Now that Rush is rightly in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it seems safe to suggest that Yes officially assumes the heavyweight crown as the most unfairly maligned band, ever.
Caveat number one. If they would (or, could) have remained broken up after 90215, they might get a fairer shake. Then again, perhaps not. Their legacy, amongst aficionados and haters, rests largely on the body of work they made during their prime: the ‘70s. As such, Yes represents many things to many people when it comes to rock music in general and progressive rock in particular.
Yes epitomizes prog-rock, which of course means they can be, depending upon one’s point of view, the pinnacle or nadir of a type of music made, mostly in the early ‘70s. Like Rush, the individuals in this band, pound for pound and instrument for instrument, are as capable and talented as any that have played popular music.
One thing that cannot be denied, at least with any credibility: the albums Yes put out between January 1971 and September 1972 (!) represent one of the great tri-fectas in rock history. Individually, each album is a tremendous achievement; taken as a trio, they signify a band fully honing a uniquely powerful chemistry that remains inspiring and influential.
Sidenote: rather than enter the fray of whether or not Tales from Topographic Oceans is an indulgent flop or the very apex of prog-rock, I’ll opine that all of their subsequent work—with the notable exception of Going for the One—is mixed and, at times, maddening, equal parts impenetrable and opaque.
Caveat number two. The lyrics. Just as certain listeners can never get past Geddy Lee’s voice, it’s impossible to overlook the banal, nonsensical and occasionally outright silly words in so many of the songs (Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, anyone?). There are, in rock of course and prog-rock for sure, plenty of pretentious wordsmiths, but song-for-song, album-for-album, no band comes close to how consistently sophomoric—and that might be generous—Yes’s lyrics often are. In a way, they elevate ardent yet inane poetry to a level of real art.
Here’s the thing: listening to Yes is not unlike listening to opera; the words are, or may as well be, in a different language. It’s all about the sounds. That voice, those instruments, that compositional prowess. The music Yes made on these three albums approaches a level of euphoria not many bands have been able to approximate. As much as the individual musicians, all of whom make indelible contributions, Jon Anderson’s voice functions as another instrument, perhaps the most crucial one. The sweet schizophrenia of his multi-tracked exultations render complaints about the lyrics largely irrelevant.
When Yes entered the studio to being work on The Yes Album, two important factors influenced its eventual success. First, they’d made two previous albums, interesting but uneven efforts that allowed them to figure out where they wanted to go.
Second, guitarist Peter Banks was replaced by Steve Howe, who proved to be the missing ingredient. Going forward, he was the indispensable visionary who helped the group get to that elusive next level. Steve Howe is, like Robert Fripp, a thinking man’s guitar hero. His solos are often like algebra equations, full of emotion. His mastery of the instrument colors almost every second of every song from Yes’s most fruitful era.
Most people know The Yes Album thanks to “I’ve Seen All Good People”, one of the ubiquitous staples of any classic rock radio station. As usual, Anderson is on point in all his multi-tracked glory; on this, like virtually any Yes song, his range and ability are astonishing. Featuring recorders, organ and a Laúd (look it up), this song captures that Medieval vibe so many bands were tapping into circa 1971 (at least until the plugged-in, handclapped outro).
An ostensibly minor song, “A Venture” provides a platform for Tony Kaye, who ably demonstrates his keyboard skills (organ and piano). “The Clap”, recorded live, is a solo showcase for Howe, who leaves no doubts about his acoustic playing virtuosity.
Of course, this album is best known, especially amongst fans, for its three mini-epics. Album opener “Yours Is No Disgrace” is prog-rock being shot from a cannon, on fire from the first second to the final, echoed note. One thing the best progressive rock bands (like Rush and the various iterations of King Crimson) have in common is remarkable rhythm sections. Bill Bruford (drums) and Chris Squire (bass) represent possibly the most potent combination rock has ever heard.
It’s players like this that best illustrate what The Beatles helped begin, carrying it to another height: the bass and drums are not keeping time; they are making time, inserting themselves forcefully, logically, into the fray. The interplay Squire and Bruford display on this, and the next two albums, remains a benchmark for any band.
A few more words about Steve Howe. You can hear the sounds guitar players as disparate as Alex Lifeson and Ace Frehley were emulating (and imitating) throughout these proceedings.
Of special note is the two minute clinic Howe performs beginning at the 4:47 mark of “Yours Is No Disgrace”: a blitzkrieg assault (with beautiful bombs being dropped everywhere by Bruford) gives way to a succinct acoustic interlude, which segues into some Hendrixian phasing and finally, a tasty jazz-like solo that is short as it is sweet. It’s exhilarating and instructive; a range of so many sounds guitars are capable of making, the way no one else had ever made them, all in one song. On the barn-burning finalé “Perpetual Change” Howe contents himself with “merely” playing a scorching, straightforward rocker.
