Atlantic Records, 1969

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


When people think of progressive rock stalwarts Yes, they almost always think of what hardcore fans refer to as “the main sequence” – The Yes Album through Tormato, 1971 through 1978.  Those seven studio albums for the most part feature Jon Anderson (vocals), Steve Howe (guitars), Chris Squire (bass/vocals), and Rick Wakeman (keyboards), with first Bill Bruford, then Alan White behind the drum kit.

The effect that this has for many fans is to marginalize the group’s first two albums, which featured a lineup of Anderson, Squire, Bruford, Tony Kaye (keyboards) and Peter Banks (guitars).  And while their first two releases are markedly less sophisticated in style and execution from the main sequence, their self-titled debut in particular showcases a young band fearlessly exploring its musical identity, and deserves more attention than it’s typically received from fans like me.

Yes’s first album, while it only suggests the heights the band would achieve in terms of musical complexity and instrumental virtuosity, is a damned good album.  It’s easy to see why it captured people’s attention in its day, because it mixes and matches such a remarkable range of styles, combining the melodic drive and vocal harmonies of the Beatles, the folkish whimsy of Simon & Garfunkel, the mystical soulfulness of Van Morrison, and more than a little pure ballsy showmanship into an ambitious, uneven, but overall quite impressive debut.

With this album, Yes forcefully demonstrated that they were going to be both a deeply musical band, and a band unhindered by musical convention.  Squire’s throbbing, assertive bass lines are already in strong evidence, Bruford’s drumming flashes back and forth between Keith Moon-influenced hyperactivity and an extremely sophisticated jazz sensibility, and while Kaye’s organ and Banks’ guitar work might not be as intricate as that of their successors, the raw energy they pour into these tracks is explosive.

“Beyond And Before” declares the band’s arrival with a fanfare of distorted guitar and thrumming, propulsive bass, before Anderson and Squire come in with harmonized vocals.  It feels like a slightly cosmic mind-meld between Buffalo Springfield and Led Zeppelin, with all the seeds of what was to come in evidence – the throbbing, bounding bass, the adventurous guitar and organ, the complex arrangements, shifting time signatures, and the multi-part harmonies that have always been the band’s secret weapon.  It might not sound groundbreaking if you listen to it right after “Close To The Edge” -- but put in the musical context of late Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and the Byrds, the adventurousness and virtuosity already present in this lineup is pretty breathtaking. 

Giving a direct nod to one of their inspirations, the group next tackles the Byrds’ “I See You,” giving it a Van Morrison white-soul mystical feel, with Banks’ licks very soft and jazzy.  When Banks solos two and a half minutes in, he starts out aggressive and almost atonal, before devolving into Wes Montgomery elegance -- it’s like the dynamic speaker who in mid-speech starts to whisper, forcing you to pay close attention to every word.  Bruford stays with him every step of the way, and Squire is outright thrashing his bass until the quiet section, where he goes silent.  Then at 4:55, Banks returns to Jimmy Page-ing it with a sequence that sounds more than a little like Mr. Page’s trademark “Whole Lotta Love” boom-boom-guitar solo bit. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

From that dynamic opening pair, the album interpolates soft and heavy, yin and yang.  “Yesterday And Today” is an airy Anderson folk tune – gentle, pastoral, almost plaintive.  “Looking Around” is a solid, driving pop-rock tune with a slightly spacey feel and a strong vocal arrangement with Anderson and Squire calling and answering on the verses.  The repetition of the main theme gives it pop structure, but they still play with it, shifting time signatures and introducing new riffs.  “Harold Land” opens anthemically with Squire’s dirty bass leading the way, before it falls back to Anderson singing solo over Kaye’s piano and organ, an atmospheric section that has kind of a “Simon and Garfunkel on Broadway” feel to it. 

“Every Little Thing” might be the most familiar tune on here for longtime fans, as it shows up frequently on the band’s larger collections.  It really is a great track, taking the Beatles’ original and launching it into the stratosphere with a psychedelic overture that has Bruford’s drums all over the place and Banks’ riffs heavy and stabbing, right up to where the song takes recognizable form at 1:45.  The boys then throw in a bar of “Ticket To Ride” as an extra nod to John and Paul before rambling joyously through a loose arrangement full of great energy.

“Sweetness” harks back to “Yesterday And Today,” another gentle ballad with Anderson cooing romantically; it’s rather fluffy and inconsequential, but not bad for what it is.  Closer “Survival” starts off heavy with distorted Banks chords and Squire barging in with some thumping lead bass while Bruford does his skittering jazz hi-hat licks underneath.  They do a steady build to a repeating motif… that then cross-fades into what feels like an entirely different song.  The band appears to have attempted here to meld the thundering psychedelia they show off elsewhere with the soft, plaintive style of the album’s ballads, and while I’m not sure it all holds together, the Hollies-and-Byrds influenced vocal arrangement is very pretty.  At the end, they pick up the opening motif again to deliver a finishing flourish.

The 2003 reissue of Yes offers a repeating trio of bonus tracks, in early and later versions.  The group’s radical do-over of Stephen Stills’ “Everydays” shows off their affinity for Van Morrison-esque jazz-pop through the first three slow-burn minutes, before it explodes into a proggy jam with angular Banks riffs and bludgeoning Squire bass and Kaye doing exotic runs on his Hammond while Bruford skims back and forth between a hi-hat-heavy jazz beat and his best Moon impression.  The song’s two distinct themes – and the return to the misty jazz theme at the end -- preface the band’s later fascination with stitching together prog-rock suites. 

The other highlight of the bonus tracks is “Something’s Coming,” in which a brash young British rock band takes an iconic tune from West Side Story and utterly transforms it, deconstructing the song’s themes, turning them inside out and recasting them in multiple different rock structures and tones.  The end result is unrecognizable, melodramatic and absolutely entertaining from the first note to the last. 

Yes the album was as positive and universal a declaration of intent as Yes the band name.  This was a group full of energy and eager to venture into unexplored musical territory.

Rating: B+

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© 2010 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Atlantic Records, and is used for informational purposes only.