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50 Years of 'Yes' - A Review of the Band's Debut!

by Steven Shinder 3 years ago in album reviews
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A Good Listen for Yesterday and Today!

Album cover art for Yes, originally released by Atlantic Records. The bubble logo was designed by guitarist Peter Banks, who came up with the band's name.

Over the past five decades, Yes have cemented themselves as one of the biggest progressive rock bands. And though other albums may be first to come to mind when fans think of Yes, their discography began when they recorded an album released on July 25, 1969. Simply titled Yes, this debut album illustrates what the band's music was like at a time when they did more covers and sounded more psychedelic in some places. While it may be a far cry from some of their later works, Yes shows some seeds of what the band would become.

The original lineup consisted of Jon Anderson (lead vocals, incidental percussion), Peter Banks (guitar, backing vocals), Chris Squire (bass, backing vocals), Tony Kaye (organ, piano), and Bill Bruford (drums, vibraphone). Many fans have heard the stories of how this lineup came together: Squire and Banks met in a band called The Syn, Anderson and Squire met at a club called La Chasse, Bruford came in contact with their proto-Yes band Mabel Greer's Toyshop via an ad in Melody Maker, and Kaye replaced MGT's Clive Bailey. While Yes would undergo many lineup changes over the decades, this original lineup was able to set a foundation from which the band would continue to evolve as the musicians progressed further into their careers.

1. "Beyond and Before"

It's fitting that the first track on the first Yes album is titled "Beyond and Before." The song was written by Chris Squire and Clive Bailey during the days of proto-Yes band Mabel Greer's Toyshop (which did record an early version of the song that eventually saw the light of day). So, in a sense, the song came from beyond Yes. And some of the music on the first music feels so removed from what Yes would become that it might feel like a "before time" to some (The 2009 video The Lost Broadcasts, which contained archive footage of Yes from 1969 to 1971, was originally titled From a Time Beyond and Before. Perhaps the title change was due to the fact that "Beyond and Before" does not actually appear on this release, though footage of Yes performing it live does exist.).

The opening notes welcome the listener, and then there is a bit of scat singing. The lyrics proper come in, and the singers are in-sync, juxtaposing the imagery of "Sparkling trees" with "shadows." Even early on in their career, the theme of nature was very prevalent in Yes music, as evidenced by the verses saying "Masquerading leaves of blue / Run circles around the morning dew," or "Say a few words to the wind / That's all that's left of winter's friend." The song seems to be about the end of winter, and having to deal with waiting for it to come around. Perhaps this could be a metaphor for something more specific, but it could be anyone's guess.

2. "I See You"

Some covers try to replicate songs almost note for note, but Yes' cover of "I See You" by The Byrds makes the song feel fresh and reinvented. The original version from the 1966 album Fifth Dimension clocks in at a little more than two-and-a-half minutes, while Yes' version expands it to nearly seven minutes. The opening notes sound a bit more menacing. The middle has an instrumental jam during which some notes might bring to mind the lyrics "Time like gold dust brings mind down" from the previous track. This quieter portion of the song could be a bit louder, but for much of the duration, Yes gets very jazzy and psychedelic with this cover. Bruford and Banks in particular sound like they are having fun on this song.

Scat singing is added, and there are lyrics that are very different from the original. For one, "I love you" is added into the mix. But there are also verses that are changed to verses with similar sounding words. An example of this would be the change from The Byrds' "Warm sliding sun through the cave of your hair / Wind washing fields, kind of space living there" to Yes' "Sun smiling sun through the cave of your hair / Wind washing tulips out of space sitting there." One might even get the impression that perhaps the lyrics to the original were misheard. On the other hand, this could simply have been a case of Yes going the extra mile to make this version their own while still honoring the spirit of the original.

"Yesterday and Today" from the first Yes album.

3. "Yesterday and Today"

This is a soft song, complete with Bill Bruford playing the vibraphone. On this track, the listener gets an instance of Anderson taking center stage as the singer. This song is credited solely to him, after all. The lyrics may sound simple, but they do not feel any less sincere as they convey a sense of lovingness. There is beauty in the rhythm of such lyrics as, "Watching your eyes, feeling your sighs, saying goodbyes better than I could." The "speaker" of the song believes a significant other to be better with words, and yet these words themselves work very well. And one might think of the twinkling of stars as the song fades out.

4. "Looking Around"

After hearing the tone of the previous track, the abrupt opening of "Looking Around" might feel jarring. Regardless, an upbeat song in which Tony Kaye gets to have fun on the keys. This is another song in which the lyrics are fairly simple, but no less catchy. And there is an underlying message of the need to be positive despite whatever negativity comes about: "Smiles that, / I don't see I'll make them up as I go on. Laughs that just can't be, / I'll make and laugh at everyone." The track was released as a single in November 1969, with the B-side containing a cover of Buffalo Springfield's "Everydays" (Yes would record another version of this for their next album Time and a Word.).

