Geoff Downes,
The TVD Interview

Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just last year, progressive rock stalwarts Yes is capping a 50th anniversary tour that covers material from 1970s’s Time and a Word to the 2011 Fly from Here, with classic rock staples like “Roundabout,” “Close to the Edge,” and “Yours is No Disgrace” in between.

It comes at a time when there is more reissued Yes in the vinyl bins than there has been in decades, 90125 just out this month on 140-gram colored vinyl following the release on Record Store Day in April of a 140-gram picture disc of Tormato. All this after the first five albums were reissued last year in a vinyl box set Yes: The Steven Wilson Remixes.

The band today features longtime guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White with guitarist Billy Sherwood and vocalist Jon Davison. On an array of keyboards is Geoff Downes, who first came to fame as a member of The Buggles with Trevor Horn in 1977. Three years later the two joined Yes in time for the Drama album. When the band broke up, Downes co-founded Asia in 1982 with Howe as well as John Wetton of King Crimson and Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. He left Asia in 1986 and returned in 1990 amid solo recording and releases with Wetton. He rejoined Yes seven years ago.

We talked to Downes, 65, from a Manhattan hotel stop, where he discussed his road to Yes, the prescience of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and the proliferation of keyboards around him on stage.

What goes into putting a tour on like this covering such a long period of time?

I think it’s a good idea to go into some of the more obscure material. What we’ve tried to do is get a very good cross-section of Yes’s music across the years and that in many ways dictates what you’re going to do. You look at a band like Yes, and there’s an enormous catalog of music. So it’s quite difficult to decide what to do. But I think once you get the bookends and you know what you’re doing at the front, and you know what you’re doing at the end, it’s a lot easier to fill it all in.

When you began as a musician you were a fan of Yes, right?

Absolutely. I was listening to Time and a Word when I was studying for my exams at school. So it’s very strange that I’m actually a member of the band and have been certainly since 1980, and then of course seven years ago when I rejoined.

And yet your career went a little bit different path. Tell me about your road to, say, The Buggles.

Well, when I first came to London, I had come out of music college and I got a job doing advertising jingles and various session work, and it was really through that that I bumped into Trevor Horn, and that’s how we joined up as The Buggles—we had common interests and very common ideas. When we had the success of “Video Killed the Radio Star,” we got so we were looking for management and we were approached to join up with a guy called Brian Lane, who was the manager of Yes, and that’s how the whole connection came about that we were managed by the same company and we met up through that.

Did you think of “Video Killed the Radio Star” as a declaration that would stand the test of time?

It was almost a foresight. But I think we knew that the song had something really strong going for it and I think that’s why we persevered with that. Really, over the rest of the material, that was a song that we really wanted to get right. The sentiment of the song really has more to do with a general overview of changing technology, rather than being specific. But it was just that that seemed to be a worthwhile statement that technology changes—it changes art, it changes everything.

I guess you could write something similar today about streaming services killing the recording star.

Well, I think it’s tough for people coming through now because there’s not the financial support from record labels anymore to invest in talent. So that’s a difficult road, I think, because most of the investment comes for people who appear on the reality TV shows. There are not that many people in the position of running round for years on end in the back of vans, playing all sorts of gigs. That’s there’s not so much a common thing anymore.

And with the aspect of streaming, it’s changed the fact that there’s not a lot of money in that side of it either. The music industry today revolves a lot around reissues and past record sales and stuff like that. So I think it’s very difficult for young people coming through now. But there are avenues. I think if people really believe in themselves they will find a way through.

Speaking of reissues, a lot of the Yes catalog is being reissued on vinyl. Is that something you want to see with the entire catalog?

I think it’s great, and it has had a spike of interest in the last few years certainly. I think quite a lot of it has to do with the artwork on previous albums being much more spectacular on a bigger sleeve. When it’s condensed down to a CD cover, with the tiny little writing inside, it doesn’t have the same impact.

The thing about vinyl is that it’s a nice thing for people to possess, and to put on the record player, and sit back and hear one side of an album, and appreciate it that way—which is exactly how the albums were conceived in the first place: as two sides, or in the case of Topographic Oceans, four sides of vinyl. It’s a nice thing for people to have and I think it makes music much more of an experience for people rather than just downloading some file and listening to that.

There’s more value to it if people can hold it in their hands, I think.

Exactly. Exactly, yeah.

Growing up do you have some memories of important vinyl in your life?

Yeah, I do. Certainly, that was the medium when I was growing up and 45s, of course, were very significant. I think that there was always a thing about going down to the local record store and getting the new album in, whether it be a Yes album, or I remember getting the first picture disc of a band called Curved Air [in 1970]. I remember getting that and thinking how fantastic it was. Those are the memories you have about getting those vinyl recordings. And of course, record sales at that time, particularly in singles, were incredible. The Beatles were selling 2 million singles in the UK alone. Those kind of units have never really been paralleled I think.

Speaking of units, you sold 10 million copies of the first Asia album. Was it a struggle to match that initial success?

The fact that we’d all come from other very successful bands, it was difficult to hold that together. It wasn’t like one of those bands that started at school with all the guys knowing each other and growing up together. We were from four different areas really. So I think that brought some kind of strain of it. But also, the fact that that first album was so enormously successful, the expectations, not just from the band, but I think from the record company and management were: We’d like a lot more that. So that put pressure on us for the second album, so come up with stuff that was similar to the first album. I still have some very fond memories and I still think it’s a great band, and certainly very sadly miss John Wetton who died 18 months ago.

You recorded a half-dozen albums with Wetton. Are there other albums that haven’t been released?

I have some stuff we were working on prior to the time when he was diagnosed with a serious illness. I’ve still got those recordings, and hopefully one day I’ll be able to dig into them deeply and finish them off.

How have things changed technologically for you on stage with the keyboards?

There are two really big changes I think that happened. One was around the early ‘70s where synthesizers started coming into vogue and they started being introduced into music in the very early ’70s and that was a completely different world, because prior to that, there had been piano and organ and that was about it. Now all of a sudden, at the beginning of the ‘70s you had mellotrons and mini-moogs and big modular moog systems. So that was a big explosion then.

I think the second large explosion was that there were developments of all different kinds of synths all through the ’70s, and into the beginning of the ’80s I think was when they started getting the digital sampling keyboards, like the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier. That, for me, is when I really got on the train of technology and really started getting into those kind of things. My dream was to be a keyboard orchestra, and this enabled you to make all the authentic orchestral sounds out of playing keyboards.

When you go on stage now do you have a lot of keyboards, or just a few? Or just one?

By my standards, it’s just a few but it’s about 10. People think it’s excessive now but I had a lot more before. It’s been cut down since then.

Didn’t you set a Guinness World Record once for most keyboards on stage?

Yeah. It was 28 in for Asia in Asia, which was a live satellite broadcast from Japan. I’ve got a few accolades here and there—the other one being “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first video on MTV. It’s been an interesting career to date. I’m happy that I’m still going on, and celebrating this 50th anniversary with Yes is a real bonus for me.

What’s coming up? Will there be more Yes recording or touring, or will you return to solo material?

Probably a bit of both. We’re talking about doing another Yes album probably starting sometime this year, hopefully for release next year. And I’ll play my solo stuff, and try to finish the Wetton stuff. And next year we have another cruise, a rock cruise called Cruise to the Edge, the sixth one we’ll do in February. So we’ve got plenty to keep me occupied with for the coming year.

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