Yes in 2016: We Exist Through This Strange Disguise
Over the past 48 years, Yes has had many lineups and members. In fact, no lineup has survived more than two consecutive albums. So, shuffling the lineup is nothing new for the band, but something seemed to change in 2015 with the passing of Yes founder Chris Squire (I wrote extensively about his passing here). At the moment, Yes, in 2016, consists of guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Geoff Downes, vocalist Jon Davison, bass player Billy Sherwood, and drummer Jay Schellen (drummer Alan White is technically still in the band but is convalescing from back surgery and is supposed to return to the band once he recovers. Schellen is filling in for him for the time being). The loss of Squire was huge and pushed Yes into uncharted territory and, now, if it did not with the loss of Squire, with the (allegedly temporary) loss of Alan White, the band has now truly entered into an existential crisis (Howe has indicated in a recent interview that White will “take a while” to recover, which does not bode well for his return any time soon, if at all, see here).
Now, many Yes fans cannot seem to recognize the reality that Yes2016 is a Yes unlike what has ever come before, and that it represents an existential crisis for the band. Indeed, a perusal of any Yes Faceboook group reveals many Yes fans are in denial about Yes’s 2016 lineup, and vociferously so, with many proclaiming that Yes2016 is like any other lineup Yes has ever had, and pointing out that that is clearly not the case means one is not a “true” fan or some such nonsense.
Maybe being from Philadelphia, and being a fairly typical Philadelphia sports fan (see here and here), I am able to bridge the gap between recognizing the crisis Yes is struggling through while enjoying and being a fan of the band simultaneously. Philadelphia Phillie, and greatest third basemen of all time, Mike Schmidt once said “Philadelphia is the only city where you can experience the thrill of victory and the agony of reading about it the next day.” My wife once quipped that the Philadelphia Eagles often have such a great road record because they get heckled less on the road as compared to at home. In short, Philadelphia fans fill the seats and watch the games with utmost love and loyalty while relentlessly booing and criticizing their teams at the same time. As a Philadelphia Yes fan, I have not missed a show in 22 years, and I ravenously buy up whatever they release (and then some), but that does not provide me any conflict with recognizing the negatives in the band.
It is my observation that bands seem to come in three types. The first is the small group of friends who get together to form a band and stay together for a long time so that those guys become identical with the band. I am thinking of ELP, Rush, ZZ Topp, the Beatles, and Led Zeppelin. The second type is a band controlled by one guy (or so), and that guy, regardless of anyone else, becomes identical with the band. For example, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Porcupine Tree, and King Crimson basically function as the project of one member regardless of whomever else is in the band. The third type is a band with a shifting lineup that cannot seem to settle on a guy or guys that truly represent the band over all the others. Savoy Brown, Uriah Heep, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and, relevant to this post, Yes are like that. This third type is much harder to define and discern, ontologically, just what makes the band what it is. The first type is easy: the band is who it more-or-less always has been and if it loses one or more of those guys, it is no longer the band. The second type is even easier: is the “leader” in the band? If so, it is the band, if not, then it is not the band.
The third type requires additional work. One needs to discern and figure out just what the essential elements of the band are, and whether a particular iteration of the band has those elements. It is not particularly obvious, especially not with a band like Yes, where it can exist along side a band like ABWH: in 1989 Yes was paving its future with two founders and its most recent lineup while, simultaneously, ABWH also had two founders and two classic members, and played traditional Yes music. Which is, ontologically/existentially speaking, Yes? What makes Yes, well, Yes? Is it the music? The members? The vision? It is not an easy question, and the mere legal entity with the right to use the name really does not answer the greater and more ontological, spiritual, existential, and/or philosophical question as to what makes the band what it is.
Despite having the reputation for having a rotating lineup, Yes’ personnel is actually a lot more stable than people like to admit. Yes formed in 1968. Chris Squire, a Yes founder, was in the band continuously until his untimely death in summer 2015 (see here). He founded the band with vocalist Jon Anderson in 1968. Howe joined in 1970, which first formed the core of Squire, Anderson, and Howe. In 1972 that core expanded to include drummer Alan White when he replaced drummer Bill Bruford. From 1972 to 2015 there has never been a Yes (leaving the technical and arguable issues of ABWH aside) without at least three of these men in the lineup, and all four have been in Yes from 1972 – 1979, 1991 – 1992, and 1996 – 2008.
