Tales from Topographic Oceans

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Tales from Topographic Oceans
Tales from Topographic Oceans (Yes album).jpg
Studio album by Yes
Released 7 December 1973
Recorded Late summer – early autumn 1973
Studio Morgan Studios
(Willesden, London, England)
Genre Progressive rock
Length 81:15
Label Atlantic
Yes chronology
Tales from Topographic Oceans

Tales from Topographic Oceans is the sixth studio album from the English rock band Yes, released as a double album on 7 December 1973 by Atlantic Records. It is a concept album based on singer Jon Anderson's interpretation of a footnote in Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) by Paramahansa Yogananda that describes four bodies of Hindu texts, collectively named the shastras. After he pitched the idea to guitarist Steve Howe, the two wrote the themes and instrumentation of four, side long tracks based on each text. Keyboardist Rick Wakeman disagreed with the album's concept and the musical direction of the album, and left the group after its tour.

Following its release, Tales from Topographic Oceans received a mixed critical reception and became a symbol of progressive rock excess with its detailed concept and lengthy songs. However it was a commercial success, becoming the first UK album to qualify for Gold certification based on pre-orders alone. It topped the UK Album Chart for two weeks and reached number 6 in the US, where it reached Gold certification for over 500,000 copies sold. Yes toured the album from November 1973 to April 1974 with a set that featured the album performed in its entirety. The album was reissued in 1994 and 2003; the latter with bonus tracks. An edition with new stereo and 5.1 surround sound mixes by Steven Wilson will be released in October 2016.

Background and writing[edit]

The album's concept was devised by the group's singer, Jon Anderson.

In April 1973, Yes completed their 1972–73 world tour promoting their fifth studio album, Close to the Edge (1972). By this time, the band's line-up had stabilised around singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and drummer Alan White, who replaced original drummer Bill Bruford the year before.[1] During a stop in Tokyo in March 1973 on the Close to the Edge tour, Anderson was in his hotel room seeking a theme for a "large-scale composition" for the next Yes album. He found himself "caught up in a lengthy footnote on page 83" of Autobiography of a Yogi (1946), the autobiography of Indian yogi and guru Paramahansa Yogananda, that described four bodies of Hindu text, collectively named the shastras[2] that Yogananda described as "comprehensive treatises" that cover "every aspect of religious and social life, and the fields of law, medicine, architecture, art, etc." that "convey profound truths under a veil of detailed symbolism".[3] Anderson was introduced to Yogananda's work at Bruford's wedding reception by Jamie Muir, then the percussionist for King Crimson, on 2 March 1973.[4] Anderson said "I felt I had to learn from him. We started talking about meditation in music—not the guru type but some really heavy stuff."[5] During the recording stage, Anderson phoned painter and author Vera Stanley Alder, who wrote several books on spirituality that had a profound influence on Anderson, to discuss his interpretations of the scriptures and asked for clarification on the subject.[6]

As the tour progressed across Australia and the United States, Anderson "became engrossed" with the idea of writing music around a "four-part epic built around the four-part themes of which I was reading", but later admitted even he did not fully understand what they were about.[5] He then pitched the idea of a double concept album to Howe, who took an interest in the idea. The pair had already written the band's longest track at the time, the 18-minute "Close to the Edge", and proceeded to hold "candlelight writing sessions" in their hotel rooms between gigs and completed the outline of the vocals, lyrics, and instrumentation of the four tracks after a single six-hour session that ended at 7:00 am in Savannah, Georgia. Anderson described the experience as a "magical" one, "which left both of us exhilarated for days".[7]

