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‘The Yes Album’: How Yes Mounted A Prog-Rock Breakthrough
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In Depth

‘The Yes Album’: How Yes Mounted A Prog-Rock Breakthrough

Created in a revolutionary act of survival, Yes’ third LP, ‘The Yes Album’, is a seminal classic that launched prog-rock into the mainstream.

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In early 1971, after the arrival of new guitarist Steve Howe, English progressive rock band Yes unleashed their third studio album, The Yes Album, a pioneering work that would firmly establish their reputation as prog-rock visionaries. Emerging from high-stakes recording sessions filled with artistic liberation and unbridled creativity, the record found Yes fusing rock with jazz and classical influences across complex and epic arrangements.

Propelled by new guitarist Steve Howe’s masterful solos, Chris Squire’s undulating bass-playing, Bill Bruford’s audacious drumming, Tony Kate’s Hammond organ wizardry and Jon Anderson’s esoteric lyrics, The Yes Album was a groundbreaking work of creative daring and visionary artistry. From its frenzied opening song, Yours Is No Disgrace, to the close-harmony marvel of I’ve Seen All Good People, the album showcased a band operating in a flow state of boundary-pushing proficiency.

This is the story of how The Yes Album shattered genre conventions and opened up new horizons for progressive rock…

Listen to ‘The Yes Album’ here.

The backstory: “We had a spirit in the house – a lady – who liked what we were doing. So we thought that was a good sign.”

Following the departure of their previous guitarist, Peter Banks, Yes were eager to start writing songs for their third studio album, but there was a surprising amount of uncertainty surrounding their commercial fortunes. The prog-rock band’s 1970 outing, the orchestral bonanza of Time And A Word, hadn’t performed as expected, and the group felt they were at risk of being dropped from their label. Thankfully, Phil Carson, then the Senior Vice President of Atlantic Records, continued to vouch for the group and agreed to send them to the English countryside so they could rehearse new material.

With Steve Howe joining the fold armed with a Gibson ES-175, Yes holed up at Langley Farm, in Devon, to flesh out some ideas. Thanks to Howe’s jazz-influenced background and a fondness for country-inspired fingerpicking, the chemistry between band and guitarist was instantaneous. By taking a style he had honed with 60s psych-rock outfit Tomorrow and imbuing it with a more classicist and flamenco-indebted touch, the band felt emboldened to trial more ambitious and expansive musical arrangements.

Frequently going on late-night country walks and spending their evenings talking to ghosts on a Ouija board, Yes quickly conjured tracks such as Perpetual Change and Yours Is No Disgrace into being. In fact, there was even a sense that greater supernatural forces were at play: “We had a spirit in the house – a lady – who liked what we were doing,” Jon Anderson later said. “So we thought that was a good sign.”

The recording: “There was a feeling of confidence in the room that we were doing something ambitious and fresh”

By late 1970, the band were ready to begin recording The Yes Album, and entered Fitzrovia’s Advision Studios, in Central London. Having previously served as an engineer for Time And A Word, Eddie Offord was promoted to a new role as co-producer, a crucial appointment that would undoubtedly pave the way for Yes’ future successes. “He was our sixth member,” Steve Howe wrote of Offord, in his autobiography, All My Yesterdays. “An extra pair of ears that we particularly needed when we were out in the studio hammering away.”

From the moment the band launched into Yours Is No Disgrace – a hallucinogenic nine-minute fever dream decrying the Vietnam War – it was obvious that the fresh country air had awoken something in them. Mirroring how the hippie idealism of the 60s had given way to a new decade of war-weary cynicism, Howe hops from a stabbing Pete Townshend-style guitar riff to an arpeggio-filled solo as incendiary as an air raid.

