Graded on a Curve:
The Yes Album

Celebrating Steve Howe on his 74th birthday.Ed.

I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day, wondering out loud, “What is that awful sound?” And I have to tell them, “It’s the Yes album spinning on your turntable, dim bulb!”

That’s the intro I intended to use for what I figured would be a disparaging review of 1971’s The Yes Album. I’ve always been a big believer in the motto “Just Say No to Yes,” because the band has all the loathsome characteristics of your average “progressive” rock band. Castrato vocalist, check. Extraordinarily talented musicians who would sooner play some intricately difficult chord progression than just whomp you on the skull like Iggy and the Stooges, ditto. And fiendishly complex songs composed of like 10 intricately interwoven musical themes, present. But a terrible thing happened when I put The Yes Album on my turntable. Much to my surprise and dismay, I discovered I actually kinda like the fucker!

Me! Prog! Impossible! Implausible! Because prog-rock is the exclusive domain of skinny-armed guys (women hate prog, it’s what makes them superior to men) in ill-fitting t-shirts with scruffy beards who spend the bulk of their time tinkering with electrical gadgetry and watching Dr. Who, and who like their rock music in direct proportion to its distance from three-chord rock. They don’t want three chords, they want three hundred! Five hundred! One thousand! One million!

Let’s get one thing straight: when I say I like The Yes Album what I really mean to say is that I like portions of The Yes Album. Because Yes, like many other progressive groups, suffers from a collective form of attention deficit disorder the effect of which is to render them incapable of sticking to one musical idea for very long. No sooner do they fall into a cool groove before they move onto another section that isn’t half as great, and so on. Rare is the song (the two-parter “All Good People” fills the bill) where they open on a beguiling note and stick with it through the entire song.

Which leaves me liking parts of a song, while disliking other parts of the same song, which is annoying as you can well imagine—even more annoying, in fact, than the LP’s hideous cover, with its empty chair. Are they waiting for Godot? Or for caped electronic wizard Rick “I’ve written dozens of electronic historically themed LPs and no mere mortal could survive listening to them all!” Wakeman, who by the time follow-up Fragile came along would be filling Yes Album keyboardist Tony Kaye’s boots? And what’s with the doll’s head? Is it a member of the band?

Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway) you need to be a crack musician to play music of such complexity and sophistication. Which is just another way of saying Yes included no former members of Brownsville Station (although to paraphrase Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, it would be cooler if they did). Yes’ line-up consisted of Jon (formerly John—evidently between Yes’ second and third LPs the “h” fell out of his name and into the filthy bog of a pub in Sandy Balls, Hampshire) Anderson on vocals and percussion; Chris Squire on bass and vocals; Steve Howe on acoustic and electric guitars and vocals; Tony Kaye on piano, Hammond organ, and Moog synthesizer; Bill Bruford on drums; and Colin Goldring on recorders on “Your Move.”

Anderson assumed the bulk of the songwriting duties, and on The Yes Album—the band’s third—he ratcheted things up a notch, basically by feeding his songs steroids until they were supersized behemoths of John Holmes-like length. Suddenly a 10-minute Yes song became thinkable, which is unthinkable, which makes you think, the horror. The thinkable unthinkable, that’s your typical Yes song to the core.

Anyway, Anderson either wrote or co-wrote all but one of the LP’s songs, namely “Clap,” which was written by Howe and is often mistakenly entitled “The Clap,” which I think would be a much cooler title—progressive rock is in desperate need of more public-service-related cautionary tunes about the hazards of sexually transmitted diseases. “Clap,” which was recorded live, is basically an effete (but lively!) instrumental foray by Howe on acoustic guitar, of the sort you might hear at a folk festival which is always a mistake, going to folk festivals, because as everybody knows people die of boredom at such events, and I’m talking by the dump-truck load. And that’s if they don’t get beaten to death first by Janis Ian or The Roches.

If I don’t care much for “Clap,” the Anderson-penned “A Venture” doesn’t thrill me either, despite its vague pop aspirations, exquisite vocal harmonies, and cool piano solo by Kaye. Why? Because one of Yes’ members, and I’m not going to point any fingers (there he is! Chris Squire!) either forgot to bring the melody or left it out in the rain, and I don’t think I can take it, cuz it took so long to bake it, which is another possibility, namely that the whole band was so baked they failed to notice the song’s melody had gone AWOL.

As for “Perpetual Change,” it’s as apt a title as any I’ve ever heard, because this song zigs and zags like a squirrel being hunted by a kid with a .22. And thanks to all that zigging and zagging, I’m left where I usually am with a Yessong; I love some parts of it, like others, and downright hate the rest. It opens on a big, bombastic note, which is followed by some cool Howe electric guitar wank and nice (and very polite) piano. Unfortunately the song then stops dead in its tracks, and Anderson takes over, spouting some gibberish about inside out, outside in, which is a problem I always have with my socks.

