“Here was fresh music, well-presented in high quality, and I didn’t have to sit around in a rehearsal room for months deciding on the sandwich order”: The joy and pain of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe’s only album

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Jon Anderson’s second exit from Yes was confirmed after the singer had completed his touring commitments following Big Generator in May 1988. As he later explained, during a visit to the Greek island of Hydra he’d realise that  he hadn’t been true to himself, he’d been spending too much time in LA, and it might be “a good time to get back to the roots that I’d started in the 70s...”

He also said: “I like having Lead Singer’s Disease. I have to let the others know I’m listening. Yes were making me feel like a sideman and I’ll never be a sideman for anyone.” Anderson remembered telling Chris Squire about his decision. “I rang him and he said, ‘This is divorce, then?’ And I said, ‘It’s got to be.’”

But was it really – or was it just a trial separation? Perhaps the signs of reunion with what would become known as Yes-West were always there. But first, Anderson had an appointment with musical fate and fellow ex-Yes members Bill Bruford, Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe.

In any divorce, of course, those involved are bound to wonder if there was anyone else influencing the split. And when Prog speaks to Steve Howe, he’s unwilling (or possibly unable) to put a specific date on when he heard from his former bandmate. “Jon called and asked, ‘Have you got any songs?’ Well, as it happened I had six songs on cassette. So he came round – I hadn’t seen Jon for years – but we just kind of connected. And obviously the fact he came to me made me think, rightly, that he wasn’t enjoying work he was doing with other guys. That was the way it was heading.” 

“I’m not sure,” Anderson says of the moment Big Generator-era Yes ended and ABWH began. “I just know that at that time I wanted to make new music. It just happened that I bumped into somebody that managed that situation. I just got in touch with each guy and said, ‘Can I come over, say hello and we’ll talk about music?’ The idea was, ‘Just do something you feel good about – the kind of Yes that you think it should be.’ That kind of thing.”

The timing was pretty good: just as Anderson was newly free of pressing professional commitments, Howe and Wakeman had no obvious reason to resist a high-profile new project. Howe’s GTR project with Steve Hackett had lost momentum after the latter left, while Wakeman – who had departed Yes along with Anderson at the turn of the 80s – had been producing Christian-themed ambient albums such as 1986’s Country Airs and 1987’s The Family Album and The Gospels; but they’d ended up rather ghettoised within the genres of ‘New Age’ and religious music.

Brother of Mine - YouTube Brother of Mine - YouTube
Watch On

Bruford had begun the 80s back in the King Crimson fold, but he’d become increasingly interested in improvisational jazz-oriented sounds augmented by emerging electronic technology. After touring small clubs with his new quartet, Earthworks, it’s understandable that he’d be open to trying something a little higher profile, that could help finance projects like Earthworks while also offering the prospect of doing something artistically worthwhile.

“We seized the opportunity,” says Howe of his initial sessions with Anderson at La Frette studios in Paris, “and started dreaming the songs up with [session keyboardist] Matt Clifford, and got them going as tracks.” The guitarist refers darkly to “someone I’d rather leave out of this” as the figure who Anderson says “managed the situation” – evidently erstwhile Yes, GTR and Rick Wakeman manager Brian Lane. 

Indeed, it was Lane who made the first phone call to Wakeman to request his participation. “I’d just moved to the Isle of Man, and he called me out of the blue,” recalls the keyboard player. “He said, ‘How’d you fancy playing some Yes music again, along with some new music and new ideas?’ I said, ‘Uh, that sounds interesting,’ but I thought the whole Yes situation in America was a bit of a mess. I didn’t know but I’d heard there were all sorts of disagreements and arguments going on.

When did I realise it would be more than just working on a solo record with Jon? At the airport!

Bill Bruford

“Brian said, ‘Well, is that any different to Yes since day one?’ I said no. He said, ‘Jon wants to get back to… not the old style Yes as such, but the old principles of what Yes was. He wants to put as much of the original band back together as possible.’ So I said, ‘Count me in!’”

Soon afterwards, Lane would secure a record deal with Arista’s Clive Davis and arrange a tour. It all happened so fast, in fact, that it wasn’t immediately possible to get the entire quartet working on material straight away. Wakeman joined Howe and Anderson for some of the initial sessions in Paris, but the singer had a plan to relieve them of some of the more workaday aspects of creating an album. “His plan was not a bad idea at all,” Wakeman says. “Because this had happened a bit out of the blue and we all had commitments, he would get other musicians to put the basic bits and pieces down – the mundane stuff – then we could come in and add the creative stuff.”

