November 2022

The Majesty of Yes

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

            In and around the lake
            Mountains come out of the sky
            They stand there . . .
            —from "Roundabout" by Yes

I clearly remember the first time I heard the music of Yes. Let me re-phrase that more aptly: "I still remember . . . the dream there."

On a gray fall day in 1977 in Woodside, Queens after school in 5th grade, I went over to my friend Jimmy Duff's house to play pool. Like many Irish-American families, the Duff clan was big. Jimmy had several siblings, including an older brother with a record collection. The pool table, stereo, and LPs all resided in an unfinished basement, a ramshackle playroom.

Jimmy went over to the stereo, selected an album, and dropped the needle on Side One. He said it was a record his older brother liked. It was called Fragile. The group was . . . Yes.

Yes? What a curious name for a band.


As Jimmy racked the billiard balls, that uncanny introductory note of "Roundabout" rose in volume to its abrupt stop. I didn't know that what I heard was two E minor chords struck on a piano, recorded, then played backwards. Whatever its origin, it grabbed my attention. Then came elegant Classical -inflected acoustic guitar before another backwards piano chord (a C major, as a matter of fact) leading into more exquisitely deft fretwork.

And then the song really let loose! Its rich textures, its irresistible foot-stomping melody—all of it washed over me like a mastering wave. And what produced those delicious rumbling notes? Ah, bass! Yes was the first band that made me aware of the bass guitar as an instrument of both melody and percussion.

It was a revelation! And the song was a journey, eight and a half minutes, to be exact. Who were these guys?

"These guys" were the best musicians qua musicians Rock has ever produced, all deserving of the title virtuoso: bassist Chris Squire; guitarist Steve Howe; drummer Bill Bruford; and the flamboyant pianist, organist, and keyboard player Rick Wakeman. Lineups varied over the years. Bill Bruford, the original drummer, brought a delightfully syncopated Jazz style to such iconic LPs as The Yes Album, Fragile, and Close to the Edge. Then Alan White, a titan (check out his résumé of "extracurricular" drum gigs some time), drove the beat for the remainder of the group's run. For me, Wakeman is the Yes keyboardist, but Patrick Moraz brought his formidable skills to what on any given day is my favorite Yes album, Relayer.

And at the heart of the band, the angelic-voiced lead vocalist (a self-described alto tenor, he did not, as many thought, sing falsetto) and lyricist Jon Anderson.

* * * * *

I could write a tome on the majesty of Yes. They gave us a mountain range of Himalayan heights: The Yes Album and Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Relayer (1974), and Going for the One (1977). To me, those five records contain the pinnacles of their achievement, astounding examples of the ambition of their artistic endeavor!

Yes generates so much sonic interest and joy. Their music is deeply salutary to germinating minds, so pleasurable to seasoned ones. Yes is the best possible nutrition you can put in young, growing ears; it is abiding nourishment for a lifetime's listening. Take "Siberian Khatru" on Close to the Edge—damn!that song is like wild-caught salmon, sautéed leafy greens, and a glass of purest spring water. A sitar solo leads into a harpsichord solo followed by a dreamy pedal steel solo? Are you kidding me!

And Yes could all-out rock with the very best of them. Listen to their cover of Simon & Garfunkel's "America" on the compilation LP Yesterdays and you'll hear as pure a jam as was ever recorded (and one very reminiscent of The Grateful Dead or The Allman Brothers Band.) Another "how to rock" lesson from the same era is when the boys let loose on "I've Seen All Good People" on The Yes Album.

It's not their Everest or K-2, but if I had to choose one song that perfectly captures the majesty of Yes—if I could use a colossal radio telescope to transmit just one of their songs to a distant galaxy—it would be "Roundabout." (And can you imagine how happy those aliens would be when they hear it a million years from now?)

"Roundabout" contains all the signature elements of a great Yes song, all the hallmarks of their joyfully ambitious enterprise:

            Blending of the Baroque and the Funky
            Abstraction of Lyric
            Journey-evoking Length
            Quiet Time
            Full-on Jam
            Structural Symmetry (a start and elegant ending Bach would've
            admired. Or Brahms.)

And as Jon Anderson said in an interview: "I think Chris came up with the best bass line ever." Ah, bass!

Another book could (and should!) be written about Jon Anderson's poetics. I could cite so many curious, memorable phrasings, so much verbal interest generated by that man. He brings such joyful abstraction to Rock lyrics. His approach liberates: he isn't bound by syntax or conjugation, he's not wedded to strict sense-making. Like some of the great Modernist poets—particularly Wallace Stevens—he revels in words' textures as much as their meanings, the sounds of words for their own sake. To keep with my exemplar, consider some of the words to "Roundabout":

    I'll be the roundabout
    The words will make you out and out
    I'll spend the day your way
    Call it morning driving through the sound and
    Even in the valley
    I will remember you,
    Your silhouette will charge the view
    Of distant atmosphere
    Call it morning driving through the sound and
    Even in the valley

     * * * *
    Along the drifting cloud the eagle searching
    Down on the land
    Catching the swirling wind the sailor sees
    The rim of the land
    The eagles dancing wings create as weather
    Spins out of hand
    Go closer hold the land feel partly no more
    Than grains of sand
    We stand to lose all time a thousand answers
    By in our hands
    Next to your deeper fears we stand
    Surrounded by a million years.

* * * * *
A quick note: to dismiss Yes is a failure of the imagination, plain and simple. If Yes defies easy taxonomy that's no shortcoming of theirs. There are more things in heaven and Earth, frumpy naysayers, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Would you criticize a stallion for not being a cheetah? Who takes umbrage with an eagle because it doesn't swim?

When I was in high school and college, my friends and I would occasionally hold what we called a Yes Vigil. One of the guys in our group, Jason, was a serious audiophile with a stereo he'd been methodically upgrading for years, a collection of rarefied components which you'll only see advertised in The Absolute Sound magazine. We'd all find a comfortable spot in his room for the auditory journey. On his SOTA Sapphire turntable, Jason would cue up "Close to the Edge" or, purest of all Yes Vigil songs, "Awaken" and then plunge us all into darkness. It was a long way off from Jimmy Duff's basement. And a logical progression. I could write a tome about the majesty of Yes, but better yet, I've just kept on listening to this first-order Rock group. Sometimes I still can't believe just how fresh, how vibrant, how joyful, and how utterly amazing they sound!


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet. After college, he served four years on active duty as an infantry officer in the 25th Infantry Division. He also holds a Master of Philosophy degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Ireland's University of Dublin, Trinity College. His poems and freelance articles have appeared in numerous journals and newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.


©2022 Patrick Walsh
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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