Moving across musical boundaries

Eddie JobsonTWO recent episodes of the entertaining  Yes Music Podcast (426 and 427) focussed attention on ‘what happened next’ in the career of Eddie Jobson, who was very briefly a member of Yes before the release of their best-selling ‘90125’ album in 1983. YMC’s attention was towards his ‘The Green Album’, with studio band Zinc. After this, Jobson released ‘Theme of Secrets’ (1985), which has been claimed as the world’s first all-Synclavier computer music album, as well as being one of the first all-digital CD releases. A sequel entitled ‘Theme of Mystery’ was recorded, but never released, beyond one track to private subscribers. 

Jobson is a fascinating and highly talented musician (principally a violinist and keyboard player, but also a composer, producer and occasional vocalist). He crosses the boundaries between several different styles of music — some more popular, others more art-oriented. According to his own account, he was briefly considered as a replacement for Rick Wakeman in Yes in 1974 (when he was just 19, and still in Roxy Music with Brian Eno). But in the end the band went for classically influenced, jazz-rock experimentalist Patrick Moraz. A year later he contributed violin and electric piano to King Crimson’s ‘USA’ album, which featured ex-Yes drummer and percussionist Bill Bruford. Then, aged 22, Eddie joined UK, initially with Bruford, guitar polymath Allan Holdsworth and vocalist/bassist John Wetton. He was part of different incarnations of that band from 1977 to 1980, in 2009, and finally from 2011-2015. Jobson was also rumoured to be under consideration by Yes again in 1980, after Wakeman (who had returned in 1977) had left once more. But in the end the band teamed up with Geoff Downes (keys) and Trevor Horn (vocals). So he has a number of lateral connections with the band and its alumni.

All of which brings us to that peculiar Jobson-Yes episode in 1983, which lasted a matter of months. It took place after the Chris Squire / Alan White rhythm section had teamed up with South African guitarist Trevor Rabin to create a band initially called Cinema. They then brought original Yes keyboard player Tony Kaye on board. With the production genius of Trevor Horn helping to shape the project, the band’s album, which would eventually emerge under the Yes moniker as ‘90125’, was put together between November 1982 and July 1983. Alto-tenor Jon Anderson finally sprinkled some lyrical and vocal magic on the project — one which would turn into the band’s largest commercial success.

jobsonEddie Jobson was recruited on keys at a point (around six months into the recording of the album) where Tony Kaye was feeling unhappy and had retreated from the front line — mainly because he was disagreeing with Horn, his involvement had become fairly minimal, and his parts were being re-done by Rabin. Jobson rehearsed with the band, learned and recreated keyboard components of previous material in his home studio, attended the final mastering of ‘90125’ with Rabin, appeared in the video for the single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” (from which he was almost completely edited out later), did some publicity shots, and was getting ready for touring. However, Atlantic boss Phil Carson was determined that the group should be seen to be reclaiming the Yes name properly (even if the music was far from the progressive style that had previously made them famous). He therefore persuaded founding-member Kaye, who had been touring with Badfinger, back into the fold.

The idea was that Kaye and Jobson would share keyboard duties — with Kaye focussing on his preferred Hammond organ, and Jobson taking on synths and electronics. The notion did not appeal to Jobson in the slightest. He had no intention of being a bit part with no real creative input, nor even much of a say about the composition of his keyboard rig. Though he was listed as a member right up until November 1983 (with Sounds running a late news story apologising that their Yes feature still had him featured, following an announcement that he had departed), he never played or recorded with them. Indeed, according to his own account he was dismissed with a phone call from Atlantic, and the episode clearly left a very bad taste in his mouth.

My interest in this is not the soap-opera aspect, but the question about what Eddie Jobson might have brought to the band creatively, had the chemistry and opportunity been right. Bill Bruford, though full of respect for his musicianship, experienced Jobson (as well as Wetton) as being in a very different place musically to him when they collaborated together in UK. It worked for a while, but finally Wetton and Jobson ejected Bruford and Holdsworth from the band after their acclaimed first album and the touring connected to that. The latter pair wanted a looser, more experimental and improvisational approach to the music. The former had tasted commercial success and wanted solos which “sound like they do on the album”. Bruford has always drawn a clear line between those musicians who do what they do because they can do no other, artistically speaking; and those who want to give audiences what they want — or what they have been led to believe they want — and to achieve what is seen as popular success. In the context of UK, Bruford and Holdsworth felt out of place when a certain drive towards ‘success’ began, from their perspective, to dominate the approach and the music.

Jobson Yes soundsInterestingly, however, Jobson always saw himself as wanting to uphold a ‘progressive’ ethos for UK. He was keen to develop a distinct sound for the band, utilising the adventurous Yamaha CS-80 (a polyphonic analogue synthesizer, released in 1977, which supports true eight-voice polyphony). Re-listening to ‘The Green Album’, and to the technologically innovative ‘Theme of Secrets’ (produced by Tangerine Dream founder Peter Baumann) many years later, it is possible to discern elements of both the experimental and the popular/New Age. Sometimes I find myself thoroughly engaged. On other occasions I feel as if I am being peddled sophisticated elevator music.

This all raises a wider question about how any given musical ethos works. Steven Wilson has argued that it is possible to remain true to an individual and distinctive artistic vision while simultaneously seeking the widest possible audience for that music. Wilson himself, whose work includes remixing some Yes classics, has never sold his artistic intentions short and has always been ‘on the move’ musically. He has also connected well beyond any particular artistic ghetto. Unlike Bruford, who often saw rock as limiting his musical intentions, Wilson has stuck to it as the foundation of what he does. That approach is what Yes has always sought to be about, in a sense. In Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes I quote Rick Wakeman (p.195), who commented early on in his time with the band: “We were convinced that you could make music that was in the underground tradition, but that you could do it and you could present it in a way that was available for everyone to enjoy.”

