As a GOP political strategist, John Brabender had been on countless conference calls in countless conference rooms like this one. Late Halloween afternoon, he was at the National Republican Club occupying a room the color of oatmeal. He had a dozen political heavyweights on the line, and was pacing with the steady rhythm of a sloth bear in captivity.
Brabender is best known as the top strategist on Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential bid, though he has helped run campaigns in almost every state. Clients have included senators Tom Coburn and David Vitter and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.
But this time the client wasn’t a politician. The cause wouldn’t affect the economy, campaign financing or the environment: Brabender was leading the charge to get Yes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The British progressive rock group has been eligible since 1994 but has been shut out every time.
Brabender’s Voices for Yes campaign could be the only true cross-the-aisle effort in modern times — avengers bringing the full weight of political strategy to correct an injustice.
Those on the phone included Tad Devine, senior strategist to Al Gore and John Kerry’s presidential efforts; Sara Fagen, White House political director for President George W. Bush; Ed Goeas, the pollster; Vinny Minchillo, who worked on presidential ad campaigns for Mitt Romney and the Bush/Cheney ticket; and Leslie Gromis Baker, chief of staff for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
Steve Capus, head of NBC News for eight years until March, had joined, along with Steven Sullivan, a senior research scientist at New York University who runs a Web site called Forgotten Yesterdays, the motherlode for information on Yes’s 45 years of live performances.
Brabender, 57, threw out ideas to the group. He was creating a short film to tout Yes’s impact and would aim it at Hall of Fame voters. They could get Yes fans to replace their Facebook profile photos with the Voices for Yes logo. They could reach out to artists who already had been inducted — he’d heard that was the best strategy. He was thinking about Bono.
“He’s somebody that, if he tweeted, ‘It’s time for Yes to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’ would indeed have quite a bit of influence,” Brabender said.
Devine broke in. “I’m on a plane, and the flight attendant is waving at me, so I’m going to have hang up right now.”
Maybe folk singer Donovan, who had a hit with “Mellow Yellow,” a song many believed to be about smoking dried banana skins, could help. “Is Donovan in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” Brabender asked. “He toured with Yes in the ’70s and was their opening act.”
“Yeah, he was,” said Sullivan, phoning in from Scotland. On any Yes question, he chimed in with the urgency of a “Jeopardy!” contestant.
Eventually, the conversation turned, as does any campaign conversation, to the competition. The list of nominees included Nirvana, Peter Gabriel, Linda Ronstadt, Hall and Oates, the Meters, the Replacements and N.W.A. A few bands nominated in the past were on the ballot again, such as Deep Purple and Kiss. Five to seven of the 16 would make it.
“I think most people believe that the group that is automatically, probably going to get in is Nirvana,” Brabender said. “The assumption also is, that’s probably not Yes’s competition. Probably Yes’s competition in this thing is probably more likely to be Deep Purple.”
Deep Purple had produced one of the most ubiquitous songs in all of rock music with its 1972 anthem “Smoke on the Water.” The simple riff was like sex itself: At any given time, somewhere, somebody was doing it. In 2007, more than 1,680 guitar players gathered on a baseball field in Kansas City to claim a world record for the most people playing the same song simultaneously, and that song was “Smoke on the Water.”
Brabender reminded the group that on the Hall of Fame’s Web site, the public could vote. Yes was running fourth. “Moving the needle on the popular vote is important,” Brabender said. “I’m not sure it’s critical that Yes wins the popular vote. But I sure would like to see them ahead of Deep Purple.”
Sullivan noted that Deep Purple had been running consistently ahead by about 10,000.
Brabender couldn’t hide his bewilderment. “If you look at the body of work that Yes has done, compared to Deep Purple, I mean, I just ...” He left the thought unfinished.
Brabender had helped Rick Santorum go toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney, but in the end, Mitt Romney proved too formidable. This time, Brabender worried, Mitt Romney just might be Deep Purple.
