In the city of (lost) angels?

In_the_City_of_AngelsWHEN Jon Anderson left Yes for the second time, following the ‘Big Generator’ album and tour, he hooked up with distinguished alumni Bill Bruford, Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman to form ABWH not a very long time afterwards. Ever since then, it has been widely assumed (with this notion being echoed by Anderson in a range of media interviews) that the singer’s primary motivation was to move away from an increasingly commercial ‘Yes West’ sound, and back towards something that had more in common with the refined musical rigour of the classic band. 

As ever in the life of Yes, things turn out to be a little more complicated in reality. For a start, Yes had at least partially moved on from the manicured success of ‘90125’. Several tracks on ‘Big Generator’, such as “Shoot High, Aim Low”, “Final Eyes” and (especially) “I’m Running” were altogether more involved — longer, subtly textured and multilayered — than anything on the previous album. In chapter eight of Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes, I suggest that  the emerging musical style of ‘Big Generator’ harnessed part of the sheen that had made ‘90125’ so accessible, “while returning to some of the subtleties of an earlier Yes in a new setting” (p. 115). Since 1970, Yes have somehow always managed to reinvent their sound world with each recording, and the shift from 1983 to 1987 was in that sense no different. In this instance,  it was Trevor Rabin’s production and mixing which offered and provided a very distinct, silvery sonic treatment. 

However, ‘Big Generator’ certainly retained its populist dimension alongside tracks that pushed the boundaries, and according to Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson was always very much alive to that side of the band’s creativity, whatever else he suggested around the time of Anderson Buford Wakeman Howe — and whatever may have been implied by the lyrics of “Themes”, the first track on the eponymous 1989 ABWH album:

Be gone you ever piercing
Power play machine,
Cutting our musical solidarity.
For those who would break the windows
Of our true reflections
And perceptions of the world
‘For I am out of thee with a vengeance’.

ABWHThose words certainly suggest a strenuous resistance of commercialism. Yet in between these two group projects, Anderson produced what is commonly regarded as the most openly commercial record of his entire career — his fifth solo album, ‘In the City of Angels’. At a surface level that is certainly true. But just as ‘Big Generator’ was not short of musically demanding ideas and  ABWH was not short of hooks, so ‘In the City of Angels’ has a lot more going on than the (undeniably catchy) surface melodies, slick production and shiny instrumental gloss might initially suggest. Sure, the pop aesthetic was very much to the fore, and the collaboration with several members of Toto (for whom Anderson reciprocated by performing on their proximate album, ‘The Seventh One’) was evident. But Jon also found himself ensconced in the Ocean Way Recording studios, in Hollywood, working with some of the best jazz, soul and session musicians on offer. The list is certainly impressive…

BigGeneratorLP.jpegSo drummer John Frederick Robinson was and is a Berkley School of Music graduate and Quincy Jones protégé. William Frank Reichenbach Jr. was/is a jazz trombonist and composer who previously played in Buddy Rich’s band. Jerry Hey (trumpeter, flugelhornist, horn arranger, string arranger, orchestrator and session musician) had already won various Grammys for his wide-ranging musical contributions. Meanwhile, Brazilian percussionist Paulinho da Costa, who made a brief appearance on ‘Big Generator’ (along with strings, horns and harmonica), was nothing less than LA studio session royalty at the time.

Then among the supplementary guitarists on the album, producer and songwriter Dan Huff has also conducted the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and won Academy of Country Music (ACM) awards, while Paul Jackson Jr. is a highly regarded urban/jazz composer who studied music at the University of Southern California. Last but not least, five-string electric bass pioneer Jimmy Haslip played with jazz fusion group the Yellowjackets, and then went on to work with complex guitar polymath Allan Holdsworth.

In short, as well as the Porcaco brothers and other members of Toto, Jon Anderson (or rather, legendary producer Stewart Levine — Manhattan School of Music, Herbie Hancock, B. B. King, Hugh Masakela and numerous others) had rapidly assembled an ensemble of stellar musicians capable of playing, arranging, re-arranging and programming almost everything… and this shows on the final product, which wears a series of easy fitting tunes with considerable finesse, albeit in a recognizably 198os way.

As it happens, I bought this latest Jon Anderson record just before a trip to Australia. Not knowing quite what to expect, I took it as my musical accompaniment (along with some Bach, Coltrane and Messiaen, slightly incongruously) into the Daintree rainforest, on the northeast coast of Queensland, for several nights. Suffice it to say that ‘In the City of Angels’ (quixotically misnamed ‘In the City of Lost Angels’ on the painful music video for “Hold on to Love”) is not my usual listening fare. Nevertheless, I can happily echo the sentiments of Robert Wyatt, who during the BBC Prog Britannia series remarked that, far from despising pop (as many supposed an experimentalist with Soft Machine must do), he was “in awe” of the ability to write a really communicative, popular melody. It was just not in his gift to create, in the same way that it is not my usual listening orbit. I have a strong internal yearning to be challenged rather than just entertained by music.