The original Yes lineup playing "Looking Around" and "Beyond and Before" on Hits A GoGo in 1969.

5. "Harold Land"

Kaye has fun on the keys once again as "Harold Land" opens. A smooth transition, though it does undergo a stark change in tone, from fun and upbeat to sinister, and then to somber. Though Harold Land seems to be derived from the tenor saxophonist of the same name, the song actually deals with someone who goes to war for two years and then comes back with his heart and youth gone. The message may seem on the nose, but the song is a great listen. Before Yes fans had "Yours Is No Disgrace" and "The Gates of Delirium," there was "Harold Land." After the proclamation that "There is no heart in Harold Land," the drumming intensifies a bit. And then, oddly, the song ends with a reprise of the upbeat notes with which it opened. But who can say how else this song should have ended? It can especially be difficult to say even after many listens.

6. "Every Little Thing"

The Beatles were another influence on members of Yes. Naturally, Yes decided to cover their song "Every Little Thing" from their 1964 album Beatles for Sale. With the original being two minutes long, Yes added about three minutes and forty-five seconds to their cover. A couple of stanzas and the title verse were repeated to achieve this. In contrast to "I See You," the lyrics to "Every Little Thing" are mostly faithful to the original.

In terms of the music itself, the version by The Beatles could be considered softer and simpler. But rather than replicate it in that fashion, Yes made it heavier, more of a rocking song. This was a good choice, seeing as how the track that would follow would be gentle and soft. It is good to have variety. Just as a good remake of a film could be interesting by adding new things to keep the material fresh, Yes have proven that they can reinvent songs by other renowned artists.

"Sweetness" from the first Yes album.

7. "Sweetness"

"Sweetness" is the first song that Jon Anderson and Chris Squire ever wrote together. Like "Yesterday and Today," it is another gentle love song, but with a bit more musical atmosphere to it. Interestingly, this song also includes the theme of looking around: "I'll ask her for some time to go and look around, / She puts the sweetness in with a sound." At certain points, one can imagine the music notes swirling around as the spoon stirs the sweetness. Some people might think that the song sounds too sweet, but it actually does have a lot of sincerity, with desperation accompanying the following lines: "Oh, how I need her so, I know she'll never never go / She'll never leave me, believe me / She'll never go."

"Sweetness" was released as a single a few weeks before this album was released, with the B-side being a jazzy and adventurous cover of "Something's Coming" from West Side Story, where drums and guitar are unleashed upon the listener. "Sweetness" also appeared in the end credits of the 1998 independent film Buffalo '66, really tying up the story of that film neatly in a bow.

8. "Survival"

Like "Harold Land," "Survival" has sections with starkly contrasting tones. It opens with what sounds like a fun jam. As the music intensifies, it fades out, bringing the listener into the quieter, pensive atmosphere of a morning. Anderson sings about a bird egg that is left alone once the mother bird is shot dead. He then poses the question of whether humans are too unkind to nature: "And life's the same / For things we aim / Are we to blame?" But then then there is a contrasting idea of balance and predestination in the words "All that dies / Dies for a reason / To put its strength into the seasons." It is as if this is a cycle that needs to happen, as listeners are told, "They take away and they give / The living's right to live" (This theme of give and take would later appear in the 1991 Union track "Give & Take."). Despite all this, there is a reassurance that "we're all going somewhere," and then the music is upbeat for just a few seconds, bringing the album to a close.

Yes playing "Survival" in 1969 for Beat Club. The footage of this particular song did not air, but was later released on The Lost Broadcasts in 2009.

Conclusion

While Yes might not be one of the band's most popular albums, it is still worth a listen. Most of these songs have been absent from the bands live repertoire for nearly half a century. It seems that "Yesterday and Today" has never been performed live by Yes. So much of the songs on this album may be considered obscure. Exceptions would be "Every Little Thing" (which the band updated a bit for their 35th Anniversary Tour in 2004) and "Survival" (which the band recently brought back for their Yestival Tour in 2017). Despite the lack of live performances, Yes is an album that deserves recognition for starting it all. It may not have made that big of a splash when it came out, but it is fascinating to see how far the band has come and how they have changed over the years. So if anyone ever asks whether they should listen to this album, just say, "Yes."

album reviews

About the author

Steven Shinder

Author of fantasy horror comedy novel Lemons Loom Like Rain, which is available on Amazon. You can also read excerpts at stevenshinder.com and check out facebook.com/StevenShinderStorytelling.

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