Formed in London in 1968 by singer Jon Anderson and the late bassist Chris Squire, the original Yes stuck to a fairly traditional blues, rock and pop template, with attention to close harmony. The arrival of drummer Bill Bruford and ace guitarist Peter Banks meant they soon built a word-of-mouth following in London’s clubs, and they grabbed the support slot at Cream’s Farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall.
That experience, and the arrival of game changers King Crimson, prompted a change of tack as Yes realised the progressive rock scene was about to explode. Signed to Atlantic, the group released their self-titled debut album in summer 1969, mixing covers of The Beatles’ ‘Every Little Thing’, The Byrds’ ‘I See You’ and Stephen Stills’ ‘Everydays’ (which belatedly appeared on the 2003 US remaster bonus disc) with strong in-house writing. At that time their sound was somewhat dominated by Tony Kaye’s Hammond organ, and their follow-up, Time And A Word, retained that sonic approach with a new stage favourite, a cover of Richie Havens’ ‘No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed’, and the addition of orchestration – which led to Banks’ departure.
The group’s promise was fulfilled on The Yes Album, a huge commercial success produced by Eddie Offord, who became their go-to man. Now boasting a widely expanded repertoire – with guitarist Steve Howe to the fore – Yes reached a state of nirvana comparable to Crosby, Stills And Nash when they unveiled ‘Yours Is No Disgrace’, the ‘Starship Trooper’ suite and the John Lennon-inspired ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’. From that moment on, Yes can be said to have arrived, and a concert performed at the London’s Lyceum Theatre, during which Howe grabbed the chance to shine on ‘Clap’ went down in folklore.
The 1971 arrival of Rick Wakeman, following his groundbreaking sessions for David Bowie and Cat Stevens, and as part of Strawbs, enabled Yes to make a further quantum leap with Fragile, the album that broke the band in the US. The integration of Mellotron and Moog became part of their overall stamp, and Yes’ technical virtuosity was admirable on ‘Roundabout’, ‘South Side Of The Sky’ and Anderson’s mini-epic, ‘Long Distance Runaround’. Also note the artwork by one Roger Dean, whose designs and logos soon became synonymous with the group’s look.
Close To The Edge marked the end of this chapter, as Yes’ tracks grew in length and scope. The title piece suite and the four-movement ‘And You And I’ had major girth but also plenty of melodic interest, while the spikier ‘Siberian Khatru’ became an influence on alt.rockers down the ages. The reviews were mostly hugely positive, enabling the live triple-album Yessongs to make further inroads into global markets.
At the height of their powers, Yes put out Tales From Topographic Oceans, whose concept alienated Wakeman, who thought it overblown. This set was all about excess, big and blowsy: pomp prog, in essence. Wakeman became so bored with playing it live in its entirety that he infamously ate a curry on stage in Manchester while his bandmates played on. Even so, Tales… has been widely reappraised in prog circles and is available in a variety of formats today, so you can make up your own mind. Patrick Moraz replaced Wakeman for Relayer, an album with a sci-fi/comic book feel evidenced by the lengthy ‘The Gates of Delirium’. You didn’t hear this kind of thing on the pub-rock circuit.
Sensing a change in the air, Yes regrouped with Wakeman for the more accessible Going For The One, which contained the sweet ballad ‘Turn Of The Century’ and the hit ‘Wonderous Stories’, taking Yes to Top Of The Pops when it reached No.7 on the UK singles chart – their highest entry to date.
Tormato was another album that divided opinion, but the Yes fanbase were still on board and the accompanying tour was the group’s biggest to date, including five shows at London’s Wembley Arena. But just as the die-hard fans were coming to accept recent drummer Alan White, the group delivered the bombshell news that both Wakeman and Anderson were leaving.
The new Horn/Downes axis changed the band’s approach from pure prog to artful new wave – albeit within an overblown, tongue-in-cheek setting. This made-over sound also saw Yes appearing in the teen pop press, which they sent up mercilessly while displaying an admirable sense of the absurd – something unlikely in the Anderson era.
Following the 1980 live album Yesshows, compiled from shows performed across 1976-78, the Horn-produced 90125 (1983) brought in a raft of new fans tempted by the synth-pop classic ‘Owner oO A Lonely Heart”’ The instrumental ‘Cinema’ was another gem and won the group their only Grammy, for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
Anderson returned back for 1987’s Big Generator, while multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rabin joined the ranks and Tony Kaye, puzzlingly, also returned with his Hammond. The resulting album was an eclectic mix, but it worked, since ‘Love Will Find A Way’, ‘Rhythm Of Love’, ‘Shoot High Aim Low’ and ‘Final Eyes’ were ideally suited to FM radio circa 1987.
Following a hiatus, the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe band (ABWH) and the other Yes members delivered Union, a project widely reviled by those who took part. More successful was Talk. Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson, a committed Yes fan, contributed to the chart single ‘Walls’, while ‘The Calling’ was another mainstream radio smash.
