The YES Balloon Story
Topographic Oceans – Relayer – 1974/5/6 – USA Tours
By David Watkinson
With Julie Britton and Donn Miller
Life is somewhat strange and unexplainable sometimes; you know when you have those thoughts about someone or thing and then out of nowhere it or they get in touch. Well that happened with me thinking about the YES balloon, by being in the right place at the right time, you know how it can happen. I had been looking into a few YES mysteries over the years and then this is one popped right up in front of my face totally unexpectedly. I have been able to tell this long – lost story due to a Roger Dean link ironically, brought on by the Covid-19 virus. With lockdown with us all, Roger Dean and his daughter Freyja Dean have been running courses and weekly chats online at Rogerdean.com and it is there that I found a wonderful lady called Julie.
From a simple message she posted in the live chat page about Roger’s artwork, where she mentioned the balloon, I swiftly got in touch with her, expressing my interest in telling the lost balloon story. This was all very well but my request came at a challenging time not only for her but due to a serious illness, that of Donn Miller the original balloonist and instigator of the project. When the time was right and Donn was happy to progress, moving ahead to open up the stored boxes of memorabilia and goodies, and for Julie, this became more than a story to tell, it was a thought provoking, emotional but a welcomed and happy distraction.
Back in the 1970s and especially in the Progressive Rock years, a little excess was a good thing, each band wanting to outdo the other by being bigger the better, the fans lapped it up. Whether it was Genesis with their var-lite lighting system or Peter Gabriel’s costumes, Emerson Lake and Palmer with their rotating grand piano or their many trucks full of equipment or Led Zeppelin with their own decorated plane. YES of course joined in with a little extravagance of their own, something very different. Roger and brother Martyn Dean gave us amazingly designed stages, lighting and backdrops and for the 1974 U.S.A. Topographic Oceans tour, they also provided the inspiration for a spectacular YES Balloon, one decorated in Roger Dean’s various YES album artwork, but by an unknown artist. This was one of those rare occasions in YES history that the story about this amazing creation just simply drifted away and was forgotten about.
It’s 1974 and the U.S. tour for Tales from Topographic Oceans had hit the ground running following a successful UK tour. YES came to this tour fresh from locking themselves away for months on end creating the legendary double concept album and touring medium sized venues the UK, mostly without the fans even hearing the genre defining album before the show, due to mess ups with tapes at the radio stations. An album driven by Jon Anderson and Steve Howe in the main, with a sometimes-puzzled rest of the band joining in gradually into to the whole concept. The press gave the music and the UK tour for the first-time, some varied and not so glowing reviews, this was new for YES, but the music was new to the fans also, but pushing on though the press reaction the fan base was mostly loving what YES had come up with, so spreading the Topographic word in the USA was next. It was to be the US fans though who would get to see and be thrilled for the first and only time by the addition of a spectacular Roger Dean embellished touring YES Balloon.
The Atlantic record company wanting to make a big splash for the new album thought yeah why not, it’s big and different, after being approached by the owners of the Balloon. Effectively a touring billboard in the sky, the fully hand decorated and painted full sized balloon would be a huge success and a massive challenge at the same time. The project began in 1973 when the idea was floated to Roger Dean in England by the US based balloonist Donn Miller, along with the 18 years old Julie Britton. After being given the go-ahead by YES’ manager and Atlantic Records it was down to Donn to arrange for both the balloon and the artwork, so this project, was from the beginning, a YESfan’s idea. The artist found to recreate Rogers work in the United States was a young Kansas girl named Julie, this is her story.
Dealing with the logistics of monitoring its progress from England in 1974 was essentially, as Roger Dean said in 2020, “a question of crossing one’s fingers and hoping for the best”, but the clear goals of producing a huge great looking balloon project would take over eight months to complete. Rumored to have been hired for the tours for about $5,000, equivalent to $26,000 in 2020, the 65 feet high balloon was fully painted with not only replicas of the Topographic Oceans album’s cover artwork and the lettering, but also with other album sleeve designs by Roger Dean including Pathways, one of Roger’s most iconic paintings from the Yessongs album and a few from others such as the flying elephant from the Osibisa Woyaya album cover, the lizard from the original Osibisa album and the YES Fragile album Space Ark/Ornithopter, which went on to develop through the Yessongs album cover into the Moorglade Mover spaceship for Jon Anderson’s 1976 epic solo album Olias of Sunhillow. Staying closely to Roger’s original designs and shading, Julie produced a wonderful representation of those iconic art works.
