Artist’s Remorse: Why Yes Has (Almost) Nothing Good to Say About ‘Union’

Like many ’60s and ’70s rock bands, Yes emerged in the 1980s with a new sound and an even greater level of popularity. Listeners wound up taking sides, in the same way that fans of bands like Aerosmith, Genesis, and Heart were divided. Are you a fan of the ’70s version? Or do you like the ’80s material better?

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The ‘80s version of Yes—also known as the “90125” version or Yes-West—started to lose steam while making their 1987 album, Big Generator. With the subsequent loss of frontman Jon Anderson, the venerable progressive rock band looked as if they might finally be done. However, Yes re-emerged in the early ’90s as a blend of lineups from the previous two decades. Finally, there would be an iteration of Yes that would please everyone.

The lone release from the hybrid Yes, Union, pleased almost no one. Perhaps no one was more critical of Union than the band members themselves. Here’s the story of how Union came about and why so many perceived it as a low point for Yes.

How Union Got Made

In 1988, Anderson left Yes and joined up with three members of the classic early ‘70s lineup—drummer Bill Bruford, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and guitarist Steve Howe. With the Yes moniker still taken by the band featuring guitarist/vocalist Trevor Rabin, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Tony Kaye, and drummer Alan White, the quartet called themselves Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe (or ABWH). They released a self-titled album in 1989 and recorded a follow-up called Dialogue. However, Arista Records did not want to release Dialogue and asked the group to rewrite the songs with collaborators.

Meanwhile, Yes had yet to find a replacement for Anderson. As it happened, Anderson reached out to Rabin, who was willing to lend one of his songs to ABWH. This eventually led to discussions of a more extensive collaboration, and Arista determined that a full-fledged partnership would serve both groups better.

Yes Were Anything but United

The product was not, as the album title implies, a union of the two bands. It was a compromise of both bands’ projects sharing space on a single platter of vinyl. Four of the album’s 14 tracks were performed by the “90125” Yes, while the others were performed by all or some members of ABWH. At least in the opinions of several people involved in the making of Union, the merging of the two projects didn’t serve either group. The combined effort involved a huge roster of participants, and two of the key players were working towards opposing ends. Jonathan Elias, who had been producing Dialogue, wanted a more pop record, Anderson, who served as an associate producer for Union, was eager to move away from the commercial direction of the two most recent Yes albums.

In addition to the lack of clarity in direction, the recording process suffered from time pressures and the members of the bands not getting along with each other. According to Elias, Anderson was unhappy with some of the parts that had been recorded—particularly those by Howe and Wakeman. Studio musicians were recruited to rerecord those parts. Jim Crichton of Saga, Toto’s Steve Porcaro and session guitarist Jimmy Haun were among the musicians whose work appeared on the final version of Union.

The Band’s Reaction

Howe and Wakeman were unhappy with having some of their parts replaced, and they generally had a negative response to Union. Howe told the Los Angeles Times, “I’d done weeks and weeks of guitar work, which then became negated with some average guitarist, who keeps poking his nose in on my songs.” Howe added, “Jonathan Elias screwed around with the record, and it sounds like it to me.” Wakeman notoriously commented that he refers to the album as “Onion,” because “it made me cry every time I heard it.”

The disapproval of Union was almost universal within Yes. Bruford called it “the single worst album I’ve ever recorded,” and Rabin said it was “more of a failed project than an album.” Even Porcaro, who had initially been excited to contribute to a Yes album, had harsh words. In an interview for the YouTube channel Rock History Music, he said, “Jonathan Elias just was a nightmare. It was one of the worst experiences I ever had dealing with a producer. … A lot of [my playing], he said, was unusable, and the record comes out, and there it is, cranked.”

Elias, for his part, said that he had to contend with a lack of material and the difficulty of getting members of Yes in the same room together. As a result, he, too, was underwhelmed with the final product. “I’m not particularly proud of some of the chords, some of the melodies, that came out of it,” Elias explained in a 2001 interview, “but it was a miracle that it was ever even recorded.”

More than a Few Bright Spots

For all of the negativity that Union generated, the album had its supporters. It reached No. 7 on the Billboard 200. The lead single, “Lift Me Up,” topped the Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart and went to No. 86 on the Hot 100. “Saving My Heart” (No. 9) and “I Would Have Waited Forever” (No. 49) joined “Lift Me Up” as entries on the Mainstream Rock rankings.

Union got mostly negative reviews, though AllMusic’s Bruce Eder had a more even-handed response paired with a two-and-a-half-star rating (out of five). Eder wrote “The material is reasonably solid, and under ordinary circumstances this album would have been considered just fine, if not exceptional.” Union is an uneven ride, but “I Would Have Waited Forever,” “Lift Me Up,” “Miracle of Life,” “Silent Talking,” and Howe’s acoustic Grammy-nominated piece “Masquerade” are just some of the songs that would have fit in nicely on some of Yes’ previous albums. Even Howe conceded that “Miracle of Life” was a “very good” track.

Yes may look back at the making of Union as time they’ll never get back. At least the same can’t be said of the experience of listening to the album, the comments from Yes themselves notwithstanding.

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Photo by Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

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