Tag Archives: Yes

When Critics Get It Wrong-“Flash Will Get Huge and Yes Won’t Survive”-A Blast From the Vaults of Rock Obscurity

It’s 1970, and one of the up and coming British bands tapped for success was Yes. The liner notes of their 1969 debut boldly quote Melody Maker critic Tony Wilson who declared that Led Zeppelin and Yes would be the two Brit bands most likely to succeed in 1969  (Nostradamus-wise, Zep perhaps being an easy call, Yes less so). Their debut album got some attention for it’s mash up of unlikely covers and burgeoning musical prowess, but in May 1970, disaster struck the band….

As the second Yes album, Time and a Word was undergoing final tweaks in post production and a tour testing the new material was underway-founding member Peter Banks was shown the door. Or quit, depending on who you  believe. Either way, this was looked upon in the industry as a death knell for Yes. After all, Peter Banks was generally considered to be the heart and soul of the band-fashion savvy, and with a personality and playing style that were open and daring–in marked contrast to the taskmaster persona brought by Jon and the aloof and entitled (some friends said condescending) views of Squire. He had named the band in 1968 when Jon Anderson’s suggestion of ‘Life’ and Chris Squire’s suggestion of ‘World’ were met with indifference. Peter suggested ‘Yes!’ (exclamation and all) as a holding action until they came up with something better. It stuck,  though the exclamation point was dropped quickly.(The less letters in the band name, the larger it shows up on posters noted Peter).  Banks also designed the first Yes logo.

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With a sound fueled by a Gibson ES-335 that was very difficult to define, Banks was able to fuse rhythm and lead guitar sounds simultaneously to make a jazz rock fusion that some said formed the original definition of  progressive rock guitar. Lester Bangs noted of their debut album both the good and the bad in his February 1970 review:

Because all of it is excellently done: brisk fuzz leads, whirring bass, a bit of the Beatles vocally, a touch of Wes Montgomery in the guitar solos—a definitive album, in fact, in the prevalent style of “hip” groups over the past two years. The only trouble is that there are hosts of American bands (and presumably British as well) who are into the same bag with equal facility and taste. The excitement of true innovation is missing—which may not be a valid criticism, since most rock is folk music anyway, but that’s what makes albums like this one so much less arresting than many others…Their version of the Byrds’ “I See You” is especially nice, although none of their own compositions are very memorable.

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The second Yes album cover was hastily reshot for the US version with newly acquired guitarist Steve Howe on the cover, although he didn’t play at all on the record. Howe played a similar style to Banks and his Gibson ES-175 hollow body brought a similar sound to the band as Banks’ ES-335. Howe’s reputation on the circuit was as a low key but tastefully improving guitarist, but not a forceful and flashy personality like Banks. Time and a Word featured some fairly heavy handed orchestral overdubs which stepped all over Banks’ guitar in the mix, and rendered Kaye’s organ work nearly invisible. A short attempt to demo this live in  concert left Banks even more dissatisfied-and he was gone. But with a new guitarist under their wing, the band soldiered on to create their first mini masterpiece, the meticulously ‘assembled from little song bits’ lp the Yes Album. Recorded six months after Banks departure, it brought some new success to the band. But while on tour in 1971, the axe fell again-and founding keyboardist Tony Kaye was left curbside for pickup. Two founding members leaving in a year? Many thought Yes was in big trouble. This is where our story begins:

Flash (clockwise, from left), drummer Mike Hough, bassist Ray Bennett, guitarist Peter Banks and vocalist Colin Carter. 

There is little agreement on the facts surrounding Banks and Kaye’s ouster from the Yes. In one interview Kaye said that Anderson came in his bedroom while he was sleeping off a night out and profoundly hung over. ‘You’re out of the band” said Jon and Kaye later said “I just grunted, mostly relieved that he was leaving the room so I could sleep more”

An early 1972 Rolling Stone article noted the difference of opinions as to what had transpired:


Tony Kaye and Pete Banks have now come together and formed their own band, Flash, which is currently working its way around the club and dance hall circuit.  Their departures from Yes are explained by Jon:  “They didn’t leave- we decided to get someone else.  It doesn’t help them to say that.  We’ve always said that Tony decided to leave the band because it’d get him a better situation. The truth is that we blew them out because they weren’t really into what we were trying to get together . . . Peter was a bit lazy, that’s why. He liked his clothes a bit more than his music.  Tony had a marvelous mind, he was a great guy to talk to, but he didn’t have so many ideas.  He wasn’t willing to expound himself.”

Jon and Tony seem to agree that he was tossed, Peter however disagrees (from the same early 1972 article):

  Pete Banks still doesn’t quite see that things happened the way Jon described.  “I decided to make a move more than anything,” he explained one evening, sitting on the floor of his basement flat.  On the walls were reminders of his stay with the band – posters, photographs and an album sleeve.  “I only made the decision though after I’d given it a lot of thought. Luckily Yes were strong enough to get a new guitarist, rehearse and get it back on the road.”  From his point of view Yes had become a mechanical band producing music that was less than human.  He remembered the times when he and Bruford had gone through the motions of clocking in and out on live performances, and how it [was] really only half a joke for them. “We’d go on each night knowing we’d go down well,” he said.”We’d got things worked out to that degree.  Yes always went for the technique approach, whereas with Flash we’re going for the feel.  Yes tends to lack feel.  Sometimes it’s good to make mistakes to show you’re human and that it’s not being made by a machine.  I don’t think Fragile was human.  You couldn’t fault it in any other way though.”

Peter seemed to reverse himself  and took a more distanced view of what happened in a 2006 interview:

Peter: I was kicked out, simple as that. I’ve never really found out why, to be honest. I think it was mostly musical. We hit a really bad period where we had quite a lot of work and rehearsals. I think the musical reason was, and I’m kinda guessing here, I think I lacked a certain amount of structure, and Steve came in to replace me, he was a more structured player, where my approach always has been really, I don’t like to play the same thing twice.

Obviously you have structure within music, but if someone says ‘I like what you played last week can you play it again?’ chances are I probably won’t, I’ll go out of my way to play something different, with a new spin on it. If you’re a lead singer, that kind of puts lead singers out. I think that might have been a reason but I don’t know.

I think Jon mentioned in a recent interview, where he was talking about Yes guitar players, he was very frustrated that I never played the same thing twice. Same with Bill, us two were a bit of a loose cannon. Because we were playing the same things night after night after night, we would like to screw around with it.

Rolling Stone in their review of 1971’s Fragile also took note of some of the complaints Banks had pointed out about Yes’ shortcomings:

  Some problems remain, however: They’re good and they know it, so they tend to succumb to the show-off syndrome. Their music (notably “Cans and Brahms” and “We Have Heaven”) often seems designed only to impress and tries too hard to call attention to itself. Is anyone really still excited by things like “Five tracks on this album are individual ideas, personally arranged and organized by the five members of the band..etc.”

Melody Maker echoed this in 1971: ‘Fragile’ does not seem to go anywhere or have any theme except displaying Yes’ technical ability …   It’s all a little too much like exercises, clever and beautifully played”.

