Been thinking since Sunday about what to say after the passing of Chris Squire, the immensely talented bass player and vocalist for Yes. I’ve seen Chris play live over the years at more than a dozen Yes shows, and every time his performance has been incredibly entertaining and inspiring. He is one of the most important musicians of our time and will be sorely missed by fellow artists and fans alike, as evidenced by the outpouring of remembrances and condolences over the past week. Yet the band Yes will continue and change once again, as they have so many times over these more than 40 years. And that’s an honor to Mr. Squire, and a very good thing indeed.
Chris had been part of the artistic flowering of rock music since it’s maturation during the 1960’s and beyond. The progressive rock and jazz-fusion genres nurtured some of the best bass players of the modern era. Unlike much of mainstream rock and jazz, these adventurous forms inspire each instrumentalist to stretch out, to explore the boundaries of their craft and produce artistic music that startles and amazes listeners. Such was the case with Chris Squire and his signature Rickenbacker bass. To help describe just what makes Squire so unique, I reached out to my collaborator, author and musicologist friend Tim Smolko. He came up with an excellent four-part answer to this inquiry:
- Squire’s treble register. Squire spent as much time exploring the upper register of the bass as he did the lower. Utilizing such a wide pitch range gave him the ability to construct his elaborate bass lines, take solos, and interact with the other melodic instruments in the band (voice, guitar, and keyboards). Most players create intensity by developing a low, growling tone. Squire not only did that (the “Roundabout” bass line), but he created the same intensity in his upper register.
- Squire’s use of a pick. Squire was not the first to play the bass with a pick, but he was among the early pioneers. His use of a pick gave his playing the speed, execution, and punchiness that most other bassists didn’t have.
- Squire’s participation in the “emancipation” of the bass. I like to compare what players like Squire did for the bass guitar to what Beethoven did for the cello. In the Classical period before Beethoven, composers often gave cello players a boring job: just play the root position notes that underlie the harmony. Haydn and Mozart came along and gave cellists more interesting parts, but it was Beethoven who treated the cello as an equal instrument alongside the violin and viola. In his string quartets, the four instruments are equal partners. Chris Squire did the same for the bass guitar. Instead of playing just the basic notes that outline the chord progression, they created melodies of their own and became an equal partner with the other instruments. It’s as if Squire is soloing all the time, but he’s still laying the foundation for the song. Like Paul McCartney and John Entwistle, Squire stands out as a great bassist because he treated his instrument as a melody instrument.
- Squire’s band mates helped him become great. It’s obvious when listening to Yes that the other members never dictated to Squire what to play. He had the freedom to make his bass parts as elaborate as he wanted. Not only that, the other players “took over” some of the traditional roles of the bass guitar in order to let Squire become the melodic player that he was. Steve Howe, Peter Banks, Tony Kaye, Rick Wakeman, and Billy Sherwood often played the low-end notes and the basic rhythm of a song while Squire did something else.
All keen and valid observations; thank you Tim! It’s particularly important to understand that his bass melodies share the sonic palette as an equal partner with the other instrumentalists. In addition, the other aspect of Squire’s talent as a musician was his powerful vocals. Chris could almost be called the co-lead vocalist of Yes, so frequent was his simultaneous harmonic pairing with Jon Anderson, Trevor Horn, Benoit David, and Jon Davidson. The signature Yes sound relies in large part on these vocal harmonies. At every show I attended Chris was consistently in strong clear voice, and it’s an important part of his legacy.
Which brings us to Squire’s longevity and legacy in general. Provided one does not count the Anderson, Wakeman, Bruford, Howe album as Yes, Chris has been in every incarnation of the ever-changing Yes lineup, enduring for over 40 years. Other band members have come and gone, some with fairly prolific solo careers, particularly Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson. Yet with the exception of his outstanding 1975 solo album Fish Out Of Water, and a few other collaborations, Squire’s primary focus had been Yes. He poured every ounce of his focus and his talent into it’s many incarnations, helping drive the relentless touring schedule that has kept the music alive.
And it is important that Yes does live on and endure, as they have thus far when other band members have passed on or have left the fold. The fundamental reason for this is clear – the band has produced a huge catalog of music, rife with stellar compositions and virtuosic musicianship. This music should and will be played even after the original and long standing members are no more. As evidenced recently when Squire first announced that his illness would preclude his involvement in the upcoming Yes tour and he indicated his support for collaborator Billy Sherwood to carry on in his stead. “The other guys and myself have agreed that Billy Sherwood will do an excellent job of covering my parts and the show as a whole will deliver the same Yes experience that our fans have come to expect over the years.” I for one am very interested to see who will fill in for Chris over the coming years and what kind of interpretations they will do of his work.
Which leads me to the broader question, one often debated amongst fans on Facebook and other social media sites, as to what gives a musical group it’s identity. This is the point recently raised by Geoffrey Himes in a Smithsonian.com article. Mr. Himes poses a valid question about rock bands, “How much can you change its personnel before it’s no longer the same band,” suggesting there is both a legal angle and a fan’s perspective to consider, and continuing with other valid points. It’s interesting fodder when considering a group like Yes. I’ve read posts by fans adamant that “Yes is not Yes” without Jon Anderson, who so embodied the band’s core vision and spiritual leadership. But I would argue that like the classical composers of the past, progressive rock music should be played in concert into the distant future for generations to come. In fact, Chris said it best in a 2013 interview with Jason Saulnier “I believe that like a symphony orchestra there could be a version of Yes in 100 or 200 years from now, honoring the music and presumably creating new music as well. That would be a nice thing I think.”
Let’s celebrate the fact that progressive rock music, particularly as composed by bands such as Yes, is that good. That it is a valid and viable form of music and it can continue to be interpreted for original and new audiences, just as has been the case with classical and original jazz forms. While any original members survive and are able, they should be part of the family that continues in this pursuit. While I can still catch Steve Howe, Jon Anderson and the other band members, either together or solo, and while they can still play, I will continue to attend their live shows, and will continue to recommend others do as well, provided they still enjoy the results. As new musicians come to the fore and perform this music, if they do it well, I will be there to enjoy their mastery of these works and honor the memory of those who came before them.
Like all fans, I was terribly disappointed when Jon Anderson fell ill just before the summer of 2008 tour, as I had 3rd row tickets to the cancelled show in Mountain View. But the band soldiered on, with new vocalist Benoit David, then Jon Davison and we’ve seen every tour since. We’ve also seen Anderson live in solo tours including one with Wakeman in Scotland, and we loved every minute. Last year Davison again took lead vocals for the band at Cruise To The Edge and put in an astounding performance. He hit the most powerful sustained note I’ve seen by any Yes singer for “Heart of the Sunrise” on the refrain “I feel lost in the city….”
The band are on tour this summer with Toto, then hosting the third annual Cruise To the Edge voyage this November and they will begin a tour of the UK and Europe next year, having announced that the set list will include all of Fragile (1972) and Drama (1980). Both of these albums showcase some of Squire’s most intricate bass leads, and so it’s fitting timing that these will be the focus of this upcoming tour. We were all deeply saddened to hear of the passing of the great Chris Squire and I for one will be at the upcoming shows and beyond, to celebrate his life’s work and continuing legacy.