Yes: Progressive Rock and Classic Rock Legends

Introduction to Yes

Yes is one of the most successful and influential progressive rock/classic rock bands to have ever emerged especially during the 1970s. Their sound is described as lush and complex, with songs which are often lengthy and involved with artful and symphonic emphasis in them. They have been also known for their electrifying stage presence especially during their heyday. The first lineup of Yes consisted of founder Chris Squire, guitarist Peter Banks, drummer Bill Bruford and keyboardist Tony Kaye, originating in London, England during the late 1960s. They were joined later by another drummer Alan White and additional keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Patrick Moraz. Their 1970 LP The Yes Album was the band’s breakthrough album, commercially as well as critically. Their creative and commercial peak continued during the 70s music era through their subsequent albums Fragile, Close To The Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Relayer, and Going for the One. The end of the decade saw Yes’ decline due to the rise of other genres such as punk rock and new wave. By 1981, the band split, but the following year some members of the band reunited along with new guitarist Trevor Rabin. This time, they took a more pop-rock approach. They reached the peak of the US singles chart with the song “Owner of a Lonely Heart” in 1983; their albums 90125 and Big Generator were their most commercially successful albums during 80s. However, subsequent albums failed to chart again, but their place in the progressive rock history was already assured. The band still toured throughout the late 90s to early 2000’s which included their anniversary tours. Health issues prompted the band to go on a hiatus before some members got back together again and released their twentieth studio album Fly from Here in 2011, which peaked at #36 on the Billboard 200. In 2013 Peter Banks died in London, becoming the first Yes member (former or current) to have passed away. Chris Squire, one of the original founders of Yes and one of the cornerstones who formed the band’s sound, died from leukemia in June 2015.

How, when and where Yes started

The progressive rock saga of Yes started in London, England during the late 60s music era. Lead singer Jon Anderson began as a member of the Electric Warriors (who had recorded for Decca Records) and Gun. In 1967 Anderson struck out on his own by releasing two singles on Parlophone label. In addition to his musical pursuits, he also had a job as a cleaner at a London club. But even then he was already thinking of starting his own rock band. One day he chanced upon bassist/vocalist Chris Squire who had played for bands Mabel Greer’s Toyshop and The Syn.
Anderson and Squire found out that they shared the same musical interests, both favoring precision in vocals which were backed up by solid rock music instrumentation.

Soon the two men began writing songs together and were slowly realizing their ambitions of having their own band. They later hired keyboardist Tony Kaye (ex-Federals member), guitarist Peter Banks (Squire’s fellow member from The Syn) and drummer Bill Bruford, who was also a new member of another band Savoy Brown. And this formed the first lineup of a band they called themselves Yes. They played their first official gig as Yes at a youth camp in East Mersea, Essex in August 1968.

Yes’ early career escalated gradually, but steadily. They got their first big break by playing London’s Speakeasy Club, taking the place of Sly and the Family Stone who was supposed to play for that night. Then Yes went on to open for more prestigious acts at that time including Cream (in their farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall) and Janis Joplin. Their Cream gig led them to become regulars at London’s Marquee Club as well as to make their first radio appearance, on Top Gear hosted by the venerable John Peel. They were eventually signed to their first label, Atlantic Records.
Yes released their first self-titled album in July 1969 and in the following November they issued their first single off that album, titled “Sweetness.” The album already displayed the sound that Yes would be known for — very high on harmonies; complex, melodic and clearly defined instrumentation.

The band released their second album, Time and a Word (1970) by the time the album came out, Banks had already left the left and replaced by Steve Howe (Sydicats, The In Crowd, Tomorrow, and Bodast). Time and a Word sounded far more sophisticated their the band’s debut outing because it featured overdubbed orchestra on some tracks; it was only on this album that Yes relied on musicians other than themselves to augment their sound. Here in this album, the songwriting became more dependent on the cosmic and mystical imagery.  You may also read our Top British Bands of the 70s to discover more classic rock bands.

Reaching the peak of popularity and success, and lineup changes

Soon Yes found themselves becoming popular in their country especially after opening for Iron Butterfly on a 28-day tour. It largely helped their third album The Yes Album (1971) climb to the Top 10 of the British album chart, peaking at #4. Yes embarked on their first North American tour, supporting Jethro Tull, the following June. In September, their single “Your Move” made its first US chart appearance, barely making it to the Top 40 Billboard pop chart. The Yes Album reached its peak position at #40 on the Billboard 200, and was later certified platinum by the RIAA in the US.

The Yes Album was a critical success and a commercial breakthrough from the band, who had been in danger of getting dropped by Atlantic. The album’s multi-layered vocals and guitars, and tracks were more lengthy to allow instrumental passages.

