Far Out Meets: Steve Howe discusses ballads, Beatles and playing guitar with Queen
Eoghan Lyng SAT 4TH JUN 2022
Editor’s note: This interview was conducted, completed and written before the death of Alan White. As such, the interview represents a musician who was still thriving in the present, and Steve Howe’s answers reflect that. In order to be truthful to the intent of the interview, we have reproduced the piece as it was intended to be released. Jay Schellen will perform in White’s place for the upcoming Close to the Edge tour, which now doubles as a tribute to White.
Steve Howe is disappointed in Brexit. He’s disappointed that his country’s vote has made it harder for him to travel to Europe with Yes – the pioneering progressive outfit who have carried the banner through seven singular, disparate decades – where he can learn more about his culture. And mostly he’s disappointed because he senses how much of an impediment it’s putting on my native Ireland.
Yes aren’t particularly known for their political proclamations – they’re too recondite for that – but Howe sounds almost apologetic discussing the situation that is pushing England and Ireland further apart after decades spent reconciling past wounds. Because any guitarist of Howe’s stature – whether it’s playing the bellowing riff for ‘Heat of The Moment’, or guesting on Innuendo, Queen’s most satisfying album since 1982 – shouldn’t feel duty-bound to apologise for anything, especially since his back catalogue is rich with contrast and dense, diverse guitar hooks.
“I have a good memory,” he chuckes, which comes in handy, because I’m interested in hearing about everything from Tomorrow to Asia, by way of a possible quote about Rory Gallagher. Howe says he must have performed with Gallagher on a select number of occasions, but admires the musician’s approach to guitar. The Cork native made an impression on the world, inspiring everyone from Brian May to Andy Partridge. In an interview with Far Out, May revealed that Gallagher gifted him his “sound”, and although Howe can’t regurgitate the sentiment, he is happy to name three formative musicians that inspired him to pick up his instrument and soar.
“Well, if I’m to give you three, I’ll go with Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery,” Howe reveals. “Chet Atkins was a great country player, and came up with a great country picking style; he played on The Everly Brothers stuff. But he also made a lot of great solo records, and was a very versatile player, so he inspired me to become a versatile musician.” As it happens, I recognise Atkins for his work with Mark Knopfler, the former Dire Straits frontman who has spent much of his solo work dedicated to replicating troubled instrumental passages, that honour the Celtic traditions (Local Hero and Cal are exhilarating in their ambition).
But given the crackled line – Howe’s calling from England, while I’m typing in Dublin – I ask if it’s the same Atkins who performed with Knopfler. “You’re absolutely right,” Howe says, sounding impressed at my knowledge. “Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins teamed up on a few occasions. But over time, I came to pick up other influences, such as Albert Lee. But the three guitarists – Les Paul, Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery – were very good musicians. I discovered Les Paul through a collection of 78’s my parents had, and they were very inventive records. And Wes Montgomery was an incredible jazz guitarist.” Howe says he’s looking forward to the upcoming Yes gig because they haven’t been to “Ireland in years”.
Yes are due to perform in Vicar St. on June 22nd, bolstered by Jon Davison’s scintillating vocals. Yes mainstay Geoff Downes will be familiar to fans of the band, but the group also boasts Billy Sherwood, who has adeptly filled in for the late Chris Squire since 2015. Yes have always been interesting, because they didn’t write from the perspective of a keyboardist (Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Genesis) or a lead guitarist (Pink Floyd, Rush), but tailored the music to accommodate for both instruments.
Listening to The Quest – Yes’s most recently produced work – Howe and Downes work as if creating a dialogue, allowing one person to speak, before another takes over, and brings the conversation to another point. Howe and Downes have form, having worked in Yes and Asia, creating some of the more indelible hooks in British rock. I ask Howe what Downes is like to work with.
“That’s a loose question,” he says, humming to find the appropriate response to the question. And then he steadies himself: “I first started working with him in 1979. It was during the Drama album. He’s a great musician: Geoff was using samples long before they were popular, and these days he can play his stuff, or Tony Kaye’s stuff, or anything Yes does.”
Howe vouched for the keyboardist to bandmates Carl Palmer and John Wetton, and the quartet formed Asia, a confluence of prog, pop and blues hooks, laced under one tidy banner. The last to join, Downes was also the only member to play on every Asia release, but Howe sounds buoyant when he recalls the 2006 concerts that reunited the original four members.
“Geoff sang a lot of high parts, and I sang a lot of lower harmonies. I did a lot of singing on ‘One Step Closer’, so it’s almost like a duo. There’s a lot of good harmonies on the first album, but there was less on the second album, because it was so distanced from the original. I didn’t do much singing on that one – I probably wasn’t invited to either.”
Howe’s joking, although he’s more serious when he says the record label seemed to highlight Geoff Downes and John Wetton as the writers, when the band was a more sophisticated cocktail of past influences, spanning pop, prog, blues, ballad and Beatlesque melody. “I tell you what we didn’t sing on was ‘Heat of The Moment’,” Howe reveals. “John wanted to sing all the harmonies himself for that one, so he did.”
No doubt inspired by The Beatles, Howe’s work dipped into the far corners of rock, each riff and harmony vocal pushing the expectations of the audience in question. He’s clearly a fan of their work, although I sense his eyebrows are arching when I tell him that when someone asks me to play “something” on guitar, I play the opening chords to the George Harrison standard. It’s a groaner of a joke, but it does lead us on to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, a pulsating ballad Tomorrow – a 1960s power group that Howe was a part of – re-produced in a style that was more barren, brusque and rollicking.
“I don’t remember too much about it,” he chuckles. “But it’s a Beatles song, so it’s hard to go wrong with it? It wasn’t really characteristic of what Tomorrow was doing, but I liked the sound of it. It’s easy to do a good song in a variety of different ways.” And what of his work on ‘Innuendo’, the storming Queen that was arguably more powerful than the equally ambitious ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?
“Queen played me the Innuendo album, but they saved the ‘Innuendo’ track until last,” Howe admits. “John Deacon wasn’t there: it was Brian, Roger and Freddie. Brian had formulated all these parts on the sort of Gibson guitar that I played, and asked me to play on the track. Maybe Brian didn’t feel up to it, but I’m sure he could have come up with something.”
Ultimately Howe wasn’t going to turn down a challenge of this magnitude. “I think they wanted something like Paco de Lucia, but I can’t play like de Lucia. But I’m a player, so I was happy to improvise something, so I did.” It’s a distinction Howe should be proud of: John Deacon, Roger Taylor and Freddie Mercury each played guitar on record, but Howe might be only person outside of their orbit to lay down a guitar backing.
