Yes drummer Alan White on four decades of prog rock
This coming summer, drummer and songwriter Alan White will have been in the band Yes for a staggering 44 years '“ give or take one gap-year.
That equates to two-thirds of his 66 years and counting, so I guess this multi-talented County Durham lad still enjoys playing with one of the most revered progressive rock outfits.
“Well, it’s been my whole life for a lot of years, so I guess I have to.”
While based in the United States these days, Alan is returning to his roots as Yes embark on a 10-date UK tour, playing two albums in their entirety, 1971’s Fragile and 1980’s Drama, as well as various Yes classics.
The tour starts at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall on April 27 and ends at London’s Royal Albert Hall on May 10, the band hoping for a similar reception to their 2014 sell-out itinerary.
It will be the first time Yes have performed in the UK since bass player and founder member Chris Squire died last June, after a battle with leukaemia.
Chris was the one constant member over 47 years, having co-founded the band in 1968, the initial five-piece also including vocalist Jon Anderson, from Accrington, who left in 2008 after his third stint.
Alan is joined in the current line-up by Billy Sherwood, who took over bass duties last year and previously featured from 1997 to 2000 on guitar; guitarist Steve Howe, involved from 1970–1981, 1990–1992, and since 1995; Geoff Downes on keyboards, who first featured in 1980 between spells in The Buggles and Asia, rejoining in 2011; and lead singer Jon Davison, who joined in 2012.
And the long-serving drummer agreed there’s something of a commemorative feel to this tour, fans and band alike getting to remember Chris Squire.
“Chris and I played together for 43 years. We were the two guys who stayed together the longest out of everybody.
“He hadn’t been that well for a while, a couple of health problems building up to that. But when I got an email from him explaining he’d been diagnosed with leukaemia, I thought, ‘Oh, my God!’
“I guess he fought it real well though, and believe in the end he’d almost beaten the leukaemia but his heart gave out.”
Even during the early ‘80’s band hiatus, Alan was working with Chris on his Cinema band project.
“We were left calling each other asking, ‘What’ll we do now?’ We wanted to keep with Yes, and that’s how we carried the band on really.
“We ran into Trevor Rabin and that turned into 90125, which was a really great
period for the band.”
“That was the first album after Drama. It was a bit of a risk, but Trevor Rabin (who stayed for 12 years and has now teamed up with Jon
Anderson and Rick
Wakeman) was a really fantastic musician all-round and wrote great songs, too. And that album (90125) was the best as far as sales go of all the Yes albums.”
Even before that, the band’s dynamics were shifting, Anderson and Wakeman – after the second of his five stints with the band – leaving after the album Tormato and Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn from The Buggles joining, not long after their worldwide hit with Video Killed the Radio Star.
That particular Yes had a heavier, harder sound, the album – the band’s 10th – reaching No.2 in the UK and the US top-20. But after the tour, it was all change again.
Reconvening in England, they dismissed their manager. Then Trevor Horn left to pursue a career in music production, with Alan and Chris next to depart (and unsuccessfully attempting to start a group. XYZ, with Led Zeppelin legend Jimmy Page). Sole remaining members Geoff Downes and Steve Howe then went their own separate ways in December and eventually formed Asia with John Wetton and Carl Palmer.
It’s fair to say Alan wouldn’t go near Drama for a long time. I asked if he’d rediscovered an appreciation of it while re-learning songs for the tour. He wasn’t to be drawn... so we moved on.
I was on safer ground talking about the forthcoming dates, not least Manchester Apollo (Saturday, April 30, 08444 777 677) and Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (Monday, May 2, 0151 709 3789).
“I’m really happy we’re playing Liverpool again. We played Manchester a few times, but haven’t got over to Liverpool, despite playing great gigs there in the past.
“But until a couple of years ago I was going quite regularly for a Beatles festival, with five or six days there. I really enjoyed that, and the people who put it on are friends of mine.”
The tour also includes Newcastle City Hall (April 29), not far from Alan’s North East roots. And as it turns out he does lives in Newcastle - albeit a city of the same name in Washington.
“I just did an interview with a guy writing for the Chronicle in Newcastle, going on about the old days, schools and all sorts.
“Actually, the band I started with was called the Downbeats, and one guy recently sent me an email saying he wanted to get the band back together. But I’m not sure who’s still alive! When I was in that band I was the youngest, and that was a long time ago!”
Alan was 13 when he joined the Downbeats, having started his musical education learning piano at the age of six, in time switching to drums.
He went on to feature with a number of bands, his career taking off after joining fellow County Durham lad Alan Price, a spell with the former Animals keyboard player in 1967 and 1968 including two LPs and an EP.
Despite being proud of his heritage, Alan loves life in America. Married to Gigi for 33 years, his two children are now in their early 30s, becoming a grandfather two years ago.