Every teenager’s life changes when he or she starts driving, but for 16-year-old John Brabender growing up in Erie, Pa., the keys to his older brother’s Pontiac GTO ushered in more consequences than he could have imagined. His brother had an eight-track cassette of “The Yes Album” in the car, and the music took a powerful hold. Singer Jon Anderson came through the speakers like the lead in a celestial chorus. Tony Kaye’s organ soared like a fleet of fighter jets. Steve Howe could conjure country picker Chet Atkins, jazz maestro Django Reinhardt or classical-guitar marvel Julian Bream. Drummer Bill Bruford was rock’s lost link to bebop, and bassist Chris Squire plowed the music forward like a psychedelic bulldozer.
The songs shifted moods — one moment thunderous, one moment soft as clouds. The lyrics were cosmic, indecipherable; the music was intensely complicated but buoyant. In 1971, there were many great rock albums released by many great rock bands, but no one sounded like Yes.
The young Brabender was knocked out by the sheer complexity. A Yes song “might be a 10-minute piece of music, and it had movements,” he said. “And you could literally isolate different instruments and listen to them.”
He sought out subsequent albums — “Fragile” (1971) and “Close to the Edge” (1972) — and they delivered equal waves of bliss. He gave Yes’s triple live album “Yessongs” (1973) to his girlfriend for her 16th birthday.
In his freshman year at the University of Richmond, he went through a phase when he couldn’t stop playing Yes’s “Relayer” (1974) album, which features a frenetic, 20-minute song based on Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” A hallmate finally knocked on the door and begged: “Can you please put another album on?”
As Brabender became an adult, being a Yes fan got more complicated. In 1980, he read that Jon Anderson and frequent keyboardist Rick Wakeman had split from the band and that Yes was continuing on. “It was like finding a singles ad written by your wife,” Brabender said.
About five years ago, he noticed the Hall of Fame kept passing over Yes. Rock’s obvious heavyweights had long been inducted: James Brown, the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, the Who. As the years ticked on, so were the Dave Clark Five, Little Anthony and the Imperials and Bill Haley’s backing band.
“You start to realize:You know what? Maybe I can have an influence on something,” Brabender said. “I never got involved with Save the Whales or anything else. This became sort of my wanting to do something to change the world.”
He hatched a plan to “bring in these top Republicans and top Democrats and even some of the news media to some extent and work together to try and do this.”
But was it possible? Could the two parties unite on a rock band that released a double album based on a footnote in “Autobiography of a Yogi”?
Tad Devine was his first stop. Brabender paid a visit to the corporate offices of Devine Mulvey Longabaugh and made his pitch. Devine wasn’t close to Brabender’s record of 30 Yes concerts. In fact, he had never seen the band live. But he was intrigued by the unusual nature of the work itself. He was in.
How high could they go? Was it possible that Secretary of State John Kerry was a Yes fan? Al Gore? President Obama? They knew where Santorum stood: He was a Styx man.
Early on, Brabender was tipped off about Steve Capus’s renown as a Yes fan. He has seen the group 20 times.
“He told me about the project,” said Capus, “and I said, ‘I’m a big fan of Yes, and I’ve got some time on my hands, so sure.’ ”
Capus explained the new project to his wife. “Look, I’m not going to do this as my career,” he said.
With the core team assembled, the research stage began. Over several months, a researcher produced a 30,000-word document that lists who had been inducted and who hadn’t. It reveals who had been on the nominating committees. It highlights every scrap of positive press on Yes.
It reports how high each Yes album peaked on Billboard. It notes that Guitar Player magazine readers had voted Steve Howe “Best Overall Guitarist” five years in a row, from 1976 to 1981. It cites favorable concert reviews and quotes by such luminaries as Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and U2’s the Edge. It mentions that Pulitzer winner Michael Chabon liked to write while listening to Yes. No matter that it was partially because “the lyrics don’t really make a lot of sense.”
It says director Joss Whedon named his production company after a Yes lyric: Mutant Enemy. There are quotes from writer and director Cameron Crowe reflecting on the beginning of his music reporting: “I wanted to write about the music that mattered to me. I wanted to write about Yes.”
Feeling confident and eager, Brabender arranged for a meeting with Yes last spring, when the group played at the Sands Casino Resort in Bethlehem, Pa. (A sign of the times: The band that in 1976 played for more than 100,000 in Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium was playing a venue where you can also get a facial.) Brabender met Yes backstage. He told the band he could help its cause — strictly pro bono. The musicians made it clear they didn’t want to be perceived as promoting themselves, then gave him their blessing. Yes even let Brabender and Capus go with the band and film it on tour.
