Geoff Downes and Chris Squire on the enduring legacy of 1980’s Drama: ‘Very much a turning point for Yes’

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The seeds of the on-going No Jon/No Yes argument didn’t start with Fly From Here, though that 2011 project actually has a root system which traces back that far. Instead, you must return to Drama — for years an ignored item in the Yes discography — to find the first flowerings of an argument that’s only intensified lately.

Drama, released on August 18, 1980, marked the first recording Yes undertook without Jon Anderson out front — and also the arrival of keyboardist Geoff Downes, who took over after one of Rick Wakeman’s many departures. (Downes says he actually considered, if only briefly, donning a Wakeman-style cape, but ultimately decided he couldn’t pull it off.) In keeping, Drama tended to split the loyalties of Yes’ fanbase.

But not Downes: “I think it’s often overlooked,” he tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “It was very much a turning point for Yes, and pointed the band into a different chapter for a different generation.”

In fact, Drama served as a critical part of the bridge between Yes’ well-established progressive structures of the 1970s and the approachable prog-pop that loomed in the decade to follow. Drill in deeper, and it’s also one of the most guitar-focused recordings in Yes’ lengthy history.

That said, while Drama remains an album unlike any Yes has done, it is also completely in keeping with their essential aesthetic. After all, Yes’ ability to adapt (to morph, really, via ever-shifting lineups) has been the lifeblood that’s kept this group going. Drama was, for all of its historical oddities, just another example.

“In many ways, it paved the way for them to do the [charttopping 1983] 90125 album,” Downes adds, “which was quite a different Yes from what had been there before. They ended the previous era with [1978’s] Tormato, and from there on, they added quite a lot more of the up-to-date technological sounds that I suppose I was familiar with particularly. I think that brought Yes to a different arena.”

It didn’t last, however. By the time 90125 arrived, Anderson had returned — replacing Trevor Horn, who switched to producing duties after one album behind the mic. Meanwhile, both Steve Howe and Downes had left for Asia. Somewhere along the way, Drama disappeared — unplayed on tour, cast aside as a non-canonical step-child.

That is, until Anderson’s most recent departure. When a retooled Yes convened in the studio again, Downes and Horn were back on board as keyboardist and producer, respectively, and the group set about refashioning some unfinished portions of the Drama sessions into something new.

“When we got together to do Fly From Here,” Chris Squire tells us, “one of the first conversations Trevor Horn and I had was that it would be kind of interesting to expand the revamped “Fly From Here” song. It was originally written for the Drama album, but didn’t make it on because of the time constraints. When we talked about reviving that song, the second part of the conversation was that maybe we shouldn’t just do that. Maybe we should make it into a longer piece in the classic Yes style — and we embraced that idea. We trolled around for other bits of music to put together, and it all worked very well. It’s a good album. When we finished it, everybody was very happy with the way it turned out. Of course, working with Trevor Horn again is always a great experience for me. We have a lot of fun, creating in the studio together. I really feel very sure when I’m working with him, because he will make sure the best comes out of the project.”

Even before then, however, something had clicked. As they took to the road again in their first tentative steps without Anderson, so did songs from Yes’ lost 1980 album.

Among them was the classically complex “Tempus Fugit,” featuring a coiled — and, for a time, extremely difficult to replicate — bass line from Squire. “Going back to play ‘Tempus Fugit’ absolutely was a challenge for me,” Squire admits, “because the bass playing at the same time as the vocals, is not an easy thing to pull off. It’s taken me a couple of years to really feel comfortable doing that again. It’s quite complicated, the harmonies and the bassline. Now, of course, we definitely have that down, and it’s a great pleasure to play that song.”

Also returning to setlists beginning in the immediate post-Anderson era was “Machine Messiah,” this endlessly intriguing item that grew out of an earlier composition by Downes and Horn. Downes brought some church influences, some classical wit (there’s a toccata quoted from Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony for Organ No. 5) and a techno sensibility that pushed Yes into an entirely new place — one that, it’s easy to argue, the group might not have gotten to via the former lineup featuring Anderson and Wakeman.

“Certainly, ‘Machine Messiah’ was a piece that really developed,” Downes says. “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.”

As fans finally had a chance to hear the music again, the profile surrounding Drama slowly began to change — and not just with audience members. Steve Howe, for one, tells us he is ready for Yes to consider Drama as part of its rotation of full-album concert offerings.

It’s all adds up to a critical reevaluation that Downes feels should have happened long ago. “I think Drama helped continue the legacy of Yes,” he adds, “but also to take it a stage further.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, 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 U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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