Here is a sample of the newspaper coverage of the events and promotion for the balloon. This one from the Billboard music industry magazine, dated 9 February 1974.
NOT A UFO – Balloon Takes to Air for the YES
NEW YORK – Atlantic Records recording group YES will promote their upcoming U.S. tour, which kicks off this Thursday (7), with a specially constructed hot air balloon that will be used both to publicize the concerts and to entertain local press and radio personnel. In many areas, the balloon will fly over the countryside carrying local disk jockeys, local radio and television journalists and Atlantic executives. The balloon will be tethered near YES concert sites in Uniondale, NY. (Nassau Coliseum), Philadelphia (Spectrum), Cincinnati (Garden), Chicago (International Amphitheatre), San Francisco (Winterland) Los Angeles (Forum), Long Beach, Calif, (Long Beach Arena) and Detroit (Cobo Hall). The balloon will be trucked between dates as the group tours the U.S.
The official promotional photograph from the press pack (Atlantic Records)
The YES Winter 1974 North American Tour of a scheduled 44 dates turned out to be couple less than that, and so the balloon to be shown at just a mere 8 of those venues would have been a rare sight. It would also go on to be flown on the 1975/6 tours. The transported Balloon was landed in each city they could safely land in, there was much that could potentially go wrong with the plan, with local police having issues, councils, airspace hazards, navigation, weather and phone lines to plan for and deal with, along with plenty of excited and enthusiastic YESfans. Securing it and transporting it across the US was a big undertaking. Watched by its owners every night, the following day’s traveling could prove to be an eventful one for the enthusiastic small team. Youthfulness experience and the sheer love of ballooning meant all involved just loved the challenge.
For the first time since 1973, we can now hear the lost story from the Yes balloon’s artist Julie and pilot Donn.
Please can you give us an idea of your background in the USA?
Donn and I both were descendants of homesteaders in Rawlins County, Kansas. Donn had finished an accomplished degree at New Mexico Highlands as a college football player and received a teaching degree. He then returned home again to work soils and logistics of his large family farm and to engage in the community. I was a young woman: an artist and was recommended by my high school art teacher to Donn so that he could pursue having an artist paint and design his balloon dreams.
You studied art I believe, tell me about those days?
I graduated at a state University with double majors in Art Education and Printmaking with a minor in Art History. I studied multiple plate printmaking in Florence, Italy in 1992.
How did you get the Yes Balloon job in 1973?
I was a senior in high school when Donn called my art teacher to find an artist to paint the YES gondola and balloon. It was in 1973 that I received a call from Roger Dean, I was working in a soda place at a local rural drug store. I thought it was a prank. But he slowly convinced me of who he was, and I called Donn and told him, we then started flying around trying to get this project underway. Donn knew that Roger was going to call me, the rascal that he is. I was amazed he called me, he asked if I could participate in the creation of the YES balloon.
Julie applying the final touches to the image pathways
Did you and Donn both like YES music?
Funny how here in Kansas we have our type of music, not really rock music, so not knowing YES music at all, both Donn and I drove to a record store in a town located 30 miles away and bought two YES albums so we could listen to their music. Long Distance Run Around we both liked. We listened to them for several days said yes to do it and then we completed the contract terms with Atlantic Records. We had negotiations with Brian Lane who may have been on the Atlantic Records end of things. I can remember going to his suite in a NYC hotel. He was very debonair wearing his big fluffy terry robe and a wad of cash in his pocket, it was like another world. Wow.
How was the balloon made?
My mother and stepfather allowed me to paint them in our living room in Atwood, Kansas in 1973. I tried to turn them into my high school art class as our required assignment of completing three paintings. My teacher refused them and said I should paint pictures of windmills or pastures with cows. I got a D for a grade that semester. He also said that since I was accepting $400 (approx. $2,400 in 2020) payment for the project that I would no longer be able to show my artwork as an amateur. I was now a professional artist. Okay, whatever – lol.
I see Donn was the key to the whole project?
