Yes recently released a ridiculously inexpensive box set of their entire Atlantic/Atco catalog, containing the remastered expanded versions of all those albums. Strangely enough, this marks the first time I’ve ever owned the band’s first two albums, although I’ve heard most of the songs therein on various collections and compilations over the years. Still, listening to those early records in isolation has been an interesting experience and has given me a new appreciation of the band’s prototypical phase.
Yes fans tend to disparage the band’s eponymous debut release, or at least to ignore it, because it doesn’t really fit the profile of “classic” Yes. I mean that literally, as a matter of fact; I discovered the band through the 1981 anthology Classic Yes, which very pointedly contained nothing from Yes.
And it’s true, Yes doesn’t quite sound like the ’70s progressive rock/AOR staple the group would go on to be. It wasn’t until 1971’s (somewhat confusingly named) The Yes Album or its follow-up Fragile that the “true” incarnation of the band came together. The change of guitarists from Peter Banks to Steve Howe with The Yes Album easily had the most profound impact on the group’s sound, though organist Tony Kaye’s departure to make way for keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman also leveraged a pretty significant transition as well.
Still, while none of these songs manage to crack the seven-minute mark — we’re still a long way from Tales of Topographic Oceans here in 1969! — the baseline of Yes can be heard here. Despite the changes the band would undergo, Yes contains some important foundations. The very first thing you hear when you drop the needle on the vinyl is Chris Squire’s unconventional bass playing for the lead-in to opening track “Beyond and Before”:
Squire never really seemed to respect the bassist’s designated role as the dude playing dull, thudding rhythms in time with the drummer, preferring to perform in a higher register (much to drummer Bill Bruford’s vexation; he was forced to change his entire approach to playing, hitting the drums in a way that would raise their pitch and keep his own performance from disappearing beneath the frequencies Squire played at). Complementing Squire’s sound is Jon Anderson’s lilting, almost soprano vocal performance, which gives the music an airy feel (further abetted by Squire’s vocal harmonies). The Yes lineup would change drastically over the years, but Squire and, for the most part, Anderson remained constants — a clear line of evolution from here to “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
Squire’s approach to bass and the peppy optimism of the band’s name and lyrics make Yes seem like it should have been a psychedelic band, but in practice Yes is a tangent from that genre at best. Banks’ guitar work grounds the band firmly in jazz-rock, with a crisp quality that stands far apart from the distorted, reverberating tones of bands like the Yardbirds or Cream. While Yes may come across as a much less musically ambitious work than the band’s follow-ups, it possesses a precision and directness that speaks of exceptional skill. Yes didn’t properly break into the big time until Howe came along and redefined the group’s sound with his dirty, country-influenced electric sound, but Banks’ contributions deserve more respect than they’re often given. Where Squire often competed sonically with Bruford, Banks’ slick, jazz-influenced style meshed perfectly with Bruford’s style; in fact, for much of the album, their intertwining performances carry the show.
Yes‘ biggest weakness comes in the compositions; only half the album’s eight tracks are original works, and a couple of those are easily the weakest pieces on the record. While the band would eventually come into its own as a purveyor of incredibly original tunes, their best performances here are tied to other people’s compositions. I’d argue that the strongest track on the album is the Beatles’ “Every Little Thing.”
“Well, of course a Beatles song would be the best thing here,” you think to yourself. But Yes’ “Every Little Thing” excels not because the original tune is any great shakes (it’s one of the Beatles’ less interesting songs), but because they go totally hog wild and make it their own. A lengthy, drum-frenzied instrumental sequence that has only the most tenuous melodic connection to the song serves as a second lead-in for nearly two minutes before the band finally picks up the familiar tune (which Squire embellishes with a sly “Day Tripper” riff). But even after they segue into the song proper, the jazzy, harmonic approach they style the song with makes “Every Little Thing” far more than a mere cover. Yes owns the song and transforms it into a far more adventurous and exciting work than the original, taking a good pop tune and exploding it into something great.
Yes‘ other highlight comes in its closing track, the Anderson-penned “Survival,” far and away the strongest original composition on the record. A powerful, aggressive performance led by Squire’s thick bass gives way to a quiet, steady jazz riff, which builds again before dropping away to reveal a bittersweet song about the harsh realities of nature featuring the album’s only appearance of an acoustic guitar, performed opposite Banks’ steady, electric rhythm guitar. The track sounds profoundly like something from the late ’60s — aside from the lack of horns, you could easily mistake it for early Chicago at times — but this builds into a swelling emotional crescendo full of harmonies backed by solemn chords from Kaye’s electric organ.
Disappointingly, the tenderness revealed this song was lost in Yes’ drive to bigger, more grandiose compositions; the band wouldn’t recapture this emotional resonance until 1977’s “Awaken,” but even that was a far larger creation than “Survival,” which (at six and a half minutes) manages not to overstay its welcome.
The remastered album also includes a few excellent bonus tracks, including a faithful rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “Everydays” and a wonderful jazz-flavored (of course) take on “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story.
All told, it’s a fantastic debut album, one that’s been unfairly deprecated in light of the creative direction the band would take in the ensuing years. But listening to Yes, you can hear not only some of its foundational elements already present, but hints of how brilliant this lineup must have been as a live act. Unlike the subsequent incarnations, who were locked into the shape of their studio recordings by the complex arrangements they inflicted upon themselves, early Yes enjoyed both simpler (though hardly simplistic) compositions and a guitar lead well versed in fluid jazz disciplines — I can only imagine that their performances at legendary venues like the Marquee must have been brilliantly unpredictable.