By Lee Zimmerman
Most folks would agree that when it comes to prog rock, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been extremely slow in recognizing the contributions of artists that have ventured onto more experimental realms. All one has to do is look at the bands that have been passed over through the years — The Moody Blues, King Crimson, ELP et al. — to realize there’s been a certain deficiency in acknowledging those of that particular genre.
Consequently, the announcement that Yes was about to be inducted may have helped bring some long overdue recognition to that segment of the musical community. And one could hardly think of a better band to help steer that belated appreciation than Yes themselves. Formed in 1968, the band subsequently released a series of albums — “Time and a Word,” “The Yes Album,” “Fragile,” “Tales From Topographic Oceans” and the like — that defined progressive rock for the ages and made them a prominent presence and multi-million sellers for the decades to come.
Ironically, while Yes boasts longtime members Steve Howe (guitar) and Alan White (drums) — along with Geoff Downes (keyboards), Jon Davison (vocals), and Billy Sherwood (who returned to the fold to replace the band’s late founder Chris Squire after his passing in 2015) — no original members remain in the current line-up. It hardly matters though. The various musicians who have come and gone from the roster have all remained faithful to Yes’ spirit of adventure and exploration, keeping a certain consistency in that ongoing progressive posture.
Goldmine recently spoke with Alan White from his home in Seattle and asked him about his reaction to getting the nod from the Hall of Fame, as well as about other items on their current agenda.
GOLDMINE: So how does it feel to finally get inducted?
ALAN WHITE: This is our third nomination. You have to be 25 years in the business to be eligible, and it’s been at least 25 years since we’ve been considered. But it’s a pleasure and it should be a lot of fun going to the induction ceremony.
GM: Do you expect many of the former Yes members to show up for a big onstage reunion?
AW: When I think about how many musicians have been in Yes over the years, I don’t think there’s a big enough stage to hold all of them. But at the same time, I think what it turns out to be is that the Hall of Fame people want you to stick to a certain plan. In ’91, we did the Union tour, so I have a feeling that the people that were involved in that will be part of the line-up.
GM: It’s reasonable to expect that Jon Anderson will be there, right? AW: Oh yes, I’m pretty sure that he will be.
GM: Having talked with him in the past, he gives the impression that there are no hard feelings between him and the band. And despite the fact that so many people have come and gone, everything seems fairly amiable.
AW: I would hope so. We have to get to that point. (chuckles) We’ve been carrying on touring as Yes, and Jon and Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman have this other band as well. I’m still friends with everybody, so at least we can talk.
GM: Then you have to decide who takes part in the big jam session at the end.
AW: Yeah, well… I don’t know. They want us to play three numbers. That’s all I’ve heard so far… we have time to decide.
GM: Up until now, it seems the Hall of Fame has been reticent to recognize bands of a certain progressive stature.
AW: Yes, that and folk music. That doesn’t seem to go over so well. It’s strange how it goes in circles. For instance, I went the time that Rush got inducted, and the guys in Rush said to me, “We don’t understand how Yes isn’t in the Hall of Fame, because we nicked some of our music from you.”
GM: How do you see Yes’ place in the whole rock pantheon. Obviously you injected a progressive kind of posture, but how do you view your contributions overall?
AW: The band’s very seasoned and we’ve all been doing it for a long time. Everybody is very proficient on their instrument. You have to be to be in Yes. So all the musicians — me and Steve and the others in the current line-up — put on a great show with great music. As far as longevity, I realized last July I had been in the band for 45 years. Who would have thought that? When I joined the band in ’72, I thought, it ought to be good for the next two years, the next five years at most. It’s been a long road, but it’s been very enjoyable to be with the band all those years. We not only tour America these days, but also South America, Australia… pretty much worldwide.
GM: So how do you account for this ongoing popularity?
AW: I think there’s one good answer for that, and it’s the music. I think quite a lot of Yes music is timeless. Right now we’re playing live onstage side one and side four of “Topographic Oceans.” A lot of people think of that album now as a classical piece of music, akin to Bach or Beethoven. Someone asked me the other day, “Do you think the band will ever get to the point where there’s no (classic) members?” And I said, perhaps, because it’s the music that makes it all worthwhile. There are a few Yes tribute bands out there, but not as many as other tribute bands because the music is quite hard to play.
GM: How difficult has it been to integrate new musicians into the fold?
AW: Obviously they have to be very proficient to play this material. I have my own band in Seattle called the White band and everybody’s excellent. They play quite a bit of Yes music and do it very, very well.
GM: So how did you come to join Yes? Did they seek you out? Were you familiar with the band’s music at the time?
AW: I was on the road with Joe Cocker and finishing up a European tour. I was in Rome when I got a call from my manager saying Yes wanted me to join the band. I went, “Wow!” He said to hop on a plane because they’ve set up a meeting with Chris Squire and Jon Anderson. So I flew back to London and I met with Chris and Jon. Bill Bruford had left to join King Crimson and they told me they had seen me play with Joe Cocker and admired my capabilities and that sort of thing. So they offered me a place in the band. I suggested we try it out to see if it all works. And then as they were walking out the door, they said, “Oh, by the way, we have a gig in three day’s time in Dallas, Texas, so please go ahead and learn the music.” I thought, you’ve got to be joking. But I rose to the occasion. I don’t think I even had a full day’s rehearsal. I got my head into the music over the weekend and then Monday morning I jumped on a plane; and the next thing I knew, I was onstage.
