At Long Last, Yes

On April 7th 2017, a great injustice was finally rectified. The band “Yes” was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This has been long overdue. Yes, in its various combinations and incarnations, was one of the best bands going for decades. Their music was a big influence in my life, and as a bass player, Chris Squire was always a big musical role model for me (yes, one of my basses is a Rickenbacker). Although members have come and gone, they have always included some of the best musicians in the business.

Steve Howe, on guitar, has a unique style of play and is equally comfortable on electric rock guitar or classical acoustic (listen to “The Clap” or “Mood For a Day”). He plays some of the most unusual lead lines you will ever hear, and makes it sound like there are two or more guitarists when he plays in concert. Chris Squire on bass is just legendary, using the instrument not only for back beat, but as a melodic component of the music. Jon Anderson’s soaring voice and lyrics are incredible, and Rick Wakeman of course is among the best keyboard players to be found. My favorite Yes drummer was Bill Bruford, who played with an almost karate-like precision, but Alan White was also a force to be reckoned with. Taken together in whatever combinations of the band, the sheer musicality of the group has rarely been equaled.

Long before Queen attracted attention for having a hit record that ran 5:55 minutes, Yes was recording songs that were 19 minutes long, or longer. The album “Tales From the Topographic Ocean” actually can be considered one long song in several movements.

Most people know very little of Yes’s work, partly because of their tendency to break radio rules. Even their hit song “Roundabout”, which is probably the one most people would recognize, ran almost 3 minutes longer than Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. In fact, it was frequently truncated by radio stations, chopping out the solos in the middle of the song – much to the loss of the listening public.

This fate hit many of their songs. While FM radio usually would play songs in their entirety, tunes like “Long Distance Runaround/The Fish “, “Going For The One”, “Yours is No Disgrace”, “Starship Trooper”, and “I’ve Seen All Good People” were all savaged by AM stations – if they were played at all.

Particularly distressing to me, was the way one of their rare cover tunes was treated by the airwaves. Yes recorded a version of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” that is just stunning. They managed to take the song and turn it musically into something that was completely their own, while still retaining the feel of the slow and sleepy original (don’t get me wrong – I love both versions). In just 4:09 they created an intricate musical experience that includes a truly amazing musical section in the solos where percussion, bass and guitar weave an amazing tapestry – and that is what is most often cut when it is played on the radio.

What most people have missed out on is the bulk of Yes’s music. Because of the length and complexity, it is usually considered “inaccessible” to the average listener. It is true the musicality of the group surpasses most bands, and the lyrics are not typically “pop” songs. Often the words don’t seem to make logical sense, but somehow, especially when combined with the music, they evoke a feeling inside, and you feel yourself resonating with a sense of “yes, yes, that is true!”

Let me try to explain what this band could do by trying to describe a concert experience. I first saw the band live in August of 1977 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. The band at the time consisted of Steve Howe on guitars, Rick Wakeman on keys, Jon Anderson on vocals, Chris Squire on bass, and Alan White on percussion. We were lucky enough to get seats within about ten rows of the stage.

The show started (after a Bugs Bunny cartoon, awesome) with the stage dark. Dry ice machines started pumping out smoke, and the sounds of running water, birds, wind chimes, etc. that begin the song “Close to the Edge” started up. Volume gradually increased as the lights came up, and the music of the first movement of the song, called “The Solid Time of Change” began.

The music is hard to describe to someone who has not heard it. “Close to the Edge” is in 4 distinct parts, each with their own musical theme, but the themes are all related. Jon Anderson has described the song (and the whole album) as inspired by Buddhism andHinduism’s Siddharta. The ideas of duality (I get up, I get down), the movement of a river (representing time and reality), and rivers all flowing into the same ocean (the oneness of all things). In there too, is the idea that all of life is only possible “close to the edge” – life depends on chemical processes taking place in just the right way. Too rigid, and life cannot begin. Too flexible, and there is chaos. Life has to ride that razor’s-edge down the middle to exist.

Like I said, not your common “ooh baby, yeah baby, shake it shake it shake it” kind of themes.

The intro features an almost cacophonic combination of all of the themes, and improvisations on those themes. The bass seems to lumber and lurch back and forth, the drums beating a rhythm that pulses and changes time signatures, the guitar sounding almost menacing. They seem totally separate, then suddenly merge, then break for a single sung “ahhh” only to dive back in.

The lyrics, which Anderson says were written more for the way they sound, and how it feels to hear them, rather than to make linear sense, don’t begin until 4 minutes into the song, when the musical themes reach a crescendo and then crash into another vocal “ahhhhh – dut -dut….. daaaah” and suddenly the guitar is playing one of the major themes. After running through the melody, the song changes again, and the lyrics start:

A seasoned witch could call you from the depths of your disgrace,
And rearrange your live-er to the solid mental place,
And achieve it all with music that came quickly from afar
Then taste the fruit of man recorded losing all against the hour.

I remember feeling it all wash over me, totally into the emotion and movement of the music and lyrics.

And assessing points to nowhere, leading every single one
A dewdrop can exalt us like the music of the sun  (here, I remember actually feeling exalted!)
And take away the plain in which we move
And choose the course you’re running

Now we suddenly drop into another major theme, that duality aspect with:

Down at the edge, round by the corner

But not too fast! The music pauses, hangs, and Anderson intones:

Not right away, not right away

Back into the fray with:

Close to the edge, down by a river

And again, paused,

Not right away, not right away

I felt myself pulled back in, as this section continued.

