“The world of music was going through some serious changes and we were not embracing them”: how Yes’s Going For The One and Tormato almost ended things for good

Yes onstage at Madison Square Garden in 1978
(Image credit: Bob Riha, Jr./Michael Putland/Getty Images/Gus Stewart/Redferns)

“You never go into a studio thinking I’m going to make a really bad record,” said Yes singer Jon Anderson in 2012, speaking to Classic Rock. “You always go in thinking you’re going to make the best record you could ever make,”

The second half of the 70s, for Yes, delivered what some consider to be their best record and what many consider to be among their worst. Plus, of course, the customary twists and turns concerning personnel, direction and morale. They went for – and arguably landed – “the one”, Tomatoes were thrown, metaphorically and literally, before they closed the decade with a split, a reboot and a drummer breaking his foot on roller-skates. 

“We always put the music first,” said Steve Howe. “We kept pushing on to the next story, the next era. The next album was always the most exciting one to us.” 

After the hiatus of the mid-70s, when each member released a solo album, the 1976 American tour with Peter Frampton had attracted some of their biggest audiences ever.

“Just as Frampton Comes Alive became huge, very fortunately,” Yes bassist Chris Squire said. “Of course there was hedonism. That was a big era for everyone getting high! It was quite a lot of fun,” 

Nonetheless, despite touring fatigue and unhealthy living, enthusiasm tingled as Yes reconvened in Montreux, at Mountain Studios, to create the band’s first collective collaboration since 1974’s Relayer

There was one cabinet reshuffle. Keyboard player Patrick Moraz was “let go”: Yes claimed he’d been “missing rehearsals” (Moraz spoke of “psychological pressures,” saying not everybody “played fair”). With typically labyrinthine Yes logic, his replacement on keyboards was the man he’d replaced – Rick Wakeman. Expressing a fondness for the new material – he’d left when Tales From Topographic Oceans became too murky for his tastes – Rick returned, after negotiations, booked as a session player. Was this a sign that the songs would be tighter, less rambling, more productively shaped?

It was. Self-produced and with only the finale, Awaken clocking in at 15 minutes plus, Going For The One was an energetic, electric and vibrant construction, shooting out moments of genius. Tax exiles labelled dinosaurs by the arrival of Punk weren’t supposed to sound this exciting, this refreshed. What was going on?

Yes in 1977

(Image credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy)

First of all, they’d rehearsed and written purposefully. ELP were running overtime in the studio, finishing Works, so Yes spent extra time on preparation. Four weeks became seven months. Howe got into transcendental meditation while the others played with fast cars around Lake Geneva. Wakeman was motivated again – and not just because his solo tours had cost so much they hadn’t profited. 

“We began relating to each other again,” he said. “I think we’d all become more mature. Maybe I had to grow up more than them.”

Yes had also taken a break from regular engineer-producer Eddy Offord (or he had from them, depending on who’s telling the tale), and now worked with engineers John Timperley (who’d spent time in the studio with Bing Crosby and Shirley Bassey) and David Richards (who went on to co-produce the least revered 80s Bowie albums). The crisply modernistic Hipgnosis cover design symbolized the new album’s clarity. Sessions ran from October 1976 to April 1977, and upon release in July it raced to No.1  in the UK for a fortnight, went Top 10 in the US, and ultimately went gold. 

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Yes were surely lumbering beasts whose time had gone. Yet, as so often within the band’s history, what was likely to occur did not. They even scored a Top 10 single with the sweet charm and wonky spelling of Wonderous Stories, and the title track, as a follow-up, engaged new listeners who’d blithely assumed – and probably read in the press – that Yes sounded like sleeping pills. Steve Howe, in particular, had never sounded more awake. 

“A lot of that punk period was very interesting to me,” Jon Anderson told me. “Because I just kept carrying on with my work, and thinking: ‘Yeah, I used to be a punk’! James Cagney was a ‘punk’! But, you know, punk suddenly became very good business. That’s what it was. We survived it. And we survived disco too!” 

For all the reinvigorated heat and light, it’s the more conventional Yes track – that is to say, completely unconventional in its form and function – Awaken, which has endured as a favourite of both fans and band members. Some of the players consider it up there with Close To The Edge as their greatest dreamscape. 

Awaken was the pinnacle of the 70s for me,” Anderson said. “It was the greatest energy of music that I’ve been involved in. I love it to death. After the success of Wonderous Stories, though, I was pressed by people to write more like that. Listen, I wrote that about my children one morning when I woke up and saw them sleeping. It happens when it happens. You never know it’s going to be a commercial success. So then people, outside influences, wanted more sales, more songs that were three minutes. Over the years that infiltrates the band, and everyone loses it.”

Squire offered an overview of this productive period. “We realized we’d been advised to record in Switzerland for tax purposes, and things were all getting a bit foreign to a bunch of guys who were musicians, not financiers. In England, punk took the press’s imagination, and bands like us and Genesis were given this ‘dinosaur’ tag. But over in the States, where we were doing these huge shows, you wouldn’t have known anything about it; they weren’t so obsessed with that. So everything was still on the up for us.”

The unanticipated triumph of Going For The One should have galvanized Yes for a bold new era, conceivably even reinventing the group as a novel factor within the New Wave age. Such hope was rather squashed by the failures of its successor, 1978’s Tormato. A flailing entity which couldn’t decide if it wanted to rock or waft or show off technology it didn’t fully comprehend, it refused to gel, collapsing within itself. It turned out to be Wakeman’s last Yes album for 13 years and Anderson’s last for four. 

