Why Yes are still the funniest rock band in the world (although Radiohead are catching up)

The remaining members look as though they're two or three years from shouting at pedestrians. But they're carrying on

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

11 October 2014

9:00 AM

My favourite comment about the Scottish referendum came from the eminent comedian and novelist David Baddiel. ‘What if Yes wins, but due to a typographical error, the prog-rock band gets in and Jon Anderson becomes First Minister?’ You probably had to be there to find this funny, and in this case ‘there’ is the early 1970s.

Having been there myself, I too remember Yes as the most intrinsically amusing of progressive bands, along with Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Genesis were quite funny in their early days, when Peter Gabriel dressed up as a flower. Pink Floyd weren’t funny, although Roger Waters is. The Beatles aren’t funny any more, but the Rolling Stones are as hilarious as ever. Many prominent 1980s acts — U2, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet — were sidesplitting. Queen were consistently chortlesome, but they knew it and didn’t mind at all. Oasis never had the smallest idea how funny they were, which only made them funnier. Coldplay aren’t funny, although Chris Martin is. Radiohead get funnier and funnier as the years go by. Mumford & Sons show considerable potential in this regard, if not in many others.

Yes Perform At Clyde Auditorium In Glasgow
Steve Howe of Yes Photo: Redferns via Getty

The bizarre thing is, Yes are still going. After 45 years and more line-up changes than the England football team — Rick Wakeman alone has left and rejoined more times than anyone can remember — these grizzled sexagenarians are still touring and, even more miraculously, recording new material. I last wrote about them a decade ago, after discovering their 2001 album Magnification. Wakeman had left again, and instead of finding another keyboard player, the ancient rump of the band (Jon Anderson, vocals; Steve Howe, guitar; Chris Squire, bass; Alan White, drums) recorded their next album with a 60-piece orchestra. It was a revelation. There was too much of it, as there often is. When a Yes song doesn’t work, it takes its time not to work. Whole albums have been known to pass without a single identifiable melody or interesting idea. But on Magnification the band seemed not just refreshed but inspired to write some of their strongest songs in decades. Even some of Jon Anderson’s lyrics made sense.

Nothing kills a career, though, like a terrific album that no one buys. What else can you do? What else do you have to offer? After Magnification stiffed, Yes mounted a slightly desperate 35th anniversary tour (with Wakeman, who had come back again), and then went ‘on hiatus’: they didn’t quite split up, because that would involve accountants. Anderson, their de facto leader, had health problems and didn’t see the point of recording new material if no one wanted to hear it. But the other old geezers sensed that time was running out, so they gave Anderson the boot and recruited a stocky middle-aged Canadian called Benoît David, who among other jobs (possibly involving grouting) sang in a Yes tribute band. Imagine the Bootleg Beatles getting a call from Paul McCartney wondering what they were up to this weekend.

The resulting album, 2011’s Fly From Here, was produced by Trevor Horn, featured his old Buggles chum Geoff Downes on keyboards (replacing Wakeman, who had left again), and was every bit as good as Magnification, although quite different. Indeed, it may be the most texturally varied of all Yes’s albums, full of Horn’s smart production ideas, and almost pop-melodic in places. Many of Yes’s more hardcore fans hated it. I bought it this summer and have played it non-stop.

They are not wearing well, though. Some men, as they age, become huge and slab-like, with vast craggy faces and ears the size of rucksacks. Others seem to shrink into themselves, as though marinated in vinegar. Yes’s remaining members, some huge, some wizened, look as though they are only about two or three years from shouting at pedestrians. But still they go on. This year they released another new album, Heaven & Earth, produced by Roy Thomas Baker and featuring another new singer, and you know what? It’s awful. You listen and wonder: how can they not know? But that’s the charm of the band, and probably the secret to their longevity. They do it because they like doing it, and if other people happen to like it as well, that’s a bonus. And if it all goes pear-shaped on their latest endless US tour, they know that, on the other side of the world, bag packed and ready to go, Rick Wakeman is waiting for the call.