Crossed the line around the changes of the summer
Reaching out to call the color of the sky
Passed around a moment clothed in mornings faster than we see (I can’t articulate what that means, but I know it made me feel good to hear it, and I accepted it immediately as true)
Getting over all the time I had to worry
Leaving all the changes far from far behind
We relieve the tension only to find out the master’s name

Back in the duality with:

Down at the end, round by the corner
Close to the edge, just by a river

A new theme enters in:

Seasons will pass you by
I get up, I get down (big music sting here, that I felt go right through me, lifting me up, then setting me down)
Now that it’s all over and done
Now that you find, now that you’re whole

Here the song seamlessly enters the second movement, called “Total Mass Retain”. The music is very similar to the first, although the bass and drums take on an almost arrhythmic feel.

My eyes convinced, eclipsed with the younger moon attained with love
It changed as almost strained amidst clear manna from above
I crucified my hate and held the word within my hand
There’s you, the time, the logic, or the reasons we don’t understand

Sad courage claimed the victims standing still for all to see
As armoured movers took approached to overlook the sea
There since the cord, the license, or the reasons we understood will be

Down at the edge, close by a river
Close to the edge, round by the corner
Close to the end, down by the corner
Down at the edge, round by the river

Musical break and change here, as if it is the “sudden call” in the next line:

Sudden call shouldn’t take away the startled memory
All in all, the journey takes you all the way
As apart from any reality that you’ve ever seen and known
Guessing problems only to deceive the mention
Passing paths that climb halfway into the void
As we cross from side to side, we hear the total mass retain

Once more, I found myself in total agreement with the lyrics, in a totally inexpressible way.

Down at the edge, round by the corner
Close to the end, down by a river
Seasons will pass you by
I get up, I get down

Big change now, in the volume, lights, tempo, and feel of the music as we enter the third movement, which has been alluded to all along – “I Get Up, I Get Down”. A new soft musical theme is introduced, and the section contains two sets of vocals, which is a typical Yes touch. Anderson sings the main vocals, with Chris Squire and Steve Howe doing the backing vocals and chorus sounds. The two are independent, even sung to different tempos and melodies, but it all unites in a strange way. The overall mood is melancholy, as it seems to speak of some unspecified tragedy and sacrifice.

Squire and Howe are repeating two basic sections:

In her white lace, you could clearly see the lady sadly looking
Saying that she’d take the blame
For the crucifixion of her own domain
Ooh oh ooh
Ah aahh ahh

She would toil the sad amazement of her story
Asking all the interest
Could be laid upon the children of her domain
Ooh oh ooh
Ah aahh ahh

Overtop of this, Anderson is singing:

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

Two million people barely satisfy
Two hundred women watch one woman cry, too late
The eyes of honesty can achieve
How many millions do we deceive each day? (here i felt just a great, great sadness)

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

In charge of who is there in charge of me
Do I look on blindly and say I see the way? (Yes! I thought – thats exactly what I do. Goosebumps.)
The truth is written all along the page
How old will I be before I come of age for you?

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down

The music and voices merge and the volume builds to a climax, accompanied by Wakeman’s powerful chords on the organ. Big musical crash, then we drop screaming into the final movement, “Seasons of Man”. The musical theme here is similar to the first movement, but Wakeman is playing incredibly rich and complex organ parts throughout. Chris Squire really shows his mastery in this section, as his bass line is actually a combination of the lines in the first two movements. The lyrics and power of the music are definitely reaching a crescendo.

The time between the notes relates the color to the scenes
A constant vogue of triumphs dislocate man, it seems
And space between the focus shape ascend knowledge of love
As song and chance develop time, lost social temp’rance rules above
Ah, ah

Then according to the man who showed his outstretched arm to space
He turned around and pointed, revealing all the human race
I shook my head and smiled a whisper, knowing all about the place

The music hits four distinct punches for emphasis here before continuing. At this point I was on my feet with the whole audience, all of us swept up in the emotions created by this mini-symphony, and here comes the big finish.

On the hill we viewed the silence of the valley
Called to witness cycles only of the past
And we reach all this with movements in between the said remark (Once more, I had no idea what that meant, except that it felt so damn TRUE!)

Close to the edge, down by the river
Down at the end, round by the corner
Seasons will pass you by
Now that it’s all over and done
Called to the seed, right to the sun
Now that you find, now that you’re whole
Seasons will pass you by

I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down
I get up, I get down
I get up

Over the repeats of lyrics and music, things gradually slip back into the original nature sounds where we started almost twenty minutes ago.

Thunderous applause. We are all on our feet cheering, I’m not ashamed to say I had tears on my cheeks and a huge grin on my face. I felt emotionally exhausted, and at the same time energized and exalted. So many emotions and feelings had passed through me, the power of the music and the virtuosity of the musicians just overwhelming me.

Then I heard Jon Anderson say in his high, piping voice, “Thank you, thanks everybody! Now for our next song …”

My legs went weak and I collapsed back in my seat. Their next song??? It suddenly hit me that all of that, everything I had just experienced, was just their opening number! We still had the whole two hour concert ahead of us!

Congratulations to Yes, on an honor long overdue. RIP Chris Squire, and thank you all for the music.