And the guitars bristle against the backdrop, padding the way for the ferocious frenzy of drums to follow. “I realised early on that my music is defined by the drummers,” Howe explains. “I learned it from people like `(Tomorrow’s) Twink and John Melton, who played in my first band, The Syndicats.” His son, Dylan Howe, provides the backbone for much of his solo output, lacing the work with a selection of muscular back pedals, in a style that feels like a hybrid of Carl Palmer’s barrelling, backpedals and Bill Bruford’s more nuanced style of drumming.
And then there’s Alan White, who has served as percussionist for Yes, fleshing out the band’s melodies with a selection of bouncy, Beatlesque, drum fills (fittingly, White played on John Lennon’s Imagine album, including THAT song.) “Alan isn’t a showman like Carl is,” Howe explains. “But he has great stage presence. Carl’s a real powerhouse of a drummer, and he’s different to Bill Bruford, who’s more of a minimalist player.” Howe points out that the stage layout is deceptive: Drummers traditionally sit behind the singers and guitarists, yet they count the beat in, cementing the soundscape for the frontmen to strut their stuff. “Secretly,” he chuckles, “they’re leading everybody.”
His comment makes sense: In the Get Back series, John Lennon and Paul McCartney look back at Ringo Starr to count them in, just as they prepare themselves to sing in front of an astonished audience, walking across the streets of London. “And the real star there is Billy Preston,” Howe replies. “The cameras don’t show him on the roof, which is a pity, because he changed the way The Beatles were rehearsing. A lot of the chord shapes were inspired by Billy. He was not unlike Stevie Wonder in that way.”
But no matter the importance of drummers, Howe agrees with Bill Bruford – whom Far Out interviewed before speaking to Howe – that nobody has “the complete upper hand.” This brings us to The Quest, which to my ears, is the best Yes album of the last 15 years.
The guitars are crisp and warm; the keyboards are coiled and sensible, and then there’s a sense of journey to the lyrics that fit the album title. Howe explains that while the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t ideal, technology made it easier for the group to record The Quest. “It’s all changed during the last ten, 15 years,” he says. “Sharing files has made things easier. Tony Levin sent me over half of the bass for my solo album, Spectrum. Fantastic.”
Howe is credited as producer, a task he stepped up to for the sake of the work in question. “We needed an inhouse filterer and producer,” he says, explaining they needed a “guy who was there gathering the ideas.”
Everyone chipped in from their studios, and Howe credits bassist Billy Sherwood with composing some of the keyboard hooks on the album. “He’s probably the most well-rounded musician,” the guitarist explains, pinpointing his harmony vocals, and strong ear for melody. “He was initially only supposed to fill in while Chris Squire was in hospital, but sadly Chris passed away, so it was a fairly intimidating position for Billy.”
Sherwood needn’t have worried: The Quest showcases a bass player who honours the work of his immediate predecessor but imbues a great deal of his own personality into the work. The album is flush with potential and opportunity, creating a sense of atmosphere that will compensate for the Brexit vote that has disappointed many, including the guitarist.
Ever the professionals, it’s unlikely that this setback will be an impediment for the fans, and buoyed by the importance of legacy and legend, Yes are no doubt prepared for the challenge ahead of them. And unlike the Brexit vote that has caused many in England to question their future, Yes are comfortable in their abilities to carry the legacy on into the future.
I ask Howe what Yes fans can expect from the upcoming gigs, and whether or not the band are going to use pyrotechnics. “We know how to present ourselves,” he replies, “We’re not just going out with just amps.” Howe says the band will use “animation” onstage, but the lighting will be arranged in such a way to show Yes for all their glory. And judging by the recent album, the finished results should be glorious.
Postscript: This piece was conducted and written before Alan White’s untimely death. Yes’ Close to the Edge tour will begin on June 15th, and will perform across Britain and Ireland. The band are dedicating the tour to the departed drummer.
"A Record Like This Was Destined to Be Made, and We Wanted to Be the Ones Making it”: Steve Howe on 50 Years of Yes's 'Close to the Edge'
By Joe Bosso Guitar Player
Yes's longtime axeman details the intense rehearsals, rare Gibson archtops, and inspired improvisations that formed the band's masterpiece.
"It was a really great time in our lives,” Steve Howe says, recalling the spring of 1972. His band, Yes, had hit the upper regions of the U.K. charts with their fourth album, Fragile, and much to their surprise, they did even better in the States. Tours were sold out, the venues were getting bigger, and FM stations were spinning the album tracks “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround.”
As their unbroken, six-month string of concert dates began to wind down and they considered their next recording, the group felt as if they had the wind at their backs.
“Our spirits were very high,” Howe says. “We were young, enthusiastic, and adventurous, and we had this incredible breakthrough success with Fragile. We saw our next album as a real opportunity to prove our worth as a band. The door had been opened and we weren’t going to go backward. We wanted to sharpen our skills as far as writing and arranging.
"Concerts come and go, but a record is forever. I think we all had a sense that whatever we did next, it had to feel like some sort of definitive statement. A record like this was destined to be made, and we wanted to be the ones making it.”
Vast, enigmatic, full of moments of spectacular grandeur and ever-changing hues, Close to the Edge is the Lawrence of Arabia of progressive-rock albums. Comprised of just three tracks – the dizzying side-long, 18-minute title track, the equally sprawling mini epic “And You and I,” and the whacked-out, hyperactive jazz-funk album closer “Siberian Khatru” – Close to the Edge documented Yes operating at the peak of their musical powers.
At that point, the group consisted of Howe, singer Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and drummer Bill Bruford. Anderson was deep in thrall to Hermann Hesse’s spiritual self-help novel Siddhartha, as reflected in his cosmic lyricism. The band responded by pulling out all the stops, surging through each passage with unbridled zeal and relentless creativity.
For Howe, the widescreen canvas afforded him the opportunity to exhaust his wily eclecticism. One minute he’s unfurling gnashing, Hendrix-like riffs, the next he’s basking in elegant acoustic serenity. Each track yielded moments of meticulous plotting or go-for-broke improvisation. For a divine example of the latter, his nearly three-minute album-opening blitz is an epochal art-rock masterstroke. As definitive statements go, his playing on Close to the Edge checks all the boxes.
“We were quite fortunate in that we could do whatever we wanted,” Howe recalls. “We didn’t really have any kind of outside pressure to follow up a hit. I think, fundamentally, we were helped by the fact that Yes wasn’t a singles band.
