Yes’ patched-together homecoming project Union never lived up to its promise

If Yes’ Union — featuring every major contributor to the prog band’s legacy, save for Peter Banks and Trevor Horn — seemed a bit too good to be true, that’s because it was. Released on April 30, 1991, Union was less multi-generational homecoming than Frankenstein monster, an album pieced together from separate projects.

It arrived during a period of transition. Yes’ then-current membership (Tony Kaye, Chris Squire, Trevor Rabin, Alan White and newer collaborators like Billy Sherwood) were struggling to begin again following 1987’s Big Generator and Jon Anderson’s departure. Though they’d worked together on consecutive albums going back to 1983’s smash 90125, Anderson had yet to connect with Rabin.

“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, in an exclusive Something Else! Interview. “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 kept myself busy.”

He did so by joining a group of familiar past Yes contributors (Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe) to form a separate band with bassist Tony Levin. “With Steve and Bill and Rick, it was so easy,” Anderson said, “because they just wanted to make music. So, the album worked.”

Principally, because it sounded just like … well, Yes. Only, for contractual reasons, they ended up being dubbed Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe — a bit like having a car and calling it “Steering Wheel, Transmission, Radials and Chassis.” By the time ABWH reconvened for a sophomore effort, however, some of Trevor Rabin’s demos had become part of the conversation, and a label representative had a bright idea.

Union simply smashed these two similar, but very different, bands together under the by-now-tattered Yes banner. Jon Anderson, for instance, ended up simply adding his voice to a trio Trevor Rabin songs, including the single “Lift Me Up,” as well as the already-finished “The More We Live” — which grew out of a separate Squire project with Billy Sherwood. “We clicked musically and personally,” Sherwood said of Squire, in a separate Something Else! Sitdown. “There was lot of laughs, and a lot of good music. It was always very, very easy. Of course, it then became interesting to take the dynamic that he and I created as a writing team, and then go into the Yes mode.”

At this point, it mostly happened in isolation. Chris Squire likewise added backing vocals to completed Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe songs. Steve Howe’s “Masquerade” was an older, left-over solo piece. “Evensong” was a track Tony Levin and Bill Bruford began while on tour with Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe. “Saving My Heart” was apparently intended at first to be a collaboration between Rabin and Roger Hodgson, of Supertramp fame.

It sounds as pieced together as it in fact was, leaving the ironically dubbed Union as anything but. The album could only struggle to gold-selling status, Yes’ worst showing since Trevor Rabin’s arrival. And, despite all of the new firepower, Union only matched Big Generator‘s No. 15 showing on the Billboard charts.

The tour, which ballooned to nine members, was a similarly confusing jumble of patched-together personalities. “There were different ideas on how we would do it,” Steve Howe once admitted. “In the end, we stayed on the stage the whole time. I left for one song, and then I came back, and we couldn’t get any of the other guys to leave.”

Roundly understood to be an uneven, ultimately unsatisfying amalgam, Union nevertheless offered lingering positives for some of those involved.

For Sherwood, the album provided an entry point into his favorite band. He’s serve as a touring sideman, engineer, producer, full-fledged member and full-time peacekeeper through the ’90s, making major contributions to 1997’s Open Your Eyes and 1999’s The Ladder.

“My goal was to try to break down those partisan walls — because all of the music was so good,” Sherwood tells us. “There are people who won’t listen to Genesis, say, after 1978, but I can’t imagine that. I love all music. That was the one thing I tried to do, to bring unity. During the time I was with Yes, you heard new things, and classic things. For that, I am proud — to have aligned the planets for a moment in time. In the end, I got to see the classic version, and I worked with the 90125 version, as well. After viewing both versions, I helped come up with a new one. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Union led to a lengthy association with both of Yes’ drummers for Tony Levin, as well. Besides ABWH, Levin also co-founded Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, with Bruford and David Torn. He then worked with both Torn and Alan White on the completely improvisational Levin Torn White.

For Anderson, there was a belated connection with Rabin, leading directly to a return to Yes and their most collaborative album ever, 1994’s Talk. “We all got together, of course, and did Union and then me and Trevor started to really bond at that time,” Anderson says. “We hadn’t really bonded before, so it was a real interesting time.”

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has explored music for USA Today, 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
  • brian t

    For me, the ABWHL bits have a better hit rate e.g. Silent Talking is pretty radical, Shock To The System could work as a Metal cover, while I Would Have Waited Forever has odd verses but builds up a hefty head of steam towards the end. Producer Jonathan Elias has some horror stories about the production at http://www.bondegezou.co.uk/iv/jeinterview.htm

  • kk29

    I bought ABWH because it was “Yes” with Bill Bruford again. The album is…okay. Too much production busyness for me. And Bill’s electronic drums are horrible. I went to the Union show in Seattle and it was great. For me the best part of the show was when Trevor, Alan and Tony left the stage for Long Distance Runaround. That cut from Fragile was then performed by the five band members who created it: Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Rick Wakeman. For five minutes it was the Real Yes on stage. Well worth the price of admission!

