Interview with Geoff Downes of YES
YES are going to be playing two of their most essential and pivotal albums, Drama and Fragile, in full at the Manchester O2 Apollo on 30th April 2016. Many of the tracks will not have been performed in the last 30 years. It is going to be an emotional time too as this is the first time British and European audiences will have seen the band without its original bassist and co-founder Chris Squire. His replacement, Bill Sherwood, who had already had a history of working with the band, and also a friend of Squire's, has some big shoes to fill.
The band is still as relevant today as they were in the 70's and have retained a loyal following over the last 48 years and as a pecursor to the tour ManchesterRocks had a chat with keyboard player Geoff Downes:
Geoff Downes seems a little subdued, understandable due to the fact he attended Keith Emerson’s funeral the previous day so I decided I need to go easy on him during this interview. [Keith] was a big inspiration to me, he was the guy who was there at the beginning of it all with all the keyboards, I took quite a lot from him in that respect.
Interestingly both of us are from Stockport, albeit different parts, the conversation diverts slightly to the old Offerton Palace where The Beatles amongst other famous bands of the time played and is just around the corner from my house, Geoff saw a number of acts there. The building became a discotheque before falling into disrepair and eventual demolition - the ground is now simply a lot of grass. It is a small world.
Going back to 1979, Video Killed The Radio Star was a massive hit for The Buggles and I loved their album The Age Of Plastic. I recall watching the video on the Kenny Everett show with Downes’ surrounded by synthesisers thinking he looked like the archetypal prog-rock keyboard player, little did I know of what was to come!
The Buggles, were managed by Brian Lane, who coincidently managed Yes and he conceived the idea of Downes and bassist/singer Trevor Horn joining the band to replace Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson respectively who had recently departed the band. To some degree it was a bit strange and a bit of a surprise that they had left. They had been recording an album in Paris with Roy Thomas Baker producing in ’79 and it all went a bit pear shaped and then drummer Alan White broke his foot rollerskating with Richard Branson which didn't help either. So Yes had become a three-piece at the time and they just wanted us to co-write with them and we threw a couple of things their way and it escalated from there. Ahmet Ertegun [head of Atlantic Records] came over and he gave it the seal of approval so we moved onward.
It's widely known that it took Trevor Horn a lot of persuading to join the band as a singer by late Yes bass player Chris Squire, but did Downes need much persuading? Not so much really because my position was less tenuous as there had been three keyboard players before me so it wasn't as difficult a move into that area as much as it was for Trevor. I think he found some of the keys and some of the ranges difficult because Jon Anderson's voice was so high. The album that we came up with at the time, Drama, really pushed the boat out and the album turned out pretty well.
Sonically and musically Drama was very different to anything that Yes had done before. It was a different chapter in the history of Yes and both Trevor and myself were very technologically minded so we brought that aspect to their music. Their style of music had started to wane in popularity and there were other things at play such as punk, new wave and electronic pop music was starting to come through and all sorts of things were starting to happen at the turn into the ‘80s. Because we were using the technology – vocoders and samplers - we could bring a different kind of approach than Yes had had before.
I read that the recording of the album was very intense including 18 hour days, in order to get everything finished in time for the start of the US tour. It was pretty tight on time and there were some hiccups along the way. Eddie Offord was there at the beginning and worked on the backing tracks and then he disappeared and we don't know what had happened to him, he had freaked out and had gone off somewhere, so we were left trying to co-produce the album. That put quite a lot of pressure on all of us as we wanted it to be a really strong Yes album, we all pushed our performances on there and made it what it was. I think it is a strong album and in hindsight I am proud of what we achieved because there were a lot of moments of tension and pressure that we came up with something original and it worked out for the best.
The Buggles brought We Can Fly From Here and I Am A Camera for Yes, were there any other songs you brought? We had quite a lot of Machine Messiah too which was very Buggles, the album turned out to be a stepping stone for the band into the 80’s as the album 90125 was even more technological and of course Trevor produced it. So Yes transformed itself from this idolised, mystical, ethereal band to become this quite dynamic straight-ahead techno-rock band and I think that was an interesting change for Yes and why the Drama album has a lot of significance if you look at the entire history of Yes.
Personally I thought Drama was a fantastic album and recall waiting for it to be delivered to my record store in Stockport on the release day, a huge leap forward from its predecessor Tormato. In hindsight, and I've looked at Tormato massively, it is not as bad as it was criticised at the time and there are some great moments on that album. Hearing them play On The Silent Wings Of Freedom live simply blew me away and also there was a reimagining of Onward on the Keys To Ascension live album, which was simply beautiful.
Once the Drama tour was over, and it was very difficult for Trevor with the UK audiences, were you surprised everything ended so quickly after the tour? Not in a lot of ways. When we were in America it was more of a spectacle because we were in the round, the light show was phenomenal, the focus was not so much on the band. When we came to the UK we were playing theatres and we couldn't really have any of the effects so we were laid bare on the stage. The audience were saying I told you so, they are nothing like the classic band and it was particularly hard for Trevor because he was upfront and people had been used to seeing Jon Anderson. Trevor was also a straightahead looking bloke and that had something to do with it as well, and the British audiences are a lot less forgiving than the American audiences.
