Classic Artists: Yes
Release date: January 15, 2008
Imagine a rock band that changes members each time it begins achieving commercial and critical success.
Imagine a rock band guided by a visionary singer — who can’t actually articulate his vision to the other band members.
Imagine a rock band known as much for its logo and album cover designs as for its music.
Does this sound like a sequel to This is Spinal Tap? The basis of a new Will Ferrell movie? A Saturday Night Live skit that ends with Christopher Walken insisting on more cowbell?
All these things — and much, much more — are part of the legend of progressive rock band Yes, whose long, strange career has been documented the new two-disc set Classic Artists: Yes.
Part musical act, part soap opera, part traveling carnival show, Yes — or at least one of the many incarnations of the group — has been performing since 1968. The centerpiece of this two-disc set is a 204-minute documentary that explains how a small-time UK cover band became international rock icons as famous in their prime as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Through extensive interviews with band members, we learn the genesis of Yes began when singer Jon Anderson met singer/bassist Chris Squire and the duo decided to put together a band. The original lineup included Peter Banks on lead guitar, Bill Bruford on drums and Tony Kaye on organ. This group had diverse and eclectic music taste and styles. In fact, drummer Bruford casually mentions in the documentary, he thought he was joining a jazz band, but when he discovered it was a rock group, he was OK with it.
Yes had its first big break when it was tapped as a last minute replacement after Sly And The Family Stone canceled a show. Several famous British musicians attended the performance expecting to see Sly, so Yes got to show what they could do before a large audience for the first time.
But not long after the genesis of Yes came the exodus from Yes. The band just began cutting albums when they replaced guitarist Peter Banks with Steve Howe. Howe, who looks and sounds like that old Uncle who talks animatedly about his glory days, provides some of the best comments and stories in the documentary. Remarkably, most of the former Yes members are given an opportunity to reminisce about the band and all are frank about their successes and shortcomings.
Yes had their first big breakout hit with “Roundabout” on their Fragile album, but the band’s tendency to record long, trippy songs that last over nine minutes would deny them the radio play and the “Top 10” success many of their contemporaries enjoyed. Yes was always a band known more for its musical skill, its concepts, and its weirdly compelling melodies than for its ability to generate songs you want to hum in the shower or use as a ringtone.
Many fans believe Yes reached a pinnacle in 1972 with the replacement of organist Tony Kaye with keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman. In the documentary, former band members recall that Jon Anderson would often replace a guitarist or organist as soon as a better musician became available. However, some left the group to pursue other projects, including Brufford who quit to join King Crimson (and was replaced by former John Lennon Plastic Ono Band drummer Alan White), and Wakeman who was enjoying solo success.
Even vocalist Jon Anderson, who wrote or co-wrote some of the bands best music, left the group in 1980 after band members Howe, Squire, and White didn’t like the music he was offering them to perform. Most of the former band members agreed that Anderson always had a vision of what Yes should be, but few of them could actually understand what Anderson was trying to accomplish.
After the departure of Anderson and Wakeman, Yes manager Brian Lane and Squire invited keyboardist Geoffrey Downes and vocalist Trevor Horne to join the band. Horne and Downes’s group The Buggles (whose album The Age Of Plastic contained the single “Video Killed The Radio Star” — the first video ever played on MTV) had a “new wave” sound, and their work resurrected Yes. During Horn and Downes tenure Yes had two big hits during the 1980’s: “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” and “Leave It.”
Aside from the infighting, drama, and turmoil experienced by various band members, the documentary also features a nice nod to Roger Dean, who created the most memorable Yes album covers, designed their famous logo, and actually designed many of their stage productions. Lighting specialists, business managers, and others responsible for the success of Yes are also interviewed and praised.
Unfortunately, the documentary makes you want to hear Yes perform, but you don’t get enough of that in the featurettes on the other discs.
We have the video for “Owner Of a Lonely Heart” — a Kafkaesque tale of someone being abducted by authority figures in trench coats until he hallucinates and jumps of a roof — but the video for “Leave It,” one of the great 1980’s Yes songs is not included. There is a great video for “Wondrous Stories” that looks like a bunch of hippies screwing around, but sounds just wonderful. Yet there is no cohesive performance of “Roundabout,” which is discussed at length in the documentary. Why spend time talking about a song you’re not going to let us hear? There is rehearsal footage of the band practicing an “All Good People”/”Roundabout” jam, but it would have been much better to see live concert footage of the songs.
Ultimately, if you want to know the story of Yes, this is a disc set you’ll want to own, but if you want to hear the music that made Yes great, you’ll have better luck getting your own CDs.