In all honesty, I actually burned out on this band a long time ago. But when I was into them, it was a joy to listen to them perform. Having learned to (barely) play guitar in my forties, I think I’m one of six people in the world born since 1945 who have not been a member of Yes. They make Spinal Tap’s line-up look stable.
Yes was the original trippy band, more out there than Pink Floyd, more psychedelic than The Beatles, and more wildly swinging in styles than King Crimson (another band I suspect my nephew and my stepson will join for five minutes at various points in the future), Yes wasn’t just a band. They were an experience.
Originally, they were just another late sixties British psychedelic band. Built around guitarist Peter Banks, they had some interesting sounds. And it wasn’t hard to see they would do interesting things. Bill Bruford, who makes up time signatures for fun, was the drummer, and Jon Anderson fronted the band with this delicate, high-pitched voice. Sometimes, when hearing a Yes song I’d never heard before, I thought it was a woman. But the core of Yes’s sound in most of its incarnations was and is the bass of Chris Squire, who does things with the bass guitar that puzzle even aliens. Like John Entwistle in The Who, Squire isn’t playing bass. He’s playing lead guitar.
What made the band catch fire critically, commericially, and creatively was the addition of Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman. Howe was a finger-picking phenom who could do subtly what Jimi Hendrix did thunderously on the guitar. You had to write more complex music just to keep up with him. And that’s where Wakeman comes into the picture. Wakeman has been the band’s on-again, off-again keyboardist since 1973, off mainly because he had three heart attacks before the age of thirty. Hard living will do that to you.
Yes has three signature albums, one of which will prompt howls of agony from fans of the classic line-up. The first, of course, is actually a pair: Fragile and Close to the Edge. Fragile features their most famous song, “Roundabout,” a showcase of all four instrumentalists’ talents and Jon Anderson’s mushroom-induced lyrics. (“In and around the lake, mountains come out of the sky, and they stand there.”) Fragile was a more commercial album, if it could be called that, the songs being about 4-6 minutes in length and marred only by the annoying interlude of “We Have Heaven.” Fragile was recorded to finance Yes’s true goal, Close to the Edge, my favorite Yes album and several members’ as well. The title track is the template for progressive rock: Twenty minutes long, laced with jazz and classical structures between improvisational passages, and psychedelic as hell. On this one, Yes got the melding of rock and classical better than some heavy metalists’ ham-handed attempts. (Are you taking notes, Ritchie Blackmore?) Between the tight, almost choral harmonies and guitar acrobatics by Howe, these two albums would be the blueprint for all future lineups and albums.
The second is the more aggressive sound Yes was later known for. Squire and drummer Alan White reformed Yes with Anderson, original keyboardist Tony Kaye, and guitarist Trevor Rabin to record 90125, produced by former vocalist Trevor Horn (More on him in a minute). With Rabin and Squire doing most of the songwriting and half the vocals, the band had a harder sound for the 80’s. Progressive what? Rabin was no Steve Howe, which made him the perfect replacement. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was a blending of dance music, hard rock, and Anderson’s flights of fancy, all with Squire’s bass ignoring the rhythm section to weave with Rabin. “Leave It,” the source of a famous MTV April Fool’s Day prank, is Yes being Yes, just different.
But sometime after Close to the Edge and before 90125 came Drama. And this is the album many Yes fans get upset about. For, they say, it is not Yes. It is The Buggles with Howe, Squire, and White playing behind them. Well, sort of. It’s actually a better Asia album than Asia ever recorded. I actually like this better than most Yes albums because it’s different. The fans of the classic Anderson/Wakeman/Bruford(or White)/Howe/Squire line-up despise it. Except for “Machine Messiah,” the songs are not long at all. They’re too aggressive. They’re played in simple time signatures, for God’s sake! And how can it be Yes without Jon Anderson?
Well, it is. Trevor Horn, the lead singer and bassist for The Buggles replaces Anderson and brings along keyboardist Geoff Downes after Anderson and Wakeman left in a huff. I really do like the oddly short “Man in a White Car,” the rocking “Does It Really Happen?,” the sentimental (and surprisingly like classic Yes) “Into the Lens.” What’s a little jarring is “Tempus Fugit,” which is Squire masturbating on his bass. Oh, it sounds great. I just never could get used to the band singing “Yes, yes” in the bridge. It’s still a great album, and the current line-up, which includes Downes and is produced by Horn, performs songs off this one along with the classic lineups’ work.
As I said, I actually burned out on these guys a while back, partly because I used to have to have a band’s entire catalog. Few bands are worth it: Garbage, the Rolling Stones, the Foo Fighters, Tom Waits. But I was young, stubborn, and naive. I bought them all up through The Keys to Ascension, which I hated. The problem was that they did great work from their debut to Close to the Edge, then probably should have skipped the next two albums, doing Going for the One. Tormato is forty minutes of my life I’ll never get back. Anderson Wakeman Bruford and Howe, the renegade lineup with Tony Levin on bass (since only Tony Levin or John Entwistle could replace Squire), was clunky, as was the merged Yesses on Union. Pretty much everything after 1987’s Big Generator is… Well…
Did I mention I like Close to the Edge, Drama, and 90125?
Still, it took a while for me to get all the albums, most of which have disappeared over the years. But discovering them even at their worst was one helluva ride.