The 40 greatest Yes songs ever

10. Siberian Khatru

A mere bagatelle at just under nine minutes, this symphonic masterpiece occupies the second half of Edge’s second side. Jon Anderson brought the bones of Siberian Khatru to rehearsals, credited co-writers Howe and Wakeman beefed up the song’s main propulsive riffs and sections, and the entire band embellished the arrangement. Anderson uses the image of Siberia to add scale, exoticism, mystery, which his birds of prey, rivers and blue tails root the song in nature. 

As ever, he sells his oblique, spiritual metaphors with the sheer ebullience of his vocal delivery, and irresistible melodies. “The song builds and builds and builds,” he said later. “You’re taking the audience on an epic adventure. People think it can’t get bigger, but it does. A very cool song.” 

As a musical ensemble, Yes purr like a Rolls Royce engine here: Squire’s bass is busy, his harmony and counterpoint vocals crucial. Bill Bruford’s drumming deeply detailed throughout. Howe and Wakeman trade licks across the Advision studio floor: dizzying, eclectic guitars countered by big Mellotron chords; twanging electric sitar parried by stunning harpsichord lines. As with the album, the song is the sound of Yes coming into its own as a unit, and the lexicon of progressive rock gaining form. 

Bruford left Yes for Crimson that July, his replacement Alan White joining for the world tour that kicked off that same month. That set regularly opened with Siberian Khatru, which became a concert staple over the years and features on numerous live recordings. Steve Howe Trio recorded a particularly natty version on their 2010 album, Travelling.

9. I've Seen All Good People

The Yes Album, the first to feature Howe, was where the band truly hit their unique stride. Its highlights are numerous, and I've Seen All Good People stands tall as one of their evergreen anthems. At almost seven minutes and two movements long, it opens with Your Move (chess as a metaphor for relationships) then ratchets up into the country-rock riffing of the more radio-friendly All Good People. (While the first part was a US Top 40 hit, stations soon took to playing the whole thing, so enamoured were they of the later groove). 

The a cappella three-part harmony opening features Anderson, Squire and Howe; the climax does complex things with simple chords. Tony Kaye on Hammond organ does what works rather than what shows him off. The then highly influential critic Robert Christgau in Village Voice hailed it as “a great cut” in which Yes' “arty eclecticism comes together”. 

Anderson again pondered the existence of God while dropping in a couple of homages to John Lennon. He shamelessly namechecks Instant Karma – 'send that instant karma to me' – and Give Peace A Chance. Recalling the album, he told Classic Rock, “It started a new plane for Yes, where we were completely original, creating our own music. When I'd joined, I'd said: “Isn't it time Yes did the whole thing?' That became one of our key strengths”. 

Howe, for his part, called this “post-psychedelia”. Yes, he told Prog, now “stood out because we were quirky, risky and kind of weird… Which is a very good thing.”

8. The Gates Of Delirium

Tales From Topographic Oceans was a hit but divided critics, fans and the band. Rick Wakeman ate his last mid-show curry, to be replaced by Refugee keysman Patrick Moraz. In the gloomy year of the three-day-week, double-digit inflation and deadly IRA attacks, Yes repaired to Chris Squire’s home studio in Virginia Water, Surrey, and doubled down on the escapist prog/fusion grandeur with Relayer

Sprawling over the entire first side, near 22-minute behemoth The Gates Of Delirium was a true statement of intent. Inspired by Tolstoy’s War And Peace, the song began life as piano sketches from Jon Anderson, with the band pitching in, including Moraz. “[Jon] explained a lot of the conceptualisation,” he said later. “He had some of the themes, but nothing was written down.” 

With Moraz on board there’s definitely a sense of experimental jazz in parts here. The band, unshackled from studio time restraints, build an ominous sense of conflict, evoke the Sturm und Drang of a fierce battle, then linger camera-like over its smouldering aftermath. Later released by Atlantic as a single, Soon was the mournful coda to Yes’ longest piece until 2011’s Fly From Here

It was performed in its entirety on the Relayer Tour in ‘74, though Alan White may not be relishing the prospect in 2020. “It was one of the toughest pieces the band ever played,” he said recently. “It demands a hell of a lot of energy and precision. I look back on it and I think, ‘Oh my God, we were really crazy!”

