Photo by Sue Hegedus
Pre-show at The Egg in Albany, I sat down with YES keyboard genius Geoff Downes to discuss the current tour, Drama in 1980 and the future for YES…….
Tim Darbyshire – Firstly thanks a lot for agreeing to this interview.
Geoff Downes – No problem at all.
TD – 2015 was obviously a difficult year for everyone involved with YES
GD – Yes, obviously because of Chris, it was tough, it took us all by surprise we were pretty shocked because we all thought he would pull through. The last diagnosis we had was he said I’m going to have this treatment then be ok. When it got more in depth and started to look more serious that’s when he decided he wouldn’t be able to do the tour, so that’s when we brought Billy in – we’d already brought Billy in before unfortunately circumstances prevailed. So yes it was a tough time – I mean thinking about Chris’ contribution, he was essential really to all YES’ music.
TD – After a difficult 2015, it seems YES in 2016 is invigorated, everything’s come back with a vengeance
GD – It was all going quite well until Alan got sick, but I think that again, you know, he knew only a week before the tour when he had the operation on his back – and his recuperation time was longer than anticipated …
TD – So I guess he’s out for the whole tour?
GD – I don’t know, he’s hoping to maybe make an appearance when we get to the West Coast, but at the moment he’s in convalescent mode recuperating. I speak to him every day or two, he gives me updates and says he really misses not being there. I think he feels that he’s letting the side down in some way, but I tell him, no, you just get well. And of course Jay is the guy he appointed, he said this is the guy that can do it if I can’t.
TD – So he could play it from the off? What was the rehearsal like?
GD – Well we looked at it about a week before and Alan said I don’t think I’ll be able to do it, so effectively he (Jay) had a week to learn the set.
TD – Is that different for a drummer than say a keyboard player, to learn the set quickly?
GD – I don’t think so necessarily, none of it’s easy you know, YES music is particularly demanding in every department, it’s not something that people can just walk on and start playing. There’s also a lot of ways that the numbers aren’t absolutely parrot fashion to the albums – so in that respect he took on quite a lot to get that together within a week, but as you’ve seen he’s playing brilliantly.
TD – Yes, we saw the show a couple of weeks ago
GD – It’s got very very tight as time has gone on – people always used to criticize YES saying they never rehearse enough, but I think we did enough to make sure everyone was at the same place.
TD – It sounded pretty tight two weeks ago, so I’m guessing tonight will be even tighter.
GD – Yes
TD – Billy of course has just shoehorned in there, a perfect fit
GD – Yes, it’s not easy for anybody you know, as I say, YES music is pretty demanding, not just musically but physically as well, especially for a drummer, which is probably one of the reasons why in Alan’s case unless he thought he was in tip-top shape physically he felt he might be doing a disservice – but he’s getting better and hopefully he’ll be fully fit by the time we get to the West Coast, or certainly by the time we go to Japan.
TD – So, onto this tour – when I saw what you were going to play I thought that’s a brave set list. You know the Summer tours in the States tend to be a safer set list normally?
GD – Yes, it’s adventurous for the band in its own right because we’re not playing stuff that’s mainstream, familiarity stuff – a lot of the Summer tours are, you know… if you see Kansas you know you’ll hear ‘Carry On Wayward Son’, ‘Dust In The Wind’ and a few others. I think it makes a nice change, because we’ve played a lot of the mainstream core material for quite some years now and it’s two years since we brought an album out. The last couple of years has been relying on the old standards. Now we’ve shown the band has got some spirit to be playing two of the non-mainstream albums.
TD – Yes it would have been so easy to play it safe.
GD – I mean obviously it’s a bit more relevant in the case of Drama because I was on Drama, with Steve and Alan, so that was a given that we’d be doing that album at some point.
TD – It must feel good to be playing an album you featured heavily on and co-wrote?
GD – Yes, when Benoit was in the band and I first rejoined we were doing Tempus Fugit and occasionally Machine Messiah, but obviously the other 4 tracks have not been played live since the original Drama tour ….well Run Through The Light has never been played – even on the 1980 Drama tour.
TD – Live it seems it goes so fast (the Drama album)
GD – I know, I know, time flies
TD – Tempus Fugit…..
GD – But for me it was very interesting to look at Tales, because that’s really a kind of holy grail type album for a lot of YES fans, the real dedicated fans are really into that album. I’d kind of moved on, it passed me by.
TD – So it wasn’t an album you were heavily into at the time?
