On Friday, August 7th, legendary Prog Rock band Yes will begin a new tour. Co-headlining with Toto, the tour will hit twenty-six cities, beginning in Connecticut and wrapping up in British Columbia. And although combined these bands have sold close to a hundred million records, what makes this tour stand out from all the others in the past forty-plus years of the band is that bass player Chris Squire will not be onstage with them, a fact that adds a hint of melancholy to what is usually an exciting event. Squire, a founding member who has appeared on every one of the band’s twenty-one studio albums, passed away this year on June 27th from a rare form of leukemia. The band members knew that Squire’s treatment would prevent him from participating in the North American tour so former Yes member Billy Sherwood was handpicked to take his spot. “The other guys and myself have agreed that Billy Sherwood will do an excellent job of covering my parts and the show as a whole will deliver the same Yes experience that our fans have come to expect over the years,” Squire said in a statement in May.
So with the tour looming on the August horizon and their third annual cruise from November 15-19, the band has reconvened to share the magic and wonderment of a band called Yes. Glide had the honor of speaking with longtime keyboard player Geoff Downes a few days ago about the future of Yes and what it was like when he first came into the band in 1980 following his tenure in the Buggles, whose 1979 catchy yet quirky “Video Killed The Radio Star” was used to launch MTV on August 01, 1981.
Downes made his first appearance in Yes on their 1980 album Drama. The band would split in early 1981 but with bandmate Steve Howe, Downes would form Asia with ELP drummer Carl Palmer and King Crimson vocalist John Wetton. Their synth-heavy pop tunes, including the #1 single “Heat Of The Moment,” would garner them major success for a few years. Downes would continue to work with various former bandmates in other projects, as well as releasing his own solo albums. He would reunite with Yes in 2011, recording the albums Fly From Here and Heaven & Earth with them. In 2013, they did a tour playing three of their classic albums, The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One, in their entireties.
You are about to embark on a tour with Toto next week. I’m sure you are all very excited about that but at the same time I’m sure there is an air of melancholy as well without Chris.
Yeah, we were all very saddened by the news of Chris’ passing. I think we all felt that he was going to pull through and he got diagnosed with this rare form of leukemia a few months ago. He was very optimistic that he would actually pull through but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. He already knew that he wouldn’t be able to do the tour and he suggested we get Billy to cover for him, Billy Sherwood, in the event that he wouldn’t be able to do it. And like I said, unfortunately, that remained the case and we weren’t able to do it with Chris. But certainly I think that we all felt it was very important to continue the legacy of Yes, and not just for Chris’ sake but also for the fans and plans and preparations for the tour and the expectations and everything like that. So as you say, there is an air of melancholy but at the same time I think we’ve got to make sure that we try and keep that legacy of Yes going for as long as we possibly can.
And you said it was actually Chris who suggested Billy to play?
He did, yeah, and Billy was already in line to do the tour prior to Chris’ death and in some ways we are all looking forward to going out because I think it’s important to keep, for everybody, Yes alive and kicking as much as we can. I think that was Chris’ wishes and I think during the course of the show, obviously, there will be a very fitting tribute to Chris, and I think that’s important as well. So it’s kind of a strange situation for all of us, I think, because none of us has been in that position before. But we will do the best we can and I think the band will be very strong. I think the bill with Toto is a good billing because they’re a very musical band. We’re in the entertainment business and I think we’ll hopefully give people a good feeling when they go away from the show and have had a good night of music.
I think the fans will appreciate it too, as they can show their love for you and what Chris has contributed. So it’s a two-way street there.
It is, absolutely. I agree. But we’ll have to see what happens. It’s kind of unknown territory for us, obviously, because Chris was such an integral part of the band, and was from the beginning. He was on every single one of the twenty-one or twenty-two studio albums and remained in the band from the beginning so I think that’s important in some respects. We’ll keep that to the fore.
Is the readjustment without Chris and having Billy there, is it weird, for lack of a better word?
I don’t think it’s weird in so much the fact that Billy is a former member of Yes as well and he had quite a long period with them in the ‘90’s, and also that he wrote with Chris on other projects, as he has done with all of us in various aspects. I’ve done a lot of projects with Billy over the years, several projects and stuff, so that side of it is not weird. But we’ll have to see how it all works out. But I think if anybody was going to take Chris’ place in any capacity, Billy is probably, certainly the chosen one for the job.
You wrote a very lovely tribute to Chris on your website. It really touched upon his humorous side, which a lot of people didn’t get to see. They thought he was really serious and you brought his humor out in it.
