It almost didn’t happen. And the Rock Hall’s reluctant (and decidedly non-prog-friendly) voting committee wasn’t the band’s only obstacle. You might say Anderson and his cohorts have been their own worst enemies for five decades.
Now Anderson is trying to right the ship—and he’s doing it with a little help from his friends.
“Uh, 49 years! Such a long time!” exclaimed the Fragile front man during a phone call last week.
On paper, the Yes family tree resembles the blueprint for some diabolical Rube Goldberg machine, arms and appendages wildly springing forth to depict where musical members came and went over the years to create offshoot bands, establish side projects, and cut solo albums. For as talented and virtuosic as its players have consistently been, Yes could never maintain a steady roster for long: Its “classic lineup” from the early ‘70s only lasted five or six years—and even then only with a couple substitutions in the keyboard department (Patrick Moraz signed on for 1974’s Relayer).
Nobody’s more aware of the constant shuffling of the Yes deck than Anderson himself.
The former barkeep / Warriors singer formed the group with bassist Chris Squire in 1967—only to spot the first signs of attrition (guitarist Peter Banks and organist Tony Kaye) a couple LPs into its young career. In 1971 keyboard whiz Rick Wakeman joined for the critically and commercially successful Fragile and Close to the Edge albums. Then drummer Alan White stepped in for Bill Bruford, who left to join King Crimson in 1972.
Wakeman returned for comeback classic Going for the One in 1977. Recorded in Switzerland, the album featured outrageous Telecaster and slide guitar by Howe, eloquent harp passages (and soaring vocals) by Anderson, bouncing bass from Squire—and authentic church organs by Wakeman.
“It was an amazing moment in time because Rick had rejoined,” recalls Anderson.
“It was the end of the ‘70s, having gone through Close to the Edge and all that, to come back to have him in the band again and dream up this wonderful piece of music in ‘Awaken.’ For me that was a miracle.”
But the GFTO honeymoon didn’t last beyond 1978 “high ideals, low energy” opus Tormato. Both Wakeman and Anderson decided they’d had quite enough Yes for a while, thank you very much.
That alliance wasn’t durable, either. Howe and Downes absconded to form Asia with bassist John Wetton (King Crimson, U.K.) and drummer Carl Palmer (ELP), leaving Squire and White to court Jimmy Page for a proposed ex-Yes / Led Zeppelin combo (XYZ).
Ultimately, the rhythmists tapped South African gunslinger Trevor Rabin (Rabbitt) for the next official offering—1983’s slick, beat-savvy 90125. And they even seduced Anderson back for lead vocals at the eleventh hour, adding the proverbial cherry to an already irresistible sensory concoction.
“Yes West” (as it came to be known, after several of the Englishmen relocated to L.A.) had its own trials and tribulations. 90125 was a triumph for the band and for Atlantic Records, resulting in a well-received tour and live EP (and the Steven Soderbergh-produced concert film 9012Live), but infighting preventing the guys from capitalizing on their mid-‘80s resurrection. By the time Big Generator (“Love Will Find a Way,” “Rhythm of Love”) hit store shelves, the world had moved on. Synth rock, hair metal, and bubblegum pop were in vogue—and dinosaur rockers were out.
Anderson and Wakeman teamed with old pals Bruford and Howe for ABWH in 1989 while Squire and White scratched their heads. In 1991 lawyers and labels managed to coral the eight longest-standing Yessians for a Union album and tour. A simultaneously-released box set (and documentary movie) Yes Years seemed to suggest an end for the group rather than a new beginning.
Turns out Yes Years was just the halfway point: Various iterations of Yes (some with Rabin, others with Howe) manifested throughout the late ‘90s and 2000s to produce the CDs Talk, Open Your Eyes, The Ladder, and Magnification. Different keyboardists and sidemen rotated in and out of the ensemble to get the job done and man the rudder into the new millennium.
Illness forced Anderson out of the group—seemingly for good—in 2005. Squire, Howe and White soldiered on with surrogate sound-alikes Benoit David and Jon Davison on lead vocals for Fly From Here (2011) and Heaven & Earth (2014). Anderson got well enough to work with Wakeman on The Living Tree (2010) and collaborate with other writers online for Survival & Other Stories (2011) but still wasn’t healthy enough for extensive traveling.
Sadly, Squire passed away in 2015.
Today Howe and White continue touring as Yes with former associates Downes on keys and Billy Sherwood on bass and Davison on vocals.
But Anderson lays claim to the name, too.
“We’re going out as Yes because that’s who we are!” he laughs. “I started the band!”
Sometime before Anderson’s labors with Jean-Luc Ponty (2015’s APB: Better Late Than Never) and Roine Stolt (2016’s Anderson / Stolt: Invention of Knowledge) he reconnected with—and began file-sharing with—the semiretired Wakeman. Then they hooked up with Rabin, who’d gotten on well with Wakeman during Union (but never had a chance to write and record with him).
The three-piece enjoyed a fun, exciting, and acclaimed tour last autumn as ARW. Now the trio is back for more—as Yes (featuring Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman).
“We had a conversation a couple years ago that if you’re going to go out, you should tell people who is in the band,” says Anderson.
“Two or three times a week I get a call asking about our tour with Todd Rundgren. That’s not me, that’s them!" he vents.
"That’s the frustration we’re getting all around. They should know better. Just be straight with people, be honest about it. We don’t want to have to find out from a third party, ‘Hey, Jon, we just want to let you know we’re touring a whole show with all your songs.’ Just be who you are, and we’ll be who we are.”
Fans can hear the original voice of Yes live in concert once again when Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman come to town. There are also rumors swirling around that new album they’ve been toiling over so long.
“For each new album you try and create something revolutionary,” muses Jon.
“Other people can call it ‘prog rock.’ You get this idea associated with you that as a musician you’re prog rock, but we just do the music that reflects who we are.”