I was probably about 14 years old when I walked into Melody Inn record store in Parow, a suburb of Cape Town where I grew up. Though the town was tainted with a certain social stigma, to some extent it sowed the seeds of my cultural roots, as it was here in this store where, as a teenager, I later sold guitars on a Saturday morning to earn some pocket-money and where I heard the opening acoustic guitar riff of YES’s Roundabout, the first track on their newly-released album Fragile, my introduction to a band that has evolved into something of a love affair ever since. It was the first album featuring classically trained keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman.
A year or so later, I got to write a review of the album Close to the Edge in our high school magazine called Chatman , which in those days was still being printed by hand on a rotating drum.
On July 11th, 1981, I was in the audience at the Durban City Hall in South Africa (having flown up from Cape Town) to see the 32-year old Rick perform his Journey to the Centre of the Earth epic with a local orchestra. Yet here I found myself, over 3 decades later, in the Royal Albert Hall (RAH), London, to experience the live recreation, for possibly the last time, of the extended version of the classic work, re-recorded in the studio just a year earlier.
The original live recording at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 1974 was cut in length by 20 minutes and 2 songs, so that the 40-odd minutes of music could fit onto vinyl. The decision to record it live was taken because Rick apparently couldn’t afford the cost of recording the original album in a studio, given that it was to feature the London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir.
It was also somewhat ironic therefore, that the staging of Rick’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth in London would be followed just a short week later by YES, in the 46th year of the band’s existence, playing three of their classic albums (The Yes Album, Close to the Edge and Going for the One) in their entirety, at the very same venue, sadly, without their legendary keyboardist at the helm. Rick’s role in the band has for some time been filled by Geoff Downes, also of Asia. Also missing from the YES line-up would be founder member vocalist Jon Anderson, now replaced by American singer Jon Davison for the soon-to-be-released Heaven and Earth album.
For the 2014 version of Journey, I had purchased a Meet & Greet ticket, the latest money-making racket in the music industry, entitling me to sit in on the sound-check and meet Rick and the band personally before the show. I find these meetings uncomfortable, though, to be honest, I was wholly unprepared, this being an opportunity of hauling and dusting off all the old memorabilia out of the closet, for the maestro to autograph. The event did however result in a chance meeting with a fellow fan and genuinely nice bloke by the name of Erich Zahn, from Aachen, who had flown over that morning from Germany. It was nice to get the rundown on April’s Cruise to the Edge extravaganza, a cruise from Miami via Honduras and Mexico, over 5 days, featuring an assortment of prog’s elite, headlined by YES. A ship laden with dope-smoking rock ‘n roll fans doesn’t necessarily go down well with all and can ruffle a few feathers in the process (see article).
A show split into two halves, with the Journey concert proper taking up the second half, it was a polished production overall and thrilling musically, though it lacked a bit of visual stimulation perhaps, most notably the farting dinosaurs. The visuals projected onto the two large screens barely inspired. The Orion Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir, however, were simply fantastic – conductor Guy Protheroe deserves full credit for this. Rick was also backed by the competent English Rock Ensemble, despite their roles being restricted largely by the score.
I loved the way Dance of a Thousand Lights (from Return to the Centre of the Earth) was skilfully fused into the original version of Journey itself. Vocals featured the sassy young Hayley Sanderson (also providing some visual stimulation) and Rick’s mate on many of his earlier recordings, including the original Journey, Ashley Holt. A fine singer, he worries me, despite the fact that I do like his voice. Fidgeting constantly might be construed as a sign of nervous energy but when he’s not singing, he paces the stage incessantly, which can be quite distracting.
His behaviour is akin to a hyperactive schoolboy, at times bordering on the unpredictable. You almost expect him to do something really daft. Leaving the stage momentarily at the end of a vocal section, Holt’s hand motioned towards a tuning machine of Matt Pegg’s bass guitar as he passed him. The young bassist’s initial reaction was to pull back but the look on his face said it all and I doubt he was amused. Yet it was the singer’s somewhat inappropriate movement of his nether regions, as he stood behind his co-singer during Ride of your Life (which formed part of the encore) that really astonished me.
Despite London being in the midst of a Tube strike, I had got to the venue without a hitch on the Victoria & Central lines (albeit whilst running a limited service) however it was at the show’s conclusion that I almost didn’t make it home. Despite missing a step and taking a tumble whilst hastily attempting to board a bus, I managed to make it to Kings Cross 4 minutes before the last Cambridge train departure.
