‘When I taste for Was 13 I got a rock’n’roll...’
NEW YORK, 1981. Nearly 21,000 people are packed into Madison Square Garden to see progressive rock legends Yes. You can almost taste the anticipation. As excitement swells, many in the capacity crowd hold lit cigarette lighters above their heads, knowing the English stars are about to make their dramatic entrance and sweep them away on a magic carpet ride of musicianship and mystical mumbo-jumbo.
“There was a round stage in the centre of the arena, with circular curtains around it,” keyboard wizard Geoff Downes recalls. “We were smuggled in through a trap door, then the lights would shine down and the audience would suddenly see five figures appear inside it. It was very effective.
“Unfortunately, on this occasion the curtain didn’t open and we had no choice but to crawl under it…which didn’t look very graceful and blew the whole image.
“It was a proper Stonehenge moment,” he laughs, referring to the spoof rock film Spinal Tap. “We had a lot of those.”
Stockport-born Geoff had replaced Rick Wakeman earlier in 1980 and Trevor “Mad Professor” Horn – his partner from new wave pop band The Buggles – took over as singer from Jon Anderson.
This didn’t go down well with hardcore Yes fans. “There was some resentment towards us interlopers,” Geoff, 69, tells me.
“It was worse for Trevor as Jon Anderson was so revered. For hard-line fans it was like Arthur Daley becoming Pope. But Trevor braved the flak and did a good job. I was their fourth keyboardist so it wasn’t so bad for me.”
The synth duo joined guitarist Steve Howe, bassist Chris Squire and drummer Alan White – who died last month, aged 72. “He was a top guy, one of the best – loyal, passionate, caring,” says Geoff. “Despite living for many years in Seattle, he never lost that Geordie wit, irony and charm.”
Buggles shared management with Yes and the musical marriage made sense. Horn’s voice was similar to Anderson’s and they brought proven song-writing and production skills.
Their subsequent album Drama, released in August 1980, shot straight into the Top Three.
“Its strength converted people,” says Geoff, although global sales were sub-par.
Downes and Howe are still in the current Yes line-up, with Jay Schellen (drums), Jon Davison (vocals) and Billy Sherwood (bass). But in 1981, when Horn quit to pursue his hugely successful career as a producer, Yes (briefly) called it a day.
Geoff and Steve formed supergroup Asia with King Crimson bassist/singer John Wetton and drummer Carl Palmer from Emerson, Lake & Palmer.
“We were very much a real band,” says Geoff. “We rehearsed very hard before we even went into the studio.” And it paid off.
Their self-titled 1982 debut album went multi-platinum, selling more than 10 million copies and topping the US charts for nine weeks.
Asia’s US tour had been booked before the album’s release. “We were filling 2,000-seater college gigs every night, everywhere was packed.
“But after the first leg, we went from 2,000 to 20,000-capacity venues.
“The snowball grew very quickly. I remember being in a limo with John listening to the radio.
Asia came on, so we flipped stations and every one of them was playing us. It was meteoric.”
JAPAN adored them. “We did the ‘Asia in Asia’ tour and it was like Beatlemania – incredible, there were fans everywhere. I remember girls showering us with paper planes, I had a case full of origami.”
Asia had Spinal Tap moments too, though. “At one gig, my keyboard stand started collapsing,”
Geoff laughs. “It was getting further and further away from me and my roadies were holding it together while I was playing.”
Their 1983 show at Tokyo’s Budokan – previously available only on VHS – has just been released as a deluxe boxset.
After their US Top 5 hit, Heat Of The Moment, Asia shot the video for the follow-up, Only Time Will Tell, with Godley & Creme directing.
“John Wetton turned up with chin stubble and shot a number of scenes, but for some unknown reason at lunchtime he decided to have a shave.
“Godley & Creme freaked out! John’s face no longer matched the shots from the earlier shoot, so they got the make-up girl to cut off locks of his hair, trim it into tiny pieces and glue the bits of hair back on to his face for continuity.
“He was in some discomfort because it itched like hell, but everyone apart from John found it pretty hilarious.”
For Geoff, Asia was a new experience.
“We started at the top,” he says. “We were all successful, but it was a different kind of pressure.
“We began with a multi-million selling album so expectations were huge.
“We were quite wealthy too, so we didn’t have that youthful yearning. We weren’t in a Transit van going up the M1. We were turning up at the studio in Porsches and Bentleys.” A far cry from Geoff ’s humble beginnings. “My dad was a church organist and my mum played piano a lot. I was six when I started piano lessons and then organ lessons. I started in bands when I was 13 and got the taste for the rock’n’roll side. I had my first Hammond organ at 16.”
After school he attended Leeds Music College and formed jazz-fusion band She’s French.
“I was into Caravan, Procol Harum, Soft Machine and of course Yes. Close To The Edge was the favourite of every student at the time, so it’s ironic 50 years later that I’m on a Yes tour celebrating it.”
After graduating he moved to London and started mainstream session work. “I was writing radio jingles at first, which helped hone you into getting ideas across in a short window.
“I did jingles for anything that came along – cars, nappies – you name it, I’ve done it.”
In 1975, he became musical director for the touring Wombles show. “I didn’t have to wear the big suit. Mike Batt’s music was really good – the arrangements are great.”
He met Trevor Horn at an audition, beating 30 other musicians to play keyboards with pop star Tina Charles – Horn’s girlfriend at the time.
“He gave me the job because I turned up with a Moog synthesiser!” They backed her live and began producing her records.
Their breakthrough as The Buggles came in 1979 with the global hit Video Killed The Radio Star – a Number One smash which would become the first song ever played on MTV. “It was a very strong song – it wasn’t throw-away pop. It had depth to it, it had substance, which the guys in Yes noticed.”
AS WELL AS recording and touring with Asia for more than 30 years, Downes has released solo albums, formed Downes Braide Association with Novelloaward winning pianist and Sia collaborator Chris Braide, toured and recorded with John Wetton in Icon and worked with a host of stars including Mike Oldfield and the Thompson Twins. He also played on Kate Bush’s 1981 Dreaming album, adding stabbing horns to Kate’s Sat In Your Lap.
Home for father-of-two Geoff is “a place by the sea in West Wales. I go there and switch off. I love to paint and watch a game of football. I’ve got a Cardiff season ticket. I love sport and computing. I’m in the process of writing my autobiography.
“Lockdown was boring, but creatively it wasn’t too bad. I wrote a lot of stuff with Chris Braide, exchanging ideas over the internet.
“I really missed being on stage, but I’m putting that right with Yes now, and then the Asia 40th anniversary tour, and then I’m going back to Japan with Yes in September. I’ve got a busy year.”
We started at the top... we were all successful but it was a different kind of pressure. Expectations were huge...
Asia In Asia is out now on CD, MP3 and deluxe vinyl boxset.
The Yes 50th Anniversary Close To The Edge tour, dedicated to Alan White, starts in Glasgow on Wednesday. Tickets from https://yesworld.com/