 (A quick aside: Jon wasn’t averse to taking some dodgy chances with Yes-like recording around this time, as a Faberge commercial was recorded during the sessions for the studio version of America:     Another project which was waiting to be recorded when “America”  finally reached the can was a 60-second commercial for Faberge-
Put a little music on and hear it play/ Put a little music on from Faberge.
They’d even got a nice little arrangement for the band to set the lyrics to, but Jon wanted to it his way. He decided to use the same technique he used on “We Have Heaven” on the Fragile album, where they overlay vocal tracks from their own music. ” I think it’s worth it,” said Jon.”Not for the money we’re getting, but because it’ll be a nice little song when it’s done the way I want it. I didn’t want a dinky little song. Anyway, the more people that hear our music the better.”)

Whatever the facts were, two important founding members of Yes had joined forces in 1971 to create a band that echoed the early sound of Yes, but emphasized feeling over technique, and playing for the sheer joy of creation over the construction of things far removed from the emotional immediacy of rock n roll. People were excited.

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Although he is listed as a full member on their debut album, Tony Kaye was always viewed as a sideman in this project according to both Kaye and Banks (there were high hopes he’d stay on) Still, this fact escaped the music press, and Flash were viewed as a back to roots version of Yes, something that is less evident as desirable today as it was back in 1971. With the guitarist and keyboardist who’d provided most of the musical ‘sound’ to the parent band now in a new project-who could say which one would come out on top?

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https://ronkanefiles.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/flash_new.jpg?w=1440&h=712Their debut album in 1972 was decidedly Yes-like. Band members Mike Hough on drums, Ray Bennett on bass and the noticeably Jon Anderson-ish Colin Carter on vocals made up the quartet. Bennett had some prog-cred even in his teenage years: he’d been in a band with Bill Bruford at age 15, and rubbed elbows in bands with musicians who ended up in Gentle Giant, Man and Gun. The album cover by Hipgnosis was ambiguously created to impart a sauciness when viewed in the racks, but entirely confusing as to whether it was a front or rear shot when folded out. Small Beginnings, the first single, charted on both sides of the pond (top 30 in US Billboard) and things looked bright.

Children of the Universe, another highlight, accentuated the Yes vibe. Diddits and rahoovyahs straight out of The Yes Album were the frosting on the dexterous and constantly changing instrumental underpinnings. Banks was able to knit together some impressive runs that challenged the depth of his earlier work with Yes. His runs became even more jazz-like than in Yes, approaching a territory the Robert Fripp had dipped his toes into during the early days of King Crimson, yet Banks created a more successful hybridization of rock and jazz stylings. Although this album didn’t make the waves some critics were expecting, it did well enough to warrant a second album release, and many Yes fans snapped this up instantly. In retrospect, this was a fine response to  The Yes Album. Fragile? Well there was no challenger to Roundabout here, but the earlier notation by Banks that Fragile was hampered by sterility of playing shows the difference of opinions that led to his departure. Besides, Fragile only contained four actual songs.

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Fully keyboard-less, the band delivered their sophomore effort, just as strong as their debut. Titled Flash in the Can, a name that punned on  the sophomoric cover. Like the first album, this one also flaunted the ‘sex will sell this album, dammit!” as it likewise folded out to a more salacious version. Despite the word flash meaning ‘fancy and cool’ in British slang, the record company was intent on another meaning of flash for the public to grab onto. One thing was sure at this point-Flash could jam live.

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Banks reveals anti-gravity guitar solo effect

The second album contains what many consider their finest musical moment, There No More. Overall, this album hangs together better than their debut, despite the lack of a proper keyboardist. The first two albums are definitely essential for any Yes fan. Critics weren’t so sure that a progressive rock band could cut it without keyboards, but Banks fretwork here ups the ante from the debut. Check out this:

Despite being perhaps even more overtly Yes-like (albeit an early version of Yes), their second album didn’t get the attention it deserved.Songwriting credit for Banks was limited to a half a song, as Ray Bennett was revealed as the principle songwriter-Banks crafted his guitar in and around songs. Maddeningly,  despite a full US tour spending a large chunk of  1972 in the States with the likes of Foghat, Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, Three Dog Night, Beck Bogert and Appice, Black Sabbath, Genesis, Alice Cooper, Mott the Hoople and Humble Pie, the band’s fortunes only slightly crept onward. A second US tour in December of 1972 did see them headlining many of their own shows, and a full billboard graced the streets of Los Angeles next to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go.

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Their 1973 album, Out of Our Hands continued the ‘boobs n butts’ theme, with hands and knuckles cleverly taking the place of arched backs and bums. The band had been sued for their name, forcing the record company to call the band ‘Flash featuring England’s Peter Banks’, much to the consternation of his hard working band mates. Sure Banks was still the draw, even three albums in, but his musical mates chafed at the change. They  played at least 65 US shows on an arduous tour from early August to mid November, finally imploding on November 17, 1973 with seven shows remaining to the tour-which all had to be canceled. Dissension and fatigue combined with the inability to get to the next level to finally destroy the band. According to Bennett, the problems 
all came down to Banks: “He
 was almost entirely to blame for the early Flash breakup, and for a major 
amount of friction and unrest in our
 camp — and not just with the band
— almost everyone around us, too:
 manager, producer, Capitol Records
 and others. I’ve restrained myself
 from just saying it bluntly in the past,
 but Flash didn’t just ‘implode on the
 road’. We’d had enough of Banks.”Some information on their dissolution can be found in an interview with Carter and Bennett here.

Banks takes a more distant, but similar view of the break-up in 2006, acknowledging he might have been a problem:

 We didn’t last long, but we were very creative, we made 3 albums in 2 years. But business things were very bad, we needed new management, I was very unhappy. What turned out to be our last tour was very Spinal Tap, I wasn’t even traveling with the guys, I would show up sometimes 10 minutes before the show, and I  probably acted like a real asshole at the time.

We broke up in New Mexico with 4 more gigs to go, very unfortunate thing to happen. I tried and I tried after that, because it was like a divorce. For 2 years we’d been working so intensely, we were getting better but the audiences were dropping off. We were playing with bands we shouldn’t have played with.

I had wondered about some of the bills they had been booked on during the US tour. They had more success here than in the UK, and it made sense to try to capitalize on the buzz created by the first album and single, but really…Three Dog Night and Flash on tour together? Grand Funk? Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show? A gig is a gig I suppose, but a more concerted effort to get them in front of an appreciative audience by  their management is perhaps the biggest spike driven into their possible success.
An easy example-Genesis was in the States in 1973, and Flash would have been the perfect opening act on that bill. Perhaps they were trying a bit too hard to shake the perception that they were a junior varsity version of Yes and were their own band by playing with folks not even close to their more technically adept stylings.

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Image result for flash colin carter   Image result for flash ray bennett

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that Flash wasn’t going to hit the same level as Yes. But in 1971, things weren’t as easy to predict. Half of Yes strikes out on their own, leaving only the singer, drummer and bassist? You can see how those paying attention might be wont to plunk their ducats on the dark horse in this race. To this day, the first two Flash albums stand up extremely well against their peer group of B-division progressive rock bands of the early 70’s, (hell it even stands up fairly well against pre-Close to the Edge Yes.)  And the world would have to wait a few more years for the next even more  derivative Yes clone band to hit the floorboards, (though lacking the cachet of real Yes members)…..Starcastle.

