Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson + Tony Kaye on the curious legacy of Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart”

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“Owner of a Lonely Heart,” issued as a single in October 1983, holds a contentious place in the history of Yes. It is, of course, the band’s biggest-charting hit, but also a symbol of its dramatic shift toward pop styles in the 1980s. A platinum-plated pariah, it is a song that continues to find a home in Yes’ setlists, but emerged from a period that is more typically ignored otherwise.

And it was Trevor Rabin’s song.

Rabin, in fact, had been working on an early version of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” as far back as 1980. He’d already conceptualized most of the track’s key elements, long before joining Yes. “The interesting thing is,” Rabin tells us in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown, “I was just sitting at home and I started messing with a riff. I thought: ‘This is so simple.’ I didn’t think twice about it. But then the more I thought about what I could do with the riff, it became: ‘Hang on, this is worth exploring. As simple as it is, it could be something pretty special.’ I’d mess around with it, and I came up with a chorus. I thought: ‘I’m just going to record it, and see what happens.'”

What happened remains largely unbelievable. He’d eventually bring “Owner of a Lonely Heart” to a new band, at one time to be called Cinema, that featured former Yes members Chris Squire, Tony Kaye and Alan White. Then, with the surprise addition of Jon Anderson late in the process, they’d end up being called Yes anyway.

Count Kaye among those who was similarly surprised. Then long out of Yes, he’d run into Squire while Kaye’s former band was touring behind 1980’s Anderson-less project Drama.

“It was just one of those moments where everything comes together. I went to the show, and Chris came back and we talked,” Kaye tells us, in a separate Something Else! Sitdown. “He wasn’t that happy with what was going on at the moment with [then Yes frontman] Trevor Horn and [keyboardist] Geoff [Downes]. It was just an idea of getting the band back together, really. Of course, it didn’t turn out like that, because Jon was away doing one of his projects. But Chris had bumped into Trevor Rabin, and that meant we had a guitar player, so we all went to London — and that was the beginning of the new Yes band.”

They were in the midst of updating Rabin’s existing demos when Anderson arrived, altering the trajectory of the project immediately. “Once we got into rehearsals, I just kind of rewrote parts to suit the band’s arena. The thing that changed the most significantly was, when Jon came into the band — after it had all been recorded,” Rabin adds. “Jon was kind of wheeled in at the end, and in my view had significant input. He really added great stuff.” That included things like a new chorus for the Rabin demo “Changes,” eventually a standout cut on the resulting 90125 album, but also a decision to revert to the old name.

It’s something Rabin is still uncomfortable with, more than three decades after “Owner of a Lonely Heart” marched up the charts. “The record company came in and said: ‘This is going to be a smash; we’ve got a single,’ and they were all very excited about Jon being in the band,” Rabin tells us. “Then it becomes: ‘Let’s call it Yes.’ We had a ready-made touring situation. They were right. It was all a very good idea. But I was really against calling it Yes, because I didn’t think it was. And to this day, I still think it’s a different thing than what Yes was prior to that.”

In truth, so much of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” is tied up in Rabin’s own personal history, rather than anything to do with Yes. He was the one, after all, who first took it to RCA A&R man Ron Fair, garnering label interest for a solo deal. Anderson, Squire and Horn (now serving as Yes’ producer) ultimately received songwriting credit as well, a tip of the hat for last-second additions. But even those familiar orchestral flourishes — a favorite among sampling hip hop artists and Mystery Science Theater 3000 — grew out of Rabin’s original solo take on “Owner of the Lonely Heart.”

“As I recorded it, I had a four-track recorder for demos, so you would record on the first and second tracks and then mix it to a third track,” Rabin tells us. “You would be making decisions based on what was coming, and sometimes those decisions would be wrong, but you couldn’t undo them. One of the things, a happy accident, was that all of the brass stabs and those weird things that happen on the record — they were just a product of what happened with the demo. When we started the record, in talking with Trevor Horn, he said we should retain that stuff. We’ll just record that really cleanly. I said I’d like to keep the levels very loud, and he was totally into that. That’s kind of how it evolved. All of the accidents on the demo, ended up on the record.”

Yes’ best-selling U.S. single ever, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” shot to No. 1 on the strength of its new-wave attitude and weirdly transfixing video — directed by Storm Thorgerson, of Pink Floyd fame. The closest Yes has been before or since was a No. 24 finish for “Leave It,” also from 90125, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. In fact, even past Trevor Rabin’s departure after 1994’s underrated Talk, some could argue that Yes’ modern era was largely marred by attempts to regain that particular vista.