So what were the chances of this North East lad ending up in the mid-1990s in Newcastle, Washington, rather than its Tyne and Wear namesake?
“The district I live in is Bellevue, then there’s Renton nearby, and the two joined together to form a new city three months after I bought this house.
“I always tell people that because I know the mayor very well I made a phone call to change the name of the city! Actually, the real reason is we’re on the side of a big hill where there was a coal mine, with a lot of the people who worked there originally from Newcastle.”
Getting on to Fragile, the other LP featured on the tour – with 10 UK dates followed by 15 more in mainland Europe – was he aware of the band when that came out?
“I’d heard them on the radio, as that’s when they started to get airplay. And I believe the first song I heard was Roundabout, from that album. I was playing with Terry Reid’s band, and we were setting up equipment in Bournemouth when they were playing the radio in this club. I heard them come on, and said, ‘Who’s this band? They sound good!’ I went to see them when they played Wembley, supporting someone. That was when Chris wore his furry boots and all that.”
Alan joined Yes in late July, 1972, taking over from King Crimson-bound drummer Bill Bruford for the Close to the Edge tour, after just one full rehearsal with the band. They went on to play 95 shows in the US, Canada, the UK, Japan and Australia, through until April 1973, having given each other three months to see if Alan fitted in.
He’s appeared on every Yes album since, from 1973 live offering Yessongs and sixth studio LP Tales from Topographic Oceans to 2014’s Heaven and Earth, the 21st studio release.
Long before all that, Alan’s career reached a whole new level while with the Alan Price Set when he received a call from a certain John Lennon. At first he thought it was a wind-up, but quickly took up an offer to join the Plastic Ono Band, his first contributions recorded for prosperity on hit album Live Peace in Toronto 1969.
Does he have good memories of his days with the former Beatle?
“They were fantastic. I spent a lot of time round at John’s house, and we just worked on music all the time. And that’s where Imagine came from.”
Alan played drums on six tracks on classic 1971 album Imagine as well as additional Tibetan cymbals on Oh My Love and vibraphone on Jealous Guy. He also played drums, piano and added vocals to early 1970 single Instant Karma! and was ’Dallas White’ on the Live Jam issued with Some Time in New York City the following year.
And when John introduced Alan to George Harrison, he was asked to perform on the critically-acclaimed All Things Must Pass album in late 1970.
“George used to come down for those sessions at John’s, and we’d sit and have dinner in the evening, all round the big table, with John, Paul, George, even Ringo occasionally. We’d sit and eat something then go back in the studio and keep working on stuff.”
Having spoken to Alan just after the death of Sir George Martin, I asked if he got to meet the legendary producer, too.
“I did, a couple of times. He came down for the Imagine sessions for a while. I met him another time recording an album with George for Doris Troy (on You Tore Me Up Inside).”
Alan went on to join Ginger Baker’s Air Force, also featuring Steve Winwood, in late 1971, and the following year while touring with Joe Cocker, received his invitation to join Yes.
Over the years he’s also featured with Billy Preston, Paul Kossoff, Denny Laine, Sky, Donovan and Yes alumni Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, among others.
Having mentioned Sir George Martin, Alan’s clearly worked with several top producers. Was Trevor Horn’s time with Yes an eye-opener into innovative production techniques?
“Definitely. Eddy Offord, too. Let me tell you, Eddy was bloody innovative! He’d try quadraphonic mixing, and built a quadraphonic desk before anyone ever thought of that.”
Eddy produced every LP from 1971’s The Yes Album through to 1974’s Relayer, the band taking the credits themselves for a while before Eddy returned for Drama.
Meanwhile, Alan’s always been far more than just a drummer, and has played piano and written music for several Yes albums. Not as if he’ll praise his contributions.
“Unfortunately I’ve written some songs at the wrong time. Like Machine Messiah on Drama. We play it on stage and I listen and think, ‘What the hell was I thinking when I wrote that?’
He also released a solo LP in 1976, Ramshackled, and more recently has played for several bands around Seattle, his guests including bandmates Billy Sherwood and Geoff Downes.
Did the band’s recent US tour also involve the same sets?
“No, the last show we did was more a hits show, rather than two albums in their entirety as we’re doing this time. Of course, two years ago we were doing three albums a time! That turned out to be one hell of a long set!”
When it came to the rehearsals, did the songs come back to you soon enough?
“Well, some songs on Drama we haven’t played for 35 years – since the original album tour. So there are songs that are big challenges.”
We mentioned how this tour ends in Rome. It’s not a bad life really, is it?
“Well, yeah, I think the last four gigs are in Italy. You know what, though? I’ve been there a million times before. It’s nice to go back, but I’ve travelled the world before.
“I like to get back home and walk the dogs in the park. I have three Jack Russells.
Actually, I misquoted myself – I don’t walk the dogs, they walk me these days!”