An Interview with Yes’ Alan White (August 3, 2015)
Prog Rock’s quintessential super group, Yes, will be heading out on an American tour again this summer/fall, including the third annual Cruise to the Edge in mid-November. The most notable change in the line-up, of course, will be the absence of Chris Squire on bass—the first time ever for a Yes tour.
PROGARCHY’s Kevin McCormick recently spoke for with Yes drummer extraordinaire, Alan White, as he prepared for rehearsals for the upcoming tour.
PROGARCHY Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us. I think I speak for all of the members of Progarchy.com in offering our condolences after the recent and sudden death of your colleague and friend, Chris Squire. Obviously he was such an essential part of Yes, founding member and the only person to appear on every Yes album. Are there plans to honor his memory in some way on the upcoming tour?
Alan White Well, we’re going to start rehearsals on Monday and we’re going to put our heads together. We’ve got numerous ideas and we’ve got to work out something to honor Chris. Just how we’re going to do it, we haven’t really decided.
PROGARCHY On your website, you wrote a touching note in his memory. As a musician, I know how unique the musical relationship between the drummer and bassist is and how crucial it is to forming a solid foundation for the band’s sound. Can you put your finger on what made your collaboration with Chris work so beautifully seamlessly?
AW Well yeah, it’s a question of similarity with each other. And over the years it became a more brotherly kind of relationship. Chris was almost part of my family. We shared a lot of experiences together and we played together for 43 years. So when you play together with someone for that long you get to know all of the facets of their playing and visa versa, him with myself. So it made it easy for us to work out some kind of flow in the rhythm section in what Yes was creating. And it was a special relationship. It probably never will be the same. All the same, he did ask that we keep this going, and that I keep it going. He said just do whatever you can do. And that’s a good insight, to just keep things very much forward.
PROGARCHY I imagine it must have been difficult to choose to continue with the planned tour. Was there a deciding factor for you?
AW That was what Chris wanted. He didn’t want everything to come to a halt just because he was ill. And while he was ill he had a very positive outlook to the future. He said, “Well, I’ll go into hospital for four to six weeks, I’ll get rid of this and I’ll be back on tour next spring.”
PROGARCHY Well, the fans will certainly miss him and I know the band will too. Any hints on the set list for the upcoming shows or will that be decided at the rehearsals?
AW Well we’ve put a set list together, but we’ve not rehearsed. We’ve got a few things to try out and see if they’ll work out or not. That will determine how we approach the set list. It’s not confirmed yet, but we have a good idea the type of set we want to do, because we’re touring with Toto who are probably going to do a lot of their [popular tracks]. We’re not going to play whole albums like we’ve done in the past few years. We’re just going to do a great selection of Yes music that people love to hear in concert.
PROGARCHY At first glance, Yes and Toto doesn’t seem like the most obvious double-bill. How did it come about?
AW Well it sounded pretty good to me. Maybe … because we know the guys in the band so well. Steve Porcaro and all the them, I’ve known those guys for years. They’re all super-nice guys and we get along really well.
PROGARCHY Any chances that you might join forces?
AW I doubt it. You know, once you get on the road you have a set list to get into and a time line you keep to. There’s not really time to work that kind of thing out. But I’ve played with Steve Porcaro and Billy Sherwood [on the Pink Floyd tribute album, Back Against the Wall].
PROGARCHY So is it Yes with Toto or…?
AW It’s going to be Yes and Toto. They’ll be opening for us every night, but it’s really more of a kind of double-billing.
PROGARCHY It’s amazing to me how much energy you bring to your live performances. When I saw Yes perform in Austin in 2013, I was impressed with the power in your playing. For you in particular, it must be extremely physically demanding.
AW [laughing] Well it all depends on what part of the tour you go to when we’re on the road! You know, none of us are spring chickens anymore, obviously. And traveling is really what gets you. If we didn’t have to travel on a daily basis we’d be in relatively good shape every evening. But sometimes you’re just really tired when you get to the evening and the last thing you want to do is share music. But it’s really funny how the body turns around and rises to the occasion. I guess when you walk out on stage and see all of the people out there, the body just shrugs all that off and gets to it.
PROGARCHY Has your relationship with Yes’ music changed over time? Are there any songs that you enjoy more now than when they were recorded?
AW Not really. All of Yes’ music is pretty challenging to play. Each song has got its own demands on what to play, and how to play, and the way to play it. So you have to readjust yourself to all of that framework….I have played some of them quite a few thousand times. So it’s about getting back into the mold and making it work.
PROGARCHY Are you surprised at all to still be playing with Yes after so many years?
AW [laughs] Well, I mean, yeah. Eventually, when I joined the band I said, “I’ll give you guys three months and see if I enjoy it and you give me three months and see if you enjoy it as a band.” And I’m still here forty-tree years later, so there must be something working.
PROGARCHY You had commented a while back about the current line-up of Yes is one of the best there’s been and Jon Davison’s working out well. Are you still feeling that?
AW Jon Davison is an excellent vocalist and all-around musician. He’s a super nice guy and very easy work to with.
PROGARCHY It’s amazing to me that Yes is still touring after 40 years. Is there an element to progressive rock that allows it to reach across decades and generations?
