Sunday, July 5, 2015

Chris Squire - RIP

Ah, the college years…that’s when I started to get serious about breaking out of my Beatles comfort zone.  When I was a freshman at the University of Colorado [Boulder], one of the guys who lived next door played lots of Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.  At that time all I knew about Yes was Roundabout. He had the triple live album Yessongs [1973] and he loaned it to me as a primer.  On the plus side the drummer was ok, and the guitarist and keyboardist sounded great.  On the minus side the vocalist sounded like a bit like a Vienna choirboy twerp [he still does].  Given all these things, what really grabbed my attention was the bass guitarist, Chris Squire.  He had a big sound.  I like big bass sounds.  As there was more playing than there was singing, the plusses outweighed the minuses.  I noticed in the liner notes that Squire was mentioned often as one of the songwriters.  How could that be in a band with Steve Howe and Rick Wakeman, both talented musicians that surely had a wealth of musical ideas?  But there it was, in black and white.  I wanted to check out who these guys were.

Of my Top 5 rock bass guitarists, three of them are now dead – first John Entwistle [#1 – died 2002], then Jack Bruce [#2 – died 2014], and now Chris Squire [#3] last week.  Yes isn’t a band that is in my regular rotation.  Progressive rock is an acquired taste, and a lot of times it sits quietly in my musical closet.  If not for their vocalist [pick one, any one], I’d probably listen to Yes more often.  Every now and then I take Yes out for a spin.  I always marvel that in a band of virtuosos [Steve Howe – guitar, Rick Wakeman – keyboards] Chris Squire managed to make himself heard.  Given the musical company he kept, that’s quite an achievement.  Chris Squire was the one constant in the ever-changing Yes universe [six keyboardists, four lead singers, three guitarists, and two drummers, but only one bassist].  It is fitting that as that one constant, the bass guitarist with the unique Rickenbacker 4001/Rotosound strings sound was the anchor of a band that had many flights of fancy [Tales of Topographic Oceans, anyone?].  When Yes plays without him in August this year, it will be the first time in the 45-year history of the band that they’ve played without him.

Why the bass:  I found an interview with Chris Squire from years ago.  I’ll let him tell the story – “I had buddy at school who was a trained classical guitar player, a guy called John Wheatley. We decided we would start a band together. He got an electric guitar and he just said to me, ‘You’re tall and you’ve got big hands. You should play bass.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be the bass player, then.’”  Yeah, he was big.  He made a Rickenbacker bass look almost like a regular guitar in his hands.

The sound:  Combine the melodicism of Paul McCartney, the aggression of Jack Bruce, and the tone of John Entwistle, and you have Chris Squire.  He confessed he started using a Rickenbacker bass with Rotosound strings because that’s what John Entwistle did.  He rewired his RM1999 into stereo.  The signals from the bass and treble pick-ups each went into separate amplifiers. The signal from the bass pick-up went to a bass amp, and the signal from the treble pick-up went to a guitar amp.  This gave him a brighter high-end while maintaining the growl of the low end.  John Entwistle did something similar to get his sound.

Tony’s Favorite Chris Squire Moments:
There are many great recorded moments that captured Chris Squire’s brilliance, but I will choose only a handful to illustrate:

Siberian Khatru [Close to the Edge – 1972]
After Yes let each of the members explore solo pieces on Fragile, it was time for them to explore longer song forms.  There were two songs over ten minutes on Fragile [South Side of the Sky and Heart of the Sunrise]. But the band wanted to push the envelope further.  They decided on an album where one song takes an entire side [Close to the Edge], and two smaller compositions on the flip side.  The first of the two compositions [And You and I], was a delicate, dare I say “pretty song” with Steve’s Howe’s acoustic guitars and Rick Wakeman’s magisterial Mellotron doing the heavy lifting.  But it leaves one ill-prepared for what was to come next – Siberian Khatru.  To put it plainly, Siberian Khatru is a healthy kick in the ass the shows that despite all its pomposity, Yes was still a rock band that could kick serious ass when it wanted to.  All the musicians are superb on this yet it is Squire's bass that is a standout.  Siberian Khatru has an intense organ riff running through the opening, Howe giving us a superb guitar performance, and Squire's bass driving the piece.  Squire lays down some excellent bass, weaving in and out of Wakeman's harpsichord, and not to mention the superb guitar solo.  This is my favorite Yes song, and it is quite obvious why the band chose this song to open many shows.  It’s very intense stuff.

