Jon Anderson From ‘Olias’ to ‘Animation’

❉ James R Turner on these welcome reissues of three missing pieces from the Yes man’s solo career.

Jon Anderson today. Photo © Deborah Anderson.

Steadily working their way through the solo work of former Yes members, Esoteric Recordings/Cherry Red have finally got round to former singer Jon Anderson’s first three solo albums – Olias of Sunhillow (1975), Song of Seven (1980) and Animation (1982). These three albums have long been out of print and hearing them remastered is to have another piece in the expansive extended Yes musical jigsaw completed.

In 1975, with seven albums under their belt, Yes took some time out to recuperate, and during the hiatus all five members recorded solo albums that were released by Atlantic (the Esoteric reissue of Chris Squire’s Fish Out of Water is a revelation in the recent 5.1 reissue; keyboard player Patrick Moraz solo albums from this era are also available on Esoteric) and as part of this reissue programme Jon Anderson’s debut solo album Olias of Sunhillow makes a welcome return to CD.

Remastered and up mixed into 5.1 by Ben Wiseman, in a gatefold CD package that includes (for the first time in CD format) the cover art that is relevant to the overarching story, the package also includes comprehensive sleeve notes with in-depth commentary from Jon and a separate booklet containing the complete lyrics for the album.

Unlike some of the other Yes men solo albums, this is a complete solo work, with Jon utilising all his experience of being in the band to create, with sound engineer Mike Dunne providing the technical support.

When you’re known as the lead singer of a technically accomplished band like Yes, with the various virtuoso musicians who’d already passed through the ranks by 1975, and aren’t known as a multi-instrumentalist, the easier option would have been to co-write and collaborate (like Chris Squire did on Fish Out of Water) this however is Jon Anderson, a man not known for doing what was expected, and so he created a home studio and created the fantasy world of Sunhillow, and the story of  Olias and the four tribes on the planet who are at risk of the planet exploding by a volcano, building his Moorglade Mover, the wizard Olias helps the tribes escape the planet!

Influenced by the writings of Vera Stanley Alder (in particular her 1939 book The Initiation of the World) and Roger Dean’s album cover artwork for Yes’ 1971 masterpiece Fragile (which features a ship leaving a dying planet) Anderson, showing some of that stubborn Northern grit that is hidden by his fey persona, decided this was going to be a true solo album, and went to work.

There was an urban myth perpetuated online that when this album was released RCA contacted Vangelis to find out why he’d played keyboards on this album and not told them! Jon puts that myth to bed in the booklet, and having worked with Vangelis (in fact Vangelis was approached to replace Rick Wakeman in Yes in 1974) it’s clear that the smoother, more atmospheric keyboard sounds that Vangelis is synonymous with is far more in tune with the ethereal vibe that permeates Olias, and so Jon took influences where he could find them.

Of the Yes solo albums, this is the one that has much more in common with the intense spirituality and reflective side of the band as personified in Tales from Topographic Oceans, and Jon, using his skills wisely, mixes the vocals into the overall musical sound so that they are an additional instrument, one that works incredibly well when you consider this was his first solo album.

Sure, bits of the record do have a naivety about them, but that is part of the charm of Olias, and the long-form, album-as-story concept is one that suits Anderson’s work and sound really well. From the opener of Ocean Song to the closing To The Runner, Anderson pulls together an intelligent, complex, and musically interesting story, whilst, of course his vocals are as clear as ever (although with his obvious Lancastrian accent wags did dub the album Olias of Accrington on release), and the epic Moon Ra/Chords/Song of Search is the pinnacle of Anderson’s achievements on this fine record.

Freed from the compromises necessary in a band environment, such as having to debate five ways about the sound of the album or find space for lengthy technical guitar or keyboard pieces, Olias is the purest musical interpretation of Anderson’s musical ambition to date, and, while it is the most ‘new age’ Yes-related album of the era, that’s no bad thing at all.

Previous reissues have lost or missed out the expansive artwork by Dave Roe (directed by Hipgnosis) this package replicates it perfectly, and like so many albums of this era the artwork is integral to the album, and whilst it’s not gatefold vinyl, it’s still a lovely package.

The 5.1 up mix from the stereo masters (as the original masters, I assume are no longer around to tinker with) have expertly been done by Ben Wiseman, and the symphonic glory of the album as it fills your living room has to be heard to be believed, as the mix teases out individual refrains and choral vocal pieces that stereo just can’t convey.

This is a superb package and it’s great to see this album getting the attention it so rightly deserves, especially when you read about the sheer effort it took Jon to shape this from ideas to fruition.

Song of Seven, Jon’s second album was recorded and released in totally different circumstances to his debut.

By 1980, Yes had reunited with Rick Wakeman for 1977’s Going For The One (which is considered a high point for the band, possibly due to the individual members having worked on their solo albums and learnt different ways of working) however following 1978’s muddled Tormato and aborted recording sessions in Paris in 1979, both Anderson and Wakeman left Yes.

