Wednesday, August 29, 2018

From the Archives: The Yes Chronicles. Part 4: The Yes Album (1971).

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 it was released, there was a two-month postal strike in England. None of the record stores could mail in their chart returns. So the music papers took their charts from Richard Branson's (original) Virgin store (in London). ... Fortunately, because we had most fans in London obviously our album sold really well in the Virgin record store, and for that reason, it got to number one in the chart. ... That got us noticed over in New York ... 'Oh my God, this little folk group seem to have a number one album!'"
-- Chris Squire, from Chris Welch's Close to the Edge: The Story of Yes (1999)

The Yes Album
Atlantic 1971
Rating: ****1/2
Best song: "Yours Is No Disgrace"
Produced by Yes and Eddie Offord
Photography by Phil Franks and Barry Wentzel
Engineer: Eddie Offord
Recorder by Colin Goldring

Jon Anderson: vocals
Steve Howe: guitars, vocals
Chris Squire: bass, vocals
Tony Kaye: keyboards
Bill Bruford: percussion

Track listing (standout tracks in bold):
Yours Is No Disgrace
Starship Trooper:
a. Life Seeker
b. Disillusion
c. Wurm

I've Seen All Good People:
a. Your Move
b. All Good People

A Venture
Perpetual Change

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

The way Yes's first two albums flopped commercially, the band never would have had the chance to set the world on fire in today's rock 'n' roll market, where you're expected to be a multi-million-unit-selling hitmaker from the first moment you walk into the studio. But even back in the good old days, the record companies eventually ran out of patience and good will. That's the situation Yes found themselves in before they went into the studio to cut The Yes Album. This was going to be their make-or-break album. If they didn't score with this one, Atlantic Records was ready to drop them, and the "Yes" we know today easily could have become just a footnote in rock history, a curious little English jazz-folk-rock band who cut two pleasant little albums with ambitious musicianship and interesting cover songs and then vanished without a trace.

As it turned out, the third time was a charm. The Yes Album hit number 1 on the UK album chart and began the band's journey toward superstardom.

When Peter Banks left Yes (or, to hear his side of the story, was fired), the band originally courted King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp as his replacement, but Fripp declined. The connections between Yes and King Crimson, though, would be many over the years, as Bill Bruford would become Crimson's drummer in 1972, Jon Anderson had already been a guest vocalist on Crimson's 1970 Lizard album, and Crimson bassist Tony Levin would appear on the album and tour by the Yes spinoff band Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe in 1989 and on Yes's Union album in 1991.

So, with Fripp out of the picture, Chris Squire put in a call to a guitarist he had seen playing in a couple of other bands -- a guy named Steve Howe. Squire sold Howe on Yes's unique approach to music, and he met the band for a rehearsal. The rest, of course, is rock history.

The new lineup retreated to a farm on the English countryside to write and rehearse and refine their craft, and all the woodshedding paid off with big dividends. Even though there are still obvious connections to the first two albums, the polished sound and maturing musicianship on The Yes Album was light years beyond anything the band had done previously -- not to mention pretty far beyond what most other rock bands were doing at the time.

The first thing that may strike you about this album, though, is just how much guitar there is. As much as Banks was invisible through most of Time and a Word, Howe is equally out front and very visible especially through the first four pieces of this six-composition album. It's almost as if the band wanted to show off their newest member and his talents to the world in the most blunt manner possible. Well, actually, that probably was the case. And that's both good and bad -- good, because there was now a guitarist onboard of equal strength to Anderson and the rhythm section; and bad, because it meant that the band still wasn't quite at the point at which each member would be an equal contributor to a perfectly balanced whole. But they were getting there. The weak link this time around was Tony Kaye, who was resisting expanding his repertoire of keyboards to include Moogs and Mellotrons, preferring to stick to the more traditional piano and organ. It was one of those classic cases of "artistic differences" leading to an impasse in which it became clear that Kaye's days with the band were numbered. His bandmates were ready to move on to the next level, and he wasn't interested in going there.

In the meantime, he provides a perfectly solid backdrop of mostly organ, some piano, and -- probably against his will -- even a little Moog for everyone else to build upon. And, in somewhat of a surprise, Squire and Bruford take on a slightly more reserved role here, but only slightly, suggesting that maybe their out-front dominance on the first two albums was an attempt to compensate for the lack of a strong guitar presence.

