20. Sound Chaser
What Jon Anderson describes in the lyrics as “electric freedom” finds expression in Relayer's truly frenetic, jazz-rock workout. Patrick Moraz tells of how, on meeting the band, he was played work in progress from this track. “They blew my mind,” he said. Then he was thrown in the deep end: “Jon asked me to come up with some kind of introduction to the whole thing. So I kind of instant-composed the intro on the spot,” he told Yes biographer Tim Morse.
The Swiss newcomer’s Moog solo later on was also nailed “in one or two takes”, while Telecaster work from Steve Howe is equally mesmerising. He has referred to the track’s “indescribable mixture of Patrick's jazzy keyboards and my weird sort of flamenco electric [guitar]”, but Alan White (who has singled out Relayer as his favourite Yes album) also stretches his drumming abilities to their limits in order to keep up.
19. Turn Of The Century
Few entries in the Yes catalogue compare with Turn Of The Century for sheer musical and lyrical unity. Written by Anderson, Howe and (in a major role) White, it’s an elaboration on the Ovidian/Greek myth of Pygmalion – a sculptor who fell in love with one of his sculptures. Here, a sculptor’s beloved wife dies, he makes a figure in her likeness and she is seemingly reincarnated.
Howe’s acoustic, minor key intro sets the theme, guitars and voice intertwine, with Rick Wakeman’s piano and Chris Squire’s bass adding ravishing colour and movement to the romantic narrative. With Wakeman replacing the ousted Patrick Moraz, the song was recorded at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland (Wakeman would record his Criminal Record there later in ’77).
Howe would revisit this on his 1995 album Tales From Yesterday, with a sublime vocal from Renaissance’s Annie Halsam. One of Yes’ truly transcendent storytelling moments.
18. Ritual (Nous Sommes Du Soleil)
One of the most cosmic things ever recorded in Willesden, Tales... is the point where Yes either went high into the stratosphere or up their own back passages, depending on your stance. It's certainly true that in recent years the herd mentality dismissal of it has seemed less and less valid.
The daunting double album's sides one and four, in particular, are winning fresh admirers for their ambition and charm. Ritual – the 21-and-a-half minute finale – sees the band strive to gather the threads together and bring it all on home with a bang, a vengeance and a sense of transcendence. Howe collates his guitar themes into something approaching a narrative, and the piano notes underscoring the 'nous sommes du soleil' refrain were actually the work of Alan White, while Wakeman was AWOL.
Wakeman's famously said he hates it, but as Anderson told me, “At least we tried”. And then some.
17. The Revealing Science Of God (Dance Of Dawn)
ELP might have introduced classical compositions into the progressive rock sphere, but Tales From Topographic Oceans went several steps further. It was a double album of four suites with The Revealing Science Of God comprising the entirety of the first side. Artistically, it was a reaction to the success of Roundabout.
“We weren't really that concerned about having a hit record,” said Jon Anderson to Songfacts. “I didn't feel as part of the band we should ever try to make another Roundabout or make another Fragile record. That's why within a space of time, three years, the record companies got very upset with us, because we were doing diverse music and Topographic Oceans.”
The main concept was inspired by Anderson reading about the yogi and guru Paramahansa Yogananda and after his idea to record in a forest led to naught, he brought bales of hay and flowers to the recording studio.
16. Going For The One
The lyrical theme of the opening title track of the 1977 album – the quest for sporting excellence – seemed surprisingly unproggy. Yet it also symbolised a band in lean, fighting fit shape to meet the growing challenge of the punk revolution. Steve Howe’s broad strokes of Chuck Berry-style boogie and steel guitar twang usher in the track and resurface throughout, signalling a new songwriting style willing and able to embrace direct pop hooks without jettisoning heady experimentation.
But this is no dumbed-down affair. The increasing dominance of dizzying synthesiser and guitar spirals and celestial harmonies turn this into an alternative chamber pop vision that is Yes, but not as you know them. "We felt marvellously fresh and excited, and the recording had a great feel about it," Howe said about the album on the liner notes of its 2003 reissue, and as a statement of intent, this was a formidable opening salvo.
15. Perpetual Change
With the band line-up in constant flux over the years and their music ever-evolving, this song title’s often used as a headline for articles about Yes. The song itself closes the embarrassment of riches that is their third outing, and from the opening stabs of guitar and keys to the triumphant instrumental fade, this Anderson/Squire co-write left listeners in no doubt they were witnessing a unique new voice in rock music.
