Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Song That Turned a Weird Kid Into a Prog Fanatic

Thirty years ago today, a song was released that would introduce me to a band that's remained my favorite to this day.

Some people remember things like their first kiss, or where they were during momentous events in history. Me? I remember where I was when I first heard "Owner of a Lonely Heart" on the radio.

It was in late 1983, probably November, and I was riding home one evening with my dad from a visit to my grandparents' house in northern Indiana. I was 12 years old, and as he usually did when I was in the car, Dad let me listen to U93, the local Top 40 station. Shortly after we crossed the state line into southwest Michigan, where I grew up, I remember hearing a strange-sounding drum break, given some kind of electronic treatment that made it sound like a psychedelic thunderclap. That led directly into a short, rocking guitar intro. Then the band kicked in, playing the same riff over a crisp drumbeat. And then out of nowhere, a jarring horn blast jumped out of the speakers.

Wow! The song already had my young ears intrigued.

The singer came in next. "Move yourself ... you always live your life ... never thinking of the future."

What a voice! It was a male voice, but not like one I'd ever heard. A very high-pitched tenor.

A few more of those funny horn blasts, then the chorus, then the bridge -- and then the backbeat stopped and everything went nuts. Another blast, followed by another one of those flanged thunder-rumble drum breaks like the one that opened the song. The singer yowled along with the next blast. Drum break, momentary silence, more horns, more drums, then the horns ascended before the full band came back in, featuring a frenetic, whirling guitar solo, harmonized and panning from speaker to speaker. It was unlike any other solo I'd ever heard. It was genius.

And it ended as abruptly as it had started. A clipped rhythm guitar led the band back into the main riff, they sang the chorus a few more times, and it all faded out on the second bridge.

Well, consider my 12-year-old mind blown. I had to run out and find that single as soon as I could.

As far back as I can remember, I've always been attracted to music that stood out in some quirky way. To give you an idea, the first album I ever bought was Pink Floyd's Ummagumma, purely because I liked the cover, the song titles, and the lengths of the tracks. I was maybe 8 years old. I found it at a neighbor's garage sale for 25 cents. I didn't know the first thing about Pink Floyd. But I still remember being mesmerized by the live performance of "Astronomy Domine," and seriously creeped out when Roger Waters let out his blood-curdling scream on "Careful With That Axe, Eugene." My mom heard that and yelled upstairs to ask me what the heck I was listening to. I wasn't sure myself. But I loved it. Fast-forward a few years, and I was a percussionist in sixth-grade concert band, imitating things like Nick Mason's kettle-drum drone, the way he repeatedly tightened and loosened the drum heads as he played them, from "The Grand Vizier's Garden Party."

So yeah, I was a weird kid. While everyone else my age was probably just looking for a song to dance to, I got a thrill from listening to the pulsating synthesizer effects and the drum solos toward the end of Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein." Styx was one of my favorite bands back then -- not for their rocking hits like "Renegade" or their pretty ballads like "Babe," but for things like "I'm OK" and its big, booming pipe-organ section, and the 13-minute "Movement for the Common Man" with its man-on-the-street interviews sandwiched between a rocking first part and a a softer ballad to close things out.  

Yep. Weird.

So here's this new band, called Yes, and they've just done a song called "Owner of a Lonely Heart." After I got the single, the next thing was to save up for the album. Within a few weeks I owned 90125 on cassette, and I had a new favorite band.

OK, so I heard a song I really liked. Big deal, right? Well, to me, it was a big deal, and still is, because that one song became my gateway to the progressive rock that makes up a huge portion of my musical diet to this day. I'll listen to just about anything these days that has a good melody and tasty hooks, but prog is my home base, and I owe it all to that one song.

After 90125, I was hungry for more Yes, and it was only then that I realized this wasn't a new band at all, but a reunited one that had put out more than a dozen albums. One of the first things I picked up from their back catalog was a 1981 compilation called Classic Yes. The first track, "Heart of the Sunrise," absolutely floored me, and from there I couldn't get enough of this adventurous style of '70s music known as progressive rock. I collected the entire Yes catalog over the course of the next year, and I branched off into other proggy bands from there, including King Crimson; Rush; Genesis; Jethro Tull; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; and good old Pink Floyd. Why Ummagumma hadn't launched me into the wonderful world of prog-rock a few years earlier, I can't say. Maybe I just wasn't prepared at that time to dive in any deeper, though perhaps it did prime me for more adventurous music in the years to come. In any event, once "Owner" hit my eardrums, I was finally ready. It was the song that sent me on my way.

Who would have guessed? It all started with a catchy little pop song that began its life, of all places, in Trevor Rabin's bathroom -- during what he calls a "particularly long visit."

Trevor Rabin is a classically trained guitarist-singer-songwriter-keyboardist who was a sensation in his native South Africa. He moved to London with dreams of taking his stardom to the next level, and he eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where he wrote much of the material that ended up on 90125.

Meanwhile, Yes had split up following the tour for 1980's Drama album, and bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White were looking for a new songwriting partner, after a project with Jimmy Page didn't pan out. Atlantic Records put Squire in touch with Rabin, and the three of them got together for what they all seem to remember as a terrible jam -- but they felt there was potential and enjoyed playing together. Original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye soon joined the ranks, and Trevor Horn -- who had sung on Drama, replacing original singer Jon Anderson -- was recruited as the producer. The band, at that time known as Cinema, began recording in 1982.

