Interview: Geoff Downes of Yes

brent johnson speaks with Geoff Downes, the noted keyboardist who has played with The Buggles, Asia and now Yes …



Many people can tell you that The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was the first video played on MTV 30 years ago.

But only Geoff Downes can say he was the first thing you heard when that video started rolling.

Downes was The Buggles’ keyboardist, and it was his spacey, tinkling piano riff that opened the futuristic new wave track. But that’s hardly the only highlight in his three-decade career.

The 59-year-old Brit is one of pop’s unsung musicians. He and bassist Trevor Horn formed The Buggles in the late ’70s, hitting No. 1 on the U.K. charts with ‘Radio Star.’ In 1980, the duo joined prog-rock heroes Yes for the album Drama. Two years later, Downes found massive success as the keyboardist with rock supergroup Asia — a band later discovered by a new generation thanks to South Park and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

Oh, he also joined the Guinness Book of Records — for playing the most keyboards on stage in one performance, 28.

Thirty years later, Downes is back with Yes. He helped write much of their new album, Fly From Here — produced by his old Buggles partner Horn. Downes and the group’s latest lineup — longtime members Steve Howe (guitar), Chris Squire (bass), Alan White (drums) and new vocalist Benoit David — toured the U.S. with Styx this summer and will kick off a European tour in November.

Yes: drummer Alan White, guitarist Steve Howe, producer Trevor Horn, bassist Chris Squire, keyboardist Geoff Downes, singer Benoit David

Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson spoke with Downes via phone about Yes’ new project, his MTV legacy and whether the internet has killed the video star …

Pop-Break: You only played on one Yes album before this, right?

Geoff Downes: Yeah, in 1980, we did Drama. And in fact, the song ‘Fly From Here’ was written around then — we just never got the opportunity to finish it. And I think that was one of the reasons Chris Squire got Trevor involved [with the new album]. He always thought that song maybe should have been included [on Drama]. So I think when the opportunity to record a new Yes album came up, everybody felt it was a good time to review that song.

PB: How did it feel to be back in the studio with Yes after 30 years?

GD: It was really great fun. And obviously, I’ve worked with Steve a lot over the years with Asia and various other projects. It was nothing unusual for me to be in a room with Steve. Also, Trevor was there all the time, as well. It wasn’t so weird. Having said that, it was still very, very exciting to me to be involved with the guys of Yes.

PB: Did you have to re-learn a lot of the old Yes material to go on tour?

GD: Yeah, there was some stuff I’d not done before. Yes’ stuff is pretty challenging, especially for a keyboard player. You’re looking at a lot of Rick Wakeman parts — they’re very complex. But I’ve certainly done quite a bit of this stuff before, so it wasn’t too difficult to get back into it.

PB: You’ve been involved in a lot of famous music over the years. Is there ever a time when ‘Heat Of The Moment’ comes on the radio, and you’ll sit and listen? Or do you turn it off?

GD: When ‘Heat Of The Moment’ and that first Asia album was so huge — particularly in America — I remember sitting in the car with [lead singer] John Wetton. ‘Heat Of The Moment’ came on the radio. So we changed the station, and said, ‘Let’s not listen to that.’ But we changed the station, and one of the other songs from the album was on. That kind of brought it home how big our first album was. Having said that, it’s still a buzz when you hear your music on the radio.

PB: When did you find out The Buggles were going to be the first band played on MTV?

GD: I didn’t find that out until quite a few weeks after. ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was actually released in 1979. It wasn’t a big hit in America. It was a very minor hit. So I thought that was pretty well it for The Buggles in America. I figured: If that wasn’t going to be a hit in America, then nothing was. So I sort of forgot about it, really.

But a couple of years later, someone called me up and said, ‘Your song was actually used as the first video on this new channel that started in New York City on cable.’ I was sort of like, ‘Yeah, okay, what’s the deal with that?’ Of course, what I didn’t know was MTV was going to make a massive inroad into the whole psyche of American culture very quickly. So it’s always something one views in hindsight rather than that it was a big exciting thing at the time — because it wasn’t. Nobody knew how well MTV was going to do.

PB: Is it an honor to be part of the trivia question, ‘Who was the first band on MTV?’ Or has that been annoying throughout the years?

GD: It’s something I’m quite proud of actually. It does come up in trivia quite a bit. It is quite an honor to have your music starting the very first channel that made such an impact all across the world. You have MTV Europe, MTV Asia. I don’t think it has much to do with music these days — it’s kind of morphed into the reality-culture television. For better or worse, that’s the way it’s gone. But it was an exciting time those first four or five years.