But for now, let’s just ruminate on some small beginnings with large aspirations. One more pass through with Flash on US TV in 1972:

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The Best Bands You’ve Never Heard of: Van Der Graaf Generator: “Camps of Panolply and Majesty-Meet Tortured Soul and Refugee”

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Van der Graaf Generator is another band that is criminally unknown is the common era. Even among neo-prog twenty somethings, their name usually elicits blank stares. It isn’t until you hit rock kids that are tipping in at the late forties early fifties end of the spectrum will you be greeted with knowing nods and slow smiles. Because those people still know what has now become a bit of a secret-Van der Graaf Generator were one of the most challenging and influential bands in the world in the early and mid 1970’s. One of the big ones. But they seem to be slipping from the zeitgeist of musical gatekeepers. This needs to be addressed.

Name checked by a wide variety of artists (John Lydon of the Sex Pistol/PIL, Marc Almond of Soft Cell, Graham Coxon of Blur,Mark Smith of the Fall, John Frusciante of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden and Julian Cope of general psychedelic fame. Even Geddy Lee of Rush mentions them briefly in an interview) Van der Graaf made an imprint on rock in four very short years from 1969-1972 that is still reverberating through music today. How could a band this unknown have influenced such a wide variety of bands, and how have they seemed to have flown under everyone’s radar?

One reason is the lineup– having no guitar player in a rock band in the late sixties or early seventies was not something that would play to your benefit. Electric guitar is the heart of rock, right? How about no bass player AND no guitarist? Unthinkable. So the line up of the classic quartet of Peter Hammill, Guy Evans, Hugh Banton and David Jackson? Piano, drums, organ and sax.  What? But the people who were watching music closely (ya know, the folks who could correctly tell you King Crimson was a much more advanced proposition than Yes or Genesis, and why) could tell you that this band was something special.

Iconoclasts in philosophical bent, lyrical bent and certainly in musical ideas-Van der Graaf was a loose collective of ever changing musicians trying something new in a field of musicians currently defining what new was. Rock was really changing big time in early 1967 London-Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Cream, Traffic? You could walk into clubs and see them playing to crowds of a hundred or so. A Beatle or a Rolling Stone or two might be in that crowd. Pop fluff was being scattered to the winds, and an intellectual wave of literature, philosophy, drugs, mysticism, ufo investigation and science fiction imagery had bubbled into rock. The Hammill led band proceeded in an organ driven Arthur Brown vein, but the next two years saw them shuffling line ups, guitarists, bassists, hiring session men who would become band members, getting signed to Charisma (future home of Genesis), and putting out a solo Peter Hammill album out as a Van der Graaf Generator lp…they stopped to assess things in 1969. Band equipment stolen, contract hassles with labels (Mercury, Charisma, Polydor)-things needed to settle. With the departure in 1970 of Nic Potter, Banton began bashing away on bass with both feet on organ pedals while using both hands to create most of the meat of the song-saxophone and drums barking in reeling consonance.

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The quartet era of the band from 1970-1972 is the stuff of legends. (their 1975 reunion is also worthy as is their work up until this day). Their master piece, Pawn Hearts in 1972 is the quiet cousin  of King Crimson’s better work. Fripp actually dips in for some of his most inventive session work in his career for these guys The inner sleeve of Pawn Hearts was something I didn’t see for a while (the US version wasn’t gatefold), and it is unsettling in a dada-esque tableaux. An unsettling vocal jazz version of a King Crimson-esque approach to music supported by drums, organ and sax is an unlikely combination for a band that could inspire riotous fan behavior, but this band certainly did, especially in Italy in 1972, where three tours supported this album. Hugh Banton playing bass with his feet on organ pedals upon Nic Potter’s departure, Peter Hammill a genius of vocal histrionics, and able to twist the throat of a phrase and make it spit out some truth was worthy of the poets of a brit century ago, hey stir in some eloquent piano and slashing acoustic guitar as well.

A good introduction to the band is with their last work with their bass player Nic Potter in 1970, Pioneers Over C, all 12 minutes of it:

 Van der Graaf Generator are also one of the big finalists in the ‘best side long song ever’ -prog rock is usually understood here-among the best of the best. Close to the Edge? Supper’s Ready?
The third choice is usually A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers, side two of Pawn Hearts. Never performed live (except once in pieces and repieced for Belgian TV right before they broke up). Below is that Belgian appearance of Plague (I urge you to watch this in its 24 minute entirety to understand how this song is one of the big ones-
Nice epitaph to a civilization teetering on the edge of breakthrough from 45 years ago in Manchester. These guys are one of the best of the best, yet somehow have slipped through many cracks. You like Yes? King Crimson? Magma? ELP? Genesis? Area? PFM? Freaky pre-goth vocals okay? I might have your band right here. Lyrically, there’s more angst in a single Van der Graaf song than two full Nirvana albums. This is an overload of powerful psychic outburst that might fry the fragile subwirings of delicate millenials, yet showed up in 75% of their core stuff. Insanely essential rock band, one of the best of the early seventies by a long shot.
             Image result for the least we can do is wave van der graaf          Image result for h to h van der graaf     Pawn Hearts (Van der Graaf Generator album - cover art).jpg
Get all three of those albums, immediately. If King Crimson scared the Moody Blues out of signing them to their label in 1969 as reported, then this is the only band that could scare King Crimson.
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This is the stuff of legends, legends that some now haven’t even heard of, which is disturbing. One more time:  grab all THREE of these albums right now. Sure, there was a 1975 reunion, with Godbluff and Still life in 1975 and 1976 respectively nearing the bar set so high in 1972. But this article is about the big three from 1970-1972.  More angst than how many Nirvana albums? In a field of bands that are almost literally undefinable in sound, this band defies description. You up for a challenge in your listening diet? This kind of band is what happens when you actually pay attention to everything that has come before, a quantum leap in creativity can create a break with the predecessors.

Camps of panoply and majesty, what is Freedom of Choice?
Where do I stand in the pageantry…whose is my voice?
It doesn’t feel so very bad now: I think the end is the start.
Begin to feel very glad now:
ALL THINGS ARE A PART
ALL THINGS ARE APART
ALL THINGS ARE A PART.

Anderson, Rabin, Wakeman-Howe, White, Squire (RIP): Yes? No? Maybe?

The story of Yes in their glory days is pretty well known, but many fans lost track of them in the 80’s. Even fewer are aware that things kept going right up to the present day, with some decidedly mixed and contentious moments and results. (If your name is Jon Davison or Billy Sherwood, please x out of this window now, it’s not going to be pretty.)

Yes is one of the defining bands of the 70’s rock n roll scene. Able to jump genres, (mostly their fan’s genres) everyone who had records in the late 70’s had a Yes album: Fragile, Yessongs and the Yes Album were on most kids shelves. Close to the Edge showed up on the more adventurous fan’s collection. Even Tales From Topographic Oceans wasn’t unfamiliar in college dorms in the early 80’s. But the ability to please everyone in the plebeian beer swilling rock scene was a heady achievement for such a distinctly tricky British prog band.

