Thursday, August 30, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 12: 90125 (1983).

The following several posts come from a website I created way back in 2001, in honor of my favorite band, then and now: Yes.

Some of the writing makes me cringe 17 years later, but I feel it's good enough to live on. That Roger Daltrey (yes, that Roger Daltrey) was given some of my text to speak as narrator of the Yesspeak biographical DVD is testament to the quality of at least some of the prose, I guess. 

I pulled down my site, called The Yes Chronicles, years ago. But thanks to the Wayback Machine, which does its part to make sure that nothing published to the internet ever dies, I was able to find archived copies of my reviews. Another site, Yes in the Press -- which appears not to have been updated for about 11 years now -- also saved the reviews. I notice in the introductory blurb that the keeper of Yes in the Press attempted to contact me with no success. I'm not sure what happened, but if that person stumbles across this blog -- hello, it's me. 

All text is original from 2001. Links have been updated where possible. Happy reading.


"When I first heard the 90125 one ... I kind of freaked out and said, 'It's not Yes.'"
-- Steve Howe, Yes Magazine (1988)

"If I knew it was going to turn into a Yes album I would have done things a bit differently, more from my orchestral point of view."
-- Trevor Rabin, interview with Tim Morse, from Morse's
Yesstories: Yes in Their Own Words (1996)

"Listening to what was going on, it was like the '80s version of a modern Yes with Jon, so there really wasn't anything we could call the band from that point on but Yes again."
-- Alan White, from the Yesyears video (1991)

Atco 1983
Rating: *** 1/2
Best song: "Hearts"
Produced by Trevor Horn; "Hold On" produced by Trevor Horn and Yes
Cover by Garry Mouat/Assorted Images
Engineer: Gary Langan
Additional engineering: Julian Mendelsohn, Stuart Bruce
Assistant engineer: Keith Finney

Jon Anderson: vocals
Trevor Rabin: guitars, keyboards, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Tony Kaye: keyboards
Alan White: percussion, vocals

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Owner of a Lonely Heart
Hold On

It Can Happen
Leave It
Our Song
City of Love

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In some ways, 90125 is a return to Yes's earliest roots, back when the vocal harmonies took precedence over the music. With the addition of Trevor Rabin as a second lead vocalist, this development was probably inevitable. Not that the music itself is lacking in much of anything, but one listen to the a cappella version of "Leave It" (which can be found on a Rhino compilation called Modern A Cappella, but unfortunately not on 90125) will show the listener immediately where the strength of this edition of Yes lay. A glimpse of what this version of Yes was capable of doing on a musical level, however, can be heard on the opening piece to side two -- a dazzling, high-octane piece called "Cinema," which earned Yes its first Grammy, for Best Rock Instrumental. "Cinema," bearing the name of the band that here morphed into Yes following Jon Anderson's entry into the fold, was culled from a 20-minute piece called "Time" that was never recorded. Still, although the remainder of the music on 90125 isn't quite as compelling, it rarely lacks in intensity and enjoyability. But be prepared: This Yes is certainly not your father's Yes!

How did this radical change come about? Well, after the Drama tour, Yes fragmented. Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes went off to make another Buggles album (which included a stripped-down version of "Into the Lens," called, appropriately enough, "I Am a Camera"), after which Horn went full-time into producing and Downes reunited with Steve Howe to form the basis of Asia. That left Chris Squire and Alan White holding the keys to Yes's future. The duo would cut a Christmas single called "Run with the Fox" in 1981 and then would team up with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page in an attempt to form the core of a new supergroup, which was to be called XYZ -- for "Ex-Yes and Zeppelin." The project, however, quickly fell apart, with one song from the sessions (according to Squire) appearing on the second and final album by Page's band the Firm, and another song forming the basis for Yes's own "Mind Drive" more than a decade later.

The demise of XYZ left the former Yes rhythm section once again looking for new members with which to form a new band. Enter singer/songwriter/guitarist Trevor Rabin, a classically trained, John McLaughlin-inspired virtuoso with a knack for writing catchy pop music, who had become a superstar in his native South Africa with a band called Rabbitt before he left the country for England, disillusioned by the politics of apartheid. Now based in Los Angeles, Rabin had passed on an opportunity to join Asia and was working on a solo project when Squire, who had heard a demo tape of some of his work, contacted him. Rabin, Squire, and White convened and quickly felt a spark of something good happening. Original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye was brought in to flesh out the lineup, albeit as a token keyboardist, and work began on what was to be the debut album from a band named Cinema, with Rabin and Squire sharing lead vocal duties. Horn was recruited to be the album's producer.

