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R.I.P. Peter Banks, original Yes guitarist

Peter Banks, the original guitarist of the progressive-rock band Yes, died of heart failure in his London home on March 8. He was 65.

Born Peter Brockbanks in London in 1947, Banks co-founded Yes (and named the band) in 1968. Before that, he’d played in various groups, most notably The Syn with future Yes bassist Chris Squire. Bridging the gaps between beat, psychedelia, and the emerging prog movement, The Syn made little headway during its brief existence. But it’s since become rightly regarded as a pivotal band of the era.

Banks’ big splash, though, came with Yes. He recorded two albums with the group—1969’s Yes and 1970’s Time And A Word—before leaving in 1970 over a dispute about the orchestral arrangements on the latter release. Banks’ apprehension was understandable. Not only was Yes destined to provide a leaner, more sculptural example of what prog could do, Banks’ own considerable strengths as a guitarist were never meant to be smothered under a symphony. Case in point: his searing, extended fretwork on “Every Little Thing,” the stunning Beatles cover from Yes.

Banks was replaced by Steve Howe, who helped usher in a new era of innovation and popularity for Yes throughout the ’70s. Banks also kept busy that decade. Amid various side projects and session work were his two main bands, Flash and Empire. Flash was more of a Yes-esque outfit that nonetheless had more of a raw groove and erratic energy—all while maintaining Banks’ careful tension between delicacy and bombast.

Empire, on the other hand, was a more polished affair, featuring lighter tones, Krautrock-like spaciness, and guest appearances by the likes of Banks’ friend and frequent collaborator, Phil Collins. Empire also was notable for another reason: Its enchanting lead vocalist was a woman (namely Banks’ wife Sydney Foxx), a rarity in the boys’ club that was prog.

The solo album Banks released in 1973, The Two Sides Of Peter Banks, is also of note. An instrumental disc consisting of Banks on guitar accompanied only by keyboards, it’s a gorgeous and understated piece of work that nods toward Banks’ contemporary, Jon Martyn. It also showcases the breadth of Banks’ playing—a style that, like Martyn’s, embraced everything from folk to rock to blues to jazz (and what would come to be called new age).

Banks kept active after the heyday of prog in the ’70s, even restarting his solo career in the ’90s. He would occasionally play with members of Yes, but he never reunited with them; in fact, he wound up contributing to a Yes tribute album in 1995. In 2009, the Yes DVD The Live Broadcasts made available footage of Banks’ tenure during the band’s early days—including a blistering live version of Richie Havens’ “No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed” that shows Banks just beginning to explore the depth of his power.

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