By Howard Whiteman
For every band that’s made it to “classic” status, you can pinpoint their winning season — the time they made the album (or two) that not only brought them a mass audience but also defined their sound. Think Rush’s “Moving Pictures;” Tom Petty‘s “Damn The Torpedoes;” Journey’s “Escape;” Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” For pioneering British prog-rockers Yes, that moment came 40 years ago, in 1971, with the one-two punch of “The Yes Album” and “Fragile.”In this special report, Goldmine takes a look back at these career-defining albums.
Yes was still a relatively young band when it began work on “The Yes Album” in 1970. Formed in 1968, Yes was an outgrowth of a band with the characteristic-of-the-times psychedelic name Mabel Greer’s Toyshop. Bassist Chris Squire brought in singer Jon Anderson, whom he’d met in 1969. Adding drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Tony Kaye and Squire’s former bandmate from The Syn, guitarist Peter Banks, the band changed its name to the less-wordy Yes.
Signed to Atlantic Records, the original Yes lineup put out two albums quickly: “Yes” (1969) and “Time and a Word” (1970). What would come to be known as Yes’ signature sound was already evident on these albums: Squire’s fat bass sound, heavily inspired by The Who’s John Entwistle; high-pitched vocal harmonies reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel; and the blend of classical, jazz and rock elements into a style that would come to define “progressive rock.” Yes was making progress. The albums got airplay, and the band got good gigs, such as a set at Cream’s farewell concert. But they were still missing one key ingredient.
Clap for Howe
Tensions were growing between Banks and the rest of the band, which made the first of its many personnel changes, dismissing Banks and bringing in the band’s definitive guitarist: Steve Howe.
Howe was exactly what the band was looking for; multi-faceted, he was equally comfortable playing mandolin or pedal steel as he was playing electric guitar.
The new Yes wasted no time, writing and rehearsing new material at an old farmhouse in Devon, England (which Howe later bought and made his home).
Then it was off to the studio — Advision Studios in London, where the band had tracked its second album. Engineer Eddie Offord, who would become the band’s steady producer for much of its “classic” phase, manned the boards for the first time.
“Eddy was the catalyst and the crazy energy in the studio that Yes needed at that time, and was instrumental, along with the band he loved, in creating what became the YES sound,” Kaye said in an exclusive interview with Goldmine. “He encouraged the band to stretch out sonically and musically in ways we had never achieved before.”
“The Yes Album” marked a great technological leap forward. “Equipment was very primitive back then, as was the recording process,” Kaye said. “The first two albums were recorded in an eight-track studio. “The Yes Album” was recorded in a 24-track studio.”
Legend has it Offord assembled Yes songs of this era by splicing together their short bits of music.
This may not be the whole story. In exclusive comments for Goldmine, Anderson gave this impression: “Yes music was a vision of structure. I was learning a lot from Stravinsky and Sibelius, and adapting it to the band. We would record two-minute, four-minute sections, etc., then edit them, but I always knew where we were going.”
Where they were going was to deliver a crisp, succinct, six-track album, the first entirely composed by the band. It also was the start of longer compositions from Yes.
The band members were also codifying their unique styles. Anderson grew as a lyricist, creating words that were as important for how they sounded as for what they said.
Kicking off with “Yours is No Disgrace,” the LP gave an immediate impression of the new Yes: harder-edged, with Howe’s aggressive guitar as prominent in the mix as Squire’s bass.
From its staccato opening to the first recorded performance of the Anderson/Squire/Howe harmony trio, “Yours …” went through a gamut of styles in under 10 minutes, incorporating hard rock, swinging jazz and churchy organ.
Cut two started another Yes tradition: solo tracks. “Clap” was a live acoustic piece by Howe. It was incorrectly titled “The Clap” on the cover, calling to mind … V.D.? Subsequent re-releases have corrected it to “Clap,” a reference to Howe’s newborn son, who liked to clap hands.
Another long track, “Starship Trooper,” was a joining of three compositions — one each by Anderson, Squire and Howe.
Another highlight was “I’ve Seen All Good People,” a merger of Anderson’s “Your Move” (an acoustic number with lyrics inspired by chess and John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”) and Squire’s “All Good People” (a rocker with great guitar/bass interplay).
Upon its release in February 1971, the album was a smash, hitting No. 4 on the UK charts and, after time, No. 40 in the U.S. This is significant because the States were new territory for Yes. The first two LPs hadn’t done much here. This album was the start of a love affair between the band and our country that continues to this day.
“It was our dream to come and play in America and ‘The Yes Album’ gave us that opportunity,” Kaye recalled. “To be able to support Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper in big arena shows was for us an amazing and unreal experience. … Touring America was a great time. In fact, I loved the U.S. so much, I stayed.
“It was certainly a turning point and a time when many things came together,” Kaye said of this period. “Musically the band had matured enough to know what sound worked.”
