fb-pixel Skip to main content

Yes forges ahead with classic albums and new music

“We’re quite happy where we are, but we can’t please everybody all the time,” guitarist Steve Howe (left) says of the current version of Yes.Rob Shanahan

When the guitarist Steve Howe joined Yes, a promising young English band at the forefront of a growing progressive-rock movement, in 1970, he could hardly have known that “Perpetual Change,” the last song on 1971’s “The Yes Album,” would come to symbolize the group’s ever-changing fortunes over a career that has now spanned more than 45 years.

Howe, the first outsider enlisted into Yes, contributed mightily to that breakthrough album, and to the two career-defining records that followed: “Fragile” (1971) and “Close to the Edge” (1972). Soon after the latter disc of intricate, impressionistic epics came out, drummer Alan White joined the band, completing a seminal lineup that included Howe, bassist Chris Squire, singer Jon Anderson, and another then-recent arrival, the flamboyant keyboardist Rick Wakeman.


Those heady early years were followed by patches of turbulence, conflicting visions, and even competing factions of the band. Wakeman quit and rejoined Yes multiple times. More controversially, Anderson — for many fans, the spirit of Yes embodied — departed in 1980; returned in 1982 for the album “90125” and its chart-topping single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”; then left again in 1988 for a brief run with Howe and other ex-Yes members as Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe.

When Anderson was sidelined with serious respiratory problems in 2008, Yes soldiered on, initially with Benoit David, plucked from a Canadian Yes tribute band, and featured on the 2011 album “Fly From Here.” In 2012, Yes hired Jon Davison, a talented California singer born the year that “The Yes Album” and “Fragile” were released.

Davison, Howe, White, Squire and keyboardist Geoff Downes — formerly of the Buggles and a short-lived 1980 Yes lineup, and best known for founding Asia with Howe — recently recorded a new album, “Heaven & Earth,” due for release on July 22. But when the band comes to Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Tuesday, the emphasis will be on “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge,” both of which Yes will play start-to-finish. Speaking on the telephone from England, Howe recently fielded questions about classic albums, new ventures, expectations, and, yes, perpetual change.


Q. We’re led to believe that we live in an a la carte age for music; you buy singles and tracks, but albums don’t mean what they once did. Why did Yes adopt the three full albums approach with last year’s tour?

A. Well, partly because I thought it was a good idea; other people had done it and been quite successful, so let’s try it. Once everybody got behind it, we put the tickets on sale and they went like crazy, much quicker than when we’d done the previous tours.

Q. Old fans probably think of those vintage albums as whole entities, not a collection with one or two big hits and a bunch of filler.

A. We were an album band. We had a couple of hits, but they weren’t all about the fact that we were going to make another one. . . . We were the only band to do three albums in a show — most do two at the most, and some do one, which I think is a bit disappointing. But we are blessed with having more than one album that people like.

Q. “Fragile” seems like an obvious choice, because it’s one of your biggest and best-known albums. But half of the album was devoted to tracks showcasing individual band members. Is it curious to have Alan White confronted with Bill Bruford’s “Five Percent for Nothing,” or for Jon Davison to be taking up Jon Anderson’s “We Have Heaven”?


A. No, I don’t think it’s anything unusual at all. . . . It’s going to be exciting . . . as you say, different shoes are filled playing that. Bill’s parts taken by Alan is challenging, and just depends how much homework everybody does to get there is how tight we are. We’ve already done some rehearsing, so we’re sort of halfway down the stream, if you like.

Q. How were you able to make “Heaven & Earth” so quickly, given that you’ve spent so much time on the road these past few years?

A. It was quite easy, really. Over that time, different songs got written — not necessarily on tour, but fragments might have been — and then other things collaborated on, and then Jon did circulation around everybody to see what they had and what he could help with, what he could do with something of somebody’s else’s. Within two months we were able to walk in with demos on every song, and then say, let’s record this.

Q. Davison was not only involved in the writing, but played an integral part. How would you characterize what he brings to the band?

A. We do need another guy outside the guitarist and the bass player who write fluently, and maybe can stream out lyrics more than either of us do. I write lyrics — I mean, I wrote “It Was All We Knew.” But Jon’s the singer, and we want the singer to therefore have a role — a big role, if not the biggest role — in writing music.


Q. He seems to have a kind of spiritual demeanor and upbeat outlook that are consistent with what Jon Anderson brought to Yes.

A. He certainly does. And the kind of hidden obviousness of the lyrics becomes expanded when somebody else plunks some other lyrics which are kind of just a little bit more out there. We like that. It is a characteristic that we endorse and recommend, because our music isn’t about . . . I was going to say hate, but that sounds a bit too extreme. But our music’s not about troubles, it’s about belief.

Q. The songs on “Heaven & Earth” are all concise by vintage Yes standards. Did you consciously choose to avoid epics?

A. There were times when people started constructions that were really kind of growing, and somewhat meandering, and including another song. And the group’s reaction to that was kind of like, well, hang on, this is gone too far — I’ve lost the plot here. We didn’t have the right balance to do that this time, and therefore the songs stood out more individually without a great deal of expansion. But that wouldn’t mean that we shouldn’t or couldn’t or don’t want to do that in the future.


Q. The initial single, “Believe Again,” sounds like a declaration of faith in this institution that we know as Yes. Is it distracting to have a loud segment of your audience insisting that the present band isn’t Yes anymore?

A. We’re quite happy where we are, but we can’t please everybody all the time. I hope that we show we’re with those people by playing “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge.” They couldn’t really want for more, if their argument is, well, why do we bother making new albums? The Stones and Aerosmith and the Who and all these bands who are bigger than us make new albums, and Sting does as well, and they don’t penetrate in the same way that our earlier music did. Now, that could be because everything has changed, but also, hang on, we’ve changed.

Q. At one point or another, a band called Yes, or most of its members, have carried on without a key player or players. Is there an irreducible core to this band, somebody without whom you would just say, let’s call it a day?

A. [laughs] Not really. We’ve all been replaced by somebody at one time or another. What I’m concerned about is that if one loses the idea of the adventurousness in this music — the dynamics that we need to play with that make the sensitivity and the crescendos and the lulls and all those things — if we suddenly think that we don’t need to do that, that we just play the songs, hammer them out, that would be a nonsensing of Yes, really. When we play “Five Percent for Nothing” for the first time ever onstage, we will be showing, if not ourselves, we’re showing the audience also that we’re challenging ourselves. If we don’t, then this isn’t Yes. And I think that would be reason for concern. That would be a good reason for you to moan all over the Internet, that Yes have lost the flame to be adventurous and to be musical and to be subtle as well as powerful — I think that’s a danger. Subtlety is what Yes is.

Interview has been condensed and edited. Steve Smith can be reached at steven.smith@globe
. Follow him on Twitter @nightafternight.