"Obviously, ‘Roundabout’ launched our previous album, and that was all well and good, but we seemed to disregard that fact. Yes were now established, and we felt like Close to the Edge didn’t need a single. If we wanted to do a 10-minute song or even something that was longer, we could do it. And as it turned out, there were stations, particularly in America, that would play the longer songs. We lucked out.”
Close to the Edge marked the second consecutive album on which the band lineup remained unchanged, but shortly after the recording sessions finished, Bruford announced that he was leaving to join King Crimson.
“We were all taken aback, obviously,” Howe says. “Up until it happened, we felt as if things were pretty solid among all of us. Bill left mainly because of his conflicts – or should I say challenging times – with Chris wanting him to dot every bass beat with the bass drum or something. Bill had his principles and his musical taste that he wouldn’t revert from, so he left.”
Bruford, for his part, compared the jigsaw-like process of making Close to the Edge to “climbing Mount Everest.” His replacement, Alan White, stepped in with little time to prepare. [Sadly, White died on May 26, 2022, shortly after our interview with Howe.] “Fortunately for us, Alan White was on the scene and was already hanging around,” Howe explains. “He joined us in the nick of time, as we had a tour to start.”
That trek, a mammoth nine-month stint across North America, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australasia, would be documented in the triple-LP Yessongs, released in May 1973. “All in all,” Howe declares, “we were quite lucky.”
Despite its lack of an obvious single, Close to the Edge bested its predecessor on the charts and received almost unanimous raves from critics (even the NME, issuing a somewhat mixed assessment, concluded that “on every level but the ordinary aesthetic one, it’s one of the most remarkable records pop has yet produced”). Over the decades, the album has grown in stature among critics and musicians alike, and it’s now generally regarded as a classic.
It routinely tops progressive-rock polls and has been cited by guitarists like John Petrucci, Steve Stevens, and John Frusciante as a major influence. In a recent interview, Wakeman called it the band’s finest album, and Howe agrees. “It’s got all the attributes a timeless record should have,” he notes. “It’s interesting, challenging, and exciting. It was certainly interesting and challenging to make, and dare I say, I think we broke new ground.
"You never know how something is going to be perceived as you’re recording an album. You might think that it’s going to be a landmark, but there’s just no way to judge that in the moment. You just do your best and hope for the best. So 50 years on, it’s incredible to see the long life it’s had. I hear other musicians say nice things about it, and to see it being voted best prog album of all time, it’s all very delightful.”
Before recording Close to the Edge, Yes had toured with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I understand seeing them had a big impact on you and Jon Anderson.
"Oh, yes, but for me it started in the early ’60s. John McLaughlin was playing beautifully with Herbie Goins and the Night Timers. He had his amp on a stool, which I then started doing – I wanted it at ear level. With Herbie Goins, John was having fun being a really creative guitarist, but he hadn’t yet found his style. He found that with Mahavishnu and went on to greater things.
"Anyway, Yes had done some shows with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Jon and I were knocked away; we felt they were the most remarkable band since the Beatles. They were totally different, and nobody can really top the Beatles, but as far as pure musicality goes, Mahavishnu was just so impressive. That’s why Close to the Edge starts with a kind of manic presentation. You wouldn’t expect a song or album ranting and blaring away for three or four minutes."
The Fragile tour was quite extensive and continued for the first month or two that you were recording Close to the Edge. How much actual writing time did you have before going into the studio?
"There was a bit. Jon and I established a pattern for writing and arranging together. It started with The Yes Album and into Fragile, where we discovered that one guy presenting a song could get knocked down very easily. But two guys? Much harder.
"We did have an awful lot of Close to the Edge arranged – parts of 'Siberian Khatru' and then 'And You and I.' Of course, a lot of credit goes to the general collective of the arranging style of the members of Yes when we were together. Jon and I had the imagination that things would project further than our little cassette once we got in the studio with everybody."
You did a bit of preproduction. Were the tunes fully fleshed out before going into Advision Studios?
"Not fully. We had our crude cassettes of ideas. I remember we went to rehearse in this dance ballroom – the Una Billings School of Dance in Shepherd’s Bush. We’d go in for afternoons. Bill wasn’t involved in arranging as much as Chris, Rick, and me, and Jon, of course.
"We were trying to find how to play these tunes and how we go from one to another. We were developing them together. The rehearsal period was fairly intense. We came out of it with mockups of sections of the music, if not parts of all of it. Some of the inventive arrangements came about in the studio. What I mean is, they became clearer to us in the studio. We’d figure out how to improve them.
"It would have been a waste of time and money to go into the studio saying, 'Okay, we’re going to start Jon and Steve’s song ‘Close to the Edge.’ We would have been there forever. We only had blocks of days, not weeks or months. We would do shows and go back into the studio. I suppose our manager was trying to get his commission, so we kept getting put back out on the road. It didn’t leave a lot of time for the studio."
Obviously, the band did a lot of overdubbing.
"Of course. We did an awful lot of overdubbing when we cut tracks. There was a lot of creativity on the part of Chris. He always liked to improvise, as did Rick, but he wanted structure around those improvisations. And he was right – there is a structure that you need so that somebody can then improvise.
"That was the key to a lot of Chris’s rather ponderous and slow approach to coming up with his final bass parts, because he was always thinking, Well, I’ve got to commit to this. And Bill was like, I’ve got to commit, too, so let’s get on with it!"
Yes had been working with Eddy Offord as engineer and co-producer for a number of years. He seemed to juggle his time between your band and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. What made him the go-to guy?
"He had been engineering the band before I arrived. On The Yes Album, we chose him to co-produce because we felt confident and comfortable with him. He had a strong personality, but he could be fun. Actually, you mention ELP – they might say that we stole him from them. [laughs]
"When it came down to the actual hard work, he was very good. If Jon was doing guide vocals in a booth, Eddy would say, 'That was a good take, but you went wrong here,' or 'I think you could do it better there.' He was our go-to opinion. He held that gauntlet in his hand, but he never abused it. He always got the best of us.
"Eddy was also very good with his editing. We would have different takes, and choosing which one worked best took skill and the right set of ears. Also remember, he was editing on tape – you literally had to cut them and splice them together. That’s a skill, and Eddy was great at it. If he had been a rubbish editor, he probably wouldn’t have lasted with us."
Your opening guitar solo on the album’s title track is quite remarkable. Was it an improvised, one-take deal or planned out?
"What I opened with [he sings the part], that was a structure that I used another guitar to harmonize with, but once it goes to the next part [he sings again], that’s an improvised take. There are so many meters, either 16 or 32 bars, and we knew we were going to do them. Those breaks had to be strategically placed in our minds. I think of myself as a composer in a way, but a lot of my music is improvised."