Another thing that didn't help was that Jon Anderson was on tour in the UK at exactly the same time as Yes performing Yes material alongside some of his solo work. Yeah, he had had a lot of success with Vangelis and people are asking why wasn't he there fronting the band? Where as Rick came and went and came and went and had a different type of solo career. The keyboard seat had been revolving quite a bit [with Patrick Moraz and Tony Kaye] so was a bit easier for me but it was hard on Trevor. I've heard live recordings of the band from that period and they were really on fire in terms of the sound of it as the performances are really strong.
I saw you at the Apollo here in Manchester and I really enjoyed it, I thought it was a great show. I think it was when we got to London and it was the end of the tour, there was a reluctance in the audience to accept these maverick popstars that had suddenly come into this revered band so there was a certain reticence and that had a deciding factor in the band not going any further after that last show in London.
Why wasn't We Can Fly From Here used at the time? Was it because it had a more proggy feel to it and didn't fit in as well to the modern sound of Drama? No, we recorded a backing track at the time and it was sounding really good, this was around the time that Eddie Offord left and the piece never got finished, it was just left unattended to. By the time we came back to it we had all the other material in place, there wasn't the space or the time to work on that track and get it on the album so it was forgotten in many ways. When the band disbanded it just got left in the vaults. Then five years ago Chris [Squire] called up Trevor and asked about that song we were doing and also asked him can you produce it as we would like to do it on the new Yes album. So Trevor became involved in the production and he called me up and said he wanted me to play on it as it was very much our piece, so I went over to LA and the piece became much more extended. Then the guys said why don't I rejoin the band and that was how that all happened.
I was going to come to your rejoining Yes because you are quite a busy person with Yes, Asia and your DBA project as well.. and I've been doing some more stuff with Trevor and the Buggles recently so it's almost like it's gone full circle being involved with all the bands going back to the beginning. It's nice to work with the guys who I worked with for many years.
Presumably Yes is your priority these days, in terms of touring it is very active and has been for the last five years, with Asia we've not had as much touring as perhaps we could have done. With John [Wetton] getting sick last year we'd put that on hold for the time being although I have been working with him on some new material and hopefully we will get an album out in the not too distant future.
Was it a bit of a shock when you found out Steve Howe was going to leave Asia? In some ways it was and in some ways it wasn't as he was finding it very hard to keep the two bands going. When we reformed Asia in 2006 it was clear that Yes were not active at the time but then they got Oliver Wakeman and Benoit David into the band and they went out [on the road] and it became quite tough because with five or six years of both bands touring quite intensely he was starting to spend virtually all the time on the road. He also had his solo stuff and his trio as well so he was in a position where he had to make a decision that something had to give as he couldn't carry on that kind of work rate and he was finding it a little too much to keep it all going.
For the tour that you have coming up Yes are playing two full albums, Fragile and Drama. What are your thoughts on doing these full albums? I like it and I think the concept works, we've been doing it for the last three years. The last time we were here in the UK we were doing three albums; The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One. All these albums have some major significance and Yes’s history and we thought it might be nice to stretch that out a bit more with me now involved in the band as well as Steve, Alan and Chris for these last couple of tours. We had been doing Fragile a couple of years ago in the USA and we never actually brought it here, and fans requested it so that's why we are doing that.
His enthusiasm is sparked when I ask him if it has been interesting revisiting Drama? Yeah, it has, I'd forgotten how in-depth it was and how detailed some of the production and the parts are, we must have been really working our butts off, flat out on that album because when you listen back to it, it is very deep. I am very proud of the album and it will be an interesting album for the fans to get a full on perspective of, it is a very intense, power driven album with not too much ethereal stuff going on. Songs like Tempus Fugit, Does It Really Happen?, Into The Lens, Machine Messiah, they are all full on pieces so it is going to be interesting how we do it. We want to retain the continuity because when those albums were put together you try and pace it in a certain way because it's nice to listen to in a specific order that you put the tracks. The relativity of the keys and the moods, the atmospheres and all the rest of it, so performing it in sequence people will remember the first time they played the album and that was how they would listen to it.
Finally, other any future recording plans for Yes? Have you been doing any writing or is it too early at the moment? I think we need to get the feel of this tour going through Europe, and then we may have a tour in the USA in the summer and we are going to Japan in November so there is quite a lot of activity in the Yes camp so it maybe next year when we look at the time for doing another album.
The beauty of a band like Yes is that it constantly keeps visiting new material and I think that's important, there are bands that don't attempt anything new, they just go out and play their catalogue. I think Yes and Asia are a bit different that and incorporate a new album with a tour. And although the fans may not be familiar with that new music they do appreciate that we are trying to keep the concept fresh and keep moving on through various stages and evolve.
I am looking forward to the show at the Apollo, I am too, it's going to be a bit of a homecoming for me which is nice. And the Apollo is a great venue sonically, yeah, I like the Apollo and I am sure people will enjoy what we're doing with the two albums and there will be a number of other classic Yes songs as well so it is going to be quite an interesting show.
Break a leg! Will do!
Warners has recently released all of their catalogue YES albums Mastered For iTunes. These include The Yes Album, Fragile, Going For The One, Time and a Word, Yes, 90125, Tales From Topographic Oceans and Drama. You can buy them from http://geni.us/YESMFiT. They will also re-release Drama on Vinyl LP on 22nd April. The Vinyl LP of Fragile will follow shortly after that.
Words: Anthony Firmin
Photos: Anthony Firmin / Glenn Gottlieb (via PR) / Stockport Image Archive