Far and away the longest lasting and the most successful of the '70s progressive rock groups, Yes proved to be one of the lingering success stories from that musical genre. The band, founded in 1968, overcame a generational shift in its audience and the departure of its most visible members at key points in its history to reach the end of the century as the definitive progressive rock band. Their audience remained huge because they had always attracted younger listeners drawn to their mix of daunting virtuosity, cosmic (often mystical) lyrics, complex musical textures, and powerful yet delicate lead vocals.
Lead singer Jon Anderson started out during the British beat boom as a m ember of the Warriors, who recorded a single for Decca in 1964; he was later in the band Gun before going solo in 1967 with two singles on the Parlophone label. He was making a meager living cleaning up at a London club called La Chasse during June of 1968, and was thinking of starting up a new band. One day at the bar, he chanced to meet bassist/vocalist Chris Squire, a former member of the band the Syn, who had recorded for Deram, the progressive division of Decca.
The two learned that they shared several musical interests, including an appreciation for the harmony singing of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and within a matter of days were trying to write songs together. They began developing the beginnings of a sound that incorporated harmonies with a solid rock backing, rooted in Squire's very precise approach to the bass. Anderson and Squire saw the groups around them as having either strong vocals and weak instrumental backup, or powerful backup and weak lead vocals, and they sought to combine the best of both. Their initial inspiration, at least as far as the precision of their vocals, according to Squire, was the pop/soul act the Fifth Dimension. They recruited Tony Kaye, formerly of the Federals, on keyboards; Peter Banks, previously a member of the Syn, on guitar; and drummer Bill Bruford, who had only just joined the blues band Savoy Brown a few weeks earlier. The name Yes was chosen for the band as something short, direct, and memorable.
The group's break came in October of 1968 when the band, on the recommendation of the Nice's manager, Tony Stratton-Smith (later the founder of Charisma Records), played a gig at the Speakeasy Club in London, filling in for an absent Sly & the Family Stone. The group was later selected to open for Cream's November 26, 1968, farewell concert at Royal Albert Hall. This concert, in turn, led to a residency at London's Marquee Club and their first radio appearance, on John Peel's Top Gear radio show. They subsequently opened for Janis Joplin at her Royal Albert Hall concert in April 1969, and were signed to Atlantic Records soon after.
Their debut single, and Anderson and Squire's first song entitled "Sweetness," was released soon after. Their first album, Yes, was released in November of 1969. The record displayed the basic sound that would characterize the band's subsequent records, including impeccable high harmonies, clearly defined, emphatic playing, and an approach to music that derived from folk and classical far more than the R&B from which most rock music sprung -- but it was much more in a pop music context, featuring covers of Beatles and Byrds songs. Also present was a hint of the space rock sound (on "Beyond and Before") in which they would later come to specialize. Anderson's falsetto lead vocals gave the music an ethereal quality, while Banks' angular guitar, seemingly all picked and none strummed, drew from folk and skiffle elements. Squire's bass had a huge sound, owing to his playing with a pick, giving him one of the most distinctive sounds on the instrument this side of the Who's John Entwistle, while Bruford's drumming was very complex within the pop song context, and Kaye's playing was rich and melodic.
In February of 1970, Yes supported the Nice at their Royal Albert Hall show, while they were preparing their second album, Time and a Word. By the time it was released in June of 1970, Peter Banks had left the lineup, to be replaced by guitarist Steve Howe, a former member of the Syndicats, the In Crowd, Tomorrow ("My White Bicycle"), and Bodast. Howe is pictured with the group on the jacket of Time and a Word, which was released in August, and played his first show with the group at Queen Elizabeth Hall on March 21, 1970, but Banks actually played on the album. This record was far more sophisticated than its predecessor, and even included an overdubbed orchestra on some songs, the only time that Yes would rely on outside musicians to augment their sound. The cosmic and mystical elements of their songwriting were even more evident on this album.
