I cite Fragile as my entry point for Yes’ catalog, it was not my introduction to the band by a long shot. In 6th grade, long before I became aware Yes’ already long and sometimes sordid history, I bought a 45 of Owner of a Lonely Heart. 90125 was subsequently one of the first tapes I bought, and the CD soon followed. This album not only defined Yes for me – it laid the first stone in a path that later led me to Rush and progressive rock in general. Even today, it is, without question, my favorite Yes album.
As crucial as it has been to Yes history, 90125 was almost the Yes that never was. Drama, its predecessor, was controversial for installing Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes into two very well-established roles within the band, but it retained a certain a sense of artistic continuity within Yes’ already established parameters. 90125 saw the return of several classic members, including Jon Anderson on vocals, but from a stylistic point of view it was a more radical departure. It retrospect, however, it was a stroke of genius to continue under the Yes name.
When considering 90125, it is impossible to ignore the importance of Trevor Rabin. From the standpoint of guitar style, replacing Howe with Rabin might not have been too much different than replacing Bill Bruford with Alan White in the mid 70s. Rabin was also an outstanding vocalist, though, and his writing contributions created the framework for a much different Yes. The atmospheric fantasy that the band was known for in the 70s gave way to powerful, textured songwriting in their 80s iteration.
But like all of Yes’ best work, 90125 was generated in a collaborative environment. Rabin’s material was significantly rearranged and rewritten by the band’s members and their invisible “sixth” member, producer Trevor Horn. History will show that Yes is most successful with a strong producer, and Horn, continuing his relationship with the band from the Drama period, was as invaluable to 90125 as Eddie Offord was to Close to the Edge or Fragile. I have often felt that it was unfortunate that he was not more regular in this role as the band continued with Rabin.
To bemoan stability in Yes’ creative pool, however, is foolhardy. It is far more engaging to look at the conceptual threads that hold their oeuvre together in the face of perpetual change. Although the stylistic shift on 90125 is impossible to ignore, the input of the continuing and veteran membership granted the album a degree of continuity. I think Drama hinted that Yes’ parameters had grown past a dependency on Jon Anderson, but his contributions on 90125, which I think are the most powerful of his career, were crucial to the album's success.
For Yes fans whose associations with the band began in the 70s, continuity in and through this period may be difficult to see or accept. As an 80s fan that looked back through Yes’ catalog, I certainly saw the differences, but I also actively sought out the similarities. I will still argue that 90125 was, and continues to be, a masterpiece in Yes’ catalog that examined new horizons in progressive rock as the 80s began to get underway. In terms of content, arrangement, and performance, it represented a new kind of prog that did not rely on extended song lengths, but on pushing the possibilities of complexity within accessibility.
Listening for “backwards-compatibility” in this retroactive way has, I think, informed my conception of what Yes is, even to this day. I find their continuity fascinating, which is why I don’t fully understand the conservative faction of Yes’ fanbase that harbor so much resistance and, in some cases, anger over Billy Sherwood’s recent installation as bassist. Clearly, the circumstances surrounding this passing of the torch are grave and clouded by emotional reaction. Squire is irreplaceable, but I think that his absence does not preclude the emergence of a new lineup that can carry on the Yes name.
From a certain perspective, however, it is a little weird. Fans that invested in the band in the early 70s probably see little resemblance between “their” Yes and the current lineup. "My” Yes only has one member in common with the group that now bears the name, drummer Alan White. I have been saying for over a year, however, that their fluid membership uniquely positions Yes to continue past the involvement of its originating members. Not just in terms of performance as a repertory ensemble or "ghost band," either. I think that within Sherwood and Davison lie the creative potential for this current lineup to sincerely contribute to the current state of progressive rock while still keeping a firm root in its history. Judging by 90125, that would be a distinctively Yes-like feat.