7. Yours Is No Disgrace

The Yes Album marked the arrival of Steve Howe into the fold and the band kicked off the record with the galloping charge of Yours Is No Disgrace, a track that begins with a refrain borrowed from the theme to the TV show Bonanza. Despite that pilfered Western bounce, the song shows Yes really pushing themselves compositionally, using a huge dynamic range to build drama into the music. 

“The inventiveness of the group, because of its musical potential, started to show,” said Howe in a 2003 interview for the Guitar Heroes DVD series. “We were trying to formulate, as much as we could, our own style.” 

Howe’s guitar solo even lets him dip into Hendrix territory, using his wah-wah pedal to great effect. It was the longest song Yes had recorded by this point in their career, a testament to their orchestral sensibilities and a signpost to where progressive rock was going next. 

The lyrics reference the Las Vegas casino Caesar’s Palace. “Well, I'd just been to Vegas and it was amazing how crazy the place was and how silly we are,” Jon Anderson told Songfacts in an interview. “Silly human race. It was something to do with how crazy we can be as a human race to be out there flittering money around and gambling, trying to earn that big payout, when actually that's not what life is truly about. Our life is truly about finding our divine connection with God, if you like. You know, that's why we live.”

6. Awaken

For many Yes fans, 1977’s Going For The One was the last great creative statement produced by the classic Yes Mk IV line-up, and its crescendo-packed 15-minute final track is its crowning glory. 

Refugee keyboard player Patrick Moraz took part in early sessions during the album’s gestation, and told author Jon Kirkman, “I had already exchanged some of the ideas for Awaken”, but it’s the returning Wakeman’s baroque piano parts that open the piece with such a flourish, and towards the end, an extraordinary church organ solo offers a riot of instrumental colour within an otherwise beatific, dreamlike piece. 

Anderson told Circus Magazine on its release that the lyric was inspired by Calvin Miller’s book The Singer, which he was reading while recording the album at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland. “It’s about this Star Song; which is an ageless hymn that’s sung every now and again…” he said. 

There’s a distinctly hymnal quality to large swathes of the piece and Wakeman actually played the organ in a cathedral near Montreux. The band took advantage of unusually high-quality telecommunications in Switzerland to record his part over a landline to the studio. And they make out “phoning it in” is a bad thing.

5. Starship Trooper

Quite apart from the fact that it is one of Yes’s first multi-part, extended song cycles, of the kind that would define progressive rock as a genre, there’s something truly life-affirming about this nine-and-a-half-minute suite from The Yes Album. The robust riff and star-flecked guitar patterns that introduce the song represent such a fine how-d’you-do that it often seems more suited to opening the album rather than closing side one. 

Although each of the five members brings a fair amount to the party, it’s arguably Chris Squire who delivers the most exceptional contribution. As well as writing the sprightly acoustic folk interlude of Disillusion he offers sublime harmonies with Anderson, while the distorted and mutated bass sounds (employing bass tremolo) on the final Würm section shows how prepared he was to push the boundaries of his own developing sonic template and really unsettle the listener. 

Among the fans of this record was a young Trevor Horn, who later told Jon Kirkman: “I’d never heard a bass sound like that before. Starship Trooper – I wore the record out.”As for the lyrical themes, talking to website Songfacts, Jon Anderson later explained that the “talks by the water” section was “interconnected with the realisation that the most peaceful place is down by the lake, down by the river close to water. I think that has something to do with our ancient evolvement as human beings. I know that whenever I sing that – and I sing that at every show – I'm always thinking about my family, my connection with the royal family, the oneness of being.” 

The royal family’s thoughts on Jon Anderson and Yes have sadly gone unrecorded, but let’s hope they would agree with him that “there are billions of people out there that are all connected on the same level”.