Having replaced Peter Banks, Steve Howe engages his full arsenal here: country picking, pedal steel-like swells, Wes Montgomery-style jazzy passages added to tough blues and fusion lines. Online you can find the isolated tracks of Squire and Bruford’s bass and drums – it’s potent stuff. At the 05:45 mark, one odd-metered section drifts to the left speaker while the right grinds out the song’s main theme, and we’re really not in Kansas any more.
Anderson’s opening lines: ‘I see the cold mist in the night/And watch the hills roll out of sight’ were inspired by the Devon countryside where the writing sessions began, and this expands into a meditation on the nature of the universe, infinity and our place in it. This epic album coda pointed toward the musical adventures to come on Fragile and Close To The Edge.
14. Wonderous Stories
Although Yes had released singles, and to some acclaim in the States, the thought of them even doing suchlike went very much against the thinking of a large part of their fanbase.
That all changed when they released the three minutes and 45 seconds of Wonderous Stories. The shortest track from Going For The One, Wonderous Stories is a simple acoustic ballad credited solely to Jon Anderson, emboldened by the rest of the band joining in on the music, and, according to Steve Howe, written during the singer’s “Renaissance period”, with the song portraying the simple pleasures of a beautiful day.
The demo, along with Going For The One, were sent to Wakeman following Patrick Moraz’s departure, instigating his return as he liked what he heard. Yes made their first ever promotional video for the song (albeit one with them simply performing live). The single reached No. 7 in the UK charts, no mean feat given bands of their ilk were supposedly under fire from the threat of punk rock at the time.
Yet it was another fine example of the fact that, when the mood took them, the progressive legends of the 70s could turn their hand to writing simple but catchy music with aplomb.
13. Owner Of A Lonely Heart
First drafted by Trevor Rabin years previously, Yes' unlikely 80s comeback hit – an American No. 1 – was radically reimagined by Trevor Horn, who told a Red Bull Music Academy event in 2011: “I was convinced that if we didn't put loads of whizz bangs and gags all over the verse, nobody would listen to it”.
It was the producer who persuaded a reluctant band to record it, and Squire modified the music while Anderson added new lyrics. Its overall impact however relies on the blend of Rabin's heavy guitar and the Synclavier. Horn's said that Alan White, initially peeved by being displaced by a drum machine, eventually played a part in the programming (and played keyboards).
It remains one of Horn's favourite among his own productions, and hip-hop artists have acknowledged that it pioneered the use of a sample as a breakbeat (yep, we're still talking about Yes!). Pushing the album to sales of three million in the US alone, by far their biggest, Owner... gave Yes what Chris Squire told me was “a phase two audience… What we call our 80s audience”. “When I showed them what was possible”, Horn told me, “it was fun to watch them run with it.”
12. South Side Of The Sky
Every so often Yes offered up a reminder that they could do heavy just as well as the Led Zeps and Deep Purples out there when the mood took them – and weave those textures into a bigger, more unorthodox tapestry.
"This is a song about climbing mountains,” Jon Anderson has said. “It's dangerous, but we all must climb mountains every day”. The howling wind that punctuates this eight-minute cornerstone of Fragile gives you a clue as to the theme – a failed, ultimately fatal mountaineering mission. But elsewhere there’s also a brilliantly impressionistic quality to the music. The knotty tangles of guitar and the insistent trudge of the tempo set the scene in some style, while there’s also that climbing pitch to the verse sections and a sense of mounting desperation.
But this was also one of the tracks that showcased Rick Wakeman’s skill as a player and (uncredited in this case) composer, as his dramatic musical soliloquy, accompanied by Bill Bruford’s hesitant jazz percussion, offers a stark quasi-classical contemplation as a platform for warm harmonies and wistful lonely contemplations of a dying men, reflecting Anderson’s earlier counter-intuitive musings on the 'warmth of the sky/of warmth when you die'.
11. Long Distance Runaround
One of the punchiest tracks from Fragile was sufficiently concise that it was able to serve as the B-side to the edited Roundabout single without the need for any topping and tailing. Despite its economy of length, it’s still packed full of bold ideas. It opens with one of Steve Howe’s trademark classically flavoured guitar introductions.
Then there’s a polyrhythm with Bill Bruford accenting every fifth note against the steady 4/4 pulse of the keys, bass, and guitar to lend the verses an off-kilter lilt. The lyrics were born out of Jon Anderson’s frustration with religion, growing up in the Christian faith. “It was how religion had seemed to confuse me totally,” he told Songfacts. “It was such a game that seemed to be played, and I was going around in circles looking for the sound of reality, the sound of God.
That was my interpretation of that song, that I was always confused. I could never understand the things that religion stood for. And that throughout the years has always popped its head up in the song I've been working with.” A concert staple, the song appears on live releases including Yessongs, The Word Is Live, and Songs From Tsongas.