I’d like to start this new version of the Distal Muse with a few words on the band that has been the center of my musical aesthetic for over 35 years.
How do you explain the connection made between audience and artist that is instant and somehow never fades? I don’t know. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to magic (with the single exception of falling in love…but, I suppose, they are related experiences).
I’ve been listening to YES since I was fifteen, maybe sixteen. It’s difficult to remember exactly now. It was shortly after I got my first stereo. I remember that stereo. A Panasonic combination receiver/turntable. The turntable rose up out of the body when you flipped the lid up. It was not, in my estimation, a bad turntable and I later fitted the tone arm with a cartridge and needle way better than the rest of the unit. I bought a pair of Radio Shack speakers which, quite fortuitously, were the perfect size for my small room. (Like most teenagers’ rooms, mine functioned something like Doctor Who’s tardis, containing far more than it possibly could under normal space-time conditions.)
Because our house was small–first floor apartment of a two-family flat, maybe 700 square feet total— sound traveled easily. Loudness was to be eschewed. Eventually, I acquired headphones to get a proper volume fix, but before that it was a classic contest between parental desires for decorous quiet and my “need” to crank it up. I would listen to the radio at night, after bedtime. I remember the green glow of the stereo panel suffusing the room with the perfect night light ambience my science fiction saturated brain required. Had to keep the volume way down, but this was rock’n’roll, so how hard was that? Not like listening to classical, where some parts would vanish from audibility on a regular basis, only to have the orchestra thunder back when least expected.
I slept that way for years. When I finally got my own “place” in the basement, isolated and insulated from the rest of the house, I’d leave the radio on all night long. But somewhere around one in the morning, those first couple years, I’d somehow rouse long enough to switch it off. Better than letting my parents discover come morning that I still had it on. They were concerned enough about me as it was, and they were the sort to take things away when they suspected obsession encroaching on their son’s psyche.
I heard a lot of really good music those nights. We had a local station, which back then was in the throes of becoming “commercial” but for the time being still retained a great deal of its “underground” sensibility, that was more like a college station than anything else. FM broadcasting was still relatively new and apparently cheap enough that the dollar requirements that had turned AM into a musical wasteland had yet to apply. I remember the freedom the DJs had and that meant the listener would be treated to music that those still wedded to the bubblegum AM stations would never hear. Sure, there was some elitism involved, but in retrospect the musical offerings were indeed superior, if for no other reason than the FM rock stations of the late Sixties, early Seventies had broken with the AM constraint of the three-minute tune and the “rotation” list. For the most part, you only get that from small, underpowered college stations now.
Between ten and one or two in the morning, though, sort of when “no one was paying attention”, the DJs would play music radical even for the bulk of the station’s broadcast choices. I heard Family, a band which has sunk out of sight. Gentle Giant. Early Genesis. King Crimson (other than the first album). The DJ at the time, right around midnight, would play his “underappreciated artist” of the week on Friday or Saturday nights. A lot of obscure stuff got aired.
One night, though, as I was on the cusp of fading to sleep, he put on YES. The track was Sweet Dreams, which can be found on the band’s second album, Time And A Word.
Something about it…
There are many things to which that line may be applied in our lives. “Something about it…” The look, the feel, the sound, the chemistry.
The connection. My eyes snapped open and I listened intently. It was, to say the least, unusual in many respects. The bass playing, the harmonic structure, the major key that still managed not to be saccharine. But mostly, Jon Anderson’s voice, which was high, almost childish, and still managed to be powerful. Had I been reading Tolkein at the time I might have said that he sang the way a hobbit might sing, but I had yet to read any of that, so comparisons eluded me. It was certainly alien, but in the best sense of the word. As an avid SF fan, “alien” to me connoted, often, something superior, something aspirational, and certainly something to be embraced. Through the alien we might find our humanity.
I was not then a very savvy record buyer. I had yet to discover the worthwhile record stores in town. I was, simply, pretty geeky and a bit of a dork. People didn’t tell me things because, first, I tended not to ask–I hated being stupid and I really did indulge in pretending not to be by never admitting I didn’t know something, hoping I’d find out somehow later without having to reveal my ignorance; secondly, probably because my charade fooled no one, people tended not to want me to know the really cool stuff, preferring to keep me at arm’s length. Sad, really. But I was smart, even if I used my intelligence stupidly, and eventually I learned everything I thought I needed to know.