However, I also believe that the inherent quality in any type of music will shine through if you listen carefully (and it’s there), and I have to say that, after the initial shock, I found myself really quite liking this album — which correspondingly and singularly failed to break through on FM radio at the time. This is something Jon Anderson wistfully noted in a 2016 interview with Jeff Giles, in which he explained: “I played a festival in Quebec and it was still being played on the radio. The promoter told me, ‘[‘In the City of Angels’] was a big album here.’ I said, ‘Really?’ This is the only place in the world it was then. Basically it was Phil Collins again. Genesis’s ‘Invisible Touch’. Phil’s voice in that period was so perfect for radio. Mine was not so good for radio.”

In fact, apart from Canada (Montreal, mainly) and the Netherlands, the album made little commercial impact at all. That is partly, I would suppose, because many of Jon Anderson’s looping melody lines are, upon first visit, considerably less predictable than you might often find in a more conventional chart song. Similarly, the instrumental elements, like the songs themselves (three written by Anderson, but the rest collaborations in which he works with others), lean in several different directions rather than one straightforward path. Indeed, Lamont Dozier, from Detroit, who co-wrote the first track on the album — intended as the main single — is best known for his prestigious Motown connections.

So in the overall mix you have, alongside distinctly euphoric pop, clear touches and influences  of soul, jazz, folk, Latin, Mediterranean and more. In spite of the common Los Angeles vibe throughout, I suspect this concoction may have been just a little too exotic for a mainstream customer — infused as it is with spacey, spiritually-framed ideas towards the end, but more conventional lyrical fare earlier on. This might also confused radio stations looking for a more readily identifiable niche to fill.

As critic William Ruhlmann also observed: “[Anderson’s alto] tenor is so chaste and angelic, it’s hard for him to be believable on earthly love songs.” Or as someone once observed to me: “Whatever you give Jon Anderson to sing, it will always end up sounding like Jon Anderson to a significant degree.” And while that might work for a carefully crafted Jon & Vangelis audience, say, it may not automatically communicate more widely without the necessary musical triggers elsewhere.  Of such calculated considerations are ‘hits’ made. What we have in this album, however, is something rather more free-flowing and varied at the end of the day, in spite of the hooks. So from a commercial angle, while ‘In the City of Angels’ theoretically had many of the right ingredients for success, it was still not capable of ‘breaking the market’ in an increasingly formatted, throwaway late ’80s Anglo-American culture. Or perhaps it just wasn’t marketed correctly or extensively by CBS.

Who knows, really?  What I am personally sure about is that, revisiting this album today, I still enjoy some of these songs, even while needing to filter out the too-obvious glitter from time-to-time. I certainly couldn’t handle them for long, sustained periods. But for the rainforest they proved surprisingly comforting, energising and reassuring. What is it that appeals to me in this music?  Well, the instrumentation, arrangements and production are gorgeous. It’s also the little details that count, as ever — a trumpet here, some strings there, a portion of delicately served bass or percussive condiment elsewhere. And then there are the individual song elements

An irrepressible shaft of sunlight radiates through from the very opening bars of “Hold on to Love” — the irredeemably tacky and kitsch video for which features a curious (non-musical) appearance by Chris Squire. There are already multiple melodic ideas going on in this song. By contrast, “If It Wasn’t For Love (Oneness Family)”, with its apparent parenthetic reference to Montessori philosophy, displays three alternating and intertwined tunes, blended towards the fade. Pleasant and uplifting maybe, but it doesn’t quite go anywhere. Next up is “Sundancing (For the Hopi/NavaJo Energy)”, a pulsating, chant-like song which manifests a certain propulsive, restless energy.  Anderson contributes to the percussive mix that gives this track its distinctive characteristic, but the drums are a little too ’80s for my ears today. (I’m going to keep feeling that, aren’t I?)

If you had been required to guess where Paulinho da Costa might turn up on this album, I suspect it would have been on the aforementioned “Sundancing”. But actually that is not so. Instead, he arrives on the West Coast lounge-styled “Is It Me”. Once more, Anderson’s ear for scanning interestingly against a developing melody line (crafted with Rhett Lawrence) is striking. The chorus is not so strong, however. Marc Russo’s saxophone changes the mood a little, but the fade once again indicates that there is nowhere really to go.  “In a Lifetime”, which follows, initially reminds me of the nostalgic, balladic element of ‘Song of Seven’ (1980), but it soon segues into probably the most straightahead pop song on the album. Beautifully executed, but (pun intended) gratingly cheesy. 

