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Martin Popoff - The Yes Story

Zoals algemeen bekend is Yes één van de grondleggers van de progressieve rock. Yes is ook bekend van de vele bezettingswisselingen en er is altijd wel gedoe. De bekende biograaf Martin Popoff vatte het verhaal van Yes in een handig boek samen en dat was de reden om eens van gedachten te wisselen met hem, helemaal nu Yes deze maand weer eens in Nederland optreedt (15 mei, TivoliVredenburg te Utrecht).

Door: Winston | Archiveer onder prog / sympho metal

band imageLet's start off with a nice introduction. Who is Martin Popoff, and what made him such a metal and rock connoisseur that he has written a busload of books about rock and metal bands?
I guess, anybody who is a fanatic about any hobby from an early age, there’s a good chance they’re going to wind up turning that hobby into their job, and that’s really all I did. So it’s interesting, the way you phrase that, what made him such a metal and rock connoisseur? I guess just choosing to dedicate many hours thinking about this stuff since about the age of nine, which would be about 1972. Heck, probably even earlier than that by a couple years. But who am I? Grew up in Trail, BC, just been in angry metalhead, music fan, since the beginning of the ‘70s, and I guess went full time with this stuff in the year 2000.

Would you say that you are the ultimate 'know-it-all' when it comes to metal?
Haha, good one, Winston. I would give you an emphatic no on that. Metal has evolved too much in, say, the last fifteen years, and I’ve pretty much given up keeping up, being an old man and all. I guess what I am somewhat an expert on is dozens and dozens of bands that I grew up on as a kid, a teenager, a 20-year-old, even a 30-year-old, and just vaguely, or in a general sense, old school metal and classic rock pretty intensively up to, what, the mid-‘90s? And yes, I guess heavy metal of all stripes, up until the mid-‘90s. But as I tell people now who really give me too much credit, I’m now a music historian. I mean, you must keep in mind, probably half of the “metal” bands that I’ve written about, lots and lots of younger metalheads wouldn’t even consider those metal bands.

I was quite impressed by your latest book ‘Yes; Time And A Word’. What was the main reason for you writing this?
Well, I’ve always been a big progressive rock fan, and chief amongst those bands, Yes. And so, over the years, given, really, and this is important, that our website, Bravewords, and less so the actual print magazine in the old days, Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, Tim Henderson and myself and a bunch of the writers, we are all okay with including many stripes of classic rock in the fold. And so I’ve been able to interview Yes, whatever, 20 times, over the years, which is crucial, really, for me thinking I could ever do a book on the band. I always want to provide a bunch of fresh interview content, so I’m adding something to the discourse. As well, I kind of stumbled upon this timeline with quotes/oral history, concept, and I’ve used it in a lot of books, actually, a lot of big color coffee table books, on Ozzy, on Maiden, on Motley. And then there was a general one on hair metal. And I also did this really cool Deep Purple Royal Family two-part thing, which was the same thing. Anyway, Yes really lent itself to that, because what I wanted to do is include all the side bands and all the solo stuff there, and I thought a really good organizing force would be just lay this out in strict chronological order, and then pop in quotes and comments to support that event in Yes history.

You decided to use a chronological timeline, to do it like that you must have quite a collection of books and articles. How long did it take to lay out all pieces of a 48 year old puzzle?
I think the jury is still out how much people like this format versus a more narrative, story-based format. I always wonder that, and I do fish for comment on that from people, when they write me back about my books. And I guess I hear both sides of it. But, I’ve got to tell you, it is indeed pretty easy to do, because you can bounce around and just pop stuff in without having to write so much, putting together segues, figuring out where you’re going to say something in the story. It’s like a frantic assembly job, although then it kinda does grind down when you are fleshing out the entries with your own commentary and doing the pretty extensive editing and copy editing that needs to happen with a project like this. But it’s a good question, and I’m constantly thinking about that, because I swear, I’d hate to find this out, but I would suspect that many of my books, I’m writing for somewhere around minimum wage. But I get a sense that that’s not the case with these timeline books. They actually happen pretty fast.

While creating the timeline, were there facts or events that you didn’t know about, for this band underwent many changes over the years.
Sure, and that is why some of the dates are just months, and even the odd one is just years, although when they are just years, it’s more because it’s an abstract idea that spreads over time. And yes, one of the parts of the methodology that I kinda don’t have a good strategy on, is this idea of researching the heck out of a specific date, finding three or four different answers for it, and then making a very good educated guess on the right date, and using that. Well, that’s all fine and dandy, but I don’t have any kind of note mechanism to remind myself when I’ve gone through that arduous process, and then a month later, I’m looking at the date again and finding myself finding a dissenting date, and then going through the whole damn process again!