GD – No, no – and again, both albums that we’re doing were quite controversial. Tales From Topographic (Oceans) was controversial because of the way the music was presented on the album and I suppose Drama was controversial due to the fact that Trevor Horn and myself joined the band – and took YES in a …I would say more of a kind of …not a rock direction, but it was more of a kind of hard hitting edge and not so many dreamy sections and all that sort of stuff. It was a very powerful album.
TD – Let’s talk about Drama, the first time around and the circumstances around you joining – I remember as a 16 year old hearing Tommy Vance’s announcement on the Friday Rock Show (UK radio show)
GD – I remember that too, I was driving my car listening to the radio…
TD – All he said was Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman have been replaced by Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes also known as The Buggles – and that was it, no information. Today you can get information online, find out what’s what…..
GD – Yes he (Tommy Vance) had the Friday Rock Show, it used to run quite late didn’t it?
TD – 10 till 12 I think
GD – Yes that’s right, 10 till 12 and that was his breaking news that night, and I remember thinking oh yeah I guess it is pretty strange you know….
TD – Was the announcement well after it had happened then?
GD – Oh yes, that was after we’d agreed to do the album. Up until that point, we’d really just been providing them with some ideas because we had the same manager.
TD – Brian Lane
GD – Yes Brian Lane was managing both The Buggles and YES, and it was Chris who heard ‘The Age Of Plastic’ and said it sounded really interesting. We were rehearsing in the room next to them, they kind of came in and we started talking and they asked if we had any material they could use.
TD – Didn’t you find that quite strange?
GD – Well yes but we had some material that was not so mainstream Buggles, so we said we’ve got these couple of ideas. We did a demo – I think we got Bill Bruford to play on it at one point – it was actually the basis of Fly From Here. So that was the first track we came up with and Chris came and played bass on it, and said he quite liked it and did we have anything else. I think we had I Am A Camera which became Into The Lens and that kind of got incorporated…..so we started building these things up and Yessifying them, Machine Messiah sort of came out of all that. It started to escalate and at that point Chris said why don’t you guys join the band then?
TD – So you knew by then that the other two had lost interest? Jon and Rick had left the band?
GD – Yes, they were doing other things, Jon was working with Vangelis and Rick was doing his solo stuff. They’d had a disastrous attempt at an album in Paris with Roy Thomas Baker producing, which never really saw the light of day although I think some of the tracks that Steve, Alan and Chris were rehearsing at the time were parts of those reworked ideas.
TD – There’s a few tracks from the Paris sessions on the Rhino reissue of Drama
GD – Yes, I think some of the riffs and some of the sections they already had those, but the general vibe of the album was that it generally wasn’t happening, you know, what happened in Paris.
TD – So this was something you jumped at? Joining YES? I mean you were already a successful pop artist with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star?
GD – Yes but it was a totally different ball game, you know venturing over to the other side, the Prog side, even though a lot of people gave The Buggles credit for being a very musical pop outfit, there was subtlety not only in the production but also in the song writing. We were just kind of condensing it down to a very radio friendly format and I think when we joined YES and did the Drama album I think it showed – and Chris was particularly receptive to it – that YES could utilize that sound and take it even further into the mainstream, without you know selling out – some people say they sold out with 90125, I don’t think they did, they just redeveloped a different side of YES’ music. They’d done all the long albums, Tales, Close To The Edge in the 70s and Tormato their previous album, I don’t think they were all wholly satisfied with that album…
TD – I have a soft spot for Tormato as it was the new album when I got into YES
GD – We have considered playing it as one of the albums in The Album Series, but Steve doesn’t think it’s strong enough as an album.
TD – I think Side 1 is stronger than Side 2
GD – Alan feels the same, it’s not got that depth that the other albums have got, you know in terms of the writing. That album never really surfaced as a real possibility to be played. Relayer is up there as a possibility.
TD – I was going to ask if Relayer might be added to The Album Series?
GD – That would be particularly demanding from my standpoint you know, Moraz’s parts are exceedingly complex.
TD – Sound Chaser?
GD – Yes, and Gates Of Delirium you know – we’ve played Soon but that’s only a small section.
TD – Is it an album you like?
GD – Yes, it’s a very very masterful album, all the players are playing at the top of their game.
TD – I read that To Be Over might have been close to making the set list this year?
GD – Yes, we’ve actually discussed doing that at some point because we were going to do that on the Cruise, but it never happened, so we did Soon instead.
TD – If you continue the album series, which album will be next?
GD – We’re still discussing whether to do that or not, nothing is set in stone, the balls are up in the air on that front, but with this line-up I don’t see us doing any other full album other than Relayer, if we were to do anything.
TD – Well that would be worth travelling a long way to see.
TD – So the Drama tour first time around – how was that?
