Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Heroes of Joy: The Music of YES

The music of the band Yes stands out among other rock bands, even fellow progressive rock bands, for one quality that most others lack. Though they may share all of the technical virtuosity, grand vision, and the triple-gatefold sleeves of King Crimson, Genesis, ELP, and Pink Floyd – Yes cornered the market on one commodity – joy.

The work of Yes presents a sense of life that can only be described through Ayn Rand's favored term, "sunlit universe." Indeed, many of the lyrics of Jon Anderson, not only in his Yes work, but his solo work as well, mention the glory of the sun. (See his contribution to the film
Legend, "Loved By The Sun.") As a motivating factor, they use religion in the best sense that one can, one that Rand, an atheist, would approve of. The music of Yes is an anthem to life, and the very name of the group is a reflection of that.

The band is given a lot of flack from more cynical rock fans who dismiss them as little more than "sunshine and rainbows." But that is a superficial reading. Yes is not ignorant to pain and suffering. The music of Yes, which is, admittedly, something of a "utopian" project, addresses the suffering in the world in relation to their songs of elation...theirs is not a Pollyanna solution, and a few of their songs are about epic heroes and their struggles. And, they offer no sanction of the victim. "If the summer changed to winter, yours is no disgrace!" They do not celebrate the dark, they fight through it to make their way towards the sun.

With that said, let's take a look at some of their key "works of joy":

"Sweetness" from YES (1969) From the first album, the lyrics to this song may seem a bit treacly to us today, but it was a perfect sentiment for the summer of love. A nice love song from a strong first album:

She brings the sunshine to a rainy afternoon;
She puts the sweetness in, stirs it with a spoon.

"Time and A Word" (1970) The title song provides the group's first anthem, with the sing-along lines:

There's a time and the time is now and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the time is now.
There's a word and the word is love and it's right for me,
It's right for me, and the word is love.

"I've Seen All Good People" (1971)
The Yes Album song that showed a new dimension through the exuberant guitar work of Steve Howe, and the immortal line:

I've seen all good people turn their heads each day
So satisfied I'm on my way

The song starts off in a pastoral mood and kicks into a rockabilly rock-out that shows the lie that rock music can't be anything but "anger, hurt, and rage."

"And You & I" (1972) When Yes went
Close to the Edge, you knew they wouldn't abandon you, as demonstrated by this magnificent musical piece, at once childlike and mature, simple yet orchestral...

Tales from Topographic Oceans (1974) This whole album, a tribute to what religion can represent at its best, is a tour de force, with several highlights of soaring vocal chorals, spiraling guitars, and orchestral keyboards, all culminating in the finale "Nous Sommes Du Soleil." It's a challenging work, not only musically, but spiritually, which is probably why it is so hated among many "rock" fans, but for those who seek something more, nothing less than a journey of joy.

Going for the One (1977) Another album of continuous joy and clarity. From the exhaustingly joyous "Going For the One" to the gracefulness of "Wondrous Stories..." "Turn of the Century" tells the love story of Pygmalion in a hymn to creation itself, while the album culminates in the last great epic of the Jon Anderson-led yes, "Awaken."

"Future Times/Rejoice" (1979) may be considered the poorest of the Yes albums, but Yes at their worst offers much more than most rock bands at their height. The opening track here is a very creative one, encompassing many moods and textures, and a childlike sense of possibility in an era of increasing despair. That a band could still find a way to rejoice in the age of punk was no mean feat...

"It Can Happen" (1983) The band had changed by the time Jon Anderson rejoined the band for 90125, but the spirit lived on, most notably in this track, a song of optimism that was perfect for the "morning in America" ushered in during the Reagan administration.

These songs are the key highlights to the joys of YES, but are by no means exhaustive. If you've never taken them seriously, you may want to give them another try. You have nothing to lose, but a world of joy to gain...


Mike Vardoulis said...

Didn't peg you for a prog-rocker, Joe, thought you might be in the "if its not classical its not music" camp I so often run into on certain OTHER sites...! Should have known, though, with the depth of your Rush refrences...

My own tastes are annoyingly, add-driven eclectic and include naturally a little bit of prog rock (though mostly from the aformentioned Canadian trio).

Joe Maurone said...

Didn't peg me for a prog-rocker? Have all my past posts elsewhere been in vain? Has my musical feuding with Lindsay Perigo been a mild side-show? Have you not noticed my website (spaceplayermusic.com)?

You're forgiven, since you're a Rush fan and for giving me the opportunity for the shameless plug. And you may be interested to hear I have a hard-rock ep coming out in the coming weeks, stay tuned...:)

Mike Vardoulis said...

I have been too exhausted from my own musical battles with Mr. Perigo to have picked up on yours, even got into it in person during his last visit to Southern Cali a few weeks ago - even bebop jazz or Ray Charles sends the man crawling for escape! Looking forward to the rock thing, I think you had a picture with a headphone on a la trance/electronica/hip hop dj style but then you know obscure Rush references so I didn't know what to think! Either way, thanks for clarifying, and I can now honestly say there are very few genres of music with which I don't find at least some artists I like - like I said, a.d.d.-spawned eclecticsm.