Atlantic Records, a fairly successful operation by most standards, has developed a functional approach to English rock and roll over the last few years. With a lot of money to spend, the company ventures forth in relative caution, studying the schizophrenic English "scene" and generally chasing after only those entities showing promise of commerciality. That means someone in Britain must do the actual discovering and initial contracting, say Island or Polydor Records (both of whom Atlantic works with more than rarely), leaving Atlantic to merely buy American rights. The bands acquired this way have included Cream, the Bee Gees, King Crimson, and Mott the Hoople.NOTES ABOUT THE BAND
by Jim Bickhart and John Tobler
Actually recruiting an English band is not the sort of thing Atlantic is prone to doing, probably because their few attempts have not paid off in spades. There is one exception, Led Zeppelin, who in 1968 certainly weren't much of a risk. Lulu falls in the middle, having had a hit or two, but then take Cartoone and Dada. You've probably never heard of either and it's not surprising, since neither were very spectacular.
Cartoone, a Scottish band, came to Atlantic thru some tie-in with the Lulu deal. Such arrangements are always dubious propositions. Dada purportedly had tenuous musical connections with the art movement of the same name. One might have connected the confusion of Dada with the group, but hardly the originality. The band did one Lp, much like an equally temporary dadist newspaper, and split up. Their remnants are now Vinegar Joe, signed to Island in England. They are most likely still using the mass of equipment acquired at Atlantic's expense.
Such an introductory digression as this is prompted by the fact that Atlantic probably invested more money in failures like Cartoone or Dada than they did in more creative artists they acquired for one disparate reason or another but could not successfully market for a long time. Take Yes. Three years on, they are popular on both sides of the Atlantic (the fiscal and the artistic, as well as the east and the west), and Ahmet Ertegun is no doubt overjoyed at what he must remember as his good taste back in 1968. Certainly, a show of perseverance, inadvertent or otherwise, is what Mr. Ertegun must be credited with, since most Americans (and especially American radio programmers) didn't want to know about the band until after their first American tour in 1971.
Yes, like most multi-personed organizations, have been through a few personnel changes over the years. The three-man core of the group, vocalist, songwriter and ersatz leader Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Bill Bruford, are still present. Pete Banks on guitar and Tony Kaye on organ have been replaced with Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, respectively. Some say that the most noteworthy thing about early Yes was their logo, a bubble emerging from invisible lips, proclaiming "Yes. " A bloody great bright red and blue Yes bubble found its way to the back cover of their first Lp and rates no artistic awards in its blatancy.
Harsher critics have called Yes' first effort, Yes, an eminently forgettable collection of music. Which is perhaps both fair and unfair at the same time. The two primary strains in early Yes music were both admirable in their own right, but can be considered almost mutually exclusive. The first was a propensity for reworking relatively known songs by other writers; no sample of this approach to finding material was anything less than striking, since Yes tended to address themselves pretty radically to the task. The Beatles' "Every Little Thing," which took somewhat of a back seat to other numbers of Beatles Six back in l 965, is nigh onto unrecognizable until the vocal begins, well into the track. The cut could be called "sophisticated heavy," and the band's ideas seemed to resemble those of the Nice when that group placed themselves in a similar position. There is the removal of emphasis from one segment of the song and the placing of it on another, the imposition of jazzy riffs and rhythms which didn't originally have anything to do with the song and soaring, adolescent vocal harmonies which now trademark Yes. The amalgamation worked for "Every Little Thing," and only slightly less so for the Byrds' "I See You" (from Fifth Dimension). The Byrds' original track was not so dispersed and therefore carried a little more of a punch, I think, and when they recorded it, McGuinn was doing all those pseudo-avant garde jazz riffs on his twelve-string, the likes of which haven't been heard again from rock guitar players. Pete Banks, on the other hand, played it with sleek, slim lines which are, most simply, not as aurally demanding.
The other direction of the band was that of original material. Jon Anderson was, and remains, prolific. Lyrically, he has always been a competent if not pioneering writer, and on Yes, his music (or, more accurately, the band's music, since the arrangements are so important) is quite straightforward and tuneful. One has some measure of trouble distinguishing between tracks for want of some hook to grab onto, but it's truthfully hard to fault a band for trying to write solidly good rock and roll numbers which are more than Chuck Berry chord progressions. Considering Yes' current level of acceptance, it is surprising that they didn't have any hit singles before "Your Move" in 1971; much of the material on Yes, while not as good, should certainly have had a good shot at an AM audience. Its structure is relatively simple and the band sounded tight more than anything else. "Looking Around" rated as the best of this lot.
