Even among the die-hard clan, most Yes fans will admit there’s a certain ambiguity to their love of the band. With forty-plus years worth of music to choose from, and the band’s longevity and persistency far deeper engrained than their consistency, Yes exist today as a force of nature, a hydra-headed leviathan that has not only weathered more creative storms and personal upheavals than an entire genre’s worth of other acts, but has done so with almost gentlemanly reserve.
It’s as if the entire history of the band is one long English garden party with members dropping in for a cuppa and a few polite words with the vicar, before hopping back into the Silver Cloud and motoring back to their own country estate. Occasionally, raised voices may be heard from the direction of the gazebo, and the odd plate of cucumber sandwiches might be flung. But even the black sheep of the family eventually return to the fold, and so Yes drift on, like the cloudless summer days of your fondly-remembered youth, or an especially gripping game of Clue.
Downton Abbey has nothing on Yes.
Twenty studio albums, ten concert sets, nineteen video/DVD releases and thirty-two compilations delineate the band’s official output, a tally that Wikipedia (possibly misleadingly) ranks among “the largest discographies of any band in popular music history.”
What is indisputable is how divisive that discography can be, again even among the die-hards. There’s the first couple of albums, as the band strove to find its place in the world; three more where they had indisputably found it; a couple more spent trying to improve upon that; a solid return to form; a dodgy follow-up, a flirtation with Buggles, a monster hit single, a four year wait for the platinum successor... and that’s the first dozen albums in a nutshell.
Since then, the output has slowed and their appeal has diminished as well - Union, in 1991, was Yes’s last album to go gold, and Magnification, in 2001, barely made the Top 200. But Fly From Here was Top 40 on both sides of the Atlantic, their biggest success since 1994’s Talk - and while few of those titles even begin to resonate with the same depth and volume as the discs that preceded them... Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales from Topographic Oceans... well, that’s just one of the perils of having lasted so long. The golden age grows more golden, the deeper into history it recedes, and the “recent stuff” just gathers dust on the CD shelf.
That golden age... indeed, the whole of the aforementioned first dozen albums... is the focus of The Studio Albums, 1969-1987, a twelve album, thirteen disc box set that places each of those discs in a mini-LP sleeve, appends all the bonus tracks that past reissues and remasters have boasted, then sends it out as a budget priced beastie that really is as good as all that sounds.
We’ll skip over a couple of packaging flaws - the absence of inner bags that leave the discs themselves rolling freely out of the individual discs as soon as they’re freed from the box; the disappointment of discovering that the promised poster isn’t much bigger than an iPad screen... cue a moment of misty-eyed nostalgia as we remembering the days when a free poster could wallpaper half your apartment.
And the peculiar absence of any updated track listings on the reproduced LP sleeves, meaning if there’s a bonus track that you want to hear, you need either a good memory for minutia, or the time to paw through every album, catching the CD as it falls to the floor, and a careful squint through the small print on each disc.
Little things, then, and nothing to put you off buying the box. But worth noting, regardless.
The music. Okay, is there anybody reading this who does not already know, and have firm opinions about, more or less every note on the majority of these discs? Who can’t play favorites with every album in the set, but know that sooner or later, they will play every one, and remember their faves as they do so?
From the debut, the winsome and almost BeeGees-like “Survival,” the first Yes track that this writer ever heard, on the 1970 Age of Atlantic sampler, rubbing shoulders with Zeppelin, Cold Blood and Buffalo Springfield, and eclipsing every one of them. The glorious title track to Time and a Word, an album that inched towards but had still to determine, the sound of “classic Yes.” Steve Howe’s debut on The Yes Album, from whence “Starship Trooper,” “Yours Is No Disgrace” and “I’ve Seen All Good People” so resolutely marched; and now we’re into the flawless biggies, the Rick Wakeman-fired Fragile and Close to the Edge, before detouring into the portentous pretensions of Topographic Oceans, the first Yes album to truly suggest that the Emperor might need to buy some new clothes.
Wakeman left, and I’m not sure I have ever read, or heard, anything positive said about 1974’s Relayer, and I don’t intend changing that dour scenario here. Then Wakeman returned, and Going for the One, in 1977, followed what sundry other so-called “dinosaur” bands (Genesis, the Stones) by emerging Yes’s most concise and electrifying statement since Close to the Edge, with a guitar-heavy title track that really didn’t sound out of place in the newly-forged age of punk rock.
Tormato followed through with the similarly inclined “Don’t Kill the Whale”; and Drama might well have been titled for the utterly un-Yes like dramas that surrounded the replacement of vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboard player Rick Wakeman by the boys from Buggles,and it’s a toe-tapping potpourri of new wave stylings, for all its un-Yesness.
With Anderson back, and Trevor Horn still onboard, 90125 is hallmarked, of course, by the hit - “Owner of a Lonely Heart” ensured that even people who had never previously heard of Yes could now rank them among their favorite bands; while overcoming the absence of Steve Howe and Wakeman by recruiting Trevor Rabin and original member Tony Kaye in their stead. Big Generator served up more of the same... and there you go. The first twelve Yes albums, spread over eighteen years, and all boxed up for you.