When Yes Returned With the Organic but Confused ‘Talk’
Dealing with constant lineup changes in the band has always been a fact of life for Yes fans. But the late '80s and early '90s were a particularly tumultuous time, with various Yes vets splintering into factions and taking each other to court along the way.
They reached a detente with 1991's Union LP, which melded input from no fewer than eight members, but everyone knew it was temporary.
By the time the band returned on March 21, 1994 with their 14th studio album, Talk, they were back down to a five-piece, with vocalist Jon Anderson fronting a lineup that included bassist Chris Squire, multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rabin, keyboard player Tony Kaye, and drummer Alan White – the same personnel responsible for the band's hit '80s albums 90125 and Big Generator. While some fans were no doubt disappointed by the inevitable departure of the missing members, at least Talk came together more organically than Union.
"It was a peculiar album because I pretty much did ‘Lift Me Up’ and ‘Miracle of Life’ on my own in the studio and then bought Alan in at the end to do an overdub on it and then a bit of Chris here and there," recalled Rabin regarding the Union sessions.
"I played all the keyboards and then got Jon in at the end. The rest of the songs were an Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album that [Arista label head] Clive Davis wasn’t happy with, which is how it all came about. He called me for a single and I said, ‘I’ve got a single, but I’m not giving it away.’ And that’s how we got involved."
"When they first approached me and said this is what they wanted to do, I said no," elaborated Rabin in a separate interview. "It was very clear to me that this is not the right thing to do. ... It was looking like this could be kind of cool, but the idea seemed contrived and was coming from guys spinning dollar figures. I don’t think there was anyone in the band who thought it was a great idea, musically speaking. I think Jon and Chris hoped it would work. We all did. I had no idea. I’d never met Rick [Wakeman], Bill [Bruford] or Steve [Howe], so everyone was concerned about how it would work. It was easy as far as the record went. By the time it came out, I still hadn’t met them. We still hadn’t spoken."
"Music is more powerful than friendship," chuckled Anderson later when looking back at the Union tour. "I can't imagine everybody in an orchestra being buddies, and yet they perform Rachmoninoff's Second, or Sibelius' Seventh with great aplomb. They might hate each other, but maybe that's what makes them great players."
All of which might be true, but as 'Talk' started coming together, it probably helped that the songwriting started from a newfound spirit of collaboration between Anderson and Rabin. "I gained a friendship with Trevor on the Union tour," Anderson recalled during an interview with UCR's Matt Wardlaw. "I remember I was coming to Los Angeles to do some work, and I actually stayed at his house a couple of times – we spent a lot of time in the studio. I think that's how it started, we just started writing together and I did some demos for him. Just checking things out, you know. We weren't performing or rehearsing as a band at that time."
Continued Anderson, "It was the first time I'd actually sat with him and just started singing ... over the course of about three weeks, we'd put together most of the songs. We sort of evolved it and brought in Chris and Alan during that time, but it was really Trevor's baby, in a way. 'Let's work together and see what comes through.' It was a very interesting time for me, and I just like working that way, rather than putting a group in the studio and saying, 'Okay, what are we going to do?' ... It was a very, very experimental time."
In this particular case, Yes wasn't only experimenting with intricate arrangements or expanded song lengths: They were at the forefront of technology, too, thanks to Rabin's then-cutting-edge computerized studio setup. Over thousands of hours, Rabin worked on the tracks, later inviting other members in to overdub.
"I'd come by a week or so later and marvel at all this instrumentation he'd put together. He's just an incredibly talented guy," Anderson told UCR. "Trevor had this big picture. He understood the idea of what the album should sound like, so he actually played all the instruments and then brought in Chris and Alan, but he'd already put down the tracks the way he'd wanted to hear them. They sort of copied parts and developed parts, of course."
It added up to a set of songs that balanced new technology against old-school prog. Although Rabin's meticulous work gave Talk an aggressive, clean sound, the songs themselves were anything but arid; even radio-ready tracks like "The Calling" or "Walls" (the latter of which was co-written with Supertramp's Roger Hodgson) boasted interesting arrangements, and the album closed out with an ambitious suite, dubbed "Endless Dream," that hearkened back to the band's early days.
"When I finished the Talk album and completed the last mix and handed it in, I thought, 'Okay, I think I’ve got to a point for myself where I’ve reached as high as I can go at this time,'" remembered Rabin. Unfortunately, while the group had always enjoyed major-label muscle to that point, the new record found them working with a new imprint, Victory Music, whose major distribution and funding weren't enough to help the band regain a foothold at rock radio during the alt-oriented '90s. The album broke Billboard's Top 40, but sales were disappointing, and after a tour to support Talk, Rabin left Yes – and rock music in general – behind in order to focus on film scores.
"When you do a record like Talk and you’re happy with it and it reaches your ambitions and then doesn’t sell as well as you wanted, it kind of takes the wind out of your sails a little," he later admitted. "I thought, 'Well, I don’t know what to do now. I guess Yes can go and do another single, but we’ve gone through that. Now, it’s a matter of making albums that can stand there on their own – albums you can listen to like a symphonic work or something of that nature.' I thought Talk had done that to a degree. So, it was a confusing time for me. I needed to catch my breath. I think I was claustrophobic after Talk."
"The music just wasn’t what people wanted to hear at the time," he explained in a separate interview. "I was in Hiroshima with my assistant and I said to him, ‘You know, I’ve done close to a thousand shows with Yes. I think I’m done. I don’t think I can do another one.’ I went back to L.A. and left the band and got into film."
If it was ignored at the time – and led to yet another lineup change for Yes – Anderson and Rabin still remember Talk with fondness. "The Talk tour was the one on which we played our absolute best," reflected Rabin. "I guess they call it the 90125 line-up or Yes West line-up. You know, these silly names people have for different incarnations of the band."
"For me, it was a very joyful experience – I was always kind of mesmerized by how good Trevor really was as a producer," Anderson told UCR. "Taking on that challenge is not easy, especially when you have very strong energies from Chris and the other musicians, who want to perform their ideas. Everybody felt they put their stamp on it musically, but it was Trevor's work, and I enjoyed being part of that. ... I'm actually going to be singing a couple of those songs on my next project. I really believe in that album very much. It was beautiful music."
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