With each musician grappling with a seemingly never-ending age of military conquest, Jon Anderson even took lyrical inspiration from Robert A Heinlein’s 1959 sci-fi novel, Starship Troopers. “We imagined the lyrics might lure the listener into a dreamlike state with surreal combinations of finely articulated music twisting their expectations,” Howe later recalled. A three-part epic, the song Starship Trooper makes landfall with Howe’s jangly grind (in the Life Seeker section), followed by busy-fingered acoustic reverie penned by Chris Squire (Disillusion) and an earth-shatteringly doom-laden denouement (Würm).

Emerging from the band’s make-or-break efforts to forge a new and dynamic sound for themselves – with the aid of pianist Tony Kaye’s first excursions on the Moog synthesiser – The Yes Album was everything the group had been striving for. “There was a feeling of confidence in the room that we were doing something ambitious and fresh,” Howe later told MusicRadar. By drawing a clear line in the sand between their previous albums, Yes’ unique brand of ornate, jazz-influenced prog rock had finally realised its potential.

The release: “This was both a last chance and a new start for the band”

Released on 19 February 1971, The Yes Album catapulted the group back into the mainstream and peaked at No.4 on the UK albums chart. Completely validating Yes’ growing reputation as prog-rock innovators, the album was roundly praised by numerous music critics, with Melody Maker journalist Chris Welch writing that it “gives justice to the band many believe is the finest in Europe and America”.

Though the group’s earlier albums had hinted at the group’s potential, The Yes Album was a glorious restatement of musical purpose, undoubtedly aided by the game-changing fusion of Steve Howe’s masterful guitar work with Jon Anderson’s quasi-mystic lyrical meditations. Even drummer Bill Bruford later admitted that it marked a critical juncture in their prospects: “This was both a last chance and a new start for the band. That’s what The Yes Album was about.”

Coming along at a time when flower-power optimism was withering away, songs such as I’ve Seen All Good People addressed the stark realities facing the “Me Generation” in the early 70s. Invoking a chess-playing metaphor to describe human behaviour, Jon Anderson muses philosophically over a boogie-rock groove as if he were a disillusioned sage (“Move me on to any black square/Use me any time you want/Just remember that the goal/Is for us all to capture all we want, anywhere”).

In a case of “check mate” that wiped the board clean, The Yes Album ushered in a whole new era in which prog-rock now ruled – and Yes has assumed the throne. From the jaunty live recording of Clap to the giddily neo-classical finale, Perpetual Change, Yes’ artistic triumph was a decisive manoeuvre that changed the game for all subsequent prog bands, perfectly blending musical intricacy with pop-rock accessibility.

The legacy: “We loved music, and we thought that was the key to survival in the universe”

Going on to sell more than a million copies in the US, The Yes Album is widely regarded to be one of the most influential progressive-rock records ever made. With the group seemingly operating on a higher creative plane than any of their contemporaries, the album saw its creators navigate complex time signatures, extended instrumental passages and abstract lyricism with eccentric fervour and experimental verve, forever shaping the evolution of a burgeoning genre.

Not only did The Yes Album’s success yield the band’s first hit US single, Your Move – an edited version of I See All Good People, which peaked at No.40 on the Billboard Hot 100 – but the record also set the standard for virtuosic musicianship that few others could match. With drummer Bill Bruford’s ever-shifting tempos and guitarist Steve Howe’s eye-bogglingly complex fretwork, the album left little doubt over Yes’ reputation as fearlessly inventive sonic pioneers.

“We loved music,” Howe later explained, “and we thought that was the key to survival in the universe.” By opening people’s eyes to the potential of long-form song structures and the new horizons that could be opened up by musical experimentation, with The Yes Album Yes had successfully taken the brute force of rock’n’roll and combined it with the adventurousness of jazz and classical music in order to point the way to new, limitless possibilities.

Though Yes would go on to create further masterworks such as Fragile and Close To The Edge, The Yes Album set a benchmark for an awe-inspiring prog-rock journey the group would lead the way in exploring. As a huge creative leap forward that changed the music industry forever, it remains an essential listen for music fans, capturing a unique moment in time that set Yes on the path to true prog-rock greatness.

Buy the super-deluxe edition of ‘The Yes Album’.

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