by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1998 Anil Prasad.
Surrealism, symbolism and abstract expressionism are just a few of the tags that drift through one’s mind when exploring the many galleries of San Francisco’s Geary Street art district. All three apply to the work of Roger Dean, the man responsible for most of Yes’ album art throughout the prog-rock group’s 30-year history. His fantasy-driven, kaleidoscopic landscapes featuring "liquid rock," "floating islands," "magnetic storms" and alien architecture are surely some of the most instantly-recognizable pop art of the 20th century.
On this California winter’s day, Dean is hosting a private exhibit for buyers and media types at the San Francisco Art Exchange. The event brings new meaning to "art rock" with its nearly exclusive focus on his Yes visuals. With white hair, black vest, sneakers and a rather distant approach to fan interaction, he reminds one of a more rugged-looking Andy Warhol.
The three dozen people in attendance are well-behaved, yet unafraid to approach the man of the hour. Dean patiently signs their scraps of paper, invitations and Yes CD covers. However, his detached demeanor suggests he’d probably prefer it if attendees were buying one of his Tales From Topographic Oceans or Yes logo serigraphs on hand at $1,450 and $950 a pop, respectively. And for the Yes fan that has everything, the original artwork for the Drama, Yesterdays and Classic Yes albums also hang on the walls with price tags of $130,000 and higher. The less upwardly-mobile can walk away with a Dean doodle or sketch for a mere $750.
Despite the commercial imperative of the gathering, it’s hard to avoid being swept up by the larger-than-life versions of these classic, grandiose album covers. Regardless of whether they strike one as garish or glorious, they cannot be ignored. But after a couple of hours of viewing, boozing and schmoozing with Dean, the assembled crowd has only one question on its mind: "Where’s the band?"
Today’s event was timed to coincide with the arrival of Yes’ Open Your Eyes tour in the San Francisco Bay Area. The band is playing four nights in a row at small theaters, including The Warfield, located only a few blocks away. The tiny crowd has been promised a meet-and-greet with the group and will not be denied. About an hour after its scheduled arrival time, Yes quietly materializes.
The current line-up of vocalist/lyricist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, vocalist/guitarist Billy Sherwood and bassist Chris Squire engages in small talk with the crowd for about ten minutes. Then the cameras start flashing. Quickly, the band assembles in front of a 10-by-9-foot Dean painting in order to provide an ideal photo op. Suddenly, Howe realizes the painting is the cover of the Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe [ABWH] album. The other three members are also thrown for a loop when glancing at the piece. They’re possibly recalling the utter chaos the Yes-splinter band caused when formed in 1989 by a disgruntled Anderson.
ABWH represented a short-lived coup attempt by Anderson to trade in Yes' 1980s pop leanings and line-up for its 1970s, epic, prog-rock sound and membership. Anderson also attempted a hostile takeover of the Yes moniker, but was legally blocked by Squire who was reshaping his own version of the group. ABWH ended up releasing a largely engaging and underrated self-titled album. But a hapless record label and several marketing misfires resulted in less than spectacular sales.
Clearly uncomfortable with the ABWH artwork glaring at him, Howe quips "That's from another era folks!" before the band quickly shuffles off to pose beside a different painting. Upon arriving at the new scenery, he yells out "Aren't we great? Aren't we great?" in relief. Approving cheers greet the rhetorical question.
Political rhetoric is one thing Yes has seen a lot of in recent years. It really went into overdrive when the Yes-ABWH chasm was bridged with 1991’s ill-fated Union album and tour. With the wave of a record company/management magic wand, Union brought together current and ex-members Anderson, Howe, White, drummer Bill Bruford, guitarist/vocalist Trevor Rabin, and keyboardists Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye. The result was a disastrous album that featured patched-together bits and pieces from different band factions, session musicians and outside producers.
