Tip for success: take your most controversial album and one of your least popular and tour them together live with less than half your original band, and no electronic udders. Does it work?
Time: 8 + 5 tracks / 64 + 73 minutes
in 1973, Yes were so popular that their Tales from Topographic Oceans was the first album to be awarded gold status on advance orders alone. Some might say that, had the buyers heard it first, they may have changed their minds.
It is often the first album that people refer to when describing the overblown excesses that prog reached. When they recorded it, Yes put hay bales, picket fences and a cut-out cow with electronic udders in the studio to make it feel more rural. The music comprised four tracks lasting 81 minutes, so that each filled a side of a vinyl double album.
Famously, Topographics was the album that pushed keys wizard Rick Wakeman out of the band. He got so bored playing it on tour, that one night he ordered a curry and ate it at his bank of keyboards.
Drama, recorded without stalwarts Wakeman and singer Jon Anderson, alienated much of the band’s fanbase by bringing in Buggles pair Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn as the band struggled to adapt their prog juggernaut to meet 1980s pop.
Not a popular pair of albums to tour then, but time to re-evaluate them?
Drama sets this pack off and its punchier ‘80s vibe is Yes, but not as we knew it. “Tempus Fugit” and “Machine Messiah” are the tracks that generally get credit from this disc. Longer and more memorable, they stand out, but for me the highlight is “Does it Really Happen?” where the bass drives the track forward (more of that later).
Full disclosure: I stand firmly on the ‘love it’ side of the controversial Topographics debate and consider it to be one of the band’s best three albums, if not the best. This release only includes the first and last sides of the original set, together with the lovely acoustic guitar-led “Leaves of Green” from the end of what is generally known as ‘Side 3’.
Aside from a two-minute percussion interlude, this is wall-to-wall tunefulness, with beautifully fluid structures and interwoven threads. Ambitious in all the right ways, these tracks are simply majestic.
Replacing the late founder bassist Chris Squire is no easy job, but Billy Sherwood’s sinewy and bubbly bass work goes way beyond rhythm and is the hi-octane engine that drives this forward, carving melody lines right through the integrated mass of music.
Huge credit here also to singer Jon Davison who lets you believe that you are listening to Jon Anderson in a way that predecessor Benoit David rarely did. Davison not only has the sound perfect, but his vocals are even clearer than Anderson’s.
Filling in the gaps and making up for any disappointment that some might have in the tracklisting, the band squeeze two classic tracks at the end of each side. Drama gets “And You and I,” still one of the best rock tracks of all time in my book, and “Heart of the Sunrise.” The Topographics disc gets “Starship Trooper” and (surprise, surprise) “Roundabout.”
So with classic line-up guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White giving this set an authentic sound, with Davison and Sherwood filling in brilliantly for Anderson and Squire, it is only keys player Geoff Downes who lowers the Yes-factor. His washes and accents are strong, but there are times when you realise that he is not Rick Wakeman (that impact solo in Topographics’ “The Revealing Science of God,” where the emotional release just isn’t there). He doesn’t even attempt the “Wurm” synth solo on “Starship Trooper.”
So you can see why they toured these albums: Downes was on the original Drama and the lack of keys parts on Topographics drove Wakeman out, so having no like-for-like replacement for him is little problem on this material. This is Yes’s live guitar album.
But that is fine. Out of two and a quarter hours, only half an hour is less than immense.