Now it was time for Voices for Yes to be heard. It produced a Web site and got thousands of signatures for a petition. It gave interviews, sent e-mails, released a media statement and got mentions from CNN, NPR and the Atlantic’s Web site, and was debated on Fox News.
“The one thing we’ve absolutely sworn off is negative campaigning,” Brabender said. “You’re not going to see any anti-Moody Blues ads.”
To understand Yes’s long snub from the Hall of Fame, you have to understand the story of progressive rock. Prog was one of the most dominant forms of rock in the ’70s. The biggest bands were Yes; Genesis; King Crimson; Jethro Tull; and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. But if you ever owned the albums “Brain Salad Surgery” or “Tales From Topographic Oceans” or “Larks’ Tongue in Aspic,” you already know this. For the uninitiated, here is a brief run-through on a form of music whose core principle was the antithesis of condensed.
In 1967, the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” came across like Dorothy opening the door on the strange, blindingly colorful Land of Oz. With the album’s dreamy swirl of carnival organ, abstract lyrics and images, and highly melodic compositions, the Beatles had showed that the boundaries of rock could be limitless. With that, the seeds of prog were sown.
Prog took the blues-based rock of Cream, Hendrix and the Rolling Stones and divided it by 3.14. The disparate influences were like a musical buffet: here was jazz, here was a symphonic structure, a little folk passage here, and right here a big slab of rock. Lyrically, prog wasn’t much interested in love or sex, but often immersed listeners into mystical, surreal situations: places where giant hogweeds would have their revenge; tales of man versus computer; a conflict between species of trees. It was as if J.R.R. Tolkien, in his 70s, declared: “Listen up, lads. To hell with it. I’m forming a band.”
The musicians were as likely to be inspired by classical composers like Igor Stravinsky and Modest Mussorgsky as they were Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly. They saw no reason their songs had to clock in at three minutes, so they composed longer pieces with sections, motifs, recurring musical themes. Song titles had subheads and chapter titles. If you were a prog band and you hadn’t cut your teeth on at least one 20-minute, full-album-side song, maybe it was time to consider a career in haberdashery.
But it wasn’t just the length of the songs that prog reimagined. Hear the shrill mockery of prog rockers as they consider the standard 4/4 backbeat of rock. Prog produced songs with time signatures as complicated as calculus: 7/4, 15/8, 21/16. Songs changed directions more often than a family of squirrels crossing the road.
Then there was the visual aesthetic. If, in its early days, rock was the tough kid at school in a leather jacket, smoking in the bathroom, prog transformed that kid into a nerdy math whiz who was flourishing in Drama Club. So take the tight trousers of Robert Plant, the open shirt of Roger Daltrey, and replace them with the rental costumes for a Renaissance festival. Add capes and codpieces. Or in the case of Peter Gabriel, the original singer of Genesis, bat wings.
To a certain kind of male in the 1970s inclined toward the novel “Hadon of Ancient Opar” and T-shirts of wolves worn under corduroy sports coats, the results were high-fidelity euphoria. For females, the music held as much appeal as the novel “Hadon of Ancient Opar” and T-shirts of wolves worn under corduroy sports coats.
Prog relished excess. At its peak, prog resembled a cross between a circus and a house party at Liberace’s. Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson played smoking flute solos — while balancing on one leg. Carl Palmer played a stainless steel drum set — outfitted with electronics — that weighed 21 / 2 tons. Not to be outdone, Keith Emerson would take a solo turn at the piano, which seemed rather sedate until it began to lift and spin upside down, with Emerson still pounding away.
All of this might have been horrendous if many of the musicians hadn’t been innovative composers and highly skilled. They could play at blinding speeds, but they could also produce exquisite, moving passages that built with grace and eloquence. Soloing was an essential element. At its worst, it was like being around a drunk who wouldn’t stop talking. Bassists had their turns in the spotlight as well; drum solos sometimes lasted as long as childbirth.
Prog bands sold millions of albums and played for legions of zealous fans throughout the decade. Not surprisingly, rock critics went after the music like a band of marauding Vikings. Rolling Stone wrote of Yes’s “overreliance on the amateur mysticism and pseudo-orchestral maneuvers that made them famous.” The magazine summarized Yes’s 1978 album “Tormato” this way: “Rotten.”
