Prog - - Contents - The Wet­ton Downes iCon trio of al­bums have been reis­sued via Epi­con/Cherry Red and are out now. See­off­ for more in­for­ma­tion.

We get in­side the mind of Ge­off Downes as The Bug­gles, Yes, Asia and DBA key­board player dis­cusses an il­lus­tri­ous ca­reer that’s taken him from The Wombles to the world’s arena stages.

The Prog In­ter­view is just that: every month we’re go­ing to get in­side the minds of some of the big­gest names in mu­sic. This is­sue, it’s Ge­off Downes. From The Bug­gles to Yes to Asia, the key­board mae­stro has earned his place in the prog pan­theon. He’s had numer­ous side projects, from Downes Braide As­so­ci­a­tion to Wet­ton Downes, and is still go­ing strong tour­ing with Yes to­day. From house shar­ing with Chrissie Hynde to deal­ing with Yes dra­mas, Downes looks back over a life lived in mu­sic.

Words: Dave Ever­ley

Ev­ery­body needs to start some­where. For Ge­off Downes, that break came in the or­ches­tra pit at Lon­don’s New Theatre. It was 1975, and the 23-year-old Downes was play­ing key­boards in a brand new stage show. And his un­likely pay­mas­ters? Pointy-nosed kids’ TV char­ac­ters The Wombles.

“It was my first job af­ter I fin­ished mu­sic col­lege,” says Downes, north­ern ac­cent undi­luted af­ter more than 40 years on mu­sic’s front­lines. “I an­swered an ad in Melody Maker look­ing for mu­si­cians for a the­atri­cal pro­duc­tion, and I got the job. It turned out to be the stage ver­sion of The Wombles.” And did he have to wear a cos­tume? “Thank­fully I didn’t,” he says with a laugh. “They were bloody un­healthy things.”

Downes has come a long way since rub­bing shoul­ders with Un­cle Bul­garia and Madame Cho­let. His jour­ney has taken him from new wave pop star­dom with The Bug­gles to prog’s up­per ech­e­lons as a two-time mem­ber of Yes, via a stint as a bona fide rock star with mul­ti­mil­lion-sell­ing 80s arena-prog ti­tans Asia.

The list of peo­ple he’s worked with over the years reads like a Who’s Who of prog roy­alty: Chris Squire, Steve Howe,

Greg Lake, Carl Palmer, John Wet­ton. But his most en­dur­ing re­la­tion­ship has been with Trevor Horn, whom he first met as a mem­ber of disco singer Tina Charles’ back­ing band. If Downes and Horn haven’t quite been con­stant mu­si­cal com­pan­ions, they’ve taken many of their most sig­nif­i­cant steps to­gether.

“I’ve never, ever ar­gued with Trevor about any­thing,” says Downes. “Not once. Some writ­ing part­ner­ships only work if there’s some con­flict, but we’ve never had that. We spent more time de­fend­ing our own ideals from ev­ery­body else.”

To­day, Downes shows no sign of slow­ing down. He’s cur­rently seven years into his sec­ond stint as Yes’ key­board player, while a fruit­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion with Bri­tish-born, Amer­i­can-based singer-song­writer Chris Braide has pro­duced three al­bums un­der the name Downes Braide As­so­ci­a­tion. Un­like some of his flashier, more com­bustible con­tem­po­raries in the prog world, Downes’ course has been rel­a­tively free of tur­bu­lence.

“I’m a non-con­fronta­tional kind of per­son,” he says. “I don’t get up­set by crit­i­cism. I’d rather be a cat­a­lyst to work with than some­one who is in peo­ple’s faces. I’ve never ac­tu­ally fallen out with any­body. I don’t think there’s a mu­si­cian I’d say I’ll never work with again in my life.”

But nei­ther is Downes the quiet man of prog. “Oh, I’ve got some ego, I do like to pose a bit some­times,” he says with a grin as he pre­pares to look back on his 40-plus years bridg­ing the worlds of prog, pop, rock and, well, Womble mu­sic.