Which guitar did you use on that opening solo?
"Around that time, I did a strings advert for Gibson guitars, and they said, 'We’ll give you a guitar.' And I said, 'Well, I’ve always wanted an ES-345, with stereo wiring,' so they gave me one, and I plugged into two Fender Dual Showmans – or it might have been one Dual Showman and another Fender amp.
"That guitar became the Close to the Edge model, really. I liked to feature a new guitar on an album. On The Yes Album, it was the Gibson ES-175, and on Fragile I played the ES-5 Switchmaster. Playing a new guitar on an album was exciting. The guitar would feel fresh in my hands, and it made me excel in a new way."
You used a descending guitar line from one of your old songs called “Black Leather Gloves” for the “Total Mass Retain” section.
"Well, yes. That’s a reference to my old band, Bodast. We had recorded an album, but it went down the tubes and disappeared completely. The label folded and didn’t put the record out. So I said, 'Well, some of these riffs are quite good. I’ll throw them at Yes and see if they like them.' Some of my riffing came from that album, as it did with the 'Würm' part of 'Starship Trooper.' It was like a tribute to that band. The music came back, and I was proud to re-use it."
Your singing on the album is extraordinary. The way you harmonize with Jon, particularly on the “I Get Up, I Get Down” section – he’s talked about how influenced he was by the Beach Boys and the Association. Did those bands impact you, as well?
"I didn’t quite know the Association myself, but I certainly knew and loved the Beach Boys – not that I thought for a minute that Yes sounded anything like them. Actually, I hadn’t sung in public or on records until I joined Yes, but on The Yes Album there were harmonies that I could perform in my sort of naïve, untrained way. I could sing low stuff quite easily. I was a bit nervous and was sort of bluffing a bit, but in a strange way, once I started, it all happened quite fast.
"I think I benefitted from my not knowing the rules. So it’s been nice: Over the years, I’ve had more and more comments from people who like the sound of my voice."
What kind of acoustic guitar did you use on the “Cord of Life” section of “And You and I”?
"The main guitar I used was a Martin 00-18 that I bought in 1968, which is the best flattop acoustic I’ve ever had, even though I now use a Martin MC-38 Steve Howe model. Because of the cutaway, I’m much happier on that guitar. I had the 00-18, but I also used a beautiful Guild 12-string that Chris Squire had owned. I was very tempted to buy it. I think I did buy one in the end.
"There were those ones, and actually, now that I think of it, here and there I did some overdubbing with a Gibson called an FDH. It’s a very rare guitar that came to England under the Francis, Day, and Hunter [FDH] emblem. It’s a guitar I still love. It’s the second Gibson I ever bought – it cost me 50 quid.
"It’s basically a big archtop guitar, a little bigger than a 175. I still love that guitar. I’ll give you a scoop, in fact: Chris actually tracked with that guitar. His bass on 'Roundabout' was actually tracked with the FDH with a pickup on it."
How did you come up with that pedal-steel part in the “Eclipse” section? Are you using distortion and delay on it?
"Probably. But it wasn’t a pedal steel; it was a lap steel, or a Hawaiian steel – call it what you like. Nowadays I only play steels with legs because I like the guitar to be rigid, and then I can play well. If it’s on my lap, it’s hopeless, because I’m working a volume pedal as well.
"At the time, I was just sort of learning about the lap steel and its possibilities. By the time of 'Going for the One' , I played that whole song on a steel. I’d really worked on my steel playing after Close to the Edge."
“Siberian Khatru” features a riff that’s pretty much the basis for the song. How did that come about?
"Well, there’s two riffs, really. There’s the part [he sings] that I play for probably half of the song. I’m playing that with some different approaches, sometimes with a Leslie guitar, sometimes moving octaves around. Basically, that was one of Bill’s gems. He brought that in.
"It was a knockout to have that riff. I adopted it, I loved it, I played it. It’s a fundamental part of the song. But the other riff – sometimes Bill would do this if he wasn’t sure how to finish a line: He’d just mouth something, like a scat singer. That happened on several occasions on those first three albums. Bill was remarkable like that. I don’t think he realizes how much he contributed. But in the spirit of the arranging of Yes, it was the giving and taking of ideas, and we were really fluid with that."
You played two solos in the song, the second of which, the clean solo, you recorded without hearing what you were doing, as I understand.
"That’s right, yeah. We didn’t often record guitars with me standing in the big studio. I liked being in the control room, where I could really hear the music. I’d done some solos, but I didn’t like them. They just weren’t doing much for me. I had the 345 all set up and I was going to tape, and I said, 'Let’s try one without listening.' Everybody thought, He’s gone mad. But okay, do that. I played, and I didn’t even realize what I’d done, but I could see it in my mind.
"It was a different way of playing. When we listened back, I went, 'Okay, I like that.' Everybody else liked it, too. It was an eye-opener for me, because I don’t know that I would have ever played like that if I’d heard what I was doing. I truly didn’t know where I was going at the time. By not hearing it and just thinking about my fingerboard and my positionings, it came out quite good. I was delighted."
Alan White joined the band three days before the tour to support the album began. What happened there?
"It happened quickly. I mean, Aynsley Dunbar was pretty unhappy that I didn’t invite him. We were pally and we’d played together on a few recordings in the studio. I loved his drumming. When it was announced that Alan got the job, Ansley said, 'Why didn’t you give me a call? I would have come down.' But that wouldn’t have made any difference, because Alan was in the circle of people that we knew.
"He was friendly with Eddy Offord, and he was hanging out in the studio. He may have even jammed on Bill’s drums for a laugh here and there. Basically, we looked around and thought, Oh, Bill wants to leave – Alan’s already here; why not ask him? His reputation was such that we could ask him, and he said yeah."
How many rehearsals did you have with Alan before the tour? I’m guessing not many.
[laughs] "Well, I wouldn’t think no more than a couple. I don’t know how it’s possible that he got onstage after having two or three days to learn the album. We did put him through it, you know what I mean? I mean, even though we knew the songs, we hadn’t actually played them live ourselves.
"It was a remarkable learning curve. How anybody could come in and play Close to the Edge, let alone anything else that takes the highest level of technical and musical skill – it wasn’t an easy gig to step into, but Alan did his best to listen and practice. He tried a bit of this and a bit of that. We asked him to get it right as much as he could. And he did."
Previously, Yes played theaters and big clubs; even on the Fragile tour you played the Whisky in L.A. But you moved to arenas on the Close to the Edge tour.