Bruford was also amenable to the idea, impressed by the standard of material presented to him, and hardly averse to the idea of going to the Caribbean to record at George Martin’s AIR studios. “Jon had been fermenting the block of music we ended up recording for many months – years even,” the drummer reckons. “I’d been away in another world of Earthworks and was totally out of touch with the Yes behemoth. But here was fresh music, well-presented in high quality, great-sounding demos, and I didn’t have to sit around in a rehearsal room for months deciding on the sandwich order. All I had to do was turn up in what sounded like an agreeable place – maybe with a cricket bat – and sprinkle some personalised fairy dust on the tracks… and job done.”

The Meeting - YouTube The Meeting - YouTube
Watch On

Bruford says he didn’t know it would be a reunion of four early Yes members until  late in the day. “When did I realise it would be more than just working on a solo record with Jon? At the airport! I’d obviously misunderstood from Jon’s brief visit to my house. It had been a while since we had even spoken, let alone played together, so I didn’t think to ask who else was going to be on the sessions. So there at the airport were Rick, Steve and Brian Lane. It was sort of, ‘Hello, are you going where I’m going?’ I thought Jon had ‘left Yes’ –  you’ll forgive me if I’d not been keeping up.”

His memory doesn’t seem entirely reliable here, as by all other accounts Howe elected not to join the band in Montserrat, instead contributing his guitar parts at AIR studios in London. “He doesn’t like the Caribbean,” Anderson comments.

Howe, meanwhile, says he opted to stay home to spend more time with his instruments: “I didn’t want to ship lots of guitars over then try and work my studio approach there. I wanted to have my collection available. That was the start of the age when you didn’t have to all sit in the same room to make a record. It was a nice opportunity to know what had already been done and hear the arrangements, then come along after they’d been constructed.”

The locals were nuts about cricket. We played the local kids and thought, ‘Well, we’re much older; we’ll sort them out!’ And they slaughtered us

Rick Wakeman

A bass player was now required, and Bruford  nominated his King Crimson bandmate Tony Levin. The line-up was complete; and despite Howe’s absence, the setting for the creation of ABWH’s only album would turn out to be an inspired one – not least because it removed them physically and for the most part creatively from the industry. “You don’t have any talking to record companies and people snooping around at what you’re doing,” says Anderson. “It was very wonderful to be isolated from the business and again from the world in terms of recording. That was the joy of making that album.”

“We wanted to be so far away, with clear heads nothing else to worry about but the album,” says Wakeman. “Steve in the end recorded his bits in London, which was a shame, because there’s no doubt about it: it was very inspirational to work and write down there.”

The band and crew shared a love of cricket with their hosts, which led to a memorable engagement with the locals. “They were nuts about cricket,” Wakeman explains, “and we decided to have a match against them. We played the local kids and thought, ‘Well, we’re much older; we’ll sort them out!’ And they slaughtered us! All the town came out to watch and it was a great, fun event.”

Quartet - YouTube Quartet - YouTube
Watch On

Bruford calls it “a tragi-comedy of epic proportions,” adding: “We all hoped our leader would show the same confidence at the crease as he did when directing the drummer in the studio; but, alas, it was not to be. The drummer also only lasted about two balls, to a roar of approval from the locals. We were soundly thrashed by what looked like the local Under-13s. There is humiliating video of this somewhere.”

“We played against the schools and they killed us – twice!” Anderson says. ”So after that we said, ‘No more!’ But it was a wonderful feeling to play with these kids and meet their families and the people of the island.”

“We really did integrate,” Wakeman agrees. “The people were so wonderful; they really made us welcome. Jon and I would go for walks late at night and we did lots of sightseeing. We got involved in the island in many ways – we even went to the Pentecostal gospel church with all the gospel singing, backed by this soul band who were just fantastic. It really put you in the mood to want to play and want to work.”

It was becoming too obvious that record companies were just there for making money. They pretend to understand you, but if you don’t have a song that gets on radio they drop you

Jon Anderson

One of the standout tracks of the album is The Meeting, an airy, spiritual ballad built around some beautiful cascades of pian and lyrical sentiments of religious or romantic devotion – depending on your interpretation. ‘Surely I could tell / If you ask me Lord to board the train / My life, my love would be the same / Yes, I would be the one for you in the meeting of your love.’ It sounds like what it is: a song written by two men riding on something of a natural high.