The Eighties

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Many Yes fans lost track of the band as they ended up combining forces with the Buggles’ Trevor Horne and Geoff Downes in 1980 (better than one might guess) but soon broke up, crushing fans and scattering them to the winds. 1983 saw an unlikely resurgence for the band: a reunion line up of Yes (originally called Cinema until Jon rejoined) which suddenly had a number one hit (Owner of a Lonely Heart), a triple platinum album (90125, initially known as 80120 until its release was delayed), a huge MTV video, and a battalion of new fans unaware of their deep philosophic and esoteric musical heritage. 1987’s Big Generator couldn’t really sustain the immense wave of popularity they had garnered. (The complete lack of thought in the last two album covers wasn’t helping, either)

The Big Split

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Then…something happened. Chris Squire and Jon Anderson had a falling out in 1988 over the future of the band, as Squire had descended into a coke infused downward spiral but stubbornly held to creative control, he either a. eventually fired Anderson or b. Anderson quit. In the end, Squire owned the name, but had no bandmates as Anderson took Steve Howe, Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman from the classic era, plugged in Tony Levin on bass, and the legal team of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe was born. Yes existed as Chris Squire alone, with no band. (Tony Kaye, Trevor Rabin and Alan White were still lurking around, but with Anderson gone, it was a band without any viable plans.) ABWH put out a fairly convincing version of Yes, and toured successfully in 1989. Attempts by Squire and his legal team to sue ABWH into submission did little to convince anyone that this wasn’t the ‘real’ Yes.

(Does anyone remember the Dead Milkmen album Metaphysical Graffiti? Which contained the song Anderson, Walkman, Buttholes and How! Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers fame ranted these lyrics:

We’ve got to get together
And we’ve got to save the snails
Let’s board the purple spaceships
Before they set sail

I want a Yes reunion
And you know I want one now
No more Anderson
Walkman, Buttholes and How!

Listening to the opera
And smoking angels’ dust
You can’t get more fucking
Progressive than us)

War is Over, We Will Now Have a Union….

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Yes, one big happy family?

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ABWH began to fall apart during the second album sessions, and a solution was hastily proposed: a fusion of ABWH and the remnants of Yes to form a supergroup derived from a single band–an apparent octet featuring Jon Anderson on vocals, Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin on guitar, Rick Wakeman and Tony Kaye on keyboards, Chris Squire on bass, and Bill Bruford and Alan White on drums. (In reality, White and Kaye only appear on one song, and Rabin on three). Too many cooks spoiled the broth, hired hands re-recorded Howe and Wakeman’s original recordings, and Jon Anderson’s control freak streak combined to make the most disjointed and disappointing Yes release to date, one which had a startling amount of sidemen credited-18 in total, ten of them keyboardists. Seven producers are listed. No one was surprised when this lineup imploded (1992).

Or Not….

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Peter Max cover

Talk, in 1994, quietly rewrote what was essentially  going to be a Trevor Rabin solo affair into a hastily reconstituted ‘Yes of the 80’s’ lineup. It was a fully digital project pre-dating Protools–it  is sonic-wise a great high end stereo system test album, but sterile is another word used frequently for this cut and paste technique that eventually took the industry over in the next few years. The odd choice of Peter Max was diametrically opposed to the whole ethos of the mysticism of the Yes concept, but appears to be signaling an intentional break with the past. Yes seemed to be fading into the woodwork. ( I still like this album a lot, just found it on vinyl)

Wakeman In, Wakeman Out, Wakeman In, Wakeman Out

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1995 saw the reformation of the classic lineup, with Howe and Wakeman rejoining, displacing Rabin and Kaye (who wasn’t on much of Talk anyway). Keys to Ascension 1 and Keys to Ascension 2 were the result of this 1995-1996 reunion. Mostly remakes of classic 70’s era tunes, the second volume contained Mind Drive, a lengthy song that was the last and one of the few pieces to survive from the ill fated 1981 collaboration between Led Zeppelin and Yes known as XYZ. (a quick read on them here.) Wakeman bounced in November 1996 and Billy Sherwood, mixing engineer on Keys came aboard as the new keyboardist. The lackluster Open Your Eyes in 1997 closed many eyes forever for older Yes fans still clinging on.

 

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Yes, now a quartet plus one replacement part was struggling for a sound. Pop? Prog? Neither? The third choice seemed to describe 1999’s The Ladder, which saw Sherwood shift to second guitar, the first time Yes had had a second guitarist in their 31 years to that date. Producer Bruce Fairbairn died while recording this lp, prompting some ill advised jokes about the current state of the band. Igor Khoroshev took over on keys and Yes now contained two replacement parts. Horns? World music? Techno? (via Front Line Assembly/Skinny Puppy associate Rhys Fulber) This further muddied the waters of the Yes sound as they seemed to throw anything against the wall to see what stuck. (see: Union) Magnification in 2001 was a mild return to form, written specifically to be recorded with an orchestra to replace the departed Sherwood and Igor. Some Yes fans forgave them since they had jettisoned the replacement parts and were now a quartet. Anderson was frustrated with low album sales and a moratorium on new material was declared. Yes became a live outfit only.

A 2000 tour where they played only seven songs was one dream finally realized: the big three: Close to the Edge, Ritual, Gates of Delerium in one set combined with  Starship Trooper to bring in a four song wallop that clocked in at nearly 80 minutes. A Roundabout and All Good People, and a Heart of the Sunrise rounded out the evening. ( I remember watching Howe on the jumbotron during Gates as he grimaced at his fingers to will them to get every note as he silently cursed himself for writing such convoluted passages).  Wakeman wasn’t yet returned, and Igor held down the keyboard duties. (Igor eventually got the heave ho for feeling up and biting a couple of  unamused female security guards backstage at a show in Washington DC in 2000)

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Suddenly, Wakeman was inspired to rejoin for the..let’s see errr…fourth time, and the classic lineup toured from 2002-2004.  The 2004 35th anniversary tour featured inflatable stage props to give Roger Dean’s art work some three dimensional life. (when the lights hit it wrong, it looked a bit uncomfortably weird, like slightly uncool deflated and warped beach toys) The band didn’t seem like they were having much fun. Wakeman bailed once again after the 2004 tour.

Kicked Out of a Band You Founded?

When a 2008 world tour had to be first postponed and then canceled due to Jon Anderson’s serious respiratory illness, the band quickly made a muddle headed decision, and fired the founder, voice of the band and spiritual leader, and moved on. (note that when Squire’s ill health forced a postponement of the spring 2009 tour, nobody even blinked.) Benoit David from a Canadian Yes tribute band was YouTube selected by Squire, and with Oliver Wakeman (Rick’s kid) in tow, the band hurriedly set out to honor the commitments of the failed tour. Yes was now playing clubs and small theaters as the trio of Squire, White and Howe didn’t get folks frothing to see the remnants of a legendary outfit sporting now an offspring as a member. David acquitted himself well, recording Fly From Here, the first Yes album in a decade. It relies heavily on the 1980 Buggles era album Drama as its source for material, reworking themes and re-recording some unreleased pieces to generally good effect. Ironically, David was shown the door in 2012 for a brief respiratory illness that postponed a leg of the tour (he found he was out of the band when reading a Chris Squire interview announcing his departure).