GD – In 1980? Pretty formidable from my standpoint really, I’d never done anything like that before.
TD – As in touring?
GD – Well, being in front of that many people – it was quite an eye opener, as The Buggles were just a video band you know, appearing in magazines and stuff like that. We were never forced to get up there and play, but we had a fairly lengthy rehearsal period and I’ve heard some of the stuff from that period – when we actually got into the tour we sounded pretty good.
TD – Yes I dug out a few tapes from that tour, by the time you got to the UK, the audiences weren’t as receptive. I think that’s a British thing isn’t it? The Buggles are a pop band let’s knock them down?
GD – Yes the British are a bit more cynical when it comes to things like that. The Americans were very open about it and of course you had the spectacle of the stage being in the round and stuff like that – it was much more of an experience for the American fans to see it that way, because it was a show whereas when we got to the UK we were in the theatres you know. It wasn’t so much of a show, it was a case of let’s listen to the music and there was a lot of resentment from the diehards – not so much against me but more to do with Trevor. Obviously he was the first replacement for Jon Anderson, and now….. the ‘fairy’ figure wasn’t there anymore.
TD – Whereas you were on stage surrounded by keyboards…..
GD – It wasn’t so bad for me…..Rick Wakeman wasn’t the original keyboard player, that was Tony Kaye and they had Patrick (Moraz)….so the focus was less on me, although there still was a certain amount of resentment, no doubt about it – there still is you know.
TD – I know you keep half an eye on what’s being said online – at Yesfans.com. Straight after the tour you pretty much all went your separate ways – was there never any impetus to carry on?
GD – The negative response did have an effect on us. By the time we’d finished the UK shows – I think we ended up at the Finsbury Park Rainbow, I remember Chris saying I don’t think this is going to work.
TD – Yet you’d enjoyed being in the studio, making a good album?
GD – Yes but I think it was something he didn’t think was working anymore, although more recently he changed his mind on all of that. Chris was very much the guy – not necessarily the guy who made the decisions because YES is you know a very co-operative kind of unit – but he just didn’t think it was going to go anywhere, and then Steve and myself were at loose ends really. Chris and Alan were working with Jimmy Page……
TD – On the XYZ sessions…
GD – ….and I’d got on very well with Steve and we had a really good understanding between guitar and keyboard and you know, he wanted to preserve that……and that’s really how the ASIA thing started. John Wetton’s wife was working in Brian Lane’s office, so we kind of got mingling and talking about stuff and then somebody gave Carl a call, and it just came together like that.
TD – That’s 4 very talented musicians in ASIA, you just mentioned 90125 – it seems to me in the early 80s, a lot of this kind of music was going towards a more radio friendly rock sound?
GD – Definitely. 90125 is YES’ biggest selling album by some margin….
TD – But nowhere near ASIA’s first album…
GD – Not in the same division as that, no. But even when you think about Close To The Edge or Fragile or whatever…..90125 managed to strike a chord and they had a Number 1 single in America, which was unheard of for a band like YES.
TD – It’s still what the casual fan equates YES with – Owner Of A Lonely Heart.
GD – It set them on a course, they became more widely accessible to a lot of people, who would not normally be into YES music. And also the musical climate was changing, you know obviously MTV was out, starting to affect people’s perception – it wasn’t just the rock radio stations calling the shots anymore. There was a whole different world out there – people had this brand new shop window, so it was affecting the way people wrote music I think.
TD – When do you think that stopped? When did it become alright again to look back and start playing things like Close To The Edge live….I mean there’s nothing new out there anymore….
GD – No, there was a wave of alternative bands, the grunge stuff, bands like Maroon 5 came out of that…and then the BritPop bands, Blur and Oasis and Snow Patrol, you know all those kind of bands……but they didn’t have the depth of the music that YES had.
TD – Coldplay.
GD – Yes exactly, Coldplay. They’re sort of billed as the latter day Pink Floyd, in terms of the significance of them in modern music. You know, it’s not my bag, but good luck to them. It’s really only the last 5 or 6 years where a lot of reissues have come out – King Crimson deluxe editions – that’s really helped to revitalize the catalogs of the Prog rock bands.
TD – Some of the classic YES albums are out now in 5.1 surround sound, is there any talk of Drama getting the 5.1 treatment, even though it’s a decent sounding album and maybe doesn’t need the work maybe Tormato does?
GD – It’s a tricky one that because they don’t know where the multi-track masters are at the moment.
TD – That’s the same with Going For The One
GD – Yes, so there’s nothing you can do unless you locate the multi-tracks….
TD – Are you interested in that, or do you feel it sounds good as you made it?
