Anyone can recite, bass line and verse, their favorite moments from Yes’ seminal 1972 release Close to the Edge. Everybody knows about the mountains coming out of the sky, and how they stood there, too.
It gets trickier finding someone who has delved — or, in some cases, even would delve — into the long-standing progressive band’s post-1970s era.
As their chosen genre fell on hard times, Yes retooled for the MTV era, and scored its only charttopping smash in “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Other than that, however, most old-guard fans seem to have heard precious little.
Leave that to us, as we dusted off a handful of tucked-away gems from Yes’ modern era. Focusing on the period leading up to their well-received current release Fly from Here, here are recommended cuts from 1980′s Drama, 1991′s Union, 1994′s Talk, 1997′s Open Your Eyes and 2001′s Magnification.
Included, along the way, are new comments from Yes’s co-founding bass player Chris Squire, as well as former members like keyboardist Tony Kaye, guitarist Trevor Rabin and multi-instrumentalist and producer Billy Sherwood — each of whom provides telling insights into these all-but-forgotten moments …
“CAN YOU IMAGINE” (MAGNIFICATION, 2001): Recorded just before Rick Wakeman’s fifth stint with Yes, this album was their first without a keyboardist. Instead, Yes was featured with a full orchestra for the first time since 1970′s Time and a Word. This would also be Yes’ last studio recording with co-founding singer Jon Anderson.
And even with all of that interesting history surrounding it, there is still more to be said about Magnification, since it is also home to this radically re-worked track (located from 30:19-33:18 on the embedded video) from a failed 1980s supergroup featuring Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Yes’ Chris Squire and Alan White. They were to be called XYZ, as in eX-Yes/Zeppelin.
With Yes on a break while Steve Howe and Geoff Downes were forming Asia, Squire had struck up a musical conversation with Page, who lived nearby. Soon, the new trio was at work on the beginnings of some new songs. “This was just after (Led Zeppelin drummer) John Bonham had died,” Chris Squire told us. “He had obviously been knocked back by that event, but he said he wanted to get back into playing. So we messed around with a few tracks. I don’t want to say it was therapeutic for Jimmy, but it really was. We just brought together some songs, and Jimmy was happy to be playing again.”
Unfortunately, the proposed group fell apart when Page’s overture to have Robert Plant sing was rebuffed. Seems the former Led Zeppelin frontman wasn’t ready to start a new band just yet. Squire subsequently joined a re-formulated Yes with Trevor Rabin, and the XYZ track laid dormant — until 2001, when a leftover tune called “Can You See” was reworked with a new Squire vocal as “Can You Imagine.”
“NEW STATE OF MIND” (OPEN YOUR EYES, 1997): Speaking of Zeppelin, Yes employs a shuddering Bonham-esque rhythmic signature on this hidden gem, to go with a layered, Beatle-esque vocal treatment and some nifty sitar textures. Fifteen years after 90125, however, Yes remained in some strange netherworld between prog and pop, and the interesting but uneven Open Your Eyes only reached No. 151 in America, and didn’t chart at all in the UK.
When it works, as on “New State of Mind,” Open Your Eyes brilliantly connects Rabin’s heavily produced hitmaking era with the quirk-filled, Britpop-flavored recordings from Yes’ initial incarnation on 1969′s self-titled debut — something that’s casually referenced, it seems, on the 1997 album’s cover design. Unfortunately, it remains a cobbled together rush job, put out before it was ready at the behest of a label looking for new product in order to cobble together a tour.
“Somehow, Someday” is built off portions of the song “Boundaries” from Anderson’s 1982 solo project Animation and the bass line from “City of Love” on 90125. “No Way We Can Lose” sounds like a reworking of Rabin’s “Saving My Heart,” from 1991′s Union. “Man in the Moon” is a Conspiracy tune, with Anderson and Howe’s parts tacked on. In fact, an uncomfortable amount of Howe’s work feels second hand. He and Anderson were only intimately involved from conception on a single song, “From the Balcony.”
None of that, however, can take away from the power and mystery of “New State of Mind.” Open Your Eyes is worth revisited, if only for this.