AW I guess the main thing is that everybody strives to make Yes a well-respected, high-standard-of-musicianship kind of band. When we perform, everybody gives 110 percent. If one part of the band isn’t clicking on all eight cylinders or whatever, you can tell, because it affects everybody else and their whole performance.
When we’re all firing on all cylinders, there’s no other band like it.
PROGARCHY Indeed! Thank you so much for all of the great music over the years and good luck on the upcoming tour.
AW Alright, man.
John Paul Jones would answer, “Yes.” I have been contemplating this question for some time now: is Led Zeppelin worthy of being labeled a “progressive rock” band? Although best remembered for the being the premier hard rock band of the 70s, Led Zeppelin could easily fit into the category of progressive rock-at least to some extent. For a band that never released a single, never performed on “Top of the Pops” (or any other television program), and was able to get away with leaving their name off their album covers, the Zep certainly achieved a level of success unmatched by any other band during the “progressive” era. Please bear with me as I detail the history of Led Zeppelin’s gradual transition from blues-based rockers to true “progressive” artists.
The history of Led Zeppelin’s music demonstrates that they are indeed worthy of the “prog” label. Bursting on to the scene with Led Zeppelin I in 1969, the band’s early repertoire was dominated by blues-inspired songs, but early on they were showing signs of being something more than just a hard rock band. Dazed and Confused, which featured the eerie effects produced by caressing guitar strings with a violin bow, demonstrated just how willing these virtuosos were willing to go to break the mold, one step at a time. Was the album truly “progressive” in the traditional sense? Perhaps not, but it was a step in the right direction.
Led Zeppelin II was not a significant departure from the first album, many of the themes remaining the same (namely, women and sex), and most of the songs still bluesy in their origins. II, however, did introduce the rock n’ roll world to Tolkien and his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings in the excellent folk-rock piece Ramble On. And so began the marriage of Tolkien and the (progressive) rock world, thanks to Robert Plant’s fascination with Middle Earth. An odd match, perhaps, but it was a wonderful union indeed, one that would inspire generations of future progressive rock artists. (Also, observe the uncanny resemblance between Robert Plant and Theoden. Coincidence? I think not).
Led Zeppelin III demonstrated again the willingness of the band to experiment with various styles. An eclectic album, the boys shift from metal (Immigrant Song) to blues (Since I’ve Been Loving You) to traditional folk (Gallows Pole, That’s The Way, Bron-Y-Aur Stomp) rather seamlessly. Although their decision to include more folk and traditional music was not as well received, III has grown in popularity and respect over the years. It was not until the next album, however, that Zeppelin placed themselves firmly on the progressive rock mantle.
By 1971 the band was so popular they were able to remove their name from the album cover. Led Zeppelin IV, their most successful album, is also their first “pure” progressive album. Although Black Dog and Rock and Roll may be considered (to some extent) standard rock fare, the rest of the album is undoubtably unique in its composition. The Battle of Evermore (possibly my favorite song) was an explicit homage to Middle Earth, and Misty Mountain Hop also makes reference to Plant’s favorite literary land. Going to California is a pleasant yet intricate folk song dedicated to Joni Mitchell, the Canadian singer who supposedly captured the hearts of both Page and Plant. Four Sticks may be the first “math rock” song ever composed, a song so complex that it was only performed by the band once in concert. When the Levee Breaks features explosive drums from John Bonham and fine harmonica work from Plant. Finally, there is Stairway to Heaven, an eight minute long epic with enigmatic lyrics that starts off slowly and builds up to one of the most impressive guitar solos in rock history. If that does not fit the “progressive” mold, then I don’t know what does.
Zeppelin’s repertoire only became more progressive after the immense success of IV. Houses of the Holy featured two more Tolkien-inspired songs: the folk-rock Over the Hills and Far Away, and the haunting No Quarter (my second favorite song). Physical Graffiti not only featured their longest song (In My Time of Dying, eleven minutes), but also perhaps their greatest one: Kashmir, one of the finest progressive rock songs ever composed. Backed by an orchestra, Plant, Page, Bonham, and Jones unleashed in this full scale epic of a far off land, a theme examined by progressive rock groups past and present. Their next album, Presence, although perhaps their weakest, nevertheless featured the powerful (and progressive) opener Achilles Last Stand, as well as the catchy rocker Nobody’s Fault But Mine. Zeppelin’s next and final album (although they did not know it at the time) was perhaps their most progressive. In Through the Out Door is dominated by John Paul Jones’ synthesizers and keyboards, and he is more than a competent keyboardist. His work prior to this album (Trampled Under Foot, No Quarter, The Rain Song) was impressive, but he truly shines on Zeppelin’s last album. In the Evening and Fool in the Rain prove he is no second-rate keyboardist, but it is his frenetic yet dexterous playing on the lengthy and cryptic Carouselambra that helped Jones cement his place as one of the best progressive rock keyboardists of the 1970s. This claim may be a stretch to some, as most associate Jones with the bass guitar, but I would urge the reader to listen to these songs mentioned above in order to appreciate his work on the keys.
After John Bonham’s untimely death in 1980, the band split up, each man going his own direction. Jimmy Page, one of the most versatile guitarists to ever grace the stage, actually teamed up with Chris Squire and Alan White of Yes to form XYZ (X-Yes and Zeppelin). Although the project was aborted after a short time, it nevertheless demonstrated Page’s willingness to work in what could have been a truly “progressive” super-group.
