tuneful than Yes. They were more song-oriented with far more interplay and less of the long soloing. In some ways I prefer listening to Genesis over Yes. Unfortunately, they never had any real commercial success in the US, at least not until Gabriel was gone and Genesis gave up on prog.

    Moody Blues had much success but they were far, far closer to the mainstream. Take away the flutes and mellotrons and they’re a lush pop band. You could put ELO in the same corner.

    Jethro Tull was also semi-prog, though edgier than the Moodies. However, their big commercial success was pretty short-lived.

    As far as I’m concerned, Kansas and Styx were nothing more than marginal progsters.

    Then there’s Pink Floyd. While certainly prog and certainly successful, they were more into moods and atmospheres rather than complexity for its own sake.

    Other hardcore progsters like Gong, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, and so forth were not big commercial entities.

    Zappa had a long career and his name is well known, but outside of a few deliberately-commercial efforts (like Overnite Sensation and Apostrophe), he lay outside of the rock mainstream.

    So I think Mr. Mod is pretty much right.

  9. tonyola

    Though a huge hit, it was more pop than prog.

  10. ladymisskirroyale

    I didn’t think Libertarians listened to music.

  11. tonyola

    They listen to Rush. Neil Peart is a fan of Ayn Rand.

  12. ladymisskirroyale

    Yes does seem to be the prog rock group that has had the longest and most commercial success. As tonyola indicated, there are other contenders but they don’t measure up due to lacking in one of the two variables.

    Nowadays, you could say that Tortoise could be a contender. They have been together since the early 90’s and have spawned many offshoots. While critically successful, they haven’t had the commercial success of a group like Yes. (Can anyone hum a Tortoise song?) I wasn’t really a fan of Tortoise until seeing them live; the members’ individual skill levels are amazing.

  13. BigSteve

    I don’t know all of these songs, so I don’t know. “Involved” is an interesting term though. I will say that the Dead made some albums as involved and proggy as anything by Yes, but like Yes their simpler, poppier songs are their most popular. That’s a given.

  14. bostonhistorian

    A sensual experience? Gosh no, it’s never occurred to me. At this point in time I don’t think any rational person would deny that a big part of the appeal of the Dead was the communal aspect of seeing them, which, for a lot of people, meant drugs.

  15. bostonhistorian

    I’m being brutally objective. I don’t buy the argument that Yes is “unformulaic”. Yes is a formula. Guitar wankery, “deep” lyrics, songs which sound as difficult as classical music? There’s a market for that, and it’s people who find Led Zeppelin too ethnic.

  16. I don’t think Genesis ever completely gave up on prog. Sure, there were the pop hits that started with “Follow You, Follow Me,” but every Genesis LP up through “Invisible Touch” (which is where I stopped paying attention) had at least one long “suite” that was most definitely prog.

  17. misterioso

    Really? God knows I’ve listened to more than my fair share of classic rock radio, before and after such a thing was termed as such, and of those I know Roundabout, which I kind of like. I know I’ve Seen All Good People song, which I quite like, actually, and of course Owner of a Lonely Heart and I Can Happen To You or whatever it is called from the same record (?). I think these are all okay, more or less. Anything else by Yes that I’ve heard I either forgot or disliked, then forgot.

    But I guess I don’t sign up for the whole degree of difficulty argument here, i.e., that this music is so, you know, complex, that it is startling that actual mortals can grasp its brilliance.

  18. tonyola

    And country music is communal drug music too. Or don’t you think that beer is a drug? How about disco and cocaine? Punk and heroin? Blues and whiskey? Classical and brandy? Every music has a drug and every drug has a music.

  19. tonyola

    I love Yes and I love Led Zep too. I also love Motown, Stax/Volt and Philly soul. Explain that, Mr. Oversimplification. If you don’t like prog, then say so, but don’t put down those that do.

  20. tonyola

    No, it’s true they kept one toe in the prog water pretty much throughout their career, and the forgotten final non-Phil album, Calling All Stations, was a partial return to the style. But it was still a long, long way from Selling England By the Pound.

  21. Dream Theater has been around, still sells pretty well, and even has a hit. But it will be hard to top the old warhorses like Yes and ELP in the foreseeable future for any prog band.

    In recent year, Wilco and My Morning Jacket have had “acclaim” and “commercial success” and not been all that “formulaic.”

  22. 2000 Man

    While I admire your 1983 choice, when I was 12 I was buying Tales From Topographic Oceans and Fragile, and I still listen to them today. No one I knew in Junior High had any idea who the Grateful Dead were, and if anything, they were an excuse for college dropouts to do drugs and sell peanut butter sandwiches because they were too lazy to work, if you ask me.

    I’ve never been confused for a Libertarian. Pick a side, take a stand and be for something.