Tormato was more thin gruel than rich soup. Wakeman described the record as a “tragedy,” and even the eternally upbeat Anderson confessed that “we threw tomatoes at ourselves before the audience could,” For all this, the gentle ballad Onward has escaped the gloom, and Squire cited it as one of his best compositions (his Fish Out Of Water collaborator Andrew Pryce Jackman brought the orchestral arrangements).   

Generally, however, there’s no denying Tormato tanked. Howe called “tonally difficult” adding that the band had got “differing needs” by that stage. 

“That was a weird one,” Squire said. “It wasn’t easy for Rick, I remember. He didn’t have his heart in that one,”

“That was us trying to be pop stars, y’know?” Anderson added, warming to his theme. “What the hell for? We were a great bunch of musicians! We’d been moving forward, exhilaratingly, so when the implosion came… ah.” 

Tormato hadn’t cleverly swerved the slings and arrows of punk and its supportive press the way Going For The One had. Recorded in London (despite plans to do half in Barbados), it suffered from each member pretty much thinking they alone were the producer, leading of course to ego clashes. Wakeman brought a raft of new instruments; the others infuriated him with practical jokes such as messing with his settings when he was absent. One day he pressed a key to hear a cassette of Seals And Crofts which they’d rigged up. He didn’t, apparently, find this hilarious. And even the least trained ear can hear that Howe’s and Wakeman’s choices of sound are competing with, rather than complementing, each other. 

Perversely, Tormato sold decently, with Don’t Kill The Whale a minor hit and the album reaching N.8 in the UK and No.10 in the US. Their ’78-’79 American tour was a huge success. Yet for a platinum record, history has not been kind to it, and not just musically. It’s been reported that Wakeman was so irritated by the resulting expensive Hipgnosis artwork that he threw a tomato at it. Howe, however, backed up by Alan White, reckons it was somebody at Hipgnosis who chucked the tomato, which he took as an insult. For all the continued commercial joy, the atmosphere around the camp was more rotten tomatoes than sweetness and light. Morale was on thin ice. Cracks were showing. Things were about to change once more.

The choice of Roy Thomas Baker to produce Yes’ mooted tenth album seemed, on paper, inspired. Over the past decade, he’d delivered stellar results with Queen (who in a way had inhaled the essence of Yes and made it pop), The Cars and Journey.  But when the band and Baker gathered in Paris in October 1979, it quickly became apparent that things weren’t going to proceed as planned.

The locaition was part of the problem. “I find Paris excessively inspiring,” Baker said in 2016, but Steve Howe disagreed. “It was a whole different reality – reality being the operative word,” said the guitarist. “It wasn’t beautiful like Montreux. There was no fantasy here.” 

Wakeman wasn’t feeling it either. “The world of music was going through some serious changes and Yes was not embracing them.” 

It wasn’t just Paris or changing fashions that were the problem. The band were having one of their frequent periods of not getting on. Baker subsequently talked of “communication issues” within the group, and a fissure between the compositions of Anderson and Wakeman and the others’ attempts to garnish them musically. Howe and Squire grumbled; Wakeman threw peanuts at White’s drum kit. “Mayhem,” recalled Howe. Not only were they not on the same road, they weren’t even heading in the same direction. “There were two camps,” concurred Baker. “I felt more like a referee than a producer.”

Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun flew over from New York in a desperate attempt to restore harmony, to no avail. “Not even Henry Kissinger could have resolved this mess,” muttered Wakeman.

According to Anderson, Baker’s fondess for carousing didn’t help matters. “They brought in a producer who was worse than anybody in the band for going out and partying,” Anderson sighed in 2012 (his use of “they” was quite telling). “That’s why the next album never got made. Too much partying.” 

By Christmas, the jig was up. Recalled Anderson: “So much wasted money and energy. I just said, ‘That’s it, I’m going to live in the South of France.’ I was so upset.” 

The final straw came via a moment of pure, if painful comedy. “Alan and his girlfriend decided to stay in Paris one weekend, and he went out with Richard Branson to a roller disco,” Chris Squire later said. “And broke his foot. We couldn’t carry on without a drummer. After that, things fell apart.” 

As for White himself, he admitted: “Rollerskating with Branson is not something I should have been doing. It was in a nightclub, and we’d had a bottle of wine and were fighting over the skates because there was only one pair our size. I got them on, went ten yards, and fell over. Hobbled out of there. When I tried to go to bed, I couldn’t get my cowboy boot off, and realized it was bad,” 

And with such bathos the dreams of a new Parisian Yes album were stomped on. “Jon and I both felt it was slipping away, so it was time for us to slip away too”, said Wakeman, who acknowledged he shed a tear

 “All water under the bridge now,” Howe has conceded. “The session was going nowhere. It didn’t have the same bright feeling we had on Relayer, or the sense of reunion we had on Going For The One. We weren’t challenging Yes to go forward. We had a good run and did some great things. That wasn’t one of them.” 

Various cuts from the Paris sessions have since emerged on compilations or reissues. But Yes now had to shake the kaleidoscope. The new decade brought an amended line-up and altered angle of attack, with, inevitably, no shortage of drama. 

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.