Jon Anderson Reflects on the Magic of ‘Close to the Edge’ at 50

Jon Anderson is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Yes‘ classic Close to the Edge by performing the album in its entirety.

His current tour is a reunion with players from the Paul Green Rock Academy, a connection that began nearly 20 years ago when they paired to perform 30 concerts across the United States.

The idea to take on this Yes masterpiece took root earlier this year when Anderson and members of the academy performed both the title track and “And You and I” at shared performances in Florida. During a conversation with UCR as he was getting ready for the tour, Anderson said he found rehearsing with the 25-piece band to be a rewarding experience.

It must be such a thrill arranging this material, knowing that you’ve got 25 players to perform it. What has that whole experience been like?
Wonderful chaos. You know, the fact that they can play “Heart of the Sunrise” the way they did and “Starship Trooper” and all these songs. And then I pushed them this year [and said], “Let’s do Close to the Edge.” And they said, “Yeah!” It’s that energy of like, wanting to do stuff, and [being] eager to work and come up with ideas and basically enjoy what Yes music really is. The fact that we’re performing an album that was created 50 years ago and it’s these young people playing the music – it’s kind of a dream come true in a way that the music still survives.

They are in the spirit, too. I loved seeing that the bass player has a coat that Chris Squire would be very proud of.
Very, very – and a Rickenbacker. They are very committed. You know, when we’re on stage just performing, it’s like bliss about music. That music is timeless. The audiences are great. You know, the fact that they will come out and enjoy young people, between the age of 14 and 17, performing classics, it’s kind of amazing.

Is there anything you were able to achieve arrangement-wise while playing with this large band that wasn’t possible back in the day?
I don’t think so. Musically, they work on it note for note, shall we say, just like the record. There’s an energy behind the music that sort of drives you along. It’s just a question of learning and doing the repetition of rehearsals, and they do it. They do it with gusto.

Watch Jon Anderson Perform With the Paul Green Rock Academy

Take us back to when Yes originally put together the “Close to the Edge” suite itself. What are the memories that stick with you from doing that?
Gosh, there’s so many. We were on tour doing the Fragile tour – and the fact that Fragile and Close to the Edge were created in the same year is quite amazing when you think about it. Basically, it was structure. I had sort of listened to the work of Stravinsky and Sibelius quite a lot, wondering: ‘How the hell did they do this?’ Then it dawned on me that they have this structural concept. They would call it a stanza. You have your beginning section, the next section, then the main chorus and then the main, and repeat the first section again, but new musically changed. Change the key, but carrying on that process. I think it started when Steve [Howe] played his guitar and sang the actual first line, which was “close to the edge, round by the corner,” and I was standing next to him, and he carried on playing, and I said, “down at the end, down by the river.” And then I looked at him and said, “Change key” and he changed key, and I said [sings] “Seasons will pass you by. Now that it’s all.” It’s one of those things when you work with somebody on a spontaneous level, you make sure you record everything you do, and what we did within a space of maybe an hour, we put together the first couple of stanzas – the verse-chorus, the verse-chorus, and then the next section. We were well on the way to [finding the] structure.

Towards the end of touring Fragile, me and Steve were actually working out the whole idea of the composition. Virtually after the tour, we went straight in the studio and started recording. It was just a question of, well, you know, “Bill [Bruford] and Chris, we’re gonna do this thing, and then we’re gonna do this thing. And Rick [Wakeman], we’re gonna do this thing.” [Laughs.] And write it down and stuff. So in the process of maybe the first month, we’d actually recorded, you know, two-thirds of the song – and that’s how we did it. We did it in sections. We just didn’t think of it or start recording the whole thing. That would be on another level completely.

It’s interesting to me that you all decided to skip the demo process and just start recording.
As a band, we were well oiled. We’d been on tour then for three, four years, constantly touring, making three albums [including] Fragile and then this was the big one. So we kind of knew each other so well, that the process was: OK, we’re gonna do the intro, and I just turned around and said, “Well, I recorded you guys yesterday jamming on a ferocious level and this is what you were doing.” Everybody looked at each other, “Oh, yeah, I remember.” [Mimics jamming.] “It should start like that, as though somebody let the bull out of the gate.” So all of a sudden, you’ve got this soundscape, which I was creating. That was based on some music that I’d heard, Sonic Seasonings, by Wendy Carlos – who was Walter Carlos in those days. He created Sonic Seasonings, which was very surreal music, you just put it on and listened to it for 20 minutes and stuff. I met Wendy a few years ago, [and she is an] amazing lady.

I said, “What if we have a sort of a sound-effect introduction, like a sound of energy coming towards you – and then the band come in like crazy, crazy people?” [Sings the riff.] And so we started doing it like that. We recorded it twice, and I said, “Wait a minute, is there a way we could stop right in the middle?” They all looked at me, and I said, “Well look, actually, there’s a guitar riff that Steve played on the session. [Sings the riff.] “So if you play that, Steve, at a certain point in your solo, everybody will know you’re coming with it.” You can smile at everybody, here it comes – and that’s where we stop, just for six beats. And that’s where the choir come in. They all looked at me and said, “Could you say that again?” [Laughs.] I said, “OK. As far as I see, you guys are hurtling away, there’s no way to stop you, and all of a sudden you stop – and that guitar figure will be the call. So everybody will know: There it is, stop. And everybody stops, six beats, back in again. We did that twice in the process of the beginning of the piece of music. Doing it with the kids is fantastic because they can’t wait to stop!

Listen to Close to the Edge’ by Yes

That’s so great.
It’s very exciting. You know, the idea is: a runaway train and then it stops. Then after that, you get into the next section. The interesting thing was, [Yes] recorded that maybe three or four times with the stops and it worked. Then I started going through with Steve, the actual song. Everybody found their position in the song, and then for the next two or three hours, the band was learning the song, basically. And I was thinking about, “OK, wait a minute, I think we can’t go into the song too fast. I think we have to go into another stanza” – which is “a seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace.” It’s like the idea of sort of a rave, sort of chant, you know. That’s what happened. But by the space of an afternoon, I probably knew the next 20 minutes of music that we should learn. Then the next day, you start preparing and recording that, and then the next day you start recording the next section.

Then it came to a certain point where they would look at me and say, “Are we done?” [Laughs.] And I’d say “No, I think we have a middle section.” Because what happened was, Steve came by [an] early-morning rehearsal in another room in the studio. He said, “I wrote this sort of guitar piece,” and he started playing this guitar piece. It’s a very slow piece and I started singing, “Two million people barely satisfy, two hundred women watch one woman cry, too late, I get up, I get down.” We thought, “Well, that’d be very nice in the middle of the piece.” And so we started preparing that middle section, which became a surreal sort of sound, again, harking back to Walter Carlos [and] Sonic Seasonings. And then, you have this very simple Rick Wakeman church organ [sings the part], very, very simple. That day was really interesting because we were just gonna record and Steve said, ‘You know, I actually wrote a song with the chords.’ So I said, “Well, you better sing it quick.” So he sang it and it just happened that what he sang, and what I had already written on the chords fit together like glue. He was singing “In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly looking.” And I’d be singing my song over his song. It was as though somebody had said, “OK, all you have to do is put two songs together.” [Laughs.] Lo and behold, it happened! From then on, the whole idea of continuing and pushing yourselves over a period of a month to record it – for me, it wasn’t strenuous at all. It wasn’t hard work. It was like all these doors were opening, musically speaking. And that’s why to me “Close to the Edge” has survived 50 years, because it’s still worth, to me, it’s worth singing. And it’s worth [it for] people to play, as well.

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