Prog rock. Progressive Rock. Filthy, hated, heretical noise, utterly shunned since Year Zero (1976). But I love it… or a great deal of it anyway.
Those who lump dazzling avatars of God’s Own Progression like Yes, Genesis (the early version, naturally) and King Crimson in with lumpen regurgitators of egoistic bombast like Emerson Lake and Palmer are merely demonstrating their own cloth-ears. Where ELP sound totally of their time, Yes in particular are still in the fantastic future world they created for themselves.
I remember the first time I heard Yes, the actual location is irrelevant because as soon as I heard them (it was the opening of The Gates of Delerium from ‘Relayer’), I was totally transported into a parallel universe where the rules of what ‘rock’ was supposed to be had not been ripped up, they had never existed in the first place. Anything went and the more out there the better. It seemed like all the musicians were playing solos at once, to different songs, YET it worked. Of course the more I heard it, the more it became evident that they were not just wildly improvising, there was a coherent plan behind it, which is why it worked. People call prog ‘impenetrable’ but it is, at its best, profoundly penetrable, it’s just that they don’t have the patience to listen to it four or five times in order to work out what the hell is going on.
I, to be frank, didn’t really want to work out what was going on and I still don’t. I prefer to regard the music of Yes as beamed down from another galaxy, one which looks remarkably like the wondrous Roger Dean paintings on their album covers. On reading a book about the history of Yes I was both fascinated and repelled by the prosaic tales of their previous bands, their massive egos, their tedious-to-be-around-perfectionism (Chris Squire taking an entire day to tune an electric bass guitar for example, Jon Anderson insisting that the vocal booth he was singing inside be tiled with bathroom tiles, only to discover that this did not automatically confer on it bathroom-like reverberational properties).
In a way, and despite these stories and many more, Yes is one of the most ego-less bands ever to have existed. Because when a group of musicians, usually including Squire, Anderson and Steve Howe gets together and calls itself Yes, something develops which puts all of their individual pettiness in the shade. I say ‘develops’, perhaps better to say ‘descends’. Look at Yes lyrics on a page, here are some:
Love comes to you and you follow
Lose one on to the Heart of the Sunrise
How can the wind with its arms all around me
Lost on a wave and then after
Dream on on to the Heart of the Sunrise
How can the wind with so many around me
lost in the city
Total rubbish, right? Well to my ears, when these words are sung they take on a poetry which would be unimaginable to someone merely reading them. Anderson just slings a few words together and lets the music and your imagination fill in the gaps. And one finds oneself in the ‘Yes-world’ of the Roger Dean paintings and beyond. It’s like he is just reminding you of this other world as if you lived there long ago (or will live there in a distant future) and it’s unnecessary to spell out every detail. Yes never insulted your intelligence, at least not on the ‘great’ albums (I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which those are).
Another great thing about Yes is how un-ironic they were; even though they included (on and off) two of the driest wits in the music biz in Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman. They just totally went for it, unashamed and naked in their innocent pursuit of musical greatness. No wonder the punks hated them… I have nothing against punk in fact but not only did it throw out the baby with the bath water, it went round throwing out many babies who were never even near the soapy stuff. Seeing old footage of Keith Emerson now, I am retrospectively cheering on Johnny and Sid and the other self-appointed idiots in a ‘down with this sort of thing’ way. But to think that Yes were hated as part of the same scene… I don’t know. Maybe they had to go as well otherwise the whole punk project would’ve been in vain (even though they carried on thriving commercially, their credibility was dead after punk).
Of course to see old footage of Yes, like their concert film Yessongs, one laughs at the stack heels, the silly flowing bits attached to their clothes, the gurning Alan White on drums and of course Wakeman’s enormous glittery cape and stupid hair curtains… but those who came to mock stayed to praise, as they totally blow you away in stages with their music, rising to an almost absurdly powerful intensity with Wakeman’s organ solo on ‘Close to the Edge’ which almost transcends music itself in its sheer, sheer, sheer blistering baroque otherness. And that last sentence is how I would write if I was in Yes, totally over the top and loving every second.
Check them out (again) now.