Enter Jon version 2

Image result for jon davison yes
Mountains came out of the sky once, Jon

Jon Davison, yet another YouTube discovery, was hastily plugged in to replace David and the 2012 tour commenced. (Geoff Downes from the Buggles and Drama (and Asia) had rejoined on keys by now, replacing Oliver Wakeman) Davison was much more faithful to the Jon Anderson’s ethereal vibe than Benoit David’s more Trevor Horn approach. He also exudes a passion for the music that is tangible on stage. But the excitement quickly dissipated with the replacement singers, and Yes was doing package tours with Styx and Procol Harum to get some asses in the seats. Copping a trick that many classic rock acts had done to reboot some enthusiasm, Yes went out on “the Albums Tour”. They played Close to the Edge, the Yes Album and Going For the One in their entirety, which had mixed results. Fans were excited by the old chestnuts revisited, but others wondered why the now healed Jon Anderson wasn’t a part of this. Yes also ignored the wisdom of the moratorium on new material, and blorted out the ill advised album, Heaven and Earth. Scathing reviews put this as the nadir of the Yes experience, as many questioned why they would sully what was left of their reputation. This album made Union look refreshing and challenging.

Heaven & Earth
Cover = A-. Music = D+.

Yes vs. Anderson Rabin Wakeman

The untimely death of founding member (and main antagonist to Anderson) Chris Squire in 2015 threw Yes for a loop. Down to Howe and White, with Geoff Downes of the 1980 Drama album as the authentic members, folks questioned the decision (rooted in Squire’s final wishes) to continue the band. The 2016 tour revisited Tales From Topographic Oceans and Drama, with a bands worth of replacement players. With Alan White out due to back problems, Yes consists of Steve Howe. Reactions to the tour were mixed.(scroll to end of that review)

But very quietly, whispers indicated something else was cooking. Jon Anderson had done a small tour with Rick Wakeman in 2011, and another one with Jean Luc Ponty in 2015. He seemed healthy and vibrant on stage, and gave consistently warm and powerful performances of reworked Yes classics.  Then in summer 2016, fans were greeted with this news:

ARW.JPG

Image result for anderson rabin wakeman live

Image result for anderson rabin wakeman live
I think this one is in ‘G’

Holy shit, a real version of Yes was going to tour? Discussions started to pop up in well informed boards-which one is the real Yes? (stevehoffman.com polls had ARW as the 88% choice) As you have read, this wasn’t a new question, but one that has dogged them for decades. The ARW tour has just begun this month, and I attended the 12th show of the tour. What confronted me was the real Yes (friends said this blew the current Yes out of the water in the first ten minutes). Wakeman, resplendent in a very complicated cape, surrounded by a dozen keyboards including two Minimoogs,  Jon trim and in full voice, Rabin the quiet metal edged power-this band cooks like the 1985 tour did. Sure Steve Howe is missed, as is Alan White. But those two guys cannot fill up a room with sound, power and vibrations like Anderson and Wakeman (with Rabin)  can. Jon regaling us with tales from the past: “Ahh Boston Garden…remember that? You were there, I was there. We were stoned, eh?” and introducing the Meeting from AWBH said “we were in Montserrat recording, and we went out to play cricket against some local schoolkids. They were like eleven and twelve and thought we could wipe the field with them. Wrong! They annihilated us. Rick and I got drunk after and went into the studio to improvise a piano/vocal duet on the spot. This is the result”

Though the evening of Yes Music and More consisted of Yes music only (barring the Meeting from AWBH), and some choices posited in early interviews (Endless Dream from Talk, I’m Running from Big Generator) were instead represented by Rhythm of Love (Big Generator) and Lift Me Up (Union), it didn’t matter. The power of Awaken, Perpetual Change, Heart of the Sunrise and Long Distance Runaround blew the theater to delirious heights. (overheard at show: ‘if Jon Davison sees this, he is going to quit Yes on the spot out of guilt’). In short, ARW is the real deal, Yes reborn. Friends after the show that attend all things Yes agreed: the current version of Yes is a nice, a polite evening’s entertainment. ARW is full on Yes, where you walk out of the show going ‘holy shit was that amazing!’ A set list is available here.

Shoot High, Aim Low… or: Wither Yes?

So where does that leave us? Is the current Yes even Yes? Is it now a tribute band to Yes? Is the band that doesn’t own the name the real Yes? The only logical solution is a fusion of the two units. No Chris Squire leaves a large hole in the proceedings, as he was the second strong voice in harmonies, and his distinctive growling Rickenbacker bass stylings practically founded a genre of prog bass playing (Rush, Starcastle, Genesis, Lemmy in Hawkwind among the many). He is irreplaceable. But the lineup of Anderson Wakeman Howe White and perhaps Rabin and Tony Levin would certainly engender some real excitement. Fill up some hockey rinks. I will leave you with one further thing overheard on the way out:

“Yes is in BIG trouble when word of this gets around…”

Update April 2017: Jon Anderson reclaims the band name, and ARW is now known at Yes featuring Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman. Let the fun begin.

Yes-Open Your Eyes: Carwreck Archives #3 August 1998

This is another off the wall review from VMag, August 1998. God bless Murphy, the editor for understanding these reviews in all their not so subtleties. Part Three of a look at the Carwreck Archives. These pieces were written for VMag, a music and arts magazine from the late 1990’s until the early 2000’s. Home to some pretty amazing writers, all under the patient watch of editor Murphy, one of the best of the best. Some reviews were quick hits, some were downright strange. The following is one of the latter. Murphy published this untouched in the pre Columbine world,  only commenting dryly “So you didn’t like it?”.

Yes-Open Your Eyes (Beyond/Tommy Boy) 1998

Zack skated around the corner of his street, the dread in his heart increasing. He knew, of course, that his parents would be home. His mom was kinda straight, but his dad….uh….well, his friends thought they were OK but Zack knew they were so, well–friggin’ goofy.  His dad reviewed records for the Springfield paper, and regarded himself as damn hip. If it wasn’t bad enough that Zack had to absorb eternal grief for his skateboarding, they’d also made him get rid of all his piercings.

Now his old man was censoring what he would bring home to listen to. Ever since he’d seen his dad snap the Fugazi and Life of Agony discs in half right in front of him, Zack had settled on a compromise plan. CD’s would be smuggled into the house inside innocuous looking jewel cased covers.

He entered the front  door quietly. -“Oh Christ there he is…”

Zack’s dad looked up from an ancient issue of Crawdaddy.  “What ya got there, sport?” he asked,  noticing  the CD’s in in Zack’s hand. He peered into the darkness of the doorway to see….

“Hmmm, YES, Open Your Eyes and the Symphonic Pink Floyd? That Billy Sherwood certainly has revitalized Yes, hasn’t he? I mean, I had my doubts during the Buggles era, but now, whew! Four stars next Sunday, y’know? Dad said to no one in particular as Zack quickly exited toward his room.

Sliding the deadbolt shut, Zack tossed the Yes and Floyd onto his dresser, on top of the Pearl Jam-Yield and Dave Matthews- Live empty cases. Opening his five CD changer, he carefully loaded the new Hatebreed and Snapcase into the machine, and donned his headphones. “They should be happy I’m not a metalhead anymore” he intoned to the empty room.

