Wednesday, August 29, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 2: Yes (1969).

The U.K. (left) and U.S. (right) covers of the 1969 debut.
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.


"We didn’t have a strong musical heritage of rock or R&B, so we just took the whole thing and messed it up a lot."
-- Bill Bruford, from the Yesyears video (1991)

"At the beginning of 1969, I was asked … to pick two groups who I thought would make it in the following year. One of my choices was Led Zeppelin. … The other was Yes. … There was life, virility and musicianship in their approach. They had a superior vocal sound -- assured, clear, and harmonic. They knew what they were doing and did it with style. It showed in their own songs and imaginative arrangements."
-- Tony Wilson of Melody Maker, from the back cover of Yes (1969)

"We only ever disagreed. We could never agree on anything, which is why the music came out so funny."
-- Bill Bruford, Yesyears (1991)

Atlantic 1969
Rating: ***
Best song: "Beyond and Before"
Produced by Paul Clay and Yes
Engineer: Gerald Chevin
Cover (UK) by Haig Adishian

Jon Anderson: vocals, percussion
Peter Banks: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Tony Kaye: keyboards
Bill Bruford: percussion

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Beyond and Before
I See You
Yesterday and Today
Looking Around
Harold Land
Every Little Thing

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When Jon Anderson and Chris Squire began Yes in 1968, they envisioned a band that would showcase both lush vocal harmonies and top-notch musicianship. On Yes, their debut album, the vocal harmonies are in full force, most notably on the opening piece, "Beyond and Before," with Anderson’s unique smooth countertenor (not falsetto, thank you, and certainly not soprano!) voice leading the charge. But the music, while compelling in spots, still needed to be honed a little to reach the heights that other "serious" bands of the time (most notably King Crimson and the Nice) had achieved. However, it’s worth noting that throughout their career, Yes has never quite achieved that original balance it strove for, as the vocal harmonies would soon take a back seat to quality musicianship.

The seed of that musicianship which would soon become the band’s focus is heard on Yes primarily from the rhythm section of Squire, on bass, and Bill Bruford on drums. Bruford brought a jazz sensibility to the drum kit, incorporating lots of swing and syncopation into his rhythms without ever losing sight of the core backbeat, while Squire plays his bass like a lead guitar and in the higher registers, as would become his trademark. It’s fitting that the first sound we hear on Yes is Squire’s trebly bass (how’s that for an oxymoron!), belting out a booming monotone line before Bruford enters and kicks things into gear -- after all, Squire would become the band’s only constant member, and through all the personnel changes, it has been his bedrock bass playing that has provided the familiar foundation for everyone else who would pass through Yes’s membership through the years to build upon. In fact, the only Yes-related project not to include Squire, 1989’s eponymous album by Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, goes a long way toward showing just how vital Squire is to both the sound and structure of Yes’s music; he is painfully visible through his absence.

It’s hard to believe that the band that made this humble album of largely unassuming, folksy harmonic jazz-rock would be writing complex album-side epics just three short years later, yet the roots of those later exploratory pieces can be heard here as well, most notably in the two-minute-plus lead-off to the album’s closing piece, "Survival," where Squire introduces a theme that will eventually be repeated by all four of the instrument players in unison. This opening theme then dissolves into some gentle electric guitar strumming and delicate acoustic accompaniment by Peter Banks, leading into Anderson’s opening lines. The opening theme finally reappears to close out the song and the album some four minutes later.

But the musical highlight on Yes comes during the introduction to the Beatles’ "Every Little Thing." In the early days, Yes built a reputation on the English touring circuit for taking other artists’ songs and drastically reworking them, sometimes so much that the end result was basically an original Yes composition with only the lyrics remaining from the song they covered, with Paul Simon’s "America" (which was recorded in 1972 and released on a 1975 compilation album, Yesterdays) being the most successful example. This, however, wasn’t the case so much with "Every Little Thing," which after the intro remains quite faithful to the original piece…but the opening is pure Yes: Two crashing notes send us quickly downshifting into a powerful chugging freight train of a rhythm from Squire and Bruford. The temperature cools off briefly with Banks offering some jazzy noodling over the top of the bass and drums, but in just a few seconds the intensity of his guitar builds, propelling everything back into high speed…and then, again without any warning, Banks leads the band into an instrumental version of the original Beatles melody, the intensity dissipates, and Banks sneaks in the riff from "Day Tripper" just before Anderson begins singing the original Beatles tune.

