Jon Anderson of Yes

By Mark Guarino

No phrase in rock terminology is more polarizing than “prog rock.”

Progressive rock originated in the early ‘70s by British bands like King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Genesis who expanded on the psychedelic period of the middle ‘60s with highly ambitious album concepts, orchestral strings, album-side suites, wildly extravagant arena stage productions and ethereal lyrics about mysticism, mythology and outer space. It mainly appealed to (mostly male) rock intellectuals who could pore over the dense lyrics and pick apart the 20-minute song cycles. Rock fans who liked things said and done in three minutes with minimal chords had to wait out prog rock’s ride until 1977 when the Sex Pistols arrived, making concept rock ultimately unfashionable.

Yes was one of the most successful of the genre’s golden era, having conquered the U.S. early into its career and, 35 years later, still able to return and fill arenas (they play the Allstate Arena May 4). With a three-disc box set and DVD retrospective to sell, Yes has regrouped for this anniversary tour. Although the band’s history is marked by its ceaseless personnel shifts (at one point in the late ‘80s, two competing versions of Yes were on the road), the current line-up represents players from its halcyon days: guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, drummer Alan Light, bassist Chris Squire and vocalist Jon Anderson.

Although Yes took itself just as serious as their peers, their music had a very defined pop side. The dense harmonies, virtuoso musicianship and gorgeous melodies of their earliest output like “Close to the Edge,” “Fragile” and “The Yes Album” remain timeless. You can hear their influence in the Flaming Lips, the Mars Volta, Radiohead, Grandaddy and other recent bands working to combine pop ingenuity with headphone odysseys.

I talked with Anderson, 59, the day after the band’s opening night of its current tour. He told me that despite their widespread touring over the decades, the best Yes show took place at the Chicago Amphitheater in 1972. “It must have been the Fourth of July,” he said. “Fireworks, cherry bombs were going on all bloody night. It was the most frightening night of my life. The audience was wild — they were the event. I’ll never forget that.”

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: When Yes first formed, you opened for Cream. What were you reacting against that made you not as interested in American blues as most of your British peers?

A: I think I felt I couldn’t sing (about) sex, drugs, rock and roll because I wasn’t into that. I was into that in my first band but with Yes, it was like a bunch of musicians with different capacities and we were given free rein to evolve and develop. At the same time you had Led Zeppelin, Genesis, King Crimson. I remember I saw King Crimson and I couldn’t speak for a couple of days because I knew we were bad. They were brilliant and we were terrible. So we had to rehearse and rehearse more. We knew it was an uphill battle to survive. To get success is an unexpected happening and then you start to really believe in your music and progress from it from then on. I stopped listening to the radio and started to listen to electronic music and symphonic music and world music. I was really looking for a different approach to what music really is. It’s a life form, it is a part of our world and small boxes of pop music are pretty relevant to the world but they aren’t the most important things.

Q: Yes and other prog rock bands were given time to evolve and experiment because the executives had no idea what rock was about and where it was heading because it was still so new. Whereas now, labels wouldn’t have the patience.

A: It worked for a couple years. But as with anything, you give anything free rein, a little chaos comes in (laughs). That’s only normal. That happens in any sort of art. If you look at modern art like Jackson Pollock and various artists from around that period. They were quite amazing but it spawned 1,000 terrible things. But that’s what happens. When Yes was recording, three or four of the albums in the ‘70s are classics. Some of them aren’t. But you say, hey you’ve got to have some rough edges here and there to make the diamond really good. So over a period of time we’ve made some mistakes but hey, that’s life.

Q: Yes was also one of the first bands to make the switch from theatres to arenas. That had never been done before. What was that like?

A: You had to get a bigger P.A., make the stage like a theatre backdrop. We invented all these things. Like Pink Floyd and one or two other bands, we understood the potential putting on “the show” rather than staggering onstage in jeans and just cranking it out. Which a lot of bands can do but Yes was never like that. We like to dress up and put on a show.

Q: What were the early challenges posed from learning how to make music in venues that were built for sports?

A: I think the size of the P.A. We were all learning when we went along. When we first started using laser beams, The Who started using them. They were dangerous things and we didn’t know and we didn’t care, it looked great. (laughs)

Q: When punk arrived in the late ‘70s in retaliation against the prog rock bands, at any point did you take the changing of the guards personally?