In the context of Yes’ “core,” Squire’s departure was a huge step into the unknown for Yes. I did not realize just how huge until recently when I just happened to watch old footage of Yes’s television appearances in 1968 through 1970 (see here). The Yes in those videos was its original line up which consisted of Anderson, Squire, Bill Bruford, Peter Banks (guitar), and Tony Kaye (keyboards). After watching this video I realized that it is now possible, for the very first time in Yes history, to watch or listen to a Yes lineup (or indeed even ABWH) that contains no current Yes members. This is perhaps why Squire’s loss has hit me so much harder than Anderson’s departure from the band in 2008. At least with the loss of Anderson, the core still retained three of them (as it did without Anderson during the Drama era or the post-Big Generator era for example). Now the core is reduced to two (assuming White remains) and, in a five man band, can two really be considered “a core,” especially since neither, either together or separate, can lay claim to every era of Yes? For the very first time in Yes’ history, its lineup has lost all continuity with its origin.
It gets worse. Yes2016 has doubled down on the reduction of the core. White is out of the band, allegedly temporarily, for back surgery, being replaced by Asia/Conspiracy/Circa alumnus Jay Schellen. Now, the band’s core is reduced to just Howe, and that reduction has left a band which has almost no connection to the Yes of 2008-2011 (Howe alone is connects the two) let alone the founding lineup. The band has had eighty-percent turn over in just over five years; that is how unstable this band is! Yes has always had a rotating lineup, but it has never been this unstable. Three times in Yes history it lost/replaced two of its five members at the same time, and in one of those three times the replacements were former members. Yes has never lost three, let alone four, members so quickly (and produced so little to boot)! In the current line up (with Schellen), there are currently no founders, one guy from the 1970s (Yes’ defining era and the one that people care about), no one from YesWest (the nickname for the guitarist Trevor Rabin led resurgent Yes of the 1980s), two guys in the band have a total of 1 Yes album between them (namely 2014’s Heaven & Earth which fans pan), three of the guys have only three Yes albums between them (fans pan two of them (Heaven & Earth and Open Your Eyes) and one is obscure (The Ladder from 1999)), only one guy in common with a line up from only five years ago (Howe), four guys have only five Yes albums between them (none are classic (four are from 1997 onward when the band was nearly thirty years old (and almost 20 years after the classic era) and already considered dinosaurs (Open Your Eyes, The Ladder, Fly From Here, Heaven & Earth)), while the remaining one, Drama, under performed when it came out, was forgotten by the band for twenty-eight years, and was from an era less than one year long), only three current members have recorded together as Yes at the same time, and they’ve played virtually nothing new since 2012. Indeed, from 1969 until 2008 Yes has never toured a lineup that did not also release an album, but Yes2016 is third Yes lineup since 2011 with no album to its name. Yes2016 has no members from the 1960s, one member from the 1970s (the era that defined the band), one guy from 1980, none from the 1980s (the era when the band had a resurgence), one guy from 1997, one from 2014, and one from 2016. Clearly, Yes2016 is unprecedented in its near total lack of connection to Yes history, and it’s claim to the name on grounds that are other than legal or by intertia is extremely tenuous.
So, what conclusions should be reached about Yes2016? Well, it clearly has the legal right to the name. No one denies that. It also is the band that has inherited the name through the inertia of history, but are legality and inertia enough to, spiritually/philosophically/existentially/ontologically make Yes2016 actually Yes?
Well, if personnel was the standard, it really is impossible to say Yes2016 is “spiritually (etc)” Yes. Even with White still in the band, the lineup had been so watered down and disconnected it is really impossible to say that Yes2015 (Howe, White, Davison, Downes, Sherwood) is Yes judging solely on its lineup let alone, as even White’s addition still leaves the band with no original members, YesWest with only one guy remaining, and the big three albums (The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge) with one only guy remaining; can two out of five really be considered the same band? Ironically, Yes2016 has more in common with Asia than Yes as three of the members of Yes2016 have been in Asia and have strong connections to that band (and, in the case of Downes and Schellen, they have stronger connections to Asia than Yes).