When the tour ended, Yes regrouped in London and proceeded to rehearse and develop Anderson and Howe's material at Manticore Studios in Fulham, then owned by fellow progressive rock band Emerson, Lake & Palmer.[5] Wakeman thought the musical direction the band were taking ventured into "avant-garde jazz rock, and I had nothing to offer there".[8] Squire noted "a lot of substance" to the four long tracks, but at times there was not[9] which made it "too varied and too scattered".[10] Regardless of their opinion, Anderson wrote in the album's liner notes that Squire, Wakeman and White made "important contributions of their own" to the music.[11] He thought the group were "on the same page" and supported the concept and material at the time, but realised the disagreements from Wakeman ended a period of "elusive harmony" that existed within the band for Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972).[12] Howe recalled despite the lengthy arrangements, no one "bottled it" and suggested a single album would be more appropriate.[5] White contributed some lengthy sections of music that bridged between the main sections of tracks, but did not receive a writing credit which bothered him at first, but later allowed it as the album was mostly Anderson and Howe's idea.[13]

Phil Carson, then the London Senior Vice President of Atlantic Records, remembered that, during a dinner with Anderson and Nesuhi Ertegun, Anderson was originally going to name the album Tales from Tobographic Oceans and claimed he invented the word "tobographic", a word that summarised one of Fred Hoyle's theories of space. Ertegun informed Anderson that "tobographic" sounded like "topographic", so Anderson changed the title accordingly.[14]



"I think there was a psychological effect of, "Oh, we're doing a double album. Now we can make things twice as long, twice as boring, and twice as drawn out!"[10]

Eddy Offord, producer

It took five months for the band to arrange, rehearse, and record the album.[11] The recording location caused several disagreements within the group. Anderson and Wakeman wished to record in the countryside, Squire and Howe preferred to record in London, and White had no particular preference.[15] Anderson expressed a wish to record in a forest at night under a tent with electrical generators buried into the ground so they would be inaudible,[16] but "When I suggested that, they all said, 'Jon, get a life!'"[2] Eddy Offord, who had worked with the group since 1970, assumed his role as the album's engineer and shared production duties with the band. He tried to push Brian Lane, the band's manager, to record in the country, thinking "some flowers and trees" would not make things so tense and confined.[10] A decision was made to stay in London and record at Morgan Studios in Willesden, partly due to the fact that the studio housed the country's first 24-track tape machine, produced by Ampex, which presented more recording opportunities,[17] though Squire recalled the machine "didn't work half the time".[18] Squire worked sixteen-hour days for seven days a week at the studio, getting little sleep in the process.[19]

Squire recalled that as a joke on Anderson, Lane proceeded to decorate the recording studio like a farmyard to make him "happy".[17] Anderson brought flowers, pots of greenery, and cut out cows and sheep to make it look like a garden as a typical studio did not "push the envelope about what you're trying to create musically".[16] Wakeman described the studio: "There were white picket fences ... All the keyboards and amplifiers were placed on stacks of hay."[17] At the time of recording, heavy metal group Black Sabbath were recording Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) in the adjacent studio. Singer Ozzy Osbourne recalled the Yes studio had a model cow with electronic udders fitted and a small barn to give the room an "earthy" feel.[20] "About halfway through the album", said Offord, "The cows were covered in graffiti and all the plants had died. That just kind of sums up that whole album".[10] At one point in recording, Anderson wished for a "bathroom sound" on his vocals and asked the band's lighting engineer Michael Tait to build him a small wooden box with tiles stuck onto plywood. After Tait explained that the idea would not work, Tait "built it anyway".[21] Sound engineer Nigel Luby recalled that during takes, "tiles started falling off".[22] Wakeman felt increasingly disenchanted by the album during the recording stage, and spent his time drinking and playing darts in the studio bar.[23] He also spent time with Black Sabbath, playing the Minimoog synthesiser on the Sabbath track "Sabbra Cadabra". Wakeman would not accept money for his contribution, so the band paid him in beer.[24] Roughly one month into rehearsals, the band took a break from recording. Anderson vacated to Marakesh with his wife, and developed the lyrics during his stay there.[6]