Chris Squire was

the guy who in­vented how to live a rock’n’roll life­style and be a fan­tas­tic mu­si­cian – he could do the two things to­gether.

Which band first made you want to be a mu­si­cian?

The light bulb mo­ment was prob­a­bly when I jumped the train to go to the Isle Of Wight fes­ti­val in 1969. The Nice were play­ing and I saw Keith Emer­son. That was prob­a­bly one of the big­gest things that led me along the road of be­ing a key­board player. I was re­ally in­ter­ested in the key­board­driven bands that were around at the time – Pro­col Harum, the Can­ter­bury bands. Any­thing where the key­boards played a dom­i­nant role.

You were born in

Stock­port and stud­ied at Leeds Col­lege Of Mu­sic. When did you de­cide to move to Lon­don?

A friend of mine who I was at col­lege with went there in ad­vance. He lived in a big house in Clapham, south-west Lon­don and in­vited me to move in.

Weird place, loads of odd peo­ple. Chrissie Hynde was liv­ing there. Nick Kent, the jour­nal­ist from NME, had been liv­ing in the room be­fore me. There were a few hy­po­der­mic sy­ringes about.

It was a pretty scary place.

Where was your head at mu­si­cally at that point?

I’d moved away from prog.

I was more into the disco scene at the time – Earth, Wind & Fire, peo­ple like that. Steely Dan too. It did have an in­flu­ence on me over what came later with The Bug­gles.

Where ex­actly did you meet Trevor Horn?

There was an ad in Melody Maker say­ing, “Key­board player wanted for chart act.”

I went down to this re­hearsal place in Ber­mond­sey. I had a Min­i­moog and a Fen­der Rhodes in the back of my bat­tered old Ford Es­cort es­tate. It turned out that it was for [disco singer] Tina Charles. Trevor gave me the job straight away. He said it was be­cause he was im­pressed that I had my own key­boards. I’d ac­tu­ally bor­rowed them from a friend.

What were your ini­tial im­pres­sions of him?

He seemed a good guy, pretty sin­cere. He didn’t feel like a long-lost buddy – it was more of a work­ing re­la­tion­ship. But there was a bond be­tween us. We were both a cou­ple of north­ern lads try­ing to make it in Lon­don, strug­gling against the south­ern­ers. I think he liked the fact that I was a bit of a per­fec­tion­ist and wanted to get ev­ery­thing dead right.

You put to­gether The Bugs, who be­came The Bug­gles, not long af­ter­wards. Was there a grand plan be­hind it?

It was just some­thing we drifted into. Trevor had started to get these small pro­duc­tion things and he used to rope me into them. At the same time I was do­ing ad jin­gles, just bread and but­ter stuff, and I’d get him in­volved in those. The Bug­gles mainly just grew out of that.

You came across like a pair of mad sci­en­tists locked away in a lab­o­ra­tory. How ac­cu­rate a de­scrip­tion is that?

In many ways that’s how we saw our­selves. We were the back­room boys. Our motto was, ‘The Bug­gles will never go live.’ It was only ever go­ing to be two stu­dio crea­tures beaver­ing away.

And then Video Killed The Ra­dio Star came along and ev­ery­thing changed…

I re­mem­ber a very rudi­men­tary demo we did and even at that point, there was some­thing ex­tra spe­cial about that song. But Trevor and I took the demo around to every sin­gle record la­bel in Lon­don and got knocked back by them all: “Nah, don’t think so, it’s okay, but we just signed The Cor­gis.” It just so hap­pened that my girl­friend at the time was work­ing for Is­land. She played it for her boss, and it got to the ears of [Is­land boss] Chris Black­well, who said, “You’d bet­ter sign these guys straight away.”

Did you en­joy be­ing a pop star?