Roundabout [Fragile, 1972]
By far Yes’ most popular song, this is the gateway drug to all things Yes.  Steve Howe’s classical guitar intro is unmistakable, and when he’s finished with his intro, the rest of the band barges in, with Chris Squire’s spidery bass playing a countermelody to Steve Howe’s chord work.  When Steve Howe went back to Asia years ago, the band decided they would play one song from each of the band member’s past.  For Steve Howe, the song was Roundabout.  John Wetton had the unenviable task of both singing and playing Chris Squire’s bass parts.  Wetton said it was a nightmare to do but he pulled it off.  Playing the bass part is hard enough without having to sing.  Like Siberian Khatru, Roundabout has a bass part with immense driving power.  This is the song where I first heard Chris Squire’s sound.  It was fast, it was trebly, and it didn’t get in anybody else’s way.  He could keep the time while still being melodic, and when he needed to he could keep up with Steve Howe.  I like that in bass guitarists.  This song is probably Chris Squire at his best.

Heart of the Sunrise [Fragile, 1972]
In the early Seventies, this song would follow Siberian Khatru in the set list.  But instead of one constant barrage of hyperactivity, Heart of the Sunrise has a fast-slow, fast-slow quality to it.  During the fast parts, Chris Squire keeps up with Steve Howe note-for-note.  In some of the slow parts, Squire plays the melody while Wakeman lays a Melltron over the song like a thick carpet while Howe darts in and out of the mix.

Sound Chaser [Relayer – 1974]
Tales of Topograhic Oceans [1973] was a four-sided exercise in over-indulgence – one song per side.  It was a Jon Anderson/Steve Howe trip, with the other three members along for the ride.  We didn’t hear much from Chris Squire.  One can hear Squire going along with the flow, but there was nothing outstanding bass-wise in the tracks contained therein.  Rick Wakeman claims he was so bored making the album that he spent more time in the bar than he did in the studio.  He was able to find time to lay down synthesizer track for Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album [they were recording next door].  After completion of the album and the tour that followed, Rick Wakeman bailed from Yes.  Replacing him was Swiss-born Patrick Moraz [later of Moody Blues fame].  With Tales of Topograhic Oceans out of their system, Yes returned to the Close to the Edge format – a single song on one side, two shorter songs on the other.  The B side of the album shows Howe and Squire's manic display of dexterity and virtuosity on Sound Chaser. Sound Chaser is the closest Yes ever got to sounding like jazz fusion. Moraz uses a lot of synthesizer here to good effect. The tempo keeps changing throughout the whole song. Squire does some of his best bass playing.  Sound Chaser contains some brilliant bass work from Squire. 

Does It Really Happen? [Drama – 1980]
Drama was the first album without Jon Anderson.  Rick Wakeman was gone, too.  Drama’s predecessor, Tormato [1978] sounded like a tired band on its last legs.  It had its moments, but you had to look hard for them [Don’t Kill the Whale, Onward].  They were replaced by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes [aka The Buggles] respectively.  As seen through the hindsight of 35 years, Drama is an underrated album.  Geoff Downes wasn’t a virtuoso like Rick Wakeman, but not many people are.  He fit into the Yes sound.  Trevor Horn sounded somewhat like Jon Anderson.  When recording his own songs in the studio, he sounded fine.  It was on the road where he tried to sing Jon Anderson’s songs that he ran into trouble.  After Yes finished their tour obligations for Drama, the band called it a day.  But that is not to say that Drama is a bad record – quite the contrary it’s pretty good, and a definite improvement over Tormato.  There are at least three nuggets on Drama – the opener Machine Messiah, Tempus Fugit, and my favorite Does It Really Happen?  Why is it my Drama favorite?  Chris Squire’s bass is the reason.  The song starts with a monster bass riff that sets the pace.  This was not to be a leisurely Yes song.  This one is more along the lines of Siberian Khatru.  The stringed instruments [guitar and bass] drive this song rather than the keyboards.  The centerpiece of the song is Chris Squire’s Rickenbacker.

Tributes to Chris Squire have poured into Yes’ website.  Of all those tributes I’ll print only one that pretty much says it all:

“Simply put, Chris Squire was one of the greatest rock bassists of all time.”
Geddy Lee, Rush