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.