Yes, “Shock to the System” from Union (1991): YESterdays

Share this:

Kevin Mulryne, founder of the Yes Music Podcast and a contributor at Something Else!, is not a big fan of 1991’s Union and even less so of the second song, “Shock to the System.”

Perhaps that’s because a stunning 11 different keyboardists eventually worked on the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe tracks that completed Union. Maybe it’s because of the additional “contemporary” sounds tacked on by producer Jonathan Elias. Maybe it’s the army of backing vocalists that were also added to the ABWH songs.

And poor Rick Wakeman! Wakeman is seen by many as the keyboardist of Yes, yet his touches are inaudible on the album and especially “Shock to the System.” Wakeman, by his own admission, is not sure which, if any, of his parts made it onto Union. Those that did were resequenced and altered by Elias. It’s weird that most people see his contributions to Yes as so invaluable, yet original keyboardist Tony Kaye appears on as many Yes studio albums and has vastly more songwriting credits with the world’s greatest progressive rock band – but let’s leave that discussion for another time.

Kevin’s misgivings about “Shock to the System” rest mostly around the conventional rock backbeat by Bill Bruford, and the fact that the song seems to have no real destination. Strangely, some of the reasons “Shock to the System” isn’t Kevin’s cup of tea are the reasons I like it so much.

Composed from fragments of a Steve Howe instrumental and enhanced with Jonathan Elias’ melody and Jon Anderson lyrics, “Shock to the System” seems almost like a Big Generator-era song instead of a tune begun by Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. The multi-tracked electric guitars are all Jimmy Haun. Fascinating, given that Howe developed the opening riff and received a writing credit for it. Haun also played all the acoustic guitar in the song’s middle section and completed bass overdubs in addition to Tony Levin’s fretless bass work. “Shock to the System” did not include Chris Squire’s vocals, either.

Bruford’s Simmons drums are unobtrusive and play mostly a conventional 4/4 rhythm. With Haun, Levin and Bruford driving it, “Shock to the System” rocks convincingly. The song is awash with keyboard textures, yet the layered patches don’t really add too much to the song.

Lyrically, Anderson treads a thin line between literal and ethereal:

Shock to the politicians;
You know they just got burned by the fire.
Shock to the freedom whispers;
They’re only coming after the rolling – They’re rolling, coming over!
Dreaming all the time; they be dreaming all the time.

So, in answer to the prayer,
The one you want is there,
The one you feel inside of you.
So, in answer to the dream,
This time you are so clear;
It’s always got to be this way!
Forever…”

The result is an enjoyable rocker which is more of a Jon Anderson solo track than a Yes song. Union, indeed.


YESterdays is a song-by-song feature that explores the unforgettable musical legacy of Yes. The series runs every other Tuesday.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
Share this:
Close