By request: Drama

Jess recently bugged me to write more music reviews, like I used to do, uh, a bazillion years ago or so. This makes him one of several people who had posed a similar demand of late. But he made it easy on me by requesting a very specific write-up: Drama by Yes. So here you go, Jess. This one’s for you. Now gimme a dollar.

Yes | Drama
1980 | Atlantic Records

Drama might just be the most under-appreciated record Yes ever recorded. You can blame the circumstances surrounding its birth for much of that disdain: It’s the single Yes album to completely lack any input whatsoever from the series’ iconic, lilting, man-faerie of a vocalist, Jon Anderson. After the absolute mess of a record that was 1978’s Tormato, Anderson wisely bailed from the band to work on solo projects and a string of poppy, electronic works with Vangelis, of all people. This was a wise decision, because it resulted in “The Friends of Mr. Cairo,” which is great.

But it kind of left his band in the muck; after more than a decade with a rock-steady front man who helped keep an even keel and a consistent sound through no end of lineup changes, the band was suddenly headless. To make things even worse, keyboard god Rick Wakeman chose that same juncture to leave the band (again) and wander off to make New Agey concept albums about King Arthur. And worst of all, the band couldn’t have chosen two more unlikely replacements for Anderson and Wakeman than Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. They were The Buggles. They were known for short, sparse, post-punk tunes like “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the diametric opposite of everything Yes stood for.

And yet, somehow, Horn and Downes helped put together an incredibly strong and decidedly Yes-like work in Drama. Their catchy pop sensibilities mitigated the indulgences of guitarist Steve Howe and bassist Chris Squire, and the two very different schools of composition met smartly in the middle. Drama featured the long-form composition and instrumental virtuosity fans demanded, but with a cleaner, more powerful sound than ever before. The opening track, “Machine Messiah,” embodies the spirit of the entire album: It begins by fading up into a stomping heavy metal wall of guitar riffs, which iterate a few times through before giving way to a light-hearted acoustic passage, accompanied by Horn doing his best Anderson-esque castrato. Over the track’s ten-minute running time, it alternates between these two extremes, sometimes aggressive, sometimes uplifting, constantly changing tempos and keys and sound without ever feeling disjointed.

“Machine Messiah” is then followed by “White Car,” an odd 81-second track that sounds for all the world like it’s going to be an epic, orchestrated, 15-minute masterpiece along the lines of 1977’s “Awaken,” only to end abruptly (yet gently!) after the first verse. The two tracks are quite a contrast, but they share one quality in common: Neither is quite what it initially seems to be. Yet both sound, unabashedly, like Yes.

The album’s best-known tracks are the pair of six-minute rockers that end each side of the record: “Does It Really Happen” and “Tempus Fugit.” These tunes are the album’s centerpieces for a few reasons. They feature a heavy emphasis on the rhythm line laid down by Squire’s floor-shaking bass; they both have similar straightforward tempos complemented by dense instrumentation; and they both serve as accessible anchors to cleanse the palate after the topsy-turvy compositions of Drama‘s other four tracks. They also unknowingly predict the band’s sweeping New Wave-inspired reinvention that would come three years later in 90125… yet unlike the sound that Trevor Rabin would bring, they feel like natural evolutions of the band’s legacy as well.

Of course, all of these things — most of all the absence of Anderson — have led many Yes fans to dismiss Drama as an ill-considered cash-in on the band’s name. But that’s giving short shrift to six excellent and varied songs, not to mention one of the most cohesive and structured records the band ever assembled. For whatever reason (like the Anderson fan blowback), this incarnation of the band only lasted for a single album and the subsequent tour, and Yes has never officially released any live recordings of Horn’s take on Anderson’s oeuvre — a pity, because the thick, powerful audio of the album suggests that this might well have been the single most impressive-sounding live incarnation of the band. I mean, heck, this may be the single album where drummer Alan White actually seems to belong. Usually his direct style seems at odds with Howe’s virtuosic guitars, but the bright compositions and tidy mastering and engineering present in Drama — an artifact of that fleeting time in music history where analog technology was at its pinnacle and digital recording was still a slightly distant dream — help unify their work, with Squire’s amazing bass providing the glue and Downes seemingly content to use his keyboards largely for texture.

It’s a great album: Accessible but not overtly radio-friendly. Too bad most of the band’s fans seem to hate the thing. But hell, I’ll be the first to admit that Yes fans are mostly a bunch of stuck-up prigs with questionable taste in music.