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As the weekend approached, my attention turned to YES. On a whim I had bought an unused ticket from a fellow YES fan who travels the globe to see the band. This was to see them for Saturday’s 3-album concert at the City Hall, Newcastle, a splendid, charming, old-world venue, having already booked for Sunday’s performance at Birmingham Symphony Hall (BSH). I hastily arranged my budget accommodation and train journeys for what amounted to a triangular traverse across the United Kingdom over a Bank Holiday weekend.
Arriving early to pick up my ticket, I had to wait for the box office to open around seven. Despite having all the required documentation, arrangements were complicated by the fact that the ticket had in fact been mailed to the original purchaser in Australia. In the interim, I had a rather interesting conversation with Alan, from Las Vegas, in charge of YES’s European Meet and Greet arrangements, who, given the circumstances, insisted on referring to me as “Anne”. “You’re both good looking”, he added. Let’s not go there, I suggested. One thing was clear – there was no way Anne’s pint-sized complementary T-shirt was going to fit me!
Steve Howe was in cracking form. What an ace guitarist! I had never seen him play his acoustic solo piece ‘Clap’ with such gusto and ferocity. As to new lead singer Jon Davison? He has an amazing voice however I don’t view him as a replacement for the irreplaceable Jon Anderson, who has been such a major creative force for YES for so many years. Yes, he can hit the high notes but Davison’s voice tone and inflections are quite different to those of Anderson, not to mention their differing on-stage personalities. Having said that, the amicable Davison probably got the biggest cheer at the end of the evening.
They’re all having fun and it shows. A couple of glitches, like Steve having problems with his pedal. This presented Chris Squire with the opportunity of relating Rick’s famous curry story he claimed happened at that same venue many years ago. Rick apparently ordered a curry on-stage mid-concert via one of the roadies during the Tales from Topographic Oceans tour. I do miss Rick on keyboards though. Geoff is good but doesn’t quite have the same charisma and incisiveness, one example being the synth solo during Parallels. Perhaps it was down to my vantage point however to my ear, he wasn’t quite able to reproduce some of the keyboard sounds one might be familiar with on the original recordings.
* * *
I hopped on a bus immediately after the show and made my way to my pre-booked accommodation at Newcastle Rooms, about 2.8 miles from the city centre. The bus driver was exceptionally kind in pointing me in the right direction upon alighting, after initially heading the wrong way in a state of disorientation. The old ramshackle establishment falls way short of your average B&B standards, summed up by some late-night revellers yelling in the corridor in the early hours, however at least I had a comfortable bed for the night. On the Sunday morning, I milled around exploring the Newcastle town centre as well as the food and flea markets along the Tyneside Waterfront towards Gateshead till the early afternoon, before making my way south courtesy of Cross Country rail.
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The train journey from the north-east to the English Midlands was marked by throngs of students furiously finishing their assignments, whilst simultaneously playing musical chairs, having boarded without reservations, only to be moved on by passengers who had. I was impressed by the train conductor, who competently dealt with a young couple with broad Yorkshire accents who initially boarded the train at York accompanied by a dog, without even having as much as a ticket, despite claiming to have booked one on-line.
Here’s a tall story, I thought, taking one look at them. He being cocky and a tad too confident, tattoo-adorned, with a certain gift of the gab, I wondered how they were going to wriggle their way out of this one. They managed to keep the entire coach in suspense as the saga unfolded. Much to my surprise and contrary to what first impressions might have led one to believe, they finally managed to retrieve their booking, though not shy to enlist the help of a student onboard, who happened to be online on her laptop.
I thought it likely that I would form a different impression of the show in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, a fine venue with brilliant acoustics but quite different to Newcastle. A modern building in itself reflecting the huge transformation the city is undergoing, it was packed to the rafters with the die-hard YES faithful. It’s quite extraordinary what a difference one’s position in an auditorium can make. Whereas I had been seated about 5 rows in front of Steve Howe the night before and way over to the left, the sound in the Symphony Hall was more balanced and clear, given m vantage point. At least I could hear more of Geoff on this occasion.
Man, Mr Davison has one helluva voice, once again delivering a fine vocal performance, not to mention a commendable attempt at tackling Jon Anderson’s repeating harp loop (on keyboards) midway through the epic Awaken. As it gradually builds momentum, he is accompanied by Geoff’s church organ sounding arpeggios. They absolutely nailed Wonderous Stories and Awaken. Indeed, another cracking performance from the band. Rumour had it Bristol’s Hippodrome performance was to be filmed for a DVD.
