Classic Artists: Their Definitive Fully Authorized Story
5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
The music and legacy of Yes spans forty creative, tumultuous and triumphant years. Now there’s a 2-DVD artist profile that’s as grandiose, entertaining and exhilarating as their music. You want to know which member of the group came up with the name Yes? The answer’s here, as is a detailed account of Jon Anderson’s first meeting with Chris Squire, how Tony Kaye and Steve Howe got along as roommates, and which album the band shuns like a leper in a Speedo.
The first disc alone is 204 minutes, but thanks to Chris Squire and Rick Wakeman’s glib tales and Yes historian Chris Welch’s informative comments, the interviews take less time to get through than all four sides of “Tales From Topographic Oceans.” Narrator Russ Williams, who sounds like Robin Leach’s younger brother, provides the element of upper crusty class one associates with the band’s music.
The group’s veteran members rightfully get the majority of face time. Long-limbed bassist Chris Squire comes off as one the less stuffy Yes men. Singer Jon Anderson’s head is as high in the clouds as his voice -- yet he lords over the group’s sound! Drummer Alan White is gracious and grateful for the thirty year gig, while original guitarist Peter Banks, ousted prior to the group’s most successful album, is still huffy, angry and bitter, sometimes all in the same sentence. Foppish Bill Bruford, the band’s original drummer, is a politely unpleasant know-it-all who justifies jumping ship at the height of the group’s career “for the sake of his art.” (It’s the same shallow excuse all musicians use when they’ve missed the gravy boat.) Keyboardist Rick Wakeman may have been ostentatious on stage, but he’s the most approachable and down to earth Yes man, and deserves all the compliments he gets for his sense of humor. Trevor Rabin, who guided the group for ten years, masterminding one of Yes’ biggest selling albums (“90125”) is seen in an old interview, but is otherwise censured. (Rick Wakeman admits “If it (90125) hadn’t happened you wouldn’t have a Yes today. It saved Yes’ life.”) Influential Swiss Keyboardist Patrick Moraz, who gave the group one year/one album/one tour with the harder edged jazz/fusion sound of “Relayer” is also curiously absent, although he spent nearly 15 years with the Moody Blues and isn’t on their documentary either. The general opinion of Pat is that he was infinitely more talented than Wakeman, but was wound tighter than a Swiss watch. And there are obviously a lot of members who’s still have it in for original keyboardist Tony Kaye, who is barely mentioned or pictured.
Other less familiar, but equally important names in the Yes circle are given the opportunity to comment about their own place in the group’s history. Producer/engineer Eddie Offord, a chief architect of the group’s sound, is still admittedly shell-shocked from piecing together hours of tape to create “Close to the Edge” and “Tales From Topographic Oceans;” Trevor Horn, who replaced Jon Anderson for the better than expected “Drama” album, realized his place was in the producer’s chair rather than at the mike after the group’s subsequent sold out tour, while bandmate Geoff Downs still relishes the experience. Stage Director Mike Tait has swallowed the same callow pill as Peter Banks for anything he wasn’t involved in, and later day hirsute manager John Brewer, who looks like he spouted from elf land in “Lord of the Rings,” comes across as a Brit version of Jerry McGuire…Show me the money. It’s Chris Welch who puts the group’s history in perspective and keeps the story on track throughout.
And what a story it is…There are way too many amusing anecdotes to mention (besides I have to leave you something to watch), but here are a few…
Squire and Anderson receive the most camera time, and it’s surprising to see how different the two longest-serving Yes men are. Squire is still a gregarious frat boy and Anderson is as unrealistically cosmic as ever. Squire obviously has no recollection of Yes’ first club date (August 5, 1968!) but fakes his way through an answer. It’s also a little distracting for both the viewer and Squire that the second half of his interview (on disc two) takes place while he’s driving. What, you couldn’t pull over? Squire is also frank when talking about the last Trevor Rabin led album, the technically manipulated “Talk”: “It went on and on and on. I played the bass and two years later I wasn’t sure if it was me anymore. It had high aspirations musically and lyrically. It worked, but it took forever to make.” He’s less than candid, but more comical, in discussing Rabin’s rumored dismissal from the group. “No he wasn’t fired. No one gets fired from Yes. People just get fed up with me!”
Still riding a wave of optimism toward his spiritual nirvana, Anderson tries to justify recording “Tales From Topographic Oceans,” Yes’ bloated double album that contained only four songs – one per side. I still don’t understand how Anderson expected his organically altered audience to grasp the connection between man and earth’s landscape, and apparently neither did Rick Wakeman, who quit the group after the tour – which consisted of only 6-7 songs per show – all of “Topographic Oceans” and most of “Close to the Edge.” (Wakeman amusingly recalls eating a curry on stage during part of “Topographic Oceans.”). Anderson admits, “It was like pushing a stone monolith up a mountain,” but he’s pleased the group has been able to resurrect “Ritual (a/k/a Nu Sommes Du Soleil)” more recently in concert. Commenting on the album and tour, Mike Tait rolls his eyes, saying, “I thought they’d all gone mad. I thought the mushrooms had gotten to them.” Wakeman puts a sobering spin on the notion that Yes was disappearing up its own backside. “There were some musical moments. We had too much for a single album, not enough for a double, so we padded it.”
