“John” Anderson- Vocals
Peter Banks- Guitar
Bill Bruford- Drums
Tony Kaye- Keyboards
Chris Squire- Bass
Have I Heard It Before: No
Ask a more “casual” Yes fan where to start with their catalog chronologically, and most will point you to 1971’s The Yes Album, their third. Reviewers tend to agree–Pitchfork Media isn’t a Yes-friendly outfit in the best of times, but they wrote “Feel free to forgo the band’s first two albums with guitarist Peter Banks (we did) […]” when reviewing the 2004 Rhino Remasters of their catalog. That sentiment seems to extend, somewhat, to even the band themselves. Tellingly, the US edition of The Ultimate Yes 35th Anniversary Collection has the title track to their second album, “Time and a Word”, as the sole representative of their pre-Yes Album output.
This hindsight look at the band’s earliest days–a sentiment that tends to be common among any long-running band (Rush’s Neil Peart once remarked that if you wanted to consider 1981’s Moving Pictures–Rush’s eighth studio album–to be their first, he’d be fine with it. Def Leppard and the Red Hot Chili Peppers also disown their respective first albums)–makes the liner notes of their debut, 1969’s self-titled album (Not to be confused with The Yes Album that I mentioned above), funny to read nowadays. Those notes are essentially a hype job by Tony Wilson, then a writer for the British magazine Melody Maker. In them,he discusses how Yes were one of his two picks (The other being Led Zeppelin) for bands that would “make it” in 1969. He notes how they put on superior live shows, and states that “it all shows on this, their first album”. But does it really?
With the benefit of hindsight, the answer is “Kind of.”
Unlike some other bands’ debuts (Rush’s first album is essentially Led Zeppelin-Lite, and gives very little indication that they would become what they did), the signs of where Yes would end up a few years later are there. The vocal harmonies are there from the start, although they sound a bit different than what I was used to. This is probably due to the presence of guitarist Peter Banks; the backing vocals of Chris Squire and Steve Howe (Who would join the band between Time and a Word and The Yes Album) are a vastly underrated component of “Yes vocals” as a whole. Similarly, some songs, notably “Harold Land” and “Survival”, show hints of where the band would travel musically, with intros that have little to do with the meat of the songs themselves. And a line like “Survival’s “An egg too proud to rape the beginning of a shape of things to come That start the run, life has begun, fly fast the gun” is so obviously a Jon Anderson lyric (Credited in the liner notes as “John” Anderson, as he hadn’t yet adopted the “Jon” spelling) even at this early stage that it’s funny.
At the same time, though, this is a band still finding its footing and figuring it out. The album features two covers of songs from Yes contemporaries–“I See You” by The Byrds, and “Every Little Thing” by the Beatles. It’s telling that, for my money, these are also the two best songs on the album. “I See You” becomes a more jazz-rock number, while “Every Little Thing” is transformed into something altogether different from the Beatles original. It also features the band trying too hard to be clever, as they insert a few measures of “Day Tripper” before getting into the lyrics of “Every Little Thing” (Trying too hard to be clever is something I can appreciate). The album as a whole is also covered in that 1960s organ sound that I most strongly associate with The Doors. In short, it’s an album of its time, moreso than some later Yes releases.
Of the original tracks, “Harold Land” is probably my favorite. It starts out upbeat, in stark contrast to when the main portion of the song, which is about a man who goes off to war and is forever changed by it, kicks in. “Looking Around” is another fun track that shows off Yes’s burgeoning vocal harmonies.
In all, the first Yes album isn’t bad, by any means. But unless you’re a Yes completionist, it’s also not essential on its own (Though I will note that the price of the box set works out to about $4 an album, which is a steal). If you like 60s organ, or bands with obvious potential that haven’t yet realized said potential, then go ahead and grab it, but otherwise, you aren’t missing out.