On board through myriad ups and downs—including the recent, tragic death of a bandmate—for over four decades the Yes drummer keeps a positive rhythm. He’s currently on tour through mid-September and looking forward to the group’s annual Cruise to the Edge seafaring celebration.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Like most drummers in better known bands, Yes’ Alan White tends to keep a fairly low profile. Indeed, after 43 years with one of the most successful bands on the planet, White’s work speaks for itself. He’s only the second man to sit behind the skins for the group in its nearly half century of existence, joining them following the departure of founding member Bill Bruford and just prior to the release of Close to the Edge, the album that would change their fortunes forever. It was a hectic debut to say the least; a mere three days after Yes recruited him, he was already on stage with them for the first date of their new tour.
Then again, White was no stranger when it came to shifting assignments. His various stints have included roles with Joe Cocker, the Alan Price Set, Ginger Baker’s Airforce, his relatively obscure prog-rock ensemble Griffin (not to be confused with the better known prog-rock ensemble Gryphon), and, most famously, John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band with whom he appeared at the famous Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969. To date, White’s discography includes more than 50 albums, including a single solo effort, 1976‘s Ramshackled, and at least two by Beatles alum — George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and Lennon’s landmark, Imagine.
Blurt caught up with White on a July morning in his hotel room in Lancaster Pennsylvania as the band were preparing for their latest tour, which encores November 15-19 with their third annual ocean-going excursion, aptly dubbed The Cruise to the Edge. Naturally, it will be different this year due to the death of Chris Squire just this past June. Nevertheless, White spoke openly about the effect on the band, Squire’s replacement on the road, Billy Sherwood, and his own illustrious past association with two of the former Fabs.
BLURT: It seems like Yes is constantly touring. What keeps you going at such a fervent pace?
WHITE: I don’t know. The band and the music represents the ‘70s and I guess that in one’s mind you want to keep the Yes name going to keep that high standard of musicianship and then carry it forward. Before Chris passed away, it was his wish that we persevere. When he got very sick, he called me and he called the others in the band… he was very optimistic about the future and he hoped to be back on the road by spring. So we said, ok Chris, but when you have something like leukemia you’re going to be out of action for at least a year. And even after you get the treatment, at age 70, it doesn’t bode well for the future anyway. They actually did get the,leukemia out of his body, but it weakened his heart so much, he never did recover from it.
At some point, did the band convene and suggest that maybe it wouldn’t be possible to carry on? That maybe a recess from the road was in order?
It was shocking to everybody, especially for the band but also for the fans. But Chris wanted us to keep moving forward with the Yes name and to carry the Yes banner. Billy Sherwood was a friend of Chris’ and he grew up with Chris as his mentor, so he knows the bass lines and his harmonies and so he had those down to begin with. And Chris wanted to Billy to take over in the interim. Initially he just wanted him to do this next tour that we’re planning for right now. And then he was planning to go back. But unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.
Aside from your upcoming tour, you have your third fan cruise coming up. Are you excited to be undertaking that voyage once again?
It’s quite enjoyable, yes. The fans like it and they appreciate the band taking the time out to do something like that, I think. There’s a multiple choice of venues of the boat and we get our choice of which bands are included.
So you actually curate the cruise then?
Well, the promoters give us a list of the bands he would like to see participate and we give him a list and we kind of come to a meeting at the end.
Does it take a lot of planning in terms of logistics to be set up onboard a ship for seven days?
Not really. We can do as much as we want or as least as what we want. We usually have a separate area of the boat that we can go to so we’re not being hounded all the time by the fans and the public. It makes it a lot better for us, let’s put it that way.
Are you able to circulate amongst the fans at any time?
Yes, we do. We go out and talk to the people out there and go for a beer at the bar with certain people or hang out with other musicians. But we’ve always got a place we can retreat to.
Yes is clearly one of the hardest working bands in the biz.
Considering we’ve been doing it for 45 years, it is pretty amazing. In fact, just today, I have another interview in about three minutes and I’m unpacking as I’m doing them, and then we have a rehearsal later today, and then we drive to Connecticut. So it is a pretty hectic schedule after all.
There have been no shortage of live Yes live albums lately, including your latest, Like It Is. Are there plans for a new Yes studio album in the near future?
We’re just getting over the loss of Chris, and getting our feet back on the ground and kind of working through the mechanics of this tour. Then we’ve got a tour next spring in Europe and possibly next summer, I don’t know about that yet. We’re just going to take it slowly and easily and then when the time is right, we’ll think about recording another album.
Billy had played with the band previously in various permutations, had he not?
He played with the band in the ‘90s and Billy and I had a band together with Chris, and then when Chris wasn’t involved anymore, we had a band called Circa. My commitment to Yes became to much at that point, however, that eventually I had to leave Circa even though Billy stayed on. (Below: Circa live)
What has the transition from Chris to Billy been like?
I suppose it was like my role when I first joined the band. Eventually I’d start changing things here and there, so that’s really what made it interesting for me.
Let’s talk about that for a minute. When you joined Yes in 1972, replacing Bill Bruford, was it difficult for you to adjust, given their distinct time signatures and the ambitious melodies. Was it intimidating in any way?
Not really. I was in my own band called Griffin for a number of years prior to joining Yes, and they played the same sort of interesting time signatures and lots of different styles of music, like classical, jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ Roll and Roll. I found it an easy transition.
You were also in the Plastic Ono Band.
Yes, I was. (Below: L-R: Klaus Voorman, Alan White, Yoko Ono, John Lennon, Eric Clapton)
That must have been a memorable experience. There was that famous gig at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival where you Lennon, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voormann literally had to learn your set on the plane ride over.
With Yes, I had to learn the entire repertoire in three days, and the same thing applied to the Plastic Ono Band. I got a call from John Lennon, and he said, ‘Can you come and do a gig tomorrow in Toronto Canada. I hung up the phone because I didn’t really believe it was him, and then he called back ten minutes later and I nearly fell on the floor when I realized it was really John Lennon. I actually thought it was a friends playing a joke on me. But when I realized who it really was, I said of course. He sent a limo and I met them in the airport. [Below: clip of the Plastic Ono Band in Toronto; the camera primarily focuses on Lennon, but White can be seen (sort of) starting at about the 2:20 mark]
Had you known him previously?
I had known him about two years previously. I played on the Imagine album and did “Instant Karma” single with him.
How did the association with Lennon begin?
It was interesting really. I had gotten a call from Mal Evans who was the Beatles roadie and he said, “John wanted me to call you and tell you to get your drums and get down to the studio now! John wrote a song last night and he wants to record it today and and release it next week.”
So we went down and it took us the better part of one day and we put the song together and it was a very quick turn-around. After that, he invited me to play on Imagine, which I did. George Harrison was also hanging around the studio and he asked me to play on All Things Must Pass. So I ended up playing on all those amazing albums.
The drums on that particular song are so distinctive. Your playing was really an indelible part of that record. Did Lennon give you free reign on that arrangement?
Yeah, pretty much. He played the song for me and I came up with an idea for the drum part. And he said, Alan, whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it. I was really interested in playing rhythms and then I experimented with this different metre and that’s exactly what emerged.
Go HERE to read our tribute to the late Chris Squire, along with the Editor’s special remembrance about growing up in the ‘70s with the band as a soundtrack.