Since the DJ did not bother to say which album that track was on, I ended up buying two other YES albums before finding the one on which Sweet Dreams was on. But that didn’t matter, because the two albums I did buy–in the vernacular–blew me away. They were The Yes Album and Fragile.
First off, the only other bands of my acquaintance up to that point with ten-minute tracks were Chicago, the Nice, and live Cream. Very, very different kind of music than this. Even the bands I really loved still hewed closely to the AM time limits, few exceeding five minutes. This seemed somehow extremely significant to me. The longer tracks gave the band room to really indulge the unique sound they were developing. YES was far more structured than Cream, not at all derivative of earlier-period music like Chicago, and most of the Nice was classical cover work–their original pieces, except for The Five Bridges Suite, were still short.
Now that I think of this, it had to have been in ‘71 or ‘72. Certainly ‘72 when I bought Fragile, that was the year it came out. But very quickly after finding The Yes Album, I found–because I had found one of the “cool” record shops–ELP, Genesis, a number of other bands that were all breaking many of the same boundaries then. By late ‘72 I was very much a progressive rock fan, and pretty much “in the know” about what was happening.
But I want to talk about those two YES albums.
The Yes Album was alien to my ear. The opening bars of Yours Is No Disgrace, the crystal clarity of Squire’s bass line underlining the punctuated guitar chords, then the growly Hammond of Tony Kaye, all leading to that unexpected walking bass line over which the vocals sort of saunter in…I didn’t know song writing like this, I didn’t know it could be done that way. It was all so casual until the next bridge, when everything explodes back in, loud but with nothing mushed together as was the case with so many bands.
On that album it was Steve Howe’s guitar playing that finally kept me listening to it over and over. It was delicate. He played electric more like an acoustic guitar, and yet when it needed to slice air the power was not lacking. It reminded my most of Les Paul, only not as “cute” as that. And then there was the live track, Howe’s acoustic solo piece Clap.
To this day, though, one of my favorite songs of all time is from that album. Starship Trooper. Perhaps a bit obvious, yes, the title had me even before I heard the music, but the music still stands up. It is very much in my mind “future” music. Now, imagine, it’s 1972, and the most sophisticated thing in rock’n’roll you have heard to that point is a couple Beatles tracks, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, mainly the Abraxas album. The Beatles, for all their genius, were doing mainstream rock’n’roll. Even Abby Road is pretty much standard rock, derived from AM radio sensibilities, some good blues, and a dash of classical thrown in probably by George Martin. Hendrix was pyrotechnic blues—brilliant, yes, propulsive, certainly, but blues. Santana possessed a kind of “old world” quality to it from the Latin rhythms and the romance sensibilities, but wedded to the blues and hard rock. Santana’s guitar work raised it above the level of dance music and to this day it is Carlos’ playing that makes Santana music anything more than rhythmically interesting. Compositionally-speaking, all this material is very conservative.
Now enter the third YES album. You have four long tracks that are broken down into “movements” of sorts. Not just key or time changes, but actual complimentary but different thematic movements. The sensibility comes distantly from a little English folksong, but mostly it comes from a sensibility derived from Stravinsky and Ravel. You can hear Ravel and Debussy in some of whole tone improvisation and in the major key modulations. But neither of those composers did “songs” as such. They did landscape with their music, and landscape is possibly the best way to describe the effect of YES’s longer pieces. They are doorways into alternate realities where the day-to-day elements of life are different. Electric meadows, with antigravity trains overarching them under a daytime-visible moon fifty thousand miles closer so that you can see the campfires of the settlers living in the great Mares.
But not so different that you can’t connect the traditions up with recognizable predecessors. Listen to Perpetual Change and you can hear stride piano themes paired to swing era three and four-part harmony, with a taste of Sixties era television theme music in the connective tissue. It’s a weird mix that, to a certain ear, is immediately recognizable.