I hope this piece did not drag on too much, but I felt it necessary to delve deep into and explore the fascinating world of Led Zeppelin. Many consider this group to be among the best, if not the best, in rock n’ roll history, but to me they are more than a standard rock n’ roll band. In my book, they were also one of the finest progressive rock bands of all time.
Legendary progressive rock band Yes, one of the most influential and respected bands in the genre have outlasted many of their contemporaries, crossing from West Coast psychedelia into epic traditional progressive rock symphonies, new wave FM rock, back to progressive epics and beloved anthems over the course of their 46 years, evolving band line-ups and 21 studio albums.
Their latest opus, Heaven and Earth (released in the UK on 21st July, and in the States in July 22nd) marks the first studio release with Jon Davison (who replaced Benoit David back in 2012) on vocals, and Geoff Downes third studio album, firmly consolidating his place as their keyboard player with the classic line up of Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White.
I was lucky enough to grab a brief chat with Geoff recently to talk all things Heaven and Earth, and the impact that Jon Davison has had on the band,
‘It’s a bit different from other Yes albums, Jon has been given a freer run, and it very much reflects his style. It’s a different album from Fly From Here, and the stuff we did with Trevor (Horn), working with Roy Thomas Baker has another style, something that a diverse band like Yes can bear.’
I asked Geoff about the writing process of the album,
‘It’s all new material; we had a clean slate that enabled us to take it in a direction that felt natural to all of us. Yes is fantastic music, and it’s nice to be able to make a contribution even at this stage in the bands career, Benoit wasn’t so much of a writer, whereas Jon has really contributed to the album’
I think Geoff was being overly modest, as he and Trevor Horn had a massive impact on one of my favourite Yes albums, 1980’s Drama,
‘Drama, that came together in the studio, I’m very proud of it still, it sounds very fresh, and its what Yes needed at that point to move into a different arena for this type of music’
Of course with Geoff back on keyboard duties it’s nice to hear some of the Drama songs performed live,
‘Its good to play tracks like Tempus Fugit and Machine Messiah as they fit nicely into the set, we performed a few on the Fly From Here tour, and hopefully we’ll do more going forward’
I did wonder, which tracks from the new album would make it into the live arena?
‘We start rehearsals next week, we’ve practiced some of the songs so we have an idea which ones will work, we may only do a few from the album, certainly Believe Again, maybe one of the shorter songs and move them around in the set.
We’re playing classic albums in full, we’ve toured with that show for a while, so we’re changing it a bit, dropping Going for the One, focusing on Fragile, Relayer and lots of the Yes album.’
Heaven and Earth is a very different Yes album,
‘It’s very fresh, some fans don’t see beyond the 1970’s, but Yes were different in the 80’s and as different again in the 90’s, each different period of the band were interesting musical chapters, and this is another piece in the jigsaw. Hopefully it will bring in new fans to Yes’
Roger Deans striking artwork, with his black and white Yes logo (which to mind recalls the original Time and a Word album cover) is another Yes mainstay,
‘Roger Dean is very much synonymous with Yes, apart from that period in the 80’s where the very hi-tech album sleeves represented the albums, he’s very much a part of the scenery’
As Yes have only recently brought their show to the UK, I asked Geoff when he thought they might return,
‘We more likely to come back to the UK towards the start of next year, we are rehearsing for the US tour, then we tour the Pacific Rim, which will take up the rest of the year’
How did Geoff feel about returning to the Yes fold for Fly From Here?
‘It felt very natural, we started working on Fly From Here and it turned the clock back 30 years, the reunion of the 5 Drama guys, and it came together very easily the guys were all very helpful, it’s a great band. Jon coming in was not an easy job for him performing Jon Anderson’s songs and producing an authentic sound of Yes is a difficult role. My role as the keyboard player isn’t as critical as the vocal sound, and when we do the vintage albums the fans really like it, and Jon (Davison) has really worked’.
Of course Geoff has been the driving force behind Asia for over 30 years as well,
‘We’ve just done some Asia dates in Japan, and we had the new album Gravitas out at the start of the year, I think I’m busier now than I have been for a long time. Its great that in the past few years I am still involved in the bands that I was working with 30 years ago, it’s like my career has come full circle. We did Fly From Here, Asia still tour and of course we reunited the Buggles for some gigs a few years ago’
Buggles, the most misunderstood and underrated new wave band of the late 70’s/early 80’s, would Geoff ever consider a new Buggles album?
‘I still see Trevor and speak to him, and if the planets align, our diaries match up and we get the time it could well happen, never say never. The old stuff (from Buggles) still gets played a lot, and it’s nice to be involved with a timeless song (Video Killed the Radio Star), the same applies to Drama. I am really proud of that album; a lot of people were sceptical about these two pop guys joining Yes. In hindsight fans view Drama in a different light. I think it paved the way for Yes in the 80’s, my style of synths was techno, samples and it formed a bridge between Yes of the 1970’s and the work they did on 90125. Those changes helped sustain the bands longevity and shows it musical legacy could outlive the 1970’s when so many other bands folded’
There’s been a lot of interest in the Yes back catalogue recently with the 5.1 remixes
‘A lot of the progheads are into the 5.1 sound, like with Genesis fans some don’t like the pop Genesis. You have to look on each band as a whole, each album and each line up has a valid contribution to the bands history. I would like to hear Drama in 5.1, the album was heavily overdubbed at the time, and so it would reveal a lot of detail’.
