Friday, November 22, 2019
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Off the Beaten Tracks: Just say Yes

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FOLLOWING my recent column about Genesis, I have received thousands of requests (well, a good few) to look at another giant of the British progressive rock scene. To which my reply is simply: Yes.

In their pomp during the early 1970s, Yes were one of the most successful bands in the world, selling millions of albums and thrilling fans with brilliant live performances. And even now they are still going, albeit with none of the original line-up.

It was in London in 1968 that singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Peter Banks, keyboards player Tony Kaye and drummer Bill Bruford formed Yes. Anderson, born in 1944, hailed from Accrington in Lancashire, just down the road from me. He was a keen footballer and had hopes of a football career with Accrington Stanley but was turned down because he was too small at a skinny 5ft 4in. He is said to have remained a fan of the club, although how often he jets over from his American home to visit the Crown Ground on wet winter Saturday afternoons is open to debate. Certainly not a season ticket holder, anyway.

Leaving school at 15, he worked on a farm, as a lorry driver and as a milkman before joining a local band named the Warriors, who played on the German club circuit. When they split, he moved to London where he worked as a barman at a Soho club named La Chasse.

There he was introduced to Squire (b 1948), who was in the psychedelic group Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, which had also included fellow Londoner Banks (b 1947). Squire and the alto tenor Anderson found they shared a love of harmony vocals typified by Simon and Garfunkel, and within days they had together written a song called Sweetness which would appear on the first Yes LP.

The pair hired Bruford (b 1949 in Sevenoaks, Kent) after he placed an advert in the Melody Maker offering his percussive expertise. The line-up was completed by Banks and Kaye, a classically trained pianist from Leicester who had met Anderson some years earlier.

The band’s eponymous debut album was released on the Atlantic label in 1969 and contained some original material, plus cover versions including the Beatles’ Every Little Thing and the Byrds’ I See You.

The last track, Survival, featured on the sampler LP The Age of Atlantic which is where I first heard Yes. Samplers, typically priced at around 15 shillings (75p), were a great way of getting to know less established groups at a time when radio coverage of rock was negligible apart from honourable exceptions such as John Peel. What struck me about Survival was not just Anderson’s piping vocals but Squire’s excellent bass work.

Undeterred by poor sales, Yes were back in the studio for album number two, Time and a Word, which was released in 1970. This contained several orchestral arrangements played by students from the Royal College of Music. Banks was not happy with this and left the band immediately after recording finished, to be replaced on guitar by Steve Howe (b London, 1947). Howe was pictured with the rest of the band on the front cover of the album sleeve used in America, despite not having played on the record at all. Confusingly, Banks remained on the US back cover.

Time and a Word repeats its predecessor’s formula of eight tracks including two cover versions – No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed by Richie Havens and Stephen Stills’s Everydays. Two original songs, Sweet Dreams and the title track, were released as singles.

The Prophet, written by Anderson, nicks a theme from Holst’s Jupiter, part of the Planets Suite, reflecting Jon’s love of classical music. The LP was given encouraging reviews and made a brief appearance in the charts but ended up selling no more copies than Yes, causing Atlantic to consider giving the band the bum’s rush. How right they were to have second thoughts.

Steve Howe proved to be an inspired choice as the band prepared for their third album, writing and rehearsing at a rented farmhouse in Devon, which Howe eventually bought. The Yes Album was produced and engineered by Eddy Offord at Advision studios in London. Recording sessions lasted long into the night, with each track being assembled bit by bit then pieced together, after which the band learned to play it in full. This approach paid dividends, with each musician given the opportunity to express himself. Released in early 1971, the record was a huge hit and transformed Yes into a world musical power.

It opens sensationally with Yours Is No Disgrace. According to biographer Chris Welch, this started life as a lyric by Anderson. Howe created the opening guitar riff on his own and the rest was assembled from pieces written by the band. Although the result could have been bitty, it works a treat. Howe’s percussive solo still sends shivers down my back. The track lasts almost ten minutes, after which the mood is lightened by Clap, an acoustic guitar solo here shown live. The three-part Starship Trooper brings side one to an epic close with Howe once again to the fore in the trippy final section, Wurm.

Side two keeps up the momentum with I’ve Seen All Good People, part of which, Your Move, was released as a single, A Venture and Perpetual Change. The album, propelled irresistibly by Squire’s growling bass, was rapturously received by the critics, reached No 4 in the UK LP charts, and eventually went platinum in America, selling more than a million copies.

In a previous column about the much-missed Imperial Ballroom, Nelson, I wrote about seeing Yes there and make no apologies for repeating the following chunk:

My parents were not keen on me attending evening gigs at the Imp because it had a reputation for punch-ups, but the proverbial feral equines couldn’t have kept me away on April 24, 1971, for the visit of Yes, at that time the hottest prog band in Britain if not the world. My friend Steve Dennett and I stood right at the front, close enough to be sprinkled by the sweat from guitarist Steve Howe’s brow as he launched into his solo on Yours Is No Disgrace from The Yes Album. Aged 15, holding a pint, being perspired upon by the great Steve Howe. Could life get any better than that?

It was almost a home gig for singer Jon Anderson, a former milkman from nearby Accrington. I shouldn’t think he’ll remember it but I’ll never forget it.

When we arrived for the show I was mightily impressed by the massive stacks of speakers and amplifiers placed around the barn-like arena. The entire public address system had been bought from the US band Iron Butterfly, who had toured Europe with Yes in January. All were stamped with the words Fragile Yes. And Fragile was the name of Yes’s next album, which we’ll plonk on the turntable next week.

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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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