Zack absently picked at the shrinking scab on his arm, until a dark crimson globe appeared, shining at the corner. Zack regarded the reflection of the light in the growing orb, and chuckled to himself.

“Yup, it’s decided, tomorrow’s the day…”   He glanced around his room at the Queen, No Doubt and Bush posters his dad had bought him.

“….tomorrow, I finally will kill both of them.”

-Carwreck deBangs,  August 1998

 

 

Yes-Heaven and Earth: Rock Bottom, Here We Are

Heaven & Earth

There are very few times that I take pleasure in savaging a long time favorite band in print. But the  plethora of stellar reviews for the dreadful Heaven and Earth album from 2014 (unfortunately Chris Squire’s final legacy) boggled the mind. So this review was written more in response to the addled would be Amazon reviewers than for any inherent axe to grind with Yes. That axe had unfortunately  been dulled heavily in the last two decades. Anyway, this is written for those who thought this is “a fine album”.

Here is one question for the (at this point) one hundred different five star reviewers of this album: How many stars would Fragile get? Seventeen? How many for Close to the Edge? Thirty two? Folks who throw five star reviews around willy-nilly need to take a breath, and realize they are not really reviewers, but cheerleaders. And hey, that’s ok. I love Yes. Seen them every tour since 1977. But if this is a good Yes album, I am apparently stone deaf. I saw Jon Davison twice on this past tour, and he is a very nice replacement for Jon Anderson-gauzy shirts, ethereal voice, cosmic references. But as long as Jon Anderson is on earth and breathing, it is hard to take this band seriously. The last tours were full versions of Close to the Edge, The Yes Album and Going For the One. Davison acquitted himself respectfully, more Jon Anderson than Benoit David’s take on Drama was. Yet the previous vocalist managed to get some life out of these guys, where on this record, the band literally sleep walks through a mind numbing embarrassment of stuporific elevator music.
The list of the guilty is large. First up-Roy Thomas Baker, of Queen fame at the production helm. Those Yes fans who are hard core will remember him as the producer of the failed follow up to Tormato in 1979, an album that wasted months of time, thousands of dollars, and miles of recording tape better left untouched. Some of that ended up as a blueprint for a wispy Jon Anderson solo album, but the main result of this collaboration was a hugely acrimonious break up of one of the most legendary prog bands of the seventies, and no album.

The production here is demo level and sounds hurried and murky-drums in the background, Squire’s bass varying from inaudible to middling, but always on cruise control. Howe is hard to gauge, more a background coloring than the forceful disciple of Chet Atkins and maniacal fretboard wizard of the seventies that topped ‘best guitarist’ polls on both sides of the pond. Downes has a distinct lack of imagination in his keyboards, although he may be trying to inject some 70’s authenticity and sacrificed the rest to the gods. Davison sounds as bright and excited as anyone who just joined his dream band would. But inexplicably he has co writer in credit on most of the album. And though vocally a fine performer, lyrics are not his strength. Subway Walls has flickers of the Yes we knew and loved, but is written by Davison and Downes. Squire and Howe have nothing to say musically any more? Seriously a sad state of affairs for such a beloved band. Yes, we may have unreasonable expectations, but this falls off a cliff and drags everyone with it. Safe, saccharine, pop soft rock cliched trite unchallenging slow tempo poorly produced AOR bland unambitious easy listening. This is a compendium of various comments and reviews of this album.  Does that sound like a Yes album you cannot wait to hear? If Open Your Eyes was a two star affair, let me be clear: this would rate a zero on that scale.
One reviewer put it this way-if Starcastle was several degrees away from Yes, this album is several degrees away from Starcastle. If you are a long term Yes fan, let that last sentence guide you.
In summation, this is the worst album they have ever released, by a longshot. If you enjoy watching disasters unfold, jump aboard. If you love Yes as much as many of the reviewers here do? Mourning is upon us. The gates of delirium have slammed shut.
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In The Lap of the Gods-Amazing Super Groups That Almost Happened: HELP, XYZ, WWB and Beyond

The Super Group: a collection of well known stars that band together to make up a highly touted record selling juggernaut, attract all of the attention, get the plum gigs, and of course, get all the girls. Most have failed, few rise above the hype and the lucky ones (usually ones not noted initially as super groups) grab the brass ring of success.

blind

Early super groups were defined by the band Blind Faith. Even the name suggests what the audience should have going into the project. Members of Cream (kind of a super group already)  and Traffic (Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, Steve Winwood and Ric Grech) combined ideas and personnel to make one middling album (known more for its topless twelve year old girl on the album cover than any music inside), a 1969 tour that pulled in the dollars but showed the band to be more or less a blues jam band with few real songs, and relied on their former bands for in concert faves. Playing the same Cream songs to increasing hordes of rabid fans who were out of their minds wasted was exactly why Clapton had broken Cream up, so the writing was on the wall. They pulled the plug and quickly faded from memory, thus providing the model for many super groups to follow. (see GTR)

Jimi_Hendrix_Exp. elp help

But this article isn’t about the dinosaur era of failed super groups, it is about groups that nearly formed, or formed and then disbanded without any output. You know, the big “what if’s?” of rock history. One of the first of note did not have a name, but was going to be a collision between the most histrionic rock guitarist going, and the most over the top keyboardist of all time: Jimi Hendrix and Keith Emerson. It was to be called either HELP or HELM depending on the final line up. With the end of the Nice, Emerson was looking to retool a band. He had already pooched Greg Lake from King Crimson, and was fishing around for some pieces of the puzzle to round out the band. Supposedly he contacted Hendrix to jam together, and (depending on who you listen to) Jimi came by to sit in on  some of the early sessions that yielded Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  This is where the story gets a little murky. The one thing that has been documented is that Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell showed up to a rehearsal at Emerson’s studio with a large entourage. Discussions of Mitchell coming on board to round out the trio led to the wild idea of including Hendrix. It is uncertain whether Carl Palmer was in the loop of discussion as of yet as a drum choice. It is likely that, had the project gone a bit further, Hendrix would have had the final say in drummers, and gone with his favorite in Mitchell over the unknown Palmer. British tabloids at the time hinted at the HELP moniker, but a close look at the facts indicate that the HELM lineup would have been the final outcome. Witnesses to the first meetings said that the huge drugged out entourage Hendrix brought with him did not lend to the ‘friendly jam’ atmosphere that nascent bands crave in the formative stage, and that Lake and Emerson “freaked out”, and had second thoughts. Still, for any fans of Hendrix and ELP, the thought of two of the most talented point men in rock being able to duel on stage and trade riffs and solos of unimaginable depth is pretty appealing. (Hendrix’s untimely death in 1970 put an end to the proposal). But the jazzier leanings Hendrix was dabbling in at the time make it even more of a tantalizing proposition. Which leads to….

miles telegram

Hendrix, McCartney, Miles Davis and Tony Williams. This lineup is documented by an October telegram sent to Apple Records and Paul McCartney trying to get the bass player to show up in New York for the album sessions. Hendrix and McCartney are already a fairly enticing proposition, but throw in jazz legend Miles Davis and phenom jazz drummer Tony Williams? Good god the mind boggles at the thought of what that quartet could have accomplished. Whether Macca would have been one of many bassists on the album or a solid member of the quartet is unknown. But the tantalizing scrap of paper in the Hard Rock Cafe bears witness to something that rock fans can only dream about- a super group that could have rewritten musical boundaries forever. The Hendrix album Nine to the Universe released in 1980 had jazz leanings, and a little known album session with John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra fame showed the direction Hendrix was heading. (McLaughlin nixed the release of his jams with Jimi, alluding to crappy playing on his part. I have a bootleg of  the session, and McLaughlin gets truly smoked at every turn and is out of sorts with Hendrix, not something a flash guitarist wants on his resume). In the long run, McCartney was on holiday and it is unknown whether he was apprised of the telegram. (Apple was notoriously inefficient in 1969).  But this would have been something special, no doubt. A group that would have defined and redefined “jazz rock”.

