Revisiting Yes’ 1980 Album “Drama”

Yes - Drama

I hate Drama. I mean, I’ve just never been able to understand the praise around it. It’s not even necessarily because Yes‘ longtime frontman Jon Anderson was in absentia for this one, though I suspect it may have something to do with it. Even if ‘hate’ might be a tad too strong of a word to describe my disdain towards their tenth album, it’s been made clear to me many times that my view is a rare one, with some of Yes‘ fans going as far as to call it one of their brightest moments. Indeed, Drama may have corrected many of the issues suffered on the tumultuous Tormato and even spawned a pair of great tunes in the process, but so much of the magic I loved up to this point from Yes (Yes, even including Tormato) seems to be lost here. What we’re left with is the semblance of a potentially great record; “Machine Messiah” and “Tempus Fugit” have rightfully gone down in history as two of Yes‘ better pieces, but everything in between falls miles short of expectations. For all of the things that the band does right on Drama, so much more gets lost along the way.

Especially in the months prior to the album’s release, the band and fans were left with a question: could Yes exist without the immortal voice of Jon Anderson? The band had been through a number of lineup changes in the past, but so much of the band’s atmosphere and personality came through in his voice, equal parts angelic, innocent and lively. Bringing in a little known New Wave pair called the Buggles (who enjoyed a bit of success with their 1980 debut The Age of Plastic) seems like a big risk to have taken, even now. Regardless, the replacement for Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman (Trevor Horn and Geoffrey Downes, respectively) made for a decent fit. Horn manages to fill the void left by Anderson well enough; his performance here falls short in virtually every respect when compared to Anderson, but he goes through the motions well enough and without a personality of his own, very much like a stand-in. I’ve never cared much for Rick Wakeman to begin with, so it’s understandable I’d feel more warmly towards Geoff Downes’ performance here, who takes a decidedly less egotistical approach than Wakeman did on albums past. It’s a nice change of pace, and works well with the album’s new style.

It’s not the lineup changes or musicianship that’s made Drama a failure in my eyes; it’s ultimately the songwriting that kills it for me. After Tormato, it was clear there was no going back for Yes to the formula of the glory days. As if Yes were having a crisis of identity, Drama seems to split off down two roads, one echoing their sophisticated prog rock legacy, the other bowing to prevalent New Wave and AOR pop trends. Sure enough, it’s the former approach (“Machine Messiah” and “Tempus Fugit”) that hopes to save the album. The two tracks have been much talked about, and they always seem to be the pieces lovers of the album point to when attesting to its greatness. Sure enough, I cannot deny that both are great, and both better than anything heard on Tormato- an album I enjoyed more on the whole. “Machine Messiah” feels cinematic in its epic scope and atmosphere, introducing the album and new members on the best foot. I like “Tempus Fugit” even more, which- while not an epic in length- certainly rivals “Machine Messiah” in ambition and sophistication. Chris Squire’s bass lines on “Tempus Fugit” are some of the most energetic he’s ever played, and Trevor Horn’s straight- laced vocal approach even seems to work here.

On the other hand, there are the other four tracks which take the other road, and it’s in the area between the start and finish where Drama really suffers. Make no mistake, I have no problem with a more pop-oriented sound, and I even think it could have been great for Yes to turn their style on its side. The pitiful afterthought “White Car” sounds like it’s the quirky theme song to a bad 90′s shot-on-studio sitcom. “Does It Really Happen?” is sublimely dull, and “Run Through the Light” is equally so, depending almost entirely on melodies and soft, bland instrumentation to get their points across. Only “Into the Lens” feels engaging musically, and even then it’s squandered by its sterile sense of style and weak lyrics (more on that later). As great as “Machine Messiah” and “Tempus Fugit” undoubtedly are, two hits and four misses doesn’t add up to being a good album, much less a great one. I feel like the dull, kitschy 80′s aesthetic they picked up here is a grim foreshadowing for generally weak career Yes would have as a pop act following 90125.

