There are specific sonic and stylistic totems that are hallmarks of progressive rock: lengthy songs, intricate arrangements, flashy musicianship, trippy cover art.
And Chris Squire’s bass playing.
The Yes co-founder – who passed away Sunday from leukemia at the age of 67 – was a vital pioneer in one of rock’s most ardently debated and controversial sub-genres. He was a melodic kindred spirit to the likes of Paul McCartney and the Who’s John Entwistle and Cream‘s Jack Bruce, creating dynamic parts that danced between the busy, complex work of his bandmates. His sound was round, full and present, both filling a pocket that helped propel Yes’ songs and standing out like any soloist.
“It was both a conscious and unconscious thing,” Squire once said of his style. “Obviously we were trying to be more advanced, more sophisticated, push the music ahead a little more – like a lot of other groups were doing at the time. But at the same time, I was just doing what felt natural and right for the song. It wasn’t just about showing off; it was about making (the songs) better.”
Jon Liebman of 1st Bassman, who’s published six instructional bass books and operates ForBassPlayersOnly.com, said on Sunday that Squire “was a true music pioneer and a major influence for so many bass players. Prior to Yes, nobody else was doing what Chris created. He launched the whole prog rock genre.”
Earlier this year, Rage Against the Machine‘s Tim Commerford, a self-confessed “bass snob,” said that Squire “is the only pick player that I like. I don’t even consider using a pick on the bass as bass playing; that’s more like playing guitar on the bass. But (Squire) had that kind of pick/thumb together that made this just unbelievable sound. Like ‘Roundabout,’ the bass sound on that is still one of my favorite bass sounds of all time, just the tone of it.”
Squire’s commitment to music was established early on. The son of a cab driver, he possessed a voice good enough for the choirs at his church and school. Influenced by McCartney and the Beatles, he began playing bass when he was 16, and when he was suspended from school in 1964 for having post-Beatles hair that was deemed too long, he took the money designated for a haircut and used it for other things, dropping out of school entirely. He acquired his trademark Rickenbacker 4001 bass in 1965 while playing in a band called Boosey & Hawkes; he also played with the Selfs, the Syn and Mabel Greer`s Toyshop before meeting singer Jon Anderson in the Soho club La Chasse, which led to Yes’ formation.
“Like a lot of other musicians at the time, we really wanted to push the boundaries and explore and not feel held in check by conventional rock ‘n’ roll rules,” former singer Anderson recalls. “We were quite determined to be original.”
Yes followed the lead of the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Procol Harum and, of course, the Beatles post-Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, fusing melodic pop conventions with advanced compositional ambitions. While the group’s first two albums explored advanced forms of pop, lengthy, suite-like songs such as “Roundabout,” “Starship Trooper,” “Yours Is No Disgrace” and “I’ve Seen All Good People/Your Move” soon defined its ambitions. Its “Close to the Edge” was a nearly 19-minute piece that filled up the entire first side of the 1972 album of the same name. “Tales From Topographic Oceans” the following year featured just one song on each of its four sides. Squire’s bass was a dominant force in every song, while “The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus)” from 1971’s Fragile became his personal showpiece (and gave him a nickname to boot).
“His versatility was nothing short of incredible,” Liebman said. “From his crunchy, gritty line in ‘Roundabout’ to the jazzy twist he gave to ‘Yours is No Disgrace,’ Chris gave every song just what it needed. He was capable of so much, but as a songwriter and bandleader, too.”
Yes certainly found a fan base for these musical explorations. The group has notched nine platinum and four more gold albums, while 1983’s 90215 was a triple-platinum commercial breakthrough that gave Yes its only No. 1 hit single, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” But rock radio gave life to so many others, and Yes remains a vital cog in the Classic Rock wheel today. But Squire stressed that Yes grew to view individual songs as components on the more important albums.
“Back in the day, the album was king in many ways,” he once explained. “And, of course, we were very tied in with the birth of FM/college radio in the States, and what we were doing suited the format of those young radio stations. So it was good timing for us.”
Squire also enjoyed the distinction of being the only member of Yes to remain in the lineup continuously throughout the group’s career. “Yes is what I like doing more than anything else,” he said at one point. “Somewhere along the way, as people came and went, it fell to me to kind of keep it going and oversee the spirit of the enterprise, as it were.” Squire also guided Yes through some delicate member changes, including the departures of Anderson and keyboardist Rick Wakeman in 1979 and the subsequent arrival of the Buggles (Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes) to replace them, what seemed to be the end of the band in 1981, replacing an ailing Anderson in 2008 and bumping Wakeman’s son Oliver to make room for Downe’s return in 2011.
“I can imagine a lot of fans are very disappointed Yes couldn’t stay together as a group and had to splinter into what it is now,” Squire said recently. “But that doesn’t take away from the great work we’ve done over the years, over a helluva long time. And after awhile you start realizing that change is good for you. It’s healthy.”
His allegiance to Yes notwithstanding, Squire did find time for outside projects. His 1975 solo album Fish Out of Water was well-received, and he resurrected The Syn in 2004. He and Yes drummer Alan White dallied with a post-Led Zeppelin Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in the short-lived XYZ (or Ex Yes and Zeppelin), and he and Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett released one album, A Life Within a Day, as Squackett. “I’ve admired his playing for a long time,” Hackett noted at the time. “The great moments of Yes are legend, and when I started playing with him, it was like stepping into that world and having a great foundation to build upon.”
As social media filled up with messages of fellow musicians and fans mourning Squire’s death, Yes is preparing for the Aug. 7 launch of its summer tour with Toto – the first Yes show ever without Squire, who had already announced a leave of absence in order to deal with his disease. What the band chooses to do in the future remains to be seen, but even in Squire’s absence, its music will continue to be defined by those singular, instantly identifiable parts he created through the years.