Listen to this track by top-of-the-heap prog rock players Yes. It’s “And You And I”, a track that served as a single in a radio-edited form, and heard in its full form on their 1972 record Close To The Edge. That record is the last in a trio of key albums that would define their peak period, kicked off by The Yes Album, with Fragile in the middle.
These records feature what is widely acknowledged as the classic line-up of Yes; Jon Anderson singing, Rick Wakeman on keyboards, Steve Howe on guitars, Chris Squire on bass, and Bill Bruford on drums. It was this configuration that enabled them to connect smaller musical ideas into larger and more involved extended pieces for which they became known. This song is certainly one of those, which to this day is among the core tunes on set lists.
As popular as this piece is, a lot of the discussion around it is on what it’s actually about. Is it a love song? Is it a spiritual homily? Is it what the band (inexplicably) called it, a protest song?
When songs are ten minutes long, they sort of beg to be dissected, especially with lyrics like this. Maybe singer and chief lyricist Jon Anderson had a story in mind when he wrote the words to this song. But, I get the impression that he was more interested in language and its ability to suggest narratives when arranged in the right combination, rather than in the construction of definitive narratives themselves. It’s a subtle difference. I think too that the music is vitally connected to the overall effect of what the lyrics suggest. The space-rock feel of Wakeman’s keyboards, Steve Howe’s earthy and pastoral 12-string acoustic folk lines and natural harmonics, Anderson’s lofty delivery, and Bruford and Squire’s bombastic and brawny accents on drums and bass guitar respectively all help to establish the emotive background that colours our perspectives on what the song is about, just like a movie soundtrack does. That’s where this tune wins, and certainly why it has impact on listeners looking for some kind of thematic payoff. But, what is that payoff?
Well, there are shades of a love song here, for certain. “And you and I called over the valleys of endless seas” and other lines are distinctly romantic. But, that’s because the language is romantic behind romantic musical effects that spring from melody and texture. There’s no specific love story with characters being romantic at the center of it in this song. Preachers that are “nailed to the coloured door of time” is distinctly religious and mystical in its imagery. But, there’s no spiritual parable or lesson to really be found beyond it. Its the use of language that suggests this idea of a seeker’s quest, rather than a narrative that clearly defines one. Maybe this indeterminate nature of the song is the opposite of a lyrical and thematic payoff to a lot of people. To me, this lack of exact narrative or message makes this tune more powerful, not less.
It’s been said that Yes and their prog rock ilk are the reasons that punk had to happen. Punk is direct, and deliberately involves its audience in the music by reflecting commonly understood ideas. But, in their own way, Yes does the same on this song. Archetypes and quest-myths are common to human experience, too. With this song, we imprint our perceptions on what we’re hearing and write an epic tale for ourselves as we listen whether its a love story, spiritual quest, or something entirely beyond either of those. Writing songs with language that evokes feelings and imagery rather than strict linear narratives is an important strain of songwriting that endures to this day, inside of prog rock and without. It allows room for us to imprint our own meaning onto it. Yes did something that is vital to all art in this respect; they made room for the imaginations of their listeners.
Yes is an active unit today, with classic member Steve Howe still an important element to their more recent work. Sadly, they recently mourned the loss of bassist Chris Squire, co-founder and sole member of Yes who appeared on every Yes studio album. You can explore the rich history of the band and its many incarnations over the years by visiting yesworld.com.
And for more insight into Jon Anderson and his influences and approach to lyric-writing, among other things, this article from The Guardian from 2003 is a good starting point.
Also, this year Yes have been nominated for induction into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame 2016. Along with other worthy nominees, you can vote for Yes right here.