The group's fame in England continued to rise as they became an increasingly popular concert attraction, especially after they were seen by millions as the opening act for Iron Butterfly. It was with the release of The Yes Album in April of 1971 that the public began to glimpse the group's full potential. That record, made up entirely of original compositions, was filled with complex, multi-part harmonies; loud, heavily layered guitar and bass parts; beautiful and melodic drum parts; and surging organ (with piano embellishments) passages bridging them all. Everybody was working on a far more expansive level than on any of their previous recordings: on "Your Move" (which became the group's first U.S. chart entry, at number 40), the harmonies were woven together in layers and patterns that were dazzling in their own right, while "Starship Trooper" and "All Good People" gave Howe, Squire, and Bruford the opportunity to play extended instrumental passages of tremendous forcefulness. The Yes Album opened a new phase in the group's history and its approach to music. It was built on compositions that resembled sound paintings rather than songs; the swelling sound of Kaye's Moog synthesizer and organ, Howe's fluid yet stinging guitar passages, Squire's rippling bass, and Anderson's haunting falsetto leads all evoked sonic landscapes that were strangely compelling to the imagination of the listener.
The Yes Album reached number seven in England; later, it got to number 40 in America. Early in 1971, Yes made their first U.S. tour opening for Jethro Tull, and they were back late in the year sharing billing with Ten Years After, and the J. Geils Band. The bandmembers began work on their next album, but were interrupted when keyboard player Tony Kaye quit in August of 1971 to join ex-Yes guitarist Peter Banks in the group Flash. He was replaced by former Strawbs keyboard player Rick Wakeman, who played his first shows with the band in September and October of 1971.
Wakeman was a far more flamboyant musician than Kaye, not only in his approach to playing, but in the number of instruments that he used. In place of the three keyboards that Kaye used, Wakeman used an entire bank of upwards of a dozen instruments, including Mellotron, various synthesizers, organ, two or more pianos, and electric harpsichord. This lineup, Anderson, Squire, Howe, Wakeman, and Bruford, which actually only lasted for one year, from August of 1971 until August of 1972, is generally considered the best of all the Yes configurations, and the strongest incarnation of the band.
The group completed its next album, Fragile, in less than two months, partly out of a need to get a new album out to help pay for all of Wakeman's equipment. And partly due to this haste, the new album featured only four tracks by the group as a whole, "Roundabout," "The South Side of the Sky," "Heart of the Sunrise," and "Long Distance Runaround" -- although, significantly, all except "Long Distance Runaround" ran between seven and 13 minutes -- and was rounded out by five pieces showcasing each member of the band individually. Released in December of 1971, Fragile reached number seven in England and number four in America. The album's success was enhanced by the release of an edited single of "Roundabout," the group's first major hit, which reached number 13 on the U.S. chart. "Roundabout," with its crisp interwoven acoustic and electric guitar parts and very vivid bass textures, exquisite vocals, swirling keyboard passages, and brisk beat, proved an ideal introduction to the group's sound. The single's impact among teenage and college-age listeners was far greater than this chart position would indicate; they simply flocked to the band. Even the album's jacket, designed by artist Roger Dean, featured distinctive, surreal landscape graphics, which evoked images seemingly related to the music inside. These paintings would become part and parcel of the audience's impression of Yes' music, and later tours by the group would feature stage sets designed by Dean as an integral part of the shows.
Although they would continue to release 45s periodically, including a cover of Paul Simon's "America," Yes' future clearly lay with their albums. Close to the Edge, recorded in the late spring of 1972 and released in September of that year, showed just where they were headed, consisting of only three long tracks, essentially three sound paintings, in which the overall sound and musical textures mattered more than the lyrics or any specific melody, harmonization, or solo. The fans and critics alike loved Close to the Edge, resplendent in its rich harmonies and keyboard passages of astonishing beauty and complexity, brittle but powerful guitar, and drumming that was gorgeous in its own