Yes - Drama lineup

Although Jon Anderson’s most shining contribution to Yes was his incredible and distinctive voice, on Drama I’m also left feeling the absence of his lyrics. Though I usually got the feeling Jon was a little too stuck in his own head when writing lyrics, his best stuff could never be criticized for lacking poetic depth or an interpretive nature. While most times it’s easy to disregard mediocre lyric writing in the face of the music itself, the lyrics on Drama are so shallow and hokey that it becomes impossible to ignore them. “Run Through the Light” has a promising first verse, but the chorus resorts to heavy-handed rhymes that would make Dr. Seuss groan and choke: “Run through the light / everything is alright . . . run through the light of night.” Even worse is “Into the Lens”, where Trevor Horn proudly attests to his identity as a creator of photographs: “I am a camera, camera camera. I am a camera [ad nauseam].” One friend defended this stale cheese with the argument that it was all metaphorical. No doubt it is intended as such, but I’d almost prefer Yes to have been writing these lyrics literally. “Into the Lens” doesn’t fare so well as a poetic reflection on memory, and would have undoubtedly been more enjoyable had it been about a lovesick sentient camera. Not surprisingly, “Machine Messiah” and “Tempus Fugit” are both spared from the worst of the lyrical nonsense, as both pieces get too involved in the instrumentation to get bogged down by the lyrics. Admittedly, lyrics are rarely a highlighted quality in progressive rock, but with so much of the album’s style riding on vocal melodies, the lyrical weakness is impossible to ignore.

On a more positive note, the quality of recording and production here has been vastly improved from the compressed Tormato, and just might be the thickest and brightest-sounding package Yes ever had in their progressive rock period. Most likely due to the induction of the New-Wavey Buggles and their modern, concise approach to recording, Yes really sound like they were brought into the next decade on Drama; the basslines are thicker, the drums fuller-sounding, the guitars and vocals everclearer. At the end of the day, I still think I prefer the more organic or ‘vintage’ style of production heard in the band’s classic repertoire, but the way they recorded Drama goes a long way to set it apart as a ‘new’ era for the band. As fans of the band should know, this so-called era wouldn’t last a year before they finally broke up (regrouping the year after that with “90215″). For better or worse, in the context of the band’s career and discography, Drama seems to exist in a transitory period all its own.

Rewind back two years before Drama to 1978: Tormato wasn’t a great album; it had issues aplenty, including a faded chemistry amongst band members. By all means, it was the beginning of the end for Yes, but even then, there were plenty of interesting, surprising moments on the album; in a word, it felt spontaneous, wild even! Drama certainly solved many of the more objective issues its predecessor was faced with, but it’s somehow resulted in an album that’s far less consistently engaging and interesting than before. In smoothing out the rough areas, Yes have created something sterile, occasionally incredible but bland on the whole. I’m only left to wonder what sort of album Yes would have made had Wakeman and Anderson stayed with them for this one. “Machine Messiah” and “Tempus Fugit” aside, Yes‘ attempt to renovate themselves feels empty.

Tracklist:

1. Machine Messiah (10:27)
2. White Car (1:21)
3. Does It Really Happen? (6:34)
4. Into the Lens (8:31)
5. Run Through the Light (4:39)
6. Tempus Fugit (5:14)

Total Time: 36:46

Bonus tracks (2004 remastered and expanded version)

7. Into The Lens (I am a camera) (single version) (3:47)
8. Run Through The Light (single version) (4:31)
9. Have We Really Got To Go Through This (3:43)
10. Song No.4 (Satellite) (7:31)
11. Tempus Fugit (tracking session) (5:39)
12. White Car (tracking session) (1:11)
13. Dancing Through The Light (3:16)
14. Golden Age (5:57)
15. In The Tower (2:54)
16. Friend Of A Friend (3:38)

Line-up:

* Trevor Horn – vocals & bass on 5
* Chris Squire – bass, vocals and piano on 5
* Geoff Downes – keyboards
* Alan White – drums
* Steve Howe – guitars

Line-up for tracks 13-16:
* Jon Anderson – vocals
* Chris Squire – bass, vocals
* Rick Wakeman – keyboards
* Alan White – drums
* Steve Howe – guitars

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