Universally panned by the band, fans and media, Union looked like it signaled Yes’ swansong. But another album—1994’s Talk—appeared, after a number of business decisions colluded to jettison Bruford, Wakeman and Howe. To say Talk was poorly received is a dramatic understatement. With dwindling sales, half-filled arenas, and apathy infecting the group, the line-up soon fell apart with Rabin retreating to soundtrack work and Kaye moving on to a career in management. But amazingly, the band refused to grind to a halt.
1996 saw Yes regroup yet again. This time, the line-up of Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman and White took to a stage in San Luis Obispo, California for three shows during which it performed nothing but fan-favored 1970s material. Keys To Ascension, a well-received live album featuring two new studio tracks resulted. With a plan in place to keep the line-up together to explore more progressive leanings, it looked like Yes was lifting itself out of the political morass and getting on with the business of making new music.
Much to the band’s chagrin, Wakeman chose to check out in 1997 after finishing work on Keys To Ascension 2—a two-CD set split between live tracks and new, retro-leaning 1970s-style studio material. Once again, Yes refused to cave in and marched onward by drafting its producer and occasional songwriter Billy Sherwood, and new keyboardist Igor Khoroshev into its ranks. The new line-up quickly recorded Open Your Eyes, a melodic, radio-friendly record that sits in stark contrast to the epic-length pieces on Keys 2. Both albums were released last November.
Approached at the art exhibit about the political quagmire that is Yes, Sherwood visibly shudders. After all, he was once tentatively pegged as the band’s replacement vocalist in 1989 when Anderson formed ABWH. Sherwood also served as an auxiliary guitarist and keyboardist during the Talk tour. He’s happy to have achieved full member status, but the scars of indecision remain. "The politics were heavy, yeah. Really heavy," he recalled. "My chain’s been yanked up and down, and up and down, and up and down. But they finally made me an official member. So that's cool."
As the only musician involved in each of the group’s many incarnations, Squire played a large role in bringing Sherwood into the fold. In addition to writing and recording for each other’s solo projects, they’re also close friends. But although they share similar sonic leanings, fashion sense is another story. In contrast to Sherwood’s dapper attire of black turtleneck and sports jacket, Squire appears at the art event looking slightly unkempt. He’s wearing a navy t-shirt with the words "Sloppy Joe" emblazoned across it, and an unbuttoned, un-tucked turquoise sports shirt. He’s clearly uncomfortable with the attention he’s drawing, and wears a scowl that indicates he would rather be anywhere else. Unsurprisingly, he disappears back to his hotel room mere minutes after the last photo is snapped.
Squire was considerably more relaxed and animated during this refreshingly frank discussion with Innerviews about the volatile group’s recent changes and activities.
After several rocky years between Big Generator and Keys To Ascension 1, there seems to be a reasonably strong commitment to maintaining the current line-up for the long-term.
I’m enjoying this particular incarnation of the band. I think everyone else is too. It definitely seems to be a line-up we can work with for the next few years and well into the next century. Yeah, there’s a pretty strong commitment from everyone. I think we have to thank Billy Sherwood. He’s injected a lot of enthusiasm into the project. He’s been peripherally around the band for the last eight or nine years, and he’s basically now a member of the band. He’s brought a lot of enthusiasm with him and encouraged us to write new songs. A lot of the energy comes from him.
Throughout the last two decades, Yes has been less than prolific. Yet, here we are in 1998 with two full albums of new studio material.
The Keys To Ascension albums were supposed to just be live albums initially. Then they [the record label] asked us to add some new studio tracks to those albums. So, it just happened and I guess that Jon [Anderson] and I had written a few things at that time, and we took a couple of those for Keys 1. At the same time, I had been writing with Billy [Sherwood] for my solo project, which isn’t really finished yet. Some of the songs for that ended up on the Open Your Eyes album and that’s kind of how things happened. There was writing going on with different people too, and we brought it all together and realized we had a lot of stuff. Steve [Howe] was also involved in the writing and brought stuff to the table. There was a lot to choose from.