"There had been a bit of time when we could tolerate those places – it felt like when I was playing gigs in England in the ’60s. But the Whisky… I’m cautious to say it was an awful place, but in a way it wasn’t really suitable for a band like ours. However, everybody played there, and I think its reputation preceded its reality.
"It was a place to be seen at – a place to add to the list of venues you’ve played. From the Whisky we made the jump to the Hollywood Bowl. We had played as a support band for several years in America. One night we played with Jethro Tull, the next night it was Grand Funk Railroad, and the night after that it was Mountain. We opened for acts that were on the Premier Talent roster.
"Actually, the very first gig we did in [North] America was in northern Canada. We had gone to New York and we got scared in our hotel; it was next to a fire station and all hell was breaking out from the noise. Then we went to Edmonton, Canada, for our first show with Jethro Tull.
"We went onstage and we were like, Oh, yeah, this is what we came for, because there was a captive audience of Jethro Tull fans. Nobody knew us hardly, but we went down really well. They liked us instantly. After that, we were unstoppable."
When you finally hit arenas, did you feel as though you were in your natural element?
"Yeah, we were ready. By the time Close to the Edge came, we were out there on our own. I think we might have invented 'the evening with' lineup, where we didn’t have an opening act. We were geared up to do a whole show of our own music. We knew our time had come, and it happened, quite remarkably."
Sibelius, Herman Hesse, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and even The Kinks. These were the inspirations according to Yes, behind the genius of their fifth studio album
Whenever he’s going out in the car, it’s Rick Wakeman’s habit to grab a handful of CDs so he’s got something to listen tt while he drives. Not knowing which albums happen to be in the pile he’s snatched up adds a nice element of surprise on the journey, kind of like shuffle play, but with the addition of the internal combustion engine.
On a recent jaunt, Wakeman found himself listening to Close To The Edge. “I hadn’t heard it for a long time and as I was listening, I actually pulled the car over on the A14 and I sat there, and I actually said out loud, pardon the language, ‘How the fuck did we do that?’ Because when I listen to it, with the technology we had at that time there is no way we should have been able to do that album. Absolutely no way.” As Wakeman talks about the album he was a part of 50 years ago, he sounds genuinely moved. “We had ideas of what we wanted to do and then we had to sit down and figure out how to do it and record it. That was the genius of that album and I put it down as the very last Yes album where we were completely ahead of technology. For me, what makes Close To The Edge the finest Yes album is [that] it’s where every single one of us were into it and knew what we were all trying to achieve.”
There are some musicians who will quietly tell you that they really can’t remember much about some of the albums they’ve made. There are lots of reasons for that of course. Too much rock’n’roll lifestyle back in the day will seriously curtail the grey matter’s ability to dial up events, and to be fair, the people who were all in their 20s and are now in their 70s probably weren’t taking notes at the time on the off chance that someone would be asking them questions about what they were doing 50 years ago. Yet for Rick Wakeman, who admits he was no stranger to many indulgences as a young man, the events of those times at Advision Studios remain surprisingly fresh in his mind.
“I can tell you exactly what a typical day during the making of Close To The Edge looked like. I used to come in and park outside the studio at about 10am There was a little snack shop café on the corner of Gosfield Street and I’d go in and get a bite to eat. When I went into the studio they were making coffee and Steve [Howe] was there – he would spend a considerable amount of time tuning his guitars and getting ready for whatever he wanted to do. Then Bill [Bruford] would turn up saying that there was no point in turning up beforehand as Chris [Squire] wouldn’t be there, which of course he wasn’t. Jon [Anderson] would arrive and he and I, or Steve and him, might go into a room and talk about what we were going to go through that day. Eventually, early afternoon, Chris would show up after having just rolled out of bed. It was a nightmare but you had to live with it. Bless him, to his dying day his time-keeping was crap. Chris would then sort of play around with his bass and then if we were lucky, by mid-afternoon, we might actually play something.”
In 1971, the year before they recorded Close To The Edge, Yes had undergone two important changes in personnel. This was not about finding mere substitutes to continue along a particular path. Injecting new talent as a matter of policy would always triumph over sentiment. In those early years it was indicative of a ruthless pragmatism that at its best sought to ensure Yes’ reach would always exceed their grasp, striving to always transform and improve rather than settle for the ordinary or average. By actively embracing change and taking the difficult decision to part company with original members Peter Banks and Tony Kaye, Jon Anderson, Chris Squire, and Bill Bruford were making a deep commitment to what Yes might become rather than what it was. The influx of adrenaline and creative energies accompanying such decisions didn’t just raise their individual game as players but formed the impetus that would put the band in a position where it would not only survive but evolve, grow and hopefully prosper.
Steve Howe’s impact on the band on The Yes Album was nothing less than seismic, shaking their sound from top to bottom with a galloping virtuosity that bordered on the rapacious, greedily swallowing any and all challenges with relish as they rushed toward him. His debut was the very definition of hitting the ground running. Wakeman’s arrival shortly afterwards was every bit as significant. That he could replicate his talented predecessor’s work was a given. However, his real value was in his ability to remodel the base metal that accrued in the Yes rehearsal room and writing sessions; there were numerous riffs, runs and sequences that all needed to be honed and threaded together. His formal musical background allied to his experience as an in-demand session player, where efficiency and speed went hand in hand, meant he quickly understood why one thing worked over another without the need to laboriously engage in a process of elimination.
Within a few minutes of listening to something, Wakeman was able to explain or demonstrate what might be possible, where something might go. While there was sometimes an inherent value in sifting through what amounted to trial and error, he helped speed up proceedings in a way that the band had, until then, all too rarely encountered. Between the two of them, the new members embodied a technique that could be either as surgical or as flamboyant as the moment demanded. Both also brought with them a masterly grasp of texture and dynamics, an element that had been front and centre on the multifaceted showcasing that was Fragile. With these two parts of the jigsaw now locked firmly in place, Yes seemed capable of anything. As novelist Paul Auster once put it, “If you’re not ready for everything, you’re not ready for anything.” It’s a line that perfectly describes the point at which the group found itself in 1972 as they entered Advision Studios to begin work on Close To The Edge.
Given Fragile’s success it would have been very easy for Yes to have pursued what was obviously a winning formula. There’s no doubt that wasn’t something Anderson was prepared to countenance. The point was to keep moving, keep expanding, keep developing. In common with other groups of the era, the notion of keeping things in the neat and tidy furrows of three-minute pop songs or prolonged bluesy grandstanding wasn’t where the juice was. In the days before progressive rock became a broad-brush genre description, it was perhaps a goal, a route to an artistic state of being.
