Tempus fugit when you’re having fun—the virtuoso drummer on Yes’ past, present, and future.
BY BILL KOPP
Progressive rock heroes – and 2017 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees – Yes are embarking on a short, 10-date tour of the Southeastern USA in February 2017. A continuation of the band’s popular “Album Series” of concert tours, the performances will feature the group’s 1980 album Drama plus Sides One and Four of the sprawling 1973 album Tales from Topographic Oceans. The tour kicks off with a February 3 show at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Western North Carolina.
The “Album Series” is a relatively new approach for the enduring British band founded in 1968. Beginning in March 2013, Yes concerts featured performances of complete albums from the group’s deep catalog. The band would take to the stage and run through an entire album of material, start to finish (sometimes, as in the case of performances of 1972’s Close to the Edge, they would play the songs in reverse order). The first albums to be performed live in their entirety were Close to the Edge, Going for the One (1977) and 1971’s The Yes Album. The group’s 2014 tours featured 1971’s Fragile along with other songs. The 2016 tours featured the first complete performances of Drama, considered on its original release as a major musical departure for the group. By Summer of ’16 Yes was performing half of Tales from Topographic Oceans (specifically, sides 1 and 4).
Since its inception, Yes has gone through myriad changes. In fact – if one wants to get picky about it – the 2017 Yes lineup includes no original members. Allow me to explain in as concise a manner as is possible …
Yes was founded near the end of the ’60s in London by bassist Chris Squire and vocalist Jon Anderson. The remaining three members – guitarist Peter Banks, keyboardist Tony Kaye and Bill Bruford on drums – would each subsequently leave the band; both Bruford and Kaye would return at various points, but a full Yes personnel chronology would be mind-numbingly intricate; consult Wikipedia if you really must know.
Jon Anderson left for the final time in 2004; he currently tours with two other Yes alumni, guitarist Trevor Rabin and keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman. Chris Squire – the only member to have participated in every Yes concert and album up to that point – passed away from leukemia in 2015. With Squire’s passing, the sole founding member of the group was gone. But the current lineup of “new” members is anything but new. Guitarist Steve Howe joined in 1970; drummer Alan White took over for Bruford in 1972, and has played on every Yes release since Tales from Topographic Oceans.
The other members of Yes all have substantial history with the band. Keyboardist Geoff Downes came on board for Drama back in 1980, and rejoined as a full member in 2011 (he’s also been a mainstay of the closely related progressive/pop group Asia since its founding). Bassist Billy Sherwood is unique in Yes world in several ways: he’s one of only two Americans (current vocalist Jon Davison being the other) in the group; Sherwood has been in and out of Yes – in both official and unofficial capacities – several times beginning as far back as 1991. It’s worth reminding oneself that 1991 was more than a quarter century ago.
And with the exception of a medical leave during the group’s 25-date Summer 2016 tour, Alan White has been behind the Yes drum kit for every show since a concert in Dallas, TX on June 30, 1972.
White didn’t simply appear out of nowhere back in ’72; his impressive résumé already included work with John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, Denny Laine’s short-lived group Balls, and stints with former Animals keyboardist Alan Price as well as a brief tenure in Ginger Baker’s Airforce. Through absolutely no fault of the preternaturally good-natured White, most of those projects had run aground in disarray. But the drummer remained undaunted. “I’ve always been very positive,” White tells me during a late January 2017 conversation. “If things fall in place around you all well enough, I don’t complain about much at all. I just get on with performing, and go in a straight line forward. Things come and go around you.” That resilience has served him well during his 45-year tenure with Yes, as he’s seen the band endure – and thrive – through countless changes in style and personnel.
Yes’ original drummer Bill Bruford approached his craft from something of a jazz and improvisational mindset; in fact his stated reason for leaving Yes – already known for its intricate and demanding musical arrangements – was to pursue an even greater musical challenge with King Crimson. But even then, newcomer White was no slouch himself.
