My Favorite Yes Album: Drama

My Favorite Yes Album: <em>Drama</em>

Written by Tom Methans

When I bought Drama (1980), my first Yes record, I wasn’t aware that it marked an end of era as Jon Anderson, the iconic voice of Yes, and Rick Wakeman had departed the band before album’s completion. At 14 years of age, as far as I was concerned the new singer Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes had always been in Yes, and they finally made a record I really liked, Back then, progressive synthesizer music was my least favorite category in the rock and roll genre, so I usually tuned to another station the second I heard the ponderous sounds of bands like King Crimson, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and yes, oftentimes Yes.

It was years before I learned about original Yes members Bill Bruford (drums), Tony Kaye (keyboards), and Peter Banks (guitar), who played on Yes (1969) and Time and a Word (1970). And it was only recently that I acquired original pressings of The Yes Album (1971), Fragile (1971), and Close to the Edge (1972), featuring staples of classic rock radio like “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout,” and the title track of the latter. I'm definitely a superficial fan and happily skipped over several 20-minute compositions from Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Relayer (1974), Going for the One (1977), and Tormato (1978).

In 1979, while working on the next record with producer Roy Thomas Baker in Paris, France, musical differences strained the band's relationship. Chris Squire, Steve Howe, and Alan White wanted to write heavier rock music. When White hurt his foot from a night of roller skating with Richard Branson, the injury ended the Paris sessions and sent the fractured band back to England to regroup. In early 1980, Anderson and Wakeman quit, and the remaining members scrambled to finish the album and embark on a tour planned before recording began. Chris Squire invited Horn and Downes from the Buggles, famous for "Video Killed the Radio Star" (1979), and Drama was born. It’s sometimes an overlooked chapter in the Yes canon, but it shouldn’t be.

I'm sure Yes purists were horrified that Horn replaced Anderson, but it's one of those age-old quandaries – like which is the authentic version of Van Halen: the band with David Lee Roth or with Sammy Hagar? Is AC/DC better with Bon Scott or Brian Johnson? I’m an original fan of Queen and I see red when young people think that Adam Lambert has anything to do with “Bohemian Rhapsody” other than singing it, but there’s no doubt Queen found a new demographic because of Lambert. I suppose people can be forgiven for not knowing a band’s entire history. No matter how anyone feels about Trevor Horn, Drama was a singular dividing line between the classic and modern eras of Yes, but it also introduced the band to a whole new generation of listeners.

Drama only made it to number 18 on the Billboard charts, but it remains one of the only Yes records I listen to regularly from start to finish. There is a certain freshness, hard edge, and economy with six tracks that clock in just under 37 minutes:

Side One

1."Machine Messiah" 10:18

2."White Car" 1:18

3."Does It Really Happen?" 6:27

"Machine Messiah" is a surprisingly dark, plodding track with a massive wall of sound. It is juxtaposed against the sparseness of "White Car," which acts as a respite and perfect transition into my favorite song from side one, "Does it Really Happen?"

Side Two

1."Into the Lens" 8:31

2."Run Through the Light" 4:41

3."Tempus Fugit" 5:12

"Into the Lens" is a bit meandering for my taste, but my favorite song from side two, "Run Through the Light," is masterful with its drum and bass parts. "Tempus Fugit" is an all-out closing salvo of instruments. And as good as the album sounded on my stereo, there was nothing better than hearing the songs live.

In September of 1980, the Horn/Downes version of Yes played Madison Square Garden for a three-night run, and my friend's mother got us excellent seats right next to the rotating stage in the center of the arena. It was the closest I had ever been to a historic band. They played most of Drama in addition to "Starship Trooper," "And You and I," and "Yours Is No Disgrace." The band sounded great with Horn as vocalist, Downes on a large array of keyboards, and White behind the drums. Squire was an unexpected virtuoso who made me appreciate bass in a new way. Finally, there was the remarkable Steve Howe who did not play like any of my guitar heroes. He just stood on his section of the stage next to the effects pedalboard and played the guitar high up on his chest with the intense concentration of a jazz musician. These days Howe can be found gracing the pages of Jazz Guitar Today, discussing his earliest influences: Django Reinhardt, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, and Charlie Christian.

Tom's original Atlantic pressing of Drama. Dig that Denon DP-57M turntable!
Tom's original Atlantic pressing of Drama. Dig that Denon DP-57M turntable!

Drama was a brilliant comet that sailed through the musical universe and evaporated as Downes and Howe formed Asia with Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and John Wetton of King Crimson. Horn became a super-producer for Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck, Pet Shop Boys, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Yes's next album, 90125 (1983), which would see the return of Jon Anderson. "Owner of a Lonely Heart" became a massive video hit on MTV, and like the Buggles predicted, video killed my radio star. I wasn’t as interested in 1980s-era Yes, let alone Asia, whose music I found completely bland.

There have been 12 studio albums since Drama performed by different iterations of the band, which includes 20 musicians over the decades. We now have 22 studio albums, remixes, and live recordings from which to pick and choose, so any panic over changing personnel was unwarranted and premature. Among the longest-serving members, and whom most would consider the true heartbeat of Yes, Chris Squire (1948 – 2015) and Alan White (1949 – 2022) have both passed on, but Yes continue to tour and make records. The last one was The Quest (2021).

Ultimately, the overarching success of Yes is not in their half-century recording career but in their consistent touring. Yes has provided their fans with 42 concert tours since 1968. Our own Frank Doris, editor of Copper, saw Yes for the first time at Long Island’s NYCB Theatre in November 2022 – he’s been a fan since he first heard “Roundabout” on the radio. The lineup featured the unstoppable Steve Howe, none other than Geoff Downes on keyboards, Jon Davison on vocals (since 2012), Billy Sherwood on bass (since 2015), and Jay Schellen behind the drums (since 2018). Frank reports they’re all “exceptional musicians” and thought the concert was stunning. The band delivers no matter who’s playing. Frank and I will both tell you: if you get a chance to see Yes, say YES!

Yes at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK, July 2022. (L to R): Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Jon Davison, Jay Schellen, Billy Sherwood. Courtesy of Mike Ainscoe.
Yes at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK, July 2022. (L to R): Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Jon Davison, Jay Schellen, Billy Sherwood. Courtesy of Mike Ainscoe.
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