In early 1983, work on the album was nearly completed when Squire played a tape of some of this new music to his old bandmate Anderson, who instantly enjoyed it and, letting bygones be bygones, was invited to join the band. The group had been thinking about adding a full-time lead singer, and now that Anderson had become the person to fill that role, it was obvious that this would not be a new band as much as it would be a reunited, modernized Yes. Anderson rewrote some of the lyrics and took most of the lead vocals, leaving a few spots for Rabin's voice to occupy center stage, and Yes was reborn, in what would become one of the most unlikely and most successful reunions in the history of rock.

90125 presented to the world a stripped-down version of Yes that knew how to rock and was very much in tune with the popular musical climate of the time. Whereas in the '70s all the musicians of Yes shared the limelight, this Yes saw the guitar take the forefront, with Squire's bass playing still compelling but very simplified, largely to root chords, and White's drumming assuming the more straight-ahead, harder-rocking punch that began in earnest on Drama. The lyrics were also more concrete, in the vein that Drama began to explore. In this new configuration, it didn't hurt that Rabin was an accomplished songwriter with a great ear for a tasty hook and an ability to cut to the chase that was sorely lacking in the worst, most overblown moments of '70s Yes (read: Tales from Topographic Oceans). It also didn't hurt to have Horn onboard; by this time he was a rising star among record producers who helped to craft "Owner of a Lonely Heart" in the minimalist style of the Police's smash "Every Breath You Take." But even while it was conscious of current trends, "Owner" stood out from the rest of popular music at the time with its quirky synthesized drum solos and its jarring horn blasts -- which marked one of the pioneering uses of the Fairlight, a digital sampler, in popular music. Anderson's funky screams, mimicking the horn blasts, added another unique touch, and of course there's Rabin's unforgettable, screaming guitar break, which is certainly among the most memorable solos in all of rock music. In further contrast with '70s Yes, even the album cover was simplified, as Roger Dean's psychedelic landscapes gave way to a computer-generated, tri-colored, inverted chevron against a plain gray backdrop. And the title itself suggested a minimalist approach: 90125 was the album's catalog number.

Still, there were connections to Yes's past: the neo-prog anthem "Hearts," with its multiple sections and changing moods; "Hold On," with an a cappella break that recalls "Does It Really Happen?" from three years earlier; "Leave It," whose a cappella intro is a reminder of the opening of "I've Seen All Good People"; and "Changes," whose complex, gradually building introduction that leads into a simpler, almost unrelated but harmonically pleasant, main section, followed by an exit that brings everything full circle by recalling the introduction, hearkens all the way back to "Survival" from the first album.

And of course, there is the vocal interplay and the lovely harmonies, which both abound on 90125. Anderson's voice, for starters, sounds clearer and smoother than it ever had before. And when blended with the two other strong voices in the band, the results are often breathtaking: the sly sliding in of Rabin's line "mmmmuch better than-a" before each time the line "owner of a broken heart" is sung on the lead-off track; the seamless joining of Squire and Anderson's voices on the verses of "Hold On" and the addition of Rabin's voice on that piece's chorus and its a cappella section; and the masterful interweaving of two lead vocal lines on the gorgeous "Hearts," an approach that Anderson and Rabin would repeat, with great success, on "Shoot High Aim Low" in 1987.

"Leave It" is a vocal tour-de-force, featuring layer upon layer upon layer of voice (including Horn's, rumor has it!), but the finished product suffers from some awfully cheesy synthesizer lines and what now sound like extremely dated electronic drumbeats. The aforementioned a cappella version is vastly superior, but for whatever unknown reason, it didn't make the album. This, incidentally, wasn't the first time a bad production decision would mar a Yes album -- Rabin would excise a beautiful ambient section from "The Calling," the lead-off track to Talk, in 1994.

