JUXTAPOZ Art of Rock Special Issue, Summer 2003

Just Say Yes
Affirmative Action: Roger Dean’s Dreamy Covers for Yes
by George Petros

ROGER DEAN’s fantastic album covers for Yes rank among the most beloved from that lost genre’s history. Even know-it-alls who hate the band secretly dig the cover art. Dean’s dizzying dreamscapes bedazzled a generation, epitomizing Seventies post-psychedelia. His style is a metaphor for a mindset; however, his own inclinations run counter to that era’s drug-addled zeitgeist.

While he did covers for many bands — including Asia and Osibissa — posterity notes him for his early-Seventies Yes covers; in fact, Yes and Roger Dean represent a single entity in the pop mind.

Dean’s work caught the eye of rock consumers on the ’71 Yes LP Fragile. The band’s previous effort, The Yes Album, hit a nerve on FM rock radio, and with Fragile they entered the mainstream. During those days of “album rock,” album covers were high art.

Fragile’s front cover depicts an idyllic earth-like planet; the back shows the planet fragmenting. Yes aficionados liked the painting as much as they liked the band’s lush pretention. Dean planned a series of covers about which he says, “It was going to be much more of a visual story, and that never happened. There was an idea of a small world breaking up and sending spores through space and landing on a new planet to start over. We had lots of plans to develop that, but probably fortunately it didn’t happen.”

For ’72’s Close To The Edge cover the artist discarded illustrative elements, opting for a beautiful green field adorned by fluid lettering. ’73’s Yessongs showed celestial plains and inverted mountains — or was it buildings shown in a style so unconventional as to blow the minds of the architecturally uninitiated? Dean: “I think of myself as being involved in two things when I’m painting: I’m designing buildings and I’m painting landscapes.”

Interestingly, he says, “I would never use the word ‘surreal’ about my work.” Is his work science fiction? “No, not at all. One can take a selection of my work and it would be hard to deny it being science fiction, but it’s not the principal motivation. It’s not even a motivation at all.”

Tales From Topographic Oceans (’73) stands out as quintessential. On it, ancient-yet-futuristic artifacts stretch to celestial horizons. Dean: “I was just concerned with the image, and I wouldn’t sign my painting because I didn’t want anything to interfere with the sense of reality I was trying to get. I was taking some very strange landscapes and trying to give them as much credibility as possible. I was concerned with making things convincing. I wanted it to look like somewhere you could go.”

“Drawing is the most important thing,” he says. “I start off with a clear idea of what I want, but I prepare the canvas with a color base that’s essentially splashed on. There’s much staring at splashes, but the design has been done. I don’t draw on the canvas; I paint straight onto it — but I work out a design first. There’s a texture I work to. It might be splashing paint around to put a texture and a bite to it. I enjoy the surface every bit as much as the image. I play around with texture a great deal.”

In ’74 came Relayer, the cover of which showed stony vistas and mounted figures in a creamy gray world. Evocative of sword-and-sorcery, it siginaled a stylistic sea-change, belonging as much with his work for other bands as with his distinct Yes stuff. On ’75’s Yesterdays, the twisted stones and sexy figure read as conventional Rock Art — which of course reflected Dean’s own style, which means — well, as high-school stoners say, “his stuff started to all look the same.”

Dean: “Art is not about beauty. Art is about things people make and do. They may be beautiful, but a flower is beautiful and a flower isn’t art. Art is something that is made by human beings. It’s connected to the word ‘artifice’ — artificial.”

Neither woven by weirdness nor informed by intoxicants, his dreamscapes dawned from a realist’s composure. “I wasn’t involved in the rock & roll scene at all. I had a tough time in the Seventies, because the people who knocked on my door and talked to me about my work thought that the only way I would pay attention was if I was out of my mind and therefore they had to be out of their mind to have a rapport. I am a strict believer in sanity and make strenuous efforts to preserve it. I don’t drink, I don’t eat meat, I don’t take drugs. I’ve never worked under the influence of drugs.” Further, he kept a clinical distance from his patron rock act: “I never found it easy to listen to music when I was working. In fact, I couldn’t. Music isn’t distracting enough for me.”

Years passed before consumers again saw Dean’s alien vistas on Yes covers. The band’s ’77 album Going For The One had a Hipgnosis cover, as did ’78’s Tormato. Dean returned to Yes in ’80, decorating Drama with a stunning glacial twilight, craggy and cold.

But 1980 was a different world than the one from which Yes and Dean sprang. Punk and New Wave replaced that Seventies thing. Cynical shitheads replaced cerebral potheads. Yet Yes continued to make big rock. Dean continued to portray polymorphic planetary panoramas albeit with illustrative elements.

Critically speaking, the wheels of history kept a-rollin‘. Kids were buyin‘ new shit. Roger Dean’s Yes covers wound up in used record bins across America, tattered and splattered with price tags. Today they languish in thrift stores, ignored, along with their wonderful graphic counterparts: Robin Trower’s albums from ’73 through ’76 (Twice Removed From Yesterday, Bridge Of Sighs, For Earth Below, and Long Misty Days) with those really cool covers by Funky Paul. Remember???