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Yes are a rock band with a strange and interesting history. Back in the 1970s, they were among the most popular, best-loved and biggest-selling bands on the planet. In 1976, they packed out the JFK stadium with over 110,000 enthusiastic fans, just about the largest concert attendance ever at that time.
Today they enjoy only limited media exposure; you will seldom hear them on radio or see them discussed by critics and few under-20s will now even have heard of them. And yet, many teenagers of 2003 are found to be open and willing to listen to this band. Given the opportunity, they hear the music with fresh ears and are amazed at it; indeed they are frequently incredulous at Yes's lack of presence on the music scene.
So what accounts for today's lack of market profile?
First, they have never been mainstream pop or dance - nor are they a 'singles' band. This is album music to be listened to and enjoyed for its own sake. And like all good music, it needs more than one hearing to be fully appreciated. Those who give it time will be richly rewarded.
Also, they are not natural 'celebrities'. These are professional musicians first and seldom attract publicity for their own actions. They are not 'hotel wreckers'.
A brief fall in their fortunes, back in the late 1970s, was due to the advent of punk, with its emphasis on simple, direct music and blunt aggression. The music press naturally jumped on the bandwagon and anything that didn't fit in with the New Wave was peremptorily 'dropped' overnight. The trend then was towards three-chord songs, with keyboards used less often. At that time Yes were probably the best-known exponents of more involved and interesting musical forms. Some of their output certainly approaches classical music in grandeur, scale, invention and sheer musical ability. Their lyrics are positive, poetic, full of hope. In contrast, the punk movement embraced street language, anger and often a sense of despair.
This hurdle overcome, they later rose to the top again, briefly, with their massive 90125 album and the single 'Owner of a Lonely Heart'. Unfortunately, subsequent line-up changes and managerial difficulties resulted in a couple of weaker albums and, again, a loss of market profile.
These days it is difficult to say how popular Yes are, without access to their global sales figures. There is certainly a massive global following. At the time of writing, Yes are still together, still working hard and playing to packed houses around the world; their fans are loyal. The latest albums The Ladder and Magnification (2001) are real quality, full of vibrant, fresh material.
A Brief History
The band formed around 1968, with the meeting of Jon Anderson (vocals) and Chris Squire (bass). The first line-up included Peter Banks (guitar), Tony Kaye (keyboard) and Bill Bruford (drums).
The first two albums were Yes and Time and a Word. These are interesting collectors items for the established fan, but are certainly products of their era and sound a little dated now. Later albums have a timeless quality.
Two significant changes then occurred: firstly, the arrival of a new producer, Eddie Offord. He was to remain with the band for several years and would bring great continuity and invention to their sound. The second change was the departure of Banks and arrival of Steve Howe on guitar. Howe was to become the most widely respected rock guitarist of his time. Unlike other contenders, such as Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Howe was happy to move outside blues and rock scales into classical and jazz modes.
The 'Classic' Period
There was a certain amount of record company pressure for the next album to be successful; it was make-or-break time for the band. The Yes Album turned out to be a masterpiece - the breakthrough had come. It contained six tracks, five of which are still played regularly on tours, and it became almost a one-record greatest hits collection.
Keyboards on the next album, Fragile, were taken over by Rick Wakeman. Quite apart from his general flamboyance (and golden cape) he brought even more musicality to the band, with his classical training and rock experience. He was a pioneer of synthesizer technology, always at the forefront of developments1. To achieve the sounds he wanted, he would tour with banks of keyboards that he played simultaneously. He also brought his own playful sense of humour to the shows.
Jon Anderson has always been a dynamic and strong leader for the group in terms of musical direction. Lyrically, he began to explore more mystical and spiritual themes, creating word-pictures with sometimes profound imagery: a new language that he brought to a huge public. Yes were extremely popular at this time - their concerts invariably sold out.
The fifth album, Close to the Edge, was a truly massive hit worldwide. It established the group as leaders in their art, with an inspired title track. This was 18 minutes long, a fact in itself challenging for many who wanted to categorise Yes as a pop/rock group. It featured four sections, the first a wonderfully crafted rock/jazz intro, leading into powerful melodies, a beautifully harmonised third 'slow' movement and a final climactic return to the 'Close to the Edge' theme, with truly spine-tingling effect.
All this was guaranteed to win many, many fans, but also baffle others who were more addicted to the three-minute pop song and the epidemic of soul/disco sweeping the world at that time.
Bill Bruford was replaced by Alan White, a former drummer for John Lennon, bringing a more rocky, less jazzy approach to the instrument.