PB: Video may have killed the radio star, but do you feel like the internet has killed the video star?

GD: I think the whole idea of ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was how technology changes peoples’ perceptions of music. It wasn’t specifically about video — it was about how things get superceded. You look at things now, and it’s quite prophetic — not just because the way video came but also the way peoples’ perceptions have changed, the way we’ve buy music has changed. People don’t walk into a record store anymore and buy music. They buy it online. And they don’t always buy an album — they buy just one track. ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ is interesting in that way. It’s quite a prophetic piece.

PB: The Guinness Book of Records had you as having the most keyboards on one stage. How did that come about — having so many keyboards in one console?

GD: I was collecting them at the time, and the guy that built the first Asia stage built this podium to house the keyboards. It was so big, I thought I better fill it up with some stuff. I ended up with 28 in one gig. I think it was an Asia MTV special in Japan in 1983. I did actually every single one during the course of the show. A few bars on each one.

PB: How many keyboards do have on stage with Yes these days?

GD: I have about 10.

PB: Can we expect more new music from Yes in the future?

GD: I think so, yeah. I think the Fly From Here album is the start of a new chapter. It’s the first album Benoit has been the vocalist on. I feel Yes is still very much an active band, and I think we look forward to doing more stuff in the future.

For more on Yes, visit their website.

23 COMMENTS

  1. Nice interview 🙂 I find it amusing that Geoff didn’t realize that Video Killed The Radio Star was played on MTV until way later. Funny!

    For the record though… Steve Howe and Alan White aren’t *original* Yes members. That honor goes to Peter Banks and Bill Bruford, respectively.

  2. YAY Geoff!! Keepin’ the music alive 🙂 – I saw a couple of your shows this summer – and I am so HAPPY that YES is still rocking, that you are carrying the keyboard flame, and that you all are giving us new music. I look forward to more music, more shows, and more YES experience. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. Men Without Hats came out with a song called ‘Telepathy’ on their album ‘No Hats Beyond This Point” released in 2003 which in it says “…Internet killed the video star and telepathy killed the internet star…”. So I found it funny when you mentioned this question, “…but do you feel like the internet has killed the video star?” in your interview.

    • Like “Mike” said,

      No Jon, No Yes but also, No Rick No Yes.

      Jon and Rick occasionally go on tour together. I went last year, it was GREAT

      • I have to disagree – the new lineup is YES without a doubt. A different YES, yes, but still YES. They have a new album with new music and are moving ahead.

        I wish for Jon and Rick, but it is not to be. I am glad they are out playing together – it is a good tour. Somehow though, AWAKEN with voice and piano is not quite the same…

      • On this current tour, Yes is playing the majority of their new album. Plus songs from Drama. Not as many tunes Jon sang on like usual. I think this five piece is making their own mark. Jon’s cool…one of my favorite musicians. He’s moved on, as has the band.

        Uncle G

    • Personally, I don’t like Jon’s reggae interpretation of Yes’ music. I think he’s a joke these days. I’m also glad Yes don’t have to play Jon’s “Music is the god of the world” kind of music.
      However, I do get your point. And a Yes that might have been with Jon, Chris, Rick, Steve and Alan will never be again,sadly. Sadly to see that they are no friends. Wonder if they’ve ever been. More like business partners…
      I look forward to more new music from YES, the one that is now.

      “One word can bring you round…”

  4. Hi Geoff, greetings from Bogota Colombia where you came a few months ago with ASIA. Great show!!!!! I hope YES would come…it’s no that complicated these days. Any Latinamerican tour on sight?.

  5. The guy who wrote that yes is just a tribute without Jon is right on target. How can you possiibly represent the band when the guy who wrote 95 % of all the words is not in the band? It’s beyond bogus. I saw Jon and Rick last week-a great show. I also heard they were thinking about joining forces with Trevor Rabin. It would be interesting to see which version of Yes people sould come out to see. I’m betting on Wakeman-Anderson-Rabin.
    Brooklyn Al

    • I’ve been a concert-going fan since 1973. I’ve seen all versions of YES. To me the one member who has proven irreplaceable is Chris Squire. My proof is ABWH with Tony Levin, and the Red Rocks stand-in Jeff Berlin. To me – as much as I LOVE Jon and Rick, David Benoit has done a fine job filling very large shoes, and Geoff has filled the keyboard slot very well. Both now have original YES music to their credit, and both have performed under very adverse conditions, with some fans who simply refuse to give them a break.
      I’m happy to see any member of YES perform, current or former. I would be happy if the band continues to change configurations. I am just happy YES is still out there, making music, and performing on stage, currently as Steve, Chris, Alan, David, and Geoff.