Let it not be said that the man who studied Herman Hesse harder than John studied Yoko has no sense of humor. Anderson relates a funny tale of what happened when the tapes for “Topographic Oceans” were sent to Radio Luxembourg for an exclusive airing. Sighing, he says, “That’s when I knew it was not meant to be.”
Anderson may have the stature of an elf, but he has the stones of Iron Man when it comes to molding Yes’ direction. Commenting on Tony Kaye’s departure, Anderson sounds like a mini-Don Corelone: “It’s not personal. I liked Tony. Always have. But it just wasn’t going to work out.” Tait’s assessment of Anderson underscores the singer’s cut throat attitude: “There was a lot of frustration with (guitarist) Peter Banks. Jon had a vision. If you weren’t living up to that vision, your days were numbered.”
Anderson is more true to his patchouli sniffing space guru image when commenting on Alan White replacing Bill Bruford: “He played with John Lennon! He played on ‘Imagine!’ We felt he had the right swing. He had more soul than Bill and the audiences enjoyed his playing more.”
“Magnification,” the first album the group recorded with an orchestra, remains one of Alan White’s favorite projects: “Members of the orchestra would come up to us and say, “I can’t believe I’m playing with Yes!’” He also discusses his harmony with Chris Squire with the type of reverence old married couples have for each other: “We’ve been playing together for thirty-three years. I know what he’s going to do before he does it. He brings out the best in my playing, but it’s still a good push and pull situation.”
Bill Bruford, the group’s first drummer, has the type of smug, off-putting personality that’ll make you stretch for the remote, but at least he’s articulate. His memory for recall fills in the gaps in the group’s early history. He relates some amusing – and chilling – tales of life on and off the road with the band when they were careening around the countryside in a fully loaded van on marginal amounts of sleep and sobriety. (Bruford stopped traveling with the group after Fairport Convention’s 19 year-old drummer Martin Lambert was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel.) More of a free flow jazz musician than an art rocker, the band’s glacial recording method’s obviously irked Bruford: “’Close to the Edge’ was hard to record, because everybody had input… My idea, your idea, my idea. You’d see pieces of tape all over. It was a climb up Mount bloody Everest. Eddie Offord tends to agree. “Anderson was always saying, Hmmm…we’ll put that in the background, let’s put that in the background. Finally Rick Wakeman said, ‘Why don’t we put the whole damned record in the background and be done with it?’”
Looking a little less like the Crypt Keeper, but still in need of a sandwich, Steve Howe brags about Asia’s success and tries to say indirectly that the 1980s version of Yes headed by guitar rival Trevor Rabin copied Asia’s success. “I wondered if ‘Owner of A Lonely Heart’ was chasing Asia.” (The opening chords to Asia’s “Heat of the Moment” and Yes’ “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” are oddly similar.) Get over it Steve, Rabin was talented, and once John Wetton bolted, Asia sank faster than Omar Kayam’s Rubiyat (much faster in fact). Howe also admits he’s worried about Yes’ future because some members want to tour less, which may explain why Howe has been a member of Asia for the past three years.
You want bitter? You want gossip? Look no further than Peter Banks, the group’s original guitarist. Banks still snarls with hurt when he relates his well publicized snub during the group’s “Union” tour. Virtually every member of Yes (except keyboardists Moraz and Downes and singer Trevor Horn) was invited to play, meaning there were enough members of the group for two versions of Yes at virtually every performance. It made for some very touchy moments, especially between guitarists Rabin and Howe. Howe basically told Rabin he could only play on the songs he’d recorded and they wouldn’t be sharing the stage. Banks recalls being invited and then "dis-invited" to participate by Tony Kaye because Howe didn’t want to share the spotlight with him either. The venom that spews from Banks about the incident is worth sitting through some of the other more diplomatic interviews. (“One guy gets to say I can’t sit in with a band I used to play in!). Suffice to say that Steve Howe needs to watch his back if he’s in the same room with Peter Banks.
Wakeman tells an amusing pre-Yes story about being so completely green he didn’t know what “cans” were, and how he successfully figured out they were headphones without being discovered. Wakeman’s description of the group’s dynamic when he first joined is also amusing: “Bill and Chris were always at loggerheads. I thought to myself, ‘I just joined this band and they’re gonna break up!’”
You’d think with their track record of success the band could do no wrong. Almost to a man, the members of the group say that the “Union” album was a travesty. (I agree. There’s only one listenable tune on it, Trevor Rabin’s “Saving My Heart.”) The album joined together “Yes West” (Rabin, Squire, Kaye and White) with Europe Yes (Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe) “Everyone hated the album, but loved the tour,” Rick Wakeman says of the experience. “I only played it (the album) once. It played it again while driving to confirm I hated it and wound up tossing it out of the window.”
