‘It was a perfect storm’: Trevor Rabin and Jon Anderson on Yes’ most overlooked album

Asked to name his most underrated project, Jon Anderson immediately points toward Yes’ Talk, issued 20 years ago now and still widely dismissed — when it’s not being ignored all together.

The 1994 album memorably featured Yes’ return to episodic compositions on “Endless Dream,” a track that reconnects with the band’s artistic triumphs of decades before. (In fact, Yes hadn’t done such long-form work since “Machine Messiah” on 1980′s Drama.) Meanwhile, for fans of their more recent successes, “State of Play” was powered along by Trevor Rabin’s crunchy guitar. And yet Talk became the first album by Yes not to crack the Billboard Top 20 since its seminal period at the turn of the 1970s.

The sad fate of Talk had nothing, it seems, to do with the music. Instead, it was bound up in misguided expectations, a fracturing lineup and a label teetering on financial ruin.

“I never like to blame anything else for a record that doesn’t do millions of copies,” Rabin tells us in an exclusive SER Sitdown, “but that was one where it was a perfect storm of the wrong record company at the wrong time. The band was starting to drift apart, although ironically Jon and I were drifting further together.”

Issued on the defunct Victory Music, after Yes’ 1980s-era association with Atco came to an end, Talk followed 1987′s overcooked Big Generator — which found the group trying fruitlessly to replicate their earlier chart-topping hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from 1983′s 90125. Fast forward more than a decade, and Talk could be found spinning off “Walls,” a Top 15 hit on the mainstream rock tracks charts co-written with Roger Hodgson of Supertramp fame. Still, it was hardly the No. 1 smash every label executive now wanted from Yes.

Those pressures were coming to bear on Yes. Anderson had done a separate project with Vangelis in the time after Big Generator, then had reunited with former Yes members Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe. There’d also been an ill-fated combining of both Yes camps with 1991′s Union. Interest in their brand of old-school prog, or even their updated prog-pop amalgam, was badly waning. And that appears to have doomed Talk before it even arrived.

Oddly enough, however, the Union era saw Anderson and Rabin finally clicking, despite the pair having already been part of two previous Yes projects. As the subsequent sessions for Talk commenced, they found themselves happily collaborating. Neither appears to have considered the fact that no one would be listening, much less that no one has since.

“In those days, it was a question of making of making good music, so much as making a hit record again after 90125,” Anderson tells us. “Big Generator just didn’t happen. It was overblown, and overdone. I really had no part in that project; I just went in and sang. They wanted to keep me out of the way, so I went and did an album with Vangelis. I kept myself busy. But then after that, I did Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe — and then got a really good energy with the record company at that time. They just wanted me to do what I wanted to do. With Steve and Bill and Rick, it was so easy, because they just wanted to make music. So, the album worked. Then the next step was, we all got together, of course, and did Union — and then me and Trevor started to really bond at that time. We hadn’t really bonded before, so it was real interesting time. Trevor asked if I would come stay at the house, and work on some music — and that became Talk. The album ended up having so much of the classic style of Yes, and that’s something very unique about it. But the record company went bankrupt, and the album never got any promotion — so, it was on the next project.”

Rabin wouldn’t be a part of that project. Talk, in fact, marked the end his decade-long run with Yes. Having taken the group to the pinnacle of chart success, Rabin left with the lowest-charting album of his tenure. Talk still hasn’t gone gold, after Yes sold more than four million copies of the earlier 90125 and Big Generator in the U.S. alone.

That ugly end makes it difficult, Rabin admits, to put his legacy with the band into perspective — that and some fans’ misguided idea that he — and he alone — led Yes into more commercial waters.

“I think I have an understanding of what it was that maybe is different from the outside. It’s an interesting question. That’s never been posed before,” he tells us, then pauses. “I knew who I was and what I did, but I’d have a little chuckle reading articles where it said: ‘He’s ruined Yes. He’s brought this silly pop, plastic element to the band.’ When we finished 90125, we were so excited. Chris Squire was really holding the flag, saying: ‘This is the new sound. This is what we’re about now.’ I was really proud and happy, however we got there, with both 90125, and “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” We all were.”

