One of the most successful progressive-rock bands in history, Yes combined virtuosic musicianship, suitelike neoclassical structures, and three-part high vocal harmonies to form an elaborate whole that most critics called irrelevant highflown indulgence – and that audiences loved. After undergoing Byzantine personnel changes, they updated their sound in the mid-1980s and enjoyed greater commercial success than ever.
Yes was former after Jon Anderson met Chris Squire at a London music-industry bar in 1968. Anderson had spent the previous 12 years in various bands; Squire, a self-taught bassist, had been in the Syn. With guitarist Peter Banks, keyboardist Tony Kaye, and drummer Bill Bruford, they formed Yes. One of the first engagements was opening for Cream's London farewell concert in November 1968. The band won instant critical acclaim in Britain, and by the time of their debut album, which mixed originals with covers, were hailed as "the next supergroup." Time and a Word, which used an orchestra to flesh out intricately shifting arrangements, was somewhat less well received.
At this point, Yes had yet to break through in America, and Atlantic Records informed them that the next album might be their last. Banks left to form Flash, and new guitarist Steve Howe – formerly of such bands as the Syndicate and Tomorrow – helped make The Yes Album (#40, 1971) their breakthrough. With continual FM airplay it went gold.
In 1971 Tony Kaye left to form Badger (he later joined Detective and then Badfinger). His replacement, Rick Wakeman, had garnered acclaim with the Strawbs. Fragile (#4, 1972) consolidated the band's success. Highlighted by an edited "Roundabout" (#13, 1972), the album went gold. With Close to the Edge (#3, 1972), Yes' ambition attained new heights. Consisting of three extended cuts, with a four-movement title suite, the album too went gold in short order. After recording it, Bruford left to join King Crimson (whose leader, Robert Fripp, had once been approached to replace Peter Banks). His replacement was sessionman Alan White, who had played in John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.
The live Yessongs (#13, 1973) was followed by the critically derided Tales From Topographic Oceans (#6, 1974). The album sold well, however, and the band continued to be a top-drawing live act. But Tales brought to a head conflicts between Wakeman, an extroverted meat-eating beer drinker, and the other players, who were sober vegetarians. Wakeman, openly expressing his disillusionment, soon left.
Wakeman's replacement was Patrick Moraz (like Wakeman, classically trained), of progressive-rock band Refugee. He debuted on Relayer (#5, 19740, which, like Close to the Edge, featured an extended suit and forays into jazz fusion. With the release of Yesterdays (#17, 1975), a compilation including tracks from the first two (uncharted) Yes albums, the band took a year off as each member pursued solo projects.
After Yes had made a successful world tour with Moraz, Wakeman rejoined. Both Going for the One (#8, 1977) and Tomato (#10, 1978) returned to shorter, tighter song structures. But though Yes continued to sell albums and fill arenas, its days seemed numbered. Wakeman left again, followed by Anderson, who had written most of Yes' lyrics. Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes of the new-wave band the Buggles (who had a hit with "Video Killed the Radio Star" [see entry]) debuted on Drama (#18, 1980). Shortly thereafter, Yes broke up.
Howe and Downes then joined with Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake and Palmer and John Wetton to form the progressive-rock supergroup Asia [see entry], who debuted in 1982 with a massively successful album. Anderson continued to make solo albums. Squire and White planned to start a band called Cinema. But in mid-1983 Anderson, Kaye, Squire, White, and South African guitarist Trevor Rabin re-formed Yes and went on with 90125 (#5, 1983) and its Rabin-penned #1 single "Owner of a Lonely Heart," both to score the band's highest chart position and to redefine its sound. Largely due to produced Trevor Horn, Yes streamlined its approach, eschewing classical stylings for sonically gorgeous, crafty pop. Rabin's songwriting dominated The Big Generator (#15, 1987), after which Anderson quit.
By 1989 the band's personnel squabbles reached new intensity; after a court battle over the group name, Squire, White, Rabin, and Kaye continued as the official Yes, while the warring faction of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and How toured and recorded using their surnames. The two camps reconciled on Union (#15, 1991), going on a world tour that, for all the logistical unwieldiness of its eight-played lineup, was a huge commercial success.
In 1993 Anderson, Bruford, and Howe joined the London Philharmonic in an album of symphonic versions of Yes songs. A year later, Yes – this time comprised of the members who'd released 90125 – announced plans to record again, and early 1994 saw the release of Talk (#33, 1994). In 1997 the band, with new guitarist Billy Sherwood and additional keyboardist Igor Khoroshev, released two albums in one month, the catchy pop of Open Your Eyes and the more typically ambitious Keys to Ascension, vol. 2. By this time, Rick Wakeman, while still pursuing a career in Christian music, was back in the Yes fold. The Ladder (1999) echoed the progressive-rock melodrama of the band's early heyday.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
Hear guitarist Trevor Rabin's original demo of the song that brought Yes back from the dead
Keyboardist talks comedy background, the true meaning of prog and why Friday's Yes reunion will never happen again