On the surface, the current union of Yes would seem to have as much potential for cohesiveness and harmony as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Two years ago, the eight musicians who are currently winding up a four-month tour of Europe and the United States, including a show Tuesday at the Pacific Amphitheatre, were divided into two warring camps, bickering over which one deserved to be called Yes.
The British progressive-rock band had been around since 1968, and each of the eight players involved could claim to have made a substantive contribution to its success and to the Yes style. That style, with its fusion of classical grandeur and rock energy, could be bombastic or sleep-inducing on a bad day, but display daring reach on a good one. Most of the good days came in 1971-72, when Yes released its three definitive albums: “The Yes Album,” “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge.”
Singer Jon Anderson, drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Rick Wakeman and guitarist Steve Howe lost out in the name-grab derby and recorded and toured together in 1989 under their surnames. Tony Kaye (keyboards), Alan White (drums), Chris Squire (bass) and Trevor Rabin (guitar) carried on as the official Yes.
Then the right offer came along, and all concerned said yes to a mutual tour and to the idea of folding their two independent albums into one Yes release, dubbed “Union.”
As current events in Eastern Europe demonstrate, you can call an entity a union, but making it function as one--at least without certain Stalinist techniques of persuasion--can be a difficult proposition.
Speaking over the phone recently from a tour stop in Detroit, Steve Howe readily acknowledged that he had misgivings. Besides the sheer logistic problems of finding meaningful work for eight players on songs originally composed for five, Howe said, there were old personal divisions to overcome.
“Some of us had got tired of each other’s antics or egotism or blaseness--all sorts of things,” said Howe, who spent most of the ‘80s away from Yes while he played with a couple of progressive-rock super groups, Asia and GTR. “Differences in lifestyle, arguments and disagreements seemed very important in the ‘70s. Now there are a few times when argumentativeness erupts, and some of the old hatchets come out. But we’ve kept that to a minimum. It has been a very musically and socially agreeable tour, to the greater extent. Sometimes I get moody, but (more often) I’ve been able to put the active, fun-seeking Steve Howe into it.”
During each show, Howe leaves the stage during “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” The song, Yes’s only No. 1 single, was recorded by the 1980s lineup that featured Rabin on guitar.
Not one to hold back his opinions, Howe said he isn’t a fan of the ‘80s-vintage Yes, although he understands its place in the tour’s overall band retrospective (a recorded, boxed-set retrospective, dubbed “Yesyears,” is due out Tuesday).
“I saw them on video. They played ‘Starship Trooper’ (from ‘The Yes Album’), and took the song and almost hammered it into the ground. I almost lost touch with it, because of its sense of scale. It was all big, big all the time, and it never stopped being big. I would have enjoyed it with a more introverted side of Yes.”
Consequently, Howe said, “I don’t feel I need to be there on ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart.’ It doesn’t represent to me what Yes is. But to them, it’s very much what Yes is. I’d rather give them the stage than do something incidental.”
Howe said that the “Union” album isn’t entirely his idea of Yes, either. What most chagrined him, he said, was producer Jonathan Elias’s decision to bring in an outside guitarist to double or replace Howe’s own guitar parts on several tracks.
“I’d done weeks and weeks of guitar work, which then became negated with some average guitarist, who keeps poking his nose in on my songs,” Howe complained. “Jonathan Elias screwed around with the record, and it sounds like it to me. One of the tracks has my ideas played by somebody else. It’s like having an abortion.
“I should be promoting my records, not telling you how awful they are,” he added with a wry note in his voice.
Asked to comment, Elias said that Jon Anderson, the Yes singer who served as associate producer on “Union,” agreed that outside guitar and keyboard help was needed on certain tracks.
“Jon and I were very let down with some of the parts that (Howe and Wakeman) had given us,” he said. On certain tracks, “We weren’t looking for only the early-'70s pyro technique” provided by Howe and Wakeman. “We wanted something more modern.” Howe’s public criticism, Elias said, “is obviously bruised ego from someone who is a very good guitar player in his own right. When you’re dealing with a virtuoso, any (change) is going to be a problem.”
One way for a musician to ensure artistic control is to make a solo album--which is exactly what Howe has done with the just-released “Turbulence.” The all-instrumental album hews to the sense of awe and grandeur that characterizes Yes, but it keeps the compositions short and features episodic construction that allows for changes in texture and dynamics. Yes-mate Bruford plays drums on most tracks, and former Ultravox member Billy Currie plays the keyboards.
Howe said his admiration for music on a grand scale stems from the late ‘60s, when he began listening to Bach, Vivaldi and other classical composers.
“Classical music gave me this bigness I wanted,” the guitarist said. At the time, Howe was establishing his reputation in his own band, Tomorrow. He said he turned down offers to join the Nice (Keith Emerson’s band before ELP) and Jethro Tull before joining Yes in 1970 as a replacement for the band’s original guitarist, Peter Banks.
By the late ‘70s, the progressive rock-boom had peaked, and Yes was being dismissed by the budding punk and alternative-rock movement as an example of the bloated excess that had to be punctured if rock was going to revitalize itself.
“When (punk) started, it was like a disease coming into music that said, ‘If you play well, you’re wrong,’ ” Howe said. “There was this primal feeling that, ‘We don’t want musicians any more, we want people who play from the heart.’ It hurt. We weren’t playing from the mind and fingers all the time. We did play from the heart.”
(Interestingly enough, Howe and Wakeman both played on “Lou Reed,” the 1972 debut solo album by one of the key precursors of punk and alternative rock.)
After spending the ‘70s with Yes (he released two solo albums on the side during that tenure), then sitting out the band’s comeback in the ‘80s, Howe says that his priorities now are continuing with Yes while establishing a steady solo career as well.
After Yes’s tour ends this week, Howe plans to tour again with his own band, promoting the “Turbulence” album. If Bruford is too busy to join him (the drummer has his own jazz-rock fusion band, Earthworks), Howe said he may hire his eldest son, Dylan, who at 22 is establishing himself as a rock drummer in England.
Howe said that he and Anderson “are having some in-depth discussions about future plans” for Yes. “It would be risky to say much more. Jon and I have a rough idea about what we’d like to do. We’d like to feed it to the other guys.”
Does that mean Yes can continue as an octagon, that rather unwieldy shape for a self-contained rock band? Howe doesn’t rule it out.
“There is a lot of space for argument” when eight players are involved, Howe said. “We could, as they say, be making a bed for ourselves. But we might get something we like. We’re back together, and the best thing we could do is find out what we like to do. It’s the “we-ness” we need, an internal strength.”