By Carlo Rotella
Boston: When I hear even a snatch of a song by Yes — Steve Howe piling on the harmonics and baroque licks during the guitar intro to Roundabout, Jon Anderson singing like a member of the Venusian Boys Choir, Rick Wakeman challenging Keith Emerson for the title of heavyweight champion of keyboard-solo overkill — it takes me back to listening to the radio at the age of 12 or 13. Hanging out on my neighbors’ stoop with their radio playing, listening to my own staticky bedside radio with the sound turned down low as I drifted off to sleep, I inhaled a lot of secondhand Yes in the 1970s.
Yes was in the air back then, and while I never sought out or even particularly liked the band’s music, I felt that its sincere commitment to being a prog-rock juggernaut of bombast commanded a certain respect. It seemed to me at the time that Yes’s conviction that it was expanding listeners’ minds and elevating their taste was simply part of what the era obliged one to endure. After you’d heard I’ve Seen All Good People a hundred times on the radio, you deserved an imaginary merit badge in Ecstatic Woe.
Earlier this week, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its inductees for 2014. Yes, a finalist, didn’t make the cut. This outcome was especially disappointing for the Washington political operatives from both sides of the aisle who, as David Rowell entertainingly reports in the Washington Post Magazine, came together to mount a publicity campaign to help get the band elected. But even this bipartisan alliance of opinion-molders, united by a taste for noodling multi-movement epics that take up a whole side of an LP, couldn’t overcome what they regard as the Hall of Fame’s longstanding bias against progressive rock.
Part of the point of any hall of fame is to encourage people to argue about who deserves to be in it. This year’s roster of rock inductees includes Nirvana, Hall and Oates, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, Cat Stevens, and KISS. Among the finalists who didn’t make it were Deep Purple, The Replacements, and Chic. Arguments will naturally ensue, with each faction advancing claims based on popularity, genre, influence, authenticity and quality.
As a rule, I don’t care about who gets into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Halls of fame in general do little for me; the same goes for the notion that rock has some kind of sacred mission that’s better exemplified by this band or that singer.
But I am surprised to discover that I do feel for Yes, which always seemed so earnest in its self-importance, so touchingly grandiose. The quality widely regarded as the band’s tragic flaw — the aesthetic of excess and sorcerous virtuosity that the standard rock-history narrative has punk rock reacting against, the DIY mammals succeeding the arena-rock dinosaurs — is also what makes Yes and their prog-rock peers seem sympathetic to me in retrospect. They wholeheartedly owned their bombast, and while bombast can kill a blues or country song, it’s as legitimate a rock aesthetic as stripped-down garage-band minimalism.
To my ears, Yes’s maximalist tendencies always made them sound not just otherworldly but cosmically ill, as if the band’s members could not abide the musical conditions that prevail on this planet. Watching them now on YouTube in their gaunt, caped prime only reinforces the impression I formed back in my adolescent radio days that their songs were complex distress signals broadcast back to their home world after crash-landing on this one. “The situation is dire,” they seem to be saying in enigmatic code. “The light is distressingly bright, and the alien atmosphere poisons our minds so that we suffer oppressive delusions and visions. We must constantly change key and time signatures to vary the flow of sound waves over our sensitive nerve endings. Wakeman has grown moody and distant; he plays two keyboards at once with no regard for others’ suffering. There are flying elephants. The mountains come out of the sky and they stand there. Send help soon. Over.”
I find myself hoping that next year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will give them a welcoming place to park their spaceship.
Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.