Tales from Topographic Oceans was the sixth album, a double, and it went to No 1 in the album charts despite marketing and release difficulties. This was probably their most challenging album: four pieces in excess of 20 minute each, featuring various musical styles. By now though, the band had their own distinctive sound and this was unlike anything else on the market. It alienated some critics, who considered it a step too far outside their strict categories of 'rock 'n' roll', disco, etc. With hindsight, the band were steering their own course and it was brave and original. Those who gave the album a fair hearing are generally still passionate about it to this day, but it needed listening to, just as a Sibelius symphony does: it makes demands of the listener, but the reward is great.
Album number seven was Relayer. This was what many consider to be their greatest-ever recording. It beautifully tackles the great themes of war, peace, love and hate. Again, like much that is profound, it needs more than one listening to appreciate its genius. Patrick Moraz replaced Wakeman on keyboards for this one album and brought a fast playing jazz-fusion feel to the overall rock sound. Yes were riding high and it was 1976, the year of their great stadium concerts.
The Punk Era
The 'New Wave' hit hard in 1977, but the next album, the superb Going for the One, flew in the face of the movement and confounded the critics. It reached No 1 in the album charts. However, Yes had officially become the 'Old Wave' and the music press began systematically to write them off; or rather not write about them at all. The tragedy of this was not that it badly affected the band, but that future audiences were denied even the opportunity to hear about Yes, other than by word of mouth.
The band were shaken and probably hurt by the wave of criticism, and the ninth album, Tormato, sounded musically changed, unsure of itself. The final mixdown sounded surprisingly hurried and even the album sleeve betrayed a lack of self-belief within the band, the planned cover-photo splattered in tomatoes. Be that as it may, the record still contained some great ideas and was followed by a hugely successful and innovative tour 'in the round' ie, on a revolving stage.
At some point during this 1978 tour, Anderson and Wakeman decided to call it a day. Things were just not gelling within the band. Controversially, they were replaced by former Buggles members, Trevor Horn (vocals) and Geoff Downes (keyboards). This appeared strange at the time, as Buggles had presented a distinctly 'pop' sound - it seemed that neither Yes fans nor Buggles fans were happy with the new plans.
However, the next album, Drama, put paid to many of their fears. This was tight, clever music. The keyboards were solidly played, without a foreground presence, but certainly held their own. The vocals were performed satisfactorily and suited the songs. However, it was a different sound, and the loss of Anderson meant the loss of some ethereal, enigmatic quality - spirituality, if you will. It was the difference between a mountain-top experience, and simply a hike over a mountain. Oddly enough though, these feelings perfectly suited the material; 'Machine Messiah', for instance, seemed to speak of a mechanistic, soulless universe. Drama remains a popular album because the band were true to themselves, and the material has freshness after the change in personnel.
The subsequent tour was successful but proved difficult for Trevor Horn, as his voice was severely challenged by the older material. After the tour, the band split; apparently Yes had finished.
Wakeman undertook various solo projects, Howe formed Asia and Trevor Horn now settled into his future successful role as producer. Jon Anderson meanwhile, teamed up with Greek synthesizer wizard, Vangelis, and enjoyed great success (and hit singles) as Jon and Vangelis.
Squire, White, former keyboard man Tony Kaye, and South African guitarist Trevor Rabin teamed up to form a proposed new band, Cinema. However, with much of an album already recorded, Jon Anderson rejoined and the band was happily reborn as Yes.
The new album 90125 was a tremendous resurgence for the band, with its No 1 single 'Owner of a Lonely Heart'. The instrumental track 'Cinema' won the 'Best Rock Instrumental Performance' Grammy Award in 1984. However, they were quite a different band from earlier days. Rabin's influence was a strong one and the band would sometimes rely on power chords rather than the subtle imaginations of Steve Howe. They became a harder, louder version of Yes, with a very 'produced' sound. Rabin also sang vocals and this territory became vaguer: who was the singer? The great thing about Rabin, though, was his energy and drive. It was he who kept the band in existence and present fans have him to thank for this.
The 90125 album had won many new fans. Unfortunately the next album, Big Generator, was less well received. It seemed that Rabin was completely in charge at this point and his agenda was harder, driving rock without the beauty or grace of earlier albums. Nevertheless, there are many who prefer this period of the group's development, and many who 'discovered' the band at this time. It should also be said that a 'weak' album by Yes' standards is still a good deal more ambitious and interesting than most other bands could ever lay claim to: their sheer musical proficiency almost guarantees this.
Yes again split after the Big Generator promotional tour in mid-1988. There was a dispute about ownership of the name and the members settled into two camps.