Open Your Eyes and the studio material on Keys 2 differ vastly. Open Your Eyes is an extension of the band’s 1980s sound. Keys 2 sounds like a throwback to the 1970s. Was that designed to placate fans of both eras?
Not really. The Keys 2 album was essentially a live album and then we decided to add the studio tracks. And you gotta remember, Rick Wakeman plays on those two Keys albums too, so that had some effect on the sound. I suppose there was a slightly conscious decision to revisit those longer pieces and there’s one on each of the Keys albums. I suppose if you want to put a stamp on it, that’s the 1970s thing. But I think the Open Your Eyes album also has some reflections of the simpler things we did in the 1970s. Let’s not forget we had "Roundabout," "Your Move," "All Good People," and stuff like that in the 1970s as well. So, I think the Open Your Eyes album combines a bit of the 1980s Yes and the 1970s Yes prior to us doing the longer pieces. Open Your Eyes also has a definite 1990s sound to it, so we’re very happy with that album and people seem to be buying it too, which is good.
The art-rock stamp is definitely on Keys 2. If someone told me its studio tracks were from an album released right after 1977's Going For The One, I would have no trouble believing them.
[laughs] Yeah, I know. That's true. It’s a good observation.
How did tracks from Chemistry, your upcoming solo album, end up on Open Your Eyes?
Chemistry was pretty much finished, and then we went with new management—Left Bank Management. They were new to us and they wanted to hear everything we were doing and included in that was the stuff Billy [Sherwood] and I had been working on for Chemistry. They said "There’s a couple of songs on there you should really put on the Yes album—if Yes did them, they’d kind of be stronger." So, we took "Open Your Eyes" and "Man On The Moon" from my album and put them on the Yes album. But my album is still kind of finished. I’ve been thinking I should just put my album out anyway, even though it has different versions of those two songs on it. People might like to hear them like that, plus there are ten other songs which have never been heard. Right now, the album doesn’t have a home. I’m probably gonna put it out on my own label which I’m in the process of putting together with Left Bank right now.
Were there any concerns about having management play a role in the creative side of things?
You know, I really respect these people at Left Bank. They've been around a long time and they've managed a lot of different acts. They really know the business and they're musically-minded too, so it’s been a very good thing for us. We've had very good discussions about direction and stuff, and so far, it seems to be working very well. That’s why you see a revitalized band out there—our business has been straightened out, and that always helps.
But Open Your Eyes and Keys 2 were released within two weeks of one another last winter. You don't have to be a music biz veteran to realize it was a marketing blunder to have the two albums directly competing for sales and publicity. One could look at that scenario and question whether or not things are really that straightened out on the business front.
It wasn’t a great idea. We didn’t want the Cleopatra people to release Keys 2 at the same time as Open Your Eyes. We wanted them to wait until later so we could have had the whole period while out on tour to concentrate on promoting Open Your Eyes. But of course, we had no power and they decided that while we were on tour was a good time to put the album out—while there was a Yes presence. You know, people who want both albums will buy both and now, we can get on with the job of promoting Open Your Eyes. There are other songs from Open Your Eyes that we’re going to be using on radio. "New State Of Mind" is the next airplay release, and I believe we’re also going to release "No Way We Can Lose" to a different radio format. So, we’re going to try and sell more Open Your Eyes albums that way.
It seems like the band is much more committed to Open Your Eyes than Keys 2.
Yeah, that’s right. There’s a more solid plan behind it, you see. The Keys 2 album was done for an English company that sub-licensed it to a distributor in Long Beach. I don’t think they’re the kind of people who have a lot of push in terms of promotion, but I hope they do well with it nonetheless.
I understand that "Mind Drive" from Keys 2 is largely based on a piece you and Alan White worked on with Jimmy Page in the early 80s.
Uh, yes, that's right. [in a surprised tone of voice] Who told you that?
The rumor is that copies of the original version are circulating on Led Zeppelin bootlegs in Japan.