Yes were always on the lookout for ideas that could be incorporated and adapted into their musical vocabulary and the development of Close To The Edge was leavened by many encounters and experiences. One example of this filtering process in action happened during their US tour during November and December 1971, where on some dates they were supporting The Kinks, whose criminally underrated Muswell Hillbillies had just been released. However, the new record was largely ignored in favour of a crowd-pleaser setlist that included a smattering of 1960s numbers including the beautiful, elegiac Waterloo Sunset, originally released in 1967. Just four years separates Ray Davies’ sublimely bittersweet love song and Yes’ setlist, which leaned heavily into The Yes Album and Fragile. Yet the pairing of these two bands at opposite ends of the rock continuum demonstrates how fast the pace of change and experimentation in form and content had moved. While acknowledging the observational acuity and melodic brilliance of Davies’ songwriting, in comparison the sharp differences between the two groups made it seem as though Yes had beamed down from some far-flung future.
However, that contrast was made all the more stark on November 28, 1971 when a third act was booked to support Yes and The Kinks at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, NY. The Mahavishnu Orchestra had just released their debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, and had been placed on the college circuit as a way of moving beyond the wholly unsuitable jazz clubs where they had begun. If Yes made music from the future, then the sonic assault of Mahavishnu Orchestra, led by John McLaughlin’s blisteringly fast lead guitar, appeared to be coming from another galaxy entirely. As Squire and Anderson watched from the wings, the singer turned to the bassist and with his jaw still slack from what he was hearing said, “Chris, we’ve got to start practising.”
They always knew that after Fragile they were going to undertake a long-form piece. At a little over 10 minutes, Heart Of The Sunrise was the dry run, bringing together contrasting flavours and sections. Such an idea wasn’t new of course. Bands including Van der Graaf Generator, Caravan, Pink Floyd, ELP and Jethro Tull, to name but a few, had all got there before them but the yearning for that elusive symphonic statement had been on Yes’ to-do list almost from the beginning. Early in their career, they’d leaned toward the grand or epic, be it through startlingly reimagined cover versions, the addition of an orchestra, and through their own original material. Success wasn’t always guaranteed, but the fact that they had been stretching their compositional chops in the process meant that when the time came they were more than warmed up. Given Fragile’s success it would have been easy for Yes to have carried on doing what they were doing. But with ambition spiralling high, that jut wasn’t on the agenda.
Steve Howe also witnessed the show and was similarly impressed by what he saw and heard. Six months later in Advision Studios, as they worked on Close To The Edge, Howe channelled some of the creative sparks he’d seen flying that night from McLaughlin’s twin-necked Gibson into his own playing on the astonishing guitar solo that leads the opening of the title track. “Jon and I had basically dreamed up the concept that primarily this song needed a lot more space. It had the unusual intro, it had all these ingredients. And we pretty much mapped them out,” he explains. “We’d discussed how we wanted to open the album. On Fragile there had been the acoustic harmonic that began Roundabout and here we thought: what would be the most unusual intro you could have? How about a Mahavishnu Orchestra-style intro? Jon and I were really in awe of John McLaughlin’s great band and we thought we’d hurtle in with something like that and just surprise everybody with high tempo and lots of movement. So, as a guitarist, I could grab certain ideas for the opening like the leaping between the octaves. I knew that was how I was going to start.”
Whatever shortcomings Jon Anderson may have had as an instrumentalist, he was able to visualise the shape and structures into which the band would fit and make their own. “I was always aware of where we were heading structurally. I was listening to a lot of classical music while touring and Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony [Symphony No.5] I liked. The structure of the symphony actually mirrors the album as a whole,” Anderson explains. “It’s got a very wild first movement, a gentle second, and the third movement is very majestic. I thought the band could get into performing with that sort of musical positioning.”
Another influence on his thinking was the then-recently released Sonic Seasonings, a double album by Wendy Carlos comprising four side-long suites, brimming with evocative Moog-created ambient environments. Anderson discussed with engineer Eddy Offord how they might come up with something similar. “I wanted to create this sense of energy or a force field before the band started, and then have the group climb out of it with a wild and crazy solo section, raving away as though we didn’t know where we were going. You’d get to a certain point and you’re going to stop dead and a very straight choral thing would come in and then the band would carry on again.”
Under Anderson’s direction, the swirl of tape loops featuring speeded up keyboards and other electronic textures created an impression of a humid jungle streaked with exotic beasts and birds, creating a distinct world of its own. The surging velocity of that opening section remains one of Yes’ stand-out moments in a catalogue bursting with adventurous instrumental passages. The vivid, cartwheeling guitar solo bristling with all kinds of barbs and jagged edges is certainly a high point in Howe’s long career. “Chris Squire was always a great one for saying, ‘Steve if you want to improvise, we need a good structure.’ So, there’s a lot of movement in those chord structures that move around.”
Howe recalls that when it came down to rehearsals prior to the recording of the solo he had some assistance from Anderson. “Jon was great sitting there being the singer. He couldn’t play these fast riffs but he could strum on his guitar and make suggestions: ‘How about this key for that bit?’ or ‘How about down here?’ I give due credit to the arrangement skills that we had on the collaborative level. When we were together we could arrange stuff though sometimes we’d forget the arrangement the next day and we’d scratch our heads and wonder what we did,” laughs Howe. “So in the end we recorded most rehearsals on a cassette. Can you imagine trying to listen to all that noise of us all playing in a room? It was a nightmare. But we could still discern what the structure was and what the idea was. So we kept looping it day by day in rehearsals and then we’d look at all the material we could put on the album. That was our skill: fine-tuning arrangements in order to develop something rough into something polished.”
Close To The Edge became a repository for a variety of half-formed ideas that in some cases had been around for a while. A descending guitar line that had previously existed as part of the song Black Leather Gloves in Howe’s pre-Yes outfit, Bodast, was now repurposed for Total Mass Retain. “You tend to have plenty of ideas and sketches, which don’t necessarily have a home, so you pitch them in,” says Howe. “Jon and I worked like that all the time. One of my songs had the line, ‘Close to the edge, down by a river’, which actually referred to where I was living at the time, next to the Thames.” When Anderson heard the phrase, the symbolism of the river immediately connected to metaphors within Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which he’d been reading at the time.
“The river leads you to the ocean, all the paths lead you to the divine. So the idea was that as human beings we are close to the edge – the edge of realisation,” explains Anderson. This connection of ideas was typical of how Anderson worked, says Howe. “He always did this. He’d take an idea of mine but then he’d set it into a different global sensibility. It wasn’t just the River Thames but now the referencing of being close to the edge of some kind of enlightenment.”
