Rabin v. Howe

Coke versus Pepsi; Mets vs. Yankees; Kirk vs Picard. Not everyone has an opinion, but those who do tend to get rather vocal. That’s often the case when the answer just seems obvious — as if things could be no other way. And of course, you’re right — every one of you — on your own terms. And the world all gets along in relative peace.

Now in 2017,  two different bands tour as Yes — one with each of the two guitarists most famously associated with the band. Territory has been staked; lives hang precariously in balance. How did we get here? Where will it all end? Can’t we all just get along?

Once upon a time, in Ye Goode Olde Dayes, there was only one Yes, just as God intended. They were talented, they were driven, they were furiously creative, but very few records were sold, and guitarist Peter Banks found himself the odd man out.

Now history has a strange way of making things seem inevitable, but this was not a band which had set out to make Tales From Topographic Oceans — this was a band who had covered tunes by Stephen Sondheim and California pop bands, when they weren’t covering the Beatles. In 1969, the Beatles were still recording, Rick Wakeman had not yet helped Bowie make “Space Oddity”, and Jon Anderson still had a silent ‘h’ in his name.

By 1970, a lot had changed — most notably, Deep Purple released Concerto for Group and Orchestra in December 1969, suddenly vindicating Keith Emerson’s weird lapses into baroque cover tunes on albums by The Nice. Yes needed to do something radical if it was going to stand out, so they offered the guitar slot to — Robert Fripp of King Crimson.

But Robert Fripp did not join Yes; Steve Howe did. And it’s a jolly good thing he did, for he clearly had some sympathy for Peter’s style; latter-day Yes fans going backwards through the catalog don’t hear a startling difference from one guitarist to the next. Perhaps he too appreciated Davy O’List’s contributions to The Nice, or maybe he just copped all the licks off the first Yes album and added his own touch? Either way, he fit well into their new direction: bigger, bolder and (perhaps most importantly) more classical-sounding. Which became even more important when Emerson Lake and Palmer formed as the first prog-rock supergroup, and stole the Isle of Wight festival with a rock version of Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”. Heady times!

Like other successful bands of the early 70s, Yes changed with the fashions even as they helped create them: CSN-type harmonies gave way to whimsical lyrics, longer structures, and jazz-fusion. Disco evidently stymied them, but they still found good footing in FM rock. By the time the Buggles were involved, Yes were comfortably part of the sunset years of prog-rock popularity — when Dennis DeYoung could still cop a Keith Emerson lick on a radio single. That was all about to change.

Trevor Rabin knew all this music, because he grew up hearing it. But he wasn’t trying to catch that bus — it was the 80s, and the rage was to be new. It didn’t even matter if it was good; the mere attitude of not relying on past tried-and-true was the spirit of the times, and anyone young with a taste for synthesizers and bright colors stood a chance of getting a record contract — especially if they could play.

Trevor could definitely play. With a knack for melody and at least one killer riff to his name, Squire signed on and the band Cinema was born — and then dropped like a day-old burrito when Chris called Jon in to augment the vocals. Credit where it’s due: Trevor Rabin knew the Olde Garde Yes fans were not going to be pleased by this decidedly different approach, but he also knew that Big Time Success rarely knocks twice.

So there’s a big difference right there: Steve signed on to a struggling band, and necessarily continued what wasn’t broke to make things better. Trevor created his own band, then saw it hijacked by a dormant franchise. To Jon and Chris, it made no real difference: Yes had gone through many changes, both in personnel and approach; all of them had greater commercial success in mind. To this end, 90125 was no different than any previous album they had made.

All that being said, there is no question that 90125 was a major shift — not just in sound but in how the compositions were created, and it would be a while before the band returned to its former methods. Eventually Rabin would decide to accept and work with the Yes identity, both in performance [the Union tour] and recording [the Talk album], both of which were less reactionary than Big Generator or 90125.

The good news for us now is that we can have it both ways: Steve Howe tours with one Yes, and Trevor Rabin with the other. The fact that Rabin is trading compositional ideas with Rick Wakeman can only be for the better — especially since we can assume Jon will get to referee the song-building, the way he did in the 70s (and again in the 90s).

If the 70s represented Jon and Steve’s Yes, and the 80s were Chris and Trevor’s, it seems ARW Yes is Jon and Rick’s. Steve Howe isn’t available, being already occupied with his own version of Yes, which he evidently prefers without Jon (and certainly without Trevor!). Both bands have replaced the remarkable thunder of Chris Squire with acceptable substitutes — in fact, both bands are essentially Yes-ified versions of the two 80s bands they were then part of. And nobody’s left out ….

… but maybe one: Patrick Moraz (in his own words) never did get to play his best with Yes — possibly because his talent was a little bigger than the band could manage. Anyway, one can’t help but wonder: if Peter Banks were still alive, and Bruford had not retired — what a band they could make! And surely Tony Levin would pick up a call from his old Crimso pal. Or so we’d hope 🙂






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