From complicated progressive rock time signatures and classical Baroque-like climaxes to new wave vocal harmonies and pop-rock synths, Yes knew how to adapt with the times. The band had many incarnations with enough permanent members spanning from 1968 to the present to outfit a basketball team. Yes didn’t invent prog-rock, but they certainly mastered it and pioneered many of the audiovisual archetypes that would eventually become clichés.
The band was formed in England in the late 60s by vocalist Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Peter Banks, keyboardist Tony Kaye, and drummer Bill Bruford. However, this iteration only lasted until their debut album, Yes. In the early 70s, the band dropped Kaye and Banks and added classically trained keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman and guitar virtuoso Steve Howe to their line-up. The ever-evolving roster is a prog-rock trope the band would be on the cutting-edge of and become very familiar with over the years, but Howe proved himself to be an essential part of the band’s prog era with the sound of his Gibson ES-175. In 1971, The Yes Album was born, and the band made waves with their arsenal of instruments and Anderson’s unique voice.
That same year with their new configuration locked and loaded, Yes released their fourth album, Fragile. An album that even further showcased their classical influences and fantastical fervor, illustrated by Roger Dean, their album art and stage set designer, who would collaborate with the band for years to come. Fragile was the band’s first top ten hit record in North America and the single “Roundabout” bolstered its success. The band was in the process of defining a genre and would soon become a household name in prog-rock across the pond.
Close to the Edge is their last album to feature their original drummer, Bruford. His successor was Alan White, a former drummer for John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band. The composition, with all its musical twists and turns and adventurous oddities, would be a taste of what was to come for Yes. Shortly after the release of a double-live album featuring both drummers, Yessongs, the band released what would be their most divisive album.
Tales from Topographic Oceans, released in 1973 is a double LP with a mere four songs, each about 20 minutes in length. While the concept album received gold status on both sides of the Atlantic, opinions on it were sundered. Critics called it the pinnacle of prog-rock excess and some fans found the opus exigent, but Yes was striving for something challenging. As cantillated in the first climax of the album’s opening track, “The Revealing Science of God (Dance of the Dawn),” I must have waited all my life for this moment. Anderson said in an interview, “I wanted to create music that had length and breadth and adventure, that would carry the audience through this experience. With lights and staging, you could take them on a journey.” Needless to say, that ambition was actualized in Tales from Topographic Oceans. However, the album wasn’t only divisive for fans and critics. Wakeman left Yes in 1974 after touring the band’s sixth album, which he was highly critical of. He was replaced by Swiss musician Patrick Moraz.
For a decade Yes dominated not only prog-rock, but the entire rock genre. They topped the charts time and time again with gold status albums, Wakeman rejoined the band, and they sold out stadium tours, but the tides were turning and the genre was evolving to favor punk and new wave, so the band regrouped.
Yes reformed in the early 80s, with a few personnel changes that included swapping Anderson and Wakeman for Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes of the Buggles, who are best known for “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the first music video to play on MTV. The reconfiguration was tumultuous but bred brief success with the release of Drama in 1980. After yet another roster change in 1983 that included Anderson and Kaye once again, Yes grew into their pop/new wave sound. The band’s new sound would prove to be their biggest commercial success yet.
90125 quickly became Yes’s top-selling album, hitting triple platinum and reaching number one on the Billboard charts in the U.S with the bold, modernist hit-single “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” While the band had a difficult time following 90125, their well-deserved title as art-rock heavy hitters had already been secured with Grammy nominations and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions.
Written by Kelly Fletcher