Thanks to Geoff Downes for his time.
Heaven and Earth by Yes – the verdict!
1) Believe Again (Jon Davison, Steve Howe) 8.18
2) The Game (Chris Squire, Jon Davison, Steve Howe) 7.07
3) Step Beyond (Steve Howe, Jon Davison) 5.45
4) To Ascend (Jon Davison, Alan White) 4.53
5) In a World of Our Own (Jon Davison, Chris Squire) 5.31
6) Light of Ages (Jon Davison) 7.57
7) It was All we Knew (Steve Howe) 4.21
8) Subway Walls (Jon Davison, Geoff Downes) 9.21
So, I don’t think a Yes album has been as eagerly anticipated as this one since the last one! Fly From Here, Yes’ first studio album in 10 years, and the only one to feature Benoit David on vocals. Musically and spiritually it was the sequel to Drama, only 30 years out of sequence, and with Trevor Horn on production duties, Geoff Downes on keyboards and the music made of Buggles demos (interesting alternative versions exist on Adventures in Modern Recordings 2010 remaster, which shows a different version again) received a mixed reception, which was seen by some as very much a holding pattern it can now be seen very much as Drama can be seen now. A bookend on a previous era, and a bridge to a new Yes. With Downes firmly ensconced in the keyboard position, and Roy Thomas Baker finally getting to finish a Yes album, the band is as stable as Yes can ever be. However the attention isn’t on the new old boy in the band, or the established Squire/White/Howe axis who have been the mainstay of this Yes era since 1996’s Keys to Ascension, the attention is always going to be on the vocals, and the fact that the vocalist isn’t Jon Anderson.
Much has been written, and will no doubt continue to be written about whether Yes are Yes if Jon Anderson isn’t on the record. To my mind if it says Yes on the album sleeve, and sounds like Yes on the record, then it’s a Yes album.
Jon Davison is the Yes singer, and he also writes a fair bit to, which can be seen in the credits above. Jon Davison has put his stamp on the Yes sound as firmly as his illustrious predecessors and his vocals add to the unmistakably Yes sound on display.
As Geoff Downes states in the interview above, each member of Yes adds something to the chapter they are writing, and this is as true on Heaven and Earth as of its 20 brethren.
There’s plenty of continuity here with former Yesman Billy Sherwood involved in mixing the harmony vocals, and Roy Thomas Baker (producer of abortive sessions in the late 1970’s) adding his considerable experience to the mix.
So what does the album actually sound like? And more to the point is it any good?
Well, if you can imagine the leap between the sound of the distinctly average Open Your Eyes, compared to the amazing beauty contained in its follow up The Ladder, then this is that leap from Fly From Here.
First of all if you’re looking for a quick hit, look elsewhere, this album is a slow burner. A grower, one that teases you and tempts you, revealing its secrets slowly and seductively, listen after beguiling listen. You’ll find songs slowly sneaking into your subconscious, humming tunes, singing along as you play the album.
Opening with one of the longer tracks Believe Again, which has been trailed as the teaser track for the album, you can tell instantly that its Yes, but that the goal posts have moved. Downes synths are to the fore, and then in come the vocals, similar enough to Jon Andersons to keep an element of continuity. Lets face it, if you’re Yes and you are hiring a new vocalist you need someone who can handle the older material and hit the heights Olias of Sunhillow used to hit at his peak. You wouldn’t hire Lemmy would you?
Jon D is different enough from Jon A to put his own stamp on this album, and Believe Again comes across to me anyway as a message to the fans saying believe in us, we are still the Yes you know and love. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but with Davison’s work making an impact straight away, and the band working in symphony from the get go, this is a Yes line up with chemistry, bouncing off each other, and whilst Believe Again is at the more commercial end of the spectrum, it’s still a powerful piece, with the vocal harmonies and musical counter play working really well. Howe’s guitar and Downes synth interplay is to the fore, and is something that really stands out throughout the album.
Geoff Downes isn’t the new keyboard player, he is the keyboard player. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing with this Yes line up, and to be honest I wouldn’t want anyone else in.
The Game has some fantastic work from Howe and some wonderfully direct lyrics. The themes are the same, but the vocal and lyrical approach is different throughout. Jon Davison isn’t trying to be Jon Anderson or Benoit David. He doesn’t need to be. He is the Yes frontman and lyricist and his identity is all over this album. His performance throughout is assured, confident and fits. If you liked his earlier work with Glass Hammer, this is right up your alley. The Game is taut, sharp, direct and punchy, a classy piece of rock.
Step Beyond, with its funky keyboard sound, its powerfully insistent vocal work, and the taut chorus, with some fantastic guitar work from Steve Howe, and with Downes nagging keyboard riff, combined with some truly classic Yes vocal harmonies, and a great instrumental interlude, only clocks in at under 6 minutes, yet it’s got a funky drive, some great drum and bass work from Squire and White and some catchy lyrical moments, it might be brief, but there’s so much going on here, both musically and lyrically, it could well be a new classic Yes anthem, and seems destined as a live staple.