In the middle of recording their third album, Kaye left to join another act Flash, founded by ex-Yes axeman Banks. Kaye was replaced by new keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who had played with the band at some time. Wakeman proved not only to be a proficient keyboardist but also to have some flamboyant, showmanship qualities. This lineup — Squire, Anderson, Bruford, Howe and Wakeman — proved to be short-lived, only lasting from 1971 to 1972, but many consider it as the best “classic” Yes lineup.

They released their fourth studio album Fragile, which they rather hastily recorded in order to save time in the recording studio as well as to quickly pay for Wakeman’s equipment. This resulted into the album having only nine tracks, but some of them having an extended length as usually found in progressive rock albums. One of the tracks, “Roundabout” was released as a single (the single version was abridged, obviously). It peaked at #13 on the US pop chart in 1972 becoming their first major US hit. “Roundabout” also became one of Yes’ best-known songs. Fragile, meanwhile, reached #7 on the British album chart and #4 on the US Billboard 200, selling over a million copies and became certified double platinum.

Their next album, Close to the Edge (1972), featured only three tracks, with the title track running in all of 18 minutes and occupying the entire side one of the vinyl. “And You and I” and “Siberian Khatru” occupied side two. The album showed the direction Yes was headed, with the musical textures and soundscapes taking the center stage more than anything else. In the UK, the album reached #4; it also peaked at #3 on the US Billboard 200 chart, becoming certified platinum.

Despite the success Yes was achieving, Bruford left the band (by the time Close to the Edge was released) to join King Crimson. Alan White, (principally known for his session work with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band) replaced Bruford behind the drum kit. Together with the new drummer, Yes embarked on several successful tours to promote their new LP. Wakeman also took the opportunity to record and release his solo work for the fans, an album entitled The Six Wives of Henry VIII, in 1973.

Their band’s first live album, Yessongs (1973), compiled their best live performances from their Fragile and Close to the Edge tours; the album included four tracks which featured their ex-drummer Bruford. Again, it was a critical and commercial success, peaking at #7 in the UK and #12 on the US Billboard 200.

Yes’ successful last four albums put a sort of pressure on the band who was trying to come up with a good follow-up. Eventually, they released a new LP entitled Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974), originally introduced as a double album with four tracks; each track was on each of the four sides of the album. The album became a commercial success, topping the British album charts and going #6 on the US Billboard 200. Based on Anderson’s reaction towards the Hindu scriptures (collectively known as shastras), the album became somewhat notorious for its divided reception from music critics and Yes fans alike. Even with the albums’ stratospheric commercial success, it also caused some friction among the band members. Following their tour supporting the LP, Wakeman left the band to pursue a solo career.

Wakeman’s departure definitely affected Yes’ lineup and music, for his rippling and swirling keyboards were the ones that “made” the Yes sound. A few months later, they found a replacement with Patrick Moraz, who proved to be just enough substitute but still lacking the extravagant showmanship displayed by Wakeman.

Their seventh album Relayer (1974) was the first (and only) album Yes has ever recorded with Moraz. The album saw the band taking on other genres such as jazz and funk. Relayer became yet another commecial success for the group, peaking at #4 on the British chart and #5 in the US. However, after Relayer‘s release Yes went into a hiauts from recording for two and a half years while continuing their life on the road as well as exploring solo projects outside the band. In order to please the fans in the absence of new material, Yes released their first-ever compilation album Yesterdays in 1975. It made to #27 in the UK and #17 in the US.

The lineup changed yet again, with Wakeman returning to the group and Moratz leaving. Originally intending to work with Yes just for their upcoming album, Wakeman was eventually admitted as a permanent member of the band once again after several productive recording sessions.

That upcoming album was finally released in July 1977 entitled Going for the One, Yes’ first studio LP of all-new material in over two years. For the first time since Fragile, their newer album did not have a unifying concept or theme; instead, Going for the One saw the band going back to back-to-basics rock music approach and featured remarkably shorter songs, except for one track “Awaken” which ran on about 15 minutes. It topped the British album chart, while it peaked at #8 on the US Billboard 200, selling over a million copies and gaining a gold disc. Its first single, “Wondrous Stories,” went to #7 on the UK singles chart.

Over a year after Going for the One was released, Yes issued their ninth studio album Tormato. It made to the #8 in their homeland and #10 in the US. However, after that album the group went into their own separate ways again to pursue solo projects.

Yes in the 1980s: breakup and reformation

Tormato was also the last album with Anderson and Wakeman prior to their exit in 1980. Both men quit after attempting unsuccessfully to work on a follow-up album due to artistic differences. Singer/guitarist Trevorn Horn and keyboardist Geoffrey Downes, both from the Buggles (of “Video Killed the Radio Star” fame) took Anderson’s and Wakeman’s place. It was at that point that Yes was well on their way to dissolution.

