The Question of Yes’s “Main Sequence”

The philosopher Bill Martin, in his book Music of Yes: Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock (1996), speaks of what he calls Yes’s “main sequence” of albums in the 70s. This is a necessary concept for a proper understanding of Yes. All of their best work is contained in this sequence. The Tales album is its artistic culmination, inasmuch as it represents the most complete development of their music, including a deepening of the worldview expressed in both the music and the lyrics.

Still, I am disinclined to say that the best songs on the other albums in the sequence do not reach the same high level. They are, I submit, Starship Trooper and Perpetual Change from The Yes Album, Heart of the Sunrise from Fragile, Close to the Edge from Close to the Edge, and, after Tales, the final part of The Gates of Delirium (Soon), from Relayer, and Awaken from Going for the One. These songs too are unsurpassed, after almost a half-century.

There is, however, one minor problem with the idea of a main sequence of Yes albums. One of the things that set Yes clearly apart from the second greatest band in prog, Genesis, is that, after the 80s (neoliberalism) destroyed everything of value in 70s prog, they almost attained again, on a few occasions in the 90s and early 00s, the level of the main sequence. This is so remarkable that it must be mentioned as a qualification in the discussion of the main sequence. Martin couldn’t do it in his book, since it happened after it was published.

The first instance of this is the studio material included on Keys to Ascension 1 & 2 – the main parts of which are live performances – and later compiled on Keystudio (2001), which, as Wakeman and Howe rightly insist, should be regarded as an album in its own right. It is not quite on the main sequence level. But this is only because Anderson’s lyrics have declined. By this time, they no longer consistently took the distinct and proper form of artistic expression, but were often reduced to a kind of preaching. The lyrical vision is thus too simplified, and increasingly involves, too explicitly, some typical, current moral and social concerns. But nothing else really separates Keystudio from the main sequence in qualitative terms. This is truly remarkable.

I would go so far as to suggest that in terms of the music, Keystudio is, as a whole, a better album than both Relayer and Going for the One, although there is nothing comparable to the mentioned masterpieces on those albums. In fact, both Relayer and Going for the One display distinct weaknesses (although very different ones) in comparison with the earlier albums in the main sequence. Even the beginning of the lyrical decline is discernible in a few places on the latter.

The second instance of Yes coming close to the main sequence – I mention the instances in order or importance – in this late period is the album Magnification, released the same year as Keystudio. This was the last real Yes album, since it was the last with Anderson. For those who have patience with the lyrics, it too must be said to be on the general level of Relayer and Going for the One, again with the exception of the latter’s Soon and Awaken respectively. On Give Love Each Day and We Agree, it is possible at least to understand that this is the band that once made the greatest album of all time; they are almost perfectly crafted yet not too complex songs, displaying Yes’s distinct melodic and structural-compositional elevation.

The third instance is the album The Ladder from 1999, a lighter, simplified, more easily accessible version of Yes for the pop ear, and with the same weak lyrics, but far superior to the abysmal, corporate, Trevor Rabin version of the 80s, and still very recognizably Yes.

These achievements, at this late stage, recovering from the calamity that was the 80s, are not paralleled by any of the other great prog bands from the 70s. The concept of the main sequence must be supplemented by their special mention.

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Ramana Maharshi