YES has never been a universal taste. The music speaks to a certain mindset. I’ll pass on describing that mind, but I have one. YES was an immediate soundtrack to the Roger Zelazny, Gordon Dickson, Alfred Bester novels and stories I was reading at the time. It clicked into place for me, the way Maxfield Parish clicked as well as Escher and Magnus Robot Fighter 4000 A.D. all clicked. And the substantive element, the aspect that continued to make it work, was that slightly askew of present reality approach to the soundscaping.
Which is what they did, and very clearly so, on Fragile, which was a showcase of what they intended.
Once more, one has to put this into the context of the day. 1972, the country, the world, was obsessed with Vietnam; Nixon was about to be reelected; the Culture Wars were well under way; in music, we had Paul McCartney’s band Wings hitting the airwaves with songs like Wildlife and Uncle Albert, John Lennon was singing about imagining no heaven, prom dances across the country were just beginning to experience of numbing banality of Chicago’s Color My World, and sides had been drawn up between the Top 40 lovers and those who were abandoning AM radio by the droves, searching for “real music.” The Who was making thunderous music, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were teaching children, Janis Joplin was dead and martyred, and Elton John was launching into the early stages of what would become glamor rock. Protest music had gone hard, Deep Purple was breaking eardrums, Jesus Christ Superstar had come out and created a cultural stir with its rock’n’roll Christ image….
In the middle of all this, a band releases an album of music that is wholly involved with metaphorical imagery suggesting an alternative consciousness that one doesn’t need drugs to attain because the music will carry you. In fact, if you’re stoned it probably won’t work as well. It’s orchestral, dynamically positive, and an embrace of the unembarrassed grandeur of magnificently skilled musicianship., In other words, these guys were showing off. Fragile is nothing if not an epic of “Hey, listen to what we can do!” showmanship. And if it wouldn’t have been clear enough through the main pieces on the album, they structured in to make sure you knew what they were doing by giving each individual member his own track to strut on.
They had replaced their original keyboard player, Tony Kaye, with Rick Wakeman. What can one say about Wakeman that doesn’t sound sycophantic? He was, at that time, light years ahead of other keyboardists, with the single exception of Keith Emerson. In fact, it’s worth comparing the two to see how completely distinctive their aesthetic approaches to music were while still being essentially equals in technique. Emerson was far more influenced by jazz, though his classical grounding is indisputable, while Wakeman is predominantly a classical musician influenced by rock’n’roll and ragtime. Ability, though, is not the story–what counted was how YES used that ability.
The advancement in musical adventurism was instantly apparent in the opening track, Roundabout. All due respect to Mr. Kaye, YES could never have done this kind of music with him. In the 80s Kaye rejoined the band and it was evident he couldn’t copy Wakeman’s chops. Kaye, to be fair, is a very accomplished rock keyboardist, and if you listen to all he did after leaving YES, you can’t take anything away from him. In bands like Flash, Detective, with David Bowie, and Badger, Kaye is a damn good player. But YES, collectively, was going somewhere else, and the band needed a Wakeman. (Wakeman has been successfully replaced only twice, and for short periods. Patrick Moraz, who later became a member of the Moody Blues, was every bit as good as Wakeman, although far more jazz influenced, and more recently a Russian player named Igor Korasev admirably filled the bill. But among Wakeman’s contemporaries at the time, there just weren’t any who could do what he did.)
YES was one of the cause celebres of a movement decrying quality musicianship, as if there were a kind of bizarre Marxist class consciousness about playing really well that violated some basic tenet of rock music. The ultimate flower of that movement was punk rock, wherein playing badly became a badge of honor. It’s perverse, but one of the evidences that music is a social phenomenon as much as anything to do with the artist. YES hit its stride at the same time as many bands that later were tagged by the label “Art Rock” which was used as much as epithet as praise. (Once I heard an argument that I sort of agreed with on this topic, in which the critic said that bands like YES just struck his as essentially “operatic”–the show, the elegance, the glitter, the ostentation being as important as the music, but since the music was inextricably tied to those elements, they reinforced each other. I don’t care for opera. I could almost see this. But I do care for classical music as a whole, and I really detest bad playing.) At the time, ELP, Genesis, Mike Quatro, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, and many others were beginning or were at the top of their game presenting music that loosely fit the rock category but which had expanded the possible range of the music far beyond anything envisaged by the Rolling Stones and their ilk.
