Look, 2017 was a garbage year and I think we’d all just rather move on. Nazis roamed the streets, giant hurricanes ravaged densely populated areas, half of California is on fire, all of your favorite people who didn’t die last year got outed as sex offenders, and President Donald Trump managed to gut social programs and mortgage our children’s futures so he could give the 1-percenters a tax cut they absolutely do not need. Worst of all, Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone, giving the Minnesota Freakin’ Vikings the opportunity to be the first team to play in a home-field Super Bowl. The silver lining? Well, we’re not in a nuclear war, so that’s good at least. Anyway, I guess some good music was released this year, and as usual my “year-end” list is not so much a list at all as it is a haphazard lumping of various albums that I mostly already wrote about. I do not really have an album of the year, usually when I declare such a thing I wind up wondering what the hell I was thinking a couple weeks later. But there was a lot of good stuff, most of which I haven’t heard, but hey. Only so many hours in the day. So here are my end-of-the-year awards – as usual, links to better, more well-thought out opinions when they exist:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: peak-era Yes, from 1971 to 1974, is one of the greatest four-year stretches in musical history. Not to discount the albums they made outside that period, some of which are quite good, but the fact remains: eventually one runs out of good Yes albums to buy. Luckily, Yes are perhaps the most imitated band in the prog-sphere; not only did they influence plenty of bands making music at the time, there also seems to be an entire generation of bands who were raised on them, and as a result there is a rather large library of Yes-influenced music from the last 25 years or so. Of course for many of these bands Yes is just one of a large list of influences, which often cover the usual suspects; Genesis, King Crimson, Floyd, maybe Gentle Giant if they’re feeling particularly adventurous. And so on, and so forth. But there are several bands that flew rather close to the sun; close your eyes and maybe they could really be Yes, plus or minus a member or two. Certainly they lose points for originality, but they do scratch the same itch. Here’s what’s been getting me all Yessed out lately:
The convoluted, ongoing saga of Yes is one of rock n’ roll’s most entertaining stories. In addition to a half-dozen classic albums, Yes will be primarily known as The Band That Refused To Die, surviving an absurd amount of lineup changes and drama throughout their nearly 50-year history. Not once did this group ever have a consistent roster, and after 1977 they pretty much lacked any sort of direction as well. Despite their somewhat consistent release schedule, there was so much instability in their lineup that they never managed to build any momentum whatsoever. What was once a collective of dedicated, mega-talented musicians devolved into the sort of thing you get when you assign a college group project – everyone parties too hard and the new guy winds up having to do all the work. Therefore if you’re buying a Yes album after ’77 it’s a good idea to do the research first, lest you wind up with something that started life as a Billy Sherwood solo album. There are really only two things that kept this band together – one is Trevor Rabin, the other is the realization that the Yes brand was worth bank, meaning anything with that logo was destined to sell ten times more than say a Chris Squire or Steve Howe solo album.
In Green Bay there was this little hole-in-the-wall record store I used to frequent every week, back in my vinyl hound days. I’d been to thrift stores all around, but you rarely find anything interesting there – but in here, copies of Foreigner 4, Sports, No Jacket Required, and Thriller would be shoved into the dollar section in the back, while front and center would be a rack full of early Genesis LPs, Velvet Underground, Brand X, Soft Machine, and Frank Zappa…lots and lots of Zappa (the shop owner once told me that Lather was his favorite album of all time. All three of ’em). I spent a lot of money there that probably should’ve been spent on groceries, but man, who needs a steak when you could have a mint copy of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and a frozen pizza?
They sold stereo equipment stuff there, too. One day he got in this real high-end set-up and decided to test it out. He put on The Yes Album and cranked it up. You know how the album begins – WRONK WRONK WRONK-WRONK, WRANK WRANK-WRANK (guess it doesn’t come through in writing too well). This system had it bouncing off the walls, and suddenly everything about the song was killer – not just that riff, but that awesome cool bass line that would go *thunk*, the “diddly-doodly” guitar parts, and even the really out there lyrics of Mr. Jon Anderson. I’d heard it a dozen times already, but…never this loud, never this powerful. This is how the stuff had to be listened to, I determined. I had to catch a class but I stayed until the end of the song, even though the ending nearly deafened me. I can only imagine what anyone who decided to enter the store at that moment would’ve thought.
It’s easy to forget just how great Yes were in their day. This is not to say they’ve been underrated in the slightest – they are almost certainly the most lionized and imitated band of the entire prog rock era, and if you go to see Yes, chances are they are going to be playing almost exclusively material from the 70’s. And unless they delve into “Tempus Fugit” or material Going for the One, it’s going to be all from the first half of the decade. But sometimes the group’s increasingly convoluted backstory seems to overshadow everything. The band’s ever-fluctuating lineup has been a constant source of drama and absurdity; unlike even King Crimson (also a poster child for this sort of thing), Yes never managed to maintain a stable lineup for more than two albums in a row. In the early days it was about art, as the band ruthlessly booted anyone who they felt wasn’t up to snuff, eventually resulting in one of the greatest lineups ever assembled (in addition to a lot of hurt feelings). In the later days it was more about money; Tony Kaye, who was kicked out of the band in ’71 to make room for Rick Wakeman, was asked to rejoin 12 years later, not because the band particularly wanted him back, but because they needed more original members before they could legally call themselves Yes. And of course, you have the band’s more recent move to replace their longtime singer/muse in Jon Anderson with a guy from a Yes tribute band, because Anderson couldn’t keep up with their grueling touring schedule (and when the tribute singer’s voice started to wane, they promptly gave him the hook, bringing in another soundalike). They’re now a band who have hated each other’s guts longer than most bands have been around; one gets the impression that they don’t speak to each other on the tour bus (if they do actually travel together) and prefer to write and record their studio stuff by themselves. In fact, a lot of their studio work for the last three decades now seems to have that sort of story behind it; that so-and-so didn’t like what another guy was doing, that people either didn’t really want to write material or play on material that someone else wrote, and at some point it would just come down to “well, these are the songs we’ve got”.