Yes he was. It wasn’t long before Donn visited Raven Industries in Sioux Falls, SD where he found that they could not put the Dean spiral – nor the Topo fish, etc on a balloon due to the amount of detail involved. They could produce an AX7 with 4 Yes logos on it and a few streamlined flight decals. Donn and I ordered fiberglass panels for the gondola and a wind skirt for the balloon and I painted them with the Tales from Topographic Oceans cover. We also stretched canvas over giant sheets of plywood to create the giant figures from the album cover for the wind skirt of the balloon. I painted these in my parents living room with protective gear in place and their blessing. Donn’s dad, Robert, helped cut the figures out and seal the edges of the canvases and then with a great flair for orientation, sewed them onto the rip-stop nylon fabric of the skirt.
The canvas was a medium weight – kind of like the lining of your pockets in a pair of jeans. I used golden acrylic paint and their golden varnish to seal the paint and even out the tone of the overall piece. (NB. These are still Roger Dean’s favorite paints) I probably spent six months completing the images for the wind skirt and the panels for the gondola. The banner was something that we added later.
The first balloon tour was in 1974 but you would not fly straight – away, why?
No, so since I was still in high school in 1974, Donn took a friend with him on the first leg of the YES tour. They traveled to the west coast concert tour and the east coast tour. The guy was called Stan Higley, however in the next years, 1975/6, Donn and myself and Donn’s brother, Bob and his wife Karen, went on tour with the balloon, this was on the east tour where Peter Frampton and Gary Wright were pre-show, spectacular performers and the crowds were electric.
How many YES balloon gigs did you see?
After Donn and I were married, he and I toured the east coast. We traveled in a van that also held the balloon and large bottles of propane. We had to be prepared for urban territory where propane is not readily available. I know I did half a dozen, a handful with Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City on the list for sure.
How many times did you go in the balloon?
Oh, many times! I earned some of my training hours toward my license while on-board and later obtained my pilot’s license while flying solo in a small AX4; our smaller balloon. We loved promoting the YES balloon at various rallies such as the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico, balloon meets in Loveland, Colorado, Garden City, Kansas plus many others. Our ballooning friends became a tight circle and we had many great times and made lasting memories. We even held a small rally of our own at Donn’s farm in Ludell, Kansas.
What challenges did you encounter?
The balloon was a huge expanse, and in some concert arenas they would offer us a launch pad of the size comparable to a football field-surrounded by power lines. We always made it work whatever came our way. Thousands of fans were pumped up by us tethering the balloon for one hour before the concert started. Wow!
A UK press cutting from one of the music papers, likely the Melody Maker. (David Watkinson Collection)
The full side banner still in good condition, rescued from storage in 2020
YES Balloon Tours – 1974/5/6
The information below was compiled from the best information that was available. This is an approximation and can only be guide until more information is found.
- Design and build of the balloon: 1973
- Balloon trials in Atwood, Kansas: January 1974
- Baltimore, (Civic Centre): 13 February 1974
- New York, (Nassau Coliseum): 14 February 1974
- Philadelphia, (Spectrum Arena) Day: 16 February 1974**
- Philadelphia, (Spectrum Arena) Eve: 16 February 1974
- Detroit, (Cobo Hall): 27 February 1974
- Cincinnati, (Garden): 3 March 1974
- Chicago, (International Amphitheatre): 6 March 1974
- Chicago, (International Amphitheatre): 7 March 1974
- California, (Long Beach Arena): 9 March 1974
- New Mexico, (Pit Arena): 12 March 1974**
- San Francisco, (Winterland): 15 March 1974
- San Francisco, (Winterland): 16 March 1974**
- Los Angeles, (GW Forum): 18 March 1974
- 1975 Dates TBC
- Cincinnati, (Garden): 8 June 1976
- Philadelphia, (JFK): 12 June 1976
** See reports
Close detail on the side banner of the Pathways walkway, staircase and viewing platform.
