I have always felt that artists like Yes were of their moment, being in the right place at the right time.
Looking at the evolution of rock music, its first era belonged to the Baby Boomers. It began in the mid- to late-1950s, where blues, country, and R&B song structures morphed into the new medium deemed rock and roll that made stars of trailblazers including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. In the 1960s, the Beatles and their contemporaries, while influenced by those 1950s icons, took the music to the next level with more sophistication in both songwriting and performance.
Later in that decade, upheavals in social mores (including enhanced consciousness through experimenting with drugs) transformed the rock idiom to where the ability to excel at one’s instrument became integral to the success of artists like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin — something which was then carried through the 1970s with a vengeance. The rock scene exploded into a number of sub-genres, where the successful bands (comprised of Baby Boomers who came at the end of that generation) took their own 1960s influences, creating music where for the most part the musicianship was more virtuosic, the compositions denser and more complex.
In this regard, when Yes emerged, they were at the right place at the right time, as all the hallmarks of each decade were organic to their distinct sound and composing: astounding musicianship, stellar vocals, and recurring melodic themes. At the start of the ‘70s, progressive rock was a radical new genre that was embraced because it went beyond rock’s roots to include jazz and classical, increasing the sound palate. Ironically, however, as the decade progressed the attributes that had made bands like Yes successful eventually worked against them, in the eyes of the press as well as audiences who didn’t grok increasingly more extended works exemplified by the likes of 1973’s Tales From Topographic Oceans.
To many, the listening investment that became necessary in appreciating extended compositions tended to lessen whatever joy that purchasing segment had originally found in the music. It was now more of a chore they chose not to endure.
By the end of the 1970s, the Baby Boomers were all grown up, but the subsequent generation didn’t have the same frame of reference that went from, say, Elvis to the Beatles to Yes. While it was a somewhat natural progression for the Boomers, for the most part their offspring didn’t understand because they weren’t around to evolve with the music. In a way, this is where rock music stopped evolving. Punk and new wave were popular, as the post-Boomer generation could buy a guitar and play three chords. To the fickle press, this was a welcome challenge to all the non-rock elements and unnecessary complexity embraced by prog.
By the beginning of the 1980s, what was earlier hailed as refreshing was now considered antiquated, and the word “dinosaur” was frequently used to label those artists who worked so hard in perfecting their craft as being devoid of any relevance whatsoever.
So given prog’s history to this point, Jon Anderson left Yes, followed by Rick Wakeman as he saw Jon’s departure as being a devastating blow to the band’s makeup — effectively ending what in Yes fan shorthand was the “Trooper” lineup. The “Generator” era would then take Yes into a different direction. While the musicianship was still stellar, the music didn’t demand the previous level of complexity and suddenly, thanks to Trevor Rabin’s more compact songwriting, Yes had some hits. That was not lost on certain members, who had squandered the fortunes made in the 1970s and were in for a rude awakening when their short-sightedness resulted in no longer being able to maintain their lavish lifestyle.
The story behind the formation of this incarnation of Yes is well known to fans: Trevor didn’t want the baggage of a band he had no hand in creating (and to an extent for which he had little, if no, affinity), and the working title of the band was Cinema. However, with four ex-Yes members in the group (including the trademark vocals of Jon and Chris Squire), instant brand-name recognition, and a publicity machine eager to take a known-but-now-irrelevant band and morph it into something targeted at a broader demographic, Trevor probably recognized the tradeoff of reigniting Yes — albeit in a different form — over launching what was really a new band concept.
Weighing the pros and cons that went along with the plan: As Cinema, they would have started small and perhaps worked their way up to the big leagues, despite their pedigree, but as Yes they could go straight to the stadiums, reach a large audience instantly (in turn, driving sales for what became 1983’s 90125), and in the process reap the rewards from all those ticket sales (in all likelihood the dollar signs in the eyes of certain members of Yes from their previous incarnation).
Jumping ahead to 1994’s Talk, the supposed resurrection of the band that was so successful with 90125 (and to a lesser but still successful extent with 1987’s Big Generator) was a case of lightning failing to strike twice. Talk tanked commercially, though I personally think that artistically it’s the best of the three studio albums produced by this lineup. After the blood, sweat, and tears Trevor expended on Talk, he had had enough. With a successful career in film scoring beckoning, he finally left the band as a fulltime member for good. With that event, Jon and Steve Howe were at last back in the driver’s seat, but by then it was too late to recapture the magic of their earlier successes.
