As I sit here writing I am listening to Close The The Edge by YES. Those who know me know that this is my band. The way the Beatles made a profound and indelible impression on some people way back when they were still around, YES did so for me. And as time has gone on I have found them to be a source of ever-wonderous musical pleasure. They produced music that at the time fit no category and did things no other musical group was doing.
The same could be said of any number of other groups of the Sixties and Seventies, but they likewise all stood apart in their own ways. Nevertheless, most of them, even the seriously unique examples, could be said to share with other groups certain aspects. With the release of Fragile and then Close To The Edge and then a couple of years later Tales From Topographic Oceans, I can think of no other band that made such distinctive musical artifacts. Compositionally, performatively, lyrically, YES pretty much stands in its own category.
I love what they did.
Fast forward to the present, in the age of everyone sharing and knowing everything about all the things, a period in which personal opinion is intended to rise to the level of profundity and aesthetic wisdom, and the long span of years, albums, and personnel changes which attend such groups with very few exceptions, and we find ourselves in a morass of vituperative spleen-venting by people who want to stamp their taste on the body of work gathered together under the moniker YES. I stumbled on some of this recently and found such short-tempered tantrums one might expect from a group of kindergartners who didn’t get their nap.
“Without Jon Anderson it’s not YES!” “Rabin rescued the band from obscurity!” “It’s not YES without Wakeman/Squire/White/etc!” “They lost their way after _____!” “This album is crap, that album is brilliant!”
Strong opinions necessarily attach to powerful art, but one of the threads that baffled me is the assertion that somehow the current manifestation is an imposter. I can only scratch my head.
As a rhetorical statement of personal assessment, in private conversation, one can accept such pronouncements as at best a starting point for a conversation. There can be nothing definitive about it except from a legal standpoint. (How do I mean? There have been instances of other bands who experienced “clones” established by former members who sought to cash in on the name. The resolution came about in court, establishing who owned the name. Certain dodges have been successful wherein association is achieved without actionable violation of trademark, but this is a matter of music industry contract law and is an odious morass with which we are not interested here.) “That’s not YES,” has been a game played by the disappointed since Drama was released. In that instance, both Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had left the band. They were replaced and the result was a new manifestation. Strong opinions at the time indicated the allegiance of fans, but frankly said nothing much about the actual music.
When a few years later YES re-emerged, once more with Jon Anderson at the fore, but without Steve Howe or Rick Wakeman, assessments had to be remade again. Many people accepted this line-up as YES, largely because Jon Anderson was singing with them, and also because an alumni, Tony Kaye, had rejoined, muddying the waters of which line-up might be “purer”, but again this did not say much about the music, which was…different.
The two albums released by this incarnation sounded very little—compositionally—like the band from the Seventies. And Drama, shoved in between, was distinctive as well and fit neither era.
Or did it?
Here is where such pronouncements fall on hard ground, because while the approach was, compositionally, and to a degree performatively, distinct, it was also true that they were all unmistakably YES.
By the time we come to the exceptional one-off of Anderson Bruford Wakeman & Howe, it should have been obvious to anyone that YES had become a collective, a workshop if you will, a unique aesthetic bubble wherein a certain approach to music, with concomitant expectations of musicianship and thematic direction, maintained in such a way that continuity remained regardless of who was actually in the band.
Now, certainly this could have been violated any number of ways. Say, instead of Benoit David or Jon Davison stepping in as lead vocalist, someone like Steve Perry or Steve Tyler had been hired. It hardly bears considering. Certain modes of musicianship have been maintained throughout the now 54 years of the band’s existence.
The fact that through all that time each incarnation is unmistakably YES establishes that what we now have is something that has been a thing in jazz for much longer. These are musicians coming and going in service to a specific aesthetic exploration.
I think it’s a fascinating thing to behold.
If you wish to be a purist about line-ups, then you have to come to terms with the fact that there is no longer a single original member of the band still in it. (Steve Howe joined at their third album, in case anyone needs reminding.) So how does one make any such final pronouncement that “this is not YES” based on personnel? (You may perfectly legitimately claim to have a preferred incarnation; mine will always be the so-called “classic” line-up, but that does not diminish other examples, and the fact is that every incarnation has upheld the musical reason for listening to them and done so magnificently.)
There are albums I listen to more than others, but none of them are “not YES” in any meaningful way.
Perhaps it is my immersion in jazz that has inured me to these sorts of quibbles. The idea of a group being a workshop, with a revolving roster of participants, is nothing unusual to me. We don’t see it so much in rock music. Usually, when a band ends, it’s over. This is as much a business reality as anything else. And we have seen bands that have lost personnel and refused to replace them (Genesis, Moody Blues) and others who have soldiered on even after presumably fatal losses (the Who, Chicago). This, however, is something special, and I believe it has produced some truly interesting results.
It is, after all, That Sound which has drawn me all these years. Indeed, some experiments have been more successful than others, and a couple of the last few albums have been…interesting. But how many bands get an opportunity to completely re-do an album and then have both versions still available? The differences are fascinating.
There are a handful of artists whose work I have purchased over the years no matter what. YES is the first among equals in that. There has always been something worthwhile in each release and rarely retreads. That is what YES has become for me and I think it’s amazing.
There is no cause for the kind of backbiting that comes from what I call the Line-up Wars. That’s childish. (Arguments over who is better at certain things, hey, that’s fine. But that’s not what some people are doing. They’re making it a question of identity and not simply their own.) The music changes, evolves, and it evolves with new blood.
And really, it’s been 54 years. Even without the passing of amazing musicians, time works it’s demands. If they were still trying to do Close To The Edge “again” they would long since have become a moribund gathering of musical fossils. That they keep exploring new territory…that’s why they’re worth listening to.
But perhaps not for the same reason we listened to them 20, 30, 40 years ago.
I remember the tagline from their first tour of which I was aware. “Yes…the most positive word in the English language.” Positive. Somehow, for over five decades, they have continued to create positive momentum.