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Friday, July 3, 2015

Owner of a Lonely Hearts Club Band

Is Yes' 90125 a "concept album"?
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yes, circa 1983 in the video for "Leave It" from the album 90125.
L-R: Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson, Alan White, Tony Kaye, Chris Squire.
Image © 1983 Atlantic/Atco Records.
The international community of Yes fans is mourning the passing of bassist and band founder Chris Squire, who succumbed to leukemia at his Arizona home on June 28. In the wake of his passing, the home stereo at Superconductor's Brooklyn headquarters has been playing a lot of Yes, from the airy harmonies of Close to the Edge to the wild experimentation of Tales from Topographic Oceans. Today, the record was the band's 1981 comeback album 90125. This prompted the question: is 90125 a concept album that tells a specific story?

There is no doubt in this writer's mind that 90125 is the record that Yes had to make in the wake of the band's dissolution at the end of the 1980s. Its genesis was complex. The record actually began as a band project called "Cinema", with Chris Squire working with veteran Yes drummer Alan White, keyboardist Eddie Jobson (ex-Roxy Music) and a South African guitarist-songwriter named Trevor Rabin.

The quartet, working with ex-Yes singer Trevor Horn behind the dials, produced a series of demo recordings. Eventually, Jon Anderson (who had been out of Yes since 1980) was asked to sing on some tracks, wrote new lyrics and returned to his place as lead singer. Keyboardist Tony Kaye (who had been out of Yes since 1971!) replaced Jobson. The new band decided that they might as well call it "Yes." The record was released in 1983 with a gray cover designed on an Apple IIe, a radical move away from the swirling landscapes of the 1970s painted by artist Roger Dean.

The music written by this "new" Yes was suited to the '80s and the age of MTV, with the lead single "Owner of a Lonely Heart" written around a monster guitar-bass riff and an upbeat rhythm. Celestial vocals (Anderson) more down-to-earth lead vox and harmonies (Rabin) and solid harmonic backup (Squire) created a heavenly sound over the solid rock groove, and Rabin's effects rack created a guitar solo that effectively sounds like a drill going through your ears and putting your brain back in afterwards. It was amazing stuff, and coupled with a solid video, shot Yes to the top of the charts, a place that a band capable of writing 20-minute epics was not used to occupying.

There was a triumphant world tour, a live album and a film (9012Live, directed by a young hopeful named Steven Soderbergh.) Yes regained its place among the royalty of British bands. But there was also controversy, with older fans nostalgic for epics like The Gates of Delerium and Steve Howe-led guitar showcases like And You and I. This new lineup wasn's as showy as the old. It was also fraught with tension, and would only manage one more record (Big Generator) before Yes would (as has ever been its way) change membership once again.

Listening to the nine songs on 90125 (the title is the album's Atlantic Records catalogue number) one can hear a definite lyric arc. "Owner" is a breakup song, with one partner left bereft (the first words are "Move yourself!") and holding their lonely heart against the numbness that comes at the end of a relationship. "Hold On" and "It Can Happen" (a song radically revised by Anderson from its original lyric) are the sounds of offered encouragement, either from friends or therapists.

And then comes the side-ending "Changes" which is about more than just playing riffs in jaw-dropping time signatures. It's about acceptance of that bereavement, with Rabin taking center stage and musing about fools, jealous hearts and the inevitable change that life and love bring. (This from the same band that a decade ago sought "Perpetual Change" on 1970's The Yes Album!)

The second side opens with a short, jagged overture, "Cinema" named after the aborted band project, that leads directly into "Leave It," a song featuring complex harmonies, Squire's thudding bass and a message of transition. "Our Song" and "City of Love" are at turns nostalgic and all-encompassing, with the latter filled with a sense of expectation. The latter's chorus "We'll be waiting for the night, we'll be waiting for the night to come" keeps rising against the pummeling music, a message of hope against darkness.
The album ends with "Hearts", one of the most epic Yes tracks of the 1980s. It is written around an Eastern-sounding pentatonic figure played by Alan White and Tony Kaye. This last song drops the philopsohy in favor of possible reconciliation, although Anderson hesitates to finish the last "I love you". He sings "Yes - I - Love" incorporating the band's name and letting his voice soar high before the first guitar solo. He holds the note instead and all the pain comes roaring to the surface in a pair of solos. The record ends quietly, with Jon singing:

As we flow down life's rivers
I see the stars glow - One by one
All angels of the magic constellation
Be singing us now. 

It is a suitable end to an important record and one worthy of reconsideration especially as we mourn the passing of this band's founder.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.