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“We were certainly cocky and chirpy," says guitarist Steve Howe, recalling the late months of 1970 when he, singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Tony Kaye and drummer Bill Bruford recorded Yes' third long-player, which was simply called The Yes Album. "There was a feeling of confidence in the room that we were doing something ambitious and fresh."
It would be Howe's first record with the band (he had replaced Yes' previous guitarist Peter Banks), and he remembers that he had no trouble at all fitting in immediately. “I’d been playing well, doing things in various bands," he says, "but I needed something that would move the air. When I got in with Yes, I said, ‘This feels good. We’re all equals, and everybody’s outstanding.’ It was like joining an orchestra, where all of the members are of a very high level. I thought, We’re going to do something pretty great."
The group worked up material, mostly at a farmhouse in Devonshire, England, before heading to Advision Studios where they tracked with producer-engineer Eddy Offord. Many of the songs were long (two of them come in at over nine minutes a piece), and as Howe sees it, they set a standard that Yes would follow on future discs.
“We weren’t going to be obvious and predictable," he says. "We didn't want to do three-minute songs for the radio, although we did manage to get a lot of radio play. Bill loved to play challenging music – I don’t think he was very used to 4/4 time, in fact. And I was one of those people who dug in and said, ‘I’m not going to play blues.’ We had a lot of musical integrity and held tightly to our ideals."
Much like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who also recorded at Advison and would compete with Yes for studio time there, the band had total freedom to create – no pesky A&R guys lurked about asking for hit singles. "But it wasn’t like we were just jamming with no point," Howe says. "Everything had to matter. You had to play parts; you had to know what you were doing."
As for being deemed 'prog,' the guitarist says that he didn't hear the term until years later. "Prog has a certain stigma to it – flared trousers and grandiose indulgence," he says. "Yes were more of a feet-on-the-floor band. We knew we were quality, and we thought, There’s no way people won’t buy what we’re doing, because we’re too good.” [Laughs]
Released on 19 February 1971, The Yes Album made a big splash on both sides of the Atlantic, hitting No. 4 on the UK Albums Chart and No. 40 on the Billboard 200 in the US. Starting 1 March 2013, Yes will play the album in its entirety, along with other classics, Close To The Edge and Going For The One, on tour in the US.
"I came up with the idea that we should play an album in full," says Howe, "and then it went to two and eventually to three. Certain venues will only allow us to play for an hour and a half, in which case we'll play The Yes Album and Close To The Edge. For the places that let us play as long as we like, we'll do all three. It's going to be a great night, and I can't wait to explore all of this exceptional music live."
On the following pages, Howe looks back at the writing and recording of The Yes Album, a record that he says came about because the band operated as "five like-minded people. Bill thought I was a bit of a hippie, so was everybody. We loved music, and we thought that was the key to survival in the universe."