Art-rock group Yes formed in 1968 with Jon Anderson on vocals, Peter Banks on guitar, Tony Kaye on organ, Chris Squire on bass and Bill Bruford on drums.
Anderson started out during the British beat boom as a member of a combo called The Warriors, who recorded a single for Decca in 1964, and later was in the band Gun, before going solo in 1967 with two singles on the Parlophone label.
He was making a modest living cleaning up at a London club called La Chasse during June of 1968 and was thinking of starting up a new band.
One day at the bar, he chanced to meet bassist/vocalist Chris Squire, a former member of the band The Syn, who had recorded for Deram, the progressive division of Decca.
The two learned that they shared several musical interests (including an appreciation for the harmony singing of Simon and Garfunkel) and within a matter of days were trying to write songs together.
They began developing a sound that incorporated harmonies with a solid rock backing, rooted in Squire’s very precise approach to the bass.
The duo saw the groups around them as having either strong vocals and weak instrumental backup, or powerful backup and weak lead vocals, and they sought to combine the best of both. Their initial inspiration, at least as far as the precision of their vocals, according to Squire, was the pop/soul act The Fifth Dimension.
They recruited Tony Kaye, formerly of The Federals, on keyboards; Peter Banks, previously also a member of The Syn, on guitar; and drummer Bill Bruford who had only just joined the blues band Savoy Brown a few weeks earlier.
The British music scene at this time was in a state of flux. The psychedelic pop era, with its pretty melodies and delicate sounds, was drawing to a close, replaced by the heavier sounds of groups like Cream. Prog rock, with a heavy dose of late-19th century classical music, was also starting to make a noise, in the guise of acts such as The Nice and the original Deep Purple.
The group’s break came in October of 1968 when, on the recommendation of The Nice‘s manager, Tony Stratton-Smith (later the founder of Charisma Records), they played a gig at the Speakeasy Club in London, filling in for an absent Sly & The Family Stone.
The group was later selected to open for Cream at their 26 November 1968 farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall. This concert, in turn, led to a residency at London’s Marquee Club and their first radio appearance, on John Peel‘s Top Gear radio show.
Their debut (self-titled) album was released in November of 1969, displaying the basic sound that would characterise the band’s subsequent records, including impeccable high harmonies, clearly defined emphatic playing, and an approach to music derived from folk and classical rather than the R&B from which most rock music sprung.
Anderson’s falsetto lead vocals gave the music an ethereal quality, while Banks’ angular guitar – seemingly all picked and none strummed – drew from folk and skiffle elements.
Squire’s bass had a huge sound (owing to his playing with a pick which gave him one of the most distinctive sounds on the instrument alongside The Who‘s John Entwistle) while Bruford’s drumming was very complex and Kaye’s playing was rich and melodic.
While the band were renowned for their technical and musical ability though, their songs and sets were often interminably long.
In February of 1970, Yes supported The Nice again at their Royal Albert Hall show while they were preparing their second album, Time and a Word.
By the time it was released in June of 1970, Peter Banks had left the line-up, to be replaced by guitarist Steve Howe, a former member of The Syndicats, The In Crowd, Tomorrow (of My White Bicycle fame), and Bodast.
This record was far more sophisticated than its predecessor, and even included an overdubbed orchestra on some songs – the only time that Yes would rely on outside musicians to augment their sound. The cosmic and mystical elements of their songwriting were even more evident on this album.
The group’s fame in England continued to rise as they became an increasingly popular concert attraction, especially after they were seen by millions as the opening act for Iron Butterfly. It was with the release of The Yes Album in April of 1971 that the public began to glimpse the group’s full potential.
Under pressure from Atlantic for a hit, the band had spent two months at a farm near Ilfracombe in Devon developing a fresh sound. They rehearsed until they were nearly broke and unveiled their new three-part harmonies at London’s Lyceum in June. The band refined their sound at London’s Advision with engineer Eddie Offord.
The resulting record, made up entirely of original compositions, was filled with complex, multi-part harmonies, loud, heavily layered guitar and bass parts, beautiful and melodic drum parts, and surging organ (with piano embellishments) passages bridging them all.
Everybody was working on a far more expansive level than on any of their previous recordings – on Your Move (which became the group’s first US chart entry, at number 40), the harmonies were woven together in layers and patterns that were dazzling in their own right, while Starship Trooper (which drew its name from a Robert Heinlein novel, thus reinforcing the group’s “space rock” image) and All Good People gave Howe, Squire, and Bruford the opportunity to play extended instrumental passages of tremendous forcefulness.
The Yes Album reached number seven in England and number 40 in America in the spring of 1971.
The band began work on their next album but were interrupted when keyboard player Tony Kaye quit in August 1971, to join ex-Yes guitarist Peter Banks in the group Flash.
He was replaced by Rick Wakeman (ex-The Strawbs), who was a far more flamboyant musician than Kaye, not only in his approach to playing but the number of instruments that he used and the way he played them.
In place of the three keyboards that Kaye used, Wakeman used an entire bank of upwards of a dozen instruments, including Mellotron, various synthesizers, organ, two or more pianos, and electric harpsichord.
This line-up of Anderson, Squire, Howe, Wakeman, and Bruford – which actually only lasted for one year from August 1971 until August 1972 – is generally considered the best of all the Yes configurations, and the strongest incarnation of the band.
The group completed their album, Fragile (1971), in less than two months (partly out of a need to get a new album out to help pay for all of Wakeman’s equipment).
The new album featured only four tracks by the group as a whole, Roundabout, The South Side of the Sky, Heart of the Sunrise and Long Distance Runaround – although, significantly, all except Long Distance Runaround ran between seven and thirteen minutes.
Anderson’s voice was represented in multiple overdubs on We Have Heaven while Squire’s bass provided the instrumental The Fish, which later became an important part of the group’s concerts; Howe’s Mood for a Day showed him off as a classical guitarist; Bruford’s drums were the focus of Five Percent for Nothing; and Wakeman turned in Cans and Brahms, an electronic keyboard fantasy built on one movement from Brahms’s Fourth Symphony.
Fragile reached number seven in England and number four in America. The album’s success was enhanced by the release of an edited single of Roundabout, the group’s first major hit, which reached number 13 on the US charts.
For millions of listeners, Roundabout, with its crisp interwoven acoustic and electric guitar parts and very vivid bass textures, exquisite vocals (especially the harmonies), swirling keyboard passages, and brisk beat, proved an ideal introduction to the group’s sound.
Neither ELP nor King Crimson, the group’s leading rivals at that time, ever had so successful a pop-chart entry. The single’s impact among teenage and college-age listeners was far greater than this chart position would indicate – they simply flocked to the band – with the result that not only did Fragile sell in huge numbers, but the group’s earlier records (especially The Yes Album) were suddenly in demand again.
Even the album’s jacket, designed by artist Roger Dean, featured distinctive, surreal landscape graphics, which evoked images seemingly related to the music inside. These paintings would become part-and-parcel with the audience’s impression of Yes, and later tours would feature stage sets designed by Dean as an integral part of their shows.
Close to the Edge, recorded in the late spring of 1972 and released in September of that year (in a gatefold sleeve that was ideal for both contemplation and joint-rolling), showed just where Yes were headed, consisting of only three long tracks in which the overall sound and musical textures mattered more than the lyrics or any specific melody, harmonisation, or solo.
Siberian Khatru was almost a rock adaptation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, while And You and I seemed to take Your Move to a newly cosmic level. The fans and critics alike loved Close to the Edge, and the album reached number four in England and number three in the United States without help from a hit single.
Bruford left the band shortly after completing Close To The Edge to join King Crimson and session drummer Alan White (pictured above) stepped in to replace him for the triple live album, Yessongs (May 1973).
Wakeman had meanwhile released his solo project The Six Wives of Henry VIII (February 1973) but remained with Yes to complete Tales From Topographic Oceans (January 1974) before quitting in June to promote his Journey To The Centre Of The Earth LP (May 1974) and being replaced by Patrick Moraz for 1974’s Relayer album. This line-up remained stable for 18 months. Meanwhile, the various band members engaged in solo side-projects.
Wakeman returned to the fold in 1976 before ultimately departing once more in 1980. Vocalist Jon Anderson departed at the same time to work with Vangelis.
In an unlikely pairing, the duo were replaced by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes from Buggles (of Video Killed The Radio Star fame).
Yes re-formed in 1983 when their single Owner Of A Lonely Heart became a surprise US Number 1 in January 1984.
Regrouping with original members bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Kaye, singer Jon Anderson, long-time drummer Alan White and newcomer-guitarist Trevor Rabin, Yes shucked its world of fairies and Ancient Ones for a hard-edged, modern techno-pop sheen, aiming squarely at a brand new MTV market.