By Brian Ives
Sunday morning (June 28) I found out, among with millions of other fans, that Yes bass player Chris Squire died at his home in Phoenix, Arizona. Yes fans knew he was in bad shape, as he’d recently made the announcement that he would undergo treatment for leukemia. And Yes, the band (and, I guess, Yes the corporation) made the decision to not cancel their upcoming tour. The next Yes cruise will go on, as well.
Now, Yes fans have gone through a lot over the decades, in regards to lineup changes. Keyboardist Rick Wakeman has left, what, five times? Guitarist Steve Howe has left and returned. Even iconic singer Jon Anderson has left twice (the current lineup, sadly, doesn’t feature him). Chris Squire, however, remained a member of Yes throughout all these changes. So back when we knew that he was going to take a break and spend time in a hospital, the idea of seeing Yes without Chris was strange. Now that he’s gone, it’s even weirder.
Of course, fans of Yes and progressive rock have had to endure a lot of weirdness over the years. Like, for instance, the accepted idea that excellence in musicianship is somehow a bad thing. The scribes of rock history would have the masses believe that, back in the 1970s, with a few simple guitar chords, streetwise bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols decimated prog-rockers like Yes and rendered them irrelevant. The long hair, the long beards, the long songs, Roger Dean’s otherworldly album art, the double neck guitars, the huge banks of keyboards, the enormous drum kits: these things were all on the wrong side of punk rock’s year zero.
And if you look at rock music’s last few decades through that lens, you might miss the fact that Yes was far more influential than they’re given credit for. High profile fans include Billy Joel (listen to the intro of “Angry Young Man”), former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante and members of Primus, Phish, Foo Fighters and Tool, not to mention Rush. One year in Rolling Stone, Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament cited Tales from Topographic Oceans as one his favorite albums of the year, and rest assured that that year wasn’t 1973.
But really, the mainstream media’s portrayal of our beloved bands mattered little back then, as we weren’t getting our information from those sources. If you liked Yes, there was a good chance you also liked the Peter Gabriel-era Genesis (and the longer songs from the Phil Collins era), Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd, King Crimson and Rush. If you needed a bit of sex drive in your music, maybe Led Zeppelin. For a horror music metal fix, Black Sabbath (and, as a bonus, Wakeman guested on the Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath album!). If this was your music, Rolling Stone wasn’t your magazine; more likely it was Heavy Metal, which wasn’t a music magazine, but a sci-fi/fantasy anthology. And if these were your interests, you knew not to expect anyone other than your “tribe” to share your passion. While the creators of punk rock, post-punk, alternative rock or “indie rock” are ostensibly outsiders, many of them enjoy raves from all angles in the media. Whether or not said artists are still relevant in, say, a year…that’s another story. Yes’s fans, on the other hand, didn’t need the so-called “zeitgeist” to tell them they had good taste. They just knew it. And they remain, as much now as they did then, loyal.
As with many of their prog-rock brethren, much of Yes’s music exists at a cross point between rock music, classical and jazz. It’s music that requires a powerful imagination to create, and perhaps also, to enjoy. It’s as adventurous and as radical as anything punk, “indie” or “alternative.” It’s not for everybody, and that’s what makes its fans love it more. Their fan base is as much a “tribe” as any other musical subculture, maybe even moreso.
It’s a bit of a bummer that Yes hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yet. Though again, neither Yes nor their fans need that validation from an organization made up mostly of music critics. But one gets the impression that it would have meant a lot to Squire. It also would have set the stage for the band to reunite with Jon Anderson, something the fans have been hoping for since he and Yes parted ways in 2008. I spoke to Squire in late 2013, after the band had been nominated for the Rock Hall; he said that he’d been in touch with Anderson, who had made peace with the idea of Yes using a different lead singer. “Yeah, the chips have sort of fallen where they lay now,” Squire said. “It seems like we can have a good conversation, and some of that bodes well for that being a good performance [if we’re inducted].”
He even seemed open to doing a tour that incorporated several former members (like the 1991 Union tour), telling me, “It could happen again!” Sadly now, it can’t. No other former Yes bass players walk the earth today.
Two lessons to be drawn from Chris Squire and Yes: that excellence isn’t always welcomed (sometimes the opposite is true), and: don’t wait too long to get back to the people who matter to you.
The last time I saw Yes was at Madison Square Garden in 2004, when they were on their 35th anniversary tour. Conventional wisdom would have said that MSG was far too big a venue for Yes at such a late date in their career. That wisdom, of course, would have been fed by the zeitgeist, by the media. Yes fans are under their radar; or more to the point, they’re far away from their radar. If the show wasn’t sold out, it was damn close.
And it wasn’t just a “hits” show. Fans lost their minds to the then-recent epic “Mind Drive”; even a new song that had yet to make an album, “Show Me,” was warmly received. Yes has always enjoyed airplay on classic rock radio, but have never been dependent on it; their fans give them a lot more leeway than most of their peers. Yes has always been able to veer from their greatest hits collections in their setlist.
A few years earlier in 1997, I saw them during a multi-night stand at New York’s Beacon Theatre. They’d just released two albums: Keys to Ascension 2, a double album, with one live disc and one disc of new songs of sprawling prog-rock, and Open Your Eyes, which featured tighter, more 90125-style stuff. Rick Wakeman had been replaced by Billy Sherwood, who played the keys on most of the album. The same week, I’d seen the not-yet-too-old Jane’s Addiction on their first reunion (of many); I’d also seen the Cure, who were transitioning into their role as a “heritage” alternative act. Neither band played much new material; the fans didn’t seem interested in the one new song the Cure played (“Wrong Number”). Yes, on the other hand, played new music from both albums to ecstatic reaction (especially the Keys material).
That’s the institution that Chris Squire co-created with singer Jon Anderson—along with drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Tony Kaye and guitarist Peter Banks—in the late 1960s. He led them from their early days as a post-psychedelic rock band into the early ’70s, when they spawned prog. It’s the institution that Squire kept together for decades to come, with the incredible drummer Alan White by his side.
Squire steered them through new wave, inviting both members of the Buggles (Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes) for 1980’s underrated Drama. And of course, he led them through one of the most extraordinarily successful rebrandings of any band, ever, with 1983’s 90125. And through all the years since, when the media would have you believe that Yes was old hat, Chris (and Alan) were touring and recording with different versions of Yes, playing to ecstatic crowds every night, all over the world. Those crowds never tired of “Roundabout,” but also wanted to hear deep tracks and were always wondering where the band would go next.
It’s seriously difficult to imagine Yes going on without Chris Squire, but if they do, you get the impression he probably would have wanted it that way.