Musically, then, the biggest parallels to the first two albums here are the frequent jazzy guitar stylings and the vocal harmonies. The latter abounds on The Yes Album, from the tight three-part harmonies almost all the way through "Yours Is No Disgrace," to the overlapping lead and support vocals on "Perpetual Change," to "Your Move," which opens with an a cappella line sung twice and closes with wordless vocals ("diddit, diddit, diddit...") over a layered background of Howe, Squire, and Anderson singing the refrain from John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance." ("Instant Karma" also gets a mention in this song, which is noteworthy since Alan White, who played drums on "Instant Karma," would be joining Yes in less than two years.) Howe wasn't and isn't the best of singers, but at least on this album he's blended into the whole well enough that his voice doesn't become a distraction. Banks certainly had a superior voice, although he lacked the eclectic versatility that became Howe's calling card. In fact, with the jazz-inflected noodlings on "Yours Is No Disgrace" and "Perpetual Change," Howe seems to be showing that he can do a good Banks imitation and then move on from there, showing he can also do much more. But even so -- and I know this is heresy for a Yes fan to say -- Howe's playing has never been exactly clean and fluid; in fact, it's always been rather stiff and sloppy, and that has become much more noticeable in the past few years. Yes, he is amazingly versatile and creative, and he definitely plays from the heart, but he is not the polished virtuoso many fans claim him to be. He doesn't even read music!

With The Yes Album, the songs are beginning to grow longer, marking the advent of the band's common practice of creating music in extended formats. However, at this stage the band hadn't quite perfected the "epic" songwriting style yet. The album's final piece, "Perpetual Change," comes the closest to achieving that goal, while the album's other extended works are either a collection of shorter songs cobbled together or conventional pop tunes with extended instrumental breaks. "Starship Trooper" is the former, "Yours Is No Disgrace" the latter. And then there's "I've Seen All Good People," whose two parts don't even interconnect -- it's really two songs that just share a lyrical line.

Not that any of this detracts from the quality of the musicianship or the entertainment value. To the contrary, "Yours Is No Disgrace" is not just an impressive vocal showcase; it also contains a first-rate instrumental break where everybody, especially Howe, gets a chance to stretch out on their instruments. It's a great, colorful little passage, filled with all kinds and styles of guitar panning from channel to channel, and it would serve as Yes's big "jam" piece onstage, where everybody could cut loose for a few minutes. And it would be one of the last real "jams" we'd hear from Yes, because as their music became more intricate and complex and deeply structured, with every part and every instrument relying on every other one around it to form an integrated whole, there wouldn't be any room for improv -- it would be like breaking out of the fourth movement of Beethoven's 9th to launch into a 12-bar blues number. For the time being, though, "Yours Is No Disgrace" would stand as the closest Yes had come to matching vocal brilliance with top-notch instrumental craftsmanship. Only "Roundabout," one year later, would improve on this rarely heard balance.

"All Good People," the second half of "I've Seen All Good People," is another straight-ahead, 4/4, boogie/rock 'n' roll jam, with some tasty guitar licks from Howe, and even some exuberant piano doodling from Kaye, that both suggest '50s rockabilly. Another Yes concert staple to this day, it's usually saved for the encore to get the audience out of their seats and dancing before the curtain falls for the night. In sharp contrast, the first half of the song, called "Your Move," is a folksy acoustic ballad, with Anderson's lyrics exploring the game of chess as a metaphor for life. Howe once again leads the music, here with his vachalia, an avocado-shaped, medieval-looking little instrument whose tone is sort of a cross between a mandolin and a conventional 12-string acoustic guitar. Augmenting the uncharacteristically simple arrangement was one Colin Goldring on recorder -- which for some reason must have been a popular instrument in 1971 since it also played such a notable role that year on "Stairway to Heaven," by that other up-and-coming British band!