Jon Anderson certainly agrees. “We were just making hit records, and that was the problem of the 1980s,” he tells us. “I said, ‘No we have to make great music.’ It was hard at that time. There were a lot of dark emotions. It wasn’t fulfilling what I wanted from the band.” By the end of the decade, Anderson would depart for a reunion with former Yes members as Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. He’d return again in the following decade, and then ultimately split with Yes again in the late 2000s.

That’s left a confused fan base to argue among themselves. “Yes became a little divided,” Kaye admits, “or rather the Yes audience became divided: 90125 was such an amazing success, and the demographic at the shows was skewed to a new audience — because of ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart.’ A No. 1 hit, big tour and a lot of the time, it was like a 80/20 division of new and old fans. The new fans didn’t know what to expect. They just knew ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart.’ And I think the older Yes audience sort of departed a little.”

In the end, then, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” is left with a curious legacy — as is Rabin, himself. He brought Yes a measure of success it had never known, but he had to relinquish something in the process that had once been completely his own. “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” after all, is known as a Yes song — not a Trevor Rabin song. Meanwhile, some have argued that this period, maybe even this track, is keeping the group out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Worse perhaps, Rabin has seen his contributions largely ignored, even vilified, by members of the band he left behind.

However this era is viewed today, though, Rabin refuses to abide revisionist history. “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,'” Rabin adds. “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

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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  • Cuddy Sark

    Typically ironic in band dynamics. Rabin should not be vilified. His contributions kept YES alive and even propelled them to the top of the charts where they’d never been. It was a natural progression seeing as other prog groups had also simplified their sound to stay alive and make a living. Genesis, RUSH, Gentle Giant, Pink Floyd. By the late 70/early 80s, they all had softened their music to try to compete with other pop groups and garner commercial airplay. Even successful solo prog acts like Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett were pushing more commercial fare. Even art rock acts like Bowie and Roxy were putting out more accessible albums by the 80s.

    09125 was not a bad album. It wasn’t typical YES but they would have ceased to exist if they tried to put out another RELAYER or FRAGILE. Who would buy it? YES fans mainly but the music biz had changed by that time. Record labels wouldn’t even have released the album since they were now looking for gold and platinum sales in the first couple weeks of release. Squire and Anderson are delusional if they think that they could still enjoy the same success they had during their heyday in the early-to-mid 70s if they didn’t have Rabin during the 80s.

    • Jeff Blanks

      The business might’ve changed, but not the audience. Most of the audience they had in 1979 was still there in 1983. They could’ve afforded to figure, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, that they were mostly above such things.

    • krabapple

      Yes had had top ten albums through most off the 70s. They also played concerts in huge outdoor arenas and sold out Madison Square Garden something like 10 times in a row. What they didn’t have was top ten singles. Then again, neither did Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd.

      Yes would not have ended forever if the Rabin era hadn’t happened; they almost certainly would have reformed at some point (as they did in 1995). Most famous bands do. But in 1983 they all had expensive lifestyles to support, and prog was passe in a period where pop was again ascendant, so of course they went AOR, as did other main-line prog bands,to varying degrees. None of them were delusional about it, then or now.

      But history will smile more on ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Fragile’ and ‘Relayer’ more than ‘90125’, I’m sure. And Genesis won’t be remembered for ‘Illegal Alien’ either.

  • James Murray

    Prog rock fans saw it as just one more betrayal of the 80s. First Genesis had their big hits after Steve Hackett left, they went a more commercial route and started slagging off their older more progressive works. Then you had prog rock alumni like Steve Howe, John Wetton, Carl Palmer, and Geoff Downes in Asia going full blown arena pop. Pink Floyd was disintegrating into Roger Waters solo territory with The Final Cut. Jethro Tull was going into strange electronic pop territory as was Rush. Renaissance had completely lost their way with the pop album, Timeline. And even King Crimson was going a way more commercial route with Three of a Perfect Pair. It seemed like all the prog rock bands were selling out. We can look back on these albums now with more fondness and be impressed at how they changed with the times, but back then there was quite a backlash.

    • krabapple

      If you can listen to the second half of Three of a Perfect Pair and call that ‘commercial’, salud. That was way more hard core prog than anything Yes et al were willing or able to do.