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The Story Behind The Song: Yes’s Close To The Edge

Yes
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Yes bookazine

(Image credit: Future)

There has never been a band like Yes. One of the biggest progressive rock group in history, they did more than most to expand the vocabulary of  music, giving it the scope and ambition of classical music and jazz. Their illustrious, 50-plus year history is celerbated in Yes: The Complete Story (opens in new tab), a brand new special magazine dedicated entirely to the prog icons brought to you from the makers of Prog and Classic Rock. Charting their biggest and most influential albums and featuring interviews with all the key members, it’s the ultimate celebration of a band whose influence is immeasurable. Here, we look at the story of the title track of their classic 1972 album Close To The Edge

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Right from the very beginning of their career, Yes were driven by a desire to push their music toward the grand or epic, be it through startlingly reimagined cover versions or through their own compositions. Although the likes of Van Der Graaf Generator, Caravan, Pink Floyd, ELP and Jethro Tull got there before them, an extended side-long piece had been on Yes’s to-do list for quite a while.

“We knew we were going to do a long-form piece, something that would take up the side of an album,” recalled Yes bassist Chris Squire in 2013.

The band had slowly but surely been expanding their compositional chops, something hastened by the recruitment of guitarist Steve Howe in 1970 and keyboard maestro Rick Wakeman the following year.  The degree of progress can be measured with the sudden acceleration of complex arrangements in pieces like Yours Is No Disgrace and Starship Trooper from 1970’s The Yes Album, leading to 1971 follow-up Fragile’s 11-minute finale Heart Of The Sunrise. As Squire put it: “Heart Of The Sunrise had really been the germination of that idea where you had different sections with contrasting flavours all working together.”  

But it would be the title track of Yes’s fifth album, 1972’s Close To The Edge, where the band’s vision of a multi-part, side-long piece finally came to fruition. The song was divided into four parts, I. The Solid Time Of Change, II: Total Mass Retain, III. I Get Up, I Get Down and IV: Seasons Of Man, running to a grand total of 18 minutes and 42 seconds.

"I was always aware of where we were heading structurally,” says singer Jon Anderson. “I was listening to a lot of classical music while touring and Sibelius’s 5th symphony I liked. It’s got a very wild first movement, a gentle second, and the third movement is very majestic. I thought the band could get into performing with that sort of musical positioning.” 

Another influence on his thinking was the then recently released Sonic Seasonings, a double album by electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos consisting of four side-long long suites, brimming with evocative Moog-created ambient environments. Anderson discussed with Yes engineer Eddy Offord how they might come up with something similar.

“I wanted to create this sense of energy or force field before the band started, and then have the group climb out of it with a wild and crazy solo section, raving away as though we didn’t know where we were going,” he says. "You’d get to a certain point and you’re going to stop dead and a very straight choral thing would come in and then the band would carry on again." 

It wasn’t just classical music that the band were drawing on for Close To The Edge. Howe's octave-jumping soloing amidst the whirlwind sweep of The Solid Time of Change owes little to conventional rock and nods more toward a jazzy sensibility. 

“I wouldn’t say we were influenced by the Mahavishnu Orchestra directly but we were all full of admiration and respect for them," says the guitarist. "It was that way-out jazz side of things we were drawing on." 

Close To The Edge became a repository for a variety of half-formed ideas that in some cases had been around for a while. “You tend to have plenty of ideas and sketches which don’t necessarily have a home, so you pitch them in," says Howe. "Jon and I worked like that all the time. One of my songs had the line 'Close to the edge, down by a river', which actually referred to where I was living at the time, next to the Thames.”

When Anderson heard the phrase, the symbolism of the river immediately connected to metaphors within Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which he’d been reading at the time. “The river leads you to the ocean, all the paths lead you to the divine. So the idea was that as human beings we are close to the edge - the edge of realisation," explains Anderson

Other earlier Howe songs were thrown into the mix. In Total Mass Retain, a descending guitar line had previously existed as part of Black Leather Gloves in Howe's pre-Yes outfit, Bodast. In the following movement, I Get Up I Get Down Howe's 'In her white lace' melody was originally a humble enough love song. 

Anderson countered with his own melody. “When I started singing 'Two million people barely satisfied', I had in my in head what was happening around the world, starvation in African countries. So many people lived so well while so many people didn’t. I get high and low on the whole concept of life. I get up, I get down. So it worked out that Steve and Chris sang that while I sang my melody over these exact same chords. It was magical. . .it just happened.” 

I Get Up I Get Down has a stately, majestic feel thanks to the appearance of the church organ recorded in London’s St.Giles-without-Cripplegate. There were huge challenges in getting it right, says Wakeman. “Back then technology couldn’t do what I wanted to do. So it was a matter of recording the church organ separately and then ‘floating’ it into the track from quarter-inch tape. A long and very fiddly process but absolutely worth it.”  

Wakeman's Moog solo at this section provides a dazzling bridge into the track's finale, The Seasons Of Man. Hurtling forward, driven by whip-crack drumming, crunching bass surges, diaphanous three-part harmonies, chiming guitar and piano, replete with ghostly Mellotron, it's Yes at their most cinematic. Despite the passage of time, Howe remains impressed with the outcome. "To this day I think how Jon sang it originally in the studio in G minor is just amazing.”

It's something that Anderson cherishes as well. "That big end section, that’s that place where it’s like we're climbing the mountain,” he says. You get there and you sit back and take in the view... my head was spinning every time I listened to it or sang it.” 

Released on September 13, 1972 as the opening track from the album of the same name, Close To The Edge was a transformative, defining moment for Yes, marking the point when they finally fulfilled their ambition to produce a long-form piece of exceptional quality and achieve their true potential. They’d go on to write longer songs, but none would have the impact it did.

Yes: The Complete Story is on sale now. Order your copy here (opens in new tab)

Yes bookazine

(Image credit: Future)
Sid Smith
Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.