Howe and Wakeman continued their on-off relationship by returning for the live Keys To Ascension, but Yes fanatics were more taken by the archival trawl through the BBC’s tape library for Something’s Coming: The BBC Recordings 1969-1970, on which the original band could be heard showing off their prowess for John Peel et al. It was a great nostalgia trip for early prog fanciers.
Keys To Ascension 2 offered more material featuring the last classic quintet before the arrival of keyboardist Billy Sherwood for Open Your Eyes, a return to purely song-driven concerns. They kept to that mandate for The Ladder, on which the line-up was boosted by Russian pianist Igor Khoroshev.
Symphonic progression marked 2001’s Magnification, Anderson’s final studio outing with the band. Thereafter, Yes releases have tended to be bespoke single concert or full tour live sets, though Fly From Here (2011) and Heaven & Earth (2014), produced by Trevor Horn and Roy Thomas Baker, respectively, garnered positive reviews that shook off the shackles imposed by those who thought Yes were a relic. Of those live releases, however, the monumental 14CD collection Progeny: Seven Shows from Seventy-Two (2015) stands out for documenting the Close To The Edge tour of 1972-73. (A highlights version was also available for those with shorter attention spans – and shallower pockets.)
Demand for Yes music doesn’t abate. Often snubbed or derided by snobbery, Yes are an acquired taste, but one that’s been acquired by millions. Theirs is no disgrace.
On Yes' first two albums, Yes (1969) and Time and a Word (1970), the quintet was mostly searching for a sound on which they could build, losing one of their original members -- guitarist Peter Banks -- in the process. Their third time out proved the charm -- The Yes Album constituted a de facto second debut, introducing the sound that would carry them forward across the next decade or more. Gone are any covers of outside material, the group now working off of its own music from the ground up. A lot of the new material was actually simpler -- in linear structure, at least -- than some of what had appeared on their previous albums, but the internal dynamics of their playing had also altered radically, and much of the empty space that had been present in their earlier recordings was also filled up here -- suddenly, between new member Steve Howe's odd mix of country- and folk-based progressive guitar and the suddenly liberated bass work and drumming of Chris Squire and Bill Bruford, respectively, the group's music became extremely busy. And lead singer Jon Anderson, supported by Squire and Howe, filled whatever was left almost to overflowing. Anderson's soaring falsetto and the accompanying harmonies, attached to haunting melodies drawn from folk tunes as often as rock, applied to words seemingly derived from science fiction, and all delivered with the bravura of an operatic performance -- by the band as well as the singer -- proved a compelling mix. What's more, despite the busy-ness of their new sound, the group wasn't afraid to prove that less could sometimes be more: three of the high points were the acoustic-driven "Your Move" and "The Clap" (a superb showcase for Howe on solo acoustic guitar), and the relatively low-key "A Venture" (oddly enough, the latter was the one cut here that didn't last in the group's repertory; most of the rest, despite the competition from their subsequent work, remained in their concert set for years to come). The Yes Album did what it had to do, outselling the group's first two long-players and making the group an established presence in America where, for the first time, they began getting regular exposure on FM radio. Sad to say, the only aspect of The Yes Album that didn't last much longer was Tony Kaye on keyboards: his Hammond organ holds its own in the group's newly energized sound, and is augmented by piano and other instruments when needed, but he resisted the idea of adding the Moog synthesizer, that hot instrument of the moment, to his repertory. The band was looking for a bolder sound than the Hammond could generate, and after some initial rehearsals of material that ended up on their next album, he was dropped from the lineup, to be replaced by Rick Wakeman. Words: Bruce Eder
Fragile was Yes' breakthrough album, propelling them in a matter of weeks from a cult act to an international phenomenon; not coincidentally, it also marked the point where all of the elements of the music (and more) that would define their success for more than a decade fell into place fully formed. The science-fiction and fantasy elements that had driven the more successful songs on their preceding record, The Yes Album, were pushed much harder here, and not just in the music but in the packaging of the album: the Roger Dean-designed cover was itself a fascinating creation that seemed to relate to the music and drew the purchaser's attention in a manner that few records since the heyday of the psychedelic era could match. Having thrown original keyboard player Tony Kaye overboard early in the sessions -- principally over his refusal to accept the need for the Moog synthesizer in lieu of his preferred Hammond organ -- the band welcomed Rick Wakeman into its ranks. His use of the Moog, among other instruments, coupled with an overall bolder and more aggressive style of playing, opened the way for a harder, hotter sound by the group as a whole; bassist Chris Squire sounds like he's got his amp turned up to "12," and Steve Howe's electric guitars are not far behind, although the group also displayed subtlety where it was needed. The opening minute of "Roundabout," the album opener -- and the basis for the edited single that would reach number 13 on the Billboard charts and get the group onto AM radio in a way that most other prog rock outfits could only look upon with envy -- was dominated by Howe's acoustic guitar and Bill Bruford‘s drums, and only in the middle section did the