Boarding a bus at the other end of the town after the show, I descended into the murky depths of Birmingham’s suburbs. I was grateful for the help from a fellow concert-goer, as I hadn’t a clue where I was. Further advice was to head indoors as soon as I got off the bus. Oh golly, my accommodation for the night at the Prime Lodge undoubtedly turned out to be even more creepy. I rang the bell, entered and checked in. I was then told that breakfast would be ready at a quarter past seven, the woman in attendance emphasized.
The cheap linen, dirty shower, broken bathroom tiles, a smoke detector hanging from its own exposed wiring and not least, two solitary teabags on a bedside table saucer which might conceivably have been lying there for an age, made for a rather unfulfilling experience.
Breakfast was an even more bizarre experience. I was still in the shower when a heard a knock at the door and a voice from nowhere at…………a quarter past seven. I walked into the dining-room to discover a cooked breakfast already waiting for me. I got the inkling I might well have been the only client. A notice at the reception desk read: “Leave the key here”.
I stepped out into the Birmingham morning sunshine. It’s extraordinary how a bit of sunshine can brighten up even the worst of places. To be fair, the neighbourhood didn’t look all that bad. I had a bit of time to kill on a Bank Holiday Monday before catching the cross-country train home via Cambridge, so I wandered along New Street towards the City Hall. A preponderance of the odd burka-clad figure in the city centre gave some idea as to the city’s rich ethnic mix.
* * *
Having had the privilege of attending the gig in the Birmingham Symphony Hall on Sunday night, it finally dawned on me how bad the acoustics in Royal Albert Hall truly are. I was seated 7 rows from the front dead-centre however the comparative and distinct lack of clarity was quite marked, given they weren’t playing at particularly high volumes either. What the venue lacks in sound quality, it makes up for as one of nostalgia. It was such a privilege to see the band that close up, grey hair and wrinkles notwithstanding (apart from Jon, of course).
Once more a full house packed to the rafters, terrific atmosphere, the audience only really seemed to wake up after interval, during The Yes Album. I appreciated Geoff’s contribution much more, so I’ll ease back on comments I made previously – he was superb. His staccato piano solo during A Venture, a track I’ve never heard YES play live, proved to be a breath of fresh air. I managed to get my camera out for a couple of shots between the intervening, bobbing heads, despite the proximity of the venue’s stewards.
Chris produced a triple-neck bass during Awaken, though not the original one used on Going for the One, which now hangs proudly in a Hard Rock Cafe. He’d had a new copy made. The original owner of the triple-neck bass was none other than Rick Wakeman! It was apparently conceived during prog’s notable era of excess because Genesis was using a double neck, so they thought hell, why not do a triple. Jon Anderson has always been derided for his fairly obscure lyrics over the years, generally viewed more for their sound value and the use of the voice as another instrument rather than having any particular meaning but Jon Davison’s animated gestures seemed to convince us all that maybe he had discovered their inner meaning.
On the title track of the album, Jon (Anderson) permits himself a moment of self-parody: “Now the verses I’ve sang Don’t add much weight To the story in my head So I’m thinking I should go and write a punchline But they’re so hard to find In my cosmic mind So I think I’ll take A look out of the window”. They may once have been prone to the excesses that the prog world is notorious for but there is no doubting the sheer strength of YES’s compositions and their individual as well as collective musical ability.
I couldn’t help but notice the demeanour and body-language of the person sitting to the left of me, who seemed pretty unanimated throughout. At interval I risked asking him what he thought of the performance. Bad move! It transpired that despite having seen YES many times before, he had precious little in the way of anything positive to say for this performance, disappointed that the arrangements sounded too close to the original recordings. Hello, I thought that was the point of doing the 3-album tour with the tracks played in the original sequence in the first place? In one breath, he started moaning about Chris’s and Geoff’s portly appearance with an air of disgust, then only to lambast the Rabin-era YES in another. He struck me as someone with a penchant for complaining, so I merely brushed aside his remarks at that point.
Just to the left him two morons, die-hards though they might have been, decided that all and sundry should be afforded the privilege of being aurally assaulted by their insufferable, tuneless vocal accompaniment. You can’t always escape them at gigs.
The final word goes to British transport once more. The London Tube strike last week on the night of Rick Wakeman’s Journey gig almost left me stranded in London for the night. It was perhaps wishful thinking to hope that my journey home on this occasion would be rendered trouble-free. As luck would have it, trains were no longer operating beyond Hitchin station due to maintenance, so we were treated to the customary but slower bus-replacement service. No matter, the strains of YES’s anthems were still swirling around my brain.