I did. It was some­thing I’d as­pired to, be­ing on Top Of The Pops and all that stuff. So when it ac­tu­ally ar­rived, I took it in my stride. Hav­ing a num­ber one record around the world was great. Trevor didn’t take to the teen mag stuff that went with it – he wasn’t re­ally happy with that.

But within a year, both you and Trevor ended up in Yes. That was quite some left turn. How did it hap­pen?

We were be­ing man­aged by the same com­pany and we’d ended up writ­ing our sec­ond al­bum in the stu­dio next to Yes.

Well, it was re­ally just Steve [Howe], Chris [Squire] and Alan [White] – they’d just come back from Paris af­ter the ill-fated ses­sions with Roy Thomas Baker. They wan­dered in one day and said, “Have you got any songs that might be suit­able for us?” So we put to­gether a cou­ple of ideas and started play­ing them. We just car­ried on like that and even­tu­ally just sort of mor­phed into them.

What was the mood like when you joined?

They were slightly con­fused about what di­rec­tion they were go­ing to go in, be­cause they were just rehearsing back­ing tracks at that time. They were play­ing some fan­tas­tic mu­sic, but it didn’t have any key­boards or vo­cals on it. We were the ideal thing to come along to them at that time and help carve a new di­rec­tion on the Drama al­bum.

Not ev­ery­one saw it like that. You were booed on the sub­se­quent tour…

Oh yeah. There’s no doubt about that. The Amer­i­cans were much more ac­cept­ing – they were so stoned they didn’t re­ally care who was in the band. But peo­ple were much more cyn­i­cal in the UK: “Oh, The Yeg­gles have spoilt it all.” There was a lot of an­i­mos­ity to­wards us. I re­mem­ber we were do­ing a gig in Brighton and halfway through the key­board solo, some­one shouted out, “Rick Wake­man!” in the mid­dle of it.

Was that de­mor­al­is­ing?

It was at the time. And ul­ti­mately it had a de­struc­tive ef­fect. Chris thought that maybe we weren’t go­ing any­where with it. I think he was look­ing to do some­thing else at that point. Af­ter the last show, at Ham­mer­smith Odeon, it just dis­solved. So I went back to work­ing with Trevor on the sec­ond Bug­gles al­bum. And then that’s when I got the call from the man­age­ment, say­ing they were putting to­gether this new band, Asia.

What was the idea be­hind Asia?

The plan was to of­fer a Yes-type al­ter­na­tive at a time when Yes wasn’t op­er­at­ing. The idea had been float­ing around a cou­ple of years ear­lier, with Carl [Palmer] and John [Wet­ton] and, I think, Rick Wake­man or Ed­die Job­son. Orig­i­nally Asia was go­ing to be a five-piece. That’s what the la­bel wanted. We au­di­tioned Robert Fleis­chman, who was briefly the singer in Jour­ney. Trevor Rabin came over. He didn’t get the job be­cause I don’t think Steve would have been happy with a sec­ond gui­tarist float­ing around. John was sing­ing the vo­cals while we were look­ing for this ex­tra per­son, and even­tu­ally we just turned around and said, “John sounds great, we’re stick­ing as a four-piece.”

The first Asia al­bum was a huge suc­cess on the back of the sin­gle Heat Of The Mo­ment…

That nearly didn’t end up on the al­bum. It was an af­ter­thought. We were go­ing to lead off with Only Time Will Tell, but the la­bel said, “Do you have any­thing else?” So John and I came up with Heat Of The Mo­ment in one morn­ing. Lit­er­ally, the bones of the song were writ­ten in maybe a cou­ple of hours.

What was it like be­ing in the eye of the hur­ri­cane?

The mas­sive suc­cess did of­fer up some prob­lems. It was a big gravy train for a lot of peo­ple – man­age­ment, the record la­bel. Peo­ple start to try and pull you in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, start­ing pick­ing peo­ple off for their own ends.

It was a band made up of four suc­cess­ful mu­si­cians. Did you have egos to match?