**New Mexico, (Pit Arena) 12 March 1974
Not everything went to plan for the balloon as once it left New Mexico it drifted off course and into the path of an U.S. Army Base. Although the army didn’t seem too bothered with that what they didn’t like was the support vehicle trying to follow it! Refusing admission to the camp they had to wait hours until eventually communication was made with Donn. Hours had gone past and realizing there was no assistance the balloon was landed in a field which turned out to be on an Indian reservation. Only after a lengthy walk did Donn come to a phone and ask for help. (Dan Wooding/Rick Wakeman – The Caped Crusader)
Tell me more about the Balloon
The balloon was powered by propane (2 large tanks in the gondola) which was piped up to the 2 blasting burners which were 2 million BTU’s each for a total of 4 million BTU’s. Since the 4 YES logos were overlaid materials placed on top of the black fabric equator (center band of the balloon) the balloon was much heavier than a single layer fabric balloon and this caused us to use much more fuel than we normally used on other balloons. The top of the balloon was held together by thick Velcro that was attached to a wide red strap. Usually when we were 200′ above the ground, we would pull the red strap releasing all the air out of the balloon and collapsing it to the ground.
Could you listen to YES music up there?
We had a stereo system on board which contained two large speakers so we could play YES music while flying. It was spectacular. The crowd roared as it tethered beside stages. The sheer size of the balloon was amazing, and the blasting of the burners was a great success with fans.
Did you meet Roger Dean in the USA and what did he say about it?
Julie never had the opportunity to meet Roger Dean although she greatly admires his artwork and obtained a couple of books containing his work. I was more in the thick of things. Our chance encounter was brief but memorable.
A YES-shirted Donn and Julie taking time out
Julie doing a final inspection
In full color with Red and Green logos plus the full album script
Fine reproduction again of the waterfall, some slight damage can be seen but it still has bright pigments and shade.
How did it feel to see it completed?
Everyone was excited about the YES balloon. The maiden voyage was conducted in Atwood, Kansas with a cheering crowd responding to the spectacular sight of the balloon with music by YES blaring from the onboard speakers. The experience was surreal in many ways. Atlantic Records made an impact on rural Kansas by commissioning this project.
** Feb 16 1974, Spectrum Arena, Philadelphia.
A YESFan’s Balloon Encounter
Tickets sold out almost immediately, a second show was in demand. The problem was, YES was booked solid all through the Northeast. The answer was to play an afternoon show on the same day. As a result, the equipment was rushed onstage and somehow the show started one hour later than the 2:00PM start time. No problem, we were late because we were marvelling at the Tales Balloon that landed in the parking lot. For some goofy reason, many of us were convinced that the band was arriving in this contraption so, there was a mad rush towards the Tales Balloon. No such luck though. We found our seats and spaced out on the oceanic mood music on the PA system for a while it suddenly melted into the Firebird Suite and the lights dimmed. (Glenn Leonard/FY)
Unknown venue with the balloon resplendent in full colour
** March 12 1974, Pit Arena, Albuquerque, New Mexico
This was the first time I ever saw YES live, and to say I was amazed is an understatement. The stage, the lights, the music… I was 17 at the time and had never witnessed such a spectacle. I brought in a Super 8 movie camera and got 6 minutes of the show on film, but our seats weren’t very close so the footage leaves something to be desired. I remember standing in line outside before the show, and there was a hot air balloon tethered near the entrance to the arena. Albuquerque is the hot air balloon capital of the world, so seeing the balloon wasn’t unusual, but the graphics were. The balloon was Roger Dean’s cover of TFTO, and I had never or since seen Dean’s work at that scale. (Steve Brittenham/FY)
Nearly inflated with air blown by a large fan and heated by the propane burner. Donn Miller’s balloon, the “YES”, tugs gently at its tether in the Joseph F. Vap field by Highway 25 Friday evening. For a year Donn flew the balloon in commercial advertising for a record company and now uses it in community sale promotion appearances all over the country. Here Donn tests the balloon before going to Balloon Days in Benkelman, assisting with the testing operation is his father Robert Miller Sr, and his wife Julie.
YESfans making light work of getting it airborne. The large Osibisa side panel visible, not a YES album cover, but chosen due to the flying aspect of the Roger Dean art.
Various cuttings from possibly the local Philadelphia newspaper and or the The Drummer magazine 1974. (Duncan Putman)
The Drummer Magazine (26 February 1974) by Mike McGrath
YES shattered all musical barriers in Philly last week; charging into town with a couple tons of gear and a hot air balloon in tow, they took over the Spectrum for two incredible performances.
