By ProgBlog, Sep 14 2014 10:18PM
The eponymous Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album has just been repackaged in a Roger Dean illustrated box, 25 years after its original release. There’s also been a re-release of Songs from Tsonga, the 35th anniversary tour video which originally came out only 10 years ago. These retrospectives are hot on the heels of a new Yes album, Heaven & Earth; a reader’s poll for Prog magazine that named Close to the Edge the best prog album; and also the release of the most recent Steven Wilson remix of a classic Yes album, The Yes Album.
AWBH contrasts widely with the contemporaneous Yes and I believe a reflection on their relative merits is helpful in understanding the enigma of Yes magic. My personal interest in the band goes back to 1972 and the release of Close to the Edge. This was the first album I ever listened to, having previously heard and watched nothing other than the groups on BBC TV’s Top of the Pops, and it’s fair to say that it changed my life. Checking out the previous releases of the band was an obvious step and this resulted in the acquisition of Fragile, The Yes Album and then in late 1973, new release Tales from Topographic Oceans. Relayer had been added to the collection before I bought the retrospective compilation Yesterdays in 1975. At this stage I was able to formulate a view of Yes music that has remained pretty much unchanged to the present day, and one that seems to be shared with a large number of Yes fans: Close to the Edge is not only the best Yes album, it is the best album, period. Fragile contains some of the most revolutionary pieces of music for the time and is an obvious stepping stone to the perfection of their next release. This was possible because of the integration of Rick Wakeman into the group because his proficiency on keyboards was matched by his willingness to broaden the sonic palette required by the vision of the band. I’ve previously written that I regard Tales as something of a misunderstood masterpiece and that only Yes in 1973 could have attempted to undertake something as different, as brave as that. One of the great unknowns is what Tales would have sounded like with Bill Bruford because, though Alan White performs admirably on Tales, I don’t believe he’s in the same class as Bruford. The qualitative difference between pre-Wakeman and Wakeman-Yes is evident when you compare The Yes Album and Fragile and the relationship between the two is similar to that between Fragile and Close to the Edge; The Yes Album is more adventurous than its two predecessors with four original long-form compositions making up the bulk of the album, but the sounds available were limited to piano, organ and, for the first time on material by Yes, a little bit of Moog. Until I bought Yesterdays I hadn’t heard Peter Banks’ guitar and though I find it effective and fitting for the early Yes material, the diversity of styles and sounds and the song-writing ability introduced by Steve Howe, was a key to the transformation of a good band into something unimaginably good.
The musical progress came hand-in-hand with personnel changes. It often seemed as though the ambition of Jon Anderson was a driver for the required change though the replacement of Bruford was a decision forced upon the band by the drummer, as he went off to challenge himself in the 1972 incarnation of King Crimson. Wakeman’s dissatisfaction with Tales and his solo success prompted him to jump ship but his replacement, Patrick Moraz, further demonstrated the internal tension and inherent instability of the group when he only managed to stay for one studio album, the excellent jazz-rock inflected Relayer.
The rise of punk and changes to the industry itself had an effect on the music produced by the band for their subsequent release which included the surprise return of Wakeman. Though the urgency of the title track showed that they had taken note of punk, the release of Wonderous Stories as a single was a nod to a more business-oriented record label. Yet they still included the stunning, almost side-long Awaken; another contender for best prog track, ever. Though the Going for the One line-up remained intact for the recording of their ninth studio album, Tormato, the results were rather confused and the product was incoherent, despite containing some good ideas. I went to see them play live for the first time on this tour and was pretty much blown away with the set, the musicianship and the ‘in-the-round’ presentation. The lack of an external producer was one reason why Tormato wasn’t such a complete or polished recording and this was addressed by the arrival of Roy Thomas Baker as producer for sessions that were meant to contribute to the follow-up. This didn’t work out and, along with the formation of new song writing partnerships, contributed to the departure of both Anderson and Wakeman.
The Drama album contains some good material and is well played but... But was this Yes? Keyboard and vocal duties had been taken up by novelty pop act The Buggles, Geoffrey Downes and Trevor Horn respectively. I bought the album, even quite liked it, but I didn’t go to see them when they played at the Lewisham Odeon, close to where I was living, in December 1980. The demise of this incarnation set the scene for two versions of Yes: Chris Squire and Alan White retained the band’s name, once more calling themselves Yes when Jon Anderson belatedly joined the Cinema project that also featured Tony Kaye and Trevor Rabin, releasing 90125 in 1983. This split Yes fans; the sound was very contemporary and the song writing was dominated by Rabin to the exclusion of the long-form, complex and cosmic. I was one of those who didn’t like the new-look Yes. The line-up lasted for another album before Anderson quit once more, seeking to recreate the classic Yes spirit. He drafted in Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford and Bruford brought along bassist/stick player Tony Levin. Their only album was released in 1989 and featured some material that was structurally similar to Tormato plus other multi-part compositions. The sound was modern but the spirit and concept were classic Yes. The real Yes were in hiatus at the time and were stirred into legal action to prevent ABWH from using references to the band name Yes. I’d been to see 90125 performed live in 1984 but I much preferred ABWH in 1989, seeing Bruford playing material he’d originally performed on album. More record company interference affected the mixing of the album, with none of the band members present at the final mix. It’s to be hoped that the reissue has addressed what Steve Howe described as being ‘guitar-light’. The album was no side-project. It was four musicians who had come back together to create something that they knew the fans were missing. Sadly, industry intervention ruined the follow-up project and ABWH were absorbed into Yes for the Union album and tour.
Yes seem to find it difficult to maintain a stable line-up but frequently revert to recycling past members. My last purchase was Fly from Here, which unsurprisingly harkens back to Drama-era Yes because Geoff Downes was brought in to replace Oliver Wakeman and the title track, a multi-part suite, was originally conceived during the Drama period. It’s unlikely that they’ll ever produce another Close to the Edge unless Anderson is brought back into the fold. There’s no longer any magic on record but the classic three album tour, which I saw at the Royal Albert Hall, was brilliantly received by the fans. We don’t want song-based albums, we want challenging side-long suites with analogue instrumentation and musical tension and contrast with soaring, uplifting themes. I think it’s time for another ABWH.