  23. 2000 Man

    I think you’ve hit on something, Mr. Mod, but I’m not sure what it is. Yes did attract young teenagers and college aged kids almost equally when I was a kid. I remember a conversation I had with a guy (I don’t think there were many female Yes fans) that was a lot older than me when I was 13, and he didn’t know that Bill Bruford didn’t play all the drums on Yessongs. I felt ten feet tall because the older guys let me pick records at a party, mostly because my friends and I could talk about Yes, Manfred Mann (who may challenge your theory) and we listened to Steely Dan and Free, too.

    Yes was my first favorite band, and they were that way for a long time. My favorite Prog Rock album ever is Manfred mann’s Solar Fire, though. I really wore out, into unplayable status, five copies of that album, and the last one I wore out was on my first really decent turntable, a Dual 1219. I played it about every day for years and years. But both of those bands had something there that 13 year old me could get into just as much as I could get into Brownsville Station or Grand Funk Railroad.

  24. 2000 Man

    Genesis struggled to come up with whole albums. Selling England by the Pound is really solid, but then they could do some two hour long dreck like Supper’s Ready. I liked their good stuff, but their bad stuff is just horrible. I either like a song by them, or I hate the song. There’s no middle ground.

  25. I did write something like “unformulaic (at least on the surface),” didn’t I? What I was most getting at was that they did not follow an established pop music fomula that was on the charts at the time. Sure, they had verses and choruses, etc.

  26. I’ve gotta back you on this one, tonyola. I think it’s unfair to lump Yes, in particular, in with drug culture. Jon Anderson’s was probably a big proponent of arriving at his special worldview through natural means.

  27. I don’t think so, BigSteve, but if you’re taking issue with what I was saying, what I was saying was that the Dead’s “hit” songs are really basic; they’re not the mind-expanding, consciousness-raising, freeform jamming stuff that you’ve “got to see live” to truly experience. All Yes songs are built to be “weird,” for lack of a better word.

  28. Learning this stuff about you, 2K, makes my day!

  29. I don’t know anything about the inner workings of Yes, but I think what helped them achieve this special status was the fact that they had a strong commitment to The Beatles and, probably, CSNY (or related West Coast folk-rock bands). They’re all making sure to give themselves opportunities to get their classically honed chops in, but they often seemed just as interested in building off whatever they heard in the last few Beatles albums. The fact that they covered “Every Little Thing” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is a pretty obvious hint that they dug tuneful pop music, but I bet they thought they were building off that tradition more than playing “experimental” music” (eg, Zappa) or jazz (eg, Soft Machine) or doing something brand new (eg, King Crimson). In other words, I think they were trying to apply their chops to pop music rather than steer pop music to their chops. If that’s the case they may be the next developmental step after The Moody Blues, as tonyola pointed out.

  30. tonyola

    Wakeman was right in that Tales from Topographic Oceans was something of a mess. It could have been edited down to a good single album. As it was, ideas were stretched too thinly across four sides and Anderson’s lyrics were even more impenetrable than usual. I saw one of the very few shows where they played TFTO in its entirety and it got dull even for me.

    However, Rick fails to state that his Journey to the Center of the Earth was even more bloated and pretentious than TFTO – as if such a thing was possible.

  31. bostonhistorian

    I listen to “I’ve Seen All Good People” and hear Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” and English folk rock in the slow part, and Chicago in the fast part. In other words, I don’t think of Yes as appearing and people saying “I’ve never heard anything like this before!”

    Search youtube for “yes sounding out 1971″…I think you’ll find it instructive…

  32. 2000 Man

    Absolutely! That Wakeman album is pure ego masturbation. I was so excited for it, and I think it’s possibly the first album I may have ever bought with my own money that I completely hated.

  33. “Imagine taking these ingredients and producing actual songs with parts that could be sung, whistled, and hummed from top to bottom by an average 12-year-old kid.”

    I think 12 is the peak age for ability to absorb music, even crazily arranged music. Certainly my 12-year-old’s ability to memorize lyrics is astonishing, particularly given his grades …

  34. trigmogigmo

    I cannot think of a better example than Yes. At first I thought that by “degree of difficulty” you meant the sheer unlikeliness that their combination of difficult-to-like attributes (elfin singer, high-pitched voice, multiple long song movements) would yield pop radio success. But I think you really are referring mostly to the complexity of the music. The second place finisher in this event could be Rush — similar level of popular success, maybe more, but way less “out there” musically, though with a certain amount of complexity that turns off the average listener.

  35. “I’ve Seen All Good People” was released nine months before “The Battle of Evermore”.

  36. It has occurred to me that Steely Dan could actually be the winner of the success-to-complexity contest. It all depends on whether the Dan could be thought of as prog. They’re successful beyond doubt. They certainly have complex song structures with lots of fancy chord changes and varying time signatures. What few simple songs they have are near-vamps like “Show Biz Kids”. Even their biggest hits are rather more complicated than your typical pop songs. While Steely never get to side-long song length like Yes does, their songs sometimes run over six or seven minutes. They have long solos on occasion. The big difference between Steely Dan and the classic prog groups is that the former comes in from the jazzy side of things. Can we get a ruling on this?

