The writing was on the wall – or at least the sleeve.
Yes‘ ninth album, 1978′s Tormato, was the limpest, most divisive entry in the prog-rock legends’ catalog. The internal discord was reflected by its grotesque cover: a tomato (reportedly thrown by disgusted keyboardist Rick Wakeman) splattered against a confusing Hipgnosis design. Though Tormato became Yes’ first platinum-selling LP in the U.S. (based on the strength of oft-mocked lead single “Don’t Kill the Whale”), its reputation tanked with hardcore fans, and it left the band scrambling to plot their next move.
After a period of disillusion, they split into two factions, with Wakeman and frontman Jon Anderson fleeing in March 1980. Yes had already survived a previous split from their caped keyboard wizard – but could they last without their iconic voice? The very unlikely answer – in the form of two New Wave hit makers – arrived that May.
The Buggles are still most famous for their breakthrough 1979 single, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” a hummable synth-pop gem that launched MTV into America’s curious living rooms. But the British duo – producer-bassist Trevor Horn and producer-keyboardist Geoff Downes – made a radical departure for their next move by filling Yes’ lineup gap.
The union took place after the Buggles introduced themselves to the remaining Yes members (bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White), who’d been rehearsing in an adjacent studio. The two bands already shared a manager, Brian Lane, and had a mutual respect for each other’s work. But that proposed blend still felt like a longshot: What could two glossy synth-pop dudes bring to a symphonic prog act, and vice-versa?
Plenty, as it turns out. This version of Yes displayed on Drama was unlike any in the band’s history, blending modern synth tones and vintage prog with a harder-edged attack that emphasized the rhythm section (see the Squire-driven concert staple “Tempus Fugit”). Fans had every reason to be skeptical – after all, this was the first Yes album without Anderson. But tracks like the opening epic “Machine Messiah” proved they hadn’t softened, and Horn’s similarly pitched vocals helped smooth the transition.
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