Fans bought and praised Yes subsequent output: the two late-1990s Keys to Ascension volumes, 1999’s The Ladder, and 2001’s Magnification had some great music, and like other fans eager for new Yes music I listened to those albums a lot for a while after each was released. (I left out 1997’s Open Your Eyes, as conceptually that wasn’t a true Yes album despite Billy Sherwood’s considerable talents; at its core Yes’ new management used that album as a money-making effort, as they would gain nothing from the second Keys volume that was in the process of being released, instead taking Chris’ suggestion to use tracks he and Billy had created and morph it into a Yes album by adding Steve and Jon here and there — From the Balcony aside.)
Unfortunately, the music from those albums didn’t have the same resonance and staying power as their 1970s output. The core members might have been essentially those same members, but they had changed along with the musical landscape. As Jon was instrumental in the creation of those latter albums, I don’t think it would have made any difference if he never left (or was forced out of) the band. There will always be a faithful contingent who loves absolutely everything Yes does: when Notes From the Edge asked their Facebook users to rate 2011’s Fly From Here (after Benoit David was recruited to take over for Jon), there was a disproportionate number of people who gave the album five out of five stars. Fans who were more objective and even critical saw comparing FFT to, say, 1971’s Fragile was laughable at best.
That brings me to a second point, and one that was obvious with Fly From Here: Jon brought more than his signature Yes vocals and distinct lyric writing to the band. What was also missing from FFH was a sense of grace, and that loss proved that sounding like Yes was not equal to actually being Yes — and, therefore, it wasn’t good enough for a large number of fans.
Even if the music on the albums that directly preceded FFH stayed with fans, the execution and feel were still that of Yes, and a large part of that was due to Jon’s input and ability to adapt what the more expert players in the group would create and take it to an entirely new level: For a great example of this, compare Steve’s Homebrew demo of “Rare Birds” with the tune after Jon added his own input for the track, renamed “Vultures” and recorded during the sessions for the eponymous album from Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.
Still, given the circumstances of Jon’s removal from the band (after a respiratory illness prevented the band from touring and earning a living), that will always be secondary to the “Not Yes” faction — who remain furious over the way the beloved Yes singer was kicked out of a band that he created.
From being an insider at the time, I won’t betray confidences despite my own personal issues with Yes, which will come out when the time is right — for me. I think it probably was apparent that before the hiatus there was discord within the band, and had certain issues not been resolved there is a chance it might have come to a head resulting in all parties agreeing to the end of Yes as we know it. In fact, that is what happened, except Jon Anderson had no say in the decision.
Some bands are defined by their lead vocalist, and that are therefore considered irreplaceable: Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Roger Daltrey of the Who are two good examples of that, and Jon Anderson is in their company.
As I said before, he wasn’t just a voice, he knew how to mold Yes and to some extent was their figurehead and spearhead. And no matter how good Jon Davison (or anyone else in this role) may be, their being talented will always be beside the point in the larger scheme of the Yes/Anderson debate.
Yes has come too far to remain the band that rose to great success riding on the rock evolution wave that is flat today, and that includes the prospect of being artistically successful as Yes with someone else trying to fill some very big shoes.
A NOTE FROM MIKE TIANO: I’d like to thank Nick DeRiso and Something Else! for this opportunity. With the release of Yes’ new single “Believe Again,” Nick touched on the band’s constant battle between writing compositions that are expansive and challenging (e.g. “Close to the Edge”), and songs that are catchy and commercial (90125) — and how Yes’ current vocalist and, with this album, band songwriter is caught in the crossfire. Knowing I have had a deep association with Yes’ music and history (originally as a fan and musician since 1972, as editor/interviewer for the Yes journal Notes From the Edge since 1993, and as their web site manager from 1998-2011), Nick asked if I had any thoughts. When I offered additional examination beyond what was presented in his thoughtful article, Nick felt that my contribution would add another dimension to the conversation — so the result is this followup to his original piece.
© 2014 Mike Tiano. All Rights Reserved.