Anderson recalls Howe presenting what was, in essence, a humble love song whose opening line was, ‘In her white lace…’ but immediately began a counter-melody off the top of his head. “When I started singing, ‘Two million people barely satisfied’ I had in my in mind what was happening around the world, starvation in African countries. So many people lived so well while so many people didn’t. I get high and low on the whole concept of life – ‘I get up, I get down’. So it worked out that Steve and Chris sang that while I sang my melody over these exact same chords. It was magical… it just happened.”
Divining the precise meaning of a lyric isn’t important, argues Howe. “There’s often a reluctance on the part of songwriters, and I think it’s a good thing to be reluctant in this regard, to describe exactly what the song is about. It’s very important to write your lyrics the way you want to and then not have to explain them. But I think the ethereal quality was something I got more and more into with lyrics in the last 30 years than I was maybe 50 years ago and I could see what Jon was up to and there were messages hidden in the songs that would somehow resonate with us. Jon took a lot of grief sometimes about his lyrics and sometimes I did as well with mine but neither us cared. This is what it is. A lot of people did relate to the sense of there being a wider, broader, more spiritual [side] to the lyrics. Music is a mystery that we’re all part of. The listener is in that mysterious place, but so is the musician.”
The spiritual aspect discerned within the track and elsewhere in the band’s output is something Wakeman recognises and has an affinity with. “The majority of Yes music that I’ve been involved with, certainly in the 70s, did have a very spiritual element to it and I think all of us in our own ways had different spiritual thoughts, beliefs and standards and what have you, but it all worked for all of us in our own way. I think that when you’re playing music you get a feeling that there’s something more than just a load of notes thrown together. There’s something about this record, maybe Going For The One might be the other one, where I felt we were all of us singing from the same hymn book.”
The cathedral-like ambience of I Get Up I Get Down is fully exploited with the arrival of Wakeman’s majestic pipe organ recorded at London’s St Giles-without-Cripplegate, where he’d already recorded the parts for Jane Seymour from his solo album, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, released the following year in 1973. “The church organ part wasn’t easy to do. The recording itself in the church was fine because I had the tempos. We set up a Revox tape recorder and the mics and it went fine. The hard part was back at Advision Studios. I mean, you couldn’t just drop it in. It had to be absolutely in at the right place. So it was a matter of running it along with the master track and having various attempts at trying to slot it in, which we eventually did.”
The startling Moog line that corkscrews into the piece not only breaks the spell of reverence and rapture but re-establishes the connection to the harsher instrumentation heard in the earlier sections. “It was always planned that coming out of that, we needed to get back into electronic instruments again,” Wakeman continues. “So at the end of the church organ you would have the Hammond solo. That was quite a delicate operation to make sure the Hammond didn’t sound weak or the organ didn’t sound weird.” It could have sounded abrupt and unconvincing, he says, but it sounds like a genuine development. “The great thing about the actual track, Close To The Edge, is it has some brilliant natural progressions within it.”
Anderson’s impassioned performance makes for an electrifying experience throughout but especially over the build in the finale of The Seasons Of Man section. There’s an excitement that borders on the exultant in the voice that sings, ‘Now that it’s all over and done, called to the seed, right to the sun, now that you find, now that you’re whole.’ It’s an outstanding moment and a favourite for most members of the band. “That big end section, that’s that place where it’s like we’re climbing the mountain, you get there and you sit back and take in the view. My head was spinning every time I listened to it or sang it,” comments Anderson with more than a hint of wonder in his voice. His vocal achievements here are still admired by Steve Howe. “To this day I think how Jon sung it originally in the studio in G minor is just amazing. When we started touring it we had to drop that end section a tone below in F.”
While Steve Howe is well-known for his insistence on having the time to find the correct tone or guitar within a piece, he readily admits he was not alone in this regard. “Chris was really picky about his bass. I can’t remember how much bass he overdubbed. We might get a track down and Chris would still not be happy with a part of it. So that same day before the equipment was broken down he might fix something or play something better or change his part somewhere. He was usually the last person to get his part down. He liked coming in after everyone else so he could hear the whole song and say to himself, ‘I think I could play better here’ or ‘That doesn’t work there I’ve got to change it up.’
“Sometimes Chris would go to great lengths to perfect something and it was conditional on how he was feeling or if he could get it cut in there, or maybe he’d say, ‘I’m not going to get this in and I’ll do it afterward.’ He had a tendency to overrun on some of it. I remember that more on Drama because it’s years later and Chris was in there doing one of those fast runs we had. He was doing it all evening and I wondered why. But it was just Chris’ way. He wasn’t really an improviser. He had to have his parts in his mind and he had to get them right and they were really good parts and worth waiting for, but it could be a long wait.”
Wakeman elaborates on why Squire’s approach could be a source of much frustration and tension. “Chris would play and then want to redo the whole thing. We’d go, ‘But we’re happy with what we played.’ So he’d fuss around and redo everything and often, his original was kept because it was better. Chris always felt there was a better take to be had and I suppose it was a great attitude to have, except he wasn’t right. So then, I’d go up to the pub around the corner and come back at 10 or 11 and Chris is still doing his bass part again with Steve and Jon trying to egg him on.”
During the making of the album there were inevitably many late-night sessions, though these were often of little to no value when they listened to them the next day, as Wakeman explains. “We’d come in in the morning and have a listen to the board mix of what we’d done the previous night and it would be useless, the hi-hat would be shrill and deafening and so on because the more you do in a day, the top end of your hearing tends to drop. So what you do is you keep winding the top end up. So nothing was ever any good. David Bowie never, ever worked late at night because he said it doesn’t work. Fresh ears in the morning, always the best.”
Recorded in sections, sometimes a bar or two at a time, these were then sifted and their merits assessed before each section was then painstakingly sewn together in an arrangement, rather like an ornate patchwork quilt. Only at the end of the time-consuming process were they then able to see the full picture. Even then it still required edits and overdubs before it was finally mixed. Making the album was likened by Bill Bruford as like having five people trying to write a novel together. As torturous as that was, after all the haggling over which bits or sections worked best next to one another and which parts should be thrown out, the mixing process itself was another challenge. In these days of automated on-screen faders getting the balance on individual instruments is a relatively civilised affair. In Advision, and every other studio at the time, it was a case of all hands to the desk as several members of the group simultaneously clustered around banks of faders and controls following a kind of aural shooting script when it came to bringing takes in or out.
