Life in a ‘covers’ band: the first Yes album (1969)

Noodling around on the net, Sal Nunziato’s blog caught my eye. He suggests that very little has been said about Yes’ first album, so I thought I’d try to be helpful.

Of course, we Yes-men were very new to each other, and from wildly different musical, social and geographical backgrounds. In a country where regional accents can vary within 60 miles, and somebody who lives 250 miles north of London (Jon Anderson, Accrington) can be virtually unintelligible to a southerner, it may come as a surprise to North American Yes-watchers that early Yessers had practically nothing in common. Jon was all Sibelius, Beach Boys and vocal harmony, as was Chris. I was a jazzer who wanted to be Max Roach who knew little about rock or vocal-orientated music. (Harold Land was a hard-bop tenor saxophone player, dead now, but quite why we named a song after him I can’t remember.) Pete was big into being Pete Townsend but knew Wes Montgomery’s octave-sound. And I don’t think anyone asked Tony Kaye what he liked.

From this unlikely smorgasbord we had to fashion something. Perhaps more than contemporary bands, we were a ‘covers’ band. We played music from the Fifth Dimension, the Beatles, David Crosby, and Leonard Bernstein, inserted vast amounts of ripped off digestible classical music and TV themes, and made the whole lot sound like a cross between Vanilla Fudge and the Beach Boys. My kind of band!

I suspect I thought we were great – in the manner of most 18-year olds. Atlantic gave us a four-page recording contract, and off to the studio we went. Probably Advision, then in Bond Street, London. It was my first time recording, and I had to learn fast. I remember it only dawned on me at the end that you could alter the mix you got in the headphones. I hung on through grim death through the album with a deafening Peter Banks in one ear and precious little of anything in the other – quite a feat when you remember much of ‘I See You’ is a guitar and drums duet.

I detect vibes on Yesterday and Today. Jon was entirely encouraging to all comers on all instruments, irrespective of ability, in an early presage of his love of an orchestrally-wide tonal palette. Tony Kaye stuck religiously to his Hammond organ, and the minute we found a Rick Wakeman who was able to deliver a much broader range of sound colours, Tony’s days with the band were numbered. My mallet playing got as far as Fracture with Robert Fripp and King Crimson, and my own first albums with Bruford, but then I let it drift, with too much else to do.

We didn’t know any producers – other than George Martin, who was probably busy – and we didn’t know anything about production. Accordingly we were assigned someone called Paul Clay, a bit like those movies where the cop says to the bad guy “You’re entitled to legal representation; if you don’t have a lawyer, the Court will appoint you one”. Clay ensured that the stuff got safely to tape, with some sort of stereo image and not too much distortion. That was about the extent of that. I don’t remember attending any mixing sessions.

A possible moral of the story for young bands starting out is that I’m a keen believer in starting with covers, but then ‘re-imagining’ them when you are beginning to find your stylistic feet. If you already know the Star-Spangled (Mangled?) Banner, it’s a lot easier to detect the bit about it that is specifically Hendrix when he plays it. If you know Bernstein’s ‘America’, you can hear Keith Emerson’s Hammond organ spitting fire all over it. Covers are a good place to begin; you don’t have to write your own stuff until you are more confident.

So, all in all, Yes’ first was a simple, naïve affair. A beginners’ album which got us some headway, and most importantly gave the budding Anderson-Squire writing partnership its first recorded results. It sold poorly after great reviews.

2018-01-31T20:30:17+00:00 January 31st, 2018|