“MACHINE MESSIAH” (DRAMA, 1980): When keyboardist Geoff Downes and then-frontman (and future producer) Trevor Horn arrived as the newest members of Yes, they brought along a rough sketch for this song. Reformulated with a heavy, guitar-focused edge for Drama, it still retains a quote from the toccata of Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony for Organ No. 5 — embodied by an appropriately churchy turn from Downes.
The track didn’t sound, on its face, much like anything Yes had done before — much less the Buggles, Downes and Horn’s old new-wave band. But over the years “Machine Messiah,” like much of Drama, has undergone a critical reevaluation, and the deep cut has even found a home as a part of Yes’ concert setlists.
Drama, as is clear now, bridged the gap between the more conventional progressive rock structures of the 1970s and the sleek prog-pop to come in the 1980s. That very ability to adapt to changing styles was, for many years, the lifeblood that kept Yes going.
“Certainly, ‘Machine Messiah’ was a piece that really developed,” Downes said, in a recent SER Sitdown. “We wanted all of those aspects in it, church music and technology and pop. It was a hybrid of all of that. Yes then was able to do different things with it as a band, chord structures and so on. That’s a hallmark of Yes’ successes through the years.”
“STATE OF PLAY” (TALK, 1994): Beginning with a grinding guitar that recalled Trevor Rabin’s initial contributions to the Yes canon in 90125, “State of Play” didn’t hearken back to that album’s three-times platinum success. Instead, the album tanked, and both Rabin and co-founding Yes keyboardist departed.
“Maybe the singles that came from it were maybe not to people’s liking,” Kaye told us. “Yes fans didn’t want another pop single — even though the album was very much in a ’70s Yes style in a lot of ways, in that there were long pieces and intricate playing and all the rest of it.”
The Talk album is best known — and often criticized — for its pop-oriented single “Walls.” But the project also made room for lengthier compositions, as well as tracks like this one that sounded like direct descendants of everything that had worked so well just a decade or so before. Rabin’s solo is a wild-eyed roller coaster ride, giving way to a thumping, very-modern cadence, and a soaring, very classic Anderson chorus.
But something had changed, the audience, the label, the appetite for this sound. “I never like to blame anything else for a record that doesn’t do millions of copies, but that was one where it was a perfect storm of the wrong record company at the wrong time,” Rabin added, in a separate talk with Something Else! Reviews. “The band was starting to drift apart.”
“THE MORE WE LIVE/LET GO” (UNION, 1991): Guitarist/keyboardist/producer/babysitter Billy Sherwood’s unbelievably circuitous relationship with Yes throughout the 1990s actually began here, with a tune he had co-written with Chris Squire. That his backing vocals and musical contributions went uncredited on the album might have told him something about how difficult this journey would be.
See, whatever the charms of Sherwood’s track, the Union project — this patched-together recombining of the two warring factions of Yes (its hitmaking version with Chris Squire and Trevor Rabin, and its disgruntled old-school off-shoot band with Jon Anderson and Steve Howe) — was doomed to failure from the beginning. They didn’t get along and, worse still, they weren’t even in the same room together. The closest anyone came to an actual reunion of the old 1971-72 lineup was when Chris Squire overdubbed vocals to a couple of already-existing tracks by Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, though the bass parts were actually handled by Tony Levin.
This song, a rare highlight on an album that sounds as disjointed as it in fact was, follows a very similar narrative: “The More We Live/Let Go” was part of a proposed duo project between Squire and Sherwood. Anderson’s vocals were later added, and the song was stamped as a Yes release. Sherwood would go on to work on a trio of albums in the late 1990s, including Open Your Eyes, The Ladder and House of Yes, but only after a lengthy apprenticeship as a touring musician, sideman, mixer and producer.
Don’t feel sorry for Sherwood, though. He was that one-in-a-billion fan who got to join his favorite band. “In the end,” Sherwood told us, “I got to see the classic version, and I worked with the 90125 version, as well. After viewing both versions, I helped come up with a new one. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”