4. Roundabout

Fragile was the album that helped Yes break out on the international stage, particularly in the US, and its torch-bearing herald was the magnificent Roundabout. The edited, 7-inch single version of the song went into the Billboard Top 20, a chart peak that the band wouldn’t surpass until the release of Owner Of A Lonely Heart in 1983. Steve Howe and Jon Anderson started writing Roundabout whilst on tour in Scotland, sitting in a hotel room. 

“We seemed to find a lot of time to do that in the Seventies,” Howe told Guitar World in 2014. “We had a private plane. We got to places. People sat by the pool. And Jon and I were in this hotel room, kind of going, ‘Well, what have you got that’s a bit like this?’ We used to quiz one another like that. We did those exchanges in our music, and lyrically as well. This was the era of cassettes, and I’ve still got all of them – Jon and me fooling around in hotel rooms.” 

The lyrics were inspired by a drive through Scotland on which Anderson was struck by the profusion of roundabouts [One can only imagine what he’d have made of Swindon! – Ed.], but his trippy approach transforms this drab, prosaic subject into something rather marvellous and magical. Rick Wakeman was the newest member of the band, introduced on Roundabout by the sound of a piano played backwards on a tape machine, before Howe’s classically inspired, baroque guitar paves the way for Squire’s wonderfully chunky bass line. 

Forty-six years after they recorded it, Roundabout was the song the band performed when Yes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, with Rush’s Geddy Lee filling in for the late Chris Squire on bass. It remains a vital staple of their live sets, one of progressive rock’s greatest, most recognisable anthems.

3. Heart Of The Sunrise

With his usual unerring precision, Bill Bruford hit the nail on the head last year when speaking to Rolling Stone. “On reflection, the band hit its real template with Heart Of The Sunrise. That seemed to have it all. That was a shorter version of what was to become Close to the Edge.” 

Clocking it at over 11 minutes, Heart Of The Sunrise closed out Fragile and quickly became one of Yes’ most enduring and beloved signature pieces. Those opening salvos – tattoos of bass, guitar and snare in relentless lock-step – hurtle towards you like a juggernaut, harking back to the brain and brawn of King Crimson, or to the fizzing intensity of The Who or Cream in their pomp. 

With Howe’s guitar now subdued and shimmering beneath him, Jon Anderson takes the song to the other side of the dynamic spectrum with his lovely, pastoral lyrics: 'Love comes to you and you follow/Lose one on to the heart of the sunrise.’ 

“At that time I was exhausted with the city of London,” Anderson recalled in 2009. “I wanted to get out of there and live in the country. We just wrote, and the music became about that.” Call them fey, call them hippie-dippy, but the sentiment is clear, and there are actually academic theses exploring Anderson’s lyrics here, with the city as a symbol of Man’s alienation from the natural world. 

Wakeman was the new boy on Fragile, having replaced the apparently synth-sceptical Tony Kaye, and makes his nimble presence quickly felt, notably on the noodly back-and-forth of the mid-section. He has recalled going along for an early rehearsal and the band assembling Roundabout and a large part of ...Sunrise too. 

Given the composition’s complexity, that speaks volumes to the band’s technical facility in '71. A live staple and fan favourite, Heart Of The Sunrise really does have it all.

2. And You And I

Side One is a tough act to follow, but the Close To The Edge album refuses to fall off a cliff. And You And I keeps the momentum and magic flowing, shaping into a ten-minute, four-movement rock opera. Implausibly, an edit, snipped halfway, was a Top 50 single in the US. 

A quarter-century later, Joss Whedon, the man behind the Buffy The Vampire Slayer TV series and the all-conquering The Avengers films, named his production company Mutant Enemy, quoting Jon Anderson's lyrics from the song. This was also, he said, the name of his typewriter. (Other sly, oblique references to Yes are scattered throughout lifelong fan Whedon's work). 

While the recording sessions at Advision Studios were reportedly stressful, with Bill Bruford driven to distraction, what ultimately emerged was serene. Led by Anderson and Howe, the band created the album commonly perceived as their masterpiece. And You And I began as a folk theme strummed by Anderson, which blossomed outwards, Howe and Wakeman interacting beautifully. 

