Monday, June 9, 2014

Yes - Owners Of A Lonely Heart - the Commercialisation of a Prog Rock Band - Pt. 1

The progressive rock movement has gotten a bad rap over the years, from those beyond the genre’s circle of devotees.  It’s been branded inaccessible, obtuse, high-minded, and grandiose, and those are some of the kinder judgements.  Without getting laboured down by an intensive examination of  the pros and cons of progressive rock, I’ll add my two cents worth by saying that for me progressive rock is rock music for intellectuals.  Actually that’s a tad unkind, it’s more that it’s music that the listener has to actively engage with and interpret, to fully appreciate its multi-layered, often intricate texture.  Rather than with a lot of pop-rock which can be listened to passively, and allowed to wash over the listener - it’s more immediately accessible and instinctual.  That’s not to say that the two genre’s have to be mutually inclusive, or a person can’t enjoy the best of both worlds - as is the case with this author.

As denoted in the ‘New Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia of Rock & Roll’ - progressive rock is “a form of rock music  in which electric instruments and rock-band formats are integrated with European classical motifs and orchestrations forming extended, intricate, multi-sectional suites”.  Which in lay terms I would interpret as pop-rock songs extended in length and widened in range, with a more virtuosic instrumentality.  Or to put it another way, pop-rock songs are short stories with a straight forward plot and fewer characters, where as progressive rock is classical literature with all it’s pomp and regalia.  The roots of the progressive rock movement lay in the British psychedelic and acid rock movements of the time - as a natural extension of the formers adventurism, and the latter’s cosmic themes.

By its very nature, given the extended playtime and conceptual nature of most progressive rock tracks, it is an album oriented genre.  Commercial radio is less inclined to air seven minute opus’, particularly when they make more sense within the context of an entire album’s theme.  One of the earliest and most groundbreaking of these conceptual progressive rock albums was ‘In The Court Of The Crimson King’ (1969) by King Crimson.  But that was an album whose texture and structure drew on influences from the Moody Blues (see separate post), and Procol Harum for their “symphonic classicism” (as Rolling Stone describes it), and Jimi Hendrix’ ‘cosmic’ guitar style.  Among the more notable, if not altogether commercially lucrative, of the British prog-rock bands of the early 70s and beyond were - Nice; King Crimson; Focus; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; early era Genesis (read the Peter Gabriel years), and the subject of this post, Yes.  Yes can be counted among the most enduring and successful of British progressive rock acts.  They perfected a formula of virtuoso musicianship encased without classical suite-like structures, and layered by three part harmonies, to yield an elaborate yet compelling whole.  Critics scorned it as being high-minded indulgence with little relevance to the common man (and woman), but devotees of the genre were steadfastly enamoured by the sound.

Yes came to be in London during 1968, and comprised the roll call of Jon Anderson (vocals/ percussion), Peter Banks (guitar/ vocals), Tony Kaye (keyboards), Chris Squire (bass/ vocals), and Bill Bruford (drums).  Anderson had met up with Squire in a Soho night club and conceived of forming a new band - the genealogy of the band’s origins, complex as they are, serves as an indicator of just how diverse the band’s personnel history would become over the years.  All of the band’s original members had considerable experience with other acts, which contributed to Yes’ profile rising quickly, so quickly that within three months of their first gig they were the opening act at Cream’s November ’68 farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

The band were signed to the Atlantic label and released their eponymously titled debut album in 1969 (OZ#38), which comprised some originals, alongside two Beatles and Byrds covers which were expanded into almost unrecognisable baroque extravaganzas.  The follow up set, ‘Time And A Word’ (UK#45/ OZ#22) further evolved the band’s sound to incorporate complex string arrangements, though it also drew some critical derision.  Yes were prolific during this period, and following the departure of guitarist Peter Banks (to form Flash - aaaaaahhhh!), Steve Howe (ex-Syndicate) came on board for the recording of ‘The Yes Album’ (UK#7/ US#40/ OZ#20), in early ‘71, a stylistic melding of rock with classical music arrangements, with the use of synthesisers becoming increasingly prevalent on an album of all original material.  The album received some notice in the U.S. (attained gold accreditation), with some FM stations adding Yes to their regular play lists.

Yes then recruited one of their most influential members, with keyboardist Rick Wakeman (ex-Strawbs) coming on board in place of Tony Kaye (who formed a new band - Badger).  With his classical training, Wakeman added another layering of complex arrangements and symphonic instrumentation to the Yes sound profile.  In late ‘71, the band released their fourth album, ‘Fragile’ (UK#7/ US#4/OZ#29), which spawned the band’s first hit singles, ‘Your Move’ (OZ#32/US#40), and ‘Roundabout’ (an edited version of the album track  - US#13). ‘Fragile’ was also the first Yes album to feature the sci-fi/fantasy cover art of Roger Dean, and the Yes logo.

The band’s fifth album, ‘Close To The Edge’ pushed Yes into new and exuberant creative territory, and featured just three extended cuts, one of which was an ornate four piece suite. Following the recording of their ‘Close To The Edge’ (UK#4/ US#3/ OZ#21) in late ‘72, drummer Bill Bruford left the scene to join King Crimson and later establish a successful career as a jazz-rock bandleader, and was replaced by Alan White (ex-Plastic Ono Band).  Keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s creative output was nothing short of prolific during this period, and he released his debut solo set in early ‘73, ‘The Six Wives Of Henry VIII’ (UK#7/ OZ#12).  In between recording sessions, Wakeman was a key component in translating the Yes complex orchestral songbook into live sets, captured by the 1973 live triple album ‘Yessongs’ (UK#7/ US#30 /OZ#8) - it’s hard to conceive of any artist releasing a triple live album these days, but ‘live’ sets were at the height of their popularity in the mid 70s.

Inspired by the Shastric scriptures, the late ‘73 extended cuts double album ‘Tales From Topographic Oceans’ became Yes’ first British chart topper (US#6/ OZ#13) in early ‘74.  Soon after Rick Wakemen jumped ship to pursue a fully fledged solo career - there had been increasing tension between Wakeman and the rest of the band over ‘lifestyle’ issues.  He experienced instant success with the conceptual ‘Journey To The Centre Of The Earth’ (UK#1/ US#3/ OZ#2) in mid ‘74, followed in ‘75 by ‘The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Nights Of The Round Table’ (UK#2/ US#21/ OZ#2) - possibly one of the longest album titles in popular music history.  Wakeman’s appeal waned somewhat in the years following, but as a conceptual artist he had few peers during the 70s and early 80s.  Yes recruited Patrick Moraz (ex-Refugee, and future Moody Blues - see separate Moody Blues post), to replace Wakeman, and released the ‘Relayer’ set in late ‘74 (UK#4/ US#5/ OZ#15).

During this period Yes were almost exclusively an ‘albums band’, though they continued to release singles which didn’t chart (this would change with their next album release).  The band took a break over most of 1975/76 with four of their members, Howe, Squire, White, and Anderson, all releasing solo albums.  Rick Wakeman returned to the Yes ranks during 1976, with Moraz linking up with the revived Moody Blues.

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