The Yes Generation
Technical excess brought them success in the 70s, Trevor Horn rejuvenated them in the '80s, now they're working towards the '90s. Deborah Parisi asks the Yes men if there's anything left to say after 20 years.
When punk shook the popular music scene in 1979 it seemed to mark the end of techno-rock dinosaurs like Yes, but by 83 they were high in the charts with a Trevor Horn-produced monster single.
Depending on your perspective, you may see Yes as "a living legend", "terminally pretentious" or simply as "boring old farts". They were certainly considered to be the latter when, in 1983, they released a single called 'Owner of a Lonely Heart'. Produced by Trevor Horn, the song put them in the charts and back in favour with a sceptical public.
It was a much-changed Yes that recorded 'Owner of a Lonely Heart' - one that had only recently recruited guitarist Trevor Rabin who wrote the song. Recalling its origins he says: "I went to the toilet and wrote the song - the whole thing, from beginning to end."
The single was pulled from an album entitled 90125 which, apart from outselling any previous Yes album, has become an essential part of more keyboard sampler demonstrations than any other CD release.
Tracing the band's history is a little like watching repeats of a soap opera. The line-up for the successful 90125 and the current Big Generator (Jon Anderson, vocals/guitar; Chris Squire, bass/vocals; Tony Kaye, keyboards; Alan White, drums and Trevor Rabin, guitar/vocals) is actually closer to the original '68 lineup (Anderson, Squire, Kaye, Bill Bruford, drums and Peter Banks, guitar) than many of the albums released during the '70s. Banks left the band in 1970 to be succeeded by Steve Howe; Kaye left in 1971 and was replaced by Rick Wakeman who brought synthesisers to the fore of the band; Bruford left in '72 to join King Crimson and was replaced by Alan White; Wakeman begat Moraz, and, curiously, Moraz begat Wakeman; then Wakeman was replaced by Geoff Downes from the Buggles. Jon Anderson dropped out for an album, and Downes' Buggles partner Trevor Horn came in to sing. The resultant album, Drama, released in 1980, was regarded by many as Yes' swansong.
At their height in the mid-'70s Yes had pushed "progressive rock" to its limits in terms of the music, musicianship and in an embrace of electronic instrument technology. Ironically Kaye left the original Yes line-up partly because of his hatred for synthesisers.
"I could never see the good in them", he recalls, "and I did try." At least until one occasion when he kicked a Mellotron off stage, smashing it to pieces.
In 1981, Squire decided to try to get the original Yes back together - and came amazingly close. Kaye was ready to get back into serious playing and Anderson agreed to rejoin at the last moment. But the most dramatic change, and one that gave the band a new lease of life, came in the form of Trevor Rabin.
Rabin joined Yes with a back-catalogue of songs that, to a large extent, form the basis of the material the band now play. The elaborate musical contortions that covered up to four sides of long-playing vinyl have been replaced by more concise songs that avoid compromising Yes' standing as musicians' musicians whilst giving them a place somewhere in late '80s popular music. The technology also remains - though less in the form of the excesses of the '70s and more as a means to a sound end. Which makes Kaye's involvement all the stranger when you remember the Mellotron incident.
TONY KAYE seems to have undergone something of a change of heart since then: "Once the string sounds started to sound great it all started to fall into place", he laughs. "Until then tuning oscillators was just not my idea of a good night. I preferred jamming on a Hammond organ with a screaming Leslie."
These days, there are few keyboards Kaye hasn't encountered.
"So much of Big Generator, especially the Hammond sounds and the piano sounds, is all Korg DW8000. Admittedly, I put a few of them together but it really is a great piece of equipment. And the Roland D50 is great - I just traded mine for the rack mounts - new, fresh sounds.
"I've been using Oberheim for donkey's years; but for this tour I wanted to go beyond what I had last time, so I got in touch with them and found they were developing the DPX. That was exactly the way that I was going, except that every time you want to change a sound, you had to put in another disk. In the beginning, I decided to get nine of them and put all the sounds in and allocate every preset to a different sound. About halfway through that process, Oberheim asked me what I wanted and I said, 'make me a hard disk version of the DPX1'. So they said 'OK' and built it. Now I have everything on two hard disk systems. I guess I could have had two Emulators, but having two little units in a rack is much better.
"My ultimate keyboard would probably be a three-tier keyboard that I could hang around my neck", he quips. Instead he's using a Lynx remote.
"Originally I wanted to use it in concert situations so that I could go to the back of the hall and play and actually hear what was happening but then I used it on the video, and it just felt good."