You know, Chris was an extremely very funny guy to be with. I had the privilege of working with him on many occasions and we always got along really well. He was very much a champion of my music or my contributions and he was pretty much institutional in getting me involved in the band in the first place. So I’m extremely grateful from that aspect. But nothing’s going to take his place in terms of what he was as a guy. He was great company. We’d sit there and he’d talk about all kinds of things. He not only had a passion about his music but for life in general. And I think that’s the one thing I’ll miss is getting up onstage and standing up there and not seeing his omnipresent figure there and knowing that he was giving it his all every night and that was very much what Chris was about. When he’d go on that stage, that was HIS stage, and I’m grateful I was able to share that with him.
Well, the main thing about Yes is that we’re all very, very different characters and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why it has been so successful and has been for years. You’ve got a number of very contradictory characters – some people like to be very serious, some people like to be more open. It’s probably one of those bands that didn’t really have a form, it just kind of happened, and all these different personalities kind of converged in the middle somewhere and I think what made the music so great is you had all those different personalities and different influences that actually, when you put it all together, it created something that was completely unique. And I think that’s one of the things that Yes’ music has always had is it’s uniqueness, a sound to itself. And I’m sure you read all the tributes about Chris from all sorts of different kinds of musicians. They’re not just Progressive Rock guys but you’re talking about the influence of Yes going way beyond just Prog music, you know. The depth of it goes to all kinds of music and I think that was one of the great attributes of not only Chris’ contributions but Yes’ music in general.
Yes also has the cruise coming up in November
Yeah, cruise #3. That should be interesting (laughs). I think it will be. There’re some great bands on board, and the fans can actually rub shoulders with the bands they’ve admired and followed over the years, and some of the bands they’ve never got a chance to see, and would like to, they can see all in one place. And I think from that standpoint it’s a great coming together of a lot of true music fans.
You weren’t really a rock & roll kid growing up, were you?
When I was studying for my exams at school, I was really into Time & A Word, the second Yes album, and that was virtually nonstop on my old record player, whatever it was, a Dansette Major, and I had that album and that was really the backdrop to my sort of life at school, if you like. It had a big impression on me. Yes, and a lot of the music that was coming out of the UK at the time, bands like Caravan and Curved Air and that sort of thing, that was very much kind of the backdrop to my upbringing, if you like.
When you first came into Yes, what was the most complicated song for you to learn?
Well, they’re all complicated (laughs). I mean, I tried to remain as faithful as I could be to the original concept from a keyboard standpoint but I think the most challenging, in more recent times, was the track “Close To The Edge” because it goes from so many different changes; but it’s all very challenging stuff and how they came up with that in the first place. But that was probably the most challenging piece of music that I had to play with the band. I think there’d been three or four keyboard players that have sort of put their stamp on Yes’ music over the years and I think it’s important to follow that legacy, to try and not copy it per se but to try and play the parts as they were written. That’s very important.
Were you made to feel comfortable putting your little spin on it or would they have rather you stayed truer?
Funny enough, Chris was always the one that would say, “Don’t stick too heavily to that.” He was always extremely supportive of my input. At the same time, knowing it’s certain charted territory that you have to adhere to. Like if you play a classical music piece, you’re not going to stray too far from the original score because then it ceases to have any significance to what you’re actually doing.
How much farther do you see the advancement of the keyboards going? What else can that instrument do – it’s so advanced as it is.
It’s funny because I don’t think it’s really developed significantly over the last few years. Keyboards these days are capable of doing everything, even orchestral sounds; the world is your oyster. I’ve always been interested in the technological side of the keyboard playing and instruments. I’ve always tried to be ahead of the game in terms of whatever the latest piece of equipment, even if it just makes one decent sound. Having said that, I’m sure there will be different things develop over the years, though I don’t know how much further you can really take it, to be honest.
Are you planning to do any more producing in the near future?
No, only so much as when I’m doing my own projects. I tend to not do other productions anymore. I did it for a while but I never felt that comfortable with it because as a producer you’re almost on the other side of the game of being a musician. Nowadays, I like to think of it as an extension of what I’m doing musically. It’s kind of the end result rather than stepping aside from being a musician. I don’t know if I could do that again.
When all this is done, the tour and the cruise, do you think Yes can do another record? Do you think that’s possible?
I think it’s a possibility. I think much of this is kind of an early situation that we have not yet managed to look at. We’ll take address of the situation once we’ve got through the tour and the cruise and see how not just the fans response is but how we feel internally about the situation. But I think we’ve got a very, very strong core, obviously long term fundamental members of the band, and Jon Davison who is a fabulous singer and fabulous talent that we’ve got on board, so I think there’s life in the old dog yet (laughs).
Last Question: Why did you spray your school shoes silver when you were thirteen?
(laughs) Very good question. Because I was an exhibitionist, always have been. And I will probably go to the silver shoes on this tour again.
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough