Keeping track of the lineup changes in Yes is like trying to list all of Saturday Night Live's cast members since the days of John Belushi or keeping track of who's sleeping with whom on your favorite soap opera. Since the release of the band's debut album, Yes, in 1969, fourteen musicians have recorded or toured as official members, including two drummers, two vocalists, four guitarists and five keyboardists. Five members have left the band only to return, and one of them, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, recently left Yes for the fourth time. No word yet as to whether he'll be back.
As dysfunctional as the Yes family seems to be, it's no surprise that the band has had a tough time maintaining a unified style and direction. These days the problem seems worse than ever. Yes is currently touring to support Open Your Eyes, released last November by Beyond Music, a label owned by the band's management company, the Left Bank Organization. Two weeks earlier the band's Keys to Ascension, Vol. 2 was released by Purple Pyramid, a division of the independent label Cleopatra Records. The difference between the albums shows how difficult it has become for Yes to maintain any sort of cohesive vision.
Keys 2 features the band's core lineup: Jon Anderson on vocals, Steve Howe on guitar, Alan White on drums, Wakeman, and Chris Squire on bass and vocals. On the first of the album's two CDs are six classics recorded live in 1996. (Another two-CD set, Keys to Ascension, was released a year earlier, on yet another label, CMC Records. The songs on both releases were taken from the same sessions.) The second CD offers five new studio tracks, including "Mind Drive," an 18-minute epic that comes closer to vintage Yes than anything the band has done since 1980's Drama.
The song features the nuances that once made Yes rock's premier progressive band: heart-tugging classical guitar passages, gentle vocal pleadings, sweeping keyboard solos, and a jam in the song's middle section that accentuates the precision of every instrument while obscuring none. Originally created during a 1981 jam session attended by Squire, White, and guitarist Jimmy Page, "Mind Drive" is a progressive-rock pleasure, providing long-time Yes fans with a much-missed combination of melodic sensitivity and barnstorming virtuosity.
Following the Keys sessions, Wakeman waffled for six months, then decided to leave the band once again to pursue other interests. He was replaced by two men: Billy Sherwood, guitarist, keyboardist, and long-time songwriting partner of Squire; and Igor Khoroshev, a classically trained pianist. Sherwood and Squire had already been working on many of the songs that ended up on Open Your Eyes, so the recording process didn't take much time. The result is an uninspired, overproduced album that was recorded seemingly with radio in mind. Leaden sheets of synthesized noise replace Wakeman's crystalline style, and Anderson's vocals are layered so thickly, it often sounds as if 20 of him are singing at once, with the sounds of 10 keyboardists thrown on top.
The songwriting, unfortunately, is just as weak. With each song on Open Your Eyes, the band strives so hard to create a memorable hook, it winds up venturing into simplistic pop. Yes' finest efforts, such as the classic "And You and I" from Close to the Edge or "Hearts" from 90125, allow for moments of subtle expectation that build, slowly and seductively, to majestic orchestral crescendos. The hooks in those songs are not forced; they're the results of smart arrangements and clever melodies. Even the band's most radio-friendly tunes, such as "Roundabout," "Owner of a Lonely Heart," or "Long Distance Runaround," display an approach to songwriting that is far from simplistic.
The one constant in Yes' 29-year history is Squire, who is featured on every album. Contrary to suggestions that Yes has been musically ambivalent of late, Squire claims the band has proven to be so many things at so many different times that every album offers a new opportunity. "In the studio sometimes we do something radio friendly, and sometimes we do longer pieces which aren't," he says, calling from the Boston stop of the tour. "And that keeps us interested in Yes -- being able to change around a bit."
Evidently, Keys 2 was not designed for radio play. Cleopatra Records releases about 600 CDs a year, mostly punk and industrial music for college audiences. Cleopatra is not equipped to promote a record to commercial radio, according to a label spokesman. In fact, the company is delighted that 70,000 copies of Keys 2 have sold since November, he said. Although such expectations are not unusual for a small, independent label, they're subpar for Yes, which seemed to have higher hopes for Open Your Eyes. But that album, too, has sold only 70,000 copies to date and fell off the Billboard Top 200 chart after one week at No. 151, making it the first new Yes studio album to fail to crack Billboard's Top 40 since 1970's Time and a Word. (Keys To Ascension, Vol. 2 didn't even make it to Billboard's Top 200 chart.) To put the band's current album sales in perspective, 13 Yes albums have sold more than 500,000 copies, achieving gold status -- and three of those were live or greatest-hits collections.
Squire claims the band ignores business considerations when recording, but he reveals at least a smidgen of strategic thinking in describing the band's approach to Open Your Eyes.
"There's no competition between Open Your Eyes and Keys 2, just two slightly different approaches to Yes," he says. "Open Your Eyes was designed more around a song approach. We weren't looking to do tracks longer than five or six minutes. We were looking to do that length of Yes style, and it proved correct. We've actually had a lot of airplay for Open Your Eyes. [The title track reached No. 33 on Billboard's Rock Tracks chart, an indicator of radio-play frequency.] Our management says that we're better set up for the next album now than we were before the record came out."
Asked whether management decisions creep into the songwriting process, Squire says that if they do, they do so subconsciously. "It's not like we go into the studio thinking, 'Wow, I really have to make money off this album.' That theory never works. You can drive yourself nuts trying to do that. It's easier to try and please yourself musically and see what you come up with."
Squire claims that, thanks to the band's popularity as a live act, financial concerns are minor these days. "There's a bit of the Grateful Dead in Yes," he jokes. "We make money on these tours. So really, what we want to do in the studio is do a damn good new album. We never really know what direction it's gonna go in until we start doing it."
Considering the highs and lows Squire has experienced with Yes, it's no surprise that he's as nonchalant as he is. Amid all the turbulence, Yes was fortunate enough to have two remarkable runs of success: in the '70s, when "Roundabout" became a radio staple and Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Relayer, Going for the One and Tormato were Top 10 albums; and again in the mid-'80s, when "Owner of a Lonely Heart" became the No. 1 song in the country and both 90125 and Big Generator sold more than a million copies.
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The low point for Squire came in 1981, when Yes actually broke up for a short time. During this brief hiatus, Squire and White planned to form a band with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, whose group Led Zeppelin had disbanded after the alcohol-related death of drummer John Bonham. They jammed with Page for months, but Plant was still too grief-stricken, and plans for the band (to be known as XYZ) disintegrated.
For now Yes is in no danger of breaking up, according to Squire. Despite being hitless for a number of years and Wakeman-less for the time being, he claims the band's operations are running smoothly.
"At the moment everything feels good," he says. "There will be a Yes for at least another couple of years, and that's all you can think about [in] any business, really. You hope it goes beyond that, but I can see a pretty bright future for the whole band for the next couple of years."
Yes will perform at Coral Sky Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach with opening act Alan Parsons Live Project on Saturday, August 8, at 7 p.m. The local band Kickback will perform on Coral Sky's Rapids Stage at 5:30 p.m. as the audience arrives. For tickets call 954-523-3309 in Broward or 561-966-3309 in Palm Beach.