Yes guitarist Steve Howe: ‘Music doesn’t really date in the way that a sponge cake does’
The group’s hit Close to the Edge is 50 years old. Guitarist Steve Howe tells Dominic Maxwell why audiences still love to hear it live
Dominic Maxwell Saturday May 21 2022, 12.01am BST The Times
It makes sense, when you head out on tour again after three years off stage, to give the people what they want. So when the veteran progressive rock band Yes return to British stages next month, it will be to mark the 50th anniversary of the album many consider to be their masterpiece. Out go their pre-pandemic plans to play the entirety of their less beloved 1974 album Relayer — at least until 2023. In comes a set based around their 1972 masterpiece Close to the Edge, plus other . . . well, hits isn’t quite the word for a band whose songs so often rambled on for half a side of vinyl or more. Nonetheless, it’s catnip to fans of the old stuff.
Is there anything double-edged to that, though, I wonder, as I speak to the guitarist Steve Howe, 75, the only present Yes member left from the Close to the Edge line-up. The band, in all its various incarnations, have released 17 studio albums since then. Howe produced the most recent of them, The Quest, in 2021. Yet here he is again fielding questions on an album that many people — me included — consider their finest work. And it’s 50 years old.
Howe, though, is out to see the positives. “Music doesn’t really date in the way that a sponge cake does,” he says on the phone from his studio in Dorset. “We live with the past and we project into the future. This is a quality item and I stick by it. I can’t wait to play it again.”
Yes have had bigger successes — most of all the 1984 single Owner of a Lonely Heart, which topped the American charts at a time during which Howe wasn’t in the band. Close to the Edge, though, is the album that more or less defines its genre. Indeed, it came top of a poll by Prog magazine of greatest albums (above In the Court of the Crimson King by King Crimson, Selling England by the Pound by Genesis and The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd).
It is a mixture of squalling fusion guitar, steady funk bass, church organ, the singer Jon Anderson’s spiritual (if not entirely explicable) lyrics, jazz drumming, birdsong sound effects . . . and that’s just the first few minutes of the side-long title track. They were only able to pull off something so ambitious, Howe suggests, because their confidence was boosted by the success their previous album, Fragile (on which the keyboardist Rick Wakeman had joined the band). “Having success in the UK was the most important thing to us, but to go on to dominate in the States back then was the icing on the cake. We felt that now the world was our oyster.”
It was all too much for their drummer, Bill Bruford, who left the band immediately afterwards. To Howe, though, it was one of their happier albums. Indeed, although he suggested last year that some of Yes’s albums were “a headache, a toothache and a stomachache all at once”, today he emphasises that Yes’s reputation for having a bad time is much exaggerated.
“Creativity does produce tension,” he says, “but not all of it is about arguing or fighting, it’s about trying to get your ideas through.”
Howe, a lifelong north Londoner, had joined Yes two years earlier, helping to usher it into its golden period of success. He got an early idea of the sort of creative tension to come, though: both Anderson and the bassist, Chris Squire, liked to think of themselves as the leader. He would side with whoever he thought had the best idea at the time, he says.
We would need an hour with a PowerPoint presentation to go through all the comings and goings in Yes over the past 50 years, except to say that Squire died in 2015 and Anderson and Wakeman are no longer in a band that is now an Anglo-American mix of Howe, Alan White, Billy Sherwood, Jon Davison and Geoff Downes (formerly half of the Buggles, who disbanded so that he and Trevor Horn could join Yes in 1980). They have an extra drummer, Jay Schellen, for live work.
Howe has now been in the band again since 1995. And if, he says, Bruford tells him he can’t understand how he can bear to play the same old songs again and again, his enthusiasm for his work is enhanced partly by the years he was out of the band. “That gave me a determination.”
In the Eighties he and Downes had huge success with the band Asia for a while, selling ten million copies of their debut self-titled album in 1982. Howe then left Asia to form the band GTR with the former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. GTR had one big American hit, When the Heart Rules the Mind, but imploded after one album (produced by Downes). “That was a difficult time for me in a way,” Howe says. “All the things I did for a while were quite short-term.” In the late Eighties he formed a band with other Yes dissidents, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. They then united with the other members of Yes for an album and tour; however, Anderson went back to Yes. “I am not holding grievances against Jon for that, but three of the four of us were out in the cold.”
These days Howe is the member of the band who goes back furthest. Is he the keeper of the flame? “It would be silly to deny it.” Is he the band’s leader? He sort of does deny it — “I’m not an authoritarian” — but he enjoyed producing The Quest, and seems to be taking a creative lead. (Downes suggests the band doesn’t have a leader — but that Howe is “the focal point”.)
Recently, though, Yes’s primacy as purveyors of their own back catalogue was challenged by another short-lived surname-heavy spin-off, Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman, who towards the end of their brief touring life started calling themselves Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin & Rick Wakeman. Things got a bit tense for a while, then ARW split up. “It’s what people do, people will try things on, that’s what happens in the business,” says Howe of ARW adding Yes to their name. “I remember half a century ago there were about three groups going around calling themselves the Drifters. Give me a break, you know!”
Howe is unabashed about engaging with his past yet wary of moving the focus from music to gossip. Which is understandable. And yet, sinful creatures that we puny humans are, we may or may not be grabbed by Yes’s cosmic lyrics and inventive symphonic rock, but it’s hard not to be fascinated by the lawsuits, fallings out, arrivals and departures, triumphs and tragedies, hits and misses.
Howe gets that, but can’t surrender to it, he has music to make. On his former frontman and collaborator, say: “I love Jon Anderson and I believe we have an understanding and an immense respect for each other. But the difficulties of trying to work together are too great.” Conflict, he repeats, is inevitable but needn’t be disastrous.
“There is most probably some necessity in great music for there to have been some price to pay. Even if you take a flower you have got to plant the seed, you have got to water it, you have got to nurture it. And I think that is the same with a band, it does need nurturing, it does need some care, it won’t all be easy.
“So you mustn’t be marred by those things, you mustn’t say this is awful because we had to go through that, no, you went through a little bit of that but it led to the other stuff. Everybody gets cut up, so I think talk about the good times. Sometimes people cause you pain, and if the music was rubbish then the pain would have been pointless. But since the music wasn’t rubbish then the pain was part of the process of making this such a good outfit to belong to all these years.”