So, that original version is out there. Hmm. Yeah, it sounds very similar, apart from the fact that Jimmy Page isn’t playing on our version of it. [laughs] But I wrote the thing in the first place—the chords and everything. Jimmy just played my chords. But I suppose it’s interesting to compare the two versions.
What can you tell me about the sessions that resulted in it?
There was a period when Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes had been in Yes in the 1980s. We had done the Drama album and toured America on that, and that’s also when John Bonham died—around the summer of 1980. So, after we got back from touring, Jimmy [Page] moved and bought a house in England near the house I was living in. So, we became neighbors and got together. He was obviously pretty depressed about John Bonham's death for awhile, and I kind of helped him out of that by saying "Let’s try to do some new music" and that’s really what happened.
Is it true that you were planning to form a band with Page and Robert Plant called XYZ, standing for "Ex-Yes and Ex-Zeppelin?"
Yeah, that's right. It was gonna be myself, Alan White, Jimmy [Page] and Robert [Plant]. Page and Plant are of course now playing together, but at the time, Robert wasn’t ready to jump back into it. He was feeling the loss and wanted to go his own way. But of course, 18 years later, he’s doing what we could have done then. At the time, Yes was in a kind of sabbatical period. [laughs] Geoff Downes and Steve Howe started the Asia project, so Alan and I were gonna work with Jimmy and Robert. But Robert never completed the equation, so that’s when we went back into the reformation of Yes with 90125, which was probably the best thing to have done.
What was it like to work with Page during that period?
Uh, very stony. [laughs] There was a lot of drinking etcetera involved, I remember. Umm, yeah. [laughs and pauses] Let's leave it at that shall we?
"Mind Drive" is arguably the most complex piece of music Yes has released since the 70s. Back then, the band would put a lengthy piece like "Close To The Edge" together through a volatile mix of jamming, arguing, tape splicing and luck. How did "Mind Drive" come together in 1997?
Jon [Anderson], myself and Alan [White] blueprinted it and put it together the way we used to do pieces like that. We’d play a section, get that right, and then do the next section. After Jon, Alan and I put it together and rehearsed it, Steve [Howe] came back from England and we went back in the studio with Billy [Sherwood] kind of producing. Then we put the vocals on it, and lastly, we got [Rick] Wakeman in there for three days to do all of the keyboards.
Describe how Sherwood ended up playing such a large role in the band.
He and I have been working together as songwriters for 10 years now, so there’s that aspect of it. But he’s a great drummer, bass player, singer and guitar player too, so he has all that going for him, plus he’s great in the studio. He’s a great producer. He’s an all-around kind of guy. Eventually we got him to produce the Keys 2 album and because we were working so closely together, we said "You might as well be a member of the band."
Your bass work has a much greater presence in both Keys albums and Open Your Eyes, unlike Talk and Big Generator.
[laughs] That is a great thing isn’t it? The 1980s stuff was mixed a very different way. Whether you like it or not, Trevor Rabin had a lot to do with the engineering and mixing. We didn’t see eye-to-eye on how things should be mixed—he just had a different style and he wanted to try and get that across. I think the 90125 album is good in terms of balancing and mixing, but we definitely lost it or the style changed for Big Generator and Talk. I guess that was Trevor’s influence. We’re still really good buddies, but we just hear things differently.
Several Yes members have bashed Talk lately.
It’s not that bad an album. It’s just that it was done in a peculiar way. It was our experiment into the world of ProTools, computers and making an album in a way that was kind of inorganic and not very Yes-like. On the other hand, we’ve always liked to experiment with different things and that was very much a deep experiment into computer-world. Trevor [Rabin] was pretty much there with the guy who was the computer expert in the computerized studio. He was very much the guiding light and wanted to do it that way. Everyone had a go at producing stuff, so I just said "You try it. Go ahead, take on the responsibility and do it this way." And he did. When you listen to Talk, it really is actually a pretty good-sounding album. It’s just that the textures are different.
