Chasing the Sound of Yes, 50 Years On

Steve Howe laughs when asked what it is that keeps playing in Yes fresh and interesting for him. The guitarist has been a member of Yes for most of the years since 1970; he’s the closest thing the British progressive group has to an original member. The band has embarked on dozens of tour, released a long string of highly acclaimed albums, and endured more than its share of personnel changes, break-ups, fractional reunions and reformations. One might suggest that Yes has endured a great deal of drama (its 1980 album even bore that title).

But Howe has an answer at the ready. “My enthusiasm, mainly,” he says. “My determination to keep immersing myself in this great music. It’s very popular and it’s got a lot of my bits that I wrote in it.” And in recent years, Yes has made a point of changing up its set lists, sometimes building entire concerts around starchiness readings of its classic albums. Recent tours have showcased The Yes Album and Fragile (both 1971), Close to the Edge (1972), Going for the One (1977), Drama, and half of the 1973 double-album Tales from Topographic Oceans.

Yes, 2018 edition. L-R: Geoff Downes, Steve Howe, Alan White, Jon Davison, Billy Sherwood

“Our recent album series was great,” Howe says. “If there wasn’t purpose behind [each tour], if there wasn’t an idea, it might be rather flat. But for me, there’s always an idea in my head that we’re doing Yes in a certain way, to a certain level of perfection … maybe a new level of perfection. And all those things interest me.”

Howe readily admits that when he joined the group — replacing original guitarist Peter Banks — in 1970, he had no idea how long Yes would remain together, much less how long he would be in the band. “That could have been pure guesswork, anyway,” he says. “Nobody knows the future.” He admits that after the release of Drama, he felt that the group had run its course. “I felt it was kind of over,” Howe says. “I walked away from it, thinking, ‘That’s it.’” In fact, that album — the first Yes made without its original vocalist Jon Anderson — did, for a time, mark the end of Howe’s involvement. Yet the group continued.

“But things happen,” Howe says. “We couldn’t have predicted it, but the band kept evolving, and I re-joined in 1995.” He’s been on board ever since, and with the 2015 death of founding member and bassist Chris Squire, Howe has become the de facto leader of the group. The current lineup features longtime drummer Alan White (a member since 1974), plus longtime members Geoff Downes (keyboards) and bassist Billy Sherwood. Vocalist Jon Davison is in his seventh year with Yes.

As to where the group might go from here, Howe is characteristically circumspect. “We’ve already got plans,” he allows, “but we can’t really divulge those because they’re not solid enough.” He does promise that Yes views its set list as “not a static thing, but a very mobile, flexible and ever-changing course.” Howe provides further hints to the future by referencing the recent past. “After doing this summer tour on our own, we might think about special team-ups,” he says, mentioning 2017’s triple bill with Carl Palmer’s ELP Legacy and Todd Rundgren as an example of the kind of lineup the band might pursue.

Yes has already committed to a 2019 tour of Japan, as well as hosting its popular Cruise to the Edge “floating festival” next February. “We’re talking about being fairly busy, but not strenuously busy,” Howe says.

Asked what he views as the source of Yes’s enduring popularity for a half century, Steve Howe gets a bit philosophical. “I’ve always thought that the listeners have got a certain bent in their ear,” he says. “They’ve got a certain sort of approach to music where they’ve got a space big enough — or maybe small enough — for Yes.”

“All these words and all these ideas that we put together end up being ‘a sound,’” Howe explains. “And I think that’s the most enduring thing: People like the playing, the craftsmanship, the record sleeve. But fundamentally, they have to like the sound.”