While the band was on the rise, things were not all harmonious within the Yes camp. Just as the band “traded up” from Banks to Howe, another change was in the air. Kaye reportedly was resistant to the band’s wishes that he expand his keyboard palette. He resisted then-new synthesizers, focusing on the Hammond B-3 organ instead.
Kaye stated that he rehearsed with the band for the fourth Yes album. But by the time Yes began recording “Fragile,” Kaye was out of the band.
The band quickly had a replacement in place: classically trained Rick Wakeman, formerly of The Strawbs and a session player who’d recorded with T-Rex and David Bowie. Wakeman was well up to speed with the latest synths, and beyond that, he was a charismatic performer and showman with a striking appearance.
He was just what Yes needed to create the album that would cement its popularity around the world and give the band its first hit single.
“It was written on the way from Aberdeen to Glasgow in Scotland, and we went through so many roundabouts (traffic circles on Scottish roadways), maybe 40 or so,” Anderson recalled of “Roundabout,” an edited version of which would hit #13 on the Billboard charts. “It has a Scottish feel about it. Just listen to the solo, just like a ‘reel’ (a fiddle-oriented Scottish dance music).”
Like much of the material on “The Yes Album,” “Roundabout” was expertly constructed to showcase all of the band’s strengths.
Beginning with a classically tinged acoustic guitar intro from Howe, it kicks into a solid rock groove, driven by Bruford’s propulsive drumming, in which guitar and bass interlock perfectly. Soaring above it all is a classic Anderson lead vocal. And new member Wakeman came to the forefront as well, with flamboyant organ soloing that showed he was a perfect counterpart to Howe and Squire as a soloist and master of his instrument.
Anderson felt “Roundabout” was a defining moment in the band‘s career, stating ”It changed everything. (It) was a hit! And that’s what the band needed.”
“Roundabout” was one of four tracks that featured the entire group on “Fragile.” Five of the cuts were solo spotlights for the various members. “Mood for the Day” was another Howe acoustic piece, more classical and less jaunty than “Clap.” “Cans and Brahms” was a Wakeman organ/synth showcase adapting the work of the composer in the title. “We Have Heaven” spotlighted Anderson’s multi-tracked vocals. “Five Per Cent for Nothing” was a quick (35 seconds) jazz instrumental led by Bruford’s percussion. And “The Fish (Schinderia Praematurus)” was built from multiple bass lines by Squire.
Anderson recalled how the solo pieces came about: “Steve wanted to do (one) … Rick had ideas for his solo … so I suggested we all try one.”
But the real focus of “Fragile” are the four full-band tracks. Besides “Roundabout,” “Fragile” contained some of the most focused, unified and catchy numbers in the Yes catalog: the driving “South Side of the Sky,” the intricate “Long Distance Runaround,” and the moody epic, “Heart of the Sunrise.”
While Anderson, Squire and Howe were prominent in the songwriting credits, Wakeman was not, although he contends he contributed to the material and wasn’t credited due to record company legalities.
But Anderson believes Wakeman was a vital contributor during this era, stating, “Those songs still stand the test of time for sure. Steve and Rick added amazing amounts of different styles, music, new chords, new ideas. It was that perfect storm of energy that created (that album).”
Anderson recalled how the band discovered the painter’s work: “We saw his art from a band called Osibisa, and Steve contacted him. He was the perfect fit to create art for the band.”
Previous Yes albums had generic cover photos. The new approach was a perfect complement to the band’s evolving sound.
Dean’s front cover painting depicted a tiny planet, with a ship departing. On the back cover was the planet exploding as the ship moved further away.
Many fans believe these pieces began a continuing storyline about the planet’s survivors that ran through Dean’s subsequent Yes covers.
Anderson insists that isn’t the case, stating the covers were “not really a story, more of an impression (of) how Yes music looked.”
I Still Remember the Dream There
Whatever the case, Dean’s visuals were the perfect packaging for “Fragile,” which became the most successful Yes release to date. Although it came out in the U.K. in November 1971, it was held back in the States for two months to let “The Yes Album” run its course. The delay didn’t hurt: “Fragile” stayed on the Billboard 200 for 46 weeks, peaking at No. 4. Yes had truly fulfilled its potential, both artistic and commercial, and greater things lay ahead, along with many personnel changes, break-ups, make-ups and plenty of drama.
But by 1972, Yes was on top of the world. “‘Fragile’ was such a great time in my life,” Anderson said. “We had happiness and harmony. It will live forever as a great part of musical history. It’s amazing to think how special those songs are to me. I sing them in every solo show that I do, I love them and honor them — most important! People all over the world love that album forever!”
He remembered the feelings of this time, saying “Words cannot tell you how wonderful it was. Great sounds, great crowds, the music was getting stronger each tour. We were open to new musical ideas. We never had hit songs. We were a band with high dreams and energy.”