Tales from autobiographic oceans

A renewed appreciation of Yes, the only band to successfully merge the pop smarts of ABBA with the bong-fueled inscrutability of King Crimson

People who write about pop music occasionally get together socially. And when they do, typically this question is asked: “What are you listening to these days?”

Thus begins an elaborate dance, the rock critic’s equivalent to peeing on fire hydrants and trees, which positions the writer either as a person who’s into the right tunes at the right time or as some clueless hack who’s woefully behind the curve.

Here’s an answer that might pass muster: “Lately, I’ve been into ‘Yekatit’ by Mulatu Astatke—a superb Ethiopian instrumental jazz-funk band from the early 1970s—along with some home recordings by Art Lessing and a vinyl pressing of an early-’90s album by Caboose, which was, you know, FM Knives’ Chris Woodhouse and Cake’s Gabe Nelson pretending to be XTC. And, of course, recent stuff by the A-Frames, Lyrics Born, My Morning Jacket, Death Cab for Cutie, Centro-Matic, Fountains of Wayne and, um, OutKast and the White Stripes, which everybody already knows about.”

And the following might get you laughed out of the room: “I’m really loving Limp Bizkit’s recent homage to the Deftones, Mandy Moore’s album of cover versions, and that new two-CD best-of package by the Eagles.”

The reason I bring this up is because of a few recent conversations, which started out OK but veered off in a dangerous direction when I blurted out the following confession: Recently, I have become enamored, or re-enamored, with the music of Yes, a band that epitomized wretched progressive-rock excess in the 1970s.

Now, if there is one transgression that calls for immediate admission to whatever re-education camp exists for music critics, then admitting that you’ve been freely ingesting massive amounts of ’70s prog rock via headphones must be punishable by the most draconian of measures, whatever those might be. A forced listening session spanning the entire recorded oeuvre of everyone even marginally involved with the Strokes? Or the complete works of Nico, while a loop of Ciao Manhattan plays in the background?

Admitting you have an appetite for any kind of prog is an invitation to a metaphorical bum’s rush, at least from people who value the compression and brevity of the prevailing punk-rock aesthetic. And Yes, whose first album was released in 1969 but who didn’t hit its stride until a trilogy of albums—Fragile and Close From the Edge in 1972 and the double album Tales From Topographic Oceans in 1974— was one of the most successful, commercially speaking, which made matters worse. (Those albums, along with most of the band’s Atlantic Records catalog through 1977, have been reissued by Elektra/Rhino Records in deluxe remastered versions, with plenty of bonus material; more reissues will follow.) It’s one thing to profess a liking for, say, Van Der Graaf Generator or Magma, bands whose relative obscurity and lack of accessible material still offer enough snob appeal to offset their progressive-rock leanings. But Yes had big hit records, and you could sing along, even if you weren’t future Dungeons & Dragons material.

Why was Yes so roundly reviled by critics? OK, let’s start with a few negatives. The band’s lyrics, by singer Jon Anderson, were impressionistic, in that characteristically acid-damaged way that sent diehard haters running for their Johnny Cash records. For example, on Close to the Edge’s “Siberian Khatru,” it could be said that Anderson achieved the same effect that one might get by flinging Magnetic Poetry pieces at a refrigerator door: “Outboard / River / Blue tail / Tail fly / Luther / In time / Suntower / Asking,” and so on. Yes, we’ve all had days that felt just like that, haven’t we?

More typical was this lyric, from that album’s title cut: “In her white lace / She could clearly see the lady sadly looking / Saying that she’d take the blame / For the crucifixion of her domain / I get up / I get down.” Or who could forget the chorus of “Roundabout,” from Fragile: “In and around the lake / Mountains come out of the sky and they stand there”?

It didn’t help that Anderson sang those lyrics in a fey, ethereal voice that sounded like a boys choir of hobbits after Frodo stole Galadriel’s secret elven mushroom stash and fed it to them in the recording studio. Singing like that, of course, is only acceptable if you can shift into banshee-wail mode, à la Robert Plant or Jeff Buckley, at the drop of a wizard’s hat.

Compounding the problem was Rick Wakeman, the E. Power Biggs of rock ’n’ roll, an overblown organist and synthesizer player who, after temporarily exiting Yes in 1973, released the solo albums The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey to the Centre of the Earth and—gallantly venturing into “some jokes write themselves territory”—The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, which toured as an ice-follies production.