“Jon and I wrote The Meeting at two in the morning,” Wakeman recalls. “We’d been out walking and talking about music and we came back and Jon had an idea. He said, ‘Let’s just go in the studio see what happens. You play, I’ll sing.’ So we recorded it, and came in the morning and everyone said, ‘That’s fantastic!’”

It wasn’t all blissful harmony, though. The album might have turned out a little differently if certain events had gone another way; and if those familiar with Anderson’s strident leadership style hadn’t pacified the newcomers.

Themes - YouTube Themes - YouTube
Watch On

“We’d been sent demos of the tracks we were to replace and improve on,” says Bruford, “so Tony and I were well-prepared, ready to play. We knew our stuff. When we first gathered at the dining table at Air Montserrat, Jon must have had a bad travel day, because he began to round on Levin – whom he barely knew and in fact may never have met – accusing him aggressively of not being ready. Big mistake. I had to persuade one of the world’s most experienced bass players – a man who can play anything now – to stay in a hurried damage-limitation exercise. He was ready to walk.”

What they also didn’t know (and nor did anyone else) was that the island’s volcanic Soufrière hills were not dormant. The volcano would soon wreak havoc of catastrophic proportions when it erupted in July 1995. “Nobody had any idea there was any danger,” says Wakeman. “I climbed up cotton fields up the side of the mountain, quite a long way up. That was one of my fun things to do there, because the views were astonishing.”

The central vision for the album was clearly Anderson’s; the lyrics on Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe adopt a clearer style than the beguiling webs of words we were used to from early Yes albums. The opening salvoes on Themes, for instance, seemed to take aim at industry forces that would try to mould Yes’ sound and curb their creativity: ‘Be gone, you ever-piercing power play machine,’ he sings, ‘cutting our musical solidarity… For too long I have danced to your destiny / no longer fill my head with empty dreams / of reality and gold / your reality.’

Once in a while I think a musician is allowed to go on vacation and make everyone very happy playing all the stuff they want them to play

Bill Bruford

“It was becoming too obvious that record companies were just there for making money,” says Anderson. “They pretend to really understand what you’re trying to do, but if you don’t have a song that’s going to get on the radio they drop you. It’s business, and there’s nothing wrong in that – but after a while you just want to have a clear and honest relationship with anyone you work with.”

Another key lyrical theme on the album was the need to get back in touch with native and aboriginal cultures, and make amends for the wrongs that modern governments and cultures had done them. It’s a sentiment that Anderson believes is even more relevant 30 years on. ‘They were blasted by the silver cloud,’ he sings on Birthright, adding, ‘This place ain’t big enough for stars and stripes / Counting out the statesmen, bungling one by one, spelling out this segregation.’ There we have reference to post-war nuclear testing in the Pacific, people being alienated from each other in the name of a national flag, and politicians doing their worst to enforce such divisions. 

“The point was that we are all indigenous people from way, way back – Game Of Thrones!” Anderson explains. “So why separate other indigenous peoples? Because historically we’ve thought they had nothing to offer us. And now in recent years there’s been more awareness about this. In Canada a few years ago, the parliament asked for forgiveness to the Navajo people, saying how sorry they were to have done what they did. The same happened in Australia a couple of years earlier – it’s gonna happen all over the world, and that’s what the song’s about. And the nuclear tests were a terrible moment in British history – they’d chuck out atom bombs without seeing if everyone was out of the way! Awful!” 

Order of The Universe - YouTube Order of The Universe - YouTube
Watch On

Anderson was also the chief visionary on the musical front, holding the baton in the studio. Indeed, Bruford’s comments about “directing the drummer” reflect the ongoing frustration Yes members had perennially felt about the singer’s hands-on approach to conducting the grand orchestral visions. During the same promotional video, The Big Dream, that features the cricket match, Wakeman quips to camera, “I wonder what he’s going to let me play today…” 

All the same, the key members clearly had no shortage of chances to flex their creative muscles. You hear that in Wakeman’s breathtaking synth fanfares on Fist Of Fire; Howe’s evocative acoustic guitar patterns on Quartet and Let’s Pretend; and in Levin’s spidery bass runs, which don’t attempt to ape Squire’s trademark Rickenbacker rumble, but which add their own lively undercurrent to proceedings. And Anderson earns his corn as captain of the ship: those enduringly bright vocal melodies are in as good a shape as they have been for years, even without Squire’s harmonic counterpoint.