"Side one was the commercial or easy-listening side of Topographic Oceans, side two was a much lighter, folky side of Yes, side three was electronic mayhem turning into acoustic simplicity, and side four was us trying to drive the whole thing home on a biggie."[25]

Steve Howe

Tales from Topographic Oceans contains four tracks, or "movements" as described by Anderson,[11] that range between 18 and 22 minutes. The lyrics were written by Anderson and Howe, and each band member is credited for composing the music. Its liner notes feature a short summary written by Anderson of how the album's concept is expressed in a musical sense.[26]

"The Revealing Science of God" is based on the shruti class of Hindu scripture which Yogananda described as scriptures that are "directly heard" or "revealed", in particular the Vedas.[3] Regarding its title, Anderson said: "It's always delicate to start talking about religious things ... [the track] should have just been "The Revealing". But I got sort of hip." According to Howe, the track was originally 28 minutes in length but six minutes were cut due to the time constraints of a vinyl record.[27] His guitar solos on the track, performed on a Gibson ES-175, was influenced from his belief that Frank Zappa performed lengthy solos "because the audience wanted it. I was thinking at one stage, "I'll do that. They'll love it".[27] Anderson was inspired to open the track with voices that gradually build from listening to Gregorian chants. The ongoing Vietnam War at the time provided a source for its lyrics.[16]

"The Remembering" relates to the smriti, literally meaning "that which is remembered". Yogananda wrote the smritis were "written down in a remote past as the world's longest epic poems", specifically the Mahabharata and Ramayana, two Indian epic poems.[3] Anderson described it as "a calm sea of music" and aimed to get the band to play "like the sea" with "rhythms, eddies, swells, and undercurrents".[27] The track includes a keyboard solo from Wakeman that Anderson wrote in the album's liner notes, "bring alive the ebb and flow and depth of our mind's eye".[11] Anderson ranked the solo as one of Wakeman's best works.[16] Squire described his bass playing on the track, done on a fretless Guild bass, as "one of the nicest things" he has done, ranking it higher than his playing on some of the band's more popular tracks. He called it a very successful piece of musical arrangement.[27] White came up with the chord basis of an entire section of the song on the guitar, which he does not play confidently, but Anderson told him to "keep playing" so it could be developed further.[28]

"The Ancient" is attributed to the puranas, meaning "of ancient times", which contain eighteen "ancient" allegories.[3] "Steve's guitar", wrote Anderson, "is pivotal in sharpening reflection on the beauties and treasures of lost civilisations."[11] The lyrics contain several translations of the word "Sun" or an explanation of the Sun from various languages.[16] Howe felt the opening section of the track amazes him to this day, thinking how the band could "go so far out".[5]

"Ritual" relates to the tantras, literally meaning "rites" or "rituals".[3] Anderson described its bass and drum solos as a presentation of the fight and struggle that life presents between "sources of evil and pure love".[11] Howe is particularly fond of his guitar solo at the beginning, which to him was "spine-chilling ... it was heavenly to play".[29] Howe's outro guitar solo was more improvised and jazz-oriented at first, but the the rest of the group felt dissatisfied with the arrangement. Anderson suggested that Howe pick several themes from the album and combine them, which Howe did with "a more concise, more thematic approach".[30]

Sleeve design[edit]

A Mayan temple at Chichen Itza that Anderson requested to have on the album's sleeve

