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Remembering Chris Squire of Yes

Paul McCartney changed the role of the electric bass in popular music forever. He was the first to treat the bass as a melodic instrument, and his bass lines on latter-day Beatles recordings took the bass out of its former role – basically, shoveling coal in the rhythm section engine room, and pedaling on root notes – and into a new realm of harmonic possibility.

Chris Squire, co-founder, bassist, composer and vocalist with British progressive icons Yes, is the man who picked up the torch from McCartney and furthered the cause, becoming one of the most influential and daring players in the history of the electric bass.

When Squire died Saturday at age 67 after being diagnosed with leukemia in May, he took with him one of the last remnants of a time in popular music when the only limits on the form were those imposed by the imaginations of the artists. Sadly, the bass in much modern pop and rock music has reverted to its pre-McCartney lowest common denominator, and the truly adventurous bassists are now largely working in jazz, R&B and funk, which was also the case prior to McCartney’s groundbreaking work. Pop and rock are far more conservative today than anyone who cares about such things might have hoped.

Squire turbocharged the Macca melodic flair, brought a thrilling sense of groove to the table, fearlessly insisted that the bass lines in popular music needn’t be static, and became an icon in the process. His bass line in the Yes hit “Roundabout” alone earns him a place at the table of the true greats. That bass line was clearly indebted to funk and Motown as much as it was to the rampant prog-rock experimentation that has always been the hallmark of the best Yes music.

It is, in essence, a song within a song, and a groove within a groove. Complex, but so deep in the pocket as to sound almost simple and obvious, that one line changed the way the bass in rock music operated. I heard it first as a boy and was fascinated by the raw funkiness and abundant grit in Squire’s playing, but also by the way he seemed to dance along the outer fringes of the song, driving the bus while simultaneously enjoying the ride. It was what Squire played that mattered, certainly, but it was also the sound of the Rickenbacker bass he is so strongly associated with that simply demanded repeated listening. Squire was cranked way up in the mix – you noticed the bass, just as you noticed it all over the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” or when John Entwistle broke into a solo during “My Generation,” or Jack Bruce hammered away at Cream’s “Crossroads.” The difference between Squire and Entwistle and Bruce, however, was substantial – what Squire did was both sophisticated and sexy, balancing raw power and high art in a manner that dwarfed the competition.

Singer Jon Anderson, who founded Yes with Squire in 1968, shared his thoughts on Squire early on Sunday, via his own website. “Chris was a very special part of my life; we were musical brothers,” Anderson wrote. “He was an amazingly unique bass player – very poetic – and had a wonderful knowledge of harmony. We met at a certain time when music was very open, and I feel blessed to have created some wonderful, adventurous, music with him.”

That “certain time when music was very open” urged Yes to go for broke, creatively speaking, at every available opportunity. By the mid-’70s, the band had delivered a string of ambitious, game-changing albums that, even all these years later, still seems unfathomable. “The Yes Album,” “Close to the Edge,” “Fragile,” “Tales from Topographic Oceans,” “Relayer,” “Going For the One” – these albums, rightly hailed around the world as masterpieces of progressive rock, were all conceived, written and recorded in a five-year period.

Today, bands might, if you’re lucky, release two albums in a similar time frame. Yes wasn’t just cranking out records, though – Yes was crafting something bold and new, and 40 years later, that music still sounds bold and new. Squire was one of the band’s principal composers, and he also had an incredible singing voice, one that worked with Anderson’s high tenor to form lush vocal harmonies. He and Anderson formed the core of the band.

“[Chris] had an approach that contrasted sharply with the somewhat monotonic, immobile bass parts of today,” wrote Squire’s former rhythm section partner in Yes, drummer/composer Bill Bruford, in a post that hit the ether shortly after Anderson’s. “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.” Indeed.

Yes is considered a classic rock band at this point, but such terms can be incredibly misleading. Listen to that string of ’70s albums, or check out the only solo album Squire ever released, 1975’s “Fish out of Water,” and you’ll hear music that remains ahead of its time. These aren’t museum pieces – they’re keys to musical ascension, and they still have so much to teach us.

Rest easy, Chris. You did the good work.