On Yes (the band), technological evolution, and not missing the bus

While I have a pretty eclectic taste in music, I’ve been on a Yes re-listening binge lately (I literally wore out my copy of “Close to the Edge” while a teenager), and I am stunned at how fresh their classic albums still sound.

In my day job I recently dealt with something where the history of the band offers an interesting object lesson. Their first keyboardist, Tony Kaye, was a pretty talented musician in his own right, and I actually like his playing on the two first Yes albums a lot. However, even as the music of the band took on an ever more pronounced symphonic character, he resisted all pressure from the rest of the band to add synthesizers and other electronic keyboards to his rig (and the band’s sonic palette), stubbornly sticking with his Hammond organ and a piano. It is very obvious on The Yes Album (their 3rd) — virtually all of which is still in their setlist to this day — that Kaye’s sound just needs that extra something. 

A (likewise classically trained) session musician of their acquaintance called Rick Wakeman not only had no such qualms but enthusiastically tried out every new instrument he could lay his hands on, and after they heard him in concert with The Strawbs, he got a “3 AM phone call” (ahem) if he would like to join the band. He hung up citing a 7 AM recording session, but eventually agreed to come to their rehearsal studio, and on the very first day the band wrote rough versions of two Yes classics, “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise”. The rest is history, as the “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge” albums became defining ones of the entire progressive rock genre.

Wakeman of course did not neglect his piano or Hammond organ, but M&Ms became a bedrock of his keyboard sound — the Minimoog synthesizer for lead lines and a pioneering tape-based sampler called the Mellotron for string and choir parts. Eventually he would leave the band (following disenchantment with the grandiosity and unfocused writing process of the next album Tales of Topographic Oceans) to focus on a then very successful solo career as an instrumental rock composer, but his legacy was assured — both as a part of Yes’s most creative incarnation and (together with ELP’s Keith Emerson and Genesis’ Tony Banks) as a pioneering rock multi-keyboardist.

Eventually Tony Kaye caught up with the times for lack of an alternative, but by that time he was just one of many good synthesizer players, and the best he was able to do later was appear as a hired hand with Yes during their 90125 tour. (While he’s credited on the album, essentially all the actually recorded parts were played by one of the two Trevors — producer Horn and then-guitarist Rabin.) He could still deliver the goods live but, as a creative force, time had passed him by.

Another musician around that time did adopt emerging keyboard technology piecemeal but always centered on the Hammond organ: this is of course Deep Purple’s Jon Lord. Lord had, however, something that nobody else had: a clue on how to effectively fit keyboards into a hard rock sound, even if it meant modding the organ guitar amp outputs so he could produce a crunchy, distorted, quasi-rhythm guitar sound when called for. 

What is the moral of the story? Fighting technological change, or being in denial about it, is ultimately a career-killing move. Adopt, adapt, or co-opt — or by the time you have made peace with the inevitable it will be too late.

But what about technologies that look promising but eventually don’t deliver the goods? Here too, Rick Wakeman offers an object lesson. The Mellotron being a notoriously difficult instrument to handle live (being both very heavy and delicate) and having some limitations (such as the play-and-return tape mechanism’s inability to deal with rapid-fire playing, mostly limiting its uses to quasi-orchestral chording or lyrical melodies), Wakeman was eager to adopt a new instrument called the Birotron, which was based on endless-loop 8-track tapes, and in fact so eager that he sank nearly his whole net worth into the company. The Birotron never worked well enough, and while the designers tried to work out the kinks, the arrival of the first digital samplers (Fairlight, E-mu) made the Birotron obsolete overnight, and bankrupted its chief investor. Fairlight itself went under later due to production cost scalability issues, but evolved versions of their technology (thanks especially to Raymond Kurzweil) are now part and parcel of virtually all modern keyboard instruments.


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