Of course, Howe's famous acoustic guitar rag is first heard on The Yes Album. And it is NOT called "The Clap," thank you very much! Yes, that's the way it appears on the album cover, but in a classic Spinal Tap moment, some dimwit at Atlantic Records inserted the definite article when it didn't belong there, and the unfortunate gaffe stuck. Anyway, the idea is that you're supposed to "Clap" along with this bouncy acoustic number -- it was written in celebration of the birth of Howe's son Dylan. The loose, down-home feel is very reminiscent of Chet Atkins, and it wasn't the only time Howe would surprisingly inject a country mood into a Yes song. In fact, Howe's brilliant solo on Yes's cover of Paul Simon's "America" (my favorite Howe moment ever) evokes such joyous, laid-back, easygoing images of the wide-open spaces of the American countryside that all of the Eagles' later attempts at "country-rock" pale in comparison. The band had played its radically reworked version of "America" back in the early days, but they never got around to recording it until 1972, when it was then placed on an Atlantic sampler album called Age of Atlantic. A 10-minute version of this recording finally surfaced on a Yes album in 1975 -- Yesterdays, which also consisted of six reissues from the first two albums and an early b-side called "Dear Father." I mention it here because it's worth checking out for its wealth of emotion and plain old lighthearted fun.

But back to The Yes Album. I've mentioned that there are stronger ties between this and the first two albums than the music would have you think, and it's true. In fact, would you believe that part of "Starship Trooper" was actually born during the original lineup? Part 2, "Disillusion," is reworked from part of an older Yes piece called "For Everyone," which the band played live but never recorded. The entire version can be heard on the 1997 release Something's Coming (alternatively called Beyond and Before in America), which collects several previously unheard live recordings and BBC sessions by the original lineup. And part 3 of "Starship Trooper" didn't even originate with Yes at all -- "Wurm" was based on a song called "Nether Street" that Howe had performed with Bodast, one of his pre-Yes bands.

That leaves just part 1, called "Life Seeker," as the only new section of "Starship Trooper." And it does indeed have a stamp of newness about it, for here we get one of the first tastes of Anderson's developing obscure lyric-writing style. It's one of those cases in which he sings about something just concretely enough that you get a vague idea of what's going on, but not so much that only one meaning can be ascribed to it.

The piece opens up without a break from "Clap," with Howe playing a fluid rhythm line on an electric guitar processed to have a thick, watery sound to it. Squire has a wonderfully wobbly vibrato coming out of his extended bass lines, while Kaye provides some airy, sleek organ lines with an occasional choppy burst in the background. And Bruford holds it all down with crisp, syncopated rhythms and unexpected fills that, as only Bruford's drumming could do, add immense color to the overall composition without ever losing sight of the backbeat.

And then come the lyrics. They sound beautiful, but what do they mean? The overriding themes seem to be of nature, knowledge, and the comfort of familiarity. "Sister bluebird," I suppose a metaphor for nature, holds the "mysteries of life," which our narrator asks the bluebird to hide away. That same idea, of knowing there is a wellspring of knowledge out there somewhere but not wanting to know about it, keeps repeating itself throughout this first part: "Though you've seen there, please don't tell a soul/What I can't feel can't be very whole." But closer to the beginning of the song we're introduced to what seems to be a contradiction to that last line: "What I don't know, I have never heard." So on one hand we have someone seeming to say that if something can't be felt, or seen, or somehow tangible, it can't be real, meaning in a sense that his capacity for acquiring knowledge is limited, while later on the message seems to be that this person has a capacity to know everything there is to know, and that if there's something he doesn't yet know, it's only because he hasn't heard it yet.

By the end of this section, we're left with the impression that our storyteller goes from being reluctant to confront the "mysteries of life," whose answers he thinks are found in nature, to an understanding that he not only can learn these mysteries but that his knowledge is limited only by his willingness to have it limited. And at the end of the section, when he sings "What I don't know, I have never shared," he appears to be so open to acquiring this knowledge that the only reason he may not know something is that he hasn't shared it yet -- with himself. With the advantage of later Anderson lyrics to offer clarity in hindsight, it seems that Anderson here may be talking about the human capacity to acquire vast knowledge, and more importantly to know oneself, once one understands that knowledge is neither frightening nor external but rather is fulfilling and comes from within. I don't know whether Anderson was studying Eastern concepts yet, but it certainly sounds as if "Life Seeker" is a rough draft for the notions of inner enlightenment and complete self-realization, embraced in Eastern religious/philosophical traditions, that he would explore at great length on Tales from Topographic Oceans.

This approach seems to be reinforced on part 2, "Disillusion," where some more fast-and-furious country-inflected acoustic picking from Howe sets the scene for another three-part harmony:

"Loneliness is a power that we possess to give or take away forever/All I know can be shown by your acceptance of the facts there shown before you/Take what I say in a different way and it's easy to say that this is all confusion/As I see a new day in me, I can also show if you and you may follow."