Hindenburg

Led Zeppelin Mk 0, Proto-Zep 1966

This is a band line up  that has fueled much speculation and disagreement over the years: Led Zeppelin almost happened in 1966. There is only one enticingly small piece of evidence that documents this incarnation of the proto-band. A barely noticed B-side to a Jeff Beck single (Hi Ho Silver Lining) called Beck’s Bolero had been recorded in May 1966, and quietly slipped out in 1967. A truly earth shaking super group this was too: Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck on guitar, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, John Paul Jones on bass and Keith Moon on drums. Page and Beck had a short run together in the Yardbirds (Train Kept a Rollin’ in the film Blow Up was their only documented duet), but this single had the earmarks of a real band. The Who were on the verge of a break up once again (Daltrey had been fired briefly in 1966) and Moon and Entwistle had discussed a project involving Jimmy Page. Whether the original name Lead Zeppelin originated with Moon, Entwistle or future Zep manager Peter Grant is unclear (Page has tapped Moon as the origin)–Entwistle was adamant that Grant was present at his and Moon’s initial discussions and stole the idea, including that he had even thought the project out to include the Hindenburg in flames on their first album cover (which Grant also nicked). Soon the Who and Moon had kissed and made up, and this idea was put on the backburner to simmer for a couple of years.

beatles  (FILE) Rolling Stones Return To Hyde Park, A Look Back At The 1969 Concert bob-dylan-1969

Beatles, Stones, Dylan form a single band

Before passing out of the sixties, another proposed band has recently come to light. In the realms of the word super group, this one would  have been a doozy: a nine piece band comprising Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. Yep–Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, all in one band. Producer Glyn Johns let this one out in his recent book. According to Johns, the impetus for this project came solely from Bob Dylan. He wanted to make an album with the most influential song writers of the 1960’s, and see what the combined talents could collaborate on to produce. The time period would have been the summer of 1969-Self Portrait era of Dylan, post Brian Jones Stones, and the chaos of Let it Be for the Beatles. Johns had worked for years on the Rolling Stones production end, and Dylan was intrigued by his recent work with the Beatles. Despite Dylan’s enthusiasm, only George Harrison and Keith Richards jumped at the chance and tried to gather support. Wyman, Ringo and Watts waited to see what others would do, and Lennon felt ambivalent. McCartney and Jagger would not even consider it for a second, perhaps reflecting the power struggles then going on in both bands. Despite the cachet these names generate, it is hard to see how this would have played out. Collaborative song writing? If real, then it would have been something we’d still be analyzing to this day. But other luminaries were sidling up…

yes-xyz plant

                                           xyz

Fast forwarding a decade comes a super group that strikes very close to home: XYZ. Representing eX Yes and Zeppelin, XYZ was formed in late 1980 as both Yes and Led Zeppelin had imploded (the former due to a break up during the failed follow up to Tormato, the other by the death of John Bonham.). At the time, two of my favorite bands had just jumped the rails, and my lifelong search to finally see Led Zeppelin live summer 1980 was thwarted by Bonham’s untimely death. Whispers by those who had insider information spoke of XYZ-Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Chris Squire and Alan White. Holy Crap–talk about a consolation prize! I anxiously awaited further news. I carried around a 1981 clipping from a local newspaper from a ticket scalping agency for the better part of a decade. Around the border were upcoming big concerts they were pushing: The Rolling Stones, Springsteen, AC/DC…the hottest tours of the biggest bands circled in a border around the advert. But one caught my eye, the elusive XYZ. Was there going to be a tour? Holy shit! But then….an information black out. Nothing in the news anywhere about this. What was going on?  In reality, Page, White and Squire had gotten together with former Greenslade keyboardist David Lawson to combine forces. As a front man, the obvious choice was Robert Plant. Rehearsals in early 1981 progressed well, but Plant dropped out after a single session with them, citing lingering trauma from Bonham’s death. Other sources claim the songs being written were straying into an unfamiliar ground as Squire and White drew Page into much trickier uncharted territory-fluctuating time signatures, stops and starts and evolving key changes–the hallmarks of prog rock and Yes. Plant found this material out of  his comfort zone and a bit too “tricky” for his liking. Whichever excuse you  prefer, Plant was out. This left Squire and David Lawson as vocalists, but the initial momentum and  enthusiasm began to wane as rehearsals continued. Disputes over management between Brian Lane of the Yes camp and Peter Grant of the Zep camp did not help. (The aborted sessions produced some tantalizingly rare outtakes, which finally have surfaced in the bootleg underground and are readily available to the skilled internet surfer). Finally both parties realized that this was headed in the wrong direction without Plant to tie it together, and they went their separate ways. Some of the more finished material ended up on the rare Squire/White single,  Run With the Fox. Other material ended up on the 1983 Yes reformation album 90125. One song ended up on a Page/Rodgers Firm album. One of the ‘trickier’ pieces finally surfaced 15 years later as Mind Drive on the 1997 Keys to Ascension2 Yes album. For many Yes fans, this was the last decent original song they ever released. Few know that its origins have Jimmy Page rattling around in there somewhere. But this wasn’t the only aborted Yes project of the era….

When Yes failed to come up with a follow up to Tormato, they imploded in Paris. Roy Thomas Baker was at the helm, and the band bickered endlessly. Writing was strained and Jon Anderson tried to wrestle control and impose his will upon the band, a very un-Yeslike attitude. (Songs of this era showed up on bonus tracks of Drama and the Anderson solo album Song of Seven. They are excruciatingly bad.) In the background was the easily disaffected keyboard genius Rick Wakeman. Rick had once famously consumed sausage sandwiches on his grand piano while playing on the Tales From Topographic Oceans tour to show his disapproval of the material and horrify the recently vegan turned Anderson and Howe. So when Alan White broke his ankle during the sessions, Rick saw his opportunity and wisely bolted for the door.