With “For You” the mood changes again. The the synth-heavy arrangement and trumpet peels leave you almost (but not quite) thinking that this could have worked as a Vangelis collaboration. It is certainly more in that territory, but finally comes across as a plea rather than as a statement. Next up is one of my favorites on ‘In the City of Angels’. The deliciously lopsided, syncopated dance energy of “New Civilization” kicks in immediately, drawing you into its mesmeric pulse. Jimmy Haslip’s semi-walking bass line is superbly effective here, as is the brass. The programmed drums and keyboards are, again, very much of their time. But they work with the wider musical fabric, as does the children’s choir (one of Anderson’s predilections which I’m not always keen on.) The looser singing style fits perfectly with the dominant vibe, and for once the track fade — a device I’m generally not keen on —  feels appropriate. It’s as if a dancing troupe is snaking away into the night, in a blaze of colour.

“It’s on Fire”, which appropriately enough follows on from this, is itself a gloriously elliptical song; typical Jon Anderson in the best way. A powerful cocktail of shifting melody, grounding harmony and rhythmic trickery, it flows tantalizingly (yet naturally) towards a formal ending. For me this is probably the best song on the album, and Jimmy Haslip is once again economical but perfectly judged with his bass line delivery. How to follow something that good? Well, the otherwise unpromisingly entitled ‘Betcha’ does a decent enough job. We’re in funky soul territory here, with a chunky beat, programmed keyboard bass, slivers of metallic guitar, a singalong chorus, and a cute little trombone solo from Bill Reichenbach.

“Top of the World (The Glass Bead Game)”, a collaboration between Jon Anderson and Toto’s David Paich, is another strong contribution, and the album’s longest track, at 5′ 26″. We are nodding towards progressive rock at this juncture, with Steve Lukather’s soaring guitar pivotal to this song’s proactive power, driven  by keyboard and drum textures which reach deep and wide into the chosen sound palette. As with “New Civilization”, there’s a somewhat tribal feel to this piece, but in a different and harmonically thicker vein. The parenthetic Glass Bead Game refers to the title of the last full-length novel of the German author Hermann Hesse, whose work has inspired Jon Anderson at other points in his career — notably for the gestation of the magisterial “Close to the Edge”.

Last but not least on ‘In the City of Angels’ we have “Hurry Home (Song From The Pleiades)”. The Pleiades in question could refer either to the star cluster known as the Seven Sisters and Messier 45, and/or to the seven stars alluded to in the Hebrew Bible, and/or to the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas and the Oceanid Pleione in Greek mythology. Take your pick. As with The Glass Bead Game reference, it’s not entirely evident how this fits in with the lyrical and musical themes of the song, which is both hymn-like and anthemic. In an impassioned invocation of the energy of a new generation, Jon Anderson’s voice is lifted by the Cathedral Choir (their name rather than their origin, I gather), while Rhett Lawrence’s keyboards — punctuated by guitar — do a lot of the heavy lifting. Orchestral and pipe effects drive the song towards yet another fade. You might have hoped for a more definite conclusion to this one, but it remains an elevating piece. The orchestral version on Anderson’s ‘Change We Must’ (1994) probably works a little better.

Re-listening to ‘In the City of Angels’ over the past 24 hours has reminded me of just what a 1980s artifact it is, in truth. You could not realistically imagine it emerging from any other era. It remains somewhat over-dependent on dated keyboard and drum programming, considered with the benefit of more than 30 years’ hindsight. Jon Anderson’s voice is at the height of its powers, though, and for once his tendency towards the twee — and in lyrical terms, glib — had found a format in which this isn’t entirely out of place. (That isn’t meant as a backhanded compliment, but it does beg a larger question…) So overall, you could say that the sonic impact of this album, as a cohesive unit, retains its undoubtedly intentional emotional resonance to this day. There are some strong and blended components to the individual songs (tunes, rhythms, arrangements) and a pleasing variety of treatments are deployed across the eleven tracks. It is not an album I would need to hear to frequently, but I am pleased to have had the chance to experience it again here. It’s an interesting episode in the Anderson catalogue, and one which is rather more deserving of recognition (for what it is, not for what it isn’t) than is usually acknowledged

What, in conclusion, has all this to do with appreciating Yes? Not a lot, in essence, despite one or two slight echoes back-and-forth to the sound worlds of  both ‘Big Generator’ and Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. But ‘In the City of Angels’ does necessarily draw attention to one of many dimensions that constitute the voice and musical expressiveness of Jon Anderson. In that sense, it explains part of what has gone into the Yes boiling pot over the years, particularly from the early ‘8os onwards. You can take it or leave it. I’ll take a little, for sure. But for me it needs to be part of a richer and more inquisitive diet.

Images: album covers. There are two editions of the Yes Music Podcast (episodes 430 and 431) which also look at this album and its context. If you enjoyed this article, please see my book Solid Mental Grace: Listening to the Music of Yes (Cultured Llama Publishing, 2018). 

 

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