There is plenty of new music to listen to these days. I’m still in a post concert euphoric haze from seeing both Springsteen and Bush recently and those bands are still in high rotation here at B&V. Additionally many bands have put out great new singles this year (Depeche Mode, Beck, and Dave Matthews Band) and Iggy Pop’s new album is fabulous and yet I find myself drifting into my musical past to listen to Yes’ landmark album from 1983, 90125. Last year when I did my “50 year lookback” playlist for 1972 it sparked the idea of looking back 40 years to 1982 with another playlist dedicated to that specific year. Since I recently did my 1973 playlist perhaps that has sparked similar thoughts about 1983.
I started seriously listening to music in approximately 1978. When I say “seriously listening to music” I mean something beyond being in the car and asking mom to turn the radio to the local rock radio station. I had started to collect music. When you start buying albums (or cassettes or 8-tracks in the case of my friend Brewster) you’re always a product of the time and place you’re in. For me, it was the late 70s in a large Midwest city. I’m like everybody else, I consumed the music that was on the local radio. While some of Yes’ classic stuff made it on the radio I can’t say they were huge. Although I remember my brother had Fragile and a few other of their albums. Somewhere along the line I picked up The Yes Album, I really dug “Yours Is No Disgrace,” but who amongst us didn’t? I guess Yes was part of the rock n roll canon but they weren’t revered in any sense of the word.
By the late 70s much had changed for Yes and for rock n roll. In Yes, founding drummer Bill Bruford had been replaced by Alan White (who recently passed, sadly). On keyboards it was a revolving door between Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye. The only solid members who had stayed around for every album were bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe and singer Jon Anderson. In terms of rock n roll, Yes was prog rock, short for progressive rock. When you listened to prog rock you were usually in store for either some Dungeons And Dragons themed tunes or some really, really long songs or both at the same time. Rush was about the only prog rock band around that we all liked in my high school gang.
By the late 70s, rock n roll had taken the brunt of the punk rock attack. Many bands changed up their sound and music by absorbing the punk ethos and energy. It was not a great time for prog rock. Even Genesis had morphed from the long-song, twee, reverse-Mohawk Peter Gabriel prog to a more radio friendly Phil Collins rock. The thrust of punk was that it was a rebellion against the bloated, self-indulgent rock n roll of the mid 70s. It’s hard to think that Yes weren’t a prime target for that. It’s true I loved “Yours Is No Disgrace” but it was over 9 minutes long. It’s actually a few seconds longer than “Free Bird.” Yes responded to the changing music landscape with Tormato, an ill-advised album title if I ever heard one. With songs like “Madrigal,” and “Arriving UFO” I can’t imagine it was well received.
After that failed album, singer Jon Anderson split as did keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Trevor Horn, who later went on to become a producer of some renown, came in to sing and Geoff Downes of the Buggles (“Video Killed The Radio Star”) came in to play keyboards. This line up of the band released 1980’s Drama. My brother owned that record and I’d go in his room and listen. I liked “Tempus Fugit” and “Into the Lens.” It wasn’t terrible. At that point guitarist Steve Howe took Geoff Downes and formed Asia, a “super group” that broke big with their debut album. Meanwhile Jon Anderson had done a series of albums with Vangelis, billed as “Jon and Vangelis.” They had a weird hit “Friends Of Mr. Cairo,” that oddly was played on the radio. That song was like musical theater.
With only bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White left, what was Yes to do? Originally they jammed with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant who were fresh from the dissolution of the mighty Led Zeppelin. There were rumors they were forming a new band, XYZ (ex-Yes and Zeppelin). That venture fell through when Plant, still mourning Bonham’s death, pulled out. Producer Trevor Horn then introduced Squire and White to a guitarist named Trevor Rabin. They started jamming and realized they might be onto something. They pulled erstwhile keyboardist Tony Kaye into the mix. Although I think he left and came back a few times. They were going to call themselves Cinema. Rabin was pumped about launching this new band. But at the last minute – at the behest of the record company – Squire pulled Jon Anderson back into the fold and they reverted back to Yes. Rabin wasn’t pleased about the reboot.