The later trademarks of Yes, besides the vocals, proved to be staccato bursts (riffs, often played by several members of the band at once) and flowing melodic passages. Both are present in economic proportions on Yes. The album aroused interest mostly from relatives of the band members and a few critics when it came out, and made the bargain bins long before the group broke big. It would be a good buy if you got one cheap, otherwise this should be considered the most expendable Yes Lp.
Time and a Word, the second and last Lp done with the original lineup, was more or less a rehashing of the first, save for a change of producers (trade Paul Clay for Tony Colton [who produced Taste and sings with Head, Hands and Feet] ) and the addition of orchestral arrangements to some tracks.
Richie Havens' "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed" was the big move for the album. Somehow, it got mixed up with the music from The Big Country, which was the Western epic movie theme epitomized. What seems to be a million violinists going diddle-iddle-iddle, then organ, guitar, bass and drums force their way in, making room for Anderson's voice. It's very powerful and impressive all the way through, but the high point is Banks' wah-wah echoing of the movie theme in the middle. The track should be played at neighbor-annoying volume to be really effective, and it is guaranteed to remove the breath from anyone forced to listen to it through large speakers at close range.
Also on Time and a Word is Steve Stills' "Everdays," which on Buffalo Springfield Again, is a muted, jazzy little ballad. Not so here. Yes make it another epic, but that's okay. Once again, the non-original material serves as the album's focal point.
It might be noted that while the group's original songs didn't initially seem so great, the band had already created a sound fairly recognizable as their own. Tony Kaye tended to adjust his organ a certain way, and there was an airy feeling in the proceedings. Their use of string arrangements was lush, but more like the extravagant practicality of a Procol Harum than the extravagant triviality of the Bee Gees. If a bit of precociousness, a bit of pretentiousness and some measure of ability to carry them both off were your ideas of something worth hearing, then Yes immediately struck you as a band to watch. It did not, however, make their rise to fame and fortune any less unexpected. The pop world simply hasn't progressed so far that one can predict the presence of complicated music on the top forty.
So Yes, undaunted by their relative lack of acceptance, slogged about Britain in their gig van, playing to audiences both hostile and friendly (they went down well with people ready to accept something different from the always-popular deafeningly heavy, get-it-together-in-the-country type of band who sing of green and purple tortoises sprinting across their consciousnesses). Instead of trying to reproduce the overdone sound of Time and a Word (unlike the Bee Gees and Barclay James Harvest, Yes decided not to bring their symphony orchestra to the concerts with them), the band continued to develop their material.
In late summer 1970, Pete Banks left the band to join Blodwyn (Pig), which proved an unprofitable move, since Blodwyn held together another three months. Replacing him was Steve Howe, who had been with an embryonic underground group, Keith West's Tomorrow. They did one album and had a couple of singles which garnered attention; "My White Bicycle" and the later"Excerpts From a Teenage Opera." Marc Bolan has said that Tomorrow was as good a band as you'd find in England for a brief timespan of 1967, and he characterized Steve Howe's guitar work as excellent Roger McGuinn rip-offs. Howe's next band was Bodast, a short-lived group whose main claim to fame was a bottom-of-the-bill gig at the Albert Hall when the Who were bombarded with pennies by a bunch masquerading as Chuck Berry fans. Chuck was below the Who on the bill. The same day, there'd been a concert just across the road from the Albert... the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. It was quite a day, and Steve Howe almost figured in it.
Anyway, by the time Howe joined, Yes were doing several numbers which would prove to be staples on their third Lp, not to mention another "interpretation" which has never been recorded; Paul Simon's "America." Honestly, this rates as the most impressive thing they've ever done, and would undoubtedly do well as a record. It runs about twenty-five minutes, giving each instrument a solo section, and doing as good a job as Yes can do lending proper poignancy to a set of lyrics.
In general, Yes concerts at this point were spectacular enough simply as evidences of ensemble gymnastics. All the members of the group have always been technically good craftsmen attuned to the concept of contributing to an overall effect before worrying about making a flashy individual showing. Chris Squire's bass sound, not propelled by any amazing speed or inventiveness on his part, was improved by giving him better equipment, and Tony Kaye's organ work continued to be totally appropriate to what the band were doing. Steve Howe picked up nicely where Banks left off, and drummer Bruford was a good deal more than a simple percussionist.
A tour of Britain with Iron Butterfly in late 1970 proved important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Chromium Ferret were blown into oblivion by Yes. Yes were then subsequently able to take-over all of Butterfly's excellent if somewhat abused P.A. equipment. It was the signal that Yes were about to become headliners themselves, and the final kick was given by The Yes Album.