band show some of what they could do with serious amperage. Elsewhere on the record, as on "South Side of the Sky," they would sound as though they were ready to leave the ground (and the planet), between the volume and intensity of their playing. "Long Distance Runaround," which also served as the B-side of the single, was probably the most accessible track here apart from "Roundabout," but they were both ambitious enough to carry most listeners on to the heavier sides at the core of this long player. The solo tracks by the members were actually a necessity: they needed to get Fragile out in a hurry to cover the cost of the keyboards that Wakeman had added to the group's sonic arsenal. But they ended up being more than filler. Each member, in effect, took a "bow" in mostly fairly serious settings, and Squire's "The Fish" and Howe's "Mood For a Day" pointed directly to future, more substantial projects as well as taking on a life of their own on-stage. If not exactly their peak, Fragile was as perfect a record as the group would ever make, and just as flawless in its timing as its content. Words: Bruce Eder
With 1971's Fragile having left Yes poised quivering on the brink of what friend and foe acknowledged was the peak of the band's achievement, Close to the Edge was never going to be an easy album to make. Drummer Bill Bruford was already shifting restlessly against Jon Anderson's increasingly mystic/mystifying lyricism, while contemporary reports of the recording sessions depicted bandmate Rick Wakeman, too, as little more than an observer to the vast tapestry that Anderson, Steve Howe, and Chris Squire were creating. For it was vast. Close to the Edge comprised just three tracks, the epic "And You and I" and "Siberian Khatru," plus a side-long title track that represented the musical, lyrical, and sonic culmination of all that Yes had worked toward over the past five years. Close to the Edge would make the Top Five on both sides of the Atlantic, dispatch Yes on the longest tour of their career so far and, if hindsight be the guide, launch the band on a downward swing that only disintegration, rebuilding, and a savage change of direction would cure. The latter, however, was still to come. In 1972, Close to the Edge was a flawless masterpiece. Words: Dave Thompson
In many ways, the extravagance of this package equates the profligacy of the prog rock combo themselves. After all, how else but on a triple-LP collection could one hope to re-create (and/or contain) an adequate sampling of Yes' live presentation? Especially since their tunes typically clocked in in excess of ten minutes. Although they had turned in five studio long-players, the vast majority of Yessongs (1973) is drawn from their three most recent endeavors The Yes Album (1970), Fragile (1971), and Close to the Edge (1972). There are two exceptions, the first being the "Opening (Excerpt from "Firebird Suite")" -- which comes from the 1969 Boston Symphony Orchestra's recording, conducted by Seiji Ozawa. The other is Rick Wakeman's keyboard solo "Excerpts from 'The Six Wives Of Henry VIII'." Yes had just undergone a personnel change shortly after concluding work on Close to the Edge as Bill Bruford (percussion) left to join King Crimson in July of 1972. Bruford can be heard on "Perpetual Change," as well as the medley of "Long Distance Runaround" and "The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)." Enthusiasts keen on various and arguably irrelevant minutia should note the spelling of "praimaturus" as credited on Yessongs. It is slightly different from Fragile, which is denoted as "praematurus." That bit of trivia aside, the new lineup finds Alan White (drums), quite ably filling Bruford's shoes, alongside Jon Anderson (vocals), Steve Howe (guitars), Chris Squire (bass/vocals), and Rick Wakeman (keyboards). –– ADVERTISEMENT –– One of their trademarks has always been an ability to re-create their often densely layered sound in concert. They effortlessly pull off the tricky chord progressions and changes in time signatures of "Siberian Khatru" and a sublime "Heart of the Sunrise," which unquestionably bests the dexterity of its carefully crafted studio counterpart. Both Howe and Squire's respective solos during "The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)" are highlights as they give the entire unit an opportunity to show off their capacity for dramatic dynamics. The remainder of Yessongs is similarly strong, particularly the note-perfect "Close to the Edge," and the inspired concluding instrumental jam during "Starship Trooper." However, one criticism that can be leveled at the entire Yessongs release is the less than optimal audio quality throughout. The sound is generally muddy with no real fidelity to speak of and an even less precise stereoscape. But until someone goes back to the multi-tracks and remixes them for 21st century ears, this is as good as it gets when documenting Yes during this seminal transition period. Words: Lindsay Planer
A stunning self-reinvention by a band that many had given up for dead, 90125 is the album that introduced a whole new generation of listeners to Yes. Begun as Cinema, a new band by Chris Squire and Alan White, the project grew to include the slick production of Trevor Horn, the new blood (and distinctly '80s guitar sound) of Trevor Rabin, and eventually the trademark vocals of returning founder Jon Anderson. His late entry insured that Rabin and Horn had a heavy influence on the sound. The album also marked the return of prodigal keyboardist Tony Kaye, whose crisp synth work on "Changes" marked the band's definitive break with its art rock roots. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" was a huge crossover hit, and its orchestral break has been relentlessly sampled by rappers ever since. The vocal harmonies of "Leave It" and the beautifully sprawling "Hearts" are additional high points, but there's nary a duff track on the album. Words: Paul Collins