But man…from 1971 to 1974, everything these guys did was golden. It has got to be one of the greatest peak eras in rock n’ roll history, with 6 LPs worth of studio material (1973’s Tales From Topographic Oceans was a double) and a triple-live set that I’ve often seen listed as the pinnacle of the Yes experience. They didn’t have a stable lineup then, either; The Yes Album was their first with Steve Howe, Fragile the first with Rick Wakeman, who would quit after Topographic, as he found himself confused with the band’s direction. Drummer extraordinaire Bill Bruford also quit, following Close to the Edge, getting tired with the sheer amount of work the band was putting in, micromanaging every little detail until you get, well, Close to the Edge (which I do believe is one of the greatest albums ever made, though it’s hardly got that “effortless” quality that so many look for). But the band soldiered on, with enough talent to feel truly unbounded, and it was in an era where the buying public would propel an album like Tales From Topographic Oceans to the top of the charts. They had the ambition, they had the direction, they were skilled enough and young enough to realize that the music was bigger than any of them.
At the beginning of this run was The Yes Album. Even from their beginnings, Yes were one of the most interesting bands around – they were more jazzy than bluesy, doing covers of Beatles and Buffalo Springfield, along with some surprisingly tuneful and well-developed original material. Their second album had employed an entire orchestra and was fittingly overblown, trying to do a bunch of things at once and dropping a lot of what was likeable about the first LP. Original guitarist Peter Banks was pretty good, but “pretty good” didn’t cut it in camp Yes back then. So they recruited a young guitar player named Steve Howe from the little-known band Tomorrow. With Howe in the band, they had a soloist who could keep up with their fantastic rhythm section, and from there the band really started to take off. Like waking up and suddenly realizing that you have superpowers.
So there you have Yes, not technically a supergroup, but they sure felt like one, especially when Wakeman entered the fold a year later. What was so great about them in those days is that their music took on so many guises; they were unbelievably funky at times, they could rock hard, or they could tone it down and play something a little more twangy, as Howe’s style was based on country and folk, even though his playing was often a lot more complicated. So you never quite know what direction the music is going to spiral off in at any moment (the hoedown section in “Starship Trooper”); I imagine that to many, Yes sounded like what the next evolution of rock n’ roll music was going to be in the early 70’s, with about as much breadth as The Beatles themselves. Even George Clinton liked ’em, as they proved that you really could funk in 15/4 (or whatever “Siberian Khatru” is), without it sounding contrived or stiff. That right there separates the work of Yes from a lot of their contemporaries (especially the modern ones) – though their music tended to be complex, they aren’t a difficult band to enjoy. They had the hooks.
When Yes were on, they were one of the tightest bands around; what’s great about these albums (especially the recent Steven Wilson remasters) is how well you hear everything. Nobody, not even Jon, overpowers the mix; as great as Howe is, he’s always anchored by Squire and Bruford (whose parts are tricky enough), and Kaye is never far behind. The way they could play together was borderline telepathic, and it would only get better from here. I picked The Yes Album for no particular reason, other than that it’s the latest remaster I’ve got, and I believe it really sees the group at their most innocent. It’s not their debut, but it feels like one; it’s ambitious, but they make sure that they don’t try to do too much. They were still learning on their feet, after all. You know that moment in ELP’s debut, during “Take a Pebble”, where everything breaks down and it becomes this sort of silly clap-along folk song? There are moments like that all over this album. I mean, you’ve heard “I’ve Seen All Good People”, right? Doesn’t get any lighter than that, and the extended rockabilly outro (“Your Move”) is just icing on the cake. As for the rest; you’ve got “Starship Trooper”, the first real Yes multi-part epic, “Yours is No Disgrace”, their first big riff tune, and “The Clap”, their first solo showcase. The album’s final third is not quite as good – “A Venture” sounds like something that got left off Time and a Word (you can almost hear the missing strings), and “Perpetual Change” sees the band vamp on for a while without an actual tune; it ain’t bad, but you can see why it didn’t last long on the setlist.
Most likely, you know why I’m writing about these guys now. Last month, it was announced that Chris Squire would undergo treatment for leukemia, leaving him unable to perform in the band’s 2015 tour. Of course, as they’ve demonstrated throughout the years, nobody in Yes is irreplaceable, but Squire was the one member who had appeared on every Yes recording and tour. And yeah, this is mostly because he was the one who actually owned the rights to the Yes name (once resulting in a band called “Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe”), but even still, spending nearly five decades in a band is mighty impressive. Yes have been on their last legs for something like 25 years now, and like the Simpsons, it seems like they will go on until the last man on Earth loses interest in them. I passed up an opportunity to see them in 2004, thinking I’d regret it because “it may be the last time”…who knew that a decade later, they’d be recording another album, with their second consecutive Jon Anderson soundalike? And sure, it’s not very good, but with the legacy that Yes built in those four years, does it matter?