Tying this in with part 1, it's possible to interpret that (1) being detached from true inner knowledge entails a sense of loneliness, at least on a spiritual plane, and we have the power to alter that state of loneliness; (2) we too can learn these greater truths if we just allow ourselves to see them; and (3) like a spiritual guru asking us to follow in his path, our narrator here promises us that he can help us find this "new day" by following the path he shows us.

But then there's that second line: "Take what I say in a different way and it's easy to say that this is all confusion." In keeping with the context, this could mean that it's easy to be misled or sidetracked on the path to truth and knowledge. But given the abstract direction in which Anderson's lyrics were beginning to go, I can't help wondering if there's a double meaning here -- namely, that it would become easy to misinterpret lyrics such as these, and even easier to see them as just being a mass of confused words. And sometimes that's really all they are. But it almost seems, again in hindsight, that Anderson was telling us what to expect from his lyric-writing in the years to come. After all, if the rest of the band was trying hard to avoid predictable rock 'n' roll cliches, why shouldn't he be doing the same through his lyrics? Ironically, though, these were the words that came from the older song "For Everyone," and these lines in particular weren't even sung by Anderson on the original -- either Squire or Banks (it's hard to tell from the version released on Something's Coming) originally had taken the mike for this part. Furthermore, its reappearance as "Disillusion" is credited to Squire, not Anderson. So, it may be that the lyrics had a different context in their original setting and were recycled here because they tied in so well with what Anderson had put forth in the first part of "Starship Trooper."

The sweet strains of three voices harmonizing in rounds soon takes over, followed by a brief return to one of the "Life Seeker" vocal/musical themes to give some semblance of an interconnectedness among these three distinct pieces. (They'd cheat the same way on Tales from Topographic Oceans a few years later, cobbling together pieces of music that didn't always flow smoothly and in some cases just had no business being glued together. Here it's not so bad; on Tales it's tedious, overdone, and just plain annoying.) And finally, a fugue-like organ line, joined by the rest of the band, upshifts us at last into part 3. And at least there aren't any words to confuse us in "Wurm," which is yet another Howe showcase. That same watery electric-guitar tone is back as Howe strums solo in a midtempo, snaky 4/4 in one channel to open things up. Slowly the rest of the band fades in to accompany him -- Squire with more of his long, vibrato-laden lines; Kaye contributing small fills and more long chords in the background; and Bruford playing in an uncharacteristically straightforward rock beat on kick drum, snare, and ride cymbal. And that's pretty much it -- this one idea builds and builds, as slowly the intensity level increases, the volume goes up, Squire reaches the upper registers of his bass, and Bruford begins slamming his snare and crash cymbal with every beat. From there, Howe takes over with his tour-de-force, duetting with himself in alternating channels two hard-rocking measures at a time, with the rhythm section holding down a basic beat and Kaye's organ growling and swirling underneath the pyrotechnics. This was proof that Yes could really rock, when it wanted to.

All this talk of alternating channels may make you wonder what was going on in the producer's chair. Eddie Offord, who had begun working with the band as an engineer on Time and a Word, apparently had a lot of fun tweaking the stereo controls on this album, since there are a lot of these moments of panning and isolated-channel sections. (It's a very good headphone album.) This was also the first album Offord co-produced with Yes, marking the start of a working relationship that would last throughout Yes's glory days to come.

"Yours Is No Disgrace" has another one of those bouncing-from-ear-to-ear moments during Howe's two brief but memorable wah-wahing electric-guitar cadenzas. Overall, this song is a bright, expansive-sounding rocker in its own right, with most of its lyrics so odd ("shining flying purple wolfhound show me where you are") there's no doubt that this song is lyrically more of an impressionist tone poem than a concrete statement of anything. But for nonsense lyrics, they sound absolutely gorgeous in three-part harmony. There is one critical line, though, amidst the abstraction, which comes right after the big instrumental jam in the middle. Kaye slows things down with a funeral-like organ passage to set the stage for a pair of lines that make us sit up and pay attention, only to be thrown back into marvelous obscurity directly afterwards: "Death-defying, mutilated armies gather near/Crawling out of dirty holes, their morals, their morals disappear." Keep in mind that this was written during the Vietnam conflict, albeit a few years late to be jumping on the war-protest bandwagon. Combine this with the otherwise contextless repeated line "yours is no disgrace" and we see Anderson building a picture out of the nothingness that previously existed -- he seems to be saying that war makes animals out of men, but that it is understandable and forgivable under the inhuman circumstances, especially in Vietnam, where young men were just doing what their country asked them to do, even if the war was unjust and uncalled for. So, what they are doing, what they are being made to do, does not degrade them -- their service, their sense and understanding of duty, is no disgrace. In this way, Anderson imparts a sense of understanding and empathy and forgiveness that the thoughtless people who spat on the soldiers when they returned home wouldn't discover for a couple of decades. As we've seen before, Anderson doesn't excel in literal protest, so it's good that there are only two concrete lines here out of all the surrounding abstractions. They give the abstractions something to hang their hat on and so serve a useful purpose without being overbearing or goofy.