And when he's not exercising his new-found freedom, Kaye retreats behind two Yamaha KX76 master keyboards that he uses to control his vast collection of rack-mounts.
"Kaye: Everything that is played I play with my fingers, and every sound that I bring up, I bring up with my fingers - in a musical way."
Recreating the studio sounds of Big Generator live has presented Kaye with considerable problems.
"I've been working on it for the last two to three months", he explains. "It seemed like an incredible task at first, but technology has allowed me to do it. I sampled the Synclavier stuff off the 24-track with the Emulator II as the primary instrument; quality-wise it got everything together."
But, unlike the old days, the technology is kept in check - especially when it comes close to the delicate area of musicianship.
"I don't use sequencers", he says, "Everything that is played I play with my fingers, and every sound that I want to bring up, I bring up with my fingers. Touching buttons is rather like touching keys: it has to be done in a musical way, it's not like I can have a computer or a roadie backstage changing the sounds for me. I have to be playing and changing the sounds as I'm playing, so everything has to be at my fingertips.
"For the tour, I had to memorise 90-odd patches, which is quite a job, but it becomes easier as you get used to it. You start memorising blocks, for instance, and you start remembering that Hammond organs are patches 14, 15, 16, 17 and 18. And you know that the slow rotor Leslie is on 14, and if you want to go to a fast Leslie you go to 15.
"You also have to remember to load samples while you're playing. You end up playing the buttons like you would a keyboard."
Recording Big Generator was another laborious task, and Kaye claims he never wants to spend that much time - around 18 months - on an album again.
"We recorded the album in a very strange way - not for the want of doing it, but like the mountain, it was there... We used the most sophisticated, most expensive Synclavier in the world, with an incredible amount of memory, in a room on its own. While the tracks were being overdubbed downstairs in the main studio, I was in a studio above it and all the stuff was being fed into a tape recorder up there, then I played, and it recorded everything on the Synclavier. All the basic keyboards were done like that. Then we took a feed from the Synclavier room back down to the Sony digitals and put it back onto tape."
When challenged over his involvement in the writing of Big Generator, Kaye pleads not guilty.
"I'm not a writer, I'm not a singer, and I'm not a lyricist. I'm a musician." He stops, realising what he's said. "I take that back. I shouldn't say it like that, but you know what I mean. I'm just an instrumentalist really.
"We were at a point where the band had no preconceived ideas of what it was going to do. Trevor had a thousand songs - finished songs, lyrics and everything - but to his credit, he didn't force them on us. He wanted the band to write the album, which is sometimes a hard thing to do. Everybody has different ideas and they all have to match up."
The way they match up on Big Generator is in a succession of long elaborate songs, the strongest of which turn out to be little more than commercial rock without the solo excesses that characterised much of the band's mid-'70s output.
Says Kaye: "We try to appeal to a wide spectrum of people, that's part of the deal in the band. Long improvised organ solos? I certainly don't want to hear them. And I don't want to hear long drum improvisations, and I don't want to hear long guitar improvisations... The band playing together, that's where it all happens.
"When it comes down to it, there are four people singing songs, and we're trying as musicians to project those songs and lyrics. And while we try to do what we want to do within the context of that, I don't think long improvisations will help.
"We're not Genesis, we're not Pink Floyd... People often ask, 'Are you trying to be commercial?' We're trying to do both things - make good music and sell it - and we're still struggling to achieve both of them. I think if we can keep the band the way it is now for long enough, in about two albums time we should make a really great album."
ALAN WHITE'S big break as a drummer came one evening with a telephone call from John Lennon, who said, "Hi, I saw you in a club the other night and want you to join the Plastic Ono Band tour. Your ticket is already at the airport. See you then."
From a purely technological standpoint, he is not to be outdone by any of the other members of Yes. In fact, during the current tour the band is relying on him heavily to play sampled guitar chords and vocals, as well as maintain the complex rhythmic background that's helped characterise Yes for two decades.
"I've been spending a lot of time programming a Dynacord ADD-one with a guy named Reek Havok", White explains. "I'm using Dynacord pads, too, the sensitivity's fantastic on them - you can set them up to give practically the same feel as with acoustic drums. Dynacord have managed to create the sensitivity within the electronics for actually changing a sample once it's in the machine to exactly what you want and exactly how you want to play it."
"White: You can sit down and play practically a whole number on the drums by yourself if you program everything right."