I wouldn’t say so. Ev­ery­one had re­spect for each other. But then John and Steve weren’t re­ally see­ing eye to eye over a lot of things. It wasn’t fraught, they were just dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. Carl and I were more mid­dle ground in that re­spect.

Heat Of The Mo­ment

nearly didn’t end up on the al­bum. It was an


I think that orig­i­nal line-up was al­ways go­ing to fall apart. We’d all come in at a higher level. We didn’t have to do our time scrub­bing around the north­ern club cir­cuit in the back of a tran­sit van. It was no sur­prise when it started to change.

Asia went on hia­tus af­ter 1985’s As­tra, and then you re­leased your first solo al­bum,

The Light Pro­gram…

Af­ter As­tra, we’d lost the con­fi­dence of the la­bel, we didn’t have Steve on board and John wasn’t re­ally happy with the way things were go­ing. I had this idea to do some­thing with all these syn­the­sis­ers I’d got and the tech­nol­ogy I worked with. That’s when I came up with The Light Pro­gram.

You say “all these syn­the­sis­ers”. Just how many syn­the­sis­ers did you ac­tu­ally have?

Oh, an as­ton­ish­ing amount. I must have had 40 dif­fer­ent kinds of key­boards at that point. Most of them were in stor­age a lot of the time. But I’d been in three huge projects in a row, and I wanted to do some­thing that was just me.

Did you en­joy work­ing on your own?

It was in­ter­est­ing but I wouldn’t say to­tally sat­is­fy­ing. It was an ex­per­i­men­tal time and I en­joyed mak­ing up sounds and try­ing to em­u­late other in­stru­ments. But you can come up with some of the best work when you’re col­lab­o­rat­ing with other peo­ple. I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best mu­si­cians in the world, peo­ple like [ex-Deep Pur­ple bas­sist] Glenn Hughes, Greg Lake…

You worked with Greg when he tem­po­rar­ily joined Asia in 1983, then again in the late 80s on an aborted col­lab­o­ra­tion. What was he like?

He was dif­fi­cult to work with. He was a good guy, no doubt about it, and a fan­tas­tic mu­si­cian and a fan­tas­tic singer. But he was very much a per­fec­tion­ist. It wasn’t a very pro­duc­tive col­lab­o­ra­tion. We only wrote about six songs in six months. He didn’t want to sing one day or do this the next day. That project never had the legs.

You had a much more pro­duc­tive re­la­tion­ship with John Wet­ton. What was he like?

John was a blood brother to me, but he was a very enig­matic char­ac­ter. At times he was very in­su­lar, but then at oth­ers we’d talk for hours about foot­ball and pol­i­tics. It’s well-doc­u­mented that he had a lot of prob­lems with al­co­hol over the years, but I never fell out with him. We never had cross words. He’d al­ways take it out on some­body else. And he was a bril­liant bass player. He was in the league of

Chris Squire.

Chris Squire casts a big shadow over two very dis­tinct parts of your ca­reer: your orig­i­nal stint in Yes and when you re­joined in 2011. What are your own mem­o­ries of him?

Chris was the guy who in­vented how to live a rock’n’roll life­style and be a fan­tas­tic mu­si­cian – he could do the two things to­gether. He was a great guy so­cially. On the Drama tour, we had a pri­vate plane and he used to turn up wear­ing a very smart jacket and a pair of un­der­pants, be­cause he was late get­ting up at the ho­tel. That was Chris all over – they used to call him The Late Chris Squire. I know that frus­trated peo­ple. Bill Bru­ford was su­per crit­i­cal of him for be­ing late all the time, but I just ac­cepted it.

Can you re­mem­ber the first gig you played af­ter he died?

I can. It was strange, be­cause I al­ways got com­fort from look­ing over at his side of the stage and him giv­ing me a lit­tle wink, and that wasn’t there.

Not only was he a big guy in terms of his size, but his pres­ence was huge.

When Chris was ill, did you think he’d get bet­ter?