That is a perfectly fine aspiration if you can keep to it — notwithstanding the anti-music ravages of ‘the industry’. Creating an enlargeable audience for quality music necessarily entails reaching out to them, of course. But there is also a vital role, I would argue, for music as a space where the musician or composer requires the audience to shift decisively towards him or her, rather than the other way round. The challenge to the listener in this zone is to learn and grow as the musical lexicon is expanded, and as its grammar, form and vocabulary perhaps becomes more idiosyncratic, strange, complex and questioning to the newly tutored ear. There are, inevitably, going to be moments of pure confrontation between these two approaches. Bill Bruford has bridged artistic and popular sensibilities to a significant extent, for example, but with underlying serious jazz loyalties and an unswerving commitment (above all else) to developing and growing as a creative musician.

Similarly, Allan Holdsworth took the guitar into a new dimension of performance, harmonically and technically. When he briefly dipped his strings into a much wider audience pool (UK, Level 42), he rapidly became uncomfortable with the compromises required. Steve Howe, on the other hand, seems happy and willing to co-exist with the more demanding side of Yes, with his jazz trio, but also with Asia (an accomplished but highly commercial enterprise). His distinctive and eclectic approach, together with a strong leaning towards melody, makes that readily possible. In an interview I did with him in 1991 (at the time of the release of his solo instrumental album, ‘Turbulence’), Howe compared Asia and Yes to me by suggesting that the former was an enjoyable breakfast, while the latter was often more of an eight course banquet. You might need a little of both, he suggested, but perhaps not too much of either. For him, it was a good artistic mix.

Eddie Jobson fits into that mould, too. He has enjoyed a similarly varied musical career (also taking in Curved Air, Jethro Tull, film and TV music, electronica, and the Bulgarian Women’s Choir).  He is well able to operate across what could be perceived by others as an artistic/commercial musical divide. In those terms ‘The Green Album’ and ‘Theme of Secrets’ (recently re-released together as a 2CD/1Bluray collection with 7 pages of liner notes) are not difficult musically, but neither are they ever going to reach a mass audience. They push the boat out a little, but still stay relatively close to the shore.

By contrast, the direction Bill Bruford took after Yes involved the more experimental King Crimson, different incarnations of his innovative jazz ensemble Earthworks, and collaboration with extraordinary and uncompromising talents such as Patrick Moraz, David Torn, Django Bates, Iain Ballamy, Pete Lockett, Eddie Gomez, Ralph Towner, Steve Hamilton, Tim Garland, Gwilym Simcock, Michiel Borstlap, Colin Riley, and others. Those are much more amenable to my own primary listening orbit, it has to be said. They are the kind of musicians who are never going to rest their artistic laurels on Pro Tools, excessive post-production, endless repetition and market formats. Yet for me the music of Yes, operating with far closer proximity to the sometimes deadly lure of the rock mainstream, has still had much to offer over the years, as part of a rich and varied aural diet (to adapt Howe’s earlier analogy). At its very finest, Yes music exists in a liminal space, inviting audiences to engage with albums like ‘Fragile’, ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’ and ‘Relayer’, all of which effect significant transformations within the musical cultures and fusions from which they emerge. 

The ’80s era Yes is, of course, a wholly different proposition. Eddie Jobson’s verdict on ‘90125’ was that “all in all, though musically a little superficial, it was a fresh and contemporary recording.” He has subsequently acknowledged it as a “great album” on its own terms, rather than in comparison with the band’s earlier, more innovative work. It is, one could say, more of a producer’s album than a musician’s one — and Jobson was a huge admirer of Trevor Horn’s studio skills at that time. Had he toured with both old and new Yes material, and had he stayed on for ‘Big Generator’, I have no doubt that he would have been well capable of bringing fresh dimensions to that more commercially-oriented version of the band.

His violin, the Synclavier and the Yamaha CS-80 could certainly have opened up new avenues in terms of sonority, texture and compositional possibility. Indeed, string and horn sections made very brief appearances on ‘Big Generator’, which at times (“I’m Running”, “Final Eyes” and “Shoot High, Aim Low”) seemed to lean back towards the longer form and more elaborate ideas of an earlier Yes, but in a modern context. Jobson’s time with Frank Zappa’s band would certainly have prepared him for pretty much anything, fusing as it did pop aesthetics with dadaism and the avant garde. Listening to the ‘The Green Room’, it is possible to detect a sound world which also has forward echoes to Billy Sherwood’s World Trade. But Yes always existed as a difficult balance among often disparate musical personalities, and the Jobson era was not to be. According to his own account, the incompatibility was as much social and cultural as anything else.

As a coda to this curious tale, and any lessons that may be derived from it, Jobson went on to be involved in well over 30 albums and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Progressive Music Awards in London in 2017. Shortly afterwards, he announced his permanent retirement from concert touring and public performance. But he made one further appearance, at ProgStock in 2018, playing with a virtuoso quartet involving Marc Bonilla (bass, vocals), Alex Machacek (guitar) and Thomas Lang (drums). The Zealots Lounge is the place to further explore all things Eddie Jobson. It presently offers a download of ‘The Green Album’ (hi-res 24/48k), plus piano transcriptions of “Presto Vivace”, “In The Dead of Night” (both from the first UK album) and “Rendezvous” (from 1979’s ‘Danger Money’, and also performed by Wetton/Jobson).

(Photo/image credits: expose.org, Dave Watkinson)

 

 

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