The album's cover was designed and illustrated by artist Roger Dean, who had also created the artwork for the band's previous albums Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972), and Yessongs (1973).[31] Each of those albums used a loose narrative thread which was not continued over for Tales from Topographic Oceans. The design was discussed over a "long and detailed" conversation with Anderson while on tour during a flight from London to Tokyo via Anchorage, Alaska, where the two took inspiration from looking at the patterns in the landscapes below them. Prior to the journey, Dean had completed the cover to The View Over Atlantis (1969) by John Mitchell and "the wives and girlfriends made a cake ... and we all had some. I have no idea what was in it but from London to Anchorage, I was stoned ... But from Anchorage to Tokyo, I couldn't stop talking. And I was telling Jon all about this book, about patterns in the landscape and dragon lines, and we were flying hour after hour after hour over the most amazing landscapes ... So the idea of ... a sort of magical landscape and an alternative landscape ... that informed everything: the album cover, the merchandising, the stage."[32] Dean, who primarily describes himself as a landscape painter, wished to convey his enthusiasm for landscapes in the design. Nothing in the artwork is imagined or made up, meaning everything within it is of a particular thing.[33] Painted using watercolour and ink, the cover depicts fish circling a waterfall under several constellations of stars. In his book Views (1975), Dean explains:

The final collection of landmarks was more complex than ... intended because it seemed appropriate to the nature of the project that everyone who wanted to contribute should do so. The landscape comprised amongst other things, some famous English rocks taken from Dominy Hamilton's postcard collection. These are, specifically: Brimham Rocks, the last rocks at Land's End, the Logan Rock at Treen and single stones from Avebury and Stonehenge. Jon Anderson wanted the Mayan temple at Chichen Itza with the sun behind it, and Alan White suggested using markings from the plains of Nazca. The result is a somewhat incongruous mixture, but effective nonetheless.

In 2002, readers of Rolling Stone magazine voted the album's cover as the best cover art of all time.[34]


On 8 November 1973, Tales from Topographic Oceans was set to be played on Radio Luxembourg by host David Jensen,[35] but according to Anderson, the radio station somehow received blank tapes, resulting in dead air after the album was introduced.[36] Two more radio broadcasts of the album aired on Your Mother Wouldn't Like It with Nicky Horne on 9 November, and Rock on Radio One with Pete Drummond on 10 November.[35]

The album was released in the UK on 7 December 1973,[37] followed by its North American release on 9 January 1974.[38] It was a commercial success for the group; following a change in industry regulations by the British Phonographic Industry for albums to qualify for a Gold disc in April 1973, the album became the first UK record reach Gold certification based on pre-orders alone after 75,000 orders were made.[39] It reached number 1 on the UK Album Chart for two weeks and peaked at number 6 on the US Billboard Top LPs chart.[40] The album was certified Gold in the UK on 1 March 1974[37] and in the US on 8 February 1974, the latter for 500,000 copies sold.[41]


Professional ratings
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 3.5/5 stars[42]
Pitchfork 2.2/10[43]
Robert Christgau C[44]
Rolling Stone (unfavourable)[45]

The album is noted for its divided reception. A number of daily newspapers gave some praise; The Times selected "The Ancient" as a piece of music that "will be studied twenty-five years hence as a turning point in modern music", while The Guardian thought Anderson's "high-pitched and carefully modulated voice ... seemed at ease and control".[46] Steve Peacock reviewed the album and live performance for Sounds using the headlines "Wishy washy tales from the deep" and "Close to boredom".[47] In his negative review for Rolling Stone, Gordon Fletcher described the record as "psychedelic doodles" and thought it suffers from "over-elaboration" compared to more successful songs on Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972). He complained about the length of the album and Howe's guitar solos on "The Ancient" and the percussion section on "Ritual", but praised Wakeman for his "stellar performance" and believed the keyboardist was the "most human of the group". Fletcher singled out the acoustic guitar section from "The Ancient" as the album's high point.[45] Chris Welch reviewed the album for Melody Maker and wrote: "It is a fragmented masterpiece, assembled with loving care and long hours in the studio. Brilliant in patches, but often taking far too long to make its various points, and curiously lacking in warmth or personal expression". He thought "Ritual" brought the "first enjoyable moments" of the entire album, "where Alan's driving drums have something to grip on to and the lyrics of la la la speak volumes. But even this cannot last long and cohesion is lost once more to the gods of drab self-indulgence."[48] For New Musical Express, Steve Clarke, who had listened to the album for two months and saw the band perform the album live once, declared the album "a great disappointment", coming from the strength of Close to the Edge and notes the "colour and excitement" that the group usually puts on their albums was missing. He thought Wakeman's abilities were restricted, and a lack of "positive construction" in the music which too often loses itself to "a wash of synthetic sounds". Howe's guitar adopts the same tone as Wakeman's keyboards, which bored Clarke, but Anderson was praised in helping carry the music through with his "frail, pure and at times very beautiful" voice. Clarke concluded with a hope of Yes making a return to "real songs" which demonstrate their musicianship better.[49]