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  • Kitty MLB

    Oh what on earth does that man in the photo look like.. Radiohead or whatever they
    were called hardly Meatloaf. There is nothing worse then an aging rock star…
    the type that still used the word ‘ cool’ after the age of 55 and still demands the attention of younger women.
    ‘ When men age, slab like with craggy faces’ they actually resemble uncooked pastry
    left out on the edge of a mountain range.. and others as you say shrink..
    But there are a few that age like finest claret but they are few and far between.

    • Paul Watson

      Obviously you can’t conceive these men as working musicians, but I’m sure there is enough eye candy out there to keep you sated in the “pop” world, considering your superficial perspective here.

  • Peter Angell

    Kitty, I hope you are as inspirational when you are 65 as Steve Howe is, the man is a guitar great, and to watch him play live is a privilege, and he is as good as ever. In addition he is one of the nicest, humblest person you could meet.

  • Ben Wheeler

    I have read many reviews of this album – it has really split the fan base. This is one of the funnier ones. Yes is a revolving door that may be slowing down but, they are still making music and it’s best judged over time as all music should be. Peter is right about Steve Howe – I have had the pleasant experience of meeting Steve and yes, he was very gracious, modest and an all round nice guy. I wish I could play guitar like him now – let alone at 67.

  • Rob MacDonald

    My wife asked “what the hell happened to Wakeman?, he looks so young!”. the last time she ventured with me to a YES-show a few years back. It was Oliver who not only looks a lot like his dad but whose signature was good enough to trick Rick himself. It was Oliver who was with Benoit David and company. And to be fair to Benoit, he’s not stocky. Trevor would have sung on Fly From Here if he could, but he didn’t so he had David sing like him instead. Want to hear David shine ( and Oliver, too- Live at Lyon c.d. where you can actually hear him the way he should have been mixed at all the shows he did with YES), pick up one of the Mystery albums that he sounds really good on.

  • Keijo Sandvik

    Why do lyrics have to make sense? How many notes are too many? Why does there have to be strictly four beats to the bar? Why does music have to follow a well trodden path and predictable format? Why is it wrong to explore new musical possibilities? Why should you deliberately dumb down your music just because some people just don’t get it? What is an acceptable time to stay with the same musicians? Why can you not return to a band if you feel you have something to contribute? Why do you have to have a hit single? Why should you stop playing just because your face is getting wrinkly or you are losing your hair? What? So, you should give up your passion in life just because someone decides your ageing physical attributes offends them????? So, a musician is not for listening to, but for looking at? Why should we settle for a “Keeping up with the Kardashians” attitude to music?!?!

    Prog rock was born when musicians dared to apply the precept “WHY NOT?!?”. Who sets the rules anyway? Oh yeah – the critics! Humanity’s guiding lights! I forgot.

    Ageing is inevitable folks! If you’re lucky enough to survive the music business into your old age – why not go on playing until you drop?

    • Simon Fay

      Thankfully the matters you raise (in order to shoot them down) no longer have any real purchase compared with the dark ages of the post-Punk years (shudder). Ian Hunter (for example) still gives a great show even at 75 and Prog will continue to have its champions regardless of the overgrown student-union mob.

    • Fenton!

      They have to make a kind of sense of else they are pointless and add nothing to the music. The Bee Gees is a case in point. Barbra Streisand said (complained) that she always thought their lyrics too abstract (for her). What she meant was that they weren’t strictly narrative, telling a story that a child could follow (e.g. I saw his boots under her bed, then we quarrelled, now I’m ‘stuck down in Mexico sick as a dog, living on refried beans’. That’s a real lyric, by the way.) The Bee Gees painted word pictures. But the pictures had to make you believe in what the music as a whole was trying to convey.

      I have just written a song that is allusive rather than narrative — and I like it that way.

