Yes has gone back to the future, in a “Roundabout” kind of way, with its latest album and lineup.
Back in 1980, the British progressive rock group’s original singer, Jon Anderson, and longtime keyboardist Rick Wakeman both left the group. The replacements were a surprise — Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, better known as the new wave duo The Buggles, who in a blast of pre-MTV prescience had declared that “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
It was a short-lived association, lasting only about two years and polarizing Yes’ fan base, and producing a single album, “Drama” — basically a curious footnote in Yes’ nearly 45-year history. Now, however, history is repeating, albeit with a few twists.
Anderson is out of the band again, dismissed in 2008 when health issues prevented him from touring; his replacement, Benoit David, sang in the Montreal Yes tribute band Close To The Edge. Downes, meanwhile, has rejoined Yes, while Horn produced “Fly From Here,” the group’s first album of new material in a decade.
“This is not the first time we’ve changed members,” notes guitarist Steve Howe, who’s made two long tours of duty with the group. “Yes, as a band, is built to go on.”
Bassist Chris Squire, the only one of Yes’ 16 members to stay with the group nonstop since its founding in 1968, says that “it doesn’t really feel like 10 years since we did ‘Magnification,’ ” the band’s last album. But, he adds, “a lot has happened during that time, which explains the reason why we didn’t do a new album.”
The primary setback, Squire explains, was Anderson’s health. The singer, who co-founded Yes in London, suffered acute respiratory failure in 2008, forcing the band to cancel a summer tour. The group responded by bringing in David, and while Squire says that “we’re open to the possibility of doing something with Jon again in the future,” the split occurred with some animosity, although Anderson, 66, claims that “anger isn’t there” anymore.
“I think I was disappointed that people can act that way, motivated more by money and business,” says the singer, who released a new solo album this year and is working on a project with Wakeman and Trevor Rabin, Yes’ guitarist from 1983-94 and co-writer of its biggest hit, 1983’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” “I can imagine a lot of fans are very disappointed Yes couldn’t stay together as a group and had to splinter into what it is now.
“But that doesn’t take away from the great work we’ve done over the years, over a helluva long time. And after awhile you start realizing that change is good for you. It’s healthy.”
Yes then had to delay any thoughts of recording new music to allow new frontman David to get up to speed and, according to Squire, “kind of realize what the job entailed of being the singer in Yes. He’s handled it very well and just improved ... in the right direction. So it was time to get recording.”
That resolve, however, led to even more changes within Yes.
Squire had been talking to Horn — who also produced Yes’ 1983 album “90125” and 1987’s “Big Generator” — a side project he was working on with former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett when the idea of a new Yes album came up. The conversation then turned to “We Can Fly From Here,” a song Yes had worked on during Horn and Downes’ tenure in the band but did not make the “Drama” album, though it did show up on the 2005 box set “The Word is Live.”
“Trevor said, ‘Oh, yeah, we never did do a studio version. Maybe we should get together and do that,’ “ Squire says. “That was the idea, really to do one song.” The piece grew into a six-part, 23-minute epic ala “Close to the Edge” and other lengthy Yes epics. After that, Squire says, “we realized how much we enjoyed working together and expanded into Trevor doing the whole album.”
It was Horn’s idea, meanwhile, to bring Downes back into the fold. “Trevor suggested I get involved because I had written (‘We Can Fly From Here’),” says the keyboardist, who during intervening years had worked with guitarist Howe in the band Asia. “It just sort of developed from there, really.”
But that led to another hard decision for Squire, Howe, David and drummer Alan White; what to do with keyboardist Oliver Wakeman, Rick’s son, who had joined the band in 2008 and had also been working on new material Yes material.
“That was something I wasn’t immediately sure about because we were getting on well with Oliver and Oliver didn’t really do anything wrong,” Squire, 63, recalls. “But eventually Trevor did persuade me we’d make a better album with Geoff.
“It couldn’t have been very nice for (Wakeman), really. It’s difficult to explain to someone, ‘Yeah, you’ve done nothing wrong, but we just feel this combination of people will work better for this project. But he’s taken it very well, and the way the Yes story is, he could wind up being back in the band again in a couple of years.”
That’s not something anyone is necessarily hoping for, however. Squire predicts that Yes “is gonna stick with this lineup for awhile” and says there’s already talk of a follow-up album. “If an album becomes successful, of course everyone is very favorably disposed to want to talk about doing another one,” he says. “I hope that does happen because I enjoy working with Trevor a lot, and it’s really a fulfilling experience.”
Downes, meanwhile, says that “it’s really good to be playing with the guys again” and says that recording the album, and especially “We Can Fly From Here” has allowed him to address what he felt was unfinished business when he left the group in 1981.
“Yes is a pretty special band,” says Downes, 58. “I privileged to be a fairly small part of their history, and to come back into it is quite a great thing.
“I think what we have now will develop very nicely. And I think people see that Yes is capable of going on, regardless of who’s in (the group). It’s really more about a style of music rather than the individual members.”
Styx performs with Yes at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, at the DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township. Tickets are $25-$75 pavilion and $20 lawn with a $44 lawn four-pack. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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