Retrospectively, Bruce Eder of AllMusic thought the album contains "some of the most sublimely beautiful musical passages ever to come from the group, and develops a major chunk of that music in depth and degrees in ways that one can only marvel at, though there's a big leap from marvel to enjoy. If one can grab onto it, Tales is a long, sometimes glorious musical ride across landscapes strange and wonderful, thick with enticing musical textures".[42] In its fortieth anniversary issue from 1992, NME selected Tales from Topographic Oceans as their "40 Records That Captured The Moment" for 1974.[50] In 1996, Progression magazine writer John Covach wrote that it is Tales from Topographic Oceans, not Close to the Edge (1972), that represents the band's true hallmark of the first half of their 1970s output and their "real point of arrival". He pointed out "the playing is virtuosic throughout, the singing innovative and often complex, and the lyrics mystical and poetic. All this having been asserted ... even the most devoted listener to Tales is also forced to admit that the album is in many ways flawed. Tracks tend to wander a bit ... and the music therefore is perhaps not as focussed as it might be." He notes that while Howe "set a new standard for rock guitar", he thought Wakeman's were not used properly and is instead "relegated to the role of sideman".[23] Author and critic Martin Popoff called the album one of the "black hole of Yes experiences, the band dissipating, expanding, exploding and imploding all at once", though he thought it contained "some fairly accessible music".[51]

In 1990, Anderson felt pleased with three-quarters of the album, with the remaining quarter "not quite jelling", but felt the too soon release deadline given to the band resulted in a lack of time to listen and alter the music properly.[13] Squire recalled the album's period as not a happy one, and deemed the album "a difficult one".[5] He commented on Anderson's attitude then: "Jon had this visionary idea that you could just walk into a studio, and if the vibes were right ... the music would be great at the end of the day ... It isn't reality".[10] Wakeman continues to hold a critical view. In 2006, he clarified that his total dislike of the album is "not entirely true" and thinks there are some "very nice musical moments in Topographic Oceans, but because of the format of how records used to be we had too much for a single album but not enough for a double, so we padded it out and the padding is awful ... but there are some beautiful solos like "Nous sommes du soleil" ... one of the most beautiful melodies ... and deserved to be developed even more perhaps."[52]


Anderson spoke about his wish to edit the album and reissue it as a condensed 60-minute version with remixes and overdubs, but the plan was affected by "personality problems".[13] The album was first remastered for CD by Joe Gastwirt in 1994.[53] It was remastered again by Bill Inglot in 2003 as an "expanded" version on Elektra/Rhino Records, which features a restored two-minute introduction to "The Revealing Science of God" not included on the original LP plus studio run-throughs of the same track and "The Ancient".[54] The 2003 edition was released once more as part of the band's 2013 studio album box set, The Studio Albums 1969–1987.[55]

Tales from Topographic Oceans will be reissued with new stereo and 5.1 surround sound mixes completed by Steven Wilson in October 2016 on the Panegyric label. The four-disc set available on CD and Blu-ray disc or DVD-Audio will include the new mixes, several bonus and previously unreleased mixes and tracks, and expanded and restored cover art.[56]


Anderson, Squire and Wakeman performing in February 1974 during the album's tour.

