A Few Minutes With… Alan White of Yes
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
The veteran progressive rock band Yes rolls into The Egg in Albany on Sunday (July 6), the second stop on a 35-date tour that includes Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium of Grand Ole Opry fame, the Big Apple’s Radio City Music Hall, and concludes at L.A.’s Greek Theatre. They will be performing in their entirety the albums Fragile and Close to the Edge, plus material from Heaven and Earth, a CD of new material to be released on Tuesday, July 22.
Jon Davison, the band’s current lead singer, was born the year the album Fragile was released – 1971. Drummer Alan White joined Yes just after their next album Close to the Edge came out in 1972. Even at that, he’s the second longest sustaining member of the band. Keyboardist Geoff Downes rejoined Yes in 2011 after an absence of 30 years. In fact, the only original member is Chris Squire, who formed the group in England in 1968.
With credits that include John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, White is sanguine about his tenure with Squire. “I guess we’re the only two that can put up with each other,” he laughs. “No, you know, I enjoy Chris’ playing. I enjoy working with him. In the beginning, we took quite a while to find our own styles to work totally with each other, but it seems as if the combination has played out through the many albums we’ve done, and the many years we’ve been playing.”
Not only does singer Davison bear an uncanny vocal similarity to original Yes vocalist Jon Anderson, but he wrote a lot of the material for the new CD. It’s just the latest round of a revolving door of personnel in a band whose storied members have also included Rick Wakeman, Trevor Horn, Tony Kaye and Bill Bruford. “I mean, we’re pretty organized,” says White. “Jon is a wonderful guy to bounce off, and he has good ideas musically, and also a great sense of coming up with melodies and (coming up) with great choruses. This album has a lot of great songs on it.”
Davison has the patented high vocal range that was Jon Anderson’s trademark. He was in a San Diego-based-Yes tribute band named Roundabout in 2005-2006 and was hired by Yes without an audition two years ago to replace Canadian singer Benoit David, who suffered respiratory illness, the same problem that had sidelined Jon Anderson. Davison told one San Diego reporter, “Yes has always been my favorite band since I was 12 when I heard (the 1983 hit) ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart.’ Then I bought (the 1973 album), Tales from Topographic Oceans, and it was like opening the Bible.”
Yes founder Squire and White are embracing the new kid on the block. “What happened in the beginning of this album is Jon went around to each different member of the band. He came up here to Seattle where I live, and worked with me for a couple of days, and then he went to England and worked with Steve Howe, and then he went to Phoenix and worked with Chris for a while. We just batted around ideas at those different times with the singer and pooled all of these ideas together in the end. There’s one song on the album I did with Jon, and I think Chris has got a couple and Steve’s got a couple, and it’s all around how to work with different songs.”
I asked White what brought Geoff Downes back into the band after 30-year absence. He didn’t answer the question, but his compliments about the keyboardist offer clues as to how the longtime drummer has survived so many personnel changes. “Geoff’s just always been a great keyboard player in my eyes. He’s got a lot of unique sounds he uses that are different than other people, and his sound has a stamp on it. He’s a wonderful guy to work with.
“Geoff and myself get on like a house a fire. We usually hang around on the road together and go places together and stuff when we’re away from our families and wives, and he’s just an all-around great guy, really easy to work with, very understanding and really talented, really talented. And he’s a very talented songwriter. I mean he wrote ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’ It was huge.”
Tony Bennett once told me it’s all about the songs, and Yes is still creating songs that reflect themystical aura that’s always been their trademark. And longevity in itself produces a certain credibility, as evidenced in White’s view about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “We were nominated last year, and I believe we only missed it by about 20 votes. So we’ll see what happens.
“Usually, when you get nominated once, you get nominated in succession.
“I think Kiss has been nominated about seven times before they got in this time. You’re dealing with a bunch of board of directors, and in fact I know about five people on the Board of Directors for that, but it’s really just one guy that makes all of the decisions. It’s just the editor of Rolling Stone, the Jann Wenner guy. He just hasn’t been into progressive rock music for a long time. If you’ve noticed, there are not many progressive bands in the Hall of Fame.”
Alan has his own band called White, but when I asked him if he had a life outside of Yes, he said simply, “Barely!”