Throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s, there were many bands who skirted the edges of prog rock, quickly basking in the elaborate arrangements and mystical lyricism before returning to their musical explorations. There were some, however, for whom this intricate investigation of complex rhythms and melodies was more than just a passing fad. They submerged themselves wholesale into prog’s convoluted aesthetic, finding inspiration in the long-form orchestrations and ostentatious production techniques common to the genre at the time. Only a few bands ever found the perfect balance between its inherent extravagance and the personal nature of its narratives, and first and foremost among them was London collective Yes.
In the same way that bands like King Crimson and Jethro Tull came to define subsections of the prog rock movement, so, too, did Yes almost singlehandedly keep the genre alive and relevant through the ’70s and into the ’80s. With each record, they experimented (successfully and unsuccessfully) with what the genre could be. Their wild and lengthy jams were meticulous in their unpredictability, roaming from one idea to the next without pausing to see if their audiences were able to keep up. They just kept going, changing their skewed rock perspective whenever and however they chose.
The roots of the band can be traced all the way back to 1967, when bassist Chris Squire joined Mabel Greer’s Toyshop, a rock band that included singer-guitarist Clive Bayley, guitarist Peter Banks and drummer Bob Hagger. The band began performing at the Marquee Club in Soho in London, where Jack Barrie, the owner of another local club called La Chasse, saw them and suggested that they get in touch with singer Jon Anderson. From this fortuitous meeting, they went through a shuffling of musicians, with Banks leaving the band and Hagger being replaced by Bill Bruford. However, Squire asked Banks to rejoin the band, ousting Bayley as guitarist. And finally, classically trained organist and pianist Tony Kaye joined as the official fifth member of the still-pre-Yes band.
They toyed around with a few band names, but at Banks’ suggestion, they adopted the moniker of Yes and played together under than name for the first time at a youth camp in East Mersea, Essex, in August 1968. Many of their early concerts were built around covers of songs by bands such as The Beatles, Traffic and The Fifth Dimension; and after a gig replacing Sly and the Family Stone (who failed to show), they took on manager Roy Flynn and lost Bruford to his studies at the University of Leeds. Bruford’s replacement, Tony O’Reilly, found it difficult to match the band’s pace onstage and was dropped when Anderson and Squire convinced Bruford to come back to the band.
After attending a King Crimson concert in 1969, the band realized they would have to become better musicians if they were to have a chance at making it big and started having regular rehearsals. They signed with Atlantic Records that same year and released their self-titled debut in July. Although it wasn’t a huge commercial success, it did get them the notice they needed, with critics praising their style and effortless musicianship. The band continued to experience fluctuations in their roster in the following years—with the notable additions of guitarist Steve Howe and keyboardist Rick Wakeman—as they continued to release records that tightened their sound and became increasingly recognized for their commercial viability.
However, with the release of their fifth album, “Close to the Edge,” the band discovered the perfect blend of intricacy and intimacy. The album was only three tracks long, with the first two songs broken down into eight chapters. And while this kind of segmented approach was fairly common to prog rock, Yes took the idea and solidified its proper use. They were able to explore many sounds and textures within the confines of a single song, creating a varied but coherent statement that would shepherd the genre decades into the future. With individual pieces that could be gentle and soft-spoken and others that were a bit more raucous, “Close to the Edge” was a testament to the importance of the genre on a growing global rock scene.
Even in the early years of the ’70s, though, there was a sense that prog rock was losing a good deal of its initial momentum, with bands crafting these exorbitant musical compositions simply because they could and without regard for the underlying precision it took to pull them off with any sense of authenticity. The title track is an 18-minute behemoth that twists and turns in ways that confound expectations and make people reconsider their positions on the validity of these often-ornate bouts of instrumentation. Unlike other bands, Yes knew how to deliver these big, bright sounds without succumbing to the overly grandiose sentiments that often killed the effectiveness of whatever emotion they were attempting to convey.
“Close to the Edge” is a record of extremes that was released into a landscape where some of the largest arrangements of the time fought for space alongside some truly personal introspection. The band would go on for another handful of decades, but they never quite reached the highs that this record afforded them. Prog rock faded in popularity and became appropriated into other genres, but the influence that Yes and like-minded bands had supplied to other musicians helped guide the direction of music for years to come. And with “Close to the Edge,” they delivered a concrete thesis on the necessity of pushing your own inspirations into new and exciting places where no one had laid foot or instrument before.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.