  37. bostonhistorian


    I know that the Battle of Evermore was released after I’ve Seen All Good People. I’m a historian. Chronology is a big part of what I do. The point is this: the component parts of Yes’ sound are floating around in the music of the time. It didn’t appear out of nowhere.

  38. Just because you and other people don’t like Yes (totally understandable), doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them credit for the magic they pulled off, and I mean that in a Doug Henning way as much as a sincere way. Who else got so popular playing such ridiculous music? (And I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way.)

  39. Actually I meant it both ways, trigmo. Thanks for helping to clarify this. Rush is in a similar vein, but their success could not have happened without the groundbreaking contributions of Yes. Rush didn’t begin having hits until Yes was on the decline, right?

  40. Steely Dan is a good contestant in this battle, but I don’t think they inspired quite as much unlikely enthusiasm as did Yes. People got psyched to see and hear Yes. They “chugged” from the chalice handed to them by Anderson and company. Isn’t the act of listening to Steely Dan more like sipping Cognac?

  41. misterioso

    On the contrary, Mod, it means precisely that. I don’t begrudge them (or, rather, their fans) the “magic,” which I find ludicrous, any more than I begrudge it of the fans of Barbara Streisand, Billy Joel, or Metallica, who find “magic” in their work. That doesn’t mean I find it less ludicrous, though; but it does me no particular harm, and as long as I am not subjected to it all is serene.

  42. tonyola

    More important is the fact that you couldn’t see Steely Dan live for around 20 years because they simply didn’t tour. They managed to acquire quite a following for a pure studio group.

  43. tonyola

    Yes, along with Genesis and other keyboard-heavy prog groups, are what inspired me at the age of 23 to learn how to play keyboards. I wanted to play just like those guys and I used their songs as benchmarks. That inspiration pushed me far enough to pursue a fairly long professional music career.

  44. As much as I cut on Genesis I appreciate how deeply they resonate with folks who dig them. People may say the same thing about me and my XTC records.

  45. Yes is a good call. Since we talking about complexity and not necessarily prog, I considered Steely Dan, Rush, and some of those speed metal bands who’s names I can’t keep straight because they all sound the same to me (Testament?).

    But Steely Dan doesn’t seem to have as complicated arrangements and intra-song shifts as Yes.

    Those speed metal bands have a huge off-the-radar fan base but I doubt it’s as big as Yes.

    I wouldn’t discount Rush the way the Mod does because who got there first wasn’t part of the question, but in my own personal experience Yes is the more proggy of the two.

    As for prog in general, I don’t like it. I like my music stupid and my lyrics intelligent, not vice versa.

  46. Also, I don’t know much about the Soft Boys, but that song (I Want to Be an) Anglepoise Lamp is ridiculously catchy and complicated as shit. Not quite as high profile as Roundabout though.

  47. Oops!
    “But Steely Dan doesn’t seem to have as MANY complicated arrangements and intra-song shifts as Yes.”

  48. BigSteve

    I like my music stupid and my lyrics intelligent, not vice versa.

    Genius. Can I steal that?

  49. Be my guest.

  50. Led Zeppelin? Or does their blues base mean that their many long, involved compositions are built on a fundamentally simpler base?

  51. misterioso

    All this prog talk inevitably calls to mind this classic Christopher Guest bit from the National Lampoon album Goodbye Pop. Obviously a precursor of Spinal Tap. Kills me every time I hear it.


  52. Zeppelin is a worthy contender (and nice to see you back, my man – the entire DC4 is now back in action!!!), but along with their blues base I think they also got a leg up with their cock-rocking base, which made some of the weirder stuff go down easier. Good one, though. Robert Plant must have been a bit of an odd bird in his time. We’ve since taken his style for granted.

  53. tonyola

    Grand Funk Railroad’s “Closer to Home” is long, involved, and had multiple sections, but no-one would ever call them prog. Led Zep flirted with prog on occasion (“Kashmir” and “Carouselambra” being the most obvious examples), but I would not in any way think of them as a prog band.

  54. Steely Dan does have that kind of dedicated fan base. They are just more integrated into society than proggers who dig Yes. The Dan are a good entry, complex, oddball songs played by the best studio hands money could rent.

    I could stand up for Jethro Tull as my favorite out of that scene. Solid R’nB’ base with flute and multi-part epics about the Church of England thrown in for color. And they’ve got at least 5-6 well known classic rock tracks.

  55. This stuff may be “progressive”, but it isn’t Rock &/or (esp.) Roll. Wake me when it’s over.

    That Chris Guest track has always slayed me (the entire album is pretty great).

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