Popdose Flashback 1983: Yes, “90125”


Debuting in November 1983, there probably isn’t anything about Yes’ 90125 that hasn’t already been said. A longtime favorite of the prog rock set, Yes was known for album-side song-suites that showcased a high degree of musical virtuosity (that some have seen more as a high degree of pomposity). They were the bane of the rock traditionalists. Thanks to the ever-rotating membership within, they were regularly the bane of each other. Their overall ethos of opaque, cryptic, hippified lyricism, blending with the painted covers and swoopy logo designed by artist Roger Dean certainly crystallized an identity the listener either loved or hated. There were few outposts between the two poles for the band.

90125 was born of more turbulence as keyboardist Geoff Downes, vocalist Trevor Horn (the two collectively being The Buggles) and guitarist Steve Howe were walking out the door. Chris Squire had begun working with the former singer/guitarist for the band Rabbitt, Trevor Rabin. Squire brought in original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye. Drummer Alan White was still in the fold. The plan was to start a new band called Cinema. Rabin contributed songs, Squire contributed songs, and somewhere in between a unique chemistry sprung up.

Later in the process it was deemed that a higher voice could lift a few of the songs at points. Yes’ most-identified member, vocalist Jon Anderson got the call. It wasn’t long before it was decided this too might be considered Yes. The album title is, in fact, Atlantic Records’ catalog number. No muss. No fuss.

Nothing about this is revelatory at this point, as this story has been related perpetually across many venues. The bigger story is how, in the early 1980s, prog rock got popular and much more streamlined. Yes was not the only band to find new value in the 5 minutes or less pleasures of pop music. Rush broke through with “Tom Sawyer.” Genesis was on the cusp of the Top of the Pops. King Crimson, thanks to Bowie/Talking Heads/The Bears guitarist Adrian Belew, was fast becoming a college rock favorite. The Rush popularity might have come as a shock to their earliest fans as Alex Lifeson’s guitar had almost exclusively been the dominant melodic component of the band’s output. With Geddy Lee introducing keys more and more, their overall sound was growing contemporary, but unlike the rest of the output.

Yet, when you think about it, both King Crimson and Yes had keys that did a lot of heavy lifting. Aside from guitar fireworks, Robert Fripp’s “Frippertronics” and mellotron dominate several famous tracks. As much as Steve Howe brought to Yes, he was matched nearly toe-to-toe with Rick Wakeman’s playing (but unlike Wakeman, Howe never wore spangly capes). Genesis had lost guitarist Steve Hackett, but the primary sound of the band had always been Tony Banks’ playing. So you have three of the biggest of prog’s graduating class and they were all partially shaped by keyboards.

The 1980s were all about keyboards, from the New Wavers to the New Romantics, so if you think about it, as much as these bands were bending to the marketplace, so too were the record labels coming around to their point-of-view.

Maybe the most striking of the changes for Yes in 1983 was the cover of 90125, almost austere, and drawn by a computer. Gone was the stylized, flowing logo, replaced by a variation of the letter “Y” in an oval, set against a solid silver/gray field. Anderson’s voice was matched not only by Squire’s but by Rabin who handled a fair amount of vocal leads throughout the effort. Unlike Horn, who was the only prior vocalist to record with Yes other than Anderson (on Drama), Rabin’s voice was more in the middle of the spectrum, had been compared favorably to Robert Plant from time to time, and was likely a considerable plus when it came to getting the band back through previously closed doors. But it was “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” funk samples and all, that blew those doors wide open. On the surface it was everything Yes had been: big, dirty bass, keyboards, impressive guitar, tasty drumming and Anderson floating above it all with his voice — and yet it was like nothing else they’d done. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” grooved. You could dance to it.

God help you if you’ve ever seen prog nerds dancing.

Maybe there was a diehard backlash against 90125, but I never heard much about how “Yes betrayed us” or anything of the kind. The album seemed to me to be well received by most parties, and the critics that once unrepentantly ragged on Yes were found eating their words, calling the record exceptional pop, a turning point for the group, and so on. And like every turning point in the band’s history, it would not last. Rabin stayed on with the followup Big Generator, then there was another rift, splitting Yes and the subsequent classic lineup of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. The two factions re-merged haphazardly with the Union album, then went away on hiatus. Rabin returned one last time with the Talk album, but by this time Yes was once again becoming a cult band. The 1990s were happening and keyboards were being shunned. Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden were making proggers sound quaint. Metallica was becoming the biggest rock band in the world.

What can we learn from this? The dominant sound in pop music is, once again, keyboard driven not just in electronic dance music but in regular pop tunes from your favorite chart-topping singers. While it may not feel like the ’80s again, the trappings are eerily similar. Though it is unlikely that the waters are safe for the reemergence of prog as a partner to this sonic landscape, stranger things have happened.

It can happen to you; it can happen to me. It can happen to everyone, eventually.



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  • Beau

    There’s an interesting subplot to the reformation of the band in which Eddie Jobson says he was in the band (and I believe you can indeed spot him briefly in the Owner of a Lonely Heart video) until they were forced to bring back Tony Kaye so they could keep the “Yes” name. Tony Kaye doesn’t look so good in his telling of the story. Chris Squire seems worse, of course.

  • Ted

    90125 was the second Yes album I ever owned. The first was Close to the Edge, and the two couldn’t be more different. I still love both, but I supposed that my love of pop tends to favor 90125 more.

  • Java Joel Murphy

    The follow-up single to “Owner Of A Lonely Heart”, “Leave It” was the album’s only other top 40 hit. I remember around March of ’84 – MTV premiered a different version of the video every day at 4pm for a few weeks. I forget how many versions there were total. The band said there was another version they would only show IF the single went to #1. I think it stalled in the low 20s. I believe the video that MTV ended up having in regular rotation was just a mix of all of the other versions.

  • Grawmps

    Progressive rock is actually in something of a renaissance right now, though it’s not quite as obvious as it was back in the 80’s. Bands like Porcupine Tree, Elbow and Muse have consistently and constantly been charting for the last couple of years, and back in the mid 2000’s you could scarcely turn on a mainstream rock FM station without Tool popping up: furthermore, other metal-oriented prog band mainstays like Dream Theater and Queensrÿche are charting even in 2013 (both bands released self-titled records that debuted at #7 and #23 respectively their first weeks on the Billboard 200 in the U.S.)

    Although it would be quite interesting to see if any progressive rock bands could actually put a single out there that radio would catapult to #1 again, the mainstream music marketplace is actually more closed off in some ways than it used to be, so such a scenario is unlikely. People who want diversity tend to look elsewhere for their music needs, and there’s plenty of new prog. rock even in 2013 to be found for those who look.