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Revisiting the messiest Yes album — Union!

I’m not much of a podcast listener. Perhaps it’s because I spend little time commuting, or perhaps I rarely find a podcast I prefer to turning up my favorite music.

But one I can enthusiastically recommend is the aptly named Yes Music Podcast. Host Kevin Mulryne is quintessentially British, using a calm, analytical tone to describe and dissect the music of Yes and some of its offshoots. He has interviewed some of the band members, most recently the longtime voice of Yes himself, Jon Anderson.

The podcast recently took a look back in the Yes catalog to give a fresh listen to Big Generator, the second album of the Trevor Rabin era. It’s not as memorable as 90125, the stunning debut for the Rabin lineup, but Kevin decided it was worth another try.

Inspired by that pair of podcasts, I decided to dive into an album that causes shudders among many in Yes circles. Rick Wakeman famously called it “Onion” because listening to it made him cry.

It is, of course, Union.

And it is, sadly, a dishonest album at its core. It’s less of a “Union” and more of a shotgun marriage between two distinct camps that were struggling.

Anderson had left Yes after Big Generator and reunited with three of the members who had played on the classic albums Fragile and Close To The Edge — Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Bill Bruford. Howe had stuck with Anderson and Yes through the 70s before detouring into Asia. Wakeman left and returned for Going For The One, not as well known as the earlier albums but very well regarded. This group recorded the eponymous Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe and toured with “An Evening of Yes Music Plus.” They had been trying to put together a second album.

The other Yes member from those classic albums — in fact, on every Yes album to date — was Chris Squire. He remained with the rest of the crew that produced 90125 and Big Generator — Trevor Rabin, Tony Kaye and Alan White. They had made far less progress than ABWH, trying out a couple of new vocalists such as Supertramp’s Roger Hodgson but not getting anything done.

The liner notes to Union put a charming positive spin on the situation:

“When Jon arrived in Los Angeles to work on vocals for the ABWH tracks, he called Trevor, who took the opportunity of playing Jon several new songs that he was in the process of writing. When Jon heard the music, he immediately felt he wanted to be a part of it and suggested he add his vocals to the songs. Trevor, in turn, realized that Jon’s unique vocal style was just what the music needed.”

I have no idea how receptive Rabin actually was to all of this, but when I first read this nearly 25 years ago, I pictured a record company executive twisting Rabin’s arm behind his back, yelling, “JON’S VOICE IS WHAT THIS MUSIC NEEDS!” Then Rabin grimacing back, saying, “Yes! Yes! I realize that!”

The liner notes continue: “Jon also heard some new music that Chris, Tony and Alan had been working on with producer Eddy Offord and added his vocals to this also. In this new spirit of harmony, it was only logical that Chris add his distinctive vocals to the new ABWH tracks, which by then had been completed by Bill, Rick and Steve.”

Well, sort of. In reality, the ABWH tracks were dumped into the lap of producer Jonathan Elias, who called in an armada of keyboard players (11 are credited on these tracks in addition to Wakeman), a couple of percussionists and guitarist Jimmy Haun, who wound up playing with Kaye and White in a side project called Circa several years later.

My Popdose colleague Dw. Dunphy summed up the result: “The keyboards are incredibly busy, even for a prog album – they’re shoved in every crack and crevice, and often have no cohesive thread to them. They become noise for the sake of noise.”

Dunphy also thinks the non-Elias songs were punched up a bit in the process. As a result, we really can’t be sure who played what. We may have one song that was Anderson DrumMachine Porcaro Levin Haun, another that was Anderson Rabin Squire Kaye White Elias, etc.

But as much as some band members may blame Elias or corporate overlords’ unseen hands or whatever, their own dysfunction played a massive role in weighing down the whole project.

Here’s Elias, looking back: “I didn’t realize how dark the baggage was within that band and how much they hated each other… I honestly believe I was the central focus of hatred for Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, who couldn’t stand each other. Even though Jon Anderson was the co-producer of the record, and was constantly urging me to work with other players, which we subsequently did, he took none of the heat because they were so scared of him. … I felt the only redeeming value of the whole band was Trevor Rabin who remains the best element in Yes other than Jon.”