  • Kevin Caffrey

    I always enjoy reading articles on this album as it was my entry point for Yes and they quickly became my favorite band (and still are, though I’ve long since stopped attending live shows since Anderson is no longer there and the performances have been spotty). This album is a mess, but there *is* good material on it, there’s just a lot of glop on top of it. What I like most about this album is its a rather unique set of Anderson lyrics — more down to earth than usual and perhaps the last set of lyrics from him that didn’t just go down the “mystical” path that has since dominated such a large part of his work. Union gave us spiritual songs like “Angkor Wat” and “Take the Water to the Mountain,” but there are lots of relationship songs in there as well (“I Would Have Waited Forever,” “Holding On,” “Without Hope You Cannot Start the Day”). Anderson was going through his divorce at the time so, for me, it’s an interesting listen from that perspective.

  • Don Rocko

    You forgot Pat Moraz. He didn’t play on it either, so 3 members were missing, although virtually all of LA’s session men played at least one note on the album

    • enderjed

      Howzabout Geoff Downes?

      • Don Rocko

        in “yesstories” Geoff stated he had no interest in the tour unless Trevor Horn was involved, which was never going to happen because Jon argued that if Trevor Horn was involved that he wouldn’t participate. I like Yes a lot, but they are personally very WEIRD to each other.

    • Clifton Morrisson Duncan

      I thought that imeadiatly as well…

  • Clifton Morrisson Duncan

    I can’t help find this article useless drivel. Speaking as a longtime Yes fan, I think telling the ever so slanted version of things as such, all these years later is pointless and doesn’t really speak well of how we the fans, the listeners felt about the Union album. For goodness sake man, Yes was everywhere…part of pop culture mega consciousnesses during those days. Who cares if the album didn’t go to number one? It achieved Gold Record status in the heyday of Grunge…that is saying a lot too. Union is a wonderfully pieced together collection of music that harmoniously work, and work well together. I love the Union album. Your treatease makes it sound like it was a train wreck…and it wasn’t.

    • KawiMan

      I agree! I’m a long-time Yes fan as well. I know Chris Squire referred to it as the “Onion” album. In spite of the tension between Yes members, I love the Union album, as there are a lot of beautiful songs within it. I first saw Yes live in ’78 for their Tormato Tour. All all of their concerts I’ve seen, the Union Tour was my favorite. I wish Geoff Downes & Trevor Horn would have been part of that, too.

    • thank you Clifton, for getting it. this rag probably likes Kanye.

  • Adam Johnson

    The only thing that killed Union was the production. I have listened to the Arista Union Promos, the SARM Demos, Make Believe, etc. There was more to it than just editing the song length. It’s so bad, I actually listen to those over Union. Holding On from SARM is a great example. Steve Howe owns that track. It’s barely even him on Union, it’s Haun and it’s very different. I implore that people do themselves a favor and check into them. All on YT.

    Honestly to me Union is a travesty. However, even with all the demos and such some of the tracks are definitely better. Mostly the Yes West tracks, because Trevor Rabin produced them. And imo the vocals being added to each others songs was definitely a good thing. Certainly not a detractor. Sorry, but Rabin/Squire vocals are not going to cut it when Jon Anderson is available.

    Still, Union should be taken exactly for what it is. Half ABWH songs with Squire vocal trimmings & (very) occasional Haun guitar, and half Yes West songs. The album deserves scrutiny, but the songs are still great if you listen to the right version. Holding On & Must Be Love (Without Hope You Cannot Start the Day) are the two that are better in ‘unfinished’ versions. Do It To Tell is also a pretty great song from SARM, but it never made it past the demo stage. It’s unfortunate, but it would have just been produced into oblivion anyway on Onion.

  • Kurt Kelley

    I
    saw the YES Reunion tour in 1991, when they featured two guitarists(Howe,
    Rabin), 2 drummers (White, Bruford), and 2 keyboardists (Wakeman,
    Kaye). By the time they each had their extended solos, The solos took
    up more total concert time than the songs! Boring and disappointing, as
    YES was one of my fav bands at the time. But its their SONGS I loved, not their individual solo bits. Sheesh. A 2 hour self indulgent wank fest! YAWN!

  • Dale Haskell

    Peter Banks claimed that after being invited to play a UNION concert and showing up,he was told Steve Howe wouldn’t appear on stage with him. True or not Banks got more than a raw deal from Yes. He was a founder ,gave the band it’s name and laid the foundation for Howe.

  • sad writing and editing. hard to trust a publication’s reviews when it can’t seem to put together an article written by an adult.

    I’m watching Union In the Round show right now. I’ve seen YES four times in my life. What the writer has overlooked is that their music transcends whatever rags want to pan.

    good show. It’s YES. what more can you say. and I notice the band members having fun, so…