Many stories had circulated about the fabulous YES balloon which would be tethered outside the Spectrum. Nobody seemed to know for sure exactly what it would (or could) do. On Saturday morning the man with the answers was Kansas (where’s Dorothy & Toto) balloonist Don Miller.
“Well the thing’s 65 feet high – a good size for a balloon – it’s propelled upwards by hot air, heated by four propane burners. We will probably get it up, but this wind is pretty strong – we probably won’t be able to take anybody up today.”
This disappointed the Atlantic Records executive in charge of balloons Bill Yaryan. He was looking forward to seeing it inflated and flying.
“We couldn’t do it in Long Island because of the wind and now it looks like we get it up here, either. I’d like to get it up so the band can see the thing once – it’s costing them a good couple of grand.”
So, with Ed Sciaky and Dennis Whiilen from the radio station, record execs of all shapes and forms, writers, photographers, and just plain folks watching, the balloon took off. The propane heated the air, filled the bag, and it rose lazily into the air. It managed to hover, completely inflated, for a full five minutes before pitching over in the wind and emptying itself out.
A few minutes later it was laid out flat on the parking lot again, never to fly in Philadelphia again. But it was nice while it lasted.
Drummer Interviews Drummer
TD: The Drummer – AW: Alan White
Next stop was inside the bowls of the Spectrum to escape from the cold (and possibly the windiest spot in the city) to speak to a few band members in between sound checks. The idea of two concerts in one day had thrown the group off a bit (the reason for the afternoon concert’s late start): and we took advantage of the confusion to speak with YES drummer Alan White.
TD: So, after all that, did you even get to see the balloon?
AW: No, we missed it – I hope we get to see it later – maybe between shows.
TD: Roger Dean, how do you feel about his stage design?
AW: How do I feel about it? I don’t. I just like to play. The purpose of the drum rostrum (if you didn’t see it, imagine a ladybird with blinking eyes and extendable wings perched above the drum set)(Topographic Oceans) especially, it makes it easier to play.
The Drummer magazine in the USA had a full Yes feature which included the most coverage on the balloon. (David Watkinson Collection)
Music press advert in Germany 1974, also showing the non – official double album version of the first two albums collection.
Only a small amount of memorabilia was made and has been found. Items such as the full-page adverts in some of the music papers which showed the balloon. The official Atlantic press photo and press pack brochure. Here we see not balloon memorabilia but YES concert items, the jacket with the two passes, one a back – stage pass for the Forum March 18 1974 and the other an electric factory concerts pass both likely used for the same concert, Great Western Forum, Inglewood, California.
The hand-made YES logo on the back of the jacket had some of the first glitter product to arrive in the USA, with Julie adding, “I had this old leather pilots jacket, now it feels like cardboard but the details are fun. I painted the back logo. I remember being so excited about using the glittery puffy paint which was new on the market.”
The Atlantic Balloon Leaflet
The front page of the Atlantic balloon leaflet (Roger Dean Logo / David Watkinson Collection)
Balloon history inside the fold out
The balloon depicted was a Montgolfier helium balloon, this was not the YES balloon
Roger Dean – London, England
Original art design for “YES” balloon.
Jenny Jacobs – London, England
Promoter and organizer.
Julie Sawer – Atwood, Kansas
Reproduction of original art work on gondola and “YES” balloon.
Donn Miller – Atwood, Kansas
“YES” balloon pilot.
“YES” HOT AIR BALLOON
65 ft, tall
77,500 cubic feet
Develops 32,000 H.P. per hour
At maximum output can produce 8 million B.T.U.’s
360 Channel Aircraft Radio and Transponder.
Rate of climb
8 Track Tape
Here is a shot of the AX7 balloon with the side vent open so the balloon could descend. The balloon was made by Raven Industries located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It is not known if any of the band ever went for a ride in the balloon, it is known however that Roger Dean didn’t go in it.
YES IN CONCERT
Philadelphia, JFK Stadium 12 June 1976
The wonderful UK music paper article for the massive concert; you can feel the excitement from the images. (Phil Sutcliffe / Chuck Pulin)
The crowd surround the middle part of the JFK stadium
YES fans in their tens of thousands get a little crushed
Frampton comes alive with the special Dean lighting rig above.
