This is a slightly longer version of a piece I wrote for the November edition of
The Wire magazine.
Mention Yes casually, and a confession often follows. ‘I used to be really into them’, or ‘I must admit, I saw them in 1974 and they were fantastic.’ You’d be surprised how many avant-garde musicians and writers of a certain age spent their teenage years twiddling their fingers along to Steve Howe’s guitar runs, or pouring over the byzantine lyrics of Jon Anderson.
I owe my first exposure to Yes to a chance encounter after school. Aged 16, I bumped into a Sixth-Former, Andrew ‘Tiny’ Wood (later the singer in Ultrasound). I was carrying Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, nicked from Virgin in Leeds; he was carrying Yessongs. We became friends, bonded through music, and he joined my first band Possession. Tiny was thirsty for new ideas, and he got into ‘my’ music straight away; it took me another twenty years to get into Yes…
The exception was Heart of the Sunrise (the Yessongs version), its opening salvo at least. Three minutes of soaringly exciting rock, densely constructed yet immediately accessible, rising and meshing until: oh dear. Enter Jon Anderson, in full flower: “Love comes to you, and you follow”…
I switched off. No way was I ‘following’ Jon Anderson. He was the antithesis of my taste in vocalists: I was into caustic observers like Mark E. Smith, emotional contortionists like Pere Ubu’s David Thomas. The winsome, choirboyish Anderson, conveying peace and mystical religiosity, was an abomination to my ears. And so my mind snapped closed.
One of the unexpected pleasures of rebuilding my friendship with Jhonn Balance, five years after my exit from Coil in 1993, was meeting Thighpaulsandra, by then ensconsed as Coil’s keyboard wizard. It led to my partner Ossian and I housesitting for him one summer fortnight in 1999, at his country cottage in the hills outside Pontypridd, South Wales. His record collection boasted a formidable prog’ section, and from some quiet place in the back of my mind came a thought – ‘I should listen to the Yes albums.’ The notion was supported by the presence of several books about Yes on Thighpaulsandra’s shelves, including Bill Martin’s Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock, a fantastically elaborate thesis paying special attention to Anderson’s lyrics. The sun was out. The hillside views were captivating. All the auxiliaries of pleasure were aligned. The albums suddenly, profoundly, clicked.
I know, I know. Bucolic setting inspires cynical musician into adoration of pastoral rock. Post-industrial sound-squelcher in hedgerow conversion! Transfiguration by tractor! But it worked. Away from London, windows opened literally and metaphorically. Sunlight and sweet dirty countryside. Grass and blossom and manure. Listening under enormous skies, stars astonishingly vivid, the Milky Way glistening over twilit fields, I fell for Yes harder than for any band in what felt like an age.
I wanted to hear it all, see it all, read it all, so I mainlined the entire Yes catalogue. I soon came to agree with Bill Martin, who topped-and-tailed their oeuvre to a ‘main sequence’ stretching from The Yes Album in 1971, through Fragile, Close to the Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans, and Relayer, to Going For The One in 1977 (with the triple-live Yessongs for an encore).
The jagged opening guitar chords, propulsive uncoiling bass and clotted Leslie-speaker organ of Yours is No Disgrace from The Yes Album dispelled any lingering expectations of wetness and whimsy. As the albums effloresced, criticisms fell away like dew. Show-off virtuosity? Rubbish – Yes music was ensemble-driven to a tee, folding even the most prodigious solos into a three-dimensional whole. Grandiosity? Guilty as charged, and all the better for it. Approached with a sense of humour, the grandness of Yes transforms into something exhilarating and massively endearing. The impossibly grandiloquent climax of And You And I made me ache with that special kind of joy that can only escape in tears. Likewise Steve Howe’s solos: his playing on the run-out of Siberian Khatru is incredibly moving, for reasons I can’t begin to define. How blinkered I’d been: Yes songs such as Roundabout and South Side of the Sky were confidently muscular and physical, rewriting my whole attitude to the group. Squire’s bass playing is vital in this respect, unbelievably gutsy yet supremely flexible and nuanced.
And then the biggest stumbling block: Anderson.
In the fresh evening air I turned my antennae in a new direction. A singer with no irony. No aggression or mannerism. Optimistic instead of dystopian, with the bravery to try and communicate something bigger than himself. A complete exclusion of nihilism (the cock-rock of philosophy). It’s possible to love Anderson without ‘getting’ his lyrics, which for a singer is vital. I find the poetry hit and miss, but he has a phenomenal talent for phrasing. His lyrics are an attempt to unify the disparate strands of world religion: new and old, Christian and Pagan, East and West. He seeks worldly analogues for spiritual abstractions, and the spiritual essence in the everyday. These are goals that one can accept or reject, but the ambition, sincerity and unbowed optimism of Anderson still inspire me even when his gnosis does not.
A common misconception is that Anderson wrote nothing but woolly metaphysical abstraction. One need only listen to the terrifying Gates of Delirium to realise that this is not the case. A study of the way high principles turn to vengeance in wartime (“Kill them, give them as they give us/Slay them, burn their children’s laughter on to Hell” ), it’s hard and truthful and informed by Tolstoy more than Tolkien.
Nowadays it's common for critics to dismiss progressive rock in accordance with a diktat set in stone by post-punk orthodoxy, a default position of scorn which has become as fossilized as the 'rock dinosaurs' punk set out to destroy. Exceptions are sometimes made for King Crimson, or Van Der Graaf Generator (great bands both) because they're 'dark' and therefore cooler. But Yes are derided so often it's become rather irksome. A BBC4 documentary supposedly celebrating prog-rock wasted precious screen time indulging the usual suspects and their predictable pot-shots. It's as if the music can never be enjoyed in mainstream discourse without the cynical priests of post-punk scowling from the sidelines.
Anderson’s total lack of cynicism is the ultimate in exotic pleasures if you’ve drunk maybe too long at the well of disillusionment. His generous spirit and faith in the worth of humanity is unforced, unbowed and immune to even the meanest criticism – and let’s be clear, Yes attracted mountains of it, especially after punk. There’s a line in Going For The One where Anderson pokes fun at himself, and it’s both comic and slightly terrifying (has he begun to see himself as the haters see him?): “Now the verses I’ve sang don’t add much weight to the story in my head/So I’m thinking I should go and write a punchline/But they’re so hard to find/In my cosmic mind/So I think I’ll take a look out of the window”. No need to worry – it’s just the humour of Yes, another of their unsung qualities.
Jon Anderson and Yes opened a window for me in 1999. For a change it wasn’t the sort I’d contemplate jumping out of, nor throwing someone else through. It refreshed me. Through the window, some of my bitter old blackness left.