White provides some context. “Prior to Yes – and in fact for quite a few years while I was doing all of this other stuff – I had my own band in the English countryside that actually played a lot of prog style music.” He says that the music was in a style not wholly unlike Yes’ approach. “So I tried – when I got into Yes – to incorporate the rock and roll style along with knowing how to do the jazz things. I combined all of that into a fusion type of drumming that went along with a lot of Yes’ music.”
Looking back upon his entry into the band, White recalls the challenge of joining the band on the eve of a major tour of America. “Getting asked to learn and play the whole repertoire in three days was quite an exciting challenge for me,” he laughs. “One I’ve seem to overcome.”
When I interviewed Chris Squire in 2011, he recalled that time as well. “I was never sure it was going to work out when Alan first came in,” he told me. “But after awhile, he did so well that we melted into being the new ‘engine room.’”
For his part, White recalls that he seemed to get it mostly right onstage in Dallas. “Chris said, ‘That was great! We were all sweating bullets, because you didn’t really have enough time to learn the songs!’” He notes that while Bruford had played drums on the then-new album Close to the Edge, even he had never attempted to play the demanding material live. “I was experimenting to the point of how it would work on stage,” White says.
White and Squire quickly developed a close musical rapport, one that did indeed serve as the engine room that Squire described. White says, “When you play with somebody for 43 years – or even for 20 – you get to know how each other play so well, you kind of know what they’re doing before they do it. It’s an unwritten thing.”
Shortly before Chris Squire passed away, he made clear his wish for Yes to continue without him, and hand-picked multi-instrumentalist and longtime musical associate Billy Sherwood to take his place as the group’s bassist. For his part, White has a long musical history with Sherwood, both in and out of Yes; the pair have played together in Circa, a side-project band. White has also played on many of the various tribute albums Sherwood has produced and recorded.
White brushes away any suggestion that Sherwood’s bass playing requires a significant change in the way he plays drums on Yes songs. “You know what? Chris was Billy’s mentor. Billy studied Chris a lot through his life from an early age,” White says. He knows what he’s getting with Sherwood. “We were just in Japan together, doing a Yes tour,” White recalls. “Billy turned to me one day and said, ‘I’m 51 now. And I’ve known you since I was 19!’”
Asked to name his favorite song and/or album from among the 21 Yes studio releases he’s played on, White launches into a long list, jumping forward and backward through the catalog, naming songs and records from most every year and incarnation of the band. “You could go on forever,” he laughs, and he means it. White does make special mention of “Ritual,” the 21-minute-plus track that makes up all of Side Four on Tales of Topographic Oceans. That track features a long and memorable – and exceedingly musical – drum solo from White, and it’s a centerpiece of the February 2017 tour. “It’s really exciting to play,” says the 67-year-old drummer.
White’s long tenure with Yes has seen him take a major role in creating the band’s enduring legacy. But he takes accolades in stride. Case in point is his reaction to the recent announcement that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – long viewed as hostile toward progressive rock – will be inducting Yes in its next annual awards ceremony. “Yeah, well, it’s funny enough,” he says, noting that an artist has to have been active for 25 years before they’re eligible. “And it’s been almost 25 years since that happened for us.”
He continues on that point. “Fans have been saying for years and years, ‘I can’t understand why you guys are not in there!’ I talked to the guys in Rush when they got in; I was down at the ceremony in 2013. They said, “I can’t understand how we’re getting in the Hall of Fame when we modeled all of our music on yours!'”
Yes begins its February 2017 tour in Cherokee, NC, followed by a headlining/hosting spot on the five-day Cruise to the Edge floating festival. Once back on dry land, Yes will play a string of dates in Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Future – but as yet unannounced – plans call for a Yes summer tour, a South American series of dates, and, says White, “possibly doing another album in the studio after that.” As the group heads toward its 50th anniversary in Summer 2018, Yes shows no signs of stopping.