The late 1960s was a pivotal and provocative time for rock ‘n’ roll. Bob Dylan went electric. The Beatles were poised to break up. Psychedelic rock pushed counterculture boundaries. Musicians began to reconfigure the more traditional sounds of their instruments with the use of new technology. Rock ‘n’ roll borrowed from classical and jazz music. Genres leaped over borders and never looked back.
In 1968, the band Yes joined those interested in exploring the expansion of rock ‘n’ roll genres. Their musicianship, technological acumen, and collaborative experimentation formed the backbone of what became known as progressive rock. In addition to Yes, other first-wave “prog” bands such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, and Pink Floyd would begin filling arenas in the 1970s.
Founded in 1968 by singer Jon Anderson and bassist Chris Squire (who died of leukemia in 2015), the band is celebrating its 50th anniversary and will play The Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ on Saturday, July 7. Last year, Yes was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Throughout a half-century, the band released 21 studio albums, 18 live albums, and has sold over 50 million albums. When it comes to Yes, the numbers can be somewhat dizzying. Personnel changes have been rather common throughout the band’s history. Almost 20 musicians have recorded and performed as the band Yes.
New Pulp City discussed the current tour with keyboardist Geoff Downes. While known for his work with Yes, Downes co-wrote the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” as a member of The Buggles. In addition to becoming a massive new-wave hit, the song is well-known in the U.S. as the first video broadcasted by MTV when it went on the air in 1981. Downes would later form the band Asia, a prog-rock “supergroup” which included Steve Howe (Yes), John Wetton (King Crimson), and Carl Palmer (Emerson, Lake & Palmer). Their debut album included a series of hits co-written by Downes, including “Heat of the Moment.”
The #YES50 tour features Steve Howe (guitar since 1970), Alan White (drums since 1972), Geoff Downes (keyboards; first joined in 1980), Jon Davison (vocals since 2011) and Billy Sherwood (guitar/keyboards in the 1990s and the late Chris Squire’s choice to take over bass/vocals in 2015). The tour will also feature founding member/Grammy winner/Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Tony Kaye (keyboards; 1968-1971 and 1983-1995).
And for clarification, this is one of two Yes incarnations to be touring to commemorate the band’s anniversary celebration. “Yes featuring Anderson, Rabin, and Wakeman” includes Yes co-founder and singer Jon Anderson, guitarist Trevor Rabin (who played a pivotal part in the band’s album 90125, featuring the chart-topping song “Owner of a Lonely Heart”) and keyboardist Rick Wakeman (who joined Yes in 1971).
“We wanted to something that was pretty varied,” said Geoff Downes, when asked about the song selections the band will be playing on their current tour. “When I rejoined the band about seven years ago, we played a whole variety — the album series, the Fly From Here album (2012) and the more recent Heaven and Earth album. We’ve really tackled pretty much everything from Yes’ catalog — bar the 90s Union period. For the 50th – I’m sure that a lot of Yes fans will have different opinions of what they want to hear. Steve [Howe] was pretty forthright in running with the ball. He put together a list and we modified it a bit here and there.”
Downes first joined Yes in 1980, with a re-shuffled line-up featuring Howe (guitar), White (drums), Squire (bass), and Trevor Horn, who sang lead vocals. The band released the album Drama, which included a style departure from previous Yes albums.
Downes and Horn, who formed the core of The Buggles were close collaborators. The two brought in more modernized keyboard sounds and a vocoder into the mix.
“The big keyboard players like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman were using piano, Hammond organ, and the early synthesizers like Minimoogs,” says Downes. “I got into all that, but as keyboards started developing I got more into the polyphonic keyboards. I was one of the first people to get one of the original sampling keyboards. As new things come out, I absorbed more and more. The way my style of playing — I guess you can call it a more orchestral approach. I still find it fascinating and do try to stay up to speed on any of the latest technological developments.”
Throughout Downes’ career, he has been able to approach collaborations that fostered a variety of methods and styles. “I certainly think with ‘Video [Killed the Radio Star]’ we knew that it was a pretty strong track,” says Downes. “When I did the original demo with Trevor [Horn], we just knew there was something special about that particular song. And I think the approach we put on with The Buggles … it wasn’t so much gimmicky but a different type of production that had been around before. We hoped it was going to be big. When we finished the final master, we took it as far as we could.”
Two years after Downes joined Yes, he would co-found Asia, the prog “supergroup” which featured a more commercial and album-oriented radio sound. Their eponymous debut would sell 10 million copies. Downes and bassist John Wetton co-wrote the song “Heat of the Moment.” “As far as ‘Heat of the Moment’ goes, it was a slightly different approach there because it was just a case of standing with John Wetton around the piano,” Downes recalls. “It was actually the last song we wrote for that first Asia album. Geffen Records felt that we had something else in us and so we came up with that.”
Downes spoke about the interrelations of each of his projects. “I think if you follow all the stuff that I’ve done there is a thread running through,” he says. “I approach each project differently. Depending on whether it’s an instrumental section or whether it’s supporting the vocal. I think that you really have to assess it as it comes to you.”
With so many permutations and combinations of personnel throughout Yes, how does the keyboardist mesh with his fellow bandmates? “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had the opportunity to write with some of the greatest musicians in the world,” says Downes. “Most of those have been bass players, certainly with Trevor Horn, John Whetton, Chris Squire, Glenn Hughes (of Deep Purple and briefly, Black Sabbath), and Greg Lake. When I get on the stage, I’ve got all that contact and knowledge of the people I’ve worked with. It’s not that difficult because it’s almost a natural extension of the writing process.”
While the heyday of prog rock may have faded some time ago, the style continues to inform contemporary bands. Both Radiohead and Muse cite Yes as an influence on their work.
“The Foo Fighters have quite a bit of a connection,” says Downes. “They’ve stated that they’re big fans of Yes … Chris [Squire] was the defining lead bass player that other bass players look up to. Yes is essentially a musician’s band. It’s a sum of very, very fine parts. That’s why I think people often look for in this band’s music.”
“We’re liking the fact that we have Tony Kaye here as well,” adds Downes. For the current tour, keyboardist Kaye (who played with Yes in 1968-1971 and 1983-1995) will be joining the band onstage for Yes standouts, including the songs “Roundabout,” “Starship Trooper,” and “Yours Is No Disgrace.” “It’s great. We really hit it off and I step out with some of the solo areas so he can work in his stuff,” adds Downes. “It’s all been very easy actually.”
“We had no idea the impact of what we were creating back in the 60s would be so long lasting…never mind 50 years,” says Kaye. “The fans of Yes have been so dedicated in their support, and of course the music would not have meant so much without them.”
Before bassist Chris Squire died in 2015, he mused about the longevity of Yes. “The Beatles had a six-year career, from 1963 to 1969, which — to me, in my early 20s — seemed like a phenomenally long time,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I always hoped Yes would have a six- to 10-year career, so it’s amazing, we’re still an active band and I’m enjoying the heck out of it…I hope after I’m gone, there will still be a Yes…that would be a nice legacy. ”