Special mention, of course, for “Starship Trooper”. One of the great things about live music is the opportunity to see art unfold in real time. The element of surprise and awareness that what’s happening can never be recreated the same way before the same people in the same place makes it a unique experience.
One of the great things about recorded music is that it can be savored any time: a perfect series of connected moments that will, of course, affect the listener in different ways depending on mood or circumstance. This is how certain, favorite music becomes familiar, and part of one’s life.
With a song like “Starship Trooper” we have art that always feels fresh and revelatory, it remains (like so many other prog-rock masterpieces) emblematic of the year it was made, yet still seems ahead of its time; ahead of any time. Put another way, this song alone could—and maybe should—put Steve Howe on the Mt. Rushmore of rock guitarists.
The big change for the follow-up, Fragile was the recruitment of keyboard prodigy Rick Wakeman. As commendable as Kaye’s efforts are throughout The Yes Album, his playing often provides embellishment; Wakeman is a presence, not unlike Keith Emerson. Now Yes had a veritable genius on each instrument and were fully prepared to make their best work.
Caveat number three. Fragile, though perhaps Yes’s best-loved or at least most popular album (in large part due to the FM-friendly classic “Roundabout”), is not a perfect album. The band get their indulgence on with the featured “solo” tracks, none of which (excepting Howe’s acoustic gem “Mood for a Day”) is especially memorable. “Cans and Brahms” (Wakeman, having fun with Johannes Brahms), “We Have Heaven” (if there was ever too much of a good thing with Anderson, it might be this one), “Five Per Cent for Nothing” (a throwaway by Bruford) and “The Fish” (an excellent coda to “Long Distance Runaround”) serve as digestifs in between the heavy hitters.
If “Roundabout” functions as a seminal prog-rock touchstone, it’s the other extended tracks that make Fragile far greater than the sum of its parts. Closing out side one, “South Side of the Sky” reveals the ways Yes benefited from Wakeman’s presence: his organ manages to invoke the extremes of warmth and cold described in the lyrics; but it’s the piano solo that serves as the centerpiece (of the song; possibly of his career). The blend of instruments and voices during this middle section epitomizes the aforementioned musical ecstasy: was any band ever this confident, this capable?
Album closer “Heart of the Sunrise”, aside from boasting some of Wakeman, Bruford and Squire’s most spirited support, features one of Anderson’s signature vocal workouts. He is so naturally gifted and expressive you feel like he could phone it in and still be better than most other singers; on this song there is no question he means it, and every word is invested with passion and purpose. The band made longer, more intricate and segue-laden songs, but few—if any—of them pack the emotion and intensity: there is so much going on here, all of it compelling and ingenious, it still manages to delight, even surprise, four decades on.
Yet, even the high points of Fragile might be seen as setting the table for their tour de force; the previous two efforts a trial run for the perfection of Close to the Edge, arguably theprog-rock album for all time. Featuring the first, and by far the best, of their side-long suites, the title track of Close to the Edge is, in this writer’s opinion, as good as progressive music ever got.
This song (and aside from the fact you can either add or subtract points for the fact that the lyrics are inspired by Hesse’sSiddhartha) really does go places no other band has gone; or rather, it’s the gold standard that has never been surpassed. Every aspect of its execution is virtually flawless, from the slow-burning buildup, to the crashing intensity of the first several minutes (Steve Howe doing the musical equivalent of the first round from the epic Hagler/Hearns fight), to the operatic (yes, I said it) majesty of the middle section (“I get up, I get down”), to the effulgent conclusion, bringing the end right back to the beginning before fading out.
“Siberian Khatru” (your guess is as good as mine) is another “mini” epic that practically turns into a pas de deux between Howe and Anderson, the latter thrusting and parrying the former’s increasingly intense and complex guitar peregrinations. Likewise, “And You and I”, while featuring critical interaction amongst the others, serves as the ultimate vehicle for Anderson and Howe, the yin and yang of Yes.
It might be suggested that neither sounds better, more purposeful, and more locked-in than they do on this number. Throughout the proceedings there are no pauses, wasted moments or miscues: everyone assembled works in service of the songs, resulting in a unified, utterly convincing proclamation, a truly joyful noise.
Try as they might, Yes was never this consistently great again (though, as indicated, Going for the One offers none of the difficulties presented by Tales from Topographic Oceans or Relayer). In addition to being one of the pivotal bands of the early ‘70s, Yes perfected prog-rock as a kind of performance art in sound, and it never got better than this: a fully realized distillation of emotion and energy as only Yes could do it.
There’s something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where cynicism and scheming are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.
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