Over on side 2 (remember album sides?) is a little ditty called "A Venture" that has the unfortunate fate of being stuck in the middle of two Yes classics on and, as such, may be the most obscure song on all of the albums from the "classic" period. With its heaviness on piano and jazzy guitar lines, it would sound more at home on one of the first two albums than here, and although it has a certain understated British sense of whimsy about it that has led to (quite accurate) comparisons to the Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," it's largely forgettable and leaves no lasting impression.

"Perpetual Change," on the other hand, is anything but forgettable. The album's closing track is notable in that it simultaneously shows both where Yes had been and where they were going. At times it looks back to the naive musical ambition of "Survival" and even lulls into the soft-jazz groove that was so prevalent on that song and others from the first two albums. But before you think this is just another pretty but inconsequential little jazz-rock tune, wait until the middle instrumental section kicks in! We get a taste of what's to come in a few minutes through some impressive counterpoint playing right in the intro to the song, with Howe and Kaye in a lockstep riff playing up against Squire and Bruford's separate interlocking groove. There's quite a bit of soft-jazzy ebb and flow once we get into the meat of the song, as well as some more lovely vocal harmonizing, with Anderson in a kind of call-and-response with himself, Squire, and Howe in the background on the refrains.

But now, hold on, for out of an unassuming, bluesy 3/4 bit of laid-back jazzing, we're going to be taking a sharp turn, with no warning, to what will become a pair of melodies in 14 (yes, 14) beats. The first one is a frantic unsion riff from all four instruments in what is, I assume, 14/2 or 14/8, repeated over and over as it slowly slides off to one channel (there goes Eddie Offord again!). But this time the stereo trickery serves a purpose, for out of the silence of the opposing channel comes, right in mid-phrase, another unison riff played by all four instruments, which is also in 14 beats but in a tempo exactly half the speed of the first riff. Howe rises above the cacophony to solo over both of them and unite them as much as possible, followed by Kaye, who chimes in with a short but emphatic Moog line before Bruford's pounding snare signals that we've come to the end. And out of the following sustained chord, Kaye swoops downward with a descending Moog line that sort of melts us right back into the call-and-response vocal section, as if nothing breathtakingly brilliant has just occurred!

Now they had the idea -- this was the orchestral sound they were seeking on Time and a Word. Sure, the effect was achieved here with overdubs, but somehow the guys even managed to pull the section off impressively in concert (check out the 1973 live triple album Yessongs), and subsequent albums after The Yes Album would find the overdubs lessening to a role of occasional ornamentation as the band honed its craft even further, to the point at which, when they were on, they could make five guys sound like 50.

That's one of the fun things about the best Yes music: Everybody has such a strong individual part that there are, in essence, five songs in one, and you can return to the music and focus on one member at a time and hear enough material each time to hold up a song on its own. Each member gave himself full expression, yet somehow it all contributed to the larger tapestry of the song, rather than becoming a bunch of self-indulgent bombast with one person getting in another's way. It's an amazing balancing act that I haven't heard any other rock band achieve -- they stretch out freely, yet they complement each other beautifully at the same time. This is the essence of the democratic Yes, with everyone holding an equal musical footing, that would become their strongest asset through their "classic" years.

It all began in earnest with The Yes Album, but the band's creative juices were just starting to flow. They would rise to even greater heights, and on the way they'd have to lose another original member to insert the last piece of the puzzle. Thus, Kaye was on the way out, Rick Wakeman was on the way in, and Yes were on their way up.

"You'll see perpetual change," indeed.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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