In overview; what do you think was the most important time for Yes to survive?
I assume you meant what is the golden era of Yes. Well, one thing I love about this band is that they keep coming back, reinventing themselves, coming up with new music that is fresh and creative with different configurations of members. I’d say, if you take a poll, and I just might, and come up with a book like my the Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time, for progressive rock, you would find out that ‘Close to the Edge’ is the greatest progressive rock album of all time. Seriously, I kind of have started this, and that is coming out to be the answer. So there’s that. But I would say my favorite Yes album is ‘Going for the One’, and I also love ‘Drama’, ‘90125’, and for a later one, ‘Open Your Eyes’. So Yes is great all over the place, but I guess it’s hard to deny that they really kicked some commercial ass with ‘90125’, right?

Like mentioned earlier, you wrote quite an amount of books about rock and metal bands. Can you name me your ‘Big 4’ of favorite bands and have you written books about them too?
My favorite bands, when I’m not being cheeky and naming baby bands with catalogs there aren’t so big, such as Max Webster or Gillan or Dictators, favorite bands of all time would have to be, the usual boring suspects, I suppose, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Queen. So no, I haven’t written about all of my favorites, and that’s simply because, well, a couple of reasons, sometimes there are lots and lots of books written by some of these bands, and then also, unfortunately, some of my favorite bands, I’ve barely interviewed. Newer bands? Pantera, Clutch, Manic Street Preachers.

It seems that every band that lasts long enough would be material for one of your books, but on the other hand, not every band makes a great subject for a book. What - from your perspective - makes a band interesting enough to write a book about?
That’s not even a consideration. Because I really don’t care if the story is boring, and I’m not there to make it interesting! Seriously, I just want to document history, give my opinion, put lots and lots of those guys talking about their own music, cover the album covers, the production, try to touch down on every song. So no, I really don’t think about that. I’m not making a fiction book or a fiction movie or even a documentary, where a lot of this is pretty important. So for that reason, I feel like I’m always going to be underground, with the style that is somewhat academic, and assumes the reader knows quite a lot about the band. I’m not here to create a story arc. Although, if there somewhat is one, I’m cognizant of it, and I will touch down on it. But life is messy, and these bands I talk about, they go through tons and tons of phases and members, generally speaking, maybe even breaking up for little bit in between, or become totally different bands along the way, like Black Sabbath, heck, those guys even changed their name. But the point is, I’m not going to take a story like that and try to script it just so the damn book is a fun read. This is for adults. I’m not here to entertain you.

Gene Simmons (KISS) declared last year that “Rock is dead”. How do you as an expert in this field react on such a bold statement? Do you agree with him, or do you see things otherwise?
It’s complicated. And hip-hop are really big, and there’s not a lot of conventional instruments in there. I have nothing against hip-hop, but I sure as hell hate pop. Songs written by committee, irritating sounds, insipid singing and melodies, boring chords. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Subjected to it for long periods, I just feel my brains leaking out my ears. So I can understand that. Of course, he’s also thinking about the industry, and how recorded music is essentially free. So, it’s a long boring story, but these people have to be viral/go viral, sell a lot of concert tickets, sell merchandise. So in that sense, rock ain’t what it used to be. Also, as testament to the human spirit, that’s not stopping people from forming bands. But what is also making the business frantic and worrying, ironically, is even greater testament to the human spirit, and that’s the fact that there seems to be more bands all the time, making the piece of the pie anybody can get, a smaller pie all the time, even smaller. But no, all told, guitar, bass and drums, there still lots of that in the world.

band imageElaborating on his, the end apparently is near for some bands soon. Black Sabbath is on a farewell tour, Whitesnake will call it a day soon, what other bands do you expect to definitely throwing in the towel the coming coming years?
Well, the link is always lead singer, isn’t it? Or people physically dying, as happened with The Eagles. Obviously the biggest story right now is what’s going on with AC/DC. What’s going to happen with Judas Priest? What’s going to happen with Rush? So yes, I guess those of the two big things, singers who can’t sing anymore, and people actually dying. I guess a third thing, would be people just saying, I’ve had enough. I want a retirement like normal people. It seems like a great job, but it is stressful coming up with new material all the time, and the big thing rock stars complain about is all the travel. But sure, down the list, there’s neck and back ailments, carpal tunnel syndrome, other forms of nerve damage.

Going back to Yes; apart from the current band, that is operating without one original member in the line up, there is a second band that will step up this year. Anderson, Wakeman and Rabin finally will work together, both on stage and for an album. What are you expecting from that?
I think that’s going to be awesome, because Jon Anderson can still sing like a bird. And obviously, it’s because he’s got that bizarre voice, a child-like voice, where, it’s hard to explain, but there’re just some singers that either have a voice, or have perfect technique, or a combination of both, where there’s not a lot of degradation. Bruce Dickinson is sort of like that. So yes, this is going to be awesome. I have no doubt Rick Wakeman can still play the keyboards just fine and Trevor Rabin can still play the guitar just fine, and it’s going to be a very interesting thing to see. Having said that, I’m still glad the other band exists as well. And they are both Yes. I don’t care what the Anderson band is called.