Critics hated prog’s indulgence, the silliness. They resented that prog had stripped rock of its dangerous essence and had essentially turned it into “Doug Henning’s World of Magic.”
As another Rolling Stone critic put it: “Most progressive rock has a drastically limited appeal, its initial glitter proving in the long run to be more technical bravado, and its lyrics some of the emptiest ‘poetry’ ever.”
The conventional storyline is that by the late ’70s, punk bands, with their barely discernible three-chords, brought about prog’s extinction. The truth isn’t so neat. Some bands were in deep freeze; others, such as King Crimson and Rush, embraced more modern sounds and tighter arrangements. After Phil Collins replaced singer Peter Gabriel in 1976, Genesis got immensely more popular with simpler songs and without the bat wings.
The bands tried to fit into the MTV culture. They cut their hair into mullets, ditched the silk kimonos and Jedi robes, and suddenly looked like characters in “Miami Vice.” Similarly, Yes roared back to life in 1983, streamlined and harder-edged. “Owner of a Lonely Heart” would hit No. 1 on the singles chart. Yes even won its first Grammy.
But not all the old diehard fans were thrilled. It simply wasn’t the prog of old. Maybe that was inevitable, but it was also a shame, because at its best, prog was responsible for some of the most joyful and transfixing music ever produced.
As Voices for Yes was playing out in Washington, Chris Squire was at his home in Chandler, Ariz. Squire is the only member to have played on every Yes album. So what did he think of the nation’s capital trying to get the band into the Hall of Fame?
“I thought it sounded real corny at first,” he said in a sleepy British accent. “But then I kind of thought, Yeah, it’s kind of cool. ... In reality, we should have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a long time ago. As we all know, the bias from [Rolling Stone editor and publisher] Jann Wenner towards progressive rock has always been there.” (Wenner wouldn’t comment for this story.)
Squire was talking about Wenner because he is co-founder and vice chairman of the Hall of Fame, as well as an inductee for lifetime achievement. “Obviously, it’s been quite an effort to make sure that progressive rock in general wasn’t acknowledged,” Squire said.
“I could be cynical about it sometimes and say, ‘Well, we know four chords, so we’re probably not eligible.’ ” He laughed. “Maybe more than four chords.”
Mostly, Squire, 65, focused on the band’s durability. “The idea of a 45-year-long career was not even conceivable at the time,” he said. “So I think that’s quite an achievement.”
From his home in Arroyo Grande, Calif., Jon Anderson, 69, expressed similar feelings, and more complicated ones. Though he left the band in 1980, he was back with Yes in 1991 on through 2008, when he had a severe asthma attack and was unable to tour. The band replaced him with a singer from a Yes tribute band that Squire saw on YouTube, then eventually replaced that singer, too.
“It’s not easy,” Anderson said of the split. There is “not a day that I don’t think about it.” But “I still remember and revere the times I was with Yes. And I hope there’s going to be another burst of energy coming. You never know.”
If Yes were inducted, it would be expected that the band would reunite onstage, with Anderson back on vocals. So getting into the Hall not only represents, for him, a chance “to be part of that whole recognition, that whole energy that, obviously, when you walk around the Hall of Fame, you see all that music and all the people that created the music that I wouldn’t be creating but for them.” It would also offer a chance at reconciliation. “It’s a unique possibility for everybody to let go of the past and move on with the future.”
Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is like the Smithsonian version of an acid trip. Here is the oversize, demented teacher puppet from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” tour. Here’s the suit John Lennon wore for the “Sgt. Pepper” album-cover shoot. Here are glasses worn by Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain’s death certificate.
While the Hall of Fame acknowledges other genres — heavy metal, punk, hip-hop — with their own displays, there is no similar acknowledgment of progressive rock. The only reference you’ll find is a presentation of artifacts from Genesis, who was the hall’s first official nod to prog. Genesis was inducted in 2010; it had been eligible since 1994. Rush, which toiled in the progressive tradition for its first albums, was inducted in 2013. It had been eligible since 1999.
So how does the Hall explain the relative absence of prog?