GM: That sounds similar to the situation you found yourself in when John Lennon asked you to play with him and Eric Clapton at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in September 1969. You had to rehearse the songs on the flight over.
AW: It was pretty much a similar thing. Maybe if I ever do a book — which I hope to do very soon — I’ll call it “Jumping in the Deep End.”
GM: Indeed! It’s very interesting, because Joe Cocker’s music and Yes’ music were very, very different.
AW: That’s very true, but for many years I had my own band in England that was in a progressive type style. Some of it was similar to Yes. It might have been a bit more jazzy, but it still had that rock ‘n’ roll feel to it.
GM: Which band was that?
AW: It was called Griffin.
GM: So did you have a chance to talk with Bill Bruford during the transition and get his input?
AW: No, not really. He just took off. They had just finished “Close to the Edge,” so I had to go on the road and promote it. But since I hadn’t played on it, it was kind of interesting in that respect.
GM: It must have been interesting also from the point of view that you were essentially a support musician for Cocker, but with Yes, you were an equal. One fifth of a whole.
AW: With Yes everyone is an individual virtuoso, and we’ve all had solo albums. So the band was really proficient, and individually we were were all quite capable as well.
GM: Speaking of which, you did a solo album back in the day. Do you have plans to do another?
AW: I did one with the White band, doing some of the music I played prior to Yes. So it is a possibility and we’re talking about doing another.
GM: You could take your band out on tour supporting Yes.
AW: (Laughs) That would make a long evening for me. It’s kind of long enough as it is. We did a tour maybe eight or 10 years ago where Geoff Downes, who plays keyboards for Yes, was also playing with Asia, which opened up for us. So he played the whole night. And Steve as well. They also got paid twice, which isn’t bad.
GM: How is new music first presented to the band? Does one person come up with the idea? It’s so complex and goes off on so many different tangents, so how do you all work it up initially?
AW: Everybody has ideas and develops songs. Once you get the basic idea for a song, it tends to take hold and then everybody contributes different pieces of music and certain lyrics and things like that. Things are tossed around quite a bit while we’re creating it. It’s something that just sort of falls together because of the people in the band.
GM: How do the demos work? If someone comes in with a new song, does he then present it to the band?
AW: Usually the demos are a one person kind of thing. But when you throw it out there, everybody’s creative juices get involved.
GM: Does the classic Yes music set a high bar in terms of your expectations and the sense that going forward, you had to sort of reach a certain standard? When you prepare a new album, are you comparing the new material to what you’ve done in the past?
AW: You do reflect on some of the past accomplishments when you go into the studio. But you just do what is necessary for the piece of music. Sometimes it involves a really complex rhythm section, and sometimes it has a pretty straight forward approach. We’re pretty versatile to go wherever the music leads us.
GM: Considering all the band’s accomplished, and your own accomplishments as well, are you a nostalgic type of individual? Do you look back fondly on those early achievements? Do any particular episodes stand out?
AW: (Chuckles) Oh yes, there are plenty of those. I remember, just like Spinal Tap, us getting lost backstage once and trying to find our way to the stage, because the tour manager was missing. We call those our Spinal Tap moments. It was kind of funny, but it really wasn’t funny because the introductory music was playing and we were wandering about under the pipes that were under the stage somewhere.
GM: But what about all the great musical moments — all these highlights where things did go right — are there any that take you back from time to time?
AW: The last few years we’ve been playing the Albert Hall. That’s kind of a spectacle in itself. And selling out Madison Square Garden eight nights in a row. We held the record at one time. Those are magical moments that you just don’t forget.
GM: And of course you personally had the opportunity to work with John Lennon. That had to be memorable.
AW: Absolutely. I got a call from him and I thought it was a prank phone call from a friend of mine. So I put the phone down and he called me back and said, “No really. This is John Lennon!” At which point I just dropped everything around me. He said, “I saw you playing in a club the other night. Would you want to do a show with me? We’ll send a car for you tomorrow.” And I said, sure! (chuckles) The next thing I know we’re rehearsing on the airplane and then I’m onstage with John Lennon. It was quite an interesting 48 hours.
GM: And of course your drum part on Lennon’s “Instant Karma!” is inscribed in immortality.
AW: I’ve done a few of those rock ‘n’ roll fantasy camps with Mark Hudson, and every time I see him, he says, “C’mon, let’s do the drum break from ‘Instant Karma!’ I was actually playing it with the other counselors, he said, “Let’s begin it with the drum break and we’ll finish it with the drum break.” And I said, “You can’t do that!” Every time we do the song, he just looks back to me and shakes his head. He’s a funny, funny guy.
GM: So what’s next for the band? Is there the possibility of a new album anytime soon?
AW: Maybe after this cycle of touring we can reconvene in the studio. We’re doing a summer tour, and we may be going to South America at the end of the year. After that, maybe we’ll put pen to paper and see what we come up with.