Memory Motel: Farewell to Prog Pioneer Peter Banks
Founding Yes guitarist passes on
Rock lost one of its great guitarists on March 7, when Peter Banks passed away at the age of 65 from heart failure. Though the sound and image of Steve Howe is forever ingrained in the brains of the public at large as the definitive guitar god of prog-rock pioneers Yes, he was preceded by Banks, the band's founding guitarist, who helped lay the framework for what was to come, not only for the band, but for prog in general. Like most of his Yes mates, Banks started out in the paisley paradise of ‘60s U.K. psychedelia. He and Yes bassist Chris Squire both played with psych-poppers The Syn before moving on to the whimsically monikered Mabel Greer's Toy Shop, which eventually evolved into Yes.
The first two Yes albums, their self-titled 1969 debut and 1970's Time and a Word, were a far cry from the art-rock epics that would become the band's stock in trade, but all the elements of the classic Yes sound were pretty much in place nonetheless. Like most of their first-wave prog peers, they brought folk, jazz, Eastern, and classical influences to the table, mixing them with the trippier end of the psychedelic spectrum to create something strikingly original that pointed the way forward to a new musical era.
One of the biggest differences between Yes's first two albums and those that followed is the abundance of cover tunes. The debut includes versions of The Byrds' "I See You" and The Beatles' "Every Little Thing," while Time and a Word finds the band tackling Buffalo Springfield's "Everydays" and Richie Havens's "No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed." Of course, the songs are boldly reinvented, utilizing most of the aforementioned far-flung stylistic influences. This was one of the areas in which Banks really shone; his fleet-fingered jazz licks and expressive post-psychedelic tones helped expand the arrangements, in a manner heavily inspired by Vanilla Fudge's reimagining of soul and pop hits a couple of years earlier.
But for all their expansiveness, the original Yes was a more visceral outfit than its subsequent incarnations, and when producer Tony Colton slathered orchestral arrangements all over Time And a Word, it marked the beginning of the end for Banks, who opposed the idea. The first Yes album had sold poorly, and the second was seen as the band's last shot before being dropped by Atlantic, so the rest of the band (at least according to Banks's autobiography, Beyond and Before) rallied around Colton and edged Banks out of the band. Insult was added to injury when the U.S. version of the album cover featured Steve Howe, who does not appear on the record, in place of Banks. The band's revisionist history --in which everything possible would be done for decades to come to perpetuate the image of Steve Howe as "the" Yes guitarist -- began here.
The scrappy guitarist soon started a new band, Flash. Their self-titled 1972 debut was undeniably Yes-like, but considering the presence of Banks and guest keyboardist Tony Kaye (another original Yes member), it's more a case of the guitarist picking up where he left off than offering up an imitation. The song "Small Beginnings" became a Top 40 hit in the U.S. and the band toured widely, their sound evolving over the course of their next two albums. They split after 1973's Out of Our Hands, but they remain one of the finest, most underappreciated prog outfits of the period.
After Flash fell apart, Banks ended up in L.A., where he put together Empire, a band that mixed Flash-informed prog rock with a more commercial touch, to diminishing returns in both artistic and financial terms. Still, the band managed to stay together long enough to release three albums. Around the time of the first Empire album in 1973, Banks made an under-the-radar prog classic in his first solo effort, Two Sides of Peter Banks. Something of a prog super session, it featured Focus guitarist Jan Akkerman, King Crimson bassist John Wetton, Genesis's then-drummer, Phil Collins, and former members of Flash.
Over the years, Banks toured and recorded with everyone from Jethro Tull spinoff Blodwyn Pig and Bonzo Dog Band's Roger Ruskin Spear to all-star assemblage The Prog Collective, featuring members of Yes, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, et al. Unfortunately, he always seemed to remain the odd man out in the Yes legacy, never receiving his proper due. When practically every former Yes member came together for 1991's Union album and tour, for instance, Banks was the only original Yes man not involved. His autobiography tells of other hurtful latter-day snubs by the band as well. But the vital work Banks did with Yes can never be erased. It exists not only on the first two albums, but also on archival live collections like the illuminating Something's Coming: The BBC Recordings and the Lost Broadcasts DVD. All you need is ears.
|Yes - The Lost Broadcasts|
|Flash - Children of the Universe|
|The Pete Banks Story|