“Owner of a Lonely Heart” is a song by the English progressive rock band Yes. It is the first track and single from their eleventh studio album 90125, released in 1983. Written primarily by guitarist Trevor Rabin, contributions were made to the final version by singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, and producer Trevor Horn.
“Owner of a Lonely Heart” was released in October 1983, as the album’s first single. It was a commercial success in the United States, becoming the band’s first and only single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and its Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. In 1984, the song reached No. 8 in the year-end charts in the US. The single was reissued various times throughout the 1980s and 1990s with different remix versions and B-sides. The song has been sampled by various artists including Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa and Max Graham, whose 2005 single reached No. 9 in the UK.
The first version was a four track version Rabin recorded at his home studio in London in 1980 (and which was eventually released in 2003 on his 90124 album). Rabin played all instruments on the demo as well as singing. In 2012, he would reminisce “I had a four-track recorder for demos, so you would record on the first and second tracks and then mix it to a third track. You would be making decisions based on what was coming, and sometimes those decisions would be wrong — but you couldn’t undo them. One of the things, a happy accident, was that all of the brass stabs and those weird things that happen on the record — they were just a product of what happened with the demo. When we started the record, in talking with Trevor Horn, he said we should retain that stuff. We’ll just record that really cleanly. I said I’d like to keep the levels very loud, and he was totally into that. That’s kind of how it evolved. All of the accidents on the demo, ended up on the record.”
“Owner of a Lonely Heart” was turned down by various record companies, including Arista. (Rabin: “Clive Davis mentioned that the song was too strange, and would not be a hit. He suggested that I write stuff more like Foreigner and then come back. I never did.”) The song was first recognized as a potential hit when Rabin played the demo to Ron Fair (then a junior A&R man at RCA Records) who identified it as “a game changer” and offered Rabin an album deal on the strength of it. Although Rabin would assemble various songs for the deal he ultimately turned it down, opting instead to work with Chris Squire and Alan White and rework the material for what would eventually become 90125. Rabin has also implied that the early song may have gained the revived Yes their 1980s record deal – “‘Owner’ was always the flagship song of the 90125 stuff, which I had been shopping around with and landed up being approached by Phil Carson from Atlantic.”
Trevor Horn has claimed a significant part of the credit for the success of “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, including recognising the song’s hit potential and salvaging it for the 90125 sessions. By Horn’s account, when Rabin played him the original tape of songs intended for 90125, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” was tucked away at the end and was only heard because Rabin had gone to the toilet and left the tape running. When Rabin returned, Horn had to persuade him that the song was likely to be a hit and should be used for the album. However, Horn also claims to have had serious reservations about Rabin’s inclinations toward “American rock” songwriting: despite hearing a hit chorus, he also suggests that “the song, as it originally was, was so awful that I was convinced that if we didn’t put loads of whizz-bangs and gags all over the verse that no-one would ever listen to it.”
The song was reworked during the 90125 album sessions in 1982 and 1983, with contributions of various kinds being made by Chris Squire, Trevor Horn and Jon Anderson (resulting in all three getting writer credits).
Horn claims that the development of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” took place over seven months (from January to July 1983) and that he was instrumental in persuading the band to record the song. By Horn’s account, once all of the other tracks on the record had been recorded he was literally “crawling around on the floor” begging Yes to do it, on the grounds that they needed a hit single. Horn brought in the Synclavier to replace the original keyboard parts played by Rabin. For the “whizz-bangs and gags” sound effects, he brought in a Fairlight sampler programmed by J. J. Jeczalik (a technique already tried and tested on Horn’s work on ABC’s The Look of Love and Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock).
Horn also went against the wishes of Rabin and drummer Alan White, both of whom wanted big rock drum sounds. Instead, Horn forced a programmed sound onto the arrangement, incorporating a five-second sample of the drum breakdown in Funk, Inc.’s “Kool Is Back” (itself a cover of Kool & the Gang’s “Kool’s Back Again”) and also sampling and looping White’s playing via Fairlight. Influenced by the sound of Stewart Copeland’s recordings with The Police, Horn also insisted that White tuned his snare drum to a high A. According to Questlove, drummer in The Roots, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” contained the first use of a sample as a breakbeat (as opposed to a sound effect).
Regarding rewrites, Horn claims to have rewritten Rabin’s verses (beginning with the first verse and “move yourself”) and that upon joining the band later in proceedings, Jon Anderson was dissatisfied with the second verse and rewrote it, adding the section about the “eagle in the sky”. As a cheeky riposte, Horn and engineer Gary Langan added the gunshot sound effect which immediately followed the verse (thereby “shooting down” the eagle). Squire’s main contribution appears to have been the Motown-styled bridge which originally appears in the song between 1:55 and 2:22 (and which also bears some resemblance to a riff in “Ritual” from Tales from Topographic Oceans).
In September 2014, Rabin clarified his view on the breakdown of credit and royalties: “Jon did add to my lyrics in the verses and deserved what he got, as did Chris. One can hear my development of the song on 90124; sound doesn’t lie. Trevor Horn being allotted a percentage was a thank you for introducing me to the Synclavier, which is one of the keyboards I used on the song and I had not used before. Also, for the fun we had making it. I could go on, but I’ve bitten my lip for a long time — largely because Trevor Horn and I are good friends.”
The song’s music video was shown in heavy rotation on MTV, introducing the revamped Yes lineup and sound to a new generation of fans largely unfamiliar with the band’s very different earlier work, which had helped to define the genre of progressive rock. The music video was directed by graphic designer Storm Thorgerson who, as part of Hipgnosis, had previously designed the covers for the band’s albums Going for the One and Tormato. The video starred actor Danny Webb.
Keyboardist Tony Kaye does not appear in the video as at the time of the video shoot, Eddie Jobson was standing in as the band’s keyboardist. Jobson can be seen briefly in a few quick shots, but he was not part of the video’s “animal transformation” scene in which the other four band members take part. Ultimately Kaye returned to the lineup, and Jobson never recorded any material with the band.
Jon Anderson – lead vocals
Trevor Rabin – guitars, keyboards, backing vocals
Chris Squire – bass, backing vocals
Tony Kaye – keyboards
Alan White – Fairlight CMI, drums