Jon claimed its working title was The Protest Song. Then again, he told NME in '72 that he felt it was hymn-like, and was “secure in the knowledge of knowing there is somebody… God maybe”. In recent years he happily confided to Prog that “I was in heaven, and that still comes off this record”, adding that despite disputes and debates the band “were all very connected to each other” and “in love with pushing the envelope”.

Anderson's explanations are always nicely nebulous so listeners will read their own meanings into the piece's four sections: Cord Of Life (“Okay”, announces Howe at the top, pragmatically), the well-paced Eclipse (reminiscent of Sibelius), The Preacher, The Teacher (with Wakeman scorching out a synth solo) and the 40 seconds of Apocalypse (chirpier than that sounds). To this day, for all his scepticism, Wakeman plays this live.

1. Close To The Edge

“I mean, how hilarious is it that Bill Bruford left after Close To The Edge because he thought it was too commercial? Ha!” Steve Howe told Prog in 2018. “We put the music first. Kept building, kept pushing on to the next story.” It's also been said that Bruford left because he thought Yes had now peaked, and couldn't build anything greater. While fans of other albums will disagree, Close To The Edge is more often than not cited as the band's musical zenith, with even grumpy old Rick Wakeman calling it their best. “No-one has ever come close to it,” Trevor Horn told me.

Of course the album's altar, its pièce de résistance, is that almost 19-minute title track, which reinvented the notion of a Side One and somehow gave Yes a million-selling Top 5 album on both sides of the Atlantic. Written by Anderson and Howe, who were in something of an imperial phase, its inspirations, said Anderson, included The Lord Of The Rings and Sibelius' Symphony No. 6 and No. 7

As the pair worked on ideas at Howe's home in Hampstead, it was the guitarist who came up with a variation of the lyrical refrain, ‘Close to the edge, down by a river’ (he'd previously lived near the Thames, in Battersea). Anderson then ran with the words and themes, also motivated by Hermann Hesse's novel of self-discovery, Siddartha (an influence, too, on Nick Drake's River Man). “It's all metaphors,” Jon told MusicRadar. Its climax seems to sing of not fearing death, no less.

The opening tape loop, of sounds drawn from both nature and keyboards, took two days to record: the loop itself was 40 feet long. Wendy Carlos' highly experimental Sonic Seasonings, regarded by many as the first New Age album, is another source Anderson has referenced, as well as Mahavishnu Orchestra, with whom Yes had toured. 

As for Wakeman's ominous yet uplifting organ solo, he was playing an idea Howe had originally composed for guitar. Both agreed it sounded better when played on the pipe organ at the St-Giles-without-Cripplegate mediaeval church in London’s Barbican. Awkwardly, Eddy Offord accidentally inserted the wrong take into the mix, binning the agreed best one. Oops.

That said, Offord's splicing was ingenious for its time. He crafted a successful through line amid so many (often conflicting) ebullient ideas, patching together a rich, resonant tapestry. And if in the studio there were inevitable debates, ego clashes and fraught moments, the album captures Yes revelling in a shared ambition – to ignore boundaries, to boldly go. 

It may seem strange now, but the grandeur and scale of Simon And Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water album was seen as the one to beat. If the American duo had spent 10 weeks recording that, Yes were intent on spending longer on this, as if that was the measure of stature. Their time had come to shine.

“Even if we'd just done that and then stopped,” Howe told Prog, “I think people would still be talking about it today.” It even got good reviews in its own time, albeit with the NME writing,“not just close to the edge, they've gone right over it”. Billboard reckoned that Yes weaved “dainty fragments, glimpses of destinies yet to be formed… transcending the medium”, while as recently as 2018, Rolling Stone named it the fifth best prog moment ever. 

It doesn't want to stop dancing on the edge, and each time you hear it you wonder how they can start at such a high pitch and keep on rising without imploding. That's the beauty of it: it never does topple over that edge. It gets up, but not down.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.