Julie: “Peter Frampton could really get the crowd excited. I love the fact that the stage design in these photos feature the pods designed by Roger Dean”
The Olias logo in the background as Peter shows us the way to rock out!
Peter Frampton enjoying the day under the wonderful Martyn and Roger Dean designed ‘Crab Nebular’ stage
Jon Anderson and Chris Squire back – stage and ready for the show
Chris Squire with flowing robes and his Rickenbacker bass backed by the most dramatic staging
Julie at the front of stage
“I had never seen a packed stadium of fans of YES and this amazed me that they were, for the most part, gentle people who wanted to hear magical YES music. I think the Philly stadium capacity was at 168,000. I was front stage and the people behind me were desperate to get closer to the stage.”
YES: Astral traveller
And in the ruins of the balloon
Stood a man with glasses held high
Wondering when to do it again
Have another fly into the sky
Somewhere flying high
Chris Squire and Steve Howe in capes heading off to the stage
Patrick Moraz in full flight
Jon Anderson and Chris Squire in perfect harmony
Still showing vibrant tone after 47 years. Painted in Acrylic – Golden Fluid
Many hands ready as the balloon is on its side
Donn and Julie at home in 1973
Julie with the recovered side panel in 2020. The panel measuring approx. 37” x 13″
Julie: “Donn and I designed balloons for various corporations for quite a while, we loved the work and when we finished the work, we gave each one a friendly send – off.”
Ballooning is a rare pass time or sport isn’t it?
As far as the other rallies that I mentioned, there were so few balloonists in the US that we became a small family and attended any rallies going. We had three balloons at the time and so it is difficult for me to remember just where we took the Yes balloon opposed to the other two balloons”.
What happened to the balloon after the tour?
The balloon was given to Donn by Atlantic Records. We continued to fly the YES balloon at several rallies, then Donn and I parted ways in 1980. He has told me in the last year (2020) that he sold it privately but can’t remember to whom or any details.
Other YES Balloons!
For the promotion of the YES album, The Ladder in 2000, Eagle Records, the band’s label, decided after much fan profiling, to come up with three suggestions. 1: a custom painted train, 2: painted cars and 3: a hot – air balloon. Eagle’s MD at the time said, “Expect to see a bright yellow, Roger Dean artwork-festooned vehicles winding their way around major cities and up and down the country soon.”
None of it happened in any of those forms, but you can’t deny it was adventurous.
An artist impression of a YES Balloon for the millennium and the thirty years of YES promotion. (Eagle Records)
The only other YES Balloons I can find are the ones I own and were handed out at the 1978 London Wembley shows. There were three shades available, Yellow, Red and blue, they featured the writing “TORMATO WEMBLEY 78”. (David Watkinson)
One of the European YES fanzines called Close To Yes had a double cover issue to feature the balloon. (David Watkinson)
A balloon rally held in Donn’s farm located just outside of Atwood, Kansas
With the story now having been told and the many questions answered, the elusive YES Balloon story has finally landed. I must thank a few key people for making it happen. This interesting story would not been told if it wasn’t for the understanding, patience and trust given to me by Donn, who was throughout the whole time, seriously ill in hospital with cancer. Discussing this article has been a happy distraction for both Donn and Julie who have enjoyed looking back into these fascinating days doing what they loved. As a curious YES fan, I have to say also that the importance of telling the story grew into something quite special and that its full meaning and timing to tell it, was truly unexpected.
A final note on the balloon story is that although I did try to find the final fate of it from being sold some thirty years ago in New Mexico, I could not locate it. Someone may come forward after reading this article, I hope. On a more positive note however the balloon panels will be saved along with the memorabilia and maybe displayed at some point in the future.
Julie Britton – Interview, memorabilia, balloon owner.
Donn Miller – Pilot, memorabilia, balloon owner.
Roger and Freyja Dean – inspiration and artwork.
Photographs by Julie Britton, Donn Miller, Marcus Barth, Duncan Putman, Jerry Rose, Randy Smith, Bruce Pike, David Watkinson, Eagle Records, Atlantic Records.
Thanks to Steve Sullivan’s and Pete Whipple’s “Forgotten Yesterdays” (FY) and Deidre Nelson.