Time Flies: Buggles, Punk Rock and the Rebirth of Yes


It’s tricky to put a band like Yes in historical context. In their pomp, they were one of the biggest rock bands on the planet, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and The Who. They filled arenas with people, and they filled slabs of vinyl with complex, multi-layered progressive rock. Along the way, they filled plenty of rock critics with a sense of anger mixed with despair, and they filled a generation of kids with the desire to grab guitars and do the exact opposite of what’d made them so successful over the course of the 1970s.

As such, there’s no real doubt that Yes are one of the catalysts for punk rock, the “three chords and a bit of attitude” ethos clashing with the virtuosic and cerebral nature of albums like Close to the Edge and Tales from Topographic Oceans. And whilst the common logic dictates that punk came along and swept the old guard directly into an open grave, the facts tell a different story. Thirty years hindsight allows us to see that in the yoof explosion of punk, Yes made significant gains on the album and pop charts, Rush entered into their most artistic and commercially successful phases, Pink Floyd built The Wall, and Genesis embarked on a transformation that would take them from the outlandish costumes and characters of Peter Gabriel, to the Hawaiian shirts and pop hits of the Phil Collins era. Emerson, Lake and Palmer went to a place called Love Beach, and then split up.

We’re told that history is told by the victors, but for 20th century music, it’s a tale told by music journalists, and this just happens to be the one area of journalism where ‘facts’ aren’t always a welcome presence. Thus the oft-repeated story goes that The Sex Pistols, Clash, et al, ushered in a new era, and stuff like guitar and keyboard solos, and triple concept albums became a thing of the past, practically overnight. In sartorial terms, Johnny Rotten’s safety pin shirt threw Rick Wakeman’s cape in the bin.

Speaking to the AV Club in 2012Chris Squire, the bassist, founder, and until his death on the 27th of June 2015, sole original member to have weathered the band’s many line-up changes, was benignly dismissive of punk. “We looked upon it as quaint. So we didn’t think about it much, really.” Far from the words of someone whose career was seemingly rendered obsolete by a bunch of backstreet urchins from London, Squire’s words convey a sense of what was really happening in the music industry at the time. Far from a battening down of the hatches, long established rock bands were still stretching their musical and commercial muscles, and the record industry continued to lavish money upon them. By contrast, the amount of money spent on punk rock is negligible. Punk – at the time – was viewed by many in the industry to be a passing fad, with as much longevity as glam rock, psychedelic rock, or disco.

Yes would have been in a position to benefit from this era, had they not been in the process of splitting up. 1977’s Going for the One found Rick Wakeman returning to the fold, scoring a hit single with ‘Wondrous Stories’, a folky madrigal that’s about as far away from ‘Anarchy in the UK’ as it’s possible to be. Having shown their commercial savvy, they then utterly dropped the ball with the follow up, Tormato. A curious record, and whilst there’s moments of brilliance scattered through it, the general feeling is of a bunch of people who aren’t really sure what they’re trying to do, and losing interest as they go along. Wakeman departed again, and within a short space of time, vocalist Jon Anderson did the same, a seismic change that would not be so easily overcome.

In one of the most unusual pairings in pop music, replacements for Wakeman and Anderson were found in Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes, better known as new wave popsters Buggles. Horn and Downes had (sort of) emerged through the ranks of punk, beavering away in the engine room as a record producer and a session keyboard player respectively, before scoring a big hit with ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ in 1979. To the untrained eye, they had little to do with progressive rock.

Horn and Downes were working on the follow up to their debut album, and discovered that the vocal and keayboardless Yes were in the studio next door, wondering what to do with themselves. Horn and Downes were closet fans, and offered the band one of their songs to record. Instead, Chris Squire invited the duo to join the band, and the new era of Yes was born.

These days, Trevor Horn is rightly hailed as one of the most visionary record producers of the 20th century, having helmed records like ABC’s The Look of Love, Welcome to the Pleasuredrome by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and many, many others. Geoff Downes, on the other hand, has a long and distinguished pedigree as a prog rock lynchpin, having founded pop-prog band Asia, who scored big with anthemic ballad ‘The Heat of the Moment’, and securing an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the most keyboards on stage at any one time. But in 1980, Anderson and Wakeman had big shoes that needed filling, and many weren’t convinced that The Buggles were the people to do it.

Meanwhile, the ‘scorched earth’ approach of punk hadn’t quite rendered the ex-Yes-men extinct. Jon Anderson had been one of the preeminent vocalists of the 70s, his whimsical, cosmic style clashing greatly with the snarl of punk. Not that he’d have noticed, having teamed up with Greek keyboard maestro Vangelis for a series of hit singles and albums that would keep him in the pop charts, whilst Vangelis scored movies like Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner.

On the other hand, Rick Wakeman had made a series of questionable financial decisions that would render him bankrupt at the beginning of the 80s. Critics had never been kind on the keyboardist, but whilst his solo offerings found him struggling to reach an audience, he ultimately found solace in new age music, releasing soothing music for hippies and yuppies wanting to embrace their spiritual side.

As Anderson and Wakeman’s fortunes waxed and waned, Yes reconvened with Horn and Downes, and in August 1980 released Drama. From the opening bars of ‘Machine Messiah’, it was clear that something had changed. Guitarist Steve Howe, a mainstay since 1971, had been known for his lightning fast style, a light-fingered touch that saw him as adept at firing off solos, as fingerpicking some pastoral folk music on the acoustic guitar. However for Drama’s opening track, he was instead crafting lumbering, monolithic riffs, the swooning synths of Downes lending the track an air of heaviness that Yes had never been known for.

