Dom Lawson's online article for Prog, “Is It Time For Yes To Call It Quits?”, asks whether Yes should stop calling themselves “Yes”. It has attracted some furore, but while it has a higher profile, the content is no different to dozens of online messages in recent years. I've been in the resultant online arguments. I've waged those battles for years, even decades. I'm not going to repeat myself here: I'm still interested in what the current Yes are doing, as I am in what Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman come up with.
The point I would like to make instead is that all such articles miss the central tension in what they are saying, which comes because we care about names. “Yes” is not just three letters. We are invested in the band name and what it means to us.
Changes in band line ups are more common than not. While a few bands are very stable in their personnel – Rush being the obvious exemplar – most bands undergo change. Some more often, some less often. Genesis, Gong, Soft Machine, Marillion, Camel, King Crimson, Caravan, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Dream Theater, Renaissance, It Bites, Wishbone Ash, Asia... the list goes on, all with significant turnover. However, the problem really comes when a band gets older and becomes reliant on nostalgic set lists that much of the performing line up never played on in the first place. Yes changed 60% of the band from the recording sessions for Time and a Word to those for Yessongs, a mere 2 years later, but the band went on creating new classics. Today, the band perform old classics with only Steve Howe having a connection to some of the old material – at least while Alan White is recovering from back surgery! Yes are hardly alone in this. Only one person playing on the original applies to portions of the set lists played by King Crimson, Renaissance and Caravan too. Gong play material recorded decades before any of them joined the band.
As a result, we hear these arguments that the band should no longer call itself Yes (or Gong or Soft Machine or whatever). They should use something else. “Steve Howe and Friends”? A common rebuttal is simply to that is to say: 'Well, if you do not want to see this line up, then don't. If you're not interested, don't be. But why spoil the fun for those who are still interested?' The reason why this argument falls on deaf ears is because we place so much value in the band name. It is totemic. We care, therefore we cannot simply disengage. People care, so they cannot stand to see the band name (in their eyes) traduced. But – and this is the central irony that people keep missing – that is exactly why the name goes on being used. Because we care. Because the line up with that name sell many more tickets than the exact same line up playing the exact same music would under a different name.
We care, so the name has commercial value, and so it goes on being used. We care, so we complain about how the name is used. It's two sides of the same coin, inseparable. The reason we care about who uses the name ensures situations where the people using the name perhaps shouldn't. (Although I'm fine with the current Yes being "Yes".)
We say the band name should depend on the people, that 'it's not band X without A, B or C', but then we go on focusing on whoever has the band name rather than what A, B and/or C do under some other name. If as fans we stopped worrying about what name was used and really focused on line up and performance, then the band names would lose commercial value, and line ups wouldn't worry about performing under a different moniker.