GD – I like to listen to the albums the way they were originally recorded. I know Steven Wilson does a very good job, and it’s interesting to some fans but the problem I have with 5.1 is that unless you’re in the sweet spot – right in the middle of the 5 speakers – you don’t really get any perspective because if you move from that point….
TD – Or lie down….
GD – Yes, you have to be sitting there – which is maybe how some people like listening to music with the sensory surroundings, but if people are just listening to music as a general thing or as background or while having dinner….it’s a bit pointless you know because you really have to be a hi-fi specialist to be sitting there in the sweet spot.
TD – I guess at least it’s better than just another release of an old album, they are offering something new…
GD – Well the good side of it is it generated a lot of interest in that album, I think Close To The Edge benefitted from that.
TD – Yes, extra vocal parts were added back in to the quiet section of the title track for example, that’s on the new stereo mix, so you don’t have to listen in 5.1….
GD – That’s interesting to some fans, stuff they hid from the final mix originally. But I think you have to be a mega mega enthusiast to get into that side of it.
TD – So, the future for YES? It’s not long now until the 50th Anniversary and I guess do you as a band, or individually have mixed feelings about the upcoming ARW tour?
GD – I think we’re just, you know, we let them get on with it really…I don’t think there’s any……we just wish them luck. Anything that’s going out promoting the music of YES is good for everybody. It’s not a kind of us versus them scenario.
TD – Do you see a repeat of the late 80s/early 90s when 2 bands came together for the Union album and tour?
GD – Ummm, I’m not seeing that at the moment but you never know what might happen. YES is a very strange band (laughs…..) weird things happen with YES.
TD – I don’t really know what I want, as a fan – do I want Union 2? It seems a bit final to me somehow.
GD – I don’t know….if that would, I don’t know….there’s a lot of talk about the Rock n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, which members of the band would be inducted if YES ever got in there…I don’t know, I don’t really concern myself with those kind of things.
TD – I see a future for YES (this YES) with Jon D and Billy……
GD – Yes, I mean Billy’s done a tremendous job to replace Chris because, well a lot of people said you know Chris is irreplaceable, I think he couldn’t have done it any better you know, that’s for sure. It all sounds great – Chris’ parts are not easy for anyone to emulate, not just his bass parts but his techniques as well – his vocal techniques, because his voice was such a close blend with Jon Anderson’s, and Chris’ vocal parts were as important as his bass parts.
TD – A couple of general questions to wrap things up. When you write do you write for ASIA or YES or DBA, or does it depend on the style?
GD – Probably in my own mind I think it’d be more suitable if I get a basic idea of what something is for, like when I work with Chris Braide (DBA) or I just bag some ideas up that I think relate to that project, same with John Wetton you know. Generally in my mind I kind of split them up, there are obviously blurry elements, whereas sometimes you think maybe I should have worked more on that for another project…..
TD – There was a talk of an unfinished longer song with Jon Davison.
GD – Yes that’s still there, it’s not completely on the back burner.
TD – So is new YES music maybe in the plans for next year?
GD – I hope so yes, I think it’s always good to do new music, it enables the touring to have a different angle, I mean we’ve been doing The Album Series for a while now but when you have a new album out it’s always nice to throw in a couple of the songs.
TD – As a creative person you always want to keep creating.
GD – Yes, it not only keeps the fans interested I think, but it shows that we’re not just prepared to sit back and play the part, we always think about the future.
TD – OK, so was it always going to be a life in music for you? Your family were very musical I believe.
GD – Yes, a lot of music. I didn’t really feel like I had any choice.
TD – Well it sounds like a good non-choice to have!
GD – ..and I went to music college in Leeds as you know.
TD – Yes, 71-75 – did you venture down to Elland Road often?
GD – Yes I used to go there sometimes, and the cricket at Headingley.
TD – So I guess you lived near Headingley as a student?
GD – Yes, Hyde Park Headingley near the cinema.
TD – I was a Roundhay boy
GD – Oh yes, Roundhay Park
TD – I lived a 10 minute walk from the park.
GD – Yes it’s quite a ground Elland Road
TD – An old ground, apart from the East Stand – does Martin still have his season ticket and box there? (Martin Darvill – YES manager)
GD – Yes he shares it with a guy that runs that firm ShowCo, Mark Harding – a big Leeds fan, and a couple of other guys from the music business. They converge in the posh part, and have a bite to eat.
TD – The prawn sandwich brigade…
GD – Yeah yeah.
TD – Ok Geoff thanks very much for your time.
GD – Ok Tim, good to see you mate, enjoy the show tonight.