Thirty years ago this month, after being presumed dead in the wake of the ‘Drama’ album, Yes came roaring back into the music scene with ‘90125’. Commercially, ‘90125’ was a spectacular success, yielding their only #1 single as well as several other staples for that era of rock radio. ‘90125’ also brought in scores of new Yes fans, and became a gateway to progressive rock for many who were previously unaware. However, with established Yes fans, ‘90125’ proved to be a lighting rod of controversy.
For some established fans, myself included, it was a joy to have Yes back as an active band, even if their new album wasn’t a full-blown prog album. But to many established fans, this music simply wasn’t Yes.
At the center of the controversy was the new guitarist, Trevor Rabin, who was the only Yes rookie on the album. Rabin, while a fantastic talent in his own right, had significant stylistic differences with his predecessor, Steve Howe. As a co-writer of every song on the new album, his imprint on the new music was larger than that of any other member. And this music was a sharp departure from anything Yes had previously done. Thus, with the membership change and the change in musical direction, many older fans declared “this is not Yes”.
So was it Yes? Was it Yes save for the new guitarist? And what to make of this strange new music (in Yes terms, anyway)?
Yes, it was definitely Yes
A cursory examination of the membership makes it hard to declare the band that created ‘90125’ anything other than Yes. Four of the five members on the album were Yes veterans. Three of them – Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, and Tony Kaye – were original members of Yes. The fourth, Alan White, had originally joined Yes more than a decade prior, and was firmly established in the band. Calling the band Cinema, as they were before Anderson’s return, would have been odd, to say the least. In fact, I’m willing to bet most of the “it’s not Yes” crowd would have said “well, it’s really just Yes” had they tried to get away with calling the band Cinema. Four established Yes veterans with Jon Anderson on vocals is, for all intents and purposes, Yes. And thus an album created by such a band is, for all intents and purposes, a Yes album. When Anderson reconnected with Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, and Bill Bruford in 1989, they may have called themselves Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe for legal reasons, but everybody knew is was really just another incarnation of Yes. Otherwise, why call the shows on your tour ‘An Evening of Yes Music Plus’?
One person who was decidedly a fan of the new band – Rabin himself – was also against calling it Yes. I have sympathy for Rabin’s position, given that he took the brunt of the criticism from the established Yes fans. Still, there was nothing else you could call this band, with four veterans in the lineup including Anderson on vocals. It simply would not have been credible to call it anything else but Yes. With a different vocalist – or with the pre-Anderson lineup, the Cinema name would have worked. Once Anderson came on board, Yes was the only name that would do. The band that did ‘90125’ was not Cinema. It was Yes. Yes with a new guitarist? Sure. A Yes wherein the newest member had the most impact on his first recorded output with the band? Undoubtedly. But still Yes. There is simply no other credible band name for the lineup that recorded ‘90125’.
Even with as radical a departure as this album was from its predecessors, it’s hard to think musically of ‘90125’ as anything other than a Yes album. Certainly, it had a heaviness that was rarely heard on previous Yes albums. The intro to ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ telegraphed early on that this was going to be a different kind of Yes music. ‘Hold On’, ‘City of Love’, and ‘Changes’ produced more power chords than had been heard in any previous Yes album. The music also had much more of a 80’s feel to it, and Tony Kaye’s description of it as sometimes being dimensionally sparse was fitting.
Still, there were more than a few common threads with previous Yes works. And despite Anderson’s late entry into the project, there is no doubt that his creative impact on the final product was second only to Rabin’s. No other song exemplifies this more than ‘It Can Happen’, in particular when the Cinema version is compared to the final Yes version. The Cinema version of ‘It Can Happen’ appears, among other places, on disc 4 of the YesYears box set. The lyrics on that version were those of a rather sappy love song. Even keeping in mind that this is more or less a demo version, the music was relatively mundane. In contrast, it is clear that Anderson had completely rewritten the lyrics by the time the final version was recorded. The rewritten lyrics have much more of the trademark cosmic mysticism that infuses so much of Anderson’s output. Moreover, the music has much more in terms of ‘Yessy’ touches to it, beginning with the sitar intro. If a Yes fan had entered a cave in 1979 and emerged in early 1984 to hear ‘It Can Happen’ on the radio, he or she might have concluded that Yes had never broken up or had gone through the turmoil of the intervening years. The final version of ‘It Can Happen’ clearly sounds like a Yes song, and, 80’s production values notwithstanding. It would not be out of place in the earlier Yes catalog.
Various vocal arrangements on the album also tie in nicely with Yes music past. In ‘Hold On’, a multi-part harmony is sung on the verse that begins with “Talk the simple smile, such platonic eyes …”. This bears a lot of similarity to the final chorus of “Does It Really Happen” (“time is the measure, before it’s begun …”) from ‘Drama’. And of course, ‘Leave It’ is a vocal tour de force that begins with a huge five-part harmony that is unmistakably Yes (this was the second song I heard off of this album, and the one that told me “Yes is back!”). In the previously mentioned ‘It Can Happen’, Anderson and Squire alternate on lead vocals, with Squire singing lead on those portions that serve as a transition from the verses to the chorus. And finally, Anderson’s delivery on the album’s finale, ‘Hearts’, is not something that sounds unusual to the experienced Yes listener.
Other notable connections to previous Yes music includes the ebb and flow of ‘Hearts’, Squire’s bass work on ‘Our Song’ and ‘Cinema’, and the keyboard intro to ‘Changes.’ Had this lineup of musicians released these same songs under the guise of Cinema, I would have scratched my head and asked “why didn’t they just call themselves Yes?”, and I doubt I’m alone in that aspect.
