What does it sound like?:
It came into our house like every album in 1970 and early ‘71 did; in a Harlequin Records bag, (or Derek’s Records, Wax, or Bonaparte Records,) carried by my brother, two years my senior; Kev. He was an avid record-buyer, even at sixteen. He had started with the British Blues bands, led by Fleetwood Mac and his hero, Peter Green, and backed up by Ten Years After and Eric Clapton. Free were a constant, as was Rory Gallagher, before Led Zeppelin joined the party, cheered on by Deep Purple and Mountain. Yet, on a day in April 1971, inside that Harlequin Records bag, The Yes Album came into my life.
I may only have been fourteen but, through Kev, I had spent two years being exposed to all of this wonderful music. We shared a bedroom and his huge poster of Peter Green, all long, curly hair and thick beard, and THAT Les Paul, was the first thing I saw every morning. I had been indoctrinated into the most magical, exciting world at an early age and was like a sponge, soaking up every drop of whatever delicious musical beverage he brought into the house.
Kev took the album out of the bag and turned on the Bush radiogram in the corner of the lounge. It hummed. He took the record carefully out of the sleeve and the inner-bag and placed it onto the turntable. There was the familiar thud of the needle as it landed on the outer groove, a slight pause and then…my life would never be quite the same again.
Fifty-two years on, The Yes Album is still one of my favourite albums – I am currently on my seventh copy and about to invest in the eighth – and I still play it often. So, when the chance came up to go and hear the new Steven Wilson remastered version, in a pristine acoustic environment, I could not raise my hand fast enough.
L Acoustics is an audio company with offices in London, Paris, Los Angeles and Singapore. If you’ve been to gigs at Hammersmith Apollo, Lafayette or Kentish Town Forum, then you’ve heard the band through an L Acoustics P.A system. They are the speaker of choice at many festivals, on both sides of the Atlantic. If you’ve heard one of their domestic systems, then you must have spent time on a luxury yacht or in a rooftop penthouse.
L Acoustics London office is in a smart residential street in Highgate, North London and, for the first time in my 67 years, ‘my name is on the door.’ I take a seat in the back row of a wide room and hear the distinctive voice of Prog Magazine’s editor, Jerry Ewing, chatting to the lady at the door. If Jerry’s here, this is a big deal.
At 6.15pm the lady from L Acoustics introduces herself and tells the thirty or so people in the room a bit about the company and then what we are going to hear. She also says that Steven Wilson was going to be there but had cancelled due to a family accident, (not serious, apparently.)
The lights dim, except for the large green ones on the top of each of the eighteen speakers, spaced five feet apart, all the way around the room. The familiar sound of Yours Is No Disgrace fills the room and I am fourteen again, sitting on the settee as the same chords leap out of the single speaker of that big old Bush radiogram, in April 1971.
Steven Wilson has done a fantastic job of remastering the Yes catalogue; he even made me fall back in love with Tales From Topographic Oceans, for God’s sake; and his genius continues with The Yes Album. Tony Kaye’s keyboards are now much more audible, the fantastic harmony vocals now sound full and lush, and Chris Squire’s bass rumbles and growls out of the speakers like some mythical monster, approaching from the depths of hell. The drums are clear as a bell, with the kick-drum now more prominent and urgent than it was. And where the hell did that acoustic guitar come from?
The Yes Album is a guitar record. Steve Howe had joined Yes in June 1970 and, after a few gigs, the band disappeared to a farm in Devon, to write and rehearse material for this, their third album. At the end of the Summer, Yes moved back to London, to Advision Studios in Gosfield Street, Fitzrovia, two streets away from the BBC’s Portland Place building. Advision had recently taken delivery of one of the first 16-track tape machines in London and Yes were determined to take full advantage of the expanded landscape.
Steve Howe was 23 years-old at the time, (Kaye and Jon Anderson were both 25, Squire, 22 and drummer Bill Bruford was 21,) and, with the help of 27 year-old engineer and producer, Eddy Offord, Howe began to fill that expanded landscape.
His guitars are everywhere. They appear in front of me, behind me, above me, (yes, there are speakers in the ceiling,) and are thrillingly exciting. The young Londoner was a ferocious player at the time, at the peak of his powers, and this is his Everest.
The songs are so familiar and the forty-two minutes rush by, my right leg playing the imaginary kick-pedal, (quietly,) as usual. As Perpetual Change fades out there is a round of applause and I find the hairs on my arms standing up as the rush of excitement courses through my body.
While I had been listening in the darkness I had been aware of someone moving behind me and now, as the lights come up, I look to my right to see the 74 year-old version of the drummer I’d just been listening to, the young kid on my poster with the curly, golden hair and the winning smile. Six feet away from me is Bill Scott Bruford.
The lady from L Acoustics explains that Bill was to have been interviewed by Steven Wilson so, in his absence, she is going to ask for questions from the audience.
Bill is famously reticent, especially when discussing his time in Yes, and tonight is no different, although we do get flashes of recall. He calls the album ‘charming’ and remembers how young and inexperienced he was. He recalls how his kit was mic’d up by ‘two overheads and one on the kick,’ while Howe was allocated seven tracks for his guitars. When asked how ‘the new boy’ got to have nearly half of the available recording space, he replies, ‘You’d have to ask the new boy.’ He qualifies that by saying that the dynamic in lots of studios is that the pushier you are, the more you get your way, and that ‘the new boy’, even at 23, was already an experienced operator in that respect.
Bill felt that his drums sounded a little isolated in the new mix and was asked if he cringes listening back, if he would do things differently now. He replies, ‘Oh God, yes; completely.’ He also reveals that Yes were about to be dropped from Atlantic Records, which is partly why they were announcing themselves, with their new line-up, as if they were a new band, and calling it The Yes Album.
It struck me, as it often does, that we know every note, every stroke of an album and we adore what we hear; it becomes set in our brain. To the musicians, those notes and strokes are simply what they played on that day and, if the producer had chosen a different take, then we might never have heard what has become ‘our version.’
The event ends and I put my coat on, summoning up just enough courage to introduce myself to Jerry Ewing, telling him that I have some of his sister Sarah’s amazing art on my walls, (Big Big Train fans will be more than familiar with Sarah and her part in the band’s story,) before stepping out into the cold night. The depths of my courage were insufficient for me to speak to Bill, to tell him what his playing meant to me, that he was one of the reasons I played drums and that I had his poster on my wall as a kid.
This is not a full review of the new release of The Yes Album; there is a lot more to the package than simply Steven’s fantastic remix/remaster, including two newly-sourced 1971 gigs. The boxset features the 2014 remixed The Yes Album and instrumental versions of all six album tracks in the upcoming Super Deluxe Edition. In addition, the Blu-ray disc offers four new mixes of The Yes Album, including two versions in 5.1 Surround Sound, the 2023 Remaster, and the Dolby Atmos Mix and the whole lot is due out on 24th November from those lovely people at Rhino.
The Yes Album was the start of my journey into a wider spectrum of music; much wider than I had been exposed to before. Even at fourteen I knew that this was something different and that, while I would never desert Fleetwood Mac, Free and Led Zep, here was a rabbit-hole worth getting lost down. If I could have told my fourteen year old self that, fifty two years later, he’d be sitting six feet from Bill Bruford while he described recording that album, that he would be about to spend over a hundred quid on his eighth copy of it, and had been asked to write about it, I think he would have fainted clean away. To be honest, when I spotted Bill Bruford, 67 year-old me nearly did.
What does it all *mean*?
It means that I have spent a small fortune on this album, over the years.
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24th November 2023
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