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

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

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.
  • Nick Kokoshis

    At the time of its release I wasn’t into the DRAMA album because I was so into the Jon Anderson lyrical strain of thought, but now I absolutely adore this album! The Trevor Horn spell with band turned out to be a really bright spot in their career, and his later work with the first EP and album by The Art of Noise was a unique contribution to experimental electronic music.

  • Nick Kokoshis

    At the time of its release I wasn’t into the DRAMA album because I was so into the Jon Anderson lyrical strain of thought, but now I absolutely adore this album! The Trevor Horn spell with band turned out to be a really bright spot in their career, and his later work with the first EP and album by The Art of Noise was a unique contribution to experimental electronic music. Geoff of course has rejoined the group and has begun to regale us in some new classics, most notably his collaboration on “Subway Walls” with Jon Davison.

  • heykyleinsf

    I used to love Machine Messiah above and beyond any Yes song ever.. But over the years.. “Into the lens” has become my favorite off the record. In my book that song is a masterpiece and should be, and should have been a staple in their set.. I know it’s just me.. but that song is huge among my all time favorites of their catalog.

  • ChacoBurger

    I’ve always thought DRAMA was a really solid album; it’s got a lot of energy and some great parts – maybe a little too short. I was really glad when they started playing MM and Tempus Fugit – great songs

  • brochloon

    I’ve been a Yes fan since 1972 and I still regard Drama as one of their better albums. I’m glad it’s getting the recognition it deserves.

  • yonkers60

    I hope they continue the Classic Albums tours with Drama and Relayer in their entireties!!!!!!

  • Jeff Blanks

    I think it’s a very good album–more “together”-sounding and better-produced than *Tormato*, which shows the band searching for a future, and more “proggy” than *90125*, which comes down to earth a little too far. Still, as good as it is, I wish Chris Squire had gone back to Jon Anderson once it was nearly done and persuaded him to come back, and not just because the album would’ve been even better with a bit of Jon in it for variety and That Yes Spirit (and better lead vocals). With Jon on board for *Drama*, all the zig-zagging of their career since then might’ve been avoided, and they could’ve attained iconic status in the manner of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, even if not on that level. They wouldn’t have needed “Owner of a Lonely Heart” to be back near the top again.

  • super stevens

    From what I heard from this album, Drama seems excellent. But is it necessary to play the full album?

  • super stevens

    I mean is it as good as Going for the One or CttE to be played live?
    Great answer anyway!