I’m not going to bore you with every twist and turn of this almost nine-minute colossus because I’m a humanitarian no matter what The Hague says, but the highlights are great. I’m talking chiefly about the big pomp-rock crescendos that build and build until Howe (and some backing vocalists) come in singing, “And there you are/Making it up but you’re sure that it is a star/And boy you’ll see/It’s an illusion shining down in front of me.” I haven’t the foggiest what Anderson is going on about, but it beats the lines, “The sun can warm the coldest dawn/And move the movement on the lawn.” I hereby offer 20 bucks to anybody who can tell me what that final line means.

Howe plays a too-brief guitar solo, then noodles gently about a bit, showing off for granny no doubt, and I’m just beginning to think we’ve discovered the English Jerry Garcia when Kaye comes back in on his beloved Hammond, which is joined by Howe playing some truly cool dissonant shit, and then it’s back to that big chorus, before the song closes with some neato vocals and a great guitar that unfortunately stops every ten seconds or so for the lads to congratulate themselves on just how totally brill they are.

LP opener “Yours Is No Disgrace” lasts almost 10 minutes as well, and opens with a happening guitar riff that is soon joined by Kaye’s Hammond. Then the song takes off, Howe playing some guitar that is as high-pitched as it is high-falutin’. Anderson’s lyrics are total gibberish—compared to him Noel Gallagher is Ezra Pound—as is proven by the lines, “Battleships confide in me and tell me where you are/Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, show me where you are.” Huh? But the impressive thing is that the terrible and inscrutable lyrics don’t matter, or matter much, because the song includes several fast-paced instrumental passages that actually kick ass, which is something prog in general rarely does. Bore you to death, sure, but kick you in the ass, never, because prog bands are the least violent entities on earth, less violent than Seals and Croft even.

The excellent “I’ve Seen All Good People,” is made up of two sections, “Your Move” and “All Good People.” The former opens with some great ensemble singing and some fey but effective acoustic guitars, and then in comes Anderson to sing more gibberish, my favorite being the metaphysically imponderable, “Don’t surround yourself with yourself.” (I’m planning to write a Western exploring this idea. It will include lines like, “Don’t move!” he cried to himself. “We’ve got us surrounded!). Then there’s the great line, “Take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life,” where presumably you left something important, say a bag of Fritos, I’m always leaving bags of Fritos in the corner of my life. But don’t let the sub-moronic lyrics stop you from listening, because the boasts a wonderful melody and great vocals, to say nothing of Howe’s simple but eloquent guitar playing and Goldring’s nice turn on the recorder. Or the monstrous cathedral organ, for that matter, which enters just in time for the segue to “All Good People,” which like “Your Move” the band keeps simple, it being little more than an extended groove with cool vocals and lots of killer guitar fills by Kaye, before that Cathedral organ returns and the band fades out.

The tripartite “Starship Trooper” opens with “Life Seeker,” which is cool but would be cooler if Anderson hadn’t started singing about his sister bluebird, which goes a long way towards explaining that avian voice of his. But Howe’s riffs are big and powerful, and Kaye’s organ works miracles, until the band takes a little time out for Squire to show off his chops on bass. And Bruford is impressive throughout. The next section (“Disillusionment”) highlights Howe’s acoustic guitar skills and Anderson’s vocals, which are followed by some big drum crash and Anderson singing about who knows what.

Then Howe plays one of the cooler guitar riffs I’ve heard since my younger brother’s band The Butter Boys broke up, although they didn’t own a guitar or any other instruments for that matter and spent their “rehearsals” sitting around getting drunk and playing rock, paper, and scissors, so it must be some other band I have in mind. But while I’ve been spouting inanities, Yes has moved into the final section “Würm,” which is the album’s highlight and one groovy jam, what with Howe playing a repetitive riff on guitar as the song slowly builds and builds, instruments entering from the front door and the kitchen window and even from a manhole on the street.

Kaye and Bruford in particular make a wonderful din until Howe comes through with some really hot guitar licks. And then the song, goddamn you Yes, fades out. It’s frustrating, really. They finally hit that magical, mystical groove only to promptly call it quits. They’re sadists, is what they are. Why, it’s enough to make you take a straight and stronger course to the corner of your life and scream, where nobody (not even that empty chair on the album cover, thank you Neil Diamond) can hear you.

So there you have it. I’ll never love Yes, due to Anderson’s lyrics, the band’s predilection for shifting gears every 30 seconds or so, and what I perceive as virtuosity for its own sake, but The Yes Album has its moments, and they’re great moments at that. Plus I’ve gained some real wisdom by listening to the LP. Never again will I surround myself with myself. No siree. I’ll just move on back two squares, where in an ideal world Yes would be playing songs that just kick out the jams, putting all that extraordinary musical talent to use playing songs that have a beginning, middle, and end, just like Life, or Brownsville Station, whose “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” and “Kings of the Party” are great. True, their take on the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” may well be the worst ever recorded, but compared to “Shining, flying, purple wolfhound, show me where you are,” the motherfucker is solid gold.


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