wwb wetton

WWB-Wakeman, Wetton, Bruford

But this was not the first time Wakeman had pulled a vanishing act. The first time was post Tales, in 1974. He then became a fairly large draw as a solo act, but stage productions for Journey to the Center of the Earth (performed around a lake with inflatable monsters bobbing up and down from the surface) and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of  the Round Table (performed around a skating rink with ice skating characters, and orchestra and choir) drained finances like burning money in a stove. A solution was in the offing, and America had the answer. With ELP effectively off the road, a keyboard led supergroup was needed. That group was Wakeman Wetton and Bruford, WWB.  John Wetton and Bill Bruford had most recently played together in the final 70’s version of King Crimson, and were nearly telepathic in their playing. Wakeman? Well as he himself has noted, was an unofficial member of the UK Olympic Drinking Team. This seemed doomed from the start, but they hung together for six weeks in May-June 1977, took promo photos on a James Bond movie set, had press releases out and record companies lined up. Unfortunately, the execs pumped up Wakeman’s already inflated ego with promises of ELP styled mega events with him at the helm. They also proposed a 50-25-25 split of the finances, something that Wetton and Bruford could not swallow. With  accountants running with contracts after them, the band fell apart. Wakeman rejoined Yes, while Wetton and Bruford enlisted Eddie Jobson and Alan Holdsworth for the more sedate and complex band, UK. The bombastic WWB never saw the light of day. Two songs of their work survived–Beelzebub surfaced on a Bruford solo album, and Thirty Years on the first UK album.

Recent history has provided many an example of super groups that fizzle out upon launch. Had these bands continued and actually toured and released albums,the same fate may have struck the above mentioned bands. But time and events will not let us know how this  would have played out. One thing I do know, I really would  have loved to see Jimmy Page in a progressive rock band. “What if?” indeed.

Kansas in 2014–Sparse. “Steve Walsh is Still Amazing….Wait…What?”

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Kansas has been on their 40th anniversary tour for a while now, going on two years. Though some are unfamiliar with the hectic changes time and God hath wrought upon the band, not many are aware of the recent change to the lead singer/keyboardist’s position. For a majority of Kansas fans, Steve Walsh IS Kansas, a gyrating, keyboard thrashing center of attention, with a set of vocal cords that put most seventies yelpers to shame. It was pretty much unthinkable for him to leave, but the wholesale lineup upheavals that plagued the band since the mid 80’s saw Steve exiting the frontman position in the middle of a tour with basically no explanation. Peculiar to say the least.

This brings us to the recent New York appearance by the band. The above quote in the title was overheard in the bar after the show ended. Nobody corrected him because you see, very quietly Steve Walsh left the band a few weeks ago, and Kansas kept that news kind of quiet. Hardly anyone knew. They kept it so quiet they almost mumbled the details as they introduced new singer Ronnie Platt halfway through the show. Even then, some in the crowd were unaware it was not Steve. But Ronnie, from the Chicago area cover band Arra fills the shoes of Steve Walsh nicely. Anyone familiar with Kansas’ Live at the Whisky 1992 live album is aware of the vocal problems plaguing Walsh over the last two decades–straining to hit notes, little power and a general uncomfortable sensation wondering if the next note would be his last. These problems have not abated in the recent decade, and the casual fan is left to wonder if he quit or was thrown out of the band. Either way, most fans are fairly disappointed that the big 40th tour is now a celebration being held by the guitarist and the drummer. Sparse lineup.

When do we become original members Billy?

Kansas has been held together by (old time) newcomers Billy Greer on bass (joined 1985) and Dave Ragsdale on vioiin (joined 1991) for the better part of two decades. Robbie Steinhardt, the original violinist, bailed in 1982, Kerry Livgren, the wildly talented lead guitarist and widely regarded leader of the band left in 1983 (he did return briefly in 1990-1). Founding bassist Dave Hope left with Livgren (they had both become devoted Christians and became born again after Monolith in 1979, essentially tearing the band apart from the inside. After dabbling in the dense Urantia Book for answers, LIvgren fell headlong into Christianity on tour in 1979). The horrors of post Monolith Kansas were largely ignored by most, when with John Elefante (another devout evangelist) on vocals (joined in 1982), the band essentially became a modern day Christian rock band. Only the religiously converted and the extremely fanatical stayed on board. The odd addition of the Dixie Dreg’s Steve Morse in 1985 saw a brief flicker of interest rekindled, while few noticed Walsh’s return, a return that lasted nearly 30 years. The band became a fairground and casino circuit draw, rubbing elbows with Foghat and such.

The unexpected and untimely departure of Walsh led to a lineup consisting of the above mentioned Ragsdale and Greer, along with surviving founding members drummer Phil Ehart and guitarist Richie Williams. The lighting guy was depped in to play (nearly inaudible) keyboards, and Ronnie Platt on keys and vocals round out the sextet. The band stage lineup look was sparse, and the stage had a PA hung from the ceiling left and right, with no supplemental speaker columns on stage. No stage monitors or guitar amplifiers graced the stage for any of the instruments, lending a further sparseness to the air. ‘Is this a band on extreme budget tour?’ was a queston that came to mind.

But there is more to Kansas than Dust in the Wind, their signature but unrepresentative major hit. On a good day in the mid 70’s, Kansas were quite a musical phenomenon. An Americanized version of Yes and other British prog bands, they were able to give many bands a run for their money. Like some Jr. Varsity Mahavishnu Orchestra, Kansas could change keys, time signatures and instruments in seconds, stopping on a dime and leaving change. Many forget the power these guys were capable of mustering in their heyday of 1974-1979. Much of that muscle was still on display this week, as the remnants of Kansas were the backdrop for the new vocalist showing off his chops. Ronnie Platt was the real highlight of the evening, a flawless imitation of Walsh in 1975 at the height of his powers, giving the band a strange dichotomy. A depleted Kansas with a faltering lead vocalist is but a shadow of a former monolithic band, but still original. A replacement vocalist that acts and sings so much like Walsh that some didn’t even notice it was a new guy? Well that’s pretty damn good too.

Old songs mixed with newer ones-Point of Know Return, the achingly beautiful Song For America, Belexes and Closet Chronicles rubbed elbows with clunkers like Fight Fire With Fire, Hold on and Play the Game from their Christian era. But the overwhelming power of their original material won the day. Dave Ragsdale doubled on guitar for some tunes, enabling the dueting Livgren and Williams used to such good effect. The obligatory Carry on My Wayward Son rounded out the evening (a song that is diabolically difficult to play or sing) leaving the crowd stomping and chanting.

Final note-in lieu of merchandise, two large posters with the band’s URL graced the lobby. No shirts, no hoodies, no DVDs, no CDs, nothing. Fan reactions varied from miffed to genuinely annoyed. “How hard is it to pay a guy to sell a thousand bucks worth of shirts per night? Really?” Sparse again.

Yet out of the sparseness still was a solid backbone of a band that changed many people’s lives forever. And despite the best efforts to dismantle it through muddle headed decisions and overt religious flourishes (Robbie Steinhardt used to complain openly that the band had gone from good time partying to holding prayer meetings before shows), Kansas is still a very entertaining proposition. As they once said in Closet Chronicles: “I heard the king is dying, I heard the king is dead”. Pretend you don’t know it’s a new singer, close your eyes and prepare to be impressed. Not dead yet. Wheatheads rejoice!

Update, February 2016

I was down in Florida recently and noticed on a billboard that Steve Walsh was touring this spring, opening for the John Payne version of Asia. If Steve is healthy enough to be touring, well……one can hope, can’t one?