The test of any music is its staying power.
I said Fragile was nothing if not showing off. What was it showing off for? In 1973, what may arguably be YES’s masterpiece came out. Close To The Edge.
What Fragile did was set listeners up for the experience of Close To The Edge, which was unique to that date in structure and sensibility–at least in the rock idiom. Mind you, many other artists were moving toward something like this–certainly Keith Emerson with his Tarkus suite had something like this in mind, but Tarkus is really a number of separate pieces stitched together into the semblence of a whole work. Symbolic theme is carried through, but not musical theme, except in the framing devices. Emerson didn’t achieve his own symphonic exegesis till Karn Evil 9 on the Brain Salad Surgery album. YES, in the title track of the album, produced a rock symphony. Four movements, clear and distinct, each one playing off the others musically as well as thematically, and it is one cohesive piece, almost 19 minutes long–which is short for a symphony, of course, but monumental for a piece of rock music.
There are only two other tracks on the album, and both are revolutionary in sensibility and execution–and in the fact that they “feel” complementary to the title track. So in total effect, the entire album seems to be one musical statement, even though in concert the three pieces were usually played separately and effectively.
Of minor significance, this was also the album which debuted the now-iconic YES logo, designed by artist Roger Dean. Even when Roger Dean did not do later YES covers, they kept the trademark logo, at least until their 80s incarnation with Trevor Rabin on guitar. The softly-contoured interweaving of that logo became a visual cue for what the band was all about. Simple on the surface, intricate in execution.
Roger Dean did the cover for Fragile as well, but it was clearly an aesthetic in progress. The logo is different, but heading in the direction that became the trademark. Dean’s distinctive cover work and, later, set designs for the stage shows were every bit as important in the long run as the music. YES was creating an alternate world in their visual as well as musical presentations. Dean became part of the band in this sense. It was with Close To The Edge that his stage sets began to appear, sets which hit their peak with the Tales From Togographic Oceans and Relayer tours.
YES released a three record live album in the wake of Close To The Edge. The stage show cohered into an event, the musical sets dovetailing with the special effects on stage to create a threatrical experience making these concerts more than just a good band playings its tunes. The first of these seem thin and crude compared to what was to come later in the 70s, but like everything else about YES it was a progression.
That live set captured the tour in which another new member replaced a departing player. Bill Bruford had been their drummer from the start. He claims to have been a jazz drummer and thought where YES was going would give him opportunity to do “interesting” percussion. He experimented a lot with polyrhythms, but quite frankly in those albums it seemed his reach exceeded his grasp. He did bring it all together on Close To The Edge, which makes it all the more ironic that he chose that tour to leave the band. He joined King Crimson after that, where Bruford’s drumming achieved polish and style and enviable musicality. YES gave him the chance to experiment, and not all of it was successful. His replacement, Alan White, was a more traditional rock drummer, very solid but not flashy. In fact, his approach is deceptive–what he does sounds simple, until one realizes what kind of extraordinary rhythmic environments he is drumming in. He is an engine for the band and may sometimes be underrated, but only by those not listening closely. White remains with YES to this day, and with his addition the so-called “classic” line-up was achieved.
Other musicians have entered and left YES, but it is these five musicians who formed the essence of the band–Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman, and White. And they keep coming back together in various incarnartions to recapture the brilliance of the band.
After Close To The Edge, and the live album, came a double album of four tracks which clearly were intended to stretch the boundaries of the symphonic form achieved in that album. Tales From Togographic Oceans is a masterpiece built on the aesthetic template of Close To The Edge. YES successfully created a soundscape which captured the idea of another world in musical terms.
Critically, people saw this album as self-indulgent. As far as it goes, this is true. These people were insulated in a creative pocket and doing what they now knew how to do for no other reason than the pure artistry of the process. If it cut some listeners off, if it left critics with too little to compare it to, if it seemed that YES was going places only a few might follow, well, they joined a long list of composers of whom the same thing could be said–Beethoven, Schubert, Scriabin, Stravinsky, Parker, Coltrane, Coleman…they left the precincts of what might be called popular idiom and did something else.