  6. To James Jones,
    I have seen every Yes tour since Yessongs, including Drama and AWBH. I’d rather go to see “Wonderous Stories”- a local cover band, than to see some schmoe trying to be Jon Anderson. As for Chris, he’s hardly irreplaceable.
    I thought the ABHW show was the best tour I can remember seeing. Tony Levin didn’t miss a beat, it was a shame he got sick the night of the simulcast.
    Also, Geoff Downes isn’t even the third best keyboard man Yes has had. Rick and Patrick Moraz and Igor Korochev were all virtuoso performers. Downes is just another competent musician, with arguably more talent than Tony Kaye. I can’t blame you for taking what they’re giving you, but I’ll pass, until the real thing comes around.
    By the way-Jon and Rick did a two man version of Awaken that was beyond amazing, don’t miss it.
    Brooklyn Al

  7. Thanks, Alan,

    I have also seen all the tours since Yessongs, except St Louis Obispo – still kicking myself for that – silly me – I assumed they would be launching a larger tour – not breaking up after the demo!

    Actually – I think Tom Brislin should be included in your list of virtuosos – he outplayed Koroshev in my opinion – at least his sounds were more authentic

    I saw 3 ABWH ahows. I actually enjoyed the Yes West version more – I really missed Chris Squire’s bass – I didn’t think Tony Levin’s style was Yes-centric (for want of a better term). And I thought Steve Howe’s singing detracted from the whole – especially at Hampton Colosseum – he was SO out of tune that I was cringing. He went on his solo “learn to sing” tour after that, and improved immensely – to his great credit.

    I have seen the video of Awaken with Jon and Rick – and while impressive an effort, it is only a pianist and a singer covering Awaken. I appreciate that you find it beyond amazing, but I don’t see it that way – different perspectives I guess.

    I have been to most of Jon’s solo tours, and I think he is a shadow of his former self on stage. Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE Jon. But he was unable to continue, and the band kept going without him.

    I also LOVE Rick – and styled my own keyboard playing after him after discovering YES with Fragile. I gave up on him after Tormato, when it seemed he stopped contributing creatively to the band, and after his 2nd or 3rd “quitting”. I pretty much got exasperated with him.

    Anyway – as you say – I take what is given, and I enjoy the current YES lineup. I’m glad the others are still playing outside of YES, and I will continue being a YES and all their current and past members fan until I die.

    Jim

  8. I had the chance to see the Drama tour in 1980 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, and back in those days the security was not too strict, and I was able to bring in my 35mm camera. I was near the front, and actually have an awesome shot of Geoff at the keyboards, wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey!

  9. How about Congress and the British Parliament make a new rule ???? No more YES!! from now on , so there is no confusion ;all past members must use there last names when making albums and touring. Like CSN & Y or ELP or more appopriately ABWH.
    These guys have been fighting for their whole 40 years. Anderson won’t sing Drama songs (nor should he). Howe won’t play Trevor Rabin songs (nor should he) And if ABWH songs were ever suggested in the Union line up , I am certain Squire and White would have refused to play them. These guys needed to call it quits in 1980 and stop the nonsense with 2 exceptions : ABWH and the 5 who made Tormato and Keys to Ascenscion. All other incarnationsare BOGUS because they are not the real thing and are a diluted sound. Squire-White-Howe cannot write a whole album of their own. It’s only with the Buggles help that they can write, record and produce a whole album. Anderson , Squire and White cannot write and album either and only helped
    write 91025. Trevor Rabin was the chief compsoser of that effort.
    Finally, by Magnication they all got it together. So I stand corrected …those 4 were a legitamate Yes, also. However after 2002 they splintered again and we have a mess of people coming out of the woodwork (Billy Sherwood, Igor Khoroshev, David, Downes and Horn and finally Davison). You guys; give it up! The two who cannot be called Yes (Anderson and Wakeman) can write and perform until they die. You jokers (Squire Howe and White) have every Tom , Dick and Harry in the band and still cannot fill concert halls , sell albums of impress long time Yes fans. I will pay to see Anderson & Wakeman if they come to the USA. I will not pay to see Squire Howe and White play Yes songs with the latest imposter. Finally, I suggest if you want to use the Yes name do it as such : “Yes featuring Chris Squire , Steve Howe and Alan White” . Thank you readers.

Comments are closed.