Produced by Yes with Eddie Offord, The Yes Album was the band's first show of unique original songwriting. Which is to say they were finally able to combine the irregularity usually reserved for their versions of other people's songs with the tunefulness always present in their own work. The resulting hybrid sent a few skeptics to their notebooks to try to chart the flow of influences so they might have their ledger of criticism ready at the next Intellectual Discussion of Rock Music, but most listeners simply ran out and bought the album.
The best tracks on the record were "Starship Trooper" and "I've Seen All Good People." Both were in several " movements," independently structured but well tied together and filled with ensemble virtuosity of great magnitude. Steve Howe and Tony Kay shined throughout, their playing going from showy speed and volume to subtlety and quiet with nary a whimper of discomfort. The "Your Move" segment of "All Good People," which depicted a sort of chess game of human emotions, became an American hit single, its choral vocal effects ringing majestically out of little radios everywhere during the summer of '71.
The first American tour took place soon after the release of the third album. Though the band was already playing only large venues back home in Britain, they had to pay their proverbial dues in the States. Long gigs at places like L.A.'s Whisky were quite like metabolic overhauls for Yes; they played some clubs which to them probably seemed no bigger than dressing rooms for their concerts back in England. But to audiences, it was a bit of a treat, since Yes close-up, with lovely permanent stage lighting and good equipment, were a feast. As one Englishman delighted to find himself in the audience put it, "seeing them up close like this is great. It would never happen in England, you know. And they're like a well oiled machine... they just get up there and do it, with no monkey business. " Not, perhaps, a wildly favorable testimonial if you're the Who, but Yes never have made any bones about what they were doing. It's always been precise and preconceived. Their first American tour opened enough ears to get "Your Move" that all-important airplay, and the band has not looked back since.
In 1971, Tony Kaye left because the rest of the group wanted him to continue to diversify on the keyboards. He, on the other hand, wished to simplify, sticking mostly to organ. A ready made replacement was found in former Strawb Rick Wakeman, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music who had been sumptuously decorating the Strawbs' converted folk-rock for a little over a year. Wakeman, a master on piano. organ, synthesizer and mellotron, made the transition smoothly and has since been seen playing four and five instruments almost simultaneously on stage. The Strawbs, meantime, replaced him with a fellow named Blue Weaver, who, amazingly enough, has responded to the challenge of filling Wakeman's shoes quite admirably; the Strawbs never truthfully taxed Wakeman's full range of skills, but they certainly do Weaver's. Indeed, they now sound more like what one might have expected them to sound when they had Wakeman than they did when they had Wakeman!
The fourth Yes Lp, Fragile, was recorded shortly before they did a second, more extensive U.S. tour. The record is a kind of expository statement on the current abilities of the group. Each member is given an entire track to play with, not unlike the format of half of Pink Floyd's Umma Gumma, and the other half of the Lp is given over to group songs. Unfortunately, the individual tracks are as much self-indulgence as they are entertaining. Steve Howe's acoustic guitar picking is certainly nice enough, as are Wakeman's extracts from Brahms, but these cuts, and those dominated by Bruford and Squire, are more useful for academic reasons than for anything else.
The two cuts on Fragile which have made it a big hit album are "Roundabout" and "Long Distance Runaround." The former is very catchy, being one of the better amalgamations of simple, memorable rhythm and trickiness the band has yet done, while the latter is mostly tricky while remaining simple enough to be understandable. Parts of it resemble some of Captain Beefheart's work in an obtuse way, but the basic effect is more esoteric than impenetrable. There's also a King Crimsony mellotron number, "Heart of the Sunrise."
If you are wondering why all the celebration over a group most of whose albums can be faulted to some substantial degree, perhaps the best conclusion we can reach is that Yes' good intentions are being rewarded. It is said, and not without some basis in actual fact, that most everything Yes do can be found done just as well by someone else who did it first. But, to Yes' credit, it can also be said that few others have come as close to successfully integrating so many varied elements into one repertoire and making it sound like anything more than an uncomfortable collage of noises. America's Seatrain are probably Yes' counterparts in this achievement.
If Atlantic Records are now feeling a bit smug, with Fragile top twenty, and Yes concerts selling out in America as well as Britain, they have probably earned their self-indulgence. Most bands whose debut albums reached the cast-off racks as fast as Yes did don't get the chance to record a fourth album let alone see it go top twenty on two continents. But Atlantic is definitely functional and success is their favorite function.
Yes on the cover of Phonograph Record Magazine
Yes Atlantic Sd 8243; Time and a Word, Sd 8373; The Yes Album, Sd 8283; Fragile, Sd 7211; not to mention Tomorrow, Sire SES 97012 and Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios, the Strawbs A&M SP 4288; From the Witchwood, the Strawbs A&M Sp 4394.