Yes: When A Band Is No Longer ‘Fit For Purpose’
29th December 2017
Title: Topographic Drama
During it’s 2016 tour, Yes played its 1980 album Drama in its entirety. The first time it had ever done such a thing. More than that, it also played sides one and four from the 1973 double-album Tales From Topographic Oceans. Startling because these are arguably the two most contentious LPs in the band’s entire discography. The first because Trevor Horn was on vocals for the former original album and nearly ripped his voice to shreds trying to be lead vocalist, Jon Anderson, instead of doing what he did best. Being Trevor Horn.
The latter LP was the symbol of so much prog excess that it, quite possibly, single-handedly forged punk. It was also disliked by many rock fans, some prog fans and even former Yes band members. And now both were being played on stage!
This new triple-LP features live performances from 12 dates recorded on the same tour in February 2017, by the current Yes line-up: Steve Howe (guitars), Alan White (drums), Geoff Downes (keyboards), Billy Sherwood (bass), Jon Davison (vocals, replacing Jon Anderson) and additional drummer for this tour, Jay Schellen.
With the addition of And You And I from 1972’s Close To The Edge and Heart Of The Sunrise from 1971’s Fragile, the elaborate gatefold package also arrives with a full size, 6-page booklet.
Mastering is very nice indeed. Despite revealing the give-away spacious auditorium feel the music has been mastered remarkably quietly, prompting a gain boost, further opening up the detail and midrange insight which is both smooth and very pleasant to the ear.
There are a few irritations. The audience gives a standing ovation when anyone so much as lifts an eyebrow while Davison is a pleasant but weak vocalist – he’s no Jon Anderson. He’s too meek and, fragile (sorry) in his delivery. No, um, drama (sorry, again). The lack of emotional uplift and punch harms the songs, I’m afraid and gives the music a tribute band feel making Davison sound like a young Aled Jones.
End of review.
My thoughts continued beyond it, however.
There is something about the lead singer of any band that forges that band’s inherent personality, don’t you think? Instrumental bands have a much easier time of it, in this respect (stand up Tangerine Dream which features not one original member and yet sounds exactly like TD of yore).
Not bands encumbered with singers though. One such band, Yes, has been through varying guitar players and drummers and keyboard merchants and now a new bass player. You may feel sorry and sad that old instrumentalist favourites have left the fold to explore pastures new or they may have sadly passed away but the band has always felt like Yes because Jon Anderson’s vocal was still there, piercing the upper atmosphere with his strong, impassioned, wholly spiritual and rather high pitched vocal stylings. His vocals have always acted as a sort of spine to the Yes sound. A sunlit core around which the music has been formed.
Anderson doesn’t just sing the songs, he believes in each and every word. His unique vocal approach is – has to be – the very personality of the band. If you hear a few words of his sung on the radio then you immediately think, “Yes!” You hear a solo Steve Howe on the radio or Alan White in a different band and you’d respond with, “Hang on…that sounds a bit like…is it…?” And other delaying tactics before a rough, educated guess can be made.
The late and lamented Chris Squire’s bass sound was iconic in Yes terms but you can just – just – about get away with Billy Sherwood as his replacement. Kinda. If you squint a bit. As long as Anderson’s soaring vocal formed the spine of the band’s sound, then it could cushion the tragic Squire loss a bit. Turn that around, though. When Squire was still with us and Anderson was not singing with him, Yes always sounded odd. Unfinished.
With Anderson, there will always be Yes. Without Anderson, there is no Yes. The equation is as simple as that.
You doubt me? Let me give you examples of other bands who thought they could carry on without their main vocal man. Whether those delusions be based on “Sure, it’ll be fine. The fans are too dumb to notice,” or even “You’ll pay us how much if we carry on?” Whatever the reasons, The Doors thought that they could continue being The Doors without Jim Morrison. Hang on, though, this was the same band except for Jim wasn’t it? In terms of personnel, yes it was, sure. Yet, the heart had been pulled from the core of The Doors. In fact, The Doors was all about Morrison’s personality, his delivery, his articulation. As frustrating and annoying and irritating as these important facts might have been to the other three band members, the band was Mr Morrison.
