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Off the Beaten Tracks: Just Say Yes, part 2

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LAST week we left Yes basking in the success of their breakthrough third LP, The Yes Album, which went platinum in America. They were, however, far from content to rest on their laurels.

The band had long been impressed by the work of their rivals on the British progressive scene, King Crimson, and in particular their use of the Mellotron, a keyboard instrument which produced the sound of an orchestra.

After working with Crimson on their third album Lizard, for which he supplied the vocals for Prince Rupert Awakes, Jon Anderson was convinced that Yes were incomplete without a Mellotron and some synthesisers. But Tony Kaye refused point blank to play anything but piano and organ, so he got the old tin tack. He was replaced by the classically trained Rick Wakeman (b London 1949), who had recently left the Strawbs. He would play any keyboard instrument. Often all at once.

Of the nine tracks on Fragile, which was released in November 1971, four are described as ‘group arranged and performed’ while the others are solo projects by the five members. Wakeman would later tell Chris Welch: ‘Some critics thought this was just being flash. The thinking behind this was that we realised there would be a lot of new listeners coming to the band. They could find out where each individual player’s contribution lay.’

The album opens with the brilliant Roundabout, written by Anderson and guitarist Steve Howe, which would become one of Yes’s best-loved songs. Next comes Cans and Brahms, Wakeman’s version of Symphony No 4 in E minor by Johannes Brahms.

He could not supply an original work for his contribution as he was contracted as a solo artist with A and M Records. Rick has described the track as ‘dreadful’. We Have Heaven is a short song by Anderson while side one concludes with South Side of the Sky, by Anderson and bassist Chris Squire, on which Howe is in fine form.

Bruford’s work, Five Per Cent for Nothing, is a doodle that lasts for a mere 35 seconds. He said it was his first attempt at composition – ‘we’ve all got to start somewhere’. The title refers bitterly to a deal the band made with a former manager guaranteeing him five per cent of all their future earnings. Long Distance Runaround, an Anderson composition, segues into bassist Squire’s project The Fish, followed by Howe’s instrumental Mood for a Day, played on flamenco guitar. The epic 11-minute final track, Heart of the Sunrise, was written by Anderson, Squire and Bruford.

Fragile’s sleeve was the first to be designed by the artist Roger Dean, who would enjoy a long relationship with the band. He told Welch: ‘The main feature on the cover was a little Bonsai world with a wooden space ship flying overhead! It was literally meant to be a fragile world.’

In early 1972, Yes recorded a ten-minute cover version of the Simon and Garfunkel song America,  which was a minor single hit in the US. It was introduced to British fans on the sampler LP The New Age of Atlantic.

By September that year the band had finished their fifth, and most ambitious LP, Close to the Edge. Before its release Bruford, who had a fractious relationship with Squire and Anderson, left to join King Crimson and was replaced by Alan White.

The 18-minute four-part title track, written by Anderson and Howe, takes up the whole of side one. It marks the growing influence of fantasy on the group’s work and reflects the fact that Anderson was reading Tolkien and listening to Sibelius at the time he came up with it. Side two begins with And You and I,  another four-parter, followed by Siberian Khatru.

The album proved Yes’s greatest commercial success to date, reaching the Top 5 on both sides of the Atlantic. Its Roger Dean gatefold sleeve introduced the Yes ‘bubble’ logo which would be used on all future product. The band embarked on a marathon world tour whose performances were chronicled on the 1973 triple live album Yessongs. This contains some excellent versions of the band’s best-known numbers and is an excellent introduction to their repertoire, with the double CD now selling for little over a fiver. Squire’s playing on The Fish is worth the price on its own.

By now Yes were a long, long way from the outfit that had started out doing Beatles cover versions. The sixth studio album, Tales of Topographic Oceans, released in December 1973, was based on Anderson’s understanding of the Shastric scriptures. Although he would later admit that he did not really get what they were on about, he parlayed them into an epic double album of which the first side, The Revealing Science of God, is probably the best.

Rick Wakeman was against the whole idea, describing it as ‘like a woman’s padded bra – the cover looks good but when you peel off the padding, there’s not a lot there’, but it did give him a great story for his future career as an author and raconteur.

As described on their official website, Yes were playing at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester and Rick found himself with little or nothing to do during a particularly cosmic passage. He looked down at his roadie, John Cleary, who was lying on the floor in case any of the keyboards malfunctioned, and said, ‘John, we’ll go for a curry when this is all over.’ However, with all the noise of the Topographic Oceans breaking over their heads John could only catch the word ‘curry’.

Rick: ‘The next thing I know he’s handing me up a chicken curry, a few poppadoms and an onion bhaji. In fairness I’d never actually planned for him to go and get a curry. I said we’d go for one after the show. But he vanished and came back twenty minutes later and there was this lovely smell. John’s under the keyboards handing it all up to me. So I laid it out on the organ . . . and ate it.

‘Jon came over and he did have a poppadom. But I don’t think Steve Howe was very amused.’

The incident highlighted the growing personality differences between Wakeman, then a prodigious drinker and proud carnivore, and his mystical, vegetarian bandmates. After the Topographic tour he made his excuses and left. And there we too will leave the story for now, with a link to an interesting site recommending the ‘top ten Yes tracks of the 70s’ although the fact that they failed to include Yours Is No Disgrace is, frankly, a disgrace.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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