PROG rock was always seen as rock and roll’s uncool, deeply unfashionable cousin.
To most rock critics, prog has – since its heyday in the mid-seventies – been lurking around like a tragic figure, drawing on its former glory.
But prog’s never been fashionable. And the fact is, it’s still here in spite of critical assaults. And slowly, it’s becoming quietly more popular. The enormous success of bands like Radiohead and Muse bear testament to the fact that there exists an appetite for complex song structures, lengthy tracks and concept albums. More recently, bands like Explosions in the Sky and British Sea Power proved that prog can be popular, even if its own fanbase won’t admit it.
Next week, prog’s stalwarts, Yes, come to Sheffield as part of a full UK tour. The band arein its fifth decade of writing, recording and performing yet they are still filling venues like Sheffield City Hall.
Their popularity remains in spite of shirking rock and roll principles. With Yes the guitar didn’t take precedence – there would be two keyboards and two drum kits on stage, as guitarist Steve Howe, who joined the band in 1970, explains.
“With Yes it was about drama. We would have line-up changes with as many as eight people on stage and the fact we had more musicians gave us more scope and a broader sound. With a five-piece line-up of guitars, bass and drums there’s a certain approach and the five-piece formula remains a static fact.
“In Yes we wanted everyone to be diverse and versatile. It was much more about a cinematic soundscape.”
Indeed, Yes had the necessary resources to achieve this. Since their formation in mid 1968, the group have had 22 different members, with as many as eight in any one time. But unlike other rock and roll groups, in Yes the frontman was no longer the band’s demi god – increased instrumentation meant all members were equally important.
“It would be a challenge to say that Yes had been led by anyone singularly but at different times we have each had periods of being more powerful. But we’ve always had appreciation for each other.
“I respect what the other members do as musicians, though there has never been an out-and-out leadership.”
And with its epic-length tracks such as Yours is no Disgrace – lasting more than nine minutes – and The Gates of Delirium, which was four seconds shy of 23 minutes, Yes were never contenders for Top of the Pops-style two-minute radio hits.
“As soon as someone would say ‘that song’s got radio potential’, the song would be destroyed. Usually they’d say something flippant like ‘that hasn’t got enough meat to it,” says Howe.
But while the majority of Yes songs lasted longer than nine minutes, the band did have radio hits – Roundabout in 1972 and Owner of a Lonely Heart in 1983, both thanks to slash-and-burn editing. Roundabout was hugely edited – a move which, at the time, didn’t please the band although it is something they have retrospectively come to appreciate. “Roundabout was the first hit that Yes had but Atlantic edited it. They hacked out bits from the middle and the beginning but it was an enormous hit in America. We had no idea what makes a single.”
The hits proved to be a challenge to Yes. “With Owner of a Lonely Heart it was hard because when you’ve had a hit the toughest thing to do is to follow it up. But it’s a tall order coming up with more hits; we were serious musicians.”
On the whole, Yes have never been a chart-topping band. Prog’s never been in fashion. But that does mean it’s never been completely out of fashion.
Yes play at City Hall, Barker’s Pool on Wednesday.