Queen. Freddie dies and the rest of the band haul…Paul Rodgers (?!) into the front man slot. Rodgers? George Michael would have done a far better job, I have to add but George, for once in his life, made the right decision and exclaimed, something like, “No fear, I’m off.” The Rodgers result? Well it wasn’t Queen. I’m not suggesting that Paul Rodgers wasn’t/isn’t allowed to play music with the Freddie Mercury backing band but that collected group of people should never have been called Queen. Even with all of the other original members in tow. It was not Queen. It can never really be Queen.
I could say the same about Thin Lizzy. I could say the same about…well, the list grows. Even Deep Purple have given their band different names when they change their front man but they sneak a silly appellation to it: Deep Purple Mk.I, Deep Purple Mk.II, Deep Purple Mk.III, etc. These are mere twists to the brand name but the band get away with it in that manner.
The only band who can truly get away with changing their front man every five minutes and retain their original band name is King Crimson. The Mighty Crim are unique, though. Their soul sits on a stool at the side of the stage (sometimes in deep shadow), stares at the floor and noodles on a guitar. Fripp, the true leader of that band, is the sole exception.
This is because Fripp constantly and completely reinvents King Crimson. Compare the 70s KQ with the early 80s version. The two cannot be compared. Hence, if Fripp ever leaves for good. King Crimson will die.
Yes find it difficult to reinvent. They find it much easier to clone.
Generally, when all is said and done and in broad terms, you remove the front man? You kill the band. Once you’ve done that, you have to have the guts to start afresh.
Nirvana ceased to exist artistically but also physically, wholly and completely when Kurt Cobain died, didn’t they? You see? Sometimes bands do the right thing.
So, as much as I respect Jon Davison, he does fine work with Glass Hammer, the only reason that he’s in the band is because his name is also Jon and it saves the other ageing band members, whose memories are tending to fade as they approach or reside in their 70s, having to remember a brand new first name. Surely, that’s the reason he’s in the band?
Oh, and I say that I respect Jon Davison? I do. I really do. Much more, it seems, than Yes itself actually does. Why? Because, all joking side, the Yes establishment has, once again, chosen a new lead singer because he sounds like Jon Anderson. That, my friends, is a complete and total lack of respect to the other Jon, Mr Jon Davison. You bring in an independent artist, a human being with his own thoughts and feelings, his own artistic vision and ambitions, likes and dislikes and the only reason, the ONLY reason he is there is because he vaguely sounds…like…another…guy.
Yes, as an organisation and a band, do this sort of thing over and over (i.e. Trevor Horn, Benoît David and now Jon Davison). The only reason that former lead singer Trevor Rabin got away with singing in his God-given voice was because Jon Anderson was standing next to him, at the time. Goodness knows what despicable medical operation Rabin would have had to endure, in order to reach the highest registers, if Anderson would have left while Rabin was still treading the boards with Yes. You need to watch the contract small print, you know.
If Yes is dead without Jon Anderson, as I postulate, then the band should, by all means, carry on but adopt a new band moniker, bring in a new singer (maybe one that has a deep voice? How about that? Something a bit Johnny Cash perhaps?) and produce new work while, if the old songs must be sung, reinterpret them with the new vocalist in a new fashion and allow that new vocalist to impose his creative will on the band not the other way around.
Jon Anderson had the decency to change the name of his new band when he temporarily split with Yes back in 1988. He called his quartet ABWH. Not Yes 2. Or some bastardisation of a classic Yes song title transformed into a band name or somesuch. Just ABWH. Funny thing was, when ABWH were in action they were, arguably, more Yes than Yes were at that time.
So, as far the current band is concerned, just don’t call it Yes. Don’t pretend that we cannot tell the difference. If you want Jon Anderson. Get bloody Jon bloody Anderson bloody. Please do not rope in some poor sap who is acting like some sort of Jon Anderson puppet. A Jon Anderson impersonator. A Jon Anderson doppelgänger. It surely does nothing for Davison’s self esteem, his reputation, his future career or even his dignity to be constantly compared to Jon Anderson. It’s actually distasteful. Davison will never be as good as Jon Anderson because, well, he’s Jon Davison isn’t he?
A message to Yes? Do import top quality band members who are individuals and talented people who will bring new and amazing ideas to the group dynamic. But stop – I repeat, stop – dragging in sub-standard band impersonators. You’ve heard of Fake News? This is Fake Yes. Now there’s a name for a tribute band. Time for a name change Mr White, Howe et al?