When it all comes together it’s dizzyingly effective. The final section of Themes offers shape-shifting rhythms, freewheeling guitar and typically baroque synth flourishes. And even if Bruford’s electronic drums sometimes sound sonically anachronistic and a little tinny, his rhythms are intricate and incredible, particularly when adding subtle ethnic flavours and atmospheric percussive frills to tracks such as Birthright and Brother Of Mine

Somewhere around Birthright and Brother Of Mine, a window opened briefly into a genuinely interesting new musical place for us

Bill Bruford

Not that the drummer has always sounded that impressed with his work on this record. If you took some of his later comments you might imagine that, in the quote from Withnail & I, he’d “come on holiday by mistake.”

“You get paid tons there,” he said in one interview not long afterwards, as if talking about an IT consultant shift. “Much too much, and it’s great. There’s no musical future in it… it’s regressive music; it’s historical stuff. But once in a while I think a musician is allowed to go on vacation and make everyone very happy playing all the stuff they want them to play from 20 years ago.”

Fair comment in some ways – Bruford has always been a devotee of progressive music in the purest sense, determined to push the art form forwards and not fall back on the familiar. And ABWH were one of the first bands to trade on a certain amount of nostalgia for a classic band’s line-up – an approach that is now the chief source of revenue for seasoned groups advertising live renditions of classic albums in full. So can we say ABWH were pioneers of heritage rock? For all his self-effacing comments at the time, Bruford thinks not. 

“My interest in ABWH was in so far as I might be able to help move that sort of music forward a bit faster. I’ve been rude about geriatric rock in the past and see no reason to recant. Personally, I just wish the Rolling Stones would go away and let someone else have a go. No, I don’t think ABWH started all that heritage business – for our brief period in the sunshine we were trying to push it forward.”

Fist of Fire - YouTube Fist of Fire - YouTube
Watch On

That they did, for much of the album. And Bruford’s bandmates feel he was a very important inventive force. “As we talked the ideas through, Bill embellished our musical thoughts via his new computerised kit,” said Anderson at the time. “The sounds were amazing.”

“Bill really underplays his role,” he says now. “Bill was pivotal. Some of the underlying themes are brought to life by him; rhythmically and percussion-wise his work is desperately important.”

And now Bruford says he did indeed feel that this project had potential. “Somewhere around Birthright and Brother Of Mine it seemed that a window opened briefly into a genuinely interesting new musical place for us,” he says, “distinct from the mothership Yes. If we’d had the strength and determination, I reckoned, based on those tracks, that this thing Jon had started could have fresh legs and a committed future built on sound musical choices. For the next few months, we had the wind in our sails and there was a fertile and confident feeling about the thing.” 

The audience in various forms has always had very dedicated elements. But this was on another planet. You could feel it before you even got on stage

Rick Wakeman

Too much confidence, some listeners might argue. That might explain the bold inclusion of the tropically infused dance number Teakbois, which was not short on intricate rhythms, but wasn’t to everyone’s taste. “Teakbois, I don’t think anyone understood but Jon,” says Howe drily. 

Unlike today, when music fans’ tastes tend to be much more diverse, in the late 80s it was fair to say that the subset containing lovers of both Caribbean party music and prog rock was a small one. Nonetheless, when you listen back now it’s a mightily infectious earworm, one that Wakeman puts down to their environment. “Like it or not, you can’t help being influenced by where you are – your inspirational filing cabinet will fill up, almost without you realising.”

All told, though, the quartet had made a very fine record that largely achieved what they set out to: updating Yes’ vintage progressive approach to album creation with new influences and modern technology thrown into the mix.  Spirits could hardly have been higher as the band went public with the new project and announced a string of US dates to promote the album, promising “An Evening Of Yes Music Plus.” 

But trouble lay ahead. ABWH may have offered Yes music played by former Yes members, but the band Anderson had left a year previously weren’t about to let that happen without a fight. Although currently without a record deal and seemingly with no concrete plans to do much in the near future, Yes continued under the stewardship of Chris Squire and Alan White, with the radio-friendly songwriting of Trevor Rabin as their chief commercial weapon. In May 1989, Billboard reported that Tony Kaye, Rabin, Squire and White had filed suit in the California US District court to prevent ABWH mentioning Yes at all in their promotional activities or interviews. At which point, the irony of the ABWH name’s similarity to a legal firm seemed all the more striking. 

