December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Yes and the Buggles in disastrous merger

3 min read
In 1980 prog rock group Yes and New Wave electro band The Buggles merged in one of the oddest musical marriages of all time
A merger made in hell

Who could forget the spring of 1980 – May to be exact – when prog rockers Yes announced that they were to merge with electro-poppers, Buggles.   Geoff Downes would take over Rick Wakeman’s role on keyboards while Trevor Horn would be lead vocalist instead of Jon Anderson.

I saw this musical calamity at Hammersmith Odeon, as the venue was called in 1980, and from the start – the mood in the audience was ugly as hell.  The lights went up and the boys waved – goodbye might have been an idea.

I’ve never been to a gig where people shouted “Bring back Rick Wakeman!” but this was the one.  Then my poor ears had to endure Trevor Horn struggling manfully – or not so manfully – to reach the falsetto highs of Jon Anderson.

The ‘Drama’ album wasn’t that bad.  Tempus Fugit had a good bass line.  But little wonder that when Anderson re-joined the band he didn’t perform the numbers from that LP.

The only good thing about this whole episode was that it finally killed off any warm residual feelings I had towards 1970s prog rock.  Suddenly, they really were the sad and tragic dinosaurs that the NME had warned us they had become since the dawn of punk.

But fast forward to today and of course a reappraisal seems overdue. Because as we now know, Yes actually went on to have their commercially most successful years in the 1980s. Contrary to what is sometimes stated, they had already cracked the US and their much derided 1978 album Tormato went platinum stateside. But fans compared it very unfavourably to the previous album, Going for the One.

There were already internal pressures within the band over musical and visual direction. Added to that was the external onslaught on all prog rock – but especially Yes – from punk rock. And at the time, Yes were at peak bombastic with rotating stages and impressive light shows. Everything your average snarling punk couldn’t abide. The triple sleeve concept album with indecipherable lyrics went from being a must-have to an object of derision. I remember desperately trying to offload prog rock albums at a record exchange in Walthamstow in return for the latest New Wave offering.

Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur on ice show is often highlighted as the prog rock straw that broke the punk back. But there was way more than that to rail against. Ironically of course, we now know that many leading punks including Mr Rotten himself were partial to a bit of prog on the side. I’ve seen him interviewed extolling the virtues of Atomic Rooster and Van der Graaf Generator. Though admittedly not Yes.

The Buggles were more of a conundrum at the time. Why did they fold a perfectly decent electro, New Wave band into a dinosaur outfit? Well, we know in hindsight that Trevor Horn is an incredibly versatile performer and producer and went on to become the driving force behind such great 80s acts as Frankie Goes to Hollywood and ABC. But he also left Yes to co-create another prog supergroup – Asia – which soared up the US pop charts.

Still, I do look back at the Yes and Buggles merger as one of the oddest and least expected episodes in pop history.

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