The other cover tune on the album, the Byrds’ "I See You," is most notable for its middle instrumental section, where Banks adds yet more jazz stylings over Bruford’s fast-paced shuffle rhythm before a crescendo of sextuplets on the snare drum leads to a short interlude of alternating slashing chords and guitar licks -- very much like the chords/licks alternation leading out of the free-form section of Led Zeppelin’s "Whole Lotta Love"! Had Yes been listening to Zeppelin, or Zeppelin to Yes, or was it just a freak coincidence?

Anyone familiar at all with Yes knows that it’s a tough job to try to interpret many of Anderson’s cryptic lyrics. Anderson himself has said that he often wrote lyrics more for the sound of the words than for any concrete meaning. On the other hand, sometimes it’s obvious that Anderson is singing in some vague manner about love, hope, or spiritualism, in a context that’s mysterious and/or open-ended enough that the listener can work from the core of the message and assign the greater set of lyrics just about any meaning he’d like to. In this sense, Anderson makes the Yes experience an enjoyably interactive one -- the words can engage our active minds as much as the music does. But, on some unfortunate occasions, Anderson does like to try his hand at more straightforward songs or, worse, social commentary -- unfortunate, because Anderson’s strength is obviously in the world of the abstract; when he does try to be literal, and his lyrics thus take a more prosaic turn, he usually (but not always) ends up sounding forced and, to be frank, rather silly. Take "Sweetness" as the worst offender from the first album: "She brings the sunshine to a rainy afternoon/She puts the sweetness in, stirs it with a spoon." Blah. And all of this done in a sort of laid-back, lounge lizard style. "Harold Land" doesn’t fare much better, as Anderson goes for the by-then well-worn ’60s theme of war protest: "In the mud in coldness dark he’d shiver out his fear/What disappointing sights he’d seen instead of ones so dear." Yikes. This type of wordsmithing clearly reveals a very young Anderson who hasn’t yet perfected the abstract style in which he would later excel.

Indeed, the best moments come on Yes when the lyrics appear to mean absolutely nothing at all. On the opener, "Beyond and Before," we hear Anderson, Squire, and Banks singing in a gorgeous, soaring three-part harmony about something that may have to do with coldness and wintertime, but the real meaning is, in the traditional Yes spirit, anyone’s guess. Ironically, even though the cryptic nature of the lyrics here would foreshadow Anderson’s writing style in the years to come, Anderson had nothing to do with the lyrics on "Beyond and Before" -- it was a piece written by Squire and Clive Bailey, a bandmate of Squire’s in Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, the band that evolved into Yes. In any event, this obscurity of meaning is seen, here and in the years to come, to work to Yes’s advantage: Since the words don’t really draw attention to themselves, the listener can take the emphasis off the words, if he chooses, and allows him to focus on what’s always been most important in Yes -- the music. When the lyrics are seemingly nonsense strings of words, and sometimes they truly are, the voice or voices singing them open themselves to being just another instrument in the band and as a result do not distract the listener from the amazing musicianship lying beneath them.

The one member not yet mentioned here is Tony Kaye. That’s due to his input on piano and organ being largely inconsequential to the album’s makeup. He’s a competent enough player, but his organ fills are nothing spectacular; he plays the part of the generic rock keyboard accompanist very well, for what it’s worth. That said, though, his one "showcase" on this album, the opening to "Looking Around," is indeed a tasty little Hammond riff. Nothing earth-shattering, but certainly enjoyable.

In summary, this is a pleasant little album that’s probably most interesting as a historical relic -- it shows the very innocent, unassuming roots of what was to become one of the biggest bands of the 1970s. And in many ways, this album is more noteworthy than some of its bloated ’70s Yes counterparts -- here we have five young guys simply playing their hearts out, without the distractions of fame, fan expectations, and record-company demands altering the music in any way; it’s an album of well-crafted, if unpolished, musicianship without the pretentiousness and self-indulgence that would come to an ugly peak with Tales from Topographic Oceans a few years down the road.
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