Friday, June 3, 2011

The Drama of Yes’ "Re-Union:" A “Fly From Here” Prequel

Yes’ history is long and complicated, and every time it seems like they are writing their final chapter, a new one begins, often causing a bit of a row in their fan base in the process.  Such is the case now, because for the first time in nearly a decade, Yes is releasing a new album, and predictably, the fans are all a-twitter about the whole affair.  Personally, I have a feeling of cautious curiosity, because there is the potential that it could be, at the very least, interesting (if not good).  Although I generally avoid historical reconstructions in my blog postings, I hope you will indulge me in this case.  For the non-fan, this will most likely result in at least a shrug, if not a rolling of the eyeballs, but understanding why Yes’ new album Fly From Here is both appealing and potentially divisive amongst Yes’ fan base requires a bit of historical context.

Since the band’s inception in the late 60s, Yes’ identity has survived constant personnel changes.  In the late 70s, however, Jon Anderson, Yes’ distinctive lead singer, left the group and took keyboard whiz Rick Wakeman with him.  Anderson, who had been a founding member of Yes, was thought by many to be irreplaceable.  The remaining band members, however, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, and drummer Alan White, sought to continue under the Yes name.  They brought in Trevor Horn as vocalist and Geoff Downes on keyboards or, as this duo was better known at the time, The Buggles, who already had a catchy little tune under their belt that you may have heard.

The result of this pairing was released in 1980, a relatively obscure entry in Yes’ catalog called DramaDrama’s dark, post-apocalyptic overtones distinguished it from Yes’ generally ethereal and spiritual approach up to that point.  Initially, many of the band’s supporters refused to accept this band as Yes, but the album has, in retrospect, become something of a fan favorite.

DramaDespite the artistic, if not commercial, success of Drama, this Yes lineup, like most, had some problems, the most prominent of which can be deduced from Horn’s body language in the clip above.  Personally, I have always thought that his voice was a viable alternative to Anderson’s, but Horn was profoundly uncomfortable as Yes’ lead singer.  Due to this and other issues, the Drama crew eventually dissolved.  When Yes started their next chapter in 1983, they would release the most popular single of their career - without Downes, but with Anderson sharing vocals with guitarist Trevor Rabin and Horn acting as producer.  Back in the day, this is where I jumped on board the Yes train.  I bought this on 45 at Camelot Records in Barton Creek Mall.

Now hit the fast forward button – two decades worth!  Many people joined and left the band, and for awhile there were two Yes’s that operated independently of each other and came together for a great tour in support of a terrible album (Union – avoid at all costs!), but the Drama lineup remained buried.  By the mid 00s the “classic” 70s lineup again bore the Yes name and toured regularly under it, but with no new material.  In 2008, Anderson’s health apparently forced him into a leave of absence, and Wakeman went with him.  The remainder of the band decided, again, to continue, and hired vocalist Benoit David (from a Yes tribute band) who they discovered through a YouTube audition.  Oliver Wakeman, Rick’s son, took over the keyboard role.  After a year, Anderson and Wakeman Sr. were quietly retired from Yes. 

At this point, the band was in danger of becoming their own tribute band.  If they had not weathered so many personnel changes in the past there would be no question, but without a new album it is difficult to think otherwise.  Regardless, Yes continued to tour in this configuration, beating their classic material into the ground and occasionally adding selections from Drama, which had been purposely overlooked under Anderson.  Finally, in early 2011, Yes announced their new album, along with another surprise: Oliver Wakeman was to be replaced with Downes and Horn would be returning as producer/co-writer.

Yeah, they're older.  You are, too.  Of their late 60s progressive contemporaries, like Genesis and Pink Floyd, they are among the last standing who seem to be genuinely trying.  That should count for something, so respect your elders!

Anyway, this is potentially very exciting news, probably even more exciting than if Anderson and Wakeman announced that they were returning.  I don’t think that it is too forward to say that the classic lineup of Yes ran out of steam by the mid 00s and that David and Wakeman Jr. did not have the vision to reinvent the group on their own.  Many fans, myself included, think that the Drama crew never got a fair shake, and with the vocals in the hands of David, Horn can now take a comfortable seat in the production chair.  Bringing in Horn and Downes also allows the band to reinvent themselves from within their own history.  At this late stage of Yes’ career, keeping the authenticity of the band’s identity intact is a significant concern.  All of the affairs leading up to this lineup seem a little shifty, though, as if there has been a grand chess match going on for the past three years, cautiously elbowing members out to make room for this "Re-Union." 

So I am anticipating the release of Fly From Here.  I’m sure I will have something to say about it in July, but for now you have heard about as much of the album proper as I have.  Consider this a “prequel” post, and a small portion of Yes history.

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