That’s one thing that is really noticeable throughout the album, the sharpness of the harmonies, the work Billy Sherwood has done with Howe, Squire and Davison has brought all the classic harmony power that is a hallmark of Yes to the fore, and with Thomas Bakers production, the vocals have some real power.
To Ascend, has some beautifully direct lyrics, more of those gorgeous harmonies, and some beautiful acoustic guitar work from Davison, that mingles with Howes exquisite performance, whilst Downes majestic piano and keyboard work soar, all the while underpinned by the rock steady Squire and White, its glorious chorus, it’s musical crescendos and Davison’s performance is sublime, a true classic Yes track amongst all the adventure on this album.
In a World of Our Own, with some great musical work by Yes, Downes keyboards shining throughout, White kicking back with a funky dirty blues beat, Howes guitar cutting through the sound left, right and centre, with some languid blues and Davison’s honestly direct lyrics, as different as his predecessors as possible, with it’s tale of love gone sour, this is Yes gone film noir, meant to be listened to in a seedy underground blues club, black and white, smoky atmosphere, Davison as the blues singer, a lazy swing underpinning the whole track. Its Yes Jim, but not as we know it.
Light of the Ages is a suitably cosmic traditional Yes title, with some beautifully gloriously languid slide guitar work from Mr Howe, that stretches out throughout the track, whilst the synth work from Geoff Downes is amazing, however this is Jon Davisons track, and ironically the closest he comes to sounding like Jon Anderson at any point, with it’s spiritual lyrics, and it’s slow build to a majestic finale, this is one new Yes track that could have snuck onto to anything from Fragile to Tormato, and enhanced any album it sat on, here it is a highlight amongst highlights. Just when you think Heaven and Earth can’t get better it throws you another curve ball, and musically the band is reaching higher and higher, pushing further and further, and pull you along. Whilst Davisons vocal performance is the marzipan on top of this particular cake, and the Light of the Ages really shines with some glorious soloing from both Howe and Downes.
The only thing that’s a touch disposable is It Was all we knew, which is a bit of a weak link in the album, the musical performance is great as ever, however the track itself is a bit anonymous, despite the great harmonies, the lyrics are a tad clichéd and the track does tend to sound a bit nursery rhyme in places, even Howes spirited solo doesn’t lift the tone. I guess that’s my one complaint about this track, whilst the rest of the album is full of musical mood swings and counterparts, this just meanders on, almost Yes by numbers, which is a shame as if there were more going on, it could be great.
Now speaking of greatness we come to the finale, the epic, the closing 9 minutes plus Subway Walls, a Downes/Davison track, one crafted by the (relatively) new boys, and boy is this a statement of intent.
From Downes symphonic and dramatic synth work that opens the track, with its powerful riffs and it’s orchestral overtones you know you are in for a treat, and it doesn’t disappoint. A meditation on the meaning of life,
‘Is the meaning in the stars or does graffiti on the subway walls hold the secrets to it all’
That is the new Yes right there, encapsulated in that wonderful lyrical couplet, not just astral travellers any more, but also earthbound voyagers.
Heaven and Earth encapsulated in a nutshell, the answers aren’t just beyond and before, they are also here and now, for us all to see if we open our eyes.
The performance on Subway Walls, with some fantastic work from White and Squire, the lynchpin that holds Yes together, allows Downes and Howe the freedom to fly, and climb as they spar from about 4 minutes in, building and pushing each other, and taking the band with them, as they go from the subway to the stars and back again in 9 sublime minutes. Davisons vocals again are superb throughout, and the harmonies again majestic.
Heaven and Earth is probably my favourite Yes album of the past 20 years, more organic than any of the Keys to Ascension studio work, more fun than Magnification. This is the sound of a band working in harmony unlike Fly From Here. Yes haven’t sounded this good since the Ladder back in 1999, or Talk back in 1994.
It could have been so easy for Yes to return to what they did best in the 1970’s on this album, but that is not why Yes are still here. Nearly 50 years into a musical adventure that shows no sign of ending, they are still pushing themselves to make the best music they can, like the superb musicians they are. Managing that difficult balancing act of staying true to the Yes name, with all its attendant history, both good and bad, and yet managing to make new, interesting, and exciting music for them and us.
This my friends is the true meaning of progressive rock, something pushing forward, ever moving, ever evolving. Yes, once again have shown us what progressive rock means, and I thank them for it.
Readers: You might also like Nick Efford’s take on Yes in Concert: http://progarchy.com/2014/05/10/yes-sheffield/
Aa well as Erik Heter’s retrospective on 90125 (30 years later): http://progarchy.com/2013/10/27/90125-at-30-a-retrospective/
One of the hardest things a serious music fan is ever tasked with is coming up with a list of five or ten desert island discs, i.e. the albums without which he or she cannot live. In fact, trying to put such a list together can be torture. I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the Geneva Convention is a prohibition on forcing prisoners of war to assemble a desert island disc list under duress. Such a thing could cause serious and irreversible psychological damage, and would thus be inhumane.