Rabin didn’t think much of the end product at all.

“I think the tracks that I’m proud of on that album are Miracle of Life and Lift Me Up. I think the rest of the album’s not worth listening to.” (He goes on to add that he also liked The More We Live – Let Go.)

So it seems no one involved has positive memories of this album.

But I do. If only because of the timing or the tour that sprang from this album, when all eight Yes members played together. It was beautiful. And they made a documentary of that tour called YesYears, which I watched over and over so I could delight in Rick Wakeman’s wry wit, Steve Howe’s bizarre tangents and Bill Bruford’s playfully acerbic take on the whole enterprise.

Even on that tour, though, they didn’t play a lot of music from this album. Lift Me Up and Shock to the System were played at every show. Saving My Heart made it on about a third of the dates. Steve Howe sometimes played Masquerade in his solo section, and has one mention of the album’s closer, Take The Water To The Mountain.

The strangest personal take for me, though, is that Union is the only CD I ever bought that developed a glitch that rendered it unplayable. That’s all the more reason I hadn’t listened to the whole thing in years.

Thanks to Spotify, I sat down and listened this afternoon. Here’s what I thought …

I Would Have Waited Forever (ABWH with Squire backing vocals) — It’s a promising start, isn’t it? Jon’s voice is brimming with positive vibes, the Yes chorus adds texture, and we’re off! And then it almost immediately bogs down. The guitar riff isn’t particularly inviting, and we get some random keyboard bursts over the top. Chris Squire — oh, excuse me, that must be Tony Levin — pops in with some interesting counterpoint to spice things up, but the verses are simply plodding. The acoustic interlude leads nicely into the solo. It’s a fitting overture to the album — good ideas sandbagged in a mishmash of styles, like a beautiful prog-rock piece desperately trying to burst out of something grittier.

Shock To The System (AWBH) — Perhaps a little too self-indulgent toward the end with a rather aimless guitar riff after Steve Howe’s scales. (Or are they Jimmy Haun’s? The bass here certainly sounds like Chris Squire, but if you go by the liner notes, it’s Levin.) But this is a solid track. I love Yes’ versatility, from beautiful harmonies to powerful riffs like this. This is a good showcase of what Yes was capable of doing in the 80s and 90s. Rabin says he hated playing this one live, but I rather enjoyed it.

Masquerade (Steve Howe solo) — Perhaps not as memorable as The Clap or Mood For A Day, but a Howe acoustic solo is usually a pleasant listen, and this is no exception.

Lift Me Up (Rabin/Squire) — The pop hit of the album, with good hooks riddled throughout, from the memorable chorus to Squire’s perky bass runs. It suffers from a bit of overproduction as well, and it’s almost comical to hear Rabin’s voice yelling the second syllable of “mountain,” as if he or the production team needed to remind us that this is fundamentally his song. The structure is more coherent than many songs on this album — or, indeed, on many Yes tracks in the decades after this. We get a strong opening, a more subdued and earnest verse, then a chorus that soars. By the end, when Rabin breaks into the solo, we can’t help but be swept away. Wakeman is even smiling in the video:

Before you say that’s coincidence, he’s also smiling in this live clip:

Without Hope You Cannot Start the Day (AWBH with Squire) — It’s a good theme for Yes, a sympathetic look at the downtrodden. Anderson’s vocals are moving. But we have to wonder if this track falls in the “what might have been” category. Wikipedia, citing Tim Morse’s book Yesstories, says Rick Wakeman initially recorded a piano part that sounded like Rachmaninoff, but Jonathan Elias played something simpler. Wouldn’t we all love to hear what it sounded like with Wakeman’s part? In any case, the song soon bogs down in another plodding riff and an odd time signature that seems tacked on to remind us we’re listening to a prog-rock master. It’s a disappointment.