Birthright - YouTube Birthright - YouTube
Watch On

The argument centred around an agreement signed by past and present members in 1984 agreeing that only those who remained in the band had the right to use the name. On that basis, if ABWH mentioned Yes they would be removing earning power from the LA-based band who were still legally plying their trade under a globally recognised brand name. It was somewhat unsettling for the new quartet, who feared they might be on something of a sticky wicket when they came to play live. 

“We can’t lie to the audience,” Anderson said at the time. “A lot of it will be Yes music. It’s a funny thing. If we say we’re not going to play Yes music, there’s a possibility a lot of fans wouldn’t come to see us. But if we say we’re going to play some Yes music, there’s a possibility we’re going to get in a little trouble.”

Not that the band ever wanted to pass themselves off as something they weren’t. “We never wanted to call ourselves Yes at all,” says Wakeman. “But we were going to play Yes songs, and of course all over the venues people would be holding up banners saying, ‘ABWH = Yes’ – were they going to be sued, too? It was ridiculous. I think the case lasted 10 seconds because the judge said, ‘Hold on, you’re trying to stop four guys, who were in the band that wrote and played the original music, playing what they wrote and played?’ So it was thrown out.”

The album – cheekily catalogued 90126 by Arista and replete with classically Yes-style Roger Dean sleeve and logo – would sell 750,000 copies worldwide, and the sold-out tour that followed saw Yes fans gleefully buy into the positive vibes exuding from the ABWH camp, lawsuits be damned.

I very much consider the ABWH album as a Yes album

Rick Wakeman

The set was heavy on Yes classics, although a clever opening medley managed to combine Time And A Word, Owner Of A Lonely Heart and Teakbois in such a way that left the latter making considerably more sense than it did on the album. Above all, though, the feeling you get from watching the film of the San Francisco date on the tour, An Evening of Yes Music Plus, is one of a euphoric gathering of the Yes clans, as Anderson holds court, Christlike, walking through the crowds bathed in white spotlight, to open the show. 

“It was very special,” says Wakeman. “The audience in various forms has always had very dedicated elements. But this was on another planet. You could feel it before you even got on stage. I’ve never ever experienced anything quite like that. It lifted everybody. It was really quite amazing.”

Even the departure of Levin after he fell seriously ill with hepatitis couldn’t derail things. “It put us in a really difficult position,” says Wakeman, “because obviously the music is not very easy for someone new to pick up. Tony suggested we get Jeff Berlin, a very well-known American session player, and in two days he wrote down and learnt the exact parts Tony was playing. The only difficulty with that was for those shows the rest of us had to be strict in sticking to what we had rehearsed and not improvise too much. No disrespect to Jeff – a fine bass player and a lovely guy – but if you saw ABWH with Tony Levin, that was really the show.”

As the tour drew to a close in March 1990, all seemed well, despite Levin’s absence. And for the central quartet that made and toured the album, it definitely deserves a prominent place in the canon of Yes and Yes-related albums.

Let's Pretend - YouTube Let's Pretend - YouTube
Watch On

“I very much consider the ABWH album as a Yes album,” says Wakeman. “even though it doesn’t have the name Yes attached to it. It will always be part of me and my history with Yes, and I’m very proud of it.”

“It came out of a collective feeling,” says Anderson: “Instead of chasing another hit record you just make good music, and that was what I wanted to do with ABWH – ‘I wanna make the kind of music I want to make with the people I want to work with‘ – and it actually became very successful, which I’m very happy about.”

A few months later, work would begin on ABWH’s second album. However, it didn’t quite turn out as planned…

Teakbois - YouTube Teakbois - YouTube
Watch On
Johnny Sharp

Johnny is a regular contributor to Prog and Classic Rock magazines, both online and in print. Johnny is a highly experienced and versatile music writer whose tastes range from prog and hard rock to R’n’B, funk, folk and blues. He has written about music professionally for 30 years, surviving the Britpop wars at the NME in the 90s (under the hard-to-shake teenage nickname Johnny Cigarettes) before branching out to newspapers such as The Guardian and The Independent and magazines such as Uncut, Record Collector and, of course, Prog and Classic Rock