Just say Yes to a new generation of prog rockers

by Tim Hornyak

Special To The Japan Times

Few rock bands from the 1960s are still going strong today, and fewer still have been as musically adventurous as prog rockers Yes. Formed in London in 1968, the outfit has survived numerous lineup changes, but the death last year of bassist Chris Squire left an especially large hole in the group after 47 years of his punchy, melodic basslines.

Drummer Alan White had powered the Yes rhythm section with Squire since 1972, from compositions that mixed folk, classical and jazz in odd time signatures to the power chord-driven chart topper “Owner of a Lonely Heart” of 1983. Relaxing in a Tokyo hotel this week during a Yes tour of Japan, whose shows have opened with Squire’s Rickenbacker bass spotlighted alone on stage, White showed off a plastic bracelet emblazoned with “Chris” and an image of a fish, an old nickname for Squire.

“I wore this through back surgery, and I think he helped me through it,” White says. “You can’t replace Chris Squire. We were together for 43 years. He was a fundamental part of the rhythm section for Yes. But he lives on.”

Other musicians have stepped in to fill roles created by Yes’ founders and early members. The current lineup includes Billy Sherwood on bass, Geoff Downes on keyboards and singer Jon Davison; White and guitarist Steve Howe are the only members from the 1970s. The set list for the band’s three-city Japan tour has covered a mix of classic tunes such as “Roundabout” and “Starship Trooper” as well as 20-minute-long epics from the “Tales from Topographic Oceans” album, which came out after Yes toured Japan in 1973.

“It’s wonderful because Japanese audiences definitely do their homework,” says White, 67. “They know the lyrics and they love the songs.”

White grew up in northeast England in a musical family. He began learning piano at an early age, but played so percussively that he was given a drum kit to experiment with. Soon after he was in local bands, then in London, and by his early 20s he was playing with the likes of John Lennon, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Joe Cocker.

“I remember jamming with Jimi Hendrix at 2 in the morning at the Speakeasy in London,” White recalls. “A lot of great bands came out of that period. I think the weather was a big factor. It rained so much, I think everybody stayed home and rehearsed and practiced. And they became really good.”

The sound of that era is now being conveyed to a new generation of Yes fans, White says.

“We span three generations. It’s amazing to see these 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds wearing Yes T-shirts and going, ‘I know this song,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I think they’re being brainwashed by their parents.”