In point of fact, they did not lose audience. The concerts were selling out, the albums were going platinum, the following they had built up did not dwindle. But perception is a funny thing, and something in the feedback they received must have tapped a problem. After Tales… Wakeman left. He wanted to pursue a solo career, and a prolific one it has been. Patrick Moraz replaced him, after a European tour with Greek synthesizer wizard Vangelis sitting in with the band. (Jon Anderson had sung on one of Vangelis’s albums, Heaven and Hell, foreshadowing a collaboration that would produce four unique albums.)
Moraz. Swiss, a keyboard master, he had the year before produced an album with the two musicians Keith Emerson had cut loose when he ditched The Nice and formed ELP. The band was called Refugee and they only did one record, but it was magnificent (despite Jackson’s insufferable vocals). Then YES drafted him and the next album was Relayer.
Relayer was another three-track album, with one long piece on one side--The Gates of Delirium. Clearly, the band thought it had something with the longer form, and musically this was every bit as daring and ambitious and deft as the previous two studio albums. Moraz’s keyboard work was frenetic, seemingly on the edge of control, more jazz influenced that Wakeman, yet thunderously powerful. There was a darkness to this work as well that had not been in the previous work.
Perhaps they exhausted themselves with this one. It seemed they broke against a shore and shattered. The experience perhaps dazed them. Whatever happened, they all went off to do solo albums. Jon Anderson did Olias of Sunhillow, Chris Squire did Fish Out of Water, Moraz did a strange thing called !…they were all distinctive and you could hear what each brought to the whole very clearly.
It was a worrisome period as well. Other bands had reached points of discontent or exhaustion, and the members went off to do solo work, and then never reformed. Or, when they did come back together, something had been lost, and their previous magic was absent.
When YES did come back together in 1978, the result was unexpected and relieving. Wakeman returned and the album they produced was Going For the One. It was more traditional. Several tracks, couple of them airable even on AM. They had clearly taken what they had developed during the time of the epic compositions and applied it to more conventional songwriting. More conventional, I say, but still outside any kind of norm for what might be the order for a rock tune.
I went to all but one of their concerts during this period. They just kept getting better on stage. They had the ability to hold an audience in the palm of their metaphysical hands and imbue emotional reverie, joy, exhiliration. They worked together syncretically, utterly in step with each other.
And they were still building that other world.
Time passes, movements end, appreciation shifts. I don’t believe YES ever lost its edge, although it did become insular, and sometimes the work seemed to possess a disregard for whoever else might be listening. Never less than wonderful, but removed from more common sensibilities sometimes to the extent of putting up a wall between artist and audience. Not for long, never a whole album. And while other bands of that period found that their ability to fill large venues faded, YES still manages to pack a stadium, although they took to doing smaller venues in the 90s.
None of which particularly interests me in terms of what the music does for me. I don’t care if a hundred or a hundred million other people like something. It is the way it touches me that counts, and YES continues to possess an aural approach that draws me. I like their idea of where music ought to have gone.
Going For The One represents for me one parenthetical marker of a principle period for YES, the other one being The Yes Album. Between these two recordings, the band established a comprehensive aesthetic that can be listened to as a continuum, a progression from the grasp of an idea to its ultimate flowering, to the point at which, now achieved, the band made a change in approach. The palette developed and employed through these seven albums continues to be used today, but in very different compositional approaches. I dislike the cliche-ridden notion of A Golden Age, but most artists have expressive periods which, at least to their audience, seem to represent an ideal. Going For The One marked the point at which YES left the arena of “epic” compositional experiment and reduced what they had learned to what at first glance seems to be traditional song writing. If by that, one recognizes “traditional” and “songwriting” to mean a specific format which has dominated American (and by cross-pollination European) popular music throughout much of the 20th Century, then the description is deceptive. Bar for bar, the notion of “tune-smithing” has been consistently and continually subverted by YES, even within the context of pieces that hew to that traditional format. They are not writing “songs” per se, but composing set pieces wherein experiment is most important–not experiment for the sake of being different, but experiment in the service of creating a moment or two of unique experience. They are as much concerned with the afterimage of each piece as with its initial impact, something most popular music doesn’t bother with because the idea that the listener should carry something more than the beat and the hook away from a single listen is foreign to the industry. (This is also what separates good literature from “popular fiction”–the chief experience of a potboiler is exhausted in the process of reading, while “literature” creates impressions that linger and influence long after the book has been finished and put away. So, too, with great music, but the hurry-up-and-move-to-the-next-distraction aesthetic of popular culture doesn’t allow for contemplative after-considerations. Hence artists whose chief quality is that deep listening–or reading–produces secondary or tertiary effects as significant as the initial impact tend to be underappreciated or overlooked expressly because such qualities require deep attention.)
