Brow Beat

Remembering Chris Squire, the Very Loud, Beating Heart of Yes

Chris Squire and his Rickenbacker.

Chris Squire and his Rickenbacker.

Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Chris Squire was a plodder. The bassist and co-founder of Yes, who died this weekend after a battle with leukemia, claimed to have “never seriously learned anything” about his instrument until he was 16. He earned the nickname “Fish” from band mates who grew restless waiting for him to finish long baths. The band’s first drummer, Bill Bruford, recalled that when Yes was recording its most complicated music, he would pass out from exhaustion only to wake at 3 a.m. and see Squire at work behind the mixing board. “He moved slowly,” joked Bruford, “and could thus outlast everyone else in the room.”

Thanks to Squire, Yes outlasted almost every one of its progressive rock contemporaries. Squire co-founded the band in 1968, when he was 20 years old. Last month, when he announced that cancer would keep him offstage, he called it “the first time since the band formed in 1968 that they’ll perform live without me.” That rattled fans. Up to then, to go see Yes—a band that usually contained at least three virtuosos at any given time—meant to go watch Chris Squire plus whoever he played with.

Squire was unpretentious about his discovery of the bass. According to author Chris Welch in his biography Yes: Close to the Edge, Squire got into rock ’n’ roll belatedly, and only picked an instrument after a guitarist friend told him, “You’re tall and you’ve got quite big hands.” (Squire stood 6-foot-4.) Squire played the Rickenbacker bass as a lead instrument, bursting with melodies.

And he was self-taught, crediting much of his technique to an eight-month period spent recovering from a bad acid trip. Squire played with a pick, but judiciously let his fingers hit the strings, too, clipping the notes. He wired the Rickenbacker to run in stereo, through a guitar amplifier and a bass amplifier. “I learned to do a few tricks that other people hadn’t done before,” Squire told Welch. “I developed that trebly bass thing a little further.”

The first sound on the band’s 1969 debut album was Squire’s fuzz-toned bass. He was playing a single note, at deafening volume, until the rest of the band joined in for “Beyond and Before.” Squire’s bass was high in the mix, a counterbalance to Peter Banks’ psychedelic guitar swirls. “The only amp setting Chris Squire ever had was loud and louder,” Banks recalled in his memoir. “Chris was always being asked to turn down, and he would reply, ‘Only if Peter turns down! He’s the one who’s too loud!’”

After two albums, Banks would be unceremoniously replaced by Steve Howe. The new guitarist had a lighter, more classical touch, which contrasted more strongly with Squire. “Steve was playing that big hollowbody Gibson ES-175,” Squire told an interviewer in 2012. “That was basically a jazz guitar, and it had a lot of body and low-end to it. Somehow or other, the two sounds worked well together.”

He was describing the classic iteration of Yes. From 1970 to 1979, Yes grew into one of rock’s most ambitious bands. Drummer Bill Bruford left; keyboard player Rick Wakeman joined, then left, then unfurled his cape and joined again. This was the band that broke big with “Roundabout,” a song that begins with pastoral, processed guitar and gets its drive from Squire’s racing bass lines. And along with Howe, Squire would join Anderson in rich, soft harmonies and vocal melodies. This was the band that could sweetly sing the mantra of “I’ve Seen All Good People”—“’cause it’s time, it’s time in time with your time”—over an organ, let it fade, and then let Squire lead the pivot into a rock song.

This was also the band that recorded multiple side-long suites of music, culminating with Tales From Topographic Oceans, four songs that filled two records and were played in their entirety, to quietly frustrated audiences.

“Most popular records are action-packed to the last semi-quaver,” Squire argued to an interviewer in NME in 1975. “Between the heavy, important themes there were those areas that were possibly a little cloudy. Possibly people mistook that for being indefinite, as opposed to merely relaxing. And possibly it bored some people listening to those things.”

When critics turned on “progressive rock,” this music was the first casualty. It had staying power, and it would be rediscovered, in large part because of Squire’s melodic playing. He grounded the music, no matter how far it had drifted into space. “His lines were important; counter-melodic structural components that you were as likely to go away humming as the top line melody; little stand-alone works of art in themselves,” Bruford wrote on Facebook after learning of Squire’s death. “Whenever I think of him, which is not infrequently, I think of the over-driven fuzz of the sinewy staccato hits in ‘Close to the Edge’ (6’04” and on) or a couple of minutes later where he sounds like a tuba (8’00”).”

The “classic” line-up of Yes petered out after Tormato, an album that includes both a genuine Squire love song (“Onward”) and songs where his bass tone seems to have dropped out of George Clinton’s mothership (“Don’t Kill the Whale”). When Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman left the band, Squire replaced them with the Buggles. Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, who were about to have a hit with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” were plunked into a 12-year old progressive rock band.

This incarnation of Yes’ album, Drama, was better than it had any right to be, but the band came apart when the venues stopped filling up. It was resurrected by a combination of corporate calculation and Squire’s own doggedness. He kept making music with the band’s drummer, Alan White. Atlantic Records connected them with Trevor Rabin, a talented young guitarist whom the label didn’t know what to do with. This was how Trevor Horn, one of the godfathers of synth-pop, ended up producing “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” a song grounded by Chris Squire’s simple, tugging bass line. Years after the band had been written off, voila: Yes had a No. 1 hit. “I never thought Yes would ever have a No. 1 record [on] the black [R&B] charts,” Squire told me in 2014. “But there you are, we did.”

That was the band’s only No. 1. Yes toured, then went on hiatus. Yes reformed, then went on hiatus again. Squire’s own musical legacy was secure, but he would not stop playing, and he insisted on keeping it light. He felt like recording some Christmas carols, so he put together an album titled Chris Squire’s Swiss Choir. He wanted to collaborate with Steve Hackett, the guitarist from Genesis’ most ambitious years; the resulting duo was dubbed “Squackett.”

The last time I saw Squire or his band was on the Cruise to the Edge, a luxury trip from Florida to Mexico where Yes played three of the classic ’70s records in a row, every fuzzed note and solo and block chord. This was pure fan service. “It adds some excitement for the audience, in terms of knowing what the next track is, of knowing which track follows the other,” Squire told me cheerfully. “It’s a good concept.”

Onstage, Squire looked perfectly happy. But that was not the highlight of his cruise. Each night, the more musically-inclined passengers took over a lounge to play through hours-long setlists of progressive rock classics. On the second to last night they played “Gates of Delirium,” Yes’ longest and most melodically complex song, inspired by War and Peace and grounded by Squire’s bass lines. Squire and his family walked in on the performance, unannounced. He sat on a wraparound leather couch, daubing away tears as five fans played every note of a 22-minute Yes song. The bass was mixed very loud.