By John Mendelssohn Los Angeles Times September 28. 1980
Question: Do you imagine it impossible to sum up in a single word all that rock's third generation, that is, the punks and their new wave legatees, detested about the rock of the '70s?
If you answered yes, you just proved yourself wrong.
Throughout the '70s, Yes, the unprecedentedly ambitious rock-based fivesome from London, didn't want its fans to dance, but rather sought to raise them to a loftier spiritual plane. The lyrics of founder and singer Jon Anderson were not inspired by personal experience, but rather, the group's press bio proudly notes, by the likes of the Shastric Scriptures, as described in Paramahansa Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi."
Indeed, you couldn't have danced to Yes if you'd wanted to, for the bizarre time signatures in which the group so loved to play, often, it seemed, just to prove that someone in rock could, defied one even to tap his foot in time. Such was the virtuosity of the group that not even double concept albums could express it to the full, and each eventually felt compelled to record his own "solo" album. In these guys' hands, rock wasn't just any old dance music, a good-time noise that made you feel better, but something nobler, something very nearly akin to Art.
Early this year the Yes bubble appeared to have popped, as Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman both abandoned the group -- Wakeman for the second time. When the remaining members, guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White, replaced them with keyboardist Geoff Downes and singer Trevor Horn, who heretofore had purveyed what might be described as teenybop techno-pop under the guise of the Buggles, everyone was astonished.
It turned out that no one need have been, though, for if the new lineup's first album, "Drama," is infinitely more accessible than such earlier Yes paradigms of pretension and self-importance, it's still highly demanding listening, about as far from Elvis Costello's "Get Happy!" as anything released this year is likely to be.
When Wakeman left Yes for the first time in 1974, he disparaged his estranged accomplices as pious macrobiotic bores. And Jon Anderson was said to be obsessed with his own peculiar musical vision to the point of being a prime pain in the neck to work with. But when The Times phoned Steve Howe in London just before he and his old and new mates embarked on their current American tour, which will bring them to the Sports Arena Friday night, he still couldn't be persuaded to cough up any bitchily good copy on the subject of Wakeman's and Anderson's departures.
"No, I wouldn't say that it got ugly," he says. "The best word is very difficult. There were problems on many fronts, but they all could have been avoided if we'd been in contact musically. The nitty-gritty between us had always been the music, but things that got dragged out were differences of opinion about musical direction, album sleeves and every other facet of the group. At one time, we could have solved all our problems through the music. The real killer was when we stopped doing that."
The affable, posh-accented guitarist feels his group has gotten more in step with the times since the addition of the former Buggles, who originally came to the group's attention when they submitted one of their songs, "We Can Fly From Here," for their consideration. "I'd say we're more concise and clear now," he avers. "The top-line guitar and keyboard concept has changed quite radicalIy, been modernized. Instead of padding and thickening agents, we've gone back to lines much, much more. We're using the orchestral side of Yes much more selectively, limiting the gloss, you might say."
He denies that his group's alleged modernization is attributable to the influence of the angry young men and women of rock's third generation, about which he muses, "I don't see the new-wave thing as something I can hold up to the light and say, 'This is a diamond, this is one thing, one substance.' Punk was just like macrobiotics, a temporary way of life that takes you on to something else until you realize that maybe what you had before was better. The fact that they have green hair and weird trousers isn't any more upsetting than it was when Bill Haley and Elvis came out and had people saying, 'They can't do that!'
"In some ways, it seems that people's ability to determine what's bad is going right downhill. At the same time, there's something to be said for that, because people who would otherwise be smashing windows or running a McDonald's or something feel they can have a go at music, and have that outlet for their energy."
Encouraged to denounce those who've denounced Yes and its ilk so vituperatively, the mild-mannered Howe will go no further than to suggest that there's some hypocrisy built into the punk stance. "These groups all seem to go through a period of thinking that they'll never want the things that the established stars have got, of saying, 'We don't need all that crap.' That's great, but unfortunately most people end up being met by a limousine when they arrive in America. The minute that happens, you realize that there's this terrible contradiction. You ought to admit what you are, decide why you're doing what you're doing, and then carry on doing it with a clear mind."
Pressed to comment on the oft-heard charge that groups like Yes suffer from delusions of grandeur, Howe confides, "We know that some people say that our style has gone out of fashion, but in some ways that hasn't really affected us very much. I don't think we're being unrealistic when we say that we have fans. We don't take those fans for granted. We know that we have to work to give them pleasure.
"When we construct a piece, we honestly have never said to one another, 'Well, let's show off here.' I think the technical side of our music, the stuff that's raised eyebrows, is much more in moderation now."
He insists that Yes is indeed more concerned with expression than with flaunting its virtuosity, and offers himself as proof. "I know that people say that I play too much, too fast, but each time we go on tour I try harder not to blow it away. I've been getting better and better at controlling my reflexes and staying on top of things. I'm trying to be an effective guitarist and not a flashy, technical one.
"The past is worth debating," he concludes, "but recently I've been telling myself not to think about it too much, because that's pretty cannibalistic.
"Whatever's been leveled at us in the past, we want to be rejudged. We're saying to everybody, 'Yes might have been this, and might have been that, and you might have loved us or hated us, but now we're re-presenting ourselves to you. There have been terrible things done in the future as well, but right now I believe that we're doing something that's pretty interesting."