However, everybody else was. I remember the first time I heard the first single, “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” and that iconic riff that opens the song. I’m embarrassed to admit the first time I heard it was when I saw the video. I was back at Kansas State in the fall of ’83 and MTV was the only viable music outlet. The radio sucked in Manhattan, Kansas. I saw Jon Anderson interviewed and he said, “I just missed the sound of a guitar.” Well, he got it in spades with Trevor Rabin on 90125. I used to jokingly refer to this album as “90210” after that horrible night time soap opera that I literally never watched. They got the album title from the UPC code. If you look at the barcode, the number embedded was “90125.” For a band, this far along, to pull together with a new guitarist and some old members and to reinvent themselves from prog rockers to arena rockers was nothing short of miraculous.
Despite the rather “gross out” video for “Owner Of A Lonely Heart,” the track took off. I can remember walking down the hall where I lived and hearing it pouring out of several rooms. I taped my buddy Drew’s copy of the LP and I can remember walking out in a snow storm with my Walkman (the size of a brick) listening to this album and feeling like I was the only person on the planet. Sometimes rock music is transformative and will take you to another place entirely. “Leave It” was another song that I used to like to sing at the top of my lungs as loudly as I could whenever it came on. Anderson had only come in for the last few weeks of recording the album and it’s thought that his input was minimal and that’s why this album rocks as hard as it does. Rabin was originally going to sing all the lead vocals with Squire on harmony. When you bring in Anderson and he and Rabin share the lead vocals, like on “Changes,” it creates a real sense of drama in the song. It’s really a knock out track. “Changes” may be my favorite Yes song and perhaps Anderson’s finest moment on the album.
It’s not just the singles that caught fire. The deeper tracks are all great. There’s not a dud on this record. “Hold On” has arena sing-along written all over it. While they weren’t a prog band anymore there were still prog accents on this record. “Hold On” has an A Capella breakdown in the middle. Several of the songs were over 5 minutes and one was over 6 minutes and another over 7 minutes. The thing that caught me about this record wasn’t only the harmonizing but the strong guitar playing of Rabin. The guy just rocked. He played with so much more muscle than Steve Howe. “It Can Happen” is another great song. The guitar sound that opens the track sound like a sitar, like something Jeff Beck would play when he was in the Yardbirds.
There is an instrumental track, “Cinema.” You can take the band out of prog rock but you can’t take the prog rock out of the band. One has to wonder if the band had gone with the name Cinema would it have been as big? I don’t think with White/Squire/Anderson and sometimes Kaye in the band that you could avoid using the Yes name. “Hearts” is a beautiful love song with a great message that is another stand-out. “City of Love” with it’s chorus, “We’ll be waiting for the night to come…” is another personal favorite. It’s grittier than what you think of when you think of Yes.
I actually got to see Yes on this tour. They had a giant round stage that sloped down from the back towards the audience. The only flat parts of the stage were the drum riser and the keyboards. Jon Anderson pranced around and kept throwing his arms out with a dramatic flair typically reserved for the ballet. His fey act aside, I was really impressed with the band and especially Rabin as a player. Although I can’t say enough about Chris Squire’s amazing bass playing. He was like a stoic Flea, standing in place hammering his bass. They played older, classic Yes tracks – which I’m sure Rabin wasn’t happy about – but they were stronger, more arena rock in style. It was an absolutely great show.
Alas, the magic they captured on 90125, like lightning in a bottle, was hard to recapture. The next album from this line up of Yes, Big Generator, had some great moments but just wasn’t as strong. At one point after Big Generator, Anderson left and with other ex-members of Yes formed Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe who I liked to refer to as Larry, Moe and Curly. Eventually those four reunited with what was left of the Rabin-led Yes and they put out the record Union. I saw Anderson interviewed and he said he got the idea of joining both bands together under the Yes banner in a dream. So, yes, it was terrible.
But regardless of all of that, 90125 is really the best album Yes ever did, in my opinion. I’m sure there are a bunch of Tales From Topographic Oceans fans out there who will argue with me. Talk about self-indulgence. The resurrection that Trevor Rabin, Chris Squire and Alan White engineered on this album is nothing short of spectacular. I would have never predicted this one. It’s a phenomenal album that everyone should listen to at high volumes.