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Regrouped Yes dancing on graves of punk detractors

In 1974, as the punk movement gained underground steam in America and caught the ears of disaffected youth in Britain, the band called Yes released Tales From Topographic Oceans. The bloated double LP, an alleged concept album, was rife with supposedly highfalutin' ideas — it began with the lines "Dawn of light lying between a silence and sold sources/ Chased amid fusions of wonder, in moments hardly seen forgotten" — that shifted shape through a stream of compositional movements and instrumental overindulgence. The punks could not have dreamed up a more perfect whipping boy than Tales From Topographic Oceans. Yes vocalist Jon Anderson agrees, more or less, that Yes had gone over the edge. "But if we hadn't done [Tales], we wouldn't be [where we are] today," he says during a recent phone interview. "As I always say, when musicians try something different, they sometimes make it work, sometimes they don't. But at least they try."

Within a few years, Yes' music was considered outmoded, a pompous relic amid the more visceral and street-savvy world of punk rock. Yes, along with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull and others of the ilk were the object of scorn from the Mohawk-and-safety-pins set.

Most rock historians have interpreted punk as a phenomenon that began as an earnest, unvarnished return to rock 'n' roll basics that was then co-opted by a handful of slick moguls and then The Biz in general.

Anderson's take is not too different, although he's loath to give the early punk musicians much credit. "It was a whole business thing," he says. "The record companies weren't making that much off of albums; FM [radio] had fallen apart in America. When the format was gone, people couldn't get played on the radio and sales died. Record companies moved on to greener pastures. They figured they could make money off the punk movement. It became a big, big sell. Yes became not a good sell. We were suddenly labeled dinosaurs. But we got on stage and never gave up. We said, 'We'll take you all on, we don't care,' and we survived."

You might say Anderson and his mates — keyboardist Rick Wakeman, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White — are enjoying the last laugh. As Yes rambles through the U.S. playing arenas, can we name any '70s punks currently riding high? Elvis Costello's a stretch, and so is Sting (besides, his music these days sounds closer to Yes than punk).

Yes has also enjoyed a measure of revisionist history, due to an ambitious slate of Rhino reissues in the last year and a few critics willing to say that, no, "Roundabout" is not intrinsically inferior to "God Save the Queen."

It looks as if Anderson enjoys this little shot of redemption. "There seems to be an agreement that the band stayed the course and now deserves to be recognized," he says.

Such recognition is paying off. Even five years ago, only a fool would've predicted that Yes would play 15,000-20,000-seat venues in 2004. The group seems determined to deliver a spectacle. They enlisted Roger Dean, the artist who created their otherworldly album art in the '70s, to concoct an opulent stage set that Anderson says cost a million bucks.

Such extravagance harks back to a time when Wakeman would stroll onstage to his keyboards through a tunnel made of lights, quite a spectacular feat in the early/mid '70s. (As a college student in upstate N.Y. at the time, I saw Yes but never The Ramones.)

Another reason for Yes' resurgence is the current lineup, now three years in, which many consider the best combination of musicians in the band's 35-year career. That's saying something, because over its history, the band's personnel has been about as stable as Keystone cops on too much Cuban coffee. Even Anderson, whose angelic lead singing is as much a signature of the Yes sound as anything, says he has quit the band twice. He says most of the departures resulted from disagreements over the group's musical direction.

You'd think that these days being a member of Yes would be more or less smooth sailing — grown men going about the business of traveling and making music.

Anderson chuckles at the notion. "It never changes, actually," he says. "Sometimes we're like a family; most of the time we're very tight, very together, but sometimes we get sick and tired of each other. When Rick came back, it was like he was looking crazier and talking crazier than ever — but man could he play the keys better than ever. I guess we're all a bit crazier after all these years, but when we make music, it's this totally beautiful dance."

Contact Senior Writer Eric Snider at 813-248-8888, ext. 114, or [email protected].

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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