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When are Yes not Yes? When they're Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe!

ABWH
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

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 – can you put an exact date to everything you were doing 30 years ago?) to put a strict timeline on when he first got the call from his former bandmate. 

Jon [Anderson] 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, you know, but we just kind of connected. And obviously the fact he came to me made me think – rightly so – that he wasn’t enjoying work he was doing with other guys, that was the way it was heading.” 

“I’m not sure,” Anderson tells Prog over the phone from California when we ask about exactly when Big Generator-era Yes ended and ABWH began. “I just know that at that time I wanted to make new music. I have ideas all the time and it just happened I bumped into somebody that managed that situation and 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, because just as Anderson was newly free of pressing professional commitments, Howe and Wakeman didn’t have any 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, was busy enough producing Christian-themed ambient albums such as 1986’s Country Airs and 1987’s The Family Album and The Gospels, but inevitably they ended up rather ghettoised within the genres of ‘New Age’ and religious music.

Bill Bruford had begun the 80s back in the King Crimson fold but had 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 smaller passion projects like Earthworks while also offering the prospect of doing something artistically worthwhile.

And for a while, it all seemed to come together very nicely indeed…

“We seized the opportunity,” says Howe of his initial studio sessions with Anderson at La Frette studios in Paris, “and started dreaming [the songs] up with Matt Clifford [session keyboard player now in The Rolling Stones], and got them going as tracks.”

Howe refers darkly to “someone I’d rather leave out of this” as the figure who Anderson says “managed the situation”, and this was 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,” says Wakeman. “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.

“Brian said, ‘Well, is that any different to Yes since day one?’

“I said no, and 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!’”

ABWH

(Image credit: Roger Dean)

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 all the quartet working on material straight away.

Wakeman subsequently 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,” says Wakeman, “was not a bad idea at all: 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.”

Bill Bruford was also amenable to this 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,” reckons Bruford. “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.”

Nonetheless, Bruford says he didn’t realise it would be a reunion of four members of the early Yes line-ups until very late in the day. 

“When did I realise it would be more than just working on a solo record with Jon?” he asks rhetorically. “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’, but you’ll forgive me if I’d not been keeping up.”

His memory for every detail doesn’t seem entirely reliable here, as by all other accounts Steve Howe elected not to join them in Montserrat, instead contributing his guitar parts at AIR studios in London. “He doesn’t like the Caribbean,” Anderson comments. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

Howe, meanwhile, claims he opted to stay home to spend more time with his instruments:

“I didn’t want to ship lots of guitars over there 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, and it was a nice opportunity to know what had been done and hear the arrangements, then come along after they had been constructed.”

Jon Anderson

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

A key element that was now required was a bass player, and Bruford immediately nominated his King Crimson bandmate Tony Levin. The line-up was complete, and Howe’s absence notwithstanding, 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, “and 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, which Anderson, Wakeman and Bruford all recall with a mixture of fondness and mild embarrassment. 

“They were nuts about cricket,” Wakeman explains, “and we decided to have a match against the locals. 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.”

“A tragi-comedy of epic proportions,” Bruford calls it. “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 local schools,” says Anderson. “And they killed us, twice! 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,” says Wakeman. “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 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.”

One of the standout tracks of the album is The Meeting, an airy, spiritual ballad built around some beautiful cascades of piano from Wakeman 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.”

“We set the tape rolling and hey presto, we had the song,” says Anderson.

“He said, ‘Let’s just go in the studio see what happens,’” says Wakeman. “‘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, and the album might have turned out
a little differently if certain events had gone another way and if those band members familiar with Anderson’s strident leadership style hadn’t had the chance to pacify the newcomers.

“We’d been sent high-quality demos of the tracks we were expected 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 – 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.”

Bill Bruford

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

What they also didn’t know – and nor, it seems, did anyone else on the island – was that the island’s volcanic Soufrière hills, were not in fact dormant and the volcano would soon wreak havoc of catastrophic proportions, as it did after erupting 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.”

Disasters averted for now, the central vision for the album was clearly Jon Anderson’s, and 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.’

“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 the 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.’

So 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! 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 check out atom bombs without seeing if everyone was out of the way! Awful!” 

Rick Wakeman

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Anderson was also the chief visionary on the musical front, holding the metaphorical conductor’s 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 determinedly hands-on approach to conducting the grand orchestral visions (during the same promotional video, The Big Dream, that features the cricket match, Wakeman is seen quipping to camera, “I wonder what he’s going to let me play today.”). All the same, the key players 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 ev cative acoustic guitar patterns on Quartet and Let’s Pretend and in Levin’s spidery bass runs, which don’t attempt to ape Chris 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 Bill 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

Not that the drummer has always sounded that impressed with his work on this record. In fact, if you took some of his later comments at face value you might imagine that in the words of 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 office where he sometimes does a week or two’s shifts as an IT consultant. “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 all 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, 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 in reforming to get back to a well-loved sound, an approach that is now the chief source of revenue for seasoned bands 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.”

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. “Bill was pivotal. Some of the underlying themes are brought to
life by him, so rhythmically and percussion-wise his work is desperately important.”

And now Bruford insists 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 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.” 

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 Steve 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.”

Steve Howe

(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

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. 

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 Yes. On that basis, the argument went that if ABWH mentioned Yes in their billing or publicity they would be removing earning power from the LA-based band who were still rightly (in the eyes of the law) plying their trade under that globally recognised brand name. For a while, it was all somewhat unsettling for the new quartet, who feared they might be on something of a sticky wicket when they came to play live. 

Anderson admitted at the time, “We can’t lie to the audience [in terms of publicising the shows]. 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 Yes in all but name, they insist.

“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.”

ABWH

(Image credit: Arista Records)

The album, cheekily catalogued 90126 by Arista and replete with classically Yes-style Roger Dean sleeve and logo (thankfully Dean didn’t find a legal writ landing on his studio doormat for approximating his iconic work with the other bunch) 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. 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 made the latter make 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 Tony Levin from the tour 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 in Jeff Berlin, a very well-known American session player, and he literally sat down and in two days 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. Suddenly we had to be incredibly strict
to what we’d rehearsed. 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.

“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 Jon 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… 

This article originally appeared in issue 97 of Prog Magazine.