What Rabin Brought to the Table
As we’ve already noted, ‘90125’ represented a significant shift in direction for the band, possibly more so than any other shift in their history. And there is little doubt that much of that shift is due to the presence of Rabin. It’s one thing to bring a new member into a band. It’s quite another that the new member has such an outsized creative contribution to the finished product, and this was certainly the case on ‘90125’.
I’ll start out by saying that I like Howe’s guitar work better than Rabin’s. In his book ‘Music of Yes’, Bill Martin described this difference perfectly, noting that Rabin divided his lead and rhythm guitar work in a fairly conventional manner, as opposed to Howe, who most decidedly did not. As a prog fan, it shouldn’t be surprising that I prefer the unconventional to the conventional. But that does not change the fact that Trevor Rabin is an exceptional guitarist in his own right. Nor does it change the fact that Rabin brought certain things to the table that Howe did not.
One thing Rabin brought through his guitar playing was a much harder edge (or heaviness, if you prefer) than Howe ever did. Much of ‘90125’ flat out rocks, as Rabin had a knack for delivering a bone-crushing power chord at precisely the right moment. There were occasions on previous Yes releases where I wish Howe would have unleashed, one notable example being ‘Release, Release’ from the ‘Tormato’ album. Listen to Shadow Gallery’s version of this song on the tribute album ‘Tales from Yesterday’, and you’ll probably understand what I mean. Comparing live versions of ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ with Rabin to those done with Howe (sans Rabin) provide another demonstration of what I mean here.
The heaviness of Rabin’s guitar in Yes music was a good fit for its time and place. Yes was not going to survive as a band by doing the epics of the 70’s. They were going to survive by other means. And while this did pull them closer to the mainstream, they never fully jumped into it the way their prog-rock peers Genesis did in the 80’s. While Genesis largely ditched their progressive past to pursue top-40 hits, Yes under Rabin merely dipped their toes into the water a few times (with ‘Owner’ being the prime example on ‘91025’) while otherwise producing album-oriented rock that was just outside the mainstream.
Another of Rabin’s strengths was his capability as a multi-instrumentalist. Although not known by many, Rabin did most of the keyboard work for the three albums that featured what we call the Yes-West lineup. While he was no Rick Wakeman (but who is?), I am comfortable saying he was actually a better keyboard player than Kaye. This stood out to me while listening to Rabin’s piano solo on the ‘Talk’ tour, in which he demonstrated a dexterity that Kaye never did during his time in Yes. While ‘90125’ is more of a guitar-driven album to be sure, it does feature some interesting keyboard work, and the most interesting parts thereof were almost certainly played by Rabin.
However, where Rabin’s contribution to Yes really shines in comparison to Howe is in his abilities as a vocalist. Rabin was much more than a merely capable lead vocalist. With a rather smooth voice, he was indeed quite a good one. This gave Yes a previously unknown vocal versatility which was used to great affect on songs like ‘Leave It’ and ‘Changes’, where he and Anderson take turns singing lead. Rabin’s backing vocals on other songs like ‘It Can Happen’ added to the overall vocal picture in a synergistic manner. And on harmony vocals? Wow. Rabin’s voice fit with those of Anderson and Squire so perfectly it’s almost frightening. While I have no qualms saying Howe was a better guitarist, I similarly have no qualms saying that Rabin’s voice was a much better fit than Howe’s in harmonies with the voices of Anderson and Squire. From a vocal standpoint, the version of ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’ that appears on ‘9012Live’ is far and away my favorite, as the harmonies of Rabin, Anderson, and Squire are very powerful. Overall, the vocal dimension brought to Yes by Rabin infused the songs, both old and new, with an energy previously unknown to them.
When I look at the above and assess Rabin as a member of Yes, I can say two things for certain. Number one, he fit into Yes in a manner much different than that of his predecessor. Number two – he did so with virtual perfection given the time of his joining the band.
The Final Verdict
I’ll close out here by discussing two points that are seemingly contradictory. The first is that ‘90125’ is not a progressive rock album, the second being that ‘90125’ is a very important album to the overall history of progressive rock.
I described ‘90125’ earlier in this piece as a work of album-oriented rock that was just outside the mainstream. Indeed it’s hard to imagine any work which includes the creative imprint of Anderson being within the mainstream, and even the band’s big hit from this album was unconventional compared to other #1 singles. The common threads with Yes music past as noted above also keep this album out of the mainstream of rock music. In contrast, the hard rock playing of Rabin and simplification of the other instruments in the band (most notably, Squire’s bass on several songs) push ‘90125’ closer to the mainstream – and further away from prog – than any previous Yes album.
Despite the direction of the music, ‘90125’ nevertheless earned its place as being an important album in prog history. Due to its popularity, ‘90125’ literally brought millions of new fans to Yes. Not all of these fans became progressive rockers, but many did. It is not by any means uncommon to come across a prog rock fan who first came to the genre through Yes and ‘90125’. I’ve met more than one fan who first became aware of Yes through this album, and subsequently took a liking to their back catalog. The connections to the old music within ‘90125’ certainly helped in this aspect. So too did their willingness to respect their past during their live shows by playing many of their 70’s classics, such as ‘Roundabout’, ‘Starship Trooper’, and the previously mentioned ‘I’ve Seen All Good People’, among others. Contrast this with Genesis, whose 80’s music bore virtually no resemblance to their 70’s output, and who almost dismissively reduced their progressive past to nothing more than a medley during their live shows.
It is undeniable that ‘90125’ served as a catalyst for introducing a new generation of fans to progressive rock, even if it was not itself full-blown prog. Moreover, it gave Yes a new (and rather long) lease on life. Love it, hate it, or feel somewhere in between, ‘90125’ and the Yes lineup that created it are both owed a debt of gratitude for doing their part – no small one at that – in keeping the prog flame alive. And therein lies the true, lasting impact of this controversial album.