JON ANDERSON – Song Of Seven

Following a gruelling tour for their complex ‘Relayer’ album in 1975, the members of Yes took time out to work on solo projects. Steve Howe’s ‘Beginnings’ and Chris Squire’s brilliant ‘Fish Out of Water’ most closely resembled the directions the a Yes album could’ve taken, while Jon Anderson’s ‘Olias of Sunhillow’ opted for something far more experimental. Its forty five minutes blended pseudo-science fiction lyrics with ambling new age and prog rock sounds. Although loved by fans, it didn’t offer much in the way of actual songs. Despite its lack of commercial potential, the album reached #8 on the UK album chart, making it the most successful of the Yes solo discs.

By the time Yes reconvened in 1977, they adopted a much leaner approach to songwriting. On their next album ‘Going For The One’, the indulgent epics that had dominated their three previous albums were largely sidelined in favour of something more accessible. This saw them applying their usual prog traits to something more rock based on the title track, exploring Jon’s new age pop on ‘Wondrous Stories’ (a surprise UK top 3 hit), and in the epic ‘Awaken’, there was even a chance to appease the die-hards who pretended to enjoy ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’. In many ways, ‘Going For The One’ is the archetypal Yes album – it showcases the broadest range of the musicians’ talents while offering something for almost every interested listener. 1978’s ‘Tormato’ followed the same formula but yielded a lesser result, but still contained a few genuine gems. Nearing the end of the decade and having survived changing musical fashions, Yes seemed to be on a roll. Things then fell apart when tensions arose during the demo stage for the next recording. Keyboard player Rick Wakeman left the band for the second time and – potentially more devastating – vocalist Jon Anderson, one of Yes’ most distinctive contributors – followed him.  Looking to pastures new, Jon quickly embarked on other projects. Sessions with keyboard virtuoso Vangelis (who’d missed out on a Yes job in the mid 70s and worked with Jon on his own ‘Heaven & Hell’) resulted in a very successful album, ‘Short Stories’ and a huge hit single in ‘I Hear You Now’. Armed with a couple of old demos and a whole world of ideas, Anderson then set about crafting what was to be his second solo LP.

That record, ‘Song of Seven’ emerged in November 1980 and was far more musically varied than most fans expected. A few tracks bore no relation to anything Jon had recorded before, including the opening track ‘For Me For You’ which, combining heavy synth sounds played in a style that sounds like a TV theme tune, underscored by fretless bass, very much heralds the new decade. Over the mechanised rhythms, Anderson’s high tenor soars as he singe of “sounds so volatile” and words that “seem clueless ever more” in a rhythm that is at complete odds with the hard, rhythmic music. He’s in his little new age bubble, singing in a style that best befits something far more wafty. On first listen, its as if two different tracks are playing simultaneously and sounds horrible until the chorus hits. From there, you’ll find a Yes-ish melody applied to huge 80s pop sounds, but it’s a hard road until that point. On subsequent listens, it seems to make far more sense, until that point where it actually clicks and you realise that Anderson, truly thinking outside of the box as usual, might just be onto something. By the time you’ve lived with the song for a while, the main refrain recycling the title in one of Jon’s finest vocals becomes something of an earworm.

‘Some Are Born’, a tune that dates back to the Yes ‘Tormato’ demos, is far more “traditional” Anderson fare in that its lyrics celebrate the breath of life and how we’re all capable of greatness. Performance wise: a soaring and optimistic vocal leads everything. His main vocal melody is exactly the same as the early demo, but musically, every opportunity has been taken for Jon’s ‘New Life Band’ to rebuild the music from the ground up. The wandering, jammed out sections of the original demo are replaced by taut pop rock where Pilot’s Iain Bairnson (bass) and Brand X’s Morris Pert (drums) lock into an understated groove while a combination of new age chanting vocals (expertly handled by Jon, as you’d expect) and a bright saxophone supplied by Dick Morrissey create a couple of brilliant musical hooks. The dominant sax, high tenor vocals and harder 80s production sound actually make this sound more like buried treasure from the Supertramp catalogue than anything Yes might have tackled, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing…

Another number that leans heavily towards adult pop, ‘Don’t Forget (Nostalgia)’ places bassist John Giblin in the spotlight as he casts out fat, bendy notes to drive a very early 60s sounding tune. Part doo wop, part light calypso, this tribute to musical moods past isn’t ever going to be Anderson’s finest hour. However, in terms of crafting pleasant sounds, both he and his band are in good shape. Of particular note are the multi-tracked, wordless backing vocals boosting Jon at almost every turn and an especially reedy sounding sax break supplied by the British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth. In terms of unexpected collaborators, he’s got to be up there! …And if by the time this number builds to a climax it’s general cheese factor starts to grate, it’s worth reverting your attention back to Giblin: in order to make a real impression, he’s really cranking his bass in an impressive way. Further pop experiments drive the album’s instant standout ‘Heart of The Matter’, a joyously buoyant tune that takes in the easy cool of Rickie Lee Jones and melds that with the kind of music Pilot had made their signature in the 70s. In some ways, it’s also a little bit Billy Joel-esque, but a distinctive vocal ensures that most people would recognise it as a Jon Anderson work, regardless of style. Naturally, any further Pilot comparisons can be made easily, thanks to Bairnson offering a fine guitar part, while Dick Morrissey returns on the sax to give this number a really jubilant send off. Anderson actually sounds like he’s having a great time in his new, shiny pop shoes – there’s no pressure here to try and appease the proggos with further tales of “past and present movers moments processing the future”, just unashamed hooks and easily loveable melodies. By the time the choir of backing vocals creeps in at the end of this kitchen sink arrangement, you really do get the feeling that someone might have been inspired by 10cc’s ‘The Things We Do For Love’. The prog fans may well sneer, but this…this is brilliant and it would take a hard or pompous heart to think otherwise.

