Between A Rock And A Prog Place: TREVOR RABIN Discusses “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” on Its 40th Anniversary – "So, I Am Sitting On The Toilet Playing That Riff…"
December 1, 2023, 2 months ago
What truly is progressive music? Each month BraveWords will aim to dissect that answer with a thorough overview of the current musical climate that is the prog world. Old and new, borrowed and blue. A musical community without borders. So watch for a steady and spaced-out array of features, current news and a buyer's guide checklist to enhance the forward-thinking musical mind. So, welcome to BraveWords' monthly column appropriately titled, Between A Rock In A Prog Place.
In this month's column, we speak to former Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin (who recently issued his first solo album with vocals in nearly three-and-a-half decades, Rio) about his memories of the creation of Yes' sole #1 hit, 'Owner of a Lonely Heart,' as 2023 marks 40 years since its release.
What do you recall about the writing and recording of “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”?
"I had a room where we were living in London and the bathroom had great acoustics. And I just wrote [sings guitar riff]. So, I am sitting on the toilet playing that riff, and I remember thinking, 'Wow. This is really, really cool…or it's nothing.' It's four notes – a power chord and notes. What does it really mean? And then the next day I was on the toilet again and I played it, and I thought, 'This has got something.' And then I wrote the chorus – 'Owner of a lonely heart.' And that was done from almost within two days of starting to play the riff. And then I realized I kind of stumbled onto this riff I wrote – which I think is going to be pretty cool. And that led to me getting a deal with David Geffen – who six months later, dropped me because I saw what I was doing being different to him. And I sent tapes out. I remember getting a response from another record company, RCA, and Ron Fair was the A&R guy. He called me and said, 'This song is a #1 hit.' That's the first person who ever said that to me – until it was a #1 hit. But he was the first guy who recognized it."
"As far as the writing of it, I always wanted it to have shock value and weird things going on. And that was inspired by the fact that when I did the demo, it was done on a four-track TEAC. So, you have to bounce [tracks]. And when you bounce, maybe there are going to be things which ultimately are not mixed very well. So, there were a lot of those [makes noise] things that were mixed too loud. And when it came to doing the record, I thought, 'I want to do exactly the same thing as there. I want to have this 'shock stuff' going on. So, I think the record turned out pretty much the way I felt it should be.
"And Chris [Squire] had written this kind of Motown bass. We were jamming on that kind of Motown part, and he came up with this bass riff. That worked into it really well. It always stuck though – the chorus was never something that was screwed with much. And then I re-wrote the verse just before Jon [Anderson] sang it."
Did you write all the lyrics, or was it a collaboration?
"All the choruses are exactly the same as I wrote it. And the verse, Jon wrote some, I wrote some, and then in that kind of Motown-y bit, I think Jon wrote all those lyrics."
What did producer Trevor Horn bring to that song?
"He was a great kind of coach in the studio – once he had his joint at 6pm, he became pretty focused. He was good with that. He was also great with…there was a song, 'Our Song,' which we had rehearsed for a long time, and it still sounded fresh once it was mixed. So, he was good for the band."
What do you recall about the song's video?
"The guys who did the video were well-known guys for album covers [Hipgnosis' Storm Thorgerson]. And they were recommended pretty highly to do this video. To be honest, I don't think any of us really understood when we were talking through what was going to be done, it seemed a bit complex and almost vague at the same time. Just to be completely honest, when I finally looked and watched it, I thought, 'I don't understand what it's got to do with the song.' But I guess I was proved to be wrong – because apparently, the song did well on MTV. And that was a key issue for stuff in those days. But I think the song is what made it big – not the video. I don't think the video really helped much."
Were you surprised that the song was such a big hit?
"I crossed my mind back to Ron Fair and I thought, 'Wow. You're a good A&R guy.' Because he wasn't saying, 'I think this could be.' He was categoric about it. And he went on to do Black Eyed Peas as a producer. I've always had a lot of respect for him – and sticking out his neck and saying that. Because I'd sent the song to a lot of record companies. Arista said, 'The song is too left field. We feel your voice has appeal, but the song is too left field. You have to write something a little more normal.' So, Ron made me feel pretty strong about the song. You never know – especially if you're the writer. You can never tell."
What did you think of the Max Graham vs. Yes version from 2005?
"It was kind of interesting. I didn't think it was an important thing. I think his whole persona was what was important. There's been so many requests to do the song in different ways – we did the 12-inch version, and I wasn't particularly much into that. I'd much prefer just leaving it as the song was."
Listening to the song today, what are your thoughts about it?
"You can tell it's an older song from a time gone by. I think it could be remixed today to sound a little more current, but it does still stand out. Every now and then it's on the radio, and it still sounds kind of fresh."
BETWEEN A ROCK AND A PROG PLACE NEWS BLAST
Dream Theater recently announced that their original drummer, Mike Portnoy, will be rejoining the band (replacing Mike Mangini) – and that they will soon be returning to the recording studio to begin work on what will be their 16th studio effort overall, and first with Portnoy since 2009’s Black Clouds & Silver Linings. Another veteran prog metal band, Queensrÿche, announced The Origins Tour, which will see them perform both their self-titled EP and full-length debut The Warning in their entirety for the first time ever (a complete listing of the spring 2024 dates can be viewed here).
It's not often that a band is described as a "progressive psych doom/stoner quartet," but that is indeed a fitting description for Poland's Tortuga, as evidenced by their new LP, Iterations, and the single/video “Epitaph,” which is viewable below. Symphonic metallists Therion will be issuing the final album of their Levithan trilogy, entitled Levithan III, this month – and is indeed available for ordering).
Prog veteran Steve Hackett will be returning on February 16, 2024 with a new concept album entitled The Circus and the Nightwhale, as well as additional Foxtrot at Fifty shows in the US from March-April (here's the list of dates). Hackett's former bandmate in Genesis, Phil Collins, will be the subject of an auction on December 6, 2023 (although online bidding begins on November 24) – including such treats as his personal Yamaha piano and Wurlitzer jukebox – via kodner.com.
Swedish proggers Moon Safari recently shared the first single, “Between The Devil & Me” (from their long-awaited album Himlabacken Vol. 2), which you can feast your eyes on below. And lastly, Neal Morse announced that his latest album, The Restoration- Joseph: Part Two, will be released on January 12, 2024…but don't fret, a pre-order is already in place.
December 2023 New Albums
Peter Gabriel- I/O
Trevor Horn- Echoes: Ancient & Modern
Moon Safari- Himlabacken Vol. 2
Pink Floyd- Atom Heart Mother (expanded)
Porcupine Tree- Closure/Continuation.Live
Pallas- The Messenger
Therion- Leviathan III
Although the 'Trevor Rabin era' of Yes is thought of primarily as a period in which they became surprise MTV darlings – thanks to such hits as the aforementioned “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” plus “Leave It” and “Love Will Find A Way” – the group did not turn their back entirely on their prog past. Case in point, still performing such classics as 'Starship Trooper' on the tour in support of their 3x platinum album, 90125.