This lineup of Squire, Howe, White, Horn and Downes recorded and released a new studio album entitled Drama, released in August 1980. While Drama maintained Yes’ Top Ten albums streak in the UK (reaching there at #2), in the US it peaked at “only” #18. This more recent lineup lasted just for year.
In 1981, Yes announced that they were disbanding. Downes and Howe formed their own act Asia, which achieved considerable chart success with top ten US pop hits “Don’t Cry” and “Heat of the Moment.” The rest of the band members explored on their own different solo projects.

About a year and a half after the breakup, Squire and White, along with their first Yes keyboardist Kaye and South African guitarist Trevor Rabin, formed a new band named Cinema. However, this formation proved to be inadequate, so Squire asked Anderson to join them. This time they realized that with this formation, they were about to bring back the core of the Yes lineup once again, so they ended up reviving the Yes band.

With a new incarnation of Yes (with Horn also serving as a producer), they released their 11th studio LP 90125 (1983), the band’s first full outing since after their reformation. The album featured a dance rock style, something that the band had never tackled before. Its single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” became an unexpected chart-topper on the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock chart. The singles’ astonishing chart success largely helped 90125 to peak at #5 on the Billboard 200, selling over three million copies and going triple platinum in the process.

Despite the huge success of 90125, the group didn’t seem to follow it up quickly. Horn also quit the group. After two years of absence, Yes came up with their 12th studio album Big Generator, which placed on the top 20 of both UK and US album charts — a rather “pale” performance compared to the earlier albums.

Another problem ongoing for Yes was the overwhelming legal problems due to the proliferation of former members gathering in different acts and using the Yes name. Fortunately for the four members of the classic lineup — Jon Anderson, Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, their own act simply named as Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe, generated enough recognition with the fans. Their own album Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (1989) performed well enough to earn a place on the US Top 40 album chart and Top 20 UK album chart.

Yes in the 1990s

The legal disputes had been settled in the early 1990s, resulting into the amalgamation of past (and key) members and current members. They embarked on a series of world tours called the Union Tour to accompany their 13th studio album Union (1991). One of its singles, “Lift Me Up,” registered at #1 on the Billboard rock chart. The album received mixed critical reviews but it still managed to gain a high enough notch on the UK (at #7) and US (at #15) album charts.

Although their dominance on the singles charts was pretty much over for Yes by then, they otherwise kept themselves busy in their tours and other related commitments. They released their 14th album Talk which fared mildly on the commercial spectrum, despite a big national tour supporting the album and its very good single in “The Calling.” Following the tour Kaye quit, being replaced by ex-World Trade guitarist and Squire’s buddy Billy Sherwood.

The reunion of Yes’ classic lineup produced a series of brief tours as well as a pair of live and studio albums Keys to Ascension and Keys to Ascension 2, but Wakeman quit the group again, disgruntled over the treatment over the potential new material. Sherwood, who was also proficient in playing keyboards aside from guitars, took Wakeman’s place. Sherwood would also be part of the later and current Yes lineup.

Yes in the 21st century: assured of a legendary status

By that time the group’s back catalog had been released in compilation albums, notably In a Word, Yes (1969- ), and The Ultimate Yes: 35th Anniversary Collection which was a triple compilation album which covers the group’s best and essential works in their 35-year career at that time. Their boxed set The World Is Live was released in 2005.

Yes, by then having carried several modifications in their lineup and musical style, had surpassed their progressive rock base. Rabin, Howe and Downes returned to the lineup just for one night performance honoring Horn at Prince’s Trust Concert in 2004. In mid-2000’s Kaye, White, Sherwood as well as American guitarist Jimmy Haun (who had also worked with Yes for some time, as well as Air Supply) formed a progressive rock supergroup named Circa.

Squire, Howe, Downes and White started recording their twenty-first studio album by 2010, resulting in Fly from Here which was released a year later. It included Benoit David, who had also worked with Yes for some time before, who took on the lead vocal duties. But he was replaced by Jon Davidson while the group was doing their tours in early 2012. Yes continued on their live performances in the following years, and released their last studio album to date, Heaven & Earth, in 2014; it was the band’s highest-charting album since Talk, peaking at #30 in the UK and #26 in the US.

Banks, one of the founding members, died of heart failure in March 2013, becoming the first Yes member (former or current) to have passed away. In May 2015 the band announced that Squire, another founding member, was found to have leukemia and would be taking a break while receiving treatment. But sadly, the following month Squire passed away due to the illness, aged 67, at his home in Phoenix, Arizona.
In Yes’ concert the following August marked the band’s first live performance without Squire, 47 years since the band started. Sherwood will come back to replace Squire in the band’s joint North American summer tour this year (as of this writing) with Toto.

Yes remains one of the definitive progressive rock bands, having gone through generational changes in its audiences as well as several shifts in its lineup, having come as legends on their own. Their virtuoso playing, rich melodies, and vast sonic landscapes will never get old, continuing to attract younger listeners as well as maintaining their loyal fanbase in the oldies classic circuit.