YesWeek: 40 Years Later, ‘90125’ Presents a Gorgeous Musical Ideal

YesWeek continues!

To celebrate the release this Friday, May 19 of Mirror To The Sky, the legendary progressive rock band’s 23rd studio album, we’ve got five days of features for your reading pleasure.

How far back can you remember? Scientists will tell you that there’s only so far the memory goes, but friends, I will tell you this thing. I remember back to 1971, two years old on this physical plane, listening to “Yours Is No Disgrace” from The Yes Album blasting through four Advent speakers from my father’s Ampex reel-to-reel in our tiny mobile home living room. That music is as embedded in my DNA as much as my ten fingers and toes, my grey hair, my insatiable appreciation of chili dogs.

Fast forward a decade. It was 1981 and, for all intents and purposes, Yes was dead.

Bear with me.
I’m making a point.

Band members had gone their separate ways. Bassist Chris Squire, along with drummer Alan White and original Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, had joined up with guitarist/vocalist Trevor Rabin to form a band called Cinema. Keyboardist Geoff Downes and guitarist Steve Howe became founding members of the supergroup, Asia. Singer Jon Anderson had embarked on a solo career. Because Cinema had three former members of Yes in its roster, record company execs believed the band should be re-named Yes. After Squire played him some Cinema tracks, Anderson agreed to rejoin the band. Former Yes vocalist Trevor Horn was tasked with producing a new album from the resurrected Yes.

Great googly moogly, that’s a lot of names. I hope you kept up. If not, let me know. I’ll see if we can’t put things to right.

Regardless, that’s a high-level explanation of how in 1983, an unsuspecting world received 90125, which became the highest-selling album in Yes’s career. Some longtime fans derided the record for straying too far from the band’s prog-rock roots. A new audience, teetering between classic rock ennui and the tightening grip of new wave and synth pop, glommed onto 90125 and made it a gigantic hit.

I didn’t know any of this history at the time. I’m not sure I even put two and two together, the classic prog Yes and the New Wave Yes. Did it matter? Probably not, because when 90125 came out, I was entranced. I bought the record on cassette, as was the fashion at the time, and listened to it non-stop.

You must realize that when 90125 came out, there were many people who didn’t realize that Yes had been around since before they were born. All they knew was the band had a lead singer with hair like a falcon and a bass player who wore sleeveless Merry-Go-Round shirts. In the Eighties, Yes was an older version of Duran Duran, a fashion-conscious group that delivered music that seemed wise beyond its years, almost Zen in its presentation.

I know this for I was there. I bear witness.

During the summer of 1983, it was nigh on impossible to escape the muffled opening drum fill and synthesized orchestral stings of “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” The video became an instant staple on MTV, featuring the band stopping their performance only to transform into animals before restarting the song within a cinematic format. Certainly an eye-catching idea, the song was a tremendous genre mash-up. Rabin’s arena rock riff, along with White’s orchestral stings on the Fairlight CMI, seamlessly brought prog, rock, and synth-pop together in a song as irresistible as it was ubiquitous.

Listen: in the 1980s, the guilt of history was falling on a new generation’s shoulders like blacktop dandruff. All we wanted was to feel better. We didn’t even know why. We simply needed redemption from sins we had no part of, but still felt overweening responsibility for. From that perspective, 90125 was salvation, a full-immersion baptism of sound and clarity we couldn’t get anywhere else. Not television, not classic rock radio, certainly not the church.

We needed Jon Anderson, that crazy street corner proselytizing prophet, in 1983 more than ever.

“Hold On” may be one of Jon Anderson’s most Universalist songs, featuring lyrics that were inspirational without being overly spiritual. Rabin’s bluesy guitar leads up to a shiny chorus, sweet without being sappy, harmonies overtaking everything else. Clever production techniques drop in to modernize a vocal section in the middle.

Much the same can be said for “It Can Happen,” a song wrapped around an Indian motif with sitar and tanpura tracks provided by Deepak Khazanchi. While Anderson never clearly defines what “it” is, we are made keenly aware that it can happen if you are patient and believe in, I don’t know. Something. If Jon Anderson, the man who had opened his arms to embrace the tumultuous 1970s could find even a glimmer of nebulous hope, why couldn’t we?