A: Probably for about 10 minutes I got pissed off. And then I realized the bands that professed they were not doing it for the money … as soon as they got money they’d get better equipment, they’d get a bigger car. That’s what people do … Out of that time there were some great (artists) like Elvis Costello, Ian Drury and all this kind of music, like retro music. And we keep getting retro music every seven years. Like retro cars, it becomes a norm. But as for the punk thing, I always thought that James Cagney was a punk and I was a punk when I was 20. But the record companies just disowned bands like Yes. But we had friends in this world. The fans kept us going through those crazy years, through the disco times when the Bee Gees went number one a thousand times. That’s all we heard. All of our music was forgotten except for the fans. We were lucky when we came back in the ‘80s with a very well-produced record produced by Trevor Horn which was (1983’s) “90125.” In a way, we were like the rabbit that popped out of the hat. That’s what Yes was all about. We were flying by the seat of our pants our entire career.

Q: Do you even like the label “prog rock?”

A: In the beginning, yeah. We called it “avant garde,” a progression of music. You know (Frank) Zappa was progressive. And there was Vanilla Fudge, even the Byrds … Buffalo Springfield — they weren’t pop to me, they were a progressive band. And (“progressive”) was a good word for about two or three years and then you were boxed. You were “prog rock” and “classic rock.”

Q: The prog rock bands became known for their extreme seriousness and indulgent stage productions. Was there ever a point where you felt Yes had gone far over the top and needed to pull back?

A: We started doing the stage in the round, which was a very, very unique operation. The stage that we created in ’77 was used by Barry Manilow, Frank Sinatra and dozens of people. We had gotten to a certain point where we realized we had done our theatre stuff. We actually had a three-headed dragon flying around the stage. It seemed like it was flying around the stage — there were a lot of drugs that year I believe. It was a great show, great tour. I’ve seen photographs and it is an amazing stage design that was all (long-time Yes cover art illustrator) Roger Dean. (But) it cost us a fortune! We weren’t into money at that the time. We were into the big show. Of course you get excessive but give somebody an empty checkbook and they’ll go crazy. But we learned. That’s why we went in the round and redesigned our look.

Q: Then in the ‘80s, Yes moved further away from their prog rock sound and with the “90125” record, became a rock band with slimmer, trimmer radio hits. How did that happen?

A: It’s very simple. The week that we were number one we were getting ready to tour. And I went and saw a movie and it was called “Spinal Tap.” And I went there with (filmmaker) Steven Soderbergh. We had hired him to film the band straight out of school. And we went to see “Spinal Tap” and from that moment on for the rest of the ‘80s I (realized) I was in “Spinal Tap.” (laughs) You’re number one, you’re famous, people are saying how great you are but you’re thinking “oh please,” you know?

Q: You were sick of taking yourself so seriously.

A: I thought the whole thing was an amazing illusion that didn’t make sense. But I enjoyed the ride. I didn’t take anything seriously for about six years.

Q: Yes is notorious for its constant personnel changes. It’s now at a point that when you talk about the band’s history, you have to talk about its different eras that constituted its different line-ups. Why couldn’t the band keep the same line-up over the years?

A: We didn’t all come from a town. If you’ve come from a town, you’re stuck together like Super Glue. You have to stay together no matter what. You all come from Newcastle, you all come from Liverpool. Whereas with Yes, we all came from different points of England. We have no deep-rooted family or blood-related energy, I suppose. So when somebody just didn’t want to rehearse, get the guy out. If he doesn’t want to rehearse, he doesn’t realize how lucky we are to get money to be able to rehearse. So get another guitar player. Then all the sudden the keyboard player is too busy chasing the girls instead of rehearsing. So get another keyboard player. (Founding drummer) Bill Bruford left the band to join King Crimson. That was like punching me in the face. That was too much for me. And we turned around and there was Alan Light. It wasn’t like we said, “we better stay together because the fans will hate if we don’t stay together,” panic panic. No, we changed with nature of things.

Q: You probably have one of the most distinctive voices in rock history. How were you able to maintain it for almost 40 years?

A: More than anything, I don’t over sing. I never was a screamer. I was always more of an alto tenor … I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. I’m 60 this year and I think I’m singing better than ever and I’m wondering why? (laughs) I’m just happy to be able to sing more than anything.

Q: The current line-up certainly collects the best players who all take turns improvising. Is that because you consider psychedelic music still a form of transcendence?

A: I think it’s a constant part of what we do. The connections between the audience getting high physically or spiritually into that place where … you can hear a pin drop. You have thousands of people listening as though all of us, the band and the audience, are trying to obtain an element of higher consciousness. And it is a natural thing … We do it on different levels like watching a movie, watching theatre, watching sports. I’m so on a different level when I’m watching these people running around on a field. The energy is fantastic. I think it’s a national thing to be spiritually aware.

A: Live, it’s being created in a microcosm.

Q: Yeah. The fact is, when we travel around the world we see that 95 percent of the world is a wonderful happy place. That’s an incredible percentage. There’s 5 percent that’s a lot of bad (expletive) But far outweighed by the power of love.

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