Steve Howe Explains How Yes Built Their ‘Classic Tales’ Set List
Launching with the title track to 1977’s Going For the One, the British progressive rock legends move through a 13-song run that’s admirably comprehensive when it comes to revisiting key moments from their expansive discography. Sure, there are the expected chestnuts, such as “I’ve Seen All Good People,” “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper.”
But guitarist Steve Howe and the band members also dig deeper. There’s “Machine Messiah,” from 1980’s Drama, “It Will Be a Good Day (The River),” from 1999’s The Ladder and “South Side of the Sky” from 1971’s Fragile. "Cut From the Stars," which comes in near the end of the night's performance, spotlighting the strong path the group has been on with their two most recent albums, 2021's The Quest and this year's Mirror to the Sky.
The show’s definitive climax is the 20-minute closer constructed by Howe, which draws together highlights from 1973’s Tales from Topographic Oceans, parts of which hadn’t been performed in certain territories for decades.
READ MORE: All 198 Yes Songs Ranked
During a recent Zoom conversation, Howe discussed how Yes approached putting the current show together.
When you look at the scale of the set list that you're mounting on this current tour, it's a lot to bring to the stage and pull off.
Yeah and it’s not been easy. You know, we’ve had our moments. In retrospect, we would have liked a few more days [of rehearsal time]. But everything is what it is, isn’t it? You find yourself there. You think you’re ready, but you never know until you actually get up there. So yeah, it’s exciting, to say the least. Challenging. I mean, I think if Yes doesn’t have challenges, then it might as well stop -- so we like the challenge. Certainly, the Tales edit has been a real challenge, but a really delightful one.
I'm glad you mentioned that. How did you go about putting that together?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve not really spoken about it from this perspective. But it was an idea I had. I knew that it was the anniversary of Tales from Topographic Oceans. I thought, “Well, we’re not going to play it all, that’s for sure.” [Laughs] The second side hadn’t been played abroad since ‘74. I kind of dreamed up the idea and put to the guys. I said, “Look, I’ve done an edit, what do you think?” They liked it too. Obviously, what I’m trying to do here is [make sure] Tales from Topographic Oceans doesn’t get put on the backburner -- by putting together a respectful edit. It was my idea of actually giving it a new perspective and a new opportunity, if you like, to see it as it’s never been seen. In less than 20 minutes, you see four 20 minute tracks go rushing by you. It was great fun and I happen to like editing. I like working out how things can kind of fit together. It’s been really delightful and lovely to play some of Side 2 again.
Watch Yes Perform the 'Tales' Medley in Westbury, N.Y.
One thing I like about this current set is that it gives attention to some albums like The Ladder, Tormato and Drama that have at times, been lost children in a way.
Last year we did Close to the Edge. That was the anniversary and we did the whole album. We’ve done Close to the Edge quite a few times. It’s one of our most popular albums [to play] from our perspective. So I thought, “Well, yeah, if we’re going to do something this year, it ought to have a fresh approach.” “It Will Be a Good Day,” from The Ladder, that hasn’t been played for absolutely years and it’s a marvelous, marvelous song. It has simplicity, but also, there’s hidden complexity, which is something Yes [songs] do. But doing “Turn of the Century,” I mean, there is really a thrill. We stacked up the challenges considerably. I think the fans deserve that. They know we’re going to do “Starship Trooper” and we love doing it. But that’s not the makeup of the band in its entirety. It’s about a very complex and diverse repertoire that’s so huge that you can rarely touch all of the bases at any one time. I think this tour does that quite successfully. It doesn’t set out to do one from every album, but it does cover a lot of ground.
How did you land on "Turn of the Century" in particular?
In the nicest way, the guys look to me a little. If I put a set list forward, they’ll see how it can run. I’d given it a lot of thought. Basically, tucking in that thing I said earlier, Yes need challenges. Otherwise, we’re just gonna go out and play regular easy going music that we hardly need to rehearse. No -- we brought a lot of challenges into this one. “Turn of the Century” is just one of those spine-chilling songs to play. It’s so different, really, from so much [of the other things] that we did record. It’s along the lines of maybe, “Wondrous Stories,” “And You and I,” you know, “Your Move.” It’s got the acoustic kind of thing -- but [it’s] unlike anything else. The arrangement we did in Montreux for that song took days of improvisation and then developing a story that really works in the musical sense as well as the lyrical sense. It’s just the most beautiful song.
"South Side of the Sky" is one of several tracks that highlight the complex nature of what Yes was doing in the studio.
When we did the Fragile album, we went in with probably about two-thirds of new material. The other stuff, we believed in what we had and rightfully so. But we didn’t have any more. There isn’t another track we recorded for either of those albums that’s never been released. We were using everything we had, so we had to make sure that song had all of the strange imagination. You know, it’s a kind of rock song. Very rocky. I love Yes when [that happens]. This is fundamentally a rock band. “Going for the One,” we open [the current tour] with that. We’re kind of saying, “Listen, guys, this is a rock band.” But it’s not that predictable rock stuff [Howe imitates a section]. It’s got none of that. But in fact, “Going for the One” does have a little bit of that. [Laughs] So I love that side of [what we do].
“South Side of the Sky” is such a great song to play, because of that diverse middle, with the incredible piano, drums and bass interplay. Actually, I quite like a rest from playing the guitar. “You don’t need the guitar? Great! I can put it aside!” It’s a marvelous time where we get relief from relentless guitar stuff. [Laughs] That’s a lovely song. It’s one of those songs that it takes you on a journey when you’re playing it. We improvise a bit at the end based on my outro guitar break. I’ve got to tell you, the original record, when I come in, it’s a melody [Howe demonstrates the melodic section]. We were trying to get the sound that’s on the record and we couldn't get it.
Our dear friend, Mickey Tait, who now is very special to us, he was actually in the studio. Instead of using a Leslie cabinet to [get a whirling sound], Mickey actually went out while I was doing that guitar solo, whirling a microphone around over his head. [Laughs] I mean, it sounds unbelievable, even though I’m telling you that -- and it’s true. But there was Mickey, whirling this microphone. I think he must have sat down. I can’t remember if he was sitting or standing.
But he basically had a mic and like you would do with a lasso, he was sort of lassoing this microphone around while I [played the solo] to get a certain sound. So there was a lot going on. I mean, Fragile is such an epic recording and production for us. I mean, The Yes Album really has a nice sound and Tony Kaye, his playing was so organic in its flavor. There was lots of Hammond organ, which is something Yes should never have stopped using. Unfortunately, we suffered when we didn’t. Fragile, when I hear that [album], I know we were at the top of our game as far as how to put stuff down. That’s because we had the five solo tracks that everybody was free to do. Basically, that meant we didn’t have quite so much Yes material, so I think we gave it the extra mile. “South Side” is a tremendous indicator of what Yes was going to do when we went on to Close to the Edge, I think.
Listen to Yes' 'South Side of the Sky'
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Gallery Credit: Ultimate Classic Rock Staff