So keen is he on the ADD-one, the drummer is using two of the beasts. One is set up as a "conventional" electronic kit, triggered from electronic drum pads; the second is triggered from White's acoustic kit.
"There are eight pads, and eight drums triggering eight individual samples within the ADD-one chain", he explains. "So I really have 16 tracks of samples being triggered whenever I play the drums."
And White's sample library is extensive, but he understands its limitations and adapts accordingly.
"The ADD-one's made specifically for drums, but some things that we've done with it with the guitar actually work extremely well although I can't sample just anything into it. It's set up for sampling things like drums with very, very strong attacks. You can't sample orchestras and stuff like that - it doesn't come back as well as off the keyboard sampling machines.
"It's only eight-bit sampling", he continues, "but because of the nature of what it's been set up to sample, the reproduction is incredible. They probably will develop it to go to 12- or 16-bit, but you can sample up to 50K in it for the higher sounds, and everything plays back in stereo.
"For a clinic I did in St Louis, I sampled some bass lines, so I could play the bass and drums at the same time. People are saying 'You should go on the road by yourself, but it's not something I play upon too heavily. Mainly I use it to help make things work like they are on record. There's one song we do live where I can get the overdubbed hi-hat sound that we used in the studio. It sounds as if you can't play it, but now there's a way of doing it.
"I also have a Simmons MTM which allows me to play chords, and I'm still getting into that. Really, you can sit down and play practically a whole number by yourself if you program everything right, and use MIDI to make changes at the right time. You can even sample each section of a song so it will loop and play right through just by hitting one pad. Then after one section you can go to another program and you have a whole new set of sounds. That's something I'm still developing right now."
TREVOR RABIN evidently shares the enthusiasm of White and Kaye for Yes, "I'm already thinking of the next Yes album", he says. He's also working on a solo LP and - in fine Yes tradition - an orchestral score.
"Yeah, I've got like 20 pages of a symphony down already", he agrees. "I don't mention it much, because it's such a cliche. As soon as a band are perceived as being a little more important than they were last week, they get this thing about, 'I'm going to do a rock opera trilogy'. But it's not like that, it's just something that I've been doing for a long time."
"Rabin: Rather than taking a guitar synthesiser and playing keyboards with it, I've got a library of guitar samples which I play on keyboards."
Rabin is also an enthusiastic follower of technology, using a programmable pedal board and guitar rack which contains MIDI signal processors as well as compressors and noise gates. But as with Kaye, an active interest in high technology doesn't guarantee his approval of anything that uses a microprocessor.
"I'm anti-guitar synthesisers because they're just not fast enough, not organic enough. I've tried them all: I worked on the Roland for two, three hours a day for two weeks and I got some really nice things going. But at the end of the day I'd ask myself 'is it better than if I did the same thing on my favourite keyboard?' And the answer was no.
"This might sound a little back to front, but rather than taking a guitar synthesiser and playing MIDI keyboards with it, I've got a library full of guitar samples which I play on keyboards. They provide me with some of the most interesting sounds I have - not on the Yes album, but on other things I've been doing.
"For example, on a 24-track I'll sing a very clear A and then I'll do a track with tons of reverb and completely mess it up, and on top of that I'll put a really heavy guitar note, and then I'll have delay on the notes, and mix it all together and put that into a sampler.
"There's so many things that haven't been done on natural guitar that can be done - I don't know what they are yet - but with the new technology available, especially auxiliary equipment, there's a whole new world open there."
With digital reverberation becoming cheaper by the hour, and more and more equipment appearing in rack-mount format, Rabin is unquestionably right. But musicians always have some piece of gear that refuses to be outdated in a hurry...
"The funny thing is I come back to things like my Korg delays because they have a great sound. It's not always what is perceived as being the best that is the best; it's not always the most expensive that is the best.
"On the album I had every conceivable piece of expensive reverb, yet a lot of the time I ended up using the Korg DRV3000 because it has the most interesting sound combinations. If you want an echo to sweep and fall in pitch you can take a Lexicon 224XL and put it through the harmoniser with the feedback high, and it'll fall down. But there's something about the immediacy of having a unit that has all these incredibly different aspects to it.
"I don't like to be intimidated by technology so I try to keep up with it, but you don't have to use everything. If you know the rules, it's much easier to break them."
Yes broke the rules to become one of rock's "supergroups" back in the '70s, then again to reestablish themselves in the post-punk '80s. If they are capable of making a hat-trick, we may be needing them pretty badly by the '90s.
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