“The status of different genres in music shifts over time,” said Lauren Onkey, vice president of education and public programs, and a member of this year’s nominating committee. “I think when we make our distinctions about art, they’re fluid. They’re a product of where you’re standing in history and how things change.”
Onkey was well aware of Yes fans bemoaning its exclusion — and that of a whole genre of commercially successful music that helped define the ’70s.
“Prog rock music was not particularly well reviewed in the ’70s, even at the height of its popularity,” she said. “I think for some critics it might have been considered pretentious, or for some critics, they might have felt, like, maybe it’s even anti-rock, in a way. It was almost like, ‘Well, if you feel the need to progress past rock, it’s almost like you’re insulting rock,’ you know?
“For other people prog maybe strayed too far from rock’s African American roots. It was reinforcing a stereotype that associated European music with the intellect or African American music with the body. As we think about the music historically, it got saddled with a lot of those concepts. And I think that’s changing.”
The induction process is run by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, based in New York. For nomination, you have to have released your first record 25 years earlier. A rotating committee of 30 or so puts forth the list of nominations. According to Voices for Yes, the committee — artists, journalists, industry executives and museum officials — has included David Letterman’s band director, Paul Shaffer; rock critic Dave Marsh; Robbie Robertson of The Band; Wenner; Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun; Clive Davis; and Phil Spector. (The Hall wouldn’t confirm who had served on committees.)
A ballot is sent out to a voting body of nearly 600 industry folks. Inductees can vote as well. For the second year, the public can also vote, and the five top selections from that process will be counted as a single ballot.
Onkey insisted that no one voter has more influence than another. So it might be difficult to tie Wenner’s supposed attitudes toward prog to Yes’s exclusion.
“Jann Wenner’s not on the nominating committee [this year],” she said. “So that’s not a factor. ... People have a lot of ideas, and people freely lay them out there, and then we try to reach, through voting, a kind of consensus on the ballot. Nobody’s blackballed; nobody’s mocked.”
Onkey said one thing that separates the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from the sports halls of fame is that a lot of it is simply subjective. If a baseball player had a career batting average of, say, .393, that player is ashoo-in for Cooperstown. Not so with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kiss, for example, has sold more than 100 million albums, but that hasn’t gotten it inducted.
“I mean, that’s the interesting thing about talking about standards for artistical excellence as opposed to sports excellence, right?” she said. “Because you can’t really reduce things to numbers.”
She also made the comparison to literature, how some writers go through immense popularity, then fall into obscurity until they get championed once again. And she wondered if this was simply prog’s time. The nominating committee had even formed a subcommittee on prog rock just to make sure the genre wasn’t being left out of the conversations. There was something intuitively prog about that — the separate section, the splintering off. But would that be enough to get Yes in?
When the news came out in mid-October that the band had finally made the nomination list, Brabender was ecstatic. Now, he believed, it was time to be in “the war room.”
“We just won the primary election,” he said, “and now it’s time to win the general election.”
In the weeks that followed, Voices for Yes kept at it — more meetings, more interviews, more tweets. More members of the team, Democrats and Republicans, trying to get out the word. The video eventually made its way to voters and the public. Meanwhile, the rest of political Washington went about its work in the usual partisan ways: the noise without harmony.
Next spring, Jon Anderson will go on tour — just he and his acoustic guitar — for mostly East Coast gigs. Like Yes, he is still looking to make new connections on stage, new music. But the chief draw for Anderson will always be what he did with Yes. He can’t escape it, and he doesn’t want to.
“I nearly died in 2008,” he said of his severe asthma attack. When his doctor walked into his hospital room, “he knew I was really in a bad way.” The doctor grabbed his hand and said: ‘I must tell you, I’m a big fan.’ ” Anderson laughed at the memory. “And I thought: We obviously touched a lot of people.”
In the spring Yes will also tour — Europe — and play three of its classic albums: “The Yes Album,” “Close to the Edge” and “Going for the One.”Band members are talking about getting into the studio and producing a new album.
In April, they’ll host their Cruise to the Edge enterprise, in which they and other prog bands share a luxury liner and perform. Maybe there’s something odd about the notion of oceanic travel in 12/8 time, but the ocean seems the perfect place for this music. Whales sing a pretty unusual song themselves, but lots of people really love it.
David Rowell is the deputy editor of the Magazine.
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