20 thoughts on “By request: Drama

  1. Nicely done. I’ve always been a fan of Drama for many of the reasons you cite here. It strips away the pretensions and excess and rocks out. Sad that the Downes went on to recreate those problems in Asia.

  2. Thank you! The check is in the mail.

    Got any thoughts specifically on The Buggles’ I Am A Camera vs. Yes’s Into the Lens? They’re essentially the same song but sound much different from the two bands (even though Horn was in both).

  3. My dad had a painting of the album cover hanging on the wall since before I was born. Also, as the story goes, I was named after Chris Squire and my brother was almost named Steve, but my mom thought better of having both her twin sons named after Yes musicians.

    He’s a big Yes fan.

  4. And here I was, thinking The Buggles belonged in the same bin as Tim Curry’s “I do the Rock”. Any article that gets me surfing Wikipedia Prog Rock entries is a good thing (I petered out on Tony Levin’s page…)

  5. I never said it was better than Fragile. That would be a meaningless comparison at best!

  6. Stumbled on this post because Penny Arcade linked the one below (I know).

    I’m a huge Yes fan, and I completely agree with how underrated this album is. I could gush about this album all day. It was a situation the should have never worked, yet, it works beautifully. It’s an anomaly of the Yes catalog, and I personally would have loved to see what this lineup would have done throughout the 80’s if they had continued. I also think Downes’ choice of keyboard sounds are some of the best in the Yes catalog.

    Horn & Downes are not as unqualified for the positions as one might assume, though. They were both actually really big Yes fans before joining the group. The story goes they wrote some songs for them to use around this time, and the band just decided to bring them into the fold altogether. Horn also produced the next two Yes albums after they reconvened a few years later.

    Unfortunately, part of the reason this lineup didn’t last was because they didn’t do so well in a live situation. Trevor just couldn’t handle singing in Jon’s register night after night, and his throat was giving out towards the end of the tour, and they got panned by the audiences in the UK, I hear. I do have a bootleg of a couple of US shows, though, and they sound pretty good.

  7. I was just kidding. It was in ref to your “secret best” comment on the twitter that the kids are using. I get a kick out of these posts seeing as you’re younger than I am and I’m an old GIA gamer that also knows who yes actually is. I even saw loverboy live as an opening act for kansas back in the…you know. So I make silly cracks at your age while looking at my toasty frog magnet on my fridge. You can offer me condolences for the Loverboy concert, and knowing who Billy Ocean is… I’ve got 3 yes albums on vinyl so with posts like this I become less of a spectator and more of a rambler like I am now. You kids get off my lawn!

  8. That was a welcomed and delightful post to read. Though if readers requested that you precede Toastyfrog/Gamespite with a splash page like the “good old days”, I doubt you’ll be willing to oblige?

  9. The only Yes album I own is Fragile, and I love it to death. Been meaning to branch out…which albums do you (or anyone here) recommend? I heard mixed reviews on most of the later stuff, heh.

  10. Fragile and The Yes Album are pretty safe bets. If you’re OK with long-form stuff, Close to the Edge is great, and Going for the One is a good mix of longer and shorter tracks. I love Relayer, but it’s not very popular from what I can tell, and everything else is a seriously acquired taste.

  11. Parish is spot on, in my opinion. I generally recommend the first three mentioned to anybody that is looking to get into Yes.

  12. Words cannot describe how much I *actively* dislike this album. It has less to do with the compositions and more to do with the arrangements — Chris Squire, for example, is absolutely on fire, and I like the vocals, but Howe and Dornes’ timbre sounds like something pulled from a latter day Aerosmith album. Case in point: “Does It Really Happen?” sounds like a technically proficient version of “Sweet Emotion” (with a really cool bassline, despite it being “Heart of the Sunrise” lite). I’ve spent a lot of time with this album — for some reason — and I can’t say that it was time well spent.

  13. If you are interested in analog recording, I recommend you listen to Mr. Bungle’s last album, California.

    All analog, they used several 24-track machines to get it done. Some of the songs have over 50 tracks.

  14. The Buggles’ Age of Plastic is a great album through and through. The follow-up, Adventures in Modern Recording, is weaker but still pretty okay. And that is all I have to say about that.

  15. its interesting that multiple eclectic interests would meet like this amongst so many people. you make me feel like much less of a freak, jeremy.
    i feel like jon anderson brought spirituality to the band, and i dont like this lineup, not because its any less well-composed than what brought me to yes in the first place, but because i feel like the heart and soul is missing.

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