SFF Song of the Week: Ian Whates

Last autumn I went to the splendid Newcon SF convention in Northamption, run by writer, publisher and all round good guy Ian Whates.  And since then Ian has kindly commissioned me to write a story for his forthcoming anthology, Further Conflicts.  Here’s a sneak preview of the cover:

And now, I’m delighted to say, Ian has chosen this week’s SFF Song of the Week:

Ian Whates writes:

I recall when I was 12 and 13 finding the music scene increasingly frustrating. This was 1972 -73, long before the internet or downloads, long before MTV. Radio ruled and the airwaves were full of The Sweet, Slade, Elton John, and Chicory Tip. Glam Rock (heavy on the glam, light on the rock) had arrived, and I found the whole scene deeply unsatisfying.

I kept hearing talk of ‘different’ music – ‘underground’ music, ‘rock’ music, performed by groups that were never played on the radio and who spurned the idea of singles. Groups with exciting names like Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Genesis (no, a colour in the name wasn’t compulsory), ELP, Jethro Tull and King Crimson. Two names above all others were spoken with particular reverence by Those In The Know: Led Zeppelin… and Yes. But how did you discover these groups, how did you hear their music when the radio stations seemed determined to pretend they didn’t exist?

Only one option. You bit the bullet, saved your pocket money, and splashed out on that most expensive of items: an LP. So it was that I (usually) or my friends (sometimes) started buying albums by groups whose music we’d never heard, simply so we could. I recall buying ‘Houses of the Holy’ by Zep, and ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ by the Sabs and being amazed, of borrowing ‘Machine Head’ and ‘In Rock’ by Purple and ‘Genesis Live’ with similar results. This was a revelation. This was exciting, intense; this was flailing guitars and soaring keyboards underpinned by thumping, tight rhythm sections; this was interesting time signatures and stunning musicianship. This was so different from the formulaic songs churned out on the radio that it might as well have been a different discipline all together. This was music!

The high point of all these purchases came when I took the plunge and bought ‘The Yes Album’. The group’s third release, recommended as a suitable starting point for the uninitiated by a much older teen who Knew. For some reason, I started by putting side 2 on the turntable, so the very first Yes I ever heard was the dramatic chopped power chords that herald the Western-movie-theme-inspired ‘Yours is No Disgrace’. Those first notes were jaw-dropping, as exhilarating as an electric shock. Then came the floating perfect harmony of the vocals. I was hooked, mesmerised with the song barely begun. Immediately following that opener comes a brief virtuoso performance on acoustic guitar by Steve Howe: Clap, recorded live at London’s Marquee Club. As the final applause of that track dies away, there’s a brief drum roll, like the drawing of a breath, before we’re launched full pelt into the album’s finale, the powerful majesty of ‘Starship Trooper’. Whereas the opening track is intense, tight and dramatic, this is soaring, beautiful, evocative. I wanted to like the song from the off (after all, it was named after an SF book, a Heinlein no less) but my predisposition didn’t come into it. I couldn’t help but love this song. Jon Anderson’s voice soars over the music, propelling us towards the stars. Three movements: the expansive, celestial first, segueing into the faster melodic chuckle of the second – like some bubbling mountain brook – leading into the instrumental magnificence of the third, Wurm. This was Yes in flight with all thrusters burning. This was musical heaven.

I finally saw Yes live in 1978, during one of three sold-out nights at Wembley, with a revolving stage at the centre of the arena. Starship Trooper was included in the (3 hours) set to rapturous applause, with Wakeman and Howe feeding off each other in the crescendo of Wurm… as Yes jammed! I’ve seen them ten times since. Starship Trooper hasn’t always been there (with such an extensive catalogue of songs, not even a 3 hour set can accommodate everything) but is included more often than not, and it was performed when I last saw them, at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall in 2009. It’s always a crowd pleaser.

Long may Starship Trooper fly.

Sister bluebird flying high above
Shine your wings forward to the sun
Hide the myst’ries of life on your way
Though you’ve seen them, please don’t say a word
What you don’t know, I have never heard

Starship trooper, go sailing on by
Catch my soul, catch the very light
Hide the moment from my eager eye
Though you’ve seen them, please don’t tell a soul
What you can’t see, can’t be very whole

Speak to me of summer
Long winters longer than time can remember
The setting up of other roads
To travel on in old accustomed ways
I still remember the talks by the water
The proud sons and daughter
That knew the knowledge of the land
Spoke to me in sweet accustomed ways

Mother life, hold firmly on to me
Catch my knowledge higher than the day
Lose as much as only you can show
Though you’ve seen me, please don’t say a word
What I don’t know, I have never shared

Loneliness is a power that we possess to give or take away forever
All I know can be shown by your acceptance of the facts there shown before you
Take what I say in a different way and it’s easy to say that this is all confusion
As I see a new day in me, I can also show it you and you may follow

Speak to me of summer
Long winters longer than time can remember
The setting up of other roads
To travel on in old accustomed ways
I still remember the talks by the water
The proud sons and daughter
That knew the knowledge of the land
Spoke to me in sweet accustomed ways

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