Music geeks over the weekend noted the passing of Chris Squire, longtime bassist for prog-rock icons Yes.
Now, as I’ve written innumerable times, I really listen to music on two levels; is the music technically adept in some way – singing, instrumental chops, production – and does it grab me in the liver and say “this song is something important to you”.
Much Noise, Signifying…: Speaking for me? Yes – of whom Squire was the only constant member from 1968 through his passing, as the band went through 18 other members over the years – was always plenty of the former, and only rarely any of the latter.
As to the former, the musical talent? It was always the band’s long suit. I, like a lot of guitar players of a certain age, grew up very pleased with myself for nailing the first part of “Roundabout”, and bobbing my head in awe at the rest of the song:
Admit it; if it weren’t for “I’ve Seen Good People” and “Roundabout”, you don’t know the words to the chorus of a single “Yes” song before 1984. It’s not the most ornate Yes song of their first 16 years as a band – they frequently had songs that filled entire 20 minute album sides – and far from their least accessible.
But there’s no doubting the technical chops; Rick Wakeman’s virtuosic but gaseous keyboards, Jon Anderson’s fluid lead singing, and Steve Howe’s technically-impeccable and occasionally-brilliant guitar (why does he always look like he’s getting a prostate exam when he’s playing?).
But Squire’s bass is the most notable thing about the song; from the blazingly ornate yet reliable sixteenth-note runs during the verses, to the off-kilter pulse of the chorus, it’s really brilliant stuff.
Which, of course, made me nod my head and go “yeah, pretty brilliant – now where’s some music I actually feel?”
Worse, Yes committed some terrible crimes against music. Their trite, mawkish cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” deserves a tribunal, somewhere:
It was the first time I had actually felt some emotion besides admiration for their technical chops when listening to a Yes song. In this case, it was unbridled hatred for murdering a great song.
But it wasn’t the last.
So – wanna start an argument with a “Yes” fan? Tell him you didn’t hear a “Yes” song that you actually enjoyed until “Owner of a Lonely Heart”:
The band shed Howe (who went to join the dull as dry toast “GTR” for a few years) and added South African guitar whiz Trevor Rabin. They also did three albums in a row produced by Trevor Rabin, the former lead singer of “Buggles” (“Video Killed the Radio Star”), who’d sung lead for Yes for a year before becoming one of the defining producers of the 1980s.
And again – underneath Rabin’s guitar and Wakeman’s un-Wakeman-y keyboards, Squire’s bass is absolutely subtle and ingenious.
The best way to get an old-school “Yes” fan to try to assassinate you is to say you prefer the song to their earlier work. But I do. Far and away. Assassinate me? Bring it.
No Respect: I wasn’t the only one who didn’t much care for Yes. The Rock and Roll hall of fame has been cool to them:
In February 2013, Rolling Stone spoke to Squire about Yes’ legacy and the fact that Rush, but not Yes, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “Logistically, it’s probably difficult for whoever the committee is to bring in Yes,” Squire said. “Rush is fairly simple. It’s the same three guys and always has been. They deserve to be there, no doubt about that. But there still seems to be a certain bias towards early-Seventies prog rock bands like Yes and King Crimson… In our case, we’re on our 18th member. If we ever do get inducted, it would be only fair to have all the members, old and new. So that may be a problem for the committee. I don’t know.”
Of course, the Hall of Fame – for whatever it’s worth, which is really not much – is dominated by critics. And critics have always savaged the band, except for their brief flirtation with New Wave during the Rabin years. Dave Marsh wrote in the 1983 Rolling Stone Record Buyer’s Guide:
Classical rockers with hearts of cold, Yes entered the Seventies as a creative example of post-Pepper‘s artistic aspirations, a musicianly alternative to the growing metal monster rock was becoming. It left the decade as perhaps the epitome of uninvolved, pretentious and decidedly nonprogressive music, so flaccid and conservative that it became the symbol of uncaring platinum success, spawning more stylistic opponents than adherents. … On Tales from Topographic Oceans, the bottom fell out …
Now, I had that particular Record Buyer’s Guide. And I was as “rockist” as Marsh, who is most famous as the definitive biographer of The Who and Springsteen, and who has always compared all rock and roll to the MC5, and always will.
At it was via watching rock critics’ treatment of Yes during its various stylistic gyrations in the eighties – especially Marsh, my favorite as a teenager, and the single most promiscuous mixer of art and politics in the English language – that I finally realized something; that the real gaseous, bloated, self-important, pretentious, overblown, in-love-with-the-sounds-of-their-precious-creativity ones…
…are the rock critics.
RIP Chris Squire,