The trouble with desert island disc lists is that our moods – and thus our musical preferences at any given moment – are so incredibly varied. One moment you might want to listen to the intricacies of a well-played classical guitar piece, the next moment you crave the audio testosterone known as AC/DC. One moment you may want the sunny joy of Led Zeppelin tracks such as ‘The Song Remains the Same’ or ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’, the next moment you want the dark, brooding heaviness of early Black Sabbath. One moment you want the folky feel of some acoustic Jethro Tull, while in another moment you want the cathartic release of an angry Tool song. These examples are just the tip of an infinitely large iceberg.
While I would have to inflict great pain upon myself to assemble a definitive desert island disc list, there is one album I can say would be on any final version that I came up with – Yes’s 1977 masterpiece, ‘Going for the One’.
“Why ‘Going for the One’?” you ask. The consensus on Yes albums like ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘The Yes Album’ is that they are great albums, if not outright masterpieces. On the other end of the spectrum, albums like ‘Union’ and ‘Open Your Eyes’ are generally considered somewhere between awful and God-awful. And then there are those Yes albums that are lightning rods of controversy – ‘Tales from Topographic Oceans’, ‘90125’, and to some degree, ‘Drama’. ‘Going for the One’, while generally viewed in a positive manner, doesn’t fall into any of these categories among the majority of Yes fans. But if you ask me, it is a masterpiece as much ‘Close to the Edge’. It crystallizes the essence of Yes – not to mention some artistic goals of first-wave progressive rock.
To really ‘get’ this album, it helps to understand the context in which it was recorded, both within the band’s history as well as musical trends at large. Recording for the album began in earnest in the fall of 1976 – the same year that the punk movement exploded onto the scene, in no small part as a reaction to progressive rock. The genre of progressive rock itself was beginning to show some signs of wear and tear – Peter Gabriel had left Genesis, King Crimson had disbanded, and the general excesses of the genre were beginning to turn the music-buying public looking in other directions. Meanwhile, punk was raging and stadium rock’ was beginning to step into the place formerly occupied by the proggers.
Within the band, Yes had gone through a tumultuous few years, including the release of the controversial ‘Topographic Oceans’, Rick Wakeman’s resulting departure, ‘Relayer’, a number of solo albums, a significant amount of touring, the easing out of Patrick Moraz and the eventual return of Wakeman. There was a need for the band to catch its collective breath, to reflect.
‘Going for the One’ has a very introspective feel to it. This is borne out in no small part by the album artwork, including the cover (shown above) as well as the inner gatefold.
A first thing to note is that none of the Roger Dean artwork is present –neither on the inner gatefold or the outside cover – save for the famous Yes logo. The front cover shows the backside of a naked man, intersected by varying geometric shapes of different lines, against the backdrop of two modern skyscrapers, symbolic of standing naked against modern world. On the inside gatefold is an idyllic scene of a lake at sunset. From the liner notes of the re-mastered CD, I am taking an educated guess that this is Lake Geneva, Switzerland, not far from where the album was recorded. Some sort of island (quite possibly man-made) having a rather large but bare tree sits in the middle of the lake. Individual pictures of each band member are also shown, with all but Steve Howe’s having a lake (the same one?) as a backdrop. The contrast between the front cover and the inner gatefold would suggest taking refuge of some sort, turning inward and reflecting.
In addition to its introspective feel, ‘Going for the One’ also very much has a classical music-like sound as well. In his excellent book ‘Rocking the Classics’, author Edward Macan describes progressive rock of the 1970’s as attempting to “combine classical music’s sense of space and monumental scope with rock’s raw power and energy.” ‘Going for the One’ accomplishes this spectacularly, better than any other progressive rock album of the 70’s, other Yes masterpieces included. The introduction of the harp and the church organ, the latter from St. Martin’s Cathedral in Vevey, Switzerland, are instrumental in the sound of this album. The sound here exemplifies the term “symphonic progressive rock.” Interestingly enough, this was the first Yes album since ‘Time and a Word’ that did not feature Eddy Offord in the role as a producer. There is little doubt Offord’s absence affected the overall sound.
The title track kicks off the album, and it is an outlier with respect to the remainder of the tracks – a straight ahead rocker. In yet another “first in a long time”, the title track of ‘Going for the One’ is the first Yes song under eight minutes in length since Fragile. Between ‘Fragile’ and ‘Going for the One’, the shortest Yes song was ‘Siberian Khatru’, clocking in at 8:55. Musically, the song is propelled forward by Howe’s pedal steel guitar. This is interesting in itself, as the instrument is most closely associated with country music, yet Howe makes it rock and rock hard here. Wakeman’s keyboard work, both on the church organ and piano stand out here as well. In general, every instrument here, as well as the vocals, proceeds at an up tempo pace that maintains itself from start to finish.
There are a two other things to note on the title track that are true for the entire album. One is that the production here is very crisp and clean. The second (which undoubtedly plays on the first) is that the soundscape is not as dense as on the album’s predecessor, ‘Relayer’. Instead of choosing to fill up every available recording track, the band has scaled things down a bit from their previous effort. This is done to good effect, as it gives the music a little more chance to breathe.