Saving My Heart (Rabin) — The chorus has potential. The verses do not. Rabin apparently had reservations about this one, and his instincts were right. Frankly, another band might do a better job with this one. It’s just not a good fit for Yes.

Miracle Of Life (Rabin with Mark Mancina) — It’s a jarring start, complex and fast, reminiscent of the start of Close to the Edge. But it’s also friendlier, resolving to some acoustic instruments and the Yes chorus. Unfortunately, it ends up with a lot of layers and not much of a song. It’s a quantity over quality approach that drowns the song. Co-writer Mark Mancina also worked with Rabin on the soundtrack to the wretched film Con Air.

Silent Talking (ABWH) — One of the shorter tracks on the album, and it never really gets going.

The More We Live – Let Go (Squire with Billy Sherwood) — Sherwood nearly joined Yes here, did indeed join Yes later and has recently rejoined under sad circumstances — he is the replacement for Squire, who has passed away. I had vague memories of this song being interesting. It is, but it’s not the most engaging tune here.

Angkor Wat (AWBH) — Again from Wikipedia, citing Morse: “Wakeman recorded each layer without hearing what he recorded before.” It’s an interesting experiment that ends up sounding like meditation music. Not the sort of track you’d listen to over and over again, and not something I could see Yes attempting live. But it’s worth checking out.

Dangerous (AWBH with Squire) — This is Yes? Compressed guitars. Slap bass? Yes has gone through several styles through the years, but this just doesn’t work.

Holding On (AWBH) — The ideas were really running thin by this point. The guitar riff from the opening song is reprised. Just when I was nearly hooked into the song by some clever bass riffs, it abruptly launched into another style. By the four-minute mark, it’s almost as if we have 10 people playing parts without anything tying them together. (In fact, it may be exactly that.)

Evensong (Levin/Bruford) — A Tony Levin/Bill Bruford duet, with Levin coaxing some unusual tones out of what I’m assuming is a Chapman stick and Bruford adding percussion with an Asian influence. It’s a brief, fascinating listen, like looking at an artist’s sketch of a larger project. Did they ever record that larger project, or did their work in King Crimson suffice?

Take the Water to the Mountain (AWBH, Anderson sole writer) — As with many of the songs that would’ve been on Side 2 in the vinyl and cassette days, I had little memory of this song. Listening again all these years later reveals a pleasant surprise. Like Holy Lamb on Big Generator, this is a simple, spiritual offering from Jon Anderson, and it’s an enjoyable listen. Other band members (or any number of the studio musicians Elias assembled) add nice textures without overwhelming the song. It makes you wonder what might have been if Elias and company had let the other songs on this album “breathe” as this one does.

So I count five solid Yes songs, then a few experiments of varying success and a couple of songs that never needed to be released.

I imagine an alternate timeline in which this music is abandoned and then properly recorded years later, like Fly From Here. Some of the songs, of course, would be poorer without Jon Anderson. But I would gladly listen to I Would Have Waited Forever re-recorded with Jon Davison’s voice and the Trevor Horn/Geoff Downes team finding smart arrangements.

Progressive rock bands follow a winding path. Rush, which has had the same three members for 40 years, has gone through some interesting detours. Union finds Yes at an intriguing crossroads in its complex history. These songs will never occupy the same space in my heart and mind as Yours Is No Disgrace, Roundabout, And You And I, Awaken, or Owner Of A Lonely Heart. But I didn’t regret owning this CD at the time. And I don’t regret revisiting it today.


3 thoughts on “Revisiting the messiest Yes album — Union!

  1. Thanks for the overview. My understanding that Union arose out of the legal contest between Yes proper and ABWH. My impression is that the ABWH album and tour had gone well, and the group was excited to continue on to a second album. However, the record company brass and lawyers began to muck things up, leaving a bitter and resentful spirit amongst the musicians. I get why the musicians were frustrated with the results, and it’s obvious that Union killed off any enthusiasm that Bruford, Howe and Wakeman had for the whole enterprise. That said, I appreciate that some of the best prog musicians of the era were featured on this album, and that alone is worth a listen.

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