One might assume that camaraderie and team spirit would be a by-product of this work but often it was just the opposite. “From day one, I loved the way that we wrote, I loved the way that we recorded, but I hated the way we mixed,” says Wakeman darkly. “I think it was a hard job for Eddy Offord. We didn’t get the width we should have had in the mixes and that was because he’d more often than not have 12 hands on the faders and lots of knob twiddling and God knows what. At the end of the day it got so compressed it didn’t matter who pressed or twiddled what. Everyone was listening only to their own part and not the overall thing, not thinking about the finished product.”
Sounding rather rueful, he says this was always a problem in Yes. “I was from a different school of how you mix. The person I learned the most from was David Bowie and his various producers. I worked with Ken Scott, Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti, and David Bowie had it spot on: he never went to any mixes. What he did [was] he would go away, leave them to get on with it. He could trust them, they knew what he wanted to do and when he listened to it afterward, that was the closest he could get to hearing the music for the first time. That’s what I’ve always done and I wish Yes had done that. But I don’t think we ever had – no disrespect to Eddy Offord – I don’t think we had somebody we all felt we could 100 per cent trust to get what we wanted.”
Yet despite the tensions that come from five individuals working through their respective idiosyncrasies, the finished results on the completed album were exceptional then and it remains so now. Not only had Yes ticked their long-held desire to do an extended suite occupying all of one side, and achieved it without any gratuitous padding, they served up two other tracks that also stand up as a superb examples of what progressive rock was about. If he was certain about the shape of the title track, Yes’ principal animateur Anderson was less certain about And You And I. “I’d written this very simple song,” he recalls, “but we got to a certain point where I said we had to create a theme, somehow it had to get bigger.”
It was exactly why they needed someone like Wakeman in the room, recalls Bill Bruford. Although there were contributions from all the band, Wakeman’s skills as an arranger and musical fixer were crucial to the track’s grandeur and stately development. Howe’s contribution was no less vital. We hear the 25-year-old man say, “Okay” at the start of side two. “There’s a kind of honesty to that moment,” agrees Howe. “That song is produced in a whole different way. A lot of time was spent getting that theme right with the right bass and right chords and right key changes. There were endless rehearsals but when we got to the studio and played it, we had to find a way into the song. We were ready to begin, that’s why I said, ‘Okay’ but my rambling harmonics we liked and decided to keep in. Basically, the entire front of the song was performed with me with a metronome.”
Siberian Khatru remains a masterclass in concise, dynamic writing and arranging. Bristling with rapid gears shifts in the tempo, soaring themes, beatific vocals, and even the rush of a harpsichord as each new section builds upon the last the cumulative effect of the piece is dizzying. When, after seven minutes, everything is stripped away, it’s akin to being ushered inside an immense engine room where the pulsating bass throbs and the inner mechanisms of how the band works are briefly exposed as the Bruford-composed cyclical guitar line whirls about, the cogs and wheels of Yes turn in perfect synchronisation. “We stole a bit from Stravinsky by having that pounding staccato pounding and at the same time throwing those accents on voice and drums and having me driving through it with that constant guitar motif. It’s a good example of hi-tech arranging circa 1972,” says Howe. When the entire band kicks back in, there’s an extra exhilaration in Squire’s ascending basslines. However long it may have taken to get that best take, it was worth every minute.
The gleaming triumph of Close To The Edge was tarnished for some by Bruford’s decision to leave and join what would become the Larks’ Tongues In Aspic line-up of King Crimson. As far as Bruford recalls, there was no big meeting of the band, no big announcement where it was formally announced like an election result. “I seem to remember long conversations in my flat in Harcourt Terrace, Fulham. I knew leaving would cause an upset. I was terrifically flattered and gratified that they wanted me to stay, but on the other hand, Jon understood exactly that people have to do what they have to do. He took the artistic line, which was very sweet of him. He was lovely about it. ‘You must do what you must do. We’re very sad, it’s been fantastic, but if you have to do this, then go ahead.’ I think for a long time Chris probably thought that I’d been spirited off by Robert [Fripp] and over-influenced by him.”
In the 50 years since the album was released, countless legions have admired the economy and grace of Bill Bruford’s playing on it. Howe counts himself in that number and thinks Bill’s sound is a key factor in making the album a musically coherent statement. For someone who has come to have such a major impact on drummers, other instrumentalists and fans alike, Bruford’s instantly recognisable playing does not actually occupy that big a space, says Howe. “If he’s hitting drums and crashing cymbals all the time that’s going to wipe out a lot of the frequencies that somebody else wants to enter into. He didn’t have two bass drums and six Rototoms and so on. He had the basic kit. But the thing was, that was his art. The basic kit is all you need and he made that work in a wonderful way because he didn’t see himself as a rock drummer so much. His drumming is outlandish. It sounds straight 4/4 but you listen to the way he adds that extra snare. That’s Bill’s genius.”
Yes weren’t about to let the small matter of a crucial departure get in the way. With Alan White already a friend of the band and a regular presence at Advision as they worked on the album, he was the obvious choice to help propel Yes on to their next great adventure. Steve Howe, now 74, and the only member in the current incarnation of Yes to have played on the album, jokingly remarks that as well as playing the pieces on the record for the last 50 years, he’s probably been talking about them for at least that long. Yet he doesn’t regard this as a burden of any kind, he says. “I think everybody that plays on it is very proud of it. It’s a very adventurous record. It’s the first time we did a one-side song and two songs on the other side. I revel in it. I’m delighted it’s so popular and so convincingly performed on the original record. It’s always a reference to go back and hear how we did it with the original tempos and everything around it. I think Close To The Edge, And You And I and Siberian Khatru are exceptional indications of a band that reached a certain peak in their creativity. There was an argument [that] you’ve always got to try something before you can say no and as we did we’d argue about the merits of the music. But we did allow each other enough space to be happy and, at the end of the day, everybody was happy with Close To The Edge.”
Sid Smith's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.
A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.
The iconic Yes guitarist Steve Howe talks to Jazz Guitar Today about his many jazz influences – and about what he is currently up to today. Steve Howe is brilliant, unique, a true artist and a gentleman. He has composed, recorded and performed with in one of the most successful, influential, seminal progressive rock bands (Yes) in music history. His style includes jazz, classical, bluegrass and folk.
Please note I didn’t say rock or blues, and he has accomplished all of this on the most unlikely of instruments, the Gibson ES175. Almost all of his tones are of the clean variety void of overdrive distortion that is the mainstay sound of rock guitar… It is so unlikely and hard to believe but there it is on some of the most popular “rock” songs of all time.
While many of his contemporaries are satisfied touring performing the music that made them household names, we salute Steve for continuing to push his boundaries and creating for us all wonderful works of new musical art. Please enjoy our Steve Howe interview.