Here’s a clip of British prog behemoths Yes performing one of my favourite tracks from 1971’s The Yes Album, “Your Move’, which is actually one of the movements from the longer piece as listed on the record, “I’ve Seen All Good People”. In addition, the group works in the Steve Howe classical guitar showcase ‘Mood For A Day’, as well as an acoustic rendition of the band’s FM radio staple hit ‘Long Distance Runaround’.
The Yes album was a make-or-break record for this group, who were seeking to expand their sound from the single-driven pop music they had been making on their first album into a form that was more musically ambitious. In forming the band in 1968, Bassist and vocalist Chris Squire and lead vocalist and lyricist Jon Anderson were interested in the catchiness of beat music which had preceded them, having both served in local beat groups. Yet, they also wanted to work in the harmonies they were hearing in Simon & Garfunkel, as well as the lilting melodies of traditional British folk music.
By the time they got guitarist Steve Howe into the group in 1971 for this album, they had even more musical scope from which to draw, with Howe bringing in jazz and bluegrass textures to add to the mix. They were able to move beyond the standard song-by-song approach on their debut album, and create longer pieces that were more like movements in a classical piece.
Yes had hit their stride at just the right time. The market for this music was shifting. The teen rock audience was growing up, and the time was ripe to give what many considered to be greater depth to rock. This meant more complicated arrangements, grand lyrical themes, and virtuoso playing, all of which Yes had been pursuing. By the following year, they’d recruited keyboard wunderkind Rick Wakeman (David Bowie, The Strawbs), who expanded their compositional potential to an even greater degree, helping them to create their two most admired albums in Close to the Edge and Fragile. Yes certainly embodied all that was good in prog rock, sticking to their stylistic guns late into the decade even when their peers changed their sound to suit the changing times (Genesis), or withered away entirely (Emerson, Lake & Palmer).
By the 80s of course, they’d adapted too, with membership in the band shifting as much as the group’s style was. Their biggest hit to date is 1983’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, which had been released after Howe and Wakeman had long departed, and when the group had returned to a more single-driven rock sound. Yet, today, the band are centered around the sound of their early 70s period, with a rotating membership which includes both Howe and Wakeman, with many other past members also making appearances with the group. Classic prog may no longer be as ubiquitous as it once was. But, audiences new and old are still discovering it.
Of course even when prog roamed the earth in its heyday, there were a lot of rock fans who still wanted to dance around and break things rather than ruminate on weighty lyrics and shifting time signatures. This gave rise to other tributaries of rock music, which eventually led to pub rock, power pop, and punk scenes. As such, the 70s was a decade where a being rock and roll fan was no longer about being under a common banner. Rock journo Lester Bangs said “We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis”. Maybe the seeds were planted before hand. Yet, the advent of prog rock is a pretty striking example of ‘you either love it, or you don’t’, and the definition of rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same.
For more music, check out the Jon Anderson MySpace page, which also posts Yes info and tour dates.