And for even getting the band to consider recording "Owner of a Lonely Heart," we have Trevor Horn to thank. Horn said Rabin wasn't even thinking about using the song for the Cinema project, but the producer persisted until the band broke down and gave it a try. Horn said he heard a strong chorus, but he hated the verses, which to him were too much ooh-baby-baby lunkhead American rock 'n roll. (Even Squire, on first hearing his music, thought Rabin was "a bit of a clever dick" who sounded something like a one-man Foreigner, which one presumes he didn't mean as a compliment.) So Horn set about rewriting and refining the song with Rabin.

The demo, admittedly, was no great shakes ...

But then Horn had to battle the whole band to play the song the way he heard it in his head. They kept adding frills to the main riff, and he had to tell them to just play it straight. Not easy, I suppose, for a young guitarist influenced by John McLaughlin and a couple of veteran prog-rockers who were used to showing off their instrumental prowess. Horn said Rabin also kept trying to remix the song with a big, bashing drum sound, but Horn had just the opposite in mind. Influenced by the tight playing on The Police's Synchronicity album, he wanted White's drumming to sound clipped and sparse. To keep the drummer focused on a simple playing style, Horn had his engineering crew walk into the studio and remove pieces of the kit, one by one, until White was eventually left with just his snare, tuned up to an A to match the key of the song, and his kick drum. "We filled the rest in later," White said. 

So why the horn stabs? Horn said that the verses of the song, in his mind, were so awful that "I was convinced that if we didn't put all kinds of whiz-bangs and gags all over the verse, no one would ever listen to it." Similar-sounding little doodles were present in Rabin's original demo, but they were played on conventional synthesizers. It was Horn's idea to take those little doodles and turn them into big, sampled blasts that demanded the listener's attention.

The musical snippet in those blasts originated from a track called "Kool Is Back" by Funk Inc. Listen at the 1:47 mark:

Horn took that sound and sampled it into a Fairlight CMI, one of the pioneering digital sampling keyboards. He was one of the first people to buy a Fairlight, and he wasn't shy about incorporating its sampling abilities into the projects he produced. In fact, Horn's production team got so enthralled with the Fairlight's abilities during the 90125 sessions that they ended up forming their own band, The Art of Noise, with what was then a cutting-edge sound built around samples, loops, and sequenced drums. A drum beat from Alan White himself became the basis for "Beat Box," the first composition The Art of Noise stitched together. That track used the same horn blast sampled on "Owner."

But "Owner" would not be complete without that amazing, face-melting guitar solo from Trevor Rabin. Here is the man himself talking about how he played what I consider one of the most incredible guitar solos in the history of rock music.

So now we've got ourselves a song, right? Well, when the recording for 90125 was almost done, Squire looked up Jon Anderson, Yes' erstwhile lead singer, and played him some of Cinema's new music. Anderson liked what he heard, and the next thing everyone knew, the debut album from Cinema was set to become a reunion album from Yes.

Rabin kept some of his lead vocal parts on the finished album, but Anderson stepped in to handle most of the singing duties ... and in the process he decided to rewrite a lot of the lyrics in his esoteric fashion. The thing about classic Yes, from a lyrical standpoint, was that Anderson wrote the words in the '70s for the way they sounded as much as for what they meant, but underpinning them was almost always a sense of vague spiritualism and a vibe of idealistic optimism. There's a bit of that flavor on 90125, though not as pronounced as on the '70s Yes material.

But it was enough to drive Trevor Horn batty. He'd already rewritten the lyrics to "Owner," but Anderson refused to sing some of them. The cosmic lyricist added a line about an "eagle in the sky" in the second verse, and Horn decided to exact a bit of revenge by adding the sound of a gunshot blast after that line -- shooting Anderson's eagle out of the sky!

Trevor Rabin, of course, hadn't planned on becoming Steve Howe's replacement on guitar in Yes. He once said he would have approached the music for 90125 from a more orchestral perspective had he known Cinema would become Yes -- probably similar to the approach he ended up taking on Yes' 1994 album Talk, which married the sound of hard-rocking '80s Yes to the stretched-out frills and embellishments of the band's '70s material. I'm glad things worked out the way they did, though, because I don't know if my 12-year-old ears would have taken to "Owner of a Lonely Heart" in any other form. My musical journey could have taken a markedly different path.

A lot of Horn's recollections that I've shared come from the following video. Very entertaining stuff. Despite all the challenges that went into making the song, not to mention the album, he seems satisfied with how it all came out in the end.

And why wouldn't he?  For all the hard work he put into it, he got quite a payoff in return, as "Owner of a Lonely Heart" became Yes' first and only No. 1 song on the Billboard chart, for the week of Jan. 21-28, 1984.

The song has since sold 7 million copies. It gave Yes a new lease on life upon its release, and it brought in droves of new fans, including me. Hard to believe it's been three decades now.

That version of Yes is long gone now. Trevor Rabin has since moved on to writing film scores. The current band is, for all practical purposes, a nostalgia act, focusing on the progressive pieces from the '70s. They haven't even played "Owner" on their recent tours.

Maybe not enough of the remaining fans want to hear it anymore. It happens. Time marches on. I admit that "Owner of a Lonely Heart" is no longer my favorite Yes song, but I still stop and turn up the radio whenever I hear it come on. And when I do, I always think back to that night in my dad's car in 1983 -- when one little song changed everything.

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