What about the concerts? Well this cuts both ways. On one hand, Yes2016 is playing the music at a level unseen in Yes since at least 2004. Unfortunately, reintroducing White to the band will lower its quality at this point as he is getting too old to play at the level required by Yes. This is not a criticism – people get old! – just an observation (as an aside, I hope Yes moves to two drummers if/when White returns ala The Moody Blues). So, sound wise, Yes2016 is reestablishing and maintaining the quality virtuoso playing fans have come to expect from Yes. In the alternative, the set lists Yes has played since its reunion in 2008 have been focused on “classic” material. I give the band a pass for the years 2008 – 2011 as they were getting back on track after a four year hiatus and trying to right the ship after Anderson’s departure. 2011 – 2012 were good years for the set list as it had a lot of new material. Unfortunately, since 2012, the set list has almost exclusively featured music from the 1970 – 1980 era (aside from that, they only play “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from the 1980s occasionally, in 2014 they played three songs from Heaven & Earth (and only two songs per show), and “Nine Voices” from 1999 has been played three or four times total since Sherwood rejoined in June 2015). So, as far as set lists showing a band looking to the future and trying new things and being on the front lines of innovation, Yes’s recent set lists are a huge disappointment. Instead, the set lists reflect a band reveling in nostalgia and enjoying its back catalogue from its golden era. Now, there really is nothing wrong with that, but that is not, historically, how Yes has functioned. Yes has always been creative and pushing boundaries, and not backward looking relying on old material and old glories. The band’s sets over the last four years are those heavy on exploring and celebrating its legacy as opposed to being a continuing creative force, and that is a change for Yes. This would not really cause an existential crisis if Yes’s core remained (it may show the band becoming a nostalgia act – which is another issue – but it would still be the band), but this focus on the past is especially jarring when one realizes that virtually no one in the band originally recorded and toured the music it is now playing. A band playing music few to none of its members wrote or recorded is typically called a tribute band. Set lists featuring music from The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge contain music recorded and toured by only one member of Yes, and, awkwardly, the inclusion of “Time and a Word” (or even “Owner of a Lonely Heart” at this point) is to include a song no one in the band recorded. Only the recent addition of Drama to the set list provides music that three of the current members played originally (when White was in the band at least that is. Now that he is out (for now) only two members can claim music from Drama). Two members is the maximum number of members who originally recorded together on any given song for Yes2016. This issue also touches on the above issue, that Yes2016 has extremely thin connection to Yes history: they cannot come up with a set list that features more than two members right now! So, based on the set lists, it is difficult to say that they reflect the spirit and tradition of Yes of pushing boundaries and looking to the future. Instead, they reveal a band that show a band living in nostalgia and off of an amazing legacy.
So, is Yes2016 actually – spiritually/ontologically/(etc) – really, Yes? Well, it all depends on how the future unfolds. As it stands now, I reluctantly and sadly say, no it is not. The membership of Yes2016 is too disconnected to Yes history. It’s set lists are too orientated toward nostalgia. Now, this does not mean that one cannot enjoy Yes2016 or that its shows are bad or anything of the sort. I thought the show I saw on July 31, 2106 (see here) was fantastic and I have loved hearing the classics, especially those I have never heard live before. Yes2016 is an amazing testament to Yes and its legacy and more than does justice to Yes and its music. It is the ultimate tribute group and it is truly respectful to both the music and the fans. I love seeing them and I hope to continue to see and enjoy them for as long as they perform. Yes2016 would be a great way for the band to play out its final years as a worthy tribute to nearly fifty years of the best of progressive rock.
Alternatively, Yes could turn a corner. It could be argued that the “essence” of Yes is more than its mere members and is able to be passed on from one generation to another. If so, then the disconnection of the current lineup from Yes history is not as determinative as I suggest above. I am more than open to this idea. As it stands now, Sherwood is the personally selected (and, in my mind, natural) successor to Squire. Davison was chosen by Howe and Squire to replace Anderson, and Davison is an amazing musician, singer, and song writer who embodies the spirituality introduced to Yes by Anderson. Squire and classic keyboardist Rick Wakeman have often spoken of their hope that Yes becomes like an orchestra where its “essence” transcends its members and can continue on for generations to come (for example, see here). If the traditional members of Yes give the newer guys their blessing and imprimatur, and the new members fully embrace the creative, innovative, forward thinking progressive philosophy that Yes historically has had, then Yes2016 (and what could follow it) could reasonably, legitimately, and credibly claim the Yes name. Yes2016 (and what could follow it), if it was to be the legitimate heir to the Yes name, must establish itself as a creative force. It must make new music and feature that music, that music must be in the spirit respectful of the Yes heritage, and this new music must be the focus in its shows as it paves the way for the future and continued development of the band and its music. Without new music, a band calling itself Yes into the future will be nothing more than an authorized tribute act playing old music which its members did not write or record and thus with which have no connection.
So, time will tell and the future could be the graceful sending off of an historically great band, or it could be the turning of the page into a new era of great progressive rock in the Yes tradition.
As an aside, Anderson-Rabin-Wakeman (“ARW”) will be debuting soon and how that band relates to Yes and its history remains to be seen; ARW may be the true successor to Yes, or, in the alternative, they may just be touring and playing as a tribute to their collective pasts. It remains to be seen. ARW has a founder, the most important keyboardist in Yes history (Rick Wakeman), and the leader of their 1980s resurgence (Trevor Rabin) as members. So, from personnel alone, they have just as strong of a claim to the name as Yes2016 does. I am seeing ARW on October 16, 2016 and I will communicate my thoughts on them in this blog after the show. Ideally, I hope they can, sometime soon, merge with Yes as ABWH merged with Yes back in 1990 or so (see here).
So, for now, as Asia once said, “Only Time Will Tell.”
Long live Yes!
(The title of this post is taken from the lyrics of the Yessong “Big Generator.”)