The Rabin-led “Changes” begins with a fascinating time signature, bass and keyboards moving in opposite musical directions. Everything finally comes together in a melancholy fashion, culminating in one of the most moving songs on the album. Rabin’s lead vocals are good, infused with some growliness, making them a fine foil for Anderson’s clear high-register tones.

“Cinema” (where have I heard that name before?) serves as an instrumental intermission, a quick little injection of guitar rock, before launching into the second half of the album. There’s even a sweet pick dive at the end to remind you that, unlike some popular 1980s bands, Yes knew what a guitar looked like.

Mostly a-capella, “Leave It” is the most interesting musical choice on 90125. Panned hard in the left and right speakers, “Leave It” layers and overdubs the vocals to create a soundscape that constantly surprises the listener. When the instruments finally arrive to round things out, they almost feel unnecessary. The song propels forward, a funky choral arrangement with odd little bits and bobs floating about until the triumphant shouted ending.

“Our Song” hearkens back to earlier Yes singles like “Long Distance Runaround.” Although Toledo, Ohio is explicitly name-checked, there is a distinctly California feel to “Our Song.” If one owned a convertible, this would be the track on 90125 where the rag-top would be retracted and the wind on the lakeside highway would blow off your toupee. [Side note: because of Yes’s relocation from the UK to Los Angeles, this specific band line-up is known by some fans as YesWest. Go win trivia night with that information.]

In a thematically pure track selection, the airy “Our Song” is followed by the darkest tune on the album. “City of Love” is the standout song on 90125, as gritty as anything Yes ever released. Inspired by Rabin’s trek through Harlem, the song paints a harrowing nightscape of urban streets coming alive with menace. White’s drums sound massive and oppressive as they punctuate Rabin’s snaky riffs. There are shouts and screams throughout. It’s a discomforting and exhilarating piece, deserving of being in the conversation about Yes’s best songs.

Look: I’m no expert, but if you ask me now what the greatest Yes songs are, I’m going to put “City of Love” near the top. Even now, 40 years later, that song kicks me in the back of the knees, forces me to the floor, and demands that I acknowledge its greatness.

It wouldn’t really be a Yes album without something akin to an epic, and closing track “Hearts” fits that bill. Over seven minutes long, “Hearts” is a gorgeous piece of music, showcasing Anderson’s plaintive high tenor and Squire’s thick bass chords. There’s a fine balance in this song between flat-out rock and squeaky-clean easy listening. At its best, “Hearts” snags the best elements from the preceding songs and presents them like a clip show.

They haven’t invented numbers for how many times I have listened to 90125. There aren’t enough Googleplexes to indicate how many times I rewound the tape, started the compact disc over, sang the songs under my breath while doing menial tasks like math homework. It was not just groundbreaking for the time. It was a sodbuster. There was hope for the future on this album, a belief that we were moving forward into a beautiful and organic Age of Aquarius. Gary Numan’s late-Seventies sterile and terrifying vision of a future where robots raped and ate everything good about humanity had been cast under the wheels of his sensory-deprived cars by some guys who just wanted us to hold on, hold on.

In one magic moment, Yes had brought together the cleanliness of a gleaming monorail domed city existence with the needed dirt under the fingernails of humanity. “Music and magic,” Anderson sang, “it’s good clear syncopation.” It was the blueprint for Utopia, both mannequin and filthy, everything we never knew we wanted. Good Christ, the two things we needed in the middle of an interminable Reagan administration were music and magic. We huddled under Republican thumbs while the artists died gasping in other people’s beds and no one lifted a goddamned finger to help. But we had the same intrigue as a court of kings and more apathy than we needed to scoot through with mediocrity as our watchword.

Let’s be honest: 90125 isn’t the best Yes album. You’ll find more creativity and wilder arrangements on either side of the YesWest line-up. But I’ll be dipped in holy water concrete if 90125 isn’t the harbinger of hope we never accepted, the sonic map that alien archaeologists will find one day and wonder, “What happened to the human race? They had everything they needed right here.” It’s a classic, an urging toward a vague deliverance, the outline of a story we have yet to complete.

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