After Going For The One, the band seemed to hit a period of crippling reassessment. The next album–still with the “classic” line-up–Tormato was a disjointed production. Not that the individual tracks were any less than fine, but the totality failed to cohere. It seemed that these songs belonged on some other albums which were never released (leaving one to wonder what other songs unwritten or simply unrecorded might have gone with them). It felt like a collection of “extras” from previous recordings. (To be clear, YES had lost nothing in their ability to do what they had been doing since The Yes Album, as witnessed by the transcendent heights of On The Silent Wings of Freedom, one of the finest “short” pieces since Starship Trooper.) The members of the band seemed to sense it as well, since the next album marked drastic, almost cataclysmic changes in personel. Wakeman left again, but so too did Jon Anderson. The hallmark vocalist went elsewhere, to pursue other interests. That album–Drama–is an odd object. It is perhaps better regarded from the vantage of history than it was when it came out. While the band that did called itself YES, and there were still the profound ideas that had always informed YES’s music present, it is not, really, YES. While excellent, it proved too much a departure.
Jon Anderson went on to a prolific solo career, and, as noted above, made four superb recording with Vangelis. Wakeman had never stopped making solo albums, and Steve Howe began to record on his own. Chris Squire and Alan White, however, kept experimenting with new bands, unwilling or disinterested in solo efforts. Through them, eventually, a new formation of YES gelled in the early 80s. Incorporating their original keyboardist, Tony Kaye, and South African guitarist Trevor Rabin. Initially called CINEMA, once Squire asked Anderson to sing lead it inevitably became YES.
Since the release of 90125, YES has become something of a workshop, with members joining, leaving, sitting in, going in unique directions. During this period one of the most distinctively “yessish” albums released was not even by YES—ANDERSON BRUFORD WAKEMAN & HOWE, which reintroduced Bill Bruford (who had become the drummer YES had always needed) and but for the absence of Chris Squire was pretty much classic YES. (The “classic” line-up did get back together for two albums which, in the original compositions, revisited the Epic compositional techniques of the 70s–the Keys To Ascencsion discs, which include what may be the definitive “live” sets of the band, plus studio recordings made during the same period, and are magnificent examples of the musical landscaping that set them apart in Close To The Edge.)
Sometime during the late 70s I finally found the album on which was Sweet Dreams, the track that first drew me to this band. It was their second release, called Time And A Word. I found their first album, simply called Yes, at the same time. I’m happy to have them, but I am very glad they were not the first YES albums I owned. The two records contain pretty traditional songwriting. The sonic motifs that were to become YES are there in snippets, but they had not yet found their radical expression, and there was actually little to recommend them above many other bands at the time. Perhaps a comparable experience would be for someone who discovered the Beatles with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club, followed them through everything that followed, and only then, after Abby Road, found the first two or three Beatles records. There would have been a bit of a shock and some puzzlement as to how the band you had fallen in love with had come from what seemed such unoriginal beginnings.
But on close listening you can hear the genius even then…
Critics have hated YES from time to time, because, damnit, they don’t follow trends, and they don’t write music to meet the expectations of fashionistas. Sometimes where they went musically seemed strange even to those who did love them, but they were, first and foremost, very serious about music as music–not as show or entertainment or pop culture or anything outside of the aesthetic concerns of a given soundscape. Such music implicitly instructs the listener to “pay attention” and, in some cases, to catch up.