Yes toured the album across Europe and North America between November 1973 and April 1974, with a two-hour set of Close to the Edge (1972) and Tales from Topographic Oceans performed in their entirety, plus encores. The band brought four times as much stage equipment than their previous tours which included an elaborate stage designed by Roger Dean and his brother Martyn with fibreglass structures, dry ice effects, a rotating drum platform, and a tunnel that the band emerged from. During one show, the structure around White that opened and closed failed to operate which left him trapped inside. White claimed the incident was behind a scene depicted in This Is Spinal Tap (1984). The UK leg included five consecutive sell out nights at the Rainbow Theatre in London which marked the first time a rock band achieved the feat.[39] During the North American leg, Yes played two sell out shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City that grossed $200,000.[57] The band spent £5,000 on a hot air balloon, decorated with the album's artwork, which was tethered in each city they performed in the US.[58]

During the tour, Wakeman announced his intention to leave the group at its conclusion. His boredom and frustration from playing the whole of Tales from Topographic Oceans culminated during a show in Manchester where he proceeded to eat a curry on stage.[59] Anderson felt he "pushed" Wakeman too far as he was unsatisfied with a keyboard solo in the set, and constantly asked him to get it right.[60] Wakeman confirmed his exit to Lane over the phone on 18 May 1974, his twenty-fifth birthday, declining to attend rehearsals for the next album, Relayer (1974), stressing he could no longer contribute to the material the band were developing for it. Later that day, Wakeman found out his solo album Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974) had entered the UK chart at number one. Wakeman called it "a day I will never forget for as long as I live".[61]

Track listing[edit]

All lyrics by Jon Anderson and Steve Howe. All music written and arranged by Anderson, Howe, Chris Squire, Rick Wakeman and Alan White.

Side one
No. Title Length
1. "The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn)"   20:25
Side two
No. Title Length
1. "The Remembering (High the Memory)"   20:38
Side three
No. Title Length
1. "The Ancient (Giants Under the Sun)"   18:35
Side four
No. Title Length
1. "Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)"   21:37
1994 reissue
2003 reissue
2016 reissue

This reissue will be released on CD and DVD-Audio and CD and Blu-ray disc for the Panegyric label, in October 2016.[56]

Both versions:

  • 2016 stereo mix by Steven Wilson in 16-bit/44kHz and 24-bit/96kHz formats
  • 2016 5.1 surround sound mix by Steven Wilson in lossless LPCM and DTS-HD Master Audio versions in 24-bit/96kHz format
  • Flat transfer of the original stereo mix in 24-bit/96kHz format
  • An unedited and extended version of "The Revealing Science of God"
  • New booklet and liner notes by Sid Smith with expanded and restored artwork by Dean

Blu-ray Disc extras:

  • The extended version of "The Revealing Science of God" in 5.1 surround sound
  • 2016 stereo "single edits" of each album track
  • Instrumental mix of the album
  • "Alternate album" mixes and edits from studio and live recordings, including a studio run-through of "The Remembering" and "Ritual" performed in Zurich on 21 April 1974
  • Flat transfers of the original UK release and North American promotional copy vinyls

Charts and certifications[edit]



  • Yes – production
  • Eddy Offord – engineering, production
  • Bill Inglot – sound production
  • Guy Bidmead – tapes
  • Mansell Litho – plates
  • Roger Dean – cover design and illustrations, band logo
  • Brian Lane – co-ordination


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  65. ^ "Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans". Swedishcahrts.nl. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  66. ^ "Yes – Tales From Topographic Oceans". Norwegiancahrts.nl. Retrieved 12 August 2013. 
  67. ^ 『オリコンチャート・ブックLP編(昭和45年‐平成1年)』(オリジナルコンフィデンス/1990年/ISBN 4-87131-025-6)p.73
DVD media
  • Various band members and associates (18 June 2007). Classic Artists: Yes (DVD). Disc 1 of 2. Image Entertainment. ASIN B000PTYPSY. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John
UK number-one album
30 December 1973 – 12 January 1974
Succeeded by
Sladest by Slade