It's in part due to those questionable production decisions that I can't give 90125 a higher rating. Another factor working against it is that it simply sounds dated: What made the album relevant in 1983 sometimes doesn't translate well to the present day, especially its AOR tendencies that sentence much of Rabin-Yes to be very much a product of its time. And there are a few dull songs on the album that simply weigh it down: the monotonous crunch of "City of Love" (Anderson trying to sound like a hard-rocking tough guy is laughable), the unnecessary musical accompaniment of "Leave It," and even more cheesy synths on what can only be described as a dopey, half-baked idea of an AOR-ish rocker with even dopier lyrics -- "Our Song."

There's also the lingering question of why Kaye was brought into the fold, other than to just have a keyboardist in the lineup. As the member whose original exit from Yes was precipitated by his reluctance to embrace synthesizers, it seemed odd that he would be brought back for an album that strongly embraced the cutting edge in keyboard technology. Furthermore, his talents were suspect, as evidenced both by his onstage mangling of many of Rick Wakeman's classic bits and by the later revelation that an "invisible" musician had played many of the keyboard parts under the stage during this lineup's live shows. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Rabin and possibly even Horn handled most, if not all, of the synthesizer parts on 90125, leaving Kaye to play just the organ, as would be the case on Talk. So, with a stronger keyboardist to balance the dominance of Rabin's guitar on 90125 and subsequent albums, there's no telling how different the music could have come out. Certainly there would have been more of a balance of guitars and keyboards, as on the classic '70s albums. Still, the 90125 sound easily could have taken a radical twist, had Eddie Jobson stuck around. The noted keyboardist/violinist for Roxy Music and UK briefly joined Yes when Kaye walked out on the 90125 sessions. But things didn't work out with Jobson, and Kaye ended up rejoining Yes -- although not before Jobson made an appearance in the music video for "Owner of a Lonely Heart."

In any event, this album spawned a #1 hit single, generated a hugely successful tour for Yes, and brought the band an entirely new audience -- even if it did alienate some of its diehard proghead fans in the process. But it also would lead the band into an identity crisis in the years to come, during which it didn't seem to know whether it should be a pop-music hitmaker or a "progressive-rock" behemoth. These two sides of Yes blended very nicely on Talk, but since then the results have been mixed, with the band searching for a sound in one direction, and then the other.

Of course, whether Yes should ever have been tagged with the "progressive" label is a matter open to discussion. That the unlikely pop formula of 90125 worked so well suggests that this is what Yes had been all along -- a pop band featuring quality music and sublime vocal harmonies whose music wandered into what was then known as "progressive rock," thus leaving the band stuck with a label it couldn't shake, as well as a certain reputation to uphold.

An interesting but little-mentioned historical side note to 90125: The groundbreaking electronic band The Art of Noise was born during these sessions. Horn, along with 90125 engineer Gary Langan (who had also worked on Drama) and keyboard programmer Jonathan Jeczalik, had first collaborated on ABC's debut album in 1982 along with string arranger/keyboardist Anne Dudley. During the 90125 sessions, this quartet, with Jeczalik providing the Fairlight sampler and fifth member Paul Morley acting as the band's publicist, liner-note writer, and lyricist, began putting together a then-revolutionary sound: It was a combination of sampled-voice, musical, and found-sound snippets; synthetic drumbeats; and original electronica, all infused with a classical sensibility and a pleasing melodic center courtesy of Dudley, as well as a high level of danceability and a sense of understated whimsy. It's no exaggeration to say that every "techno" dancefloor band owes a debt of gratitude to the world opened up by pioneering artists like AoN. The group paid homage to its Yes-related origins by sampling the "Owner" horn blast in a piece from its debut album. Horn and Langan, in return, lent the new AoN style to an extended dance remix of "Owner," which, with its pounding electronic backbeat and vast array of exceedingly altered samples from the original tune, could have fit in perfectly on an AoN album.

Had the classically trained but modern-minded Dudley in particular, rather than Kaye, joined Yes at this time, there's no telling what innovative heights Yes could have reached in the 1980s. It's very likely that the band wouldn't have been the AOR one-hit wonders that many casual fans saw them as being when they disappeared after 90125 and finally returned with an album that didn't contain a song with the hit potential of "Owner."

In short, Yes suffered a long slide into obscurity, littered with missed opportunities, a lack of focus, bad marketing, dubious business alliances, changing public tastes, and personnel instability that began in the double-edged-sword aftermath of "Owner" and 90125.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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