“Yes were once as welcome as pornography in the Vatican,” legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman muses. Times have certainly changed for the English prog-rock behemoth. After punk exploded on both sides of the Atlantic in the late '70s, bands such as Yes, King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer seemed as antiquated as Tin Pan Alley, their tendency for lengthy, challenging albums with titles as catchy as Tales of Topographic Oceans reviled by critics as show-off polymetric twaddle, at odds with the lean, angry primacy of punk and New Wave.
However, prog is back and Yes is on tour, two incarnations in fact. On October 14, Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center will see the version that includes vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Trevor Rabin, and prog titan Wakeman. Expect walls of modular synths, gloriously epic guitar solo,s and Anderson’s choirboy-on-acid vocals all turned to 11. It will be bombastic, it will be breathtaking, and it will be brilliant.
The tour caps off a stellar year for the group, which in April was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now all well past retirement age, the bandmates show no signs of packing it in anytime soon. “It’s great to be back playing with the band,” Wakeman says midtour. “As you get older, you wonder if it will ever happen again. American audiences have always been good to us, so I’m really looking forward to it.”
Wakeman is at ease talking about a career that has spanned almost 50 years, countless albums (a staggering 90 as a solo artist), and numerous bespangled capes. By the mid-'70s, he epitomized the excesses and clichés of progressive rock more than anyone who wasn’t Emerson, Lake, or Palmer, straddling the stage like some sequined, sparkling Borgia pope with a Moog. His early solo output went further: Albums The Six Wives of Henry VIII and King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were so high-concept they made Pink Floyd look like Jan & Dean.
However, he began his career as a jobbing session man, affectionately referred to as “One Take Wakeman.” Over four years, he worked with everyone from David Bowie to Cat Stevens. “I wanted to learn,” he says of the 2,000-plus sessions he worked. “Whereas normally a session musician wouldn’t be invited to listen back to the stuff, they knew I was interested. So producers like Tony Visconti invited me into the control room and they’d teach me something. My father always used to say that being a session man was the best apprenticeship I could have ever had.”
Wakeman worked his way into the pedestrian rock band the Strawbs, which had a spot supporting the fledging progressive-rock act Yes on a tour of England. “They were everything different from what I thought a rock band could be,” he says of Yes. A mutual interest in changing the perception of what keyboards could do in a band led Yes bassist Chris Squire (who passed away in 2015) to arrange a meeting with Wakeman.
Coincidently, it was the same day that David Bowie wanted to put something to him: “David asked me if I wanted to form the Spiders From Mars, but as much as I loved him, I turned him down... Later on, we were both living in Switzerland, and he told me I’d made the right decision. I mean, he’s the most influential person I’ve ever worked with, but there would have been a ceiling on my impact, not to mention he split up the Spiders From Mars a few years later!”
So Wakeman joined Yes just as the bandmates were leaping minds-first into the sonic soup of prog-rock megastardom. “I arrived and we did Fragile — that was our sit-up-and-take-notice record, a great precursor to Close to the Edge — which was a great achievement. I still look back on Close to the Edge and think, How the hell did we do that?”
By the mid-'70s, they were vastly successful, with a string of LPs that covered everything from Hindu scripture to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Yes was huge: Albums sold by the millions, and records for consecutive sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden were broken. Wakeman left during this time and returned in 1977 for the album Going for the One, another of his favorites. “I have a great affinity for that. It was the last time we were really hunkering down together, living in each other’s pockets. The song 'Awaken,' I think, set the benchmark for what prog rock was.”
By the decade’s end, though, tastes had changed. A new generation sneered at wacky time signatures, tracks with multiple “movements,” and sage-like mysticism. Prog giants had retreated up their own arses, noodling while urban centers burned. Bands with their own orchestras smacked of Antoinettian excess. “We were like a fart in a Chanel perfume factory,” Wakeman says.
Thus, the band changed, Trevor Rabin joined, the prog was toned down, and Yes morphed into a radio-friendly pop-rock act. In 1983, the band, without Wakeman again, released 90125, its biggest-selling album to date. “You’ve got to hold your hat to Trevor Rabin!” Wakeman exclaims. “It’s a great achievement of his. If that hadn’t come out, there wouldn’t be a Yes today.”
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However, it is still the progressive Yes that is the band at its most intriguing and enduring. Despite having its obituary written several times over the years, progressive music refuses to die. Indeed, in a postapocalyptic world, there will be only cockroaches, Twinkies, and prog. Of course, Radiohead regularly jets off into the prog stratosphere of grand artistic statements and complex compositions that defy foot-tapping and humming in the shower.
“Before prog, everything was in the same format: intro, verse, chorus, verse, solo, fadeout,” Wakeman says. “Prog changed all of that. What prog means is to play whatever is in your heart and head; don’t stick to the rules.”
In this sense, perhaps prog was the future all along. Sure, the aesthetics, theatrics, and some of the lyrics are as mired to the mid-'70s as tomato aspic, but the spirit, the underlying vision, lives on. Seeing Yes in all its pomp this Saturday is not only an act of nostalgia but also a chance to hear progressive music at its fantastic, ridiculous best. Time to go pay our respects.