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

14 Comments

  1. Caley McGuire says:

    In many ways Rabin saved the once-powerful group from obscurity. Talk was lost in the shuffle somehow and oddly contains barely a trace of Squire. What they’ve become since is quite bittersweet. Without Anderson, they’ve been reduced to being their own tribute band.

    • Paul Boylson says:

      I clearly remember reading an interview at the time in which Squire pointed out that he was “quite happy to take a back seat” such that the Anderson/Rabin union might fully commence on “Talk”. The resulting effort, to my ears and no doubt countless others, was merely a Trevor Rabin solo album with Anderson in the guest vocal spot flanked by a couple guys from Yes…let’s face it good people, THAT’S why the album failed. The communal spirit of a band once born of rule bashing and chance taking had all but washed out to sea by this point, while a pitiful attempt to procreate the 80′s era Yes sadly commenced in its place. Stop blaming a fledgling record company and call this what it is once and for all…a dismissible entry in the band’s long and precarious history, nothing more.

      • winofigments says:

        It’s not a bad album at all if you attempt to look at it objectively as possible and not hold it up to the great Yes albums of the 70s. It doesn’t matter how it was made. (Okay, “Walls” is a pretty lame song). The fact was that by 1994 Yes was quickly becoming irrelevant (as were all 70s prog bands who found some commercial success in the 80s). It was the beginning of the slide into niche genres that would retain only their most ardent fans, and it’s very evident today.

  2. Voice Of Saruman says:

    “Neither appears to have considered the fact that no one would be listening, much less that no one has since.”

    That’s a bit of insulting hyperbole to say “no one”, isn’t it?

    I think “Talk” is a better (and more consistent in quality) album than they’ve put out since, but many moments on the record come off sounding exactly like a Trevor Rabin solo album – and his solo style was never greatly successful. And record company woes or not, there is no way that record was going to make a big splash in the musical climate of that time. I’m really not sure what the whole “record company” problem is in the story. I remember when the album came out. There was a music video on MTV, there were promo bits on various network music shows, there was even a “multimedia CD-ROM” about the record, and there was a massive tour. I think the record company pushed it as hard as they could or could be expected. If there was financial ruin, I’m guessing it came after the massive failure of the record, not before.

  3. Anthony L. says:

    Victory Music seems like it was poorly run and was hoping the 90125 version of Yes would bring them massive success. If I recall correctly, they also put out a Rik Emmett-less Triumph’s Edge of Excess and Emerson Lake & Palmer’s Black Moon.

    • Jeff Blanks says:

      Victory Music, AIUI, was started by Phil Carson, who’d been Yes’ “key man” at Atlantic back in the ’70s; he’s mentioned in the liner notes to *Fish Out Of Water*. But he wanted the *90125* lineup, in the wake of an attempt to put together a business deal that would’ve allowed the *Union* lineup to stay together for a studio album. I’m pretty sure that disappointed lots of fans who were hoping for the permanent return of Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, at least. (He actually asked Trevor Rabin to see if he could get Rick to play on *Talk*, but that never worked out, obviously.) By the time Steve and Rick did come back, the industry had largely lost interest in Yes due to *Talk*’s disappointing sales; they didn’t seem to understand why those sales were disappointing. (OTOH, I’ve actually heard that Atlantic itself would’ve gladly taken them back in ’95, maybe to help sales of the back catalog, but they were offering less money up front than small label CMC–and the rest is history. D’oh–!)

    • Voice Of Saruman says:

      As I suggested in my longer comment, I’m not sure why people get the impression the record label was poorly run. Maybe so, but how do we know that? It seems to me like they threw a good amount of cash at promoting this record, at least for a band that was not very in fashion at the time (or since.) Nothing wrong with being out of fashion! I love Yes. But again: a video on MTV, various TV spots, radio airplay, a big tour that seemed to spare no expense, playing the big venues – this never felt like a case of the record label dropping the ball. The album didn’t make Top 20 but it made Top 40, and there was an AOR hit or two I think. No amount of push is going to break a record if it’s not the kind of music most people are listening to anymore.