We did at the time. He had a very ag­gres­sive form of cancer, but at the same time, he was in a very good fa­cil­ity in Phoenix, one of the top cities in Amer­ica for med­i­cal schools. We felt that maybe he had a chance. But un­for­tu­nately it took a down­ward turn quite quickly. And at that point ev­ery­one thought the worst.

You can come up with some of the best work when you’re col­lab­o­rat­ing with other peo­ple. I’ve been lucky to work with some of the best mu­si­cians in

the world.

The prog world lost Chris Squire, Greg Lake, John Wet­ton and Keith Emer­son within the space of 18 months. How did that af­fect you?

It has been a bad few years, for sure. It does make you look at your­self and your own mor­tal­ity, and you think, “Well, it’s go­ing to hap­pen one day.” By the same to­ken you look at the achieve­ments of all those great mu­si­cians and the im­pact they’ve had on peo­ple.

Right now, you’re firmly back in Yes. It’s been a fairly tur­bu­lent few years, what with Chris Squire’s death and Jon An­der­son, Rick Wake­man and Trevor Rabin launch­ing their own ver­sion of the band…

Peo­ple have said to me that Yes is like a dys­func­tional fam­ily. It seems to stum­ble its way for­ward with some high mo­ments and some low mo­ments. It runs es­sen­tially on the ded­i­ca­tion of the fans who have fol­lowed every twist and turn. But there’s a gen­eral con­sen­sus that Yes will carry on and make new mu­sic and what­ever.

It seems like there’s ten­sion be­tween the two ver­sions of the band. Is there?

Any real di­rect con­fronta­tions have hope­fully been nipped in the bud. As time has pro­gressed it’s be­come less crit­i­cal. When they first came out they were pretty gung-ho – they were mak­ing a lot of com­ments in the press which were not very pleas­ant, call­ing us The Steve Howe Trib­ute Band. A lot of it was un­nec­es­sary. For the most part, we’ve at­tempted to keep the high road and not get in­volved too much with slag­ging them off.

Have you spo­ken to Rick or Jon?

No. The last time I saw Rick was at Keith Emer­son’s memo­rial. He was per­fectly de­cent, even though he wasn’t par­tic­u­larly en­am­oured with our ver­sion of Yes. I’ve very rarely spo­ken to Jon An­der­son in my life. I think I’ve only met him once.

If you were in the same city as them on a night they were play­ing a gig, would you go and see them?

Prob­a­bly not, no. I don’t think that would work. But they do their thing, they’ve got their own agenda go­ing on. They’re not get­ting in my face. That’s all I’m par­tic­u­larly both­ered about.

Do you ever wish you were more of a show­man, like Rick or Keith Emer­son?

No, I don’t. I en­joy be­ing an in­te­gral part of some­thing big­ger rather than be­ing a sin­gu­lar per­son­al­ity like that. I don’t think I could pull it off any­way. I know my lim­i­ta­tions in that depart­ment.

What’s the se­cret to stay­ing in de­mand for as long as you have?

I don’t know. I sup­pose I like the ca­ma­raderie of be­ing in a band. There’s a point where you re­ally don’t need to fall out with peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly when you’re my age.

Who is the big­gest pain in the arse: singers or gui­tarists?

Singers are dif­fi­cult, but then they’ve got the job of be­ing at the front. I don’t mind gui­tarists. They just do their own thing and pose around.

Do you look back and think, “I’ve not done too badly?”

I could sit in the gar­den or go in my stu­dio and look at the gold records on the wall and go, “It didn’t work out so bad, did it?” But I’m not one to rest on my lau­rels. I like to chal­lenge my­self. It’s been very in­ter­est­ing be­ing with Yes. We’ve done a very var­ied set each time we’ve come out. That’s been in­ter­est­ing for me. It keeps you mo­ti­vated.

If you had a chance to speak to that 23-year-old guy in the or­ches­tra pit at the Wombles stage show, what piece of ad­vice would you give him?

[Laughs] I’d tell him to keep on wombling.











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