Lastly, there was the band’s cover art, by psychedelic illustrator Roger Dean. The band’s first three albums, 1969’s Yes, 1970’s Time and a Word and 1971’s breakthrough The Yes Album, featured band photos on their covers, at least on the American versions. And 1977’s Going for the One sported a cover by the English firm Hipgnosis, already well-known for its striking album-cover designs for Pink Floyd, Genesis and Led Zeppelin. But Fragile, Close to the Edge and Tales From Topographic Oceans—along with 1974’s Relayer (on which fusion-jazz keyboardist Patrick Moraz replaced Wakeman for one album) and the three-LP live set from 1973, Yessongs—featured Dean’s ethereal and trippy designs. In retrospect, they seem perfectly in sync with the band’s musical aesthetic from the period and communicate it effectively.

Couple that psychedelic imagery with double- and triple-album sets, along with songs that often spanned the entire length of an album side, and it’s no wonder that critics turned their noses up and their thumbs down.

Yes, in a recent “too old to rock ’n’ roll, too young to shuffle off” photo: Chris Squire, Steve Howe, Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and Alan White.

Many still do. Not me.

So, what’s to like?

Well, the core rhythm section on The Yes Album, Fragile and Close to the Edge—Steve Howe on guitar, Chris Squire on bass and Bill Bruford on drums—was one of the strongest and most inventive combinations in rock. Bruford, on board from the beginning, left after Close to the Edge to join another excellent English prog band, King Crimson; his complex, driving rhythms, unfortunately, were not duplicated by the drummer who replaced him, Alan White. Howe, who replaced Peter Banks, could play in a variety of styles—whipping out the kind of warp-speed amplified noodling considered de rigueur by prog bands one minute and then shifting to acoustic guitar for complex Elizabethan-flavored filigrees the next.

But it was the bass parts of Squire that really made the Yes juggernaut fly. Squire was the only consistent member of Yes all the way through the various lineups to the great schism of the late 1980s—wherein he, White, original keyboardist Tony Kaye and guitarist Trevor Rabin were granted ownership of the band’s name, while Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe performed under their own names (effectively lampooned by joke-punk band the Dead Milkmen in the song “Anderson, Walkman, Buttholes and How”).

Squire was the most important component of Yes’ sound, as important to it as Paul McCartney was to the Beatles’ music. Like McCartney, Squire found a way to underpin and propel the songs that was more than thumping a chord progression’s root notes along with the beat—he often played against the grain but usually managed to find the right notes. Listen to the druid-funk passages of “Siberian Khatru,” or “Close to the Edge,” to get an idea of how smart a player he could be.

Aside from strong playing, it was the arrangements that made Yes’ records work so well. Much of so-called progressive rock got bogged down in converting pretentious ideas to sonic reality, and often there weren’t enough old-fashioned pop-music hooks to enthrall the less-obsessive listeners. Yes had pop-music hooks in droves; even the album-length suites tended to shift, melodically or thematically, as often as that classic of attention-deficit-disorder orchestral music, The Planets by English composer Gustav Holst.

In fact, it was that balance between lofty ambition and pop accessibility that made Yes’ music relevant and continues to make it relevant today. How else do you account for so many people buying a double album, whose four songs—“The Revealing Science of God/Dance of the Dawn,” “The Remembering/High the Memory,” “The Ancient/Giants Under the Sun” and “Ritual/Nous Sommes du Soleil”—were based on four-part “Shastric scriptures” that Anderson read about in a footnote on page 83 of Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi while on tour in Japan? That’s pretty esoteric, as were most of Anderson’s lyrics. But many of the melodies were as pure pop as anything offered later by ABBA or the Bee Gees, even if the instrumental backing was far less conventional.

It’s easy to scoff at the grandiose psychedelic excesses of Yes today. The “Stonehenge” sequence in the 1984 film parody This Is Spinal Tap shamed a lot of erstwhile Gandalf-rock bands into hiding their prog roots, but Yes already had moved out of leprechaun territory with shorter song structures on Going for the One in 1977. By 1983’s 90125 and its hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” produced by Buggles mastermind Trevor Horn, Yes was as resolutely contemporary as former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel, even if it wasn’t taken as seriously by the cognoscenti.

But where would rock music be without the sharply angular music of Yes? Would the Police have found its sound? Or the Sugarcubes, whose former singer Björk, arguably one of the most original and creative forces in pop music for the past decade, evokes a similar sense of crystalline arctic strangeness in her music that Yes did on its best records? Even such current indie-rock darlings as Grandaddy, Death Cab for Cutie and others sound as if they’ve been cribbing a few lessons from the godfathers of accessible prog rock.

Time to take another listen? Yes, indeed.