You know that some in the fan base of Yes are having problems with the fact that the band is going on after the passing away of Chris Squire. Chris and Jon (Anderson) were essentially Yes for many fans. Do you understand this sentiment?
Yes and no. I think Jon Anderson is way more important to the essence of Yes, because he is a singer, and almost as importantly, the lyricist of this bizarre religious cult of lyrics and philosophy, that is the massive Yes canon. This is not to slight Chris; I’ve said this about every band, the singer is 50% minimum of any band, with few exceptions. And that’s why I think Jon Davison necessarily is in a long probation period, and he becomes accepted when, quite frankly, he writes the lyrics to at least three albums. That’s when he becomes a journalist and not an anchorman. So I’m fine with the current Yes. You do have this new guy, yes, but he’s now contributed to the band, and everybody else is a legitimate member. Steve Howe is just as important as Chris Squire is, in that band. Alan White has been there forever. Geoff Downes, sure, not as long, but even Billy Sherwood has been a Yes member. I say, bring it on.

What brings the near future for you? Any new books in the making?
I just had a Ramones coffee table book come out. I’ve finished an early years Motörhead book, which is in the editing phase. That’s been done for quite a few months. And, the nature of how all this works, I really shouldn’t talk about too much of this kind of thing in advance. Suffice to say, I’m just finishing up another book, and I’ve recently signed two book deals with big US publishers for a couple more coming, down the line, I don’t know, I guess one of them is late 2016. One of them is probably early 2017.

Alright, to wrap it up here's something that seems to be the trending topic for many a hard rock fans world-wide, so I guess you have something to say about it as well: Axl Rose has agreed to join AC/DC on a big part of their current tour to replace Brian Johnson. How do you feel about this move?
I think it’s totally stupid. For a lot of reasons. Axl Rose doesn’t have a lot of goodwill, and he really doesn’t seem right for the AC/DC story. I have no interest in that whole thing at all. I was joking with some industry guys, when a clip went around of seeing him sing a song with the band. I had about enough curiosity to watch 30 seconds of the five minute clip, and then that was it, I was done. I don’t need to see any of this. Don’t need to go. It’s a tribute band. The other thing that bothers me, is that, that guy’s stature is way too big, and he overpowers the band. I dunno, I just find the whole thing miserable for a lot of reasons. I for one, would have taken the approach, like, well, if the band is going to continue as a vital, authentic band, then get off the horse and get that new lead singer in that is going to be making the next five albums for you, phase III of AC/DC. And the one guy for that above all others would’ve been Mark Storace from Krokus. He’s perfect, he looks right, he’s from Switzerland and not North America, he was considered for the job back when Bon Scott died, he’s got just enough stature as the leader of a band that is like a baby version of AC/DC. He’s perfect. He can still sing, he’s a little bit younger than those guys, but not much. Maybe I’m not right on that. But anyway, I know for a fact he’s kept himself very healthy and he sings great. And of course, let’s not forget, he sings like a combination of Bon Scott and Brian Johnson, for God’s sake. Why do you not just go right away and get that guy into the band? Believe me, there are millions and millions of AC/DC fans, and the right fans that you want to be fans of your band, who would appreciate a move like that, and even recognize that guy from the stage, and welcome that guy into the band, because they would have at least a cursory knowledge of the history, and why he is now in AC/DC. That totally should have happened like that. It just floors me when these bands, with all the money in the world, just throw away their integrity. It’s the one thing that money can’t buy, or has very little to do with money. Some might say it might even be a greater display of integrity, getting an unknown in there. I actually hate when big bands with storied histories do that kind of thing. Especially in the front man role. You want that guy to be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the band, head held high. And I think a guy like Mark Storace can do that. Look, even though Krokus was never as big as AC/DC, they made a whole pile of really fine albums, and that guy could walk into that role, and say, you know, just generally speaking, we’ve lived the same lives, we’ve had the same experiences, we came up in the same era, I am exactly like you. That is what I would’ve wanted to see. And of course, even better, and just a beautiful, magical thing, would’ve been, sadly, if Dan McCafferty from Nazareth was available to do this job. Of course, he has health problems where he can’t sing, lung, pushing air problems, I forget what it’s called. But anyway, imagine if he would’ve been in there. He totally looks like one of the band, he’s Scottish, great voice, and again, as much life experience and worthiness to be the front man for AC/DC. How completely awesome would that be? But it’s funny, from a philosophical, believability of all those lyrics, point of view, Mark Storace is somewhat the better guy for the job, and dammit, he’s available!

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