Archetypal prog-rock band Yes traversed North America last year on its fiftieth anniversary tour. Yes is bringing its time signature-shifting, riff-packed, melodic and majestic repertoire to American stages again this summer. Headlining The Royal Affair Tour’s collective of British all-stars, the current Yes lineup includes two classic Yes men, guitarist Steve Howe and drummer Alan White. Coming July 15 to the Saenger Theatre, The Royal Affair also features Asia; the Moody Blues’ John Lodge; Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake & Palmer; and, the “God of Hellfire” himself, Arthur Brown, from the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.
Yes will survey its own prog-rock landmarks, and play a White-led tribute to John Lennon. Before he joined Yes in 1972, White played drums for Lennon (Live Peace in Toronto, “Instant Karma,” and Imagine) and George Harrison (All Things Must Pass).
White joined Yes after the band’s bassist, Chris Squire, heard him perform with Joe Cocker. When Yes’ original drummer, Bill Bruford, left to join King Crimson, Squire and Yes vocalist Jon Anderson paid White a visit and insisted he join their massively successful band. White came aboard just in time to play the band’s 1972 masterpiece, Close to the Edge, during the tour that’s documented in the concert album Yessongs. He’s been on every Yes album since, beginning with 1974’s Tales from Topographic Oceans.
In advance of The Royal Affair Tour, the amiable drummer spoke to OffBeat from Seattle, Washington, his home for the past thirty-plus years.
Why has Yes been able to carry on for 51 years?
The music is, to a degree, timeless. It’s fun music and we have fun playing it on stage. But it’s also very challenging every night to play Yes music and get it right.
How did Yes’ fiftieth-anniversary tour go last year?
It was a very successful tour. Great attendance everywhere. We all had a great time doing it and now we’re ready to venture off again.
Why did you name your new tour The Royal Affair?
Because a lot of people on the show are like royalty in the English society of musicians.
Do you know all of the performers on The Royal Affair Tour? John Lodge from the Moody Blues, Carl Palmer from Emerson, Like & Palmer, Asia, and Arthur Brown?
I know them all. But one guy who I’ve haven’t seen for a long time is Carl Palmer. His first band was the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. And Arthur Brown is going to sit in and do his song, “Fire,” and a couple of songs with Carl. Arthur is a pretty crazy guy. I didn’t know he’s still alive.
In 2017, Yes was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. What was that night like for you?
We all had a good time and we played really well. Steve Howe and myself have kept on playing in Yes, but it was great seeing the other guys: Jon Anderson, Rick Wakeman and, from the band in the ’80s, Trevor Horn. Chris Squire, of course, passed away in 2015.
You acknowledged Chris Squire in your Hall of Fame acceptance. You must have missed him not being there.
Yeah, of course. He was an amazing bass player and singer. He was a big part of the band since its inception, really. He’s missed by a lot of people. But Yes carried on. One of Chris’ dying wishes was for us to carry on. He said, ‘Alan, please keep this thing going.’ And that’s what I’m doing.
Your Hall of Fame acceptance speech was focused and sincere. Rick Wakeman took quite a different direction. Did he do a standup comedy routine?
Oh, my God. He started telling jokes and we couldn’t get him off the stage. The audience was going “Time to go! Give someone else a go!” But I felt like I should keep it to the point.
Playing bass and drums in Yes, you and Chris Squire were the band’s rhythm section for 43 years. Did you get to be telepathic on stage?
Because we knew each other’s playing really well, it got to be like that. His death was a big loss, especially to me. We were the driving force behind all of those notes.
And at this point in music history, you and Steve Howe are the classic members of the band who’ve kept Yes going.
Steve is an amazing guitar player. Nobody plays like Steve. He’s one of a kind and an interesting guy to play with.
You turned 70 on June 14. The drums are physically demanding to begin with and, on top of that, the music of Yes is technically demanding.
I feel pretty good for my age. I’m still playing in the band and that keeps me in shape. For this tour, I’m doing quite a few numbers, but we do have another drummer to take some of the brunt of the work [Jay Schellen].
Is it true that Chris Squire and Jon Anderson went to your flat in London and demanded that you join Yes?
Yeah, that’s right. It was on the third of an office kind of building. Chris said, “You’re joining the band or we’ll throw you out the window.” That kind of thing. So, I said, “Look. I’ll give you two months and see if I like it. And you give me two months, see if you like me.” And here I am, forty-seven years later. Yeah, it must have worked.
But you actually didn’t know that much about Yes’ music when they drafted you to replace Bill Bruford?
Not to a great degree, but I knew of Yes and thought it was a really great band. When I heard Yes for the first time, my ears perked up. And I’d been in a band that played Frank Zappa music, which has a lot of time changes, too, so I was kind of prepared for Yes.
Did Yes want you to play exactly what Bruford played?
I told them that Bill and I played different styles. So, I translated what Bill did, adding a bit more weight to the sound, and coming up with my own version of what he’d played. I do play some of the iconic parts that Bill played, but I also changed quite a few things. Now the band is accustomed to playing the songs like that.
Before Yes, when you were in your early twenties, you performed and recorded with John Lennon and recorded with George Harrison. But at the time, working with Beatles didn’t seem all that big a deal to you?
I was pretty naïve. Only years later did I look back and think, Did I do all that stuff?
What were Lennon and Harrison like in the studio?
Wonderful. John was pretty set in his ideas, on what he wanted to do. He occasionally asked everybody what they thought. Yoko was with him the whole time. They used to consult each other on all kinds of stuff. It was a good environment and Imagine is a special album. You can feel the vibe between everybody in the studio.
How about the All Things Must Pass sessions with Harrison?
George was a sweetheart. He really was a nice, loving, happy guy. We had a big band that just turned up every day and we’d choose who was playing what. As it happened, I played on “My Sweet Lord,” “Wah-Wah,” and the title track, too.
Do you revisit those now classic, historical recordings and play them sometimes for your own enjoyment?
I don’t have to, because I hear them everywhere I go.
In 1981, did Yes disband because you broke an ankle at a roller disco? Really?
I was really embarrassed at the time, but that’s not really the reason we broke up, or not purely because of that. We were in the middle of making an album that wasn’t very good. When I broke my ankle, everybody said, ‘Okay, let’s break up.’ And they all left.
In the early ’80s, you, Chris Squire and Trevor Horn planned to form a band called Cinema. But then that didn’t quite happen because Jon Anderson showed up and wanted to sing with you guys again?
Yeah. Jon liked the music we were doing and so he sang on it. That’s where the 90125 album came from.
In 1983, Yes enjoyed a huge comeback with the album, 90125, and the number one song, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
Like a chameleon, Yes kept changing its shape. That was a great band in that time and we did great tunes.
Why did you move to Seattle more than thirty years ago?
Well, basically, my wife, Gigi. We’ve been married 37 years. Her family was around Seattle and I was going on the road a lot, as I usually do every year. She wanted to be around family.
Seattle has a great music history—Jimi Hendrix, Heart, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Nirvana, Quincy Jones and many more.
Pearl Jam, all those guys. The music scene is pretty huge around Seattle. I attend quite a few events. A lot of music goes on around here and it’s a great place to live.
Are you looking forward to your return to New Orleans?
New Orleans? Great, wonderful. I’ve been there many times. We always enjoy it. In fact, one time I stayed there for a few days. We did a tour with Donovan and we finished in New Orleans. It was incredible.
The Royal Affair Tour with Yes, Asia, John Lodge, Carl Palmer and Arthur Brown on July 15 at the Saenger Theatre.