      • Keijo Sandvik

        That means that if you do not understand German, you cannot appreciate or enjoy the rousing chorus “Ode To Joy” in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Auld Lang Syne without understanding old Scots (and not Gaelic, as often presumed) or other music sung in a foreign tongue unknown to you, Ella Fitzgerald or Satchmo’s trademark “scatting” or English lyrics such as Blinded By the Light by Bruce Springsteen, any number of songs by Steely Dan, John Lennon’s I Am the Walrus, Come Together, Cry Baby Cry etc etc etc. No matter what lyrics you write, people will interpret things the way they see it – correctly or not. How many times have songwriters been asked what certain songs mean, and even after they were already massive hits?!? The list of well known songs with misunderstood lyrics or nonsensical meaning is huge! As great as Barbra Streisand is, I can appreciate her not wanting to sing about “being sick as a dog” and “refried beans”, but that’s her prerogative. Tom Waits, on the other hand, would probably have no problem here.

        My original point was that I have enjoyed listening to music by Yes for 40+ years without ever getting hung up on what the lyrics mean, or lyrics by any number of other artists for that matter. Many of Yes’ biggest selling albums were full of lyrics that were
        constructed on the way the words sounded, rather than observing the rules of conversational syntax. The lyrics may have had a general meaning, but the attitude was to let voices be an another musical instrument without narrowing the language to the point of limiting the musical direction. They even sold thousands of albums to foreigners who spoke very little or no English at all!!! Tell them they were wrong to enjoy it! I was born in a non-english speaking country. When the Beatles came along, I loved them! I couldn’t understand the lyrics, but I didn’t care!!!! To marginalise certain lyrics as “pointless” is perhaps apropos in your world, but not mine. To me, it’s all just music.

        • Fenton!

          I understand your point entirely and agree (I listen to lots of ‘world’ music whose languages I don’t understand). A lot depends, though, on what the music (or the musician) is trying to do. I write songs because I have something to sing about/say. The saying and singing go together and are usually inseparable. So I would hope that if a listener knew no English, he would enjoy the melody and the sound of the voice. But I would also know that in the case of my songs, he’s missing out on a great deal.

  • Nick Kokoshis

    This may win the award for the most useless article written about Yes, or any band, ever.

    • congratulations. You’ve won the award for the most useless response to a most useless article about YES, or any band, ever, and also a second award for most useless commas in a single sentence. Your prize, the latest YES album Heaven and Earth, will be personally delivered to your door by Steve Howe or a similar aging musician.

      • Keijo Sandvik

        so, if he had nothing to say, you sure had plenty to add…

      • Nick Kokoshis

        I already have, and love, the new album! But Steve Howe can come over to my house for a vegan feast any time at all!!! Magical musicians! Love the new lead singer too!!

  • Fenton!

    Good lord. They’re 205 and living on yak butter in Outer Silesia (wherever that is)!

  • Fenton!

    Why is ageing — insofar as it’s visible deterioration — so ineffably awful? Why can’t be just we wonderful until we peg out? I refuse to age in that fashion. I will fight it every step of the way, like Joan Collins only more naturally and successfully (muscles, eh?).

    It’s really the betrayal of sexual attraction. Imagine a particularly cruel version of ‘This Is Your Life’. See that 20-something you’re in love with, now? We know what he’ll be like 40 years from now, and so will you, when you step in our DrWho Kiosk. See if you still feel like wearing those stockings you’ve got on, once you catch sight of your ‘future’ love.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    “Yes” are a natural Spectator reader’s band (for those who countenance popular music). For a start, British progressive rock defines a generation of public-school, grammar, and more able comprehensive-goers who like a traditional structure to their creation. The band/ Spectator readers match on the good and bad (though it depends what you call bad); intelligent, good technique, a sense of romanticism and the epic, but sometimes indulgent and pompous. Personally, I LIKE my “Yes” indulgent and pompous, as this is better than the lightweight and wet sketches they’ve been producing since “Magnification”.

  • Brian Burns

    They are a MUSICAL band. You focus on their looks, age, and health as if you yourself are immortal. Everyone looks older as they age. Is the point of your blog that you find them unworthy of your sexual attention (because I would highly suspect they don’t really give a damn), or do you have something substantive to say about their music? Make up your mind.

  • Golf56

    So tired of these ‘don’t they look old?’ and ‘aren’t they funny?’ articles. It’s Daily Mail front page stuff. The Spectator seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to writers.

  • John Demarkis

    That was F^#%$ed up article. Heaven & Earth is not terrible either. If one states they don’t like Heaven & Earth then they aren’t listening….