With Yes carrying on, Jon Anderson took four unused Tormato tracks and signed to Virgin, embarking on his second solo album – his first album without the safety net of Yes to fall back into. When Virgin signed Anderson and Phil Collins at the same time, the label had hopes of turning him into a pop star of the type that Collins became, however when the label heard what he was working on they cancelled the contract, Jon repaid the advance and went back ‘home’ to Atlantic.

With the four of the unreleased songs he’d written for Yes as a starting point Jon assembled The New Life Band (Ronnie Leahy, Maurice Pert, Chris Rainbow, Iain Bairnson) whilst guests like Clem Clempson, Simon Phillips, Jack Bruce, Dick Morrisey and Mel Collins featured on the album. The legendary Johnny Dankworth contributed a memorable saxophone piece on Don’t Forget (Nostalgia).

Unlike Olias, there is no overriding concept here as working with Vangelis on Short Stories earlier in the year and the shorter, punchier approach taken by Yes on their last two studio albums obviously helped focus Jon’s working on shorter songs, without losing any of his songwriting skills or lyrical impact.

This collection has elements of rock, funk and soul, all sounds that weren’t necessarily apparent in Jon’s Yes work, and the shorter songs and more focused production (by Jon) almost foreshadows the direction Yes would take on their next release.

The excellent Some are Born, the title track, Don’t Forget (Nostalgia) and Heart of the Matter are standout tracks on here, and it’s interesting to compare the Yes versions to the direction Jon took the tracks when given musical freedom. The single edits of Some Are Born and Heart Of The Matter are included as bonus tracks on here.

With its stunning stained-glass effect and collection of beautifully written and produced songs, this is a superb collection of songs that straddle the prog and rock genre, with the emphasis very much on moving away from some of the more pretentious aspects of prog that were unfashionable at the time.

After a brief tour, the first time Jon had been on the road under his own banner, he was back in the studio again and signed to Polydor, the home of his collaborations with Vangelis, for his third solo album, released in June 1982.

Animation sees him take another turn into different musical arenas, this time bringing in more digital and electronic sounds into his music, inspired by a visit to an electronics festival at Olympia – indeed, Olympia is the opening track on the album, and sees Jon singing about what he’s found! This use of digital effects was also inspired by his work with Vangelis on Short Stories and The Friends of Mr Cairo, where his change of songwriting style is evident.

Pulling together a guest list of musicians as diverse as David Sancious, Clem Clempson, Simon Phillips, Blue Weaver, Morris Pert, Jack Bruce, Chris Rainbow and Dick Morrisey, his studio line-up reads like a who’s who of British session musicians from the 1970s. Jon’s co-producer was Neil Kernon, although Tony Visconti co-produced the track All God’s Children (spelt incorrectly on the sleeve!) – unable to commit to the full album, Visconti had one day to sprinkle his magic over this one track!

The title track is about his daughter Jade who was born in 1980 and at 7 minutes long, weaves and flows like a classic Yes piece (and is the closest to his ‘70s style of songwriting on here) and is one of the standout tracks on the album, whilst Boundaries ended up being reworked by Yes on their Open Your Eyes album in 1997.

With such talented musicians and a sympathetic producer Jon was able to realise his vision in the studio, and there’s some classic Anderson moments on here such as All In A Matter Of Time, with its soul and gospel influences and a cracking solo from Clempson, whilst Boundaries sees Jon going down a more folk-orientated route, his clear voice the main instrument, whilst the sympathetic arrangement pairs back the bombast that Yes were known for and works beautifully on here.

With bonus tracks including single B-side Spider and a demo of The Spell, a ten minute piece from a project Jon never got round to finishing, Animation more than holds its own against its better-known predecessors, and whilst Jon played a few dates in support of Animation, the album’s momentum stalled when he hooked back up with Chris Squire and joined Chris’ new project with South African guitarist Trevor Rabin, initially called Cinema but eventually mutating into the shiny pop incarnation of Yes, fronted and produced by Jon’s replacement, Buggles’ Trevor Horn, which launched Yes into the MTV decade with 1983’s 90125. But that’s another story!

 Jon Anderson: ‘Olias Of Sunhillow’, 2 Disc Remastered & Expanded Edition (Esoteric QECLEC22748) out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £12.99.

 Jon Anderson: ‘Song Of Seven, Remastered & Expanded Edition’ (Esoteric QECLEC2747) out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95.

 Jon Anderson: ‘Animation, Remastered & Expanded Edition’ (Esoteric ECLEC2757) out now from Cherry Red Records, RRP £10.95.

 James R. Turner is a music and media journalist. Over the last 25 years he has contributed to the Classic Rock Society magazine, BBC online, Albion Online, The Digital Fix, DPRP, Progarchy, ProgRadar and more. James’ debut book is out in September and he is head of PR for Bad Elephant Music. He lives in North Somerset with his fiancee Charlotte, their Westie Dilys & Ridgeback Freja, three cats and too many CDs, records & Blu-Rays.

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