The classical-like sound referenced above makes its first appearance on the next track, ‘Turn of the Century’, and is prominent from here on out. The music begins with some light, exquisitely played acoustic guitar work by Howe. Jon Anderson has stated the song was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’, and lyrically it tells a story of a sculptor creating his lover in “form out of stone” after her death. Both music and lyrics convey a sense of deep loss, making this the album’s most emotional piece. The loss is most poignantly conveyed in the first half of the song, when the music is very melancholy. Around the halfway mark, Wakeman’s piano makes an appearance, along with Howe’s pedal steel guitar. This evolves into a very tumultuous transition. But what emerges on the other side, in the latter half of the song is bright and joyful. Howe takes over on a standard electric guitar with some very sunny lines, while Squire’s bass line does a great job of playing off of Anderson’s vocals. Moreover, this portion of the music is very joyful, indicating that our protagonist has emerged from his grieving and can once again experience happiness. Perhaps the sculpture of his lover has given him solace and peace, coming to life metaphorically if not in reality. The ending of the song has a bittersweet feel to it, as if again to acknowledge the loss while also acknowledging the ability to find joy in life once again after such a tragedy. All things considered, this is a very beautiful and delicate composition both musically and lyrically.
‘Parallels’ is up next, and is an underrated gem of the Yes catalog. This song features spectacular performances by Howe, Wakeman, and Squire, who take turns in showing off their chops on their respective instruments. Still, they never descend into self-indulgence or stray from the song’s logical progression. The song introduces itself proper with Wakeman’s billowing church organ from St. Martin’s Cathedral ( this is best played LOUD to get the full impact). Squire and Howe then chime in, the former with a typically excellent bass line, the latter with some crisp, clean lead guitar. From there, the song takes on a straightforward structure of two verses and two choruses, before transitioning into the middle section led by more of Howe’s crisp lead guitar. After another verse, the song segues into an instrumental section in which Wakeman and Squire are at the forefront. The interplay between Wakeman’s soloing on the church organ and Squire’s bass line is nothing short of brilliant. The transition out of this instrumental section is announced by the return of Howe’s guitar. After one final chorus, the song begins barreling toward its conclusion. Howe again steps to the forefront, his guitar firing burst after burst of clean, high notes. This is some of my favorite Howe guitar work in the entire Yes catalog – bright, sharp, and technically brilliant. Squire and Wakeman remain in the mix here with some fantastic playing of their own.
Another defining aspect of ‘Parallels’ is its conclusion – one of the best endings to a song I have ever heard. That ending is more easily described in non-musical terms. Imagine 18-wheeler, barreling down the highway at full speed. Now imagine that 18-wheeler not just coming to a full stop, but stopping on a dime. And imagine that 18-wheeler doing so with the grace and finesse of a ballet dancer. That’s the ending of ‘Parallels’ right there. It’s an extremely difficult combination to pull off, which makes its flawless execution here that much better.
If J.S. Bach had a rock band, it would sound like ‘Parallels’.
Moving on, we next come to ‘Wonderous Stories’. It’s the shortest song on the album, but also the brightest. It also marks the return of Howe on a guitar-like instrument called the vachalia, which last appeared on ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’. Like ‘Parallels’ before it, the song includes a verse-chorus structure, with the choruses featuring some of Yes’s trademarked harmony vocals. The middle section is marked by a rather vigorous Wakeman keyboard solo including synths that emulate a string section. The song resumes its verse-chorus structure once again, while a thick bass line underneath propels the music forward. Howe and Wakeman continue to supply the melodies on top. The vocals, which include both harmonies and counterpoints here, are stunning. As the vocals fade out, Howe enters the scene again, this time with some jazzy electric guitar to close out the song.
Finally, we come to ‘Awaken’. There are numerous superlatives which could be used to describe this piece. All of them are inadequate. Somebody will have to invent new ones.
Much like the album ‘Moving Pictures’ did for Rush, ‘Awaken’ brings together everything that is great about Yes and distills it into one coherent work of art. It has the epic scope of pieces such as ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Gates of Delirium’. It has the virtuoso instrumentation of numerous Yes classics such as ‘Heart of the Sunrise’, ‘Yours is No Disgrace’, and ‘Siberian Khatru’. And it has the classical feel of the preceding tracks on the same album. Moreover, it pares back some of the excesses of previous albums without paring back any of the artistic ambition.
To the uninitiated, Wakeman’s piano lines that open ‘Awaken’ could be mistaken for something from a piano concerto. After a few vigorous runs, the music begins a dreamy sequence, as Anderson’s vocals begin. As the introductory verses closes, a note of dissonance sounds before Howe takes over using a guitar riff that has a decidedly Eastern flavor (incidentally, the working title for ‘Awaken’ was ‘Eastern Numbers’). Anderson begins a chant, and the music takes a more serious tone. The most remarkable thing about this section is the drumming and the bass work. Alan White’s drumming with Yes has never been better than on this album, and on this particular track. Squire’s bass plays off of both White’s drumming and Howe’s guitar. The odd time signature here keeps things more than interesting, as it is difficult to predict when the next bass note or next drum beat will fall, and yet it’s also clear that there is a logical pattern behind the playing. It’s the kind of bass and drum work that sucks the listener in and keeps them hooked.