Bringing side one of the original LP to a close, ‘Hear It’ is a lovely little tune where Jon and band take a fragment of melody and repeat it for a little under two minutes. The core of the music is supplied by twelve stringed guitars and tabla, very much giving the arrangement a late 60s feel. This recycled hippie commune approach is obviously the perfect fit for Jon and as he implores us to “hear it in the mystic voice” and “hear it for the love we share”, it could almost cast you back to the 1970/71 era Yes works. In some ways, it’s a disappointment that such a catchy and accessible piece is so short, but on the other hand, perhaps its brevity is what gives it such an endearing charm.

Leading side two, ‘Everybody Loves You’ mixes pop hooks with a wonky time signature, very much allowing Giblin’s bass to dance throughout. Since it’s one of the most Yes sounding pieces on the whole album, it’s no real surprise that Anderson sounds at his most relaxed – this is almost a busman’s holiday for him – but his best work is equalled by his New Life chums at almost every turn. Packed into a succinct four minutes, you’ll find choirs of vocals set against hard piano chords, a wonderfully shimmering guitar, gentle jazz drums underscoring the verses and a great drum/bass punch lifting an understated chorus. At the point you might expect this is content with being an inventive pop tune, a middle eight brings in a jazz bass worthy of Chris Squire and a few vocals that sound as if they’ve been lifted straight from the ‘Fragile’ LP. Almost every second of this number has something of interest, right up until the final minute when the melody steps aside for a bass solo and some serious fusion chops, before bringing back the introductory choir and a clanky prog coda. Yes actually demoed this in 1979 (although it’s never been released officially) and that demo shows a great song is already in place. There’s no guarantee that, had it ever been released in a finished finished state, it would’ve been better than this solo take. Chances are, Squire and Howe would have been all too tempted to detract from its semi-hooky nature and wedge in a couple of lengthy solos, but we’ll never know for sure.

‘Days’, another number that began life as another Yes demo in 1978, is given a similarly perfect send off. What had once been a short a cappella sketch is given life as a full and lovely new age piece. “To reach skyward, to where larks do sing such high delights / Do pour into my senses”, Anderson sings, with almost a choirboy’s innocence. What might seem twee on the surface is given some appropriate musical depth thanks to a shimmering harp (played by Jon, naturally) and Giblin offering another brilliant fretless bass part. It’s easy to hear how this would have sounded had things worked out differently in ’78; the bass part almost echoes parts of what became ‘Onward’ and the dreamy quality could easily stand up to the melodic charm of ‘Madrigal’. With all of that in mind, of course, it’s also easy to see why the idea was seen as surplus to requirements at that time. Things often happen (or don’t happen) for a reason: perhaps it’s for the best it finally found a home here. It really is one of ‘Song of Seven’s loveliest offerings.

In closing what has been a heavily pop influenced LP, the title track acts as a natural companion to ‘Days’ in that its heavily orchestrated elements, long and languid musical passages and Jon’s own new age leanings create something just as dreamy but on an epic scale. Sweeping strings build a gentle atmosphere at the outset, before allowing a staccato counter melody and a bigger string section to flesh out an interesting intro. A selection of synths and an odd, disjointed vocal from Jon casts the listener back to the opening of ‘Topographic Oceans’ in a bizarre musical move and, thankfully, just before he truly disappears into his own head forever, a floaty melody breaks through everything, finally giving the song a definite body. After four minutes, a tune arrives that fuses light musical theatre, prog, new age and AOR in a way that only Anderson would consider a sane idea. A shiny production sound dates the recording somewhere in the very early 80s, but between a strident piano played by Ronnie Leahy and a brilliant, if underused, lead guitar from Humble Pie man Clem Clempson, there’s plenty to enjoy. With the return of Jon’s odd vocal part, things could be derailed, but the second time around, the addition of extra bells suggests more of a chorale motif. After seven minutes, it’s surely time to start thinking about wrapping things up…but there’s still time enough for a barrage of kettle drums, a guitar solo that seems to have designs on echoing Steve Howe circa 1977 and – regrettably – a few singing children. Perhaps, less expected, is Clempson’s second contribution to the closing movement: introducing a much gentler guitar sound, he could almost pass for Eric Clapton on old “Slowhand”s late 70s works – most specifically ‘Peaches & Diesel’. Although it might not work quite as well as a whole, when ‘Song of Seven’ (the track) hits the mark, there’s something wonderful unfolding. When it doesn’t, or resorts to a small amount of padding – which it inevitably does on occasion – you might find yourself wondering if Anderson will ever find a definite musical thread. There’s an obvious feeling here that Anderson wanted to prove he could create something as other-worldly as ‘Awaken’ without his ex-bandmates. It isn’t ‘Awaken’ – few things are – but it’s a brave composition, nonetheless, and one that might just appease those listeners who are more closed-minded to this album’s more commercial aspects.

‘Song of Seven’ is an interesting album in that it cares not for consistency or fashion. Its forty minutes find Jon experimenting with various subgenres of pop and rock, most of which would never have found a home had he stayed with Yes. His natural gifts to make each of these actually work (to varying degrees) makes it a very interesting solo venture. While some of the new age beliefs might seem a little of their time, Anderson conveys his messages with conviction and his assembled band plays brilliantly throughout. Whether it’s what his fans expected or wanted at that time is a different matter – ‘Song of Seven’ is the work of an artist willing to progress.

[The Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red Records reissue of ‘Song of Seven’ includes edited single versions of ‘Some of Us Are Born’ and ‘Heart of The Matter’ as bonus tracks. For more Yes and Jon Anderson reviews, follow the tags at the bottom of this review.]

October 2020