Turn of the Century is the second song from Yes' Going For The One, released in 1977. It is an interesting and very lovely song, retelling the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (though with a twist). It's certainly one of the most emotionally powerful songs on the album, mainly due to Jon Anderson's angelic, contralto voice.

The song starts out with Steve Howe playing a short, sad figure in A minor on either a lute or acoustic 12-string guitar. This resolves to C major when Jon Anderson starts singing.

Realizing a form out of stone,
Set hands moving
Roan shaped his heart
Through his working hands
Work to mould his passion into clay,
Like the sun...

In the original myth, Pygmalion was a sculptor, one with great skill. However, he was also a misogynist, who deeply hated women and lived alone -- a bachelor for life. He created an ivory statue of a woman, so beautiful that no human woman could compare, but so realistic it almost couldn't be the work of a man. He eventually fell in love with his own creation, giving it fine jewels and clothing, and laying it on a bed of fine cloth and pillows. At the festival of Venus (or Aphrodite), Pygmalion made an offering at Her temple, begging for a woman "like" his statue, but in his heart wishing the statue itself would come to life. Venus granted his wish, and upon returning home, Pygmalion found the statue, Galatea, had come alive.

The story here is the Pygmalion and Galatea myth in reverse. Roan's Lady is already here, in the flesh, and yet he works to fashion her image in stone. I wonder whether he truly appreciates her at first; her nature is to dance and sing, but he tells her to be still, perhaps as a model -- more concerned with his own stone representation than the real person. As she dies, one can imagine his cry "don't deny me" as a plea to allow him to finish his work before she goes, as much as he despairs of losing the real woman. A more charitable interpretation is that perhaps he knows their time together is short, and he needs to create something tangible to serve as a reminder of her. Later, the nature of his feelings becomes more clear.

The second verse starts with Anderson singing clearly and strongly but backed by softer and more melancholy music, as if mimicing the resolve of someone passing through grief at the loss of a loved one. Roan has lost his lady, and he is clearly using his art to work through his grief. Roan becomes absorbed in his work, perfecting the statue of his lost love, much like Pygmalion set aside everything in his life to perfect his beautiful statue. He wonders if it might come to life, bringing his Lady back to him. Finally the verse reaches a crescendo, Jon Anderson's voice strengthening and reaching higher and higher. While the line "All aglow was his room" suggests magic was at work, I wonder whether Roan is merely in the grip of a happy fantasy....

Did her eyes at the turn of the century
Tell me plainly?
When we meet, how we'll love... oh let life,
So transform me!

The chorus above has the tempo of a dance. In it, Roan seems to be reminiscing more than living in the moment, again suggesting his Lady hasn't returned in physical form. The reference to autumn, coupled with the mention of winter in the verses above, suggests the song is about the impermanence of life and love here on this Earth, and the solace we take in memories of youth as we age. I think this is even tied in with the title of the song. A turn of the century is a human construct. It has no physical meaning, and yet at those times, humanity often pauses to reflect on what has happened before, as much as it speculates on the future. As such a turn of the century can be viewed from both sides. At the start of a new century, there is a feeling of hope and promise, like two lovers just beginning a new relationship. At the end of a century, we look back on what was, viewing it as an ending of what has gone before.

The chorus is then followed by an instrumental section in E minor, led in turns by Wakeman on the grand piano and Howe on the electric guitar. This crescendos into the final verse and chorus, practically glowing with sound, now in E major:

Was the sign of the day, with a touch
As I kiss your fingers
We walk hands in the sun
Memories -- when we're young, love lingers so...

Like leaves we touch, we see
We will know the story.
As autumn calls we'll both remember
All those many years ago.

The song ends as it began, with Howe playing a solo figure.

In a way, the song weaves in bits of the Orpheus and Eurydice story as well as the Pygmalion myth. Orpheus was a musician (an artist of a different sort) who loses his beloved to illness -- in his case, the bite of a viper. Orpheus descends into Hades to bring home his wife, and the beauty of his music convinced the gods to grant him his wish. But he was warned not to look back before he and Eurydice both exit the gates of the underworld. Alas, he looks back before Eurydice exits, and she dies a second time, lost to her husband forever.

In the song, we have elements of the same thing. Roan loses his wife to illness. He crafts her image out of stone, hoping (perhaps consciously, perhaps not) the stone will be brought to life, and his beloved returned. The literal meaning of Anderson's lyrics are (as always) not entirely clear. He gives us the image of Roan dancing in light with his wife, though one is uncertain whether Roan is taking solace in memory, or whether stone has truly been made flesh. In either case, the song certainly has a happier ending than the Orpheus myth, as Roan is either truly reunited with his wife, or at least rejoicing in the time they had together.

I was reading though the Yes mailing list archives, and one post suggested Jon Anderson and Steve Howe were inspired to write the song by Jean-Léon Gérôme's painting Pygmalion and Galatea, showing a sculptor embracing a marble statue of a nude woman brought to life. Both the original myth and the painting end with the statue changed into the human Galatea, but as I think about Anderson's lyrics more, I suspect the reunion of Roan and his Lady is a purely spiritual one rather than a physical one, and that Roan's hopes, in this life at least, go unfulfilled.

There are precious few things in this world capable of making me go misty, but I can say that I've completely lost it listening to this song more times than I can remember. There's something about the quality of Jon Anderson's voice on this, coupled with lyrics that are alternately melancholy and ecstatic that can easily push me over the edge. Perhaps it's a bit maudlin, but there you go.


Going for the One (Atlantic CD 19106-2) was released in 1977, just as punk rock was making "progressive" such a dirty word. The album, and this song in particular, are one of the most beautiful things to come out of the 1970's. Of all the music Yes put out in that decade, this is probably the most approachable, even more so than The Yes Album and Fragile. The other songs on the album are more straightforward rock songs, though Turn of the Century doesn't seem out of place at all. (Rhino Records released a remastered edition of Going For the One on August 26, 2003, which will also contain several bonus tracks from the YesYears boxed set. If you don't have a copy of this on CD, I'd recommend picking up the reissue.)

The song was composed by Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, and Alan White, and is published by Topographic Music, copyright 1977. Some background on Yes taken from http://www.nfte.org. Mythological information not dredged from foggy memory was taken from the Gutenberg etext of Thomas Bulfinch's Bulfinch's Mythology, The Age of Fable.


Note: this writeup uses only selected lines of the song lyrics, in keeping with the principle of fair use. The complete lyrics may be found in full on Yes' compact disc Going For The One, in the songbook "Yes Complete: Deluxe Edition" (Warner publishing), and at the band-authorized website http://www.nfte.org.

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