The second DVD contains extended interviews from 11 present and former band members, business associates and friends. The two short interviews with impresario Jerry Greenberg and keyboardist Keith Emerson are superfluous. Greenberg, a Dee Snider look alike with the same nasal honk as Paul Shaffer, talks about his love and admiration for Ahmet Ertegun for most of his interview without even trying to relate any of his stories to Yes. When he finally makes a Yes connection, it’s about his attempt to play drums for the group. Having done a few successful gigs with Foreigner, he thought he could hang onstage with Yes. To no one’s surprise, he quickly realized he couldn’t play the group’s intricate music. To top it off, his mucking about cost the group time and money – the band was recording a live album and couldn’t use Greenberg’s clumsy clobbering.
Emerson is as conceited as ever as he remembers how he asked Steve Howe, then with Tomorrow, to join his group, The Nice, after the departure of guitarist Dave O’List. He later approached Chris Squire about forming a trio with Carl Palmer, but Squire declined because he didn’t want to sing lead. You can still tell Emerson is miffed at being turned down, yet he’s the one who’s upset that Yes manager Brian Lane called him at 11:30 at night asking him if he’s like to join Yes. Emerson, Lake and Palmer were in their prime, so Emerson was flabbergasted by Lane’s request. Someone needed to ask Keith how ELP has fared since (not so good).
Disc two also features three career spanning videos, “Wondrous Stories,” from “Going For the One,” “Tempus Fugit,” from “Drama” with Trevor Horn on vocals, and “Owner of the Lonely Heart,” lensed during their 80s comeback. “Wondrous Stories” is a well filmed lip sync, with Jon Anderson strumming acoustic guitar between Howe and Squire. Wakeman gets an occasional spotlight, but Alan White is virtually invisible. Lots of smiles and 80’s big hair abound.
“Tempus Fugit” is also lip-synched, with vocalist Trevor Horn a bit slack at times, but Howe and Squire fake it with such Oscar worthy prowess you’d swear it was live. Sporting a headband, White looks as if he stepped out of a Jane Fonda exercise video. He snaps at his drums, the veins in his neck popping. With his oversized, ill-fitting glasses, Horn looks even less like a front man than Jon Anderson – more closely resembling a techno Carol Channing. But “Tempus Fugit” is a killer tune and everyone looks like they’re enjoying themselves, especially Squire, who’s virtually unrecognizable with a shortened do.
The video for “Owner of a Lonely Heart” is one of the worst ever created. The song starts out in the studio with a group performance, then stops abruptly with Anderson saying pensively, “Maybe there’s another way to be.” Boom. The video shifts to a man on the street, Mr. Businessman, packed into a crowd. He’s accosted by the men in black, interrogated, beaten, taken before Big Brother and questioned. Meanwhile the Yes men have all taken on new identities – Jon Anderson becomes a raven; Chris Squire turns into a snake; Steve Howe a salamander (or some tongue spewing reptile) and Alan White turns into a black cat. You try and figure it out. And while you’re at it, try and figure out where Tony Kaye was that day.
Devout fans will drool over archival footage of the band rehearsing “Roundabout,” “Long Distance Runaround,” “America,” “I’ve Seen All Good People,” and a reprise of “Roundabout.” Anderson spends most of his time with his back to the camera, directing traffic. With the exception of Wakeman and occasionally Howe, they don’t need it. The picture’s a tad dark and Squire’s bass rattles the speakers a bit, but even for a rehearsal, the band is good shape. Nice to see they’re human – Squire coughs a bit stretching for the high notes in “Roundabout,” Wakeman does a goofy dance behind his keyboards, and Anderson signals thumbs up at the end.
As if the footage and interviews weren’t enough, Chris Welch’s accompanying 22-page booklet is well researched and beautifully photographed. Disc 2 is also filled out with concert stills, behind the scenes shots and memorabilia (concert tickets, programs, a Yes comic, contracts and even a photo of a man with a Yes tattoo!)
The only downside to this collection will be if you’re expecting hours of actual concert footage. Save an early, rare performance of “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” (with Banks) and snippets of “Owner of the Lonely Heart” and “Leaving,” there isn’t much music on the first DVD. If you want an outstanding, visually stunning performance by the group in concert, pick up a copy of “Yes Symphonic Live” (5 out of 5 stars). The 2-DVD performance was recorded in 2001 with the European Festival Orchestra, the same bunch White said was thrilled to be playing with Yes (and it shows). Despite Steve Howe and Peter Banks’ long-standing objection to playing with an orchestra, the symphonic treatment adds a regal dimension to Yes’ music that hadn’t been explored for nearly 40 years. You’ll actually enjoy the twenty-plus minutes you’ll have to dedicate to “Ritual,” which is energized by the drum section in which every member of the group bangs away furiously on some form of percussion. Chris Squire gets to ham it up on other songs, playing leads on his bass, and Tom Brislin (who?) is the new fast gun in the keyboard cat bird seat. It’s also rewarding to see the orchestra follow Alan White’s every move. He directs the music, and gives an exultant performance.
I’m not giving you a long distance runaround. This Yes artist profile will take all you starship troopers to the gates of delirium. If you believe in the power of progressive music, say Yes!