I was surprised to learn of Rabin’s departure from the band. After all, he was instrumental in revitalizing Yes and leading the band to its highest peaks of success. What happened?
It was simply that after the Talk tour, we were deciding what we wanted to do next and Trevor had already started to work on film scores. He was getting into it and liked doing that, so we came to an agreement. He said "I’d like to pursue this avenue in my career" and I said "Fine." At the same time, we had offers to do these Keys albums with Rick [Wakeman] and Steve [Howe] being involved—the 1970s line-up. So, that was on the table. It wasn’t a big falling out. It was just a business decision that was guided by offers that were out there.
Why have the last six Yes albums been released by six different labels?
We lost our home with Atlantic at the time of the ABWH situation—their album was on Arista. Some deal went down where the whole thing got moved for the Union album—it was on Arista too. Atlantic got some money out of it and it was a deal I didn’t really totally agree with, but I was advised by management at the time that it was the best way to go. I thought they probably knew better, but in retrospect, everything became a bit unhinged at that point in terms of Yes being with one label. Then we had the Talk thing which ended up on Phil Carson’s label. I don’t even remember the name anymore.
The label was called Victory.
[laughs] Victory. Yes, that’s right. Hardly an apt name for that label, let me tell you. It saw nothing but lost battles. This new situation is a good one with Beyond Music. It is a one album deal, but I suspect the next one will be on that as well. Strangely enough, the parent company is Tommy Boy, which is a rap label! [laughs] Explain that!
Why don’t you explain it for me?
I can’t really. It’s just business. Beyond is a part of Tommy Boy which is part of Warner which is part of Time-Warner which is part of… etcetera. It’s the way of American business these days.
One can trace the seeds of the Keys and Open Your Eyes line-ups right back to the ABWH split. Without ABWH, it's unlikely Howe and Wakeman would have re-entered the picture.
I think ABWH was a very unhappy alliance from what I’ve heard. I haven’t pried too much into it, but I don’t think they were particularly happy.
Did you feel betrayed when Anderson formed the group?
Not really, no. I didn’t really mind at all. But I didn’t particularly enjoy the music they were making. Bill Bruford was playing electronic drums—it was a funny, odd thing really.
But essentially, ABWH derailed Yes ‘proper.’ At the time, Yes was doing okay with Big Generator from a sales point of view.
Yeah, Big Generator did good. But ABWH didn’t really derail us. Jon [Anderson] just went and did that after Big Generator because I guess he wasn’t getting along with the management. I’m not quite sure what happened exactly, but he went and did that. Jon's always done the odd thing.
How did you react when first learning of ABWH?
I didn’t react. I just sat back and waited to see what would happen and what happened is they eventually came back to us and said "Please, can you write something for this Union album?" At the time, it wasn’t called Union—it was an ABWH album they couldn’t finish because it didn’t have any airplay-able tracks. It was in a mess. So, they came back again and said "Can we call this Yes again? Can it be a proper Yes album and can you and Trevor [Rabin] write a couple of hits we can play on the radio?" It was a bit of a salvage job actually. That’s kind of what happened, and then we had some huge, 90-page contract between us, Atlantic Records, Arista, the promoters and whatever. Unless you’ve been to Harvard Law School, it was a very confusing situation.
How do you look back at Union?
It was a confused album. It was an ABWH album with four tracks from Yes-west as we used to call ourselves. Our tracks were okay—"Lift Me Up" was a pretty good song. Of course, the song Billy [Sherwood] and I wrote—"The More We Live"—was very good. It could still be on my solo album. In fact, it should be probably.
Why didn’t the Union line-up survive past the tour?
Oh, because of the guitarist factor. There was no love lost between Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin. Nothing happened—they never had a relationship. They used to stand at either end of the stage and just play. So, it was a lack of communication.
What’s your take on Something’s Coming, the new CD of 1969 BBC Yes recordings that Peter Banks played a role in releasing?