After two verses and two choruses of the chant, the music breaks into a blistering Howe guitar solo. Much like the guitar work on ‘Parallels’, the soloing here is full of bursts of sharp, high-pitched notes. However, the mood here is entirely different, expressing a sense of inner turmoil and urgency. This is another section of brilliant virtuoso guitar playing that illustrates why this album is among Howe’s strongest, either in or out of Yes.
As Howe gracefully exits the solo and returns to the main riff, another verse and chorus of the chant follow before the music begins a slow transition away from the Eastern motif. Wakeman’s keyboards step to the forefront, first mirroring Howe’s riff before segueing into the “Workings of Man” portion of the song. The church organ leads the way into this section, which has a much more European sound and texture, not to mention the lyrics. The tension builds here to a peak before Wakeman puts the brakes on the whole thing with a series of ever quieter notes, effectively bringing the first half of ‘Awaken’ to a close.
The transition to the second half of the song begins with a split-second of silence, before a single note of White’s tuned percussion blends into the first pluck of a harp by Anderson. From an initial quiet beginning, the band begins to slowly and painstakingly build tension in what is a textbook example of the technique. White’s percussion and Anderson’s harp start this section, soon to be joined by Wakeman, who is initially playing singular notes on the church organ.
A layer is added to the tension when Wakeman begins playing slightly longer (but still relatively quiet) runs. Squire also quietly enters, playing singular high bass notes, most likely on the six-string neck of the monster triple neck bass he uses for live performances of this song. These bass notes intensify and push the music forward, while Wakeman’s runs on the church organ slowly begin to lengthen, increase in volume, and sound more orchestral. Choral singers also join the fray, further building the intensity, which builds like a wave to a first peak before receding somewhat. At this point, Howe re-enters the picture on electric guitar, and leads the music to a second peak and a transition into what may be called the ‘Master of Time’ section of the piece. The build-up from the initial plucks on the harp to this point is powerful stuff, very mesmerizing and very emotional.
I have a personal anecdote I would like to share to illustrate the emotional punch of this section. In 2002, I attended my sixth Yes concert at an excellent Austin venue called The Backyard. I went with several former co-workers, including a friend of mine named Cheryl. While Cheryl is not a prog rock fan per se, she is much more of an astute listener to music than the vast majority of people. Musically, she is “switched in”. Toward the end of the concert, Yes performed ‘Awaken’. During the portion described above, I was mesmerized as normal, but for some reason I looked over at Cheryl standing next to me to gauge her reaction. Tears were streaming down her face, which was transfixed to the stage as she was as absorbed in the music as I had been just before turning my head. Amazing. I remember thinking “she gets it”, and was very impressed at that. Among my friends and acquaintances, I have musically usually been an outlier, as few of them have been interested in prog, and certainly not anywhere to the same degree as me. Some of them have even heard ‘Awaken’ in my presence and have given me strange looks that say “what the heck is this?” Yet here was Cheryl, on her first listen to ‘Awaken’, completely getting the gist of this incredible composition. As someone who had known this little secret for a long time, I found it very gratifying to see her reaction with no prompting or no explanation from anyone else – only the music was talking. It’s a moment I will not soon forget.
As the music progresses through the ‘Master of Time’ section, Anderson sings several verses and the tension continues to build, finally resolving itself with a shattering climax, with Wakeman’s church organ and the choral singers at the forefront. The dreamy section from the beginning is then reprised, and the final line of lyrics is one of my favorites from the entire Yes catalog: “Like the time I ran away, and turned around and you were standing close to me.” Howe then brings ‘Awaken’ to its final conclusion with some playful electric guitar lines.
Wow. What a piece of music. In my opinion, the finest fifteen minutes plus of music Yes ever committed to any recording medium. This is not to take away anything from some of their other masterpieces (and there are several), but to extol the virtues of this incredible piece of music. And by the way, I am in some good company when I surmise that this is Yes’s best work. None other than Jon Anderson himself has stated “at last we had created a Masterwork” with regard to Awaken. On the 1991 documentary ‘Yesyears’, Anderson refers to “the best piece of Yes piece of music, Awaken” and further states that it is “everything I would desire from a group of musicians in this life.” I’d say that’s a pretty strong endorsement.
In progressive rock circles, many references are made to the various sub-genres. Yes music (at least their 70’s output) is most often classified as symphonic progressive rock. No album exemplifies this term more perfectly than ‘Going for the One’, and no song exemplifies it more than ‘Awaken’. Other Yes works, such as the previously mentioned ‘Close to the Edge’ and ‘Gates of Delirium,’ possess the same scope but not the same instrumental timbre. ELP had some symphonic works that were their own interpretations of existing classical compositions while their own magnum opus, ‘Karn Evil 9’, sounded high tech for its time. ‘Thick as a Brick’ by Jethro Tull is certainly symphonic in its scope, and while great in its own right, has more of a folky feel than symphonic. In contrast to all of these, on ‘Going for the One’, Yes has created original compositions that, in many parts, could be easily mistaken for classical symphonic music by those not otherwise familiar with this type of music. A perfect fusion, you might say.
I’m still struggling to come up with the other four or nine or however many albums I need to complete my desert island disc list. And being immersed in the midst of a second golden age of progressive rock as we are now, completing that list will only get tougher due to the cornucopia of excellent new releases. But I can say without any hesitation, without any equivocation, whatever final form that list takes, it will most definitely include ‘Going for the One.’