ABWH (Anderson-Bruford-Wakeman-Howe) released an album and toured, while Rabin, Squire, Kaye and White continued, rather unproductively, as Yes. Eventually, some of the arguments calmed down and it was decided to unite the two factions to record a new album, appropriately named Union. The subsequent tour was one of their most successful ever, although the album itself was recorded under conditions of rancour, disputation and pressure. It is of variable quality, though there are wonderful moments. It must have been difficult pulling together two drummers, two keyboard players, two guitarists!
The union was temporary and they looked like fragmenting again. Label changes and management quarrels seemed to conspire against the music, but once more Rabin was inspirational in moving the band forward to the next project: Talk, the fourteenth studio album.
Talk was largely produced by Rabin, but unlike the previous two albums the effect here was magnificent. The line-up of Anderson, Squire, Kaye, Rabin and White seemed finally to be pulling in a unified direction. The title itself indicated a new level of togetherness and communication. The album's sales were comparatively weak, but it was still a real achievement.
After the tour, however, Rabin now left to pursue other projects, including film music. There was now a hiatus, as the members collectively drew breath. This period was punctuated by various concerts around the world.
Keys to the Future
The next significant development was a concert at San Luis Obispo, California in 1996, which resulted in a return to the 'classic' line-up of Anderson, Squire, Howe, Wakeman and White. Two albums of new and live material, Keys to Ascension 1 + 2 followed, to rapturous acclaim from many long-time fans. The new material was brimming with confidence, ideas and imagination. Yes were back! (Eventually, the new material from the Keys albums was collected on one studio album, Keystudio.)
Unbelievably after this, Wakeman drifted away from the band again. Chris Squire was working with a guitarist/producer, Billy Sherwood, who was brought into the band, along with a young Russian keyboard player, Igor Khoroshev.
The next album Open Your Eyes (1997) was again a confident-sounding record although the overall sound lacked some clarity. It was a guitar-based album with keyboards taking a backseat. The material on this album is surprisingly varied; at times simple, at times complicated, but always permeated powerfully by Anderson/Squire's vision and optimism.
Yes's commitment to touring remained as constant as ever, with another series of concerts.
Onward and Upward
The Ladder was next (1999). Khoroshev on keyboards really came into his own here, wowing Yes fans with his ability and creativity. The Ladder was in some ways a return to the magic of those 1970s albums, but without in any sense being a retrograde step. Terrifically uplifting and positive, with great melodies and arrangements, they were really sounding like masters of their instruments and of their own lives. It was as though they had finally begun to understand just how much they were really loved around the world.
The title track (sub-titled 'Homeworld') was used on the computer game of that name, and probably brought many new, young fans into the Yes family. The Ladder could undoubtedly have been marketed to even greater effect: this Researcher has introduced many young people to Yes's music by lending them this record.
Their most recent release Magnification is a marvellous album, released in 2001. Undertaken without any keyboard player (after the departures of Sherwood and Khoroshev), the band decided to replace the keyboards by an orchestra. Many fans were rightly suspicious of this plan, wary of the 'classics play rock' scenario, but they need not have worried. The orchestra was scored by Larry Groupe, a skilled orchestrator and a long-time Yes fan. He wrote sympathetically to the songs and helped produce a record that was a true masterpiece.
Many artists have used the events of 11 September, 2001 as inspiration for new work. Magnification was different. It was finished just before those tragedies unfolded. Miraculously, it seems to capture the feeling of that time perfectly. It points towards healing and renewal through commitment to love.
The triumphant European and American tours which followed have featured some of the greatest (and happiest) concert performances in Yes's career. Rick Wakeman has finally rejoined, and the classic line-up continues to perform with energy and virtuosity at every show. A 'Full Circle' tour commences in 2003 to include Australia, Japan, North America and Europe.
(R) = Recommended for new listeners
- Yes (1969)
- Time and a Word (1970)
- The Yes Album (R) (1971)
- Fragile (R) (1971)
- Close to the Edge (R) (1972)
- Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973)
- Relayer (R) (1974)
- Going for the One (R) (1977)
- Tormato (1978)
- Drama (1980)
- 90125 (R) (1983)
- Big Generator (1987)
- Union (1991)
- Talk (R) (1994)
- Keys to Ascension 1 (1996)
- Keys to Ascension 2 (1997)
- Open Your Eyes (1997)
- The Ladder (R) (1999)
- Keystudio (2001)
- Magnification (R) (2001)
- Yessongs (1973)
- Yes Shows (1980)
- 9012Live (1985)
- Keys albums (1996 - 1997)
- Live from the House of Blues (2000)
- Classic Yes
- Yes Years
- Yes Story
- Something's coming / Beyond and Before
- Best of Yes
- In a Word
- The Ultimate Yes: 35th Anniversary Collection