He put out a BBC Yes disc? I'm not aware of it at all. Is it a Yes thing? [aghast]
Yes. It’s a double CD. A legitimate release apparently.
By the BBC? [in astonishment]
I guess the BBC can put that stuff out because they own it. I know Led Zeppelin had one coming out. I haven't seen it. I'd like to get ahold of it.
It was released right after Open Your Eyes. Essentially, three Yes albums were released within weeks of each other.
Wow. It's unbelievable!
Banks made some interesting comments about you in the liner notes.
Really, did he?
I'll read you a choice quote: "Chris Squire, with a total self-contained, sometimes self-centered personality, always moved at his own speed… which is not fast!" For some reason, he also noted that you have "very large feet."
[laughs] I don’t mind that. But it’s weird that they would use that. Sounds like sour grapes to me mate. I think Pete has always been a bit like that. He made a bad business decision—not to show the same enthusiasm as everyone else around Time And A Word. He was not a very happy participant in the Time And A Word album. We were going in slightly different directions than the one he wanted to go in.
Exactly how did Banks end up leaving Yes?
Umm. Hmm. Erm… [pauses] No-one in Yes has ever been kicked out. It’s always been pretty much a mutual agreement to part company. Usually, there’s an obvious reason or the person who is leaving is not really happy, and that’s how it usually comes about. If that person’s not happy, the other people usually aren’t happy with that person. That’s really the way that works.
Assess the importance of Roger Dean’s contribution to the band.
It’s great that he kind of piggybacked on our career and vice-versa. It was a good union and a good thing that we got together. I sometimes doubt whether we should have to rely on him to do all our album covers. We didn’t use him for 90125, and I really like that cover for its simplicity. It’s a doubled-edged sword. When people see Yes and the Roger Dean artwork, they’re very intertwined, but it leaves a little bit of a nostalgic flavor. So, whether it’s good for us to always use him is in doubt in my opinion. Give people something that’s good from another store and they’ll wear that too.
What’s been the high water mark of your years with Yes?
Lots of great things keep happening. But we had a standing ovation at Madison Square Garden after the third song for 20 minutes once. That was in 1984 when we were touring the 90125 album. That was a pretty incredible thing. They wouldn’t stop applauding.
Do you think Open Your Eyes can propel the band back to that level of success?
It would be nice. It would be very nice. I’m very enthusiastic about our new management. It feels right for the first time—and not just for me. I’ve always got on well with management, but I think Jon [Anderson] is happier with the new management than he was ever since I can remember. So, that makes me feel good—to know that he’s getting on with the people dealing with the business side.
How will Yes unfold during 1998?
We’ll be touring throughout Europe and then back in the States in the summer to do a mainly open air summer tour with another band. We’re not quite sure who it’ll be with. Genesis was discussed, but unfortunately, I don’t think they’re particularly in a ‘go’ mode at the moment, so that’s not going to happen. The Alan Parsons Project has been mentioned, and I think that could possibly happen. I don’t know how exciting they are to see live, but I’ve been told they would be a good marriage.
You’ve been called "the keeper of the flame" because you’re the only band member to remain with Yes through all of its ups and downs. What makes you stick with it?
Because when Yes is up and running like it is now, and everything feels good, it’s a great place to be. We’re definitely going for another push with our career now. I do think the Open Your Eyes album could really help boost the band’s career back to a level from which it's maybe fallen a little bit. That’s the plan.
One gets the feeling that you have a more personal stake in Yes—a sense of pride that perhaps other members have lacked.
Well, yeah. I’ve paid the bills when the other people have been off on their holidays. [laughs] So, I guess I do have more of a stake in it—both in dollar-terms and emotionally-speaking. I certainly don’t mind doing other projects, but it always seems to come around to Yes taking precedence over other things. I’ve been trying to finish this solo album for God knows how long now, but Yes always seems to get in the way of it. But I’m habitually a bit lazy as well, so it’s not all Yes’ fault. [laughs]