  4. Dave Williams says:

    Has to be said…the people who love/loved Yes from the beginning just didn’t get the Rabin wailing guitar solos. Banks’ guitar was rhythmic and jazzy; Howe’s was unpredictable, never played the same solo twice it seemed; started at the same place and somehow, beyond all expectations, ended at the same place too but the journey in between these points was an adventure! Listen to Topographic Oceans, there’s guitar playing there to bring you to tears almost, such is the colour and mood. Gates of Delirium: a story/battle played out on the guitar.
    Rabin’s playing was never going to be a match for such subtlety. I’m afraid that for all his technical ability, the sound bludgeons you like a baseball bat to the head.

    • Jeff Blanks says:

      Sometimes, yes, but he’s capable of a lot more. It took me a long time to admit to myself that he’s one of my favorite rock guitarists, because every time I heard a power chord on a Yes album I’d just cringe and think of what had been. *90125* is an excellent album of its type, “but”, to quote cartoonist Tim Kreider, “we could have gone to Mars.”

  5. DesertCat says:

    I think it was a perfect storm in many ways. The music scene at the time was still at the tail-end of grunge and Talk definitely didn’t fit that mold. The album itself was pretty good, but the lack of contribution from the rest of the band shows up on the recording. I recall reading some stories that, due to budget constraints, Trevor ended up needing to record a lot of the material on his own at home. That included many of the drum tracks, etc. When I hear live recordings of the Talk tour, the drum lines are much more interesting because Alan White is actually expressing himself. On the album, the drums just seemed a bit too mechanical. It shouldn’t be lost to history, however, that this was also the first fully digitally recorded album.

    For the old Trevor Rabin vs. Steve Howe arguments… I just think they are very different guitar players, but I love them both. Howe at his best is a quirky, jazzy, expressive guitar player of impressive ability. Trevor Rabin at his best is a passionate, technical wizard that liked to explore themes in his solos. Sometimes that was a homerun and other times it came off as a bit odd. So goes experimentation. One of my favorite recordings of Trevor Rabin “in the zone” is from a bootleg recording of the Talk tour at Maryland Heights show. In the last few minutes of Endless Dream on that recording, he’s just totally on.

  6. Don Monmouth says:

    Its very sad that the WAY that Talk was recorded was not mentioned. Apparently, it was recorded using a mixing desk and 20 + Apple computers utilizing a (now primitive) early version of a modern DAW. I would assume that processing power being such as it was that each track had to be compiled afterwards (correct me if I am wrong) to prevent loss or buffering issues. And there HAD to have been buffering issues! In this way, Trevor is one of the innovators of things like Pro-Tools and Logic ( a baby version of which is called Garage Band and comes bundled with most new Macs). For good or bad, his innovations have helped small scale writers and musicians like myself produce infinitely better sounding completed works and Demos, at a fraction of the cost. And THAT is a story I would dearly love to read in in-depth analyses of at some point!

  7. i remember hearing ‘talk’ for the first time, hearing the steel guitar on ‘the calling’ and thinking, its the union lineup! but alas, it wasn’t steve howe, it was trevor rabin, who admitted that he loved country guitar.

    having grown up as a ‘yeswester’ instead of a ‘trooper’ because of my age, the union album and tour was basically my first exposure to the band proper and especially of their earlier work. the first yes song i remember hearing on the radio was ‘leave it’, and i loved it. i didn’t think ‘union’ was as bad as the band thought it was, it had some amazing tracks on it, like ‘lift me up’ and ‘miracle of life’.

    ‘talk’ was definitely trevor rabin’s baby, as the majority of tracks were featured as demos on his ’90124′ record, including a version of ‘walls’ with supertramp’s roger hodgson, instead of anderson. and, contrary to what has been said, rabin did seem to be about commercial success at least as much as the music. in my opinion, if ‘talk’ had been as successful as ’90125′, he would’ve remained with the band, at least for a while longer than he did.

    i saw a show from the ‘talk’ tour live and i saw more of rabin’s backside than his front. yet in saying that, his solo during ‘endless dream’ was one of the top concert moments of my life. it took me to another dimension. and you could tell he was in the zone playing it. the rest of the show, unfortunately, didn’t live up to the solo.

  8. Big Generator, my least favorite “owned”YES album, I couldn’t figure out how it happened. Now I know, Chris. 90125, I just totally avoided. Owner of a lonely heart….not what I would think of, as a YES song. So it was Chris who wanted to move on, get commercial. hmmm. I did not know that.

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