I was undecided if and where Yes should appear in this list. I clearly didn’t get the memo that punk was supposed to have swept away everything that came before and in my early to mid teens I returned to my brother’s record collection, and began building on, and branching from, his taste by buying albums of my own.
There were other acts of broadly the same time period and genre that might be less potentially cringeworthy to name here. For example The Strawbs were less pompous and more politically aware, while Jethro Tull had a wild-eyed strangeness that arguably has a more direct line to things I came to enjoy later. Quite why Yes were my prog outfit of choice, I’m not sure. I don’t think there is any time or place that they can have been regarded as cool. Okay: maybe that’s why.
Moving from mixed comprehensive to school to a boy’s grammar that was lost in time, just as pimply testosterone awkwardness kicked in may have had something to do with it. “I was into Yes when I was your age,” Charlie Tickner, our Biology teacher admitted when he saw the Roger Dean designed Yes logo meticulously graffitied on my exercise book. I read Tolkien and the Runestaff books of Michael Moorcock (but never made what might have been more credible leap from there to Hawkwind) and copied the style of Jon Anderson’s fey and faux fabula in my English lesson compositions for Boggy Morton, and copying the fantasy art style of Roger Dean (cf. a recent post) in art lessons and at the home of my friend Jonas who had an actual airbrush!. My brother only had a few Yes albums, but I spent my pocket money buying up the rest, mainly from John Phillip’s in Skipton, and I remember getting ‘Close to the Edge’ from a record shop on the edge of a market square somewhere (maybe Kendal?) on a day-trip somewhere with mum and dad. The inner sleeve had the lyrics reproduced and my own handwriting changed overnight as I copied Roger Dean’s style, and from then on for years would always write with a narrow calligraphic nabbed fountain pen and write my d’s with a curved rightward flick from the ascender.
By the time I really got into them, Yes had already disbanded (though they would later reform in various configurations I have had little interest in (if a band employs the singer of a tribute band to replace their singer, are they the same band or have they become their own tribute act? It’s a conundrum to make the Thesuss’s ship problem seem simple), and I felt a sense almost as palpable as grief that I’d been born too late to see them live. I remember my brother going to see them on the ‘Drama’ tour when Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had been improbably replaced by The Buggles, and although I sensed that line-up was not really the Yes I loved, I still felt a crushing envy that he’d seen many of their best songs played live.
It was post-punk indie music and its culture, spearheaded by John Peel on late night Radio 1, rather than punk itself that saw off, for a time, my love of Yes (or anything vaguely in the same generic ball-park), but as I got older and the importance of musical tribalism ebbed, and broadcasters I respected such as Fiona Talkington on Radio 3 and Stuart Maconie on 6 Music rehabilitated prog in general and Yes in particular as having a valid place in a musical history that no longer needed a year zero, I was able to return to Yes and to some of the bands they had led me to (I have a particular soft spot for Caravan’s ‘In the Land of Grey and Pink’, bought in Cardiff one teenage summer when I was staying with my sister, Jill), and to discover some of the interesting prog tentacles I was only dimly aware of at the time, perhaps from listening in the bath to Tommy Vance’s ‘Friday Rock’ show: such as Goblin, Van Der Graaf Generator, King Crimson, and the whole Krautrock scene in both its ‘space-rock’, electronic and motorik forms: Faust, Amon Duul, Can, Neu!, Tangerine Dream. I can also see something of a connection between the long form intricacy of Yes’s classic prog and much ‘post-rock’ that I came to adore, and the fragility of Jon Anderson’s strained high register vocals finds an echo for me in some of my favourite vocalists of more recent times: Jonsi of Sigur Ros, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and Jonathan Higgs of Everything Everything (although I’m not very musically literate, the ‘art rock’ characterised by the latter seems to be a fairly direct successor of prog with its intricate musicianship and and shifts of tempo and key.)
What I regard as the ‘classic’ Yes line-up toured for the band’s 35th anniversary in 2004 and fortunately my good friend (and, in large measure, musical mentor) Donald had followed a similar musical path to me, so we bought tickets. It ended up coinciding with a scout camp that my son Edward was due to attend, and so that I didn’t have to make the choice between them, Donald drove down to pick me up at the camp, I left Ed with other parents that I knew for the evening, and over two decades after I’d forlornly thought my dream of seeing Yes was over, I got to see them in their native habitat of a packed arena, complex with bombastic Roger Dean designed staging, before Donald drove me back through the night to a dark tent and a sleeping six-year old in the small hours of the morning. Yes’s setlist that night had three songs from ‘Fragile’ – the most from any single album – and that seems to be the best representative of their output for me, still carrying echoes of the psychedelia in which the band were formed, before they had developed the full-on pretentiousness that makes them easy to laugh-off, so that’s the album cover (Roger Dean, of course, his first for the band) you see below. Nevertheless, I will still defend ‘Tales from Topograpic Oceans’ until, well, until I admit within seconds that it’s a pile of ridiculous pompous overblown bollocks. But I still love it.