‘White Car’ was conceptual, but like ‘Machine Messiah’, maintained a modern feel, at once progressive and contemporary. ‘Does it Really Happen’, built on yet another killer Squire bassline, was as direct as the band had been in years, whilst Horn’s pop sensibilities shone through on ‘Into the Lens’ and ‘Run Through the Light’. But all the way, it remained quintessentially Yes, anchored by the musicianship of Squire, Howe, and drummer Alan White. Indeed, Horn’s voice was remarkably similar to Anderson’s, if lacking some of his range, and when Squire’s backing vocals kicked in – a crucial part of Yes’ signature sound – it suddenly becomes difficult to imagine them in any difficulty whatsoever.

Saving the best for last, ‘Tempus Fugit’ is vintage Yes, with a fresh sheen glistening upon it from start to finish. Opening with the kind of complex, but blocky chords that they’d been known for on the likes of ‘All You Good People’ back on 1971’s The Yes Album, the track is torn apart by one of Squire’s all-time best basslines. A heavily processed bass sound snakes through the sound, overpowering everything, and dragging it all along, screaming in his wake. This is Squire in excelsis; a bassist who is right at the forefront, the common complaint paints him as a frustrated lead guitarist, hogging the limelight on bass. ‘Tempus Fugit’ smashes all criticism, a booming beast of a melody, virtuosic in its execution, but possessing a gut-punch that takes it right into the heart of the listener. Despite their claimed ignorance of punk’s looming threat, this is Yes with everything to prove, everything to fight for, and they deliver the goods in spectacular fashion.

Fans were kind to the band’s new lineup, welcoming them with open arms, and taking them to number 2 in the UK album charts. Live shows were more uncertain, with Horn struggling to capture the nuance of Anderson’s vocals, and missing the wizardry of Wakeman’s cape wearing presence. Critics, as usual, weren’t impressed and savaged the album and the band. At the end of what was by all accounts a difficult tour, Horn departed, and Squire decided to fold the band. After 13 years and ten albums, the band were over.

But, of course, that’s not the end of the story.

Squire’s status as one of the best bass players of his era brought him into the orbit of Atlantic Records labelmate Jimmy Page. The guitarist was out on his own, with Led Zeppelin having disbanded in the aftermath of the drummer John Bonham’s death. A proposed project was never realised, but Squire soon met South African guitarist and songwriter Trevor Rabin, and the pair formed a new band with drummer Alan White, to be called Cinema.

Rabin and Squire put together a set of songs that were quite unlike anything Yes had ever done, AOR friendly rock songs with progressive elements. A keyboard player was found in Tony Kaye, the man Rick Wakeman had replaced in Yes, and the band began to take shape. However, there was still one major gap in the lineup that remained vacant, and as had happened before in the Yes story, an unusual solution was about to present itself.

With Atlantic Records feeling that neither Squire nor Rabin were distinctive enough to be the frontman of the band, Squire played the tapes of the Cinema album to Jon Anderson, and being impressed by what he heard, the singer agreed to join the band. Bowing to the obvious, Cinema became Yes once again, and the new lyrics were added, pulling the songs back towards more familiar territory.

Complicating things, the album was produced by none other than Trevor Horn, his tenure with Yes not quite over yet. Horn couldn’t quite let the band go, and much to the chagrin of Tony Kaye, played most of the keyboards on the album, sang backing vocals, and ‘assisted’ with the songwriting.

90125 (named after its catalogue number) became Yes’ most successful album, selling more than four million copies worldwide. Gleaming, shiny, and new, Rabin, Squire, and Horn had crafted a state of the art rock album, one that aimed directly at the heart of the charts, without sacrificing the virtuosic and conceptual edge of Yes’ earlier years, whilst simultaneously sounding nothing like them.

MTV was entering into the first stage of its cultural dominance, having debuted with Horn’s ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ back in 1981. Armed with a glossy video, ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ crashed headfirst into the US charts, and Yes went stratospheric, more popular than ever. For a band who’d been killed by punk, they looked startlingly healthy, all big hair, teeth, and shoulderpads. This was the Age of Greed, and Yes were raking it in.

None of this fits with the story of punk. If punk was an avenging cultural avatar that destroyed the old guard, Yes – along with several of their contemporaries – emerged as temporarily invincible. Much of this is down to the single-mindedness of Chris Squire, the man who refused to let his band die. The years after 90125 would be even more testing, with the band managing to lose their newfound audience, split into two camps, even temporarily reuniting in an unwieldy eight-piece lineup, and even reuniting with Wakeman and Horn along the way. But through it all, the big man who made his Rickenbacker bass guitar look tiny, kept it going.

With the passing of Chris Squire focussing attention back upon the band, Yes continue to occupy a strange place. The 80s may have brought them newfound acceptance, but it dated them, and the Yes of the last twenty years have struggled to exist within sight of the mainstream (but still manage to crack the album charts every few years or so). Yes were never ‘cool’, so to speak, but for many years the musical Zeitgeist moved so far away from them that it threatened to do exactly what punk was supposed to have done to them at the end of the 70s.

The digital age will be kind to Yes. Ignoring the stigma, the prissy words of music journalists, and the ever changing winds of popularity, we can all grab a song by Yes, and celebrate what made them such a powerful force in rock music. Indeed, the last ten years have seen many fans come out of the closet, and whilst the band haven’t exactly been rehabilitated, they are rightly celebrated for what they were: pioneers. Chris Squire may be gone, but the band he founded back in 1968 will endure for forever. Steven Rainey

is a writer and broadcaster who has spent his entire life being an elderly version of himself. He believes in the power of True Rock, and discovered heavy metal at the age of 30. He has never married, but has been divorced twice.