Masterclass with Geoff Downes of YES
Los Angeles, CA, USA
Geoff Downes is beyond doubt one of the foremost keyboard players of rock. His textures have always pushed boundaries, with signature synth sounds. Geoff’s Hammond playing is also world renowned. His award winning songwriting crosses genres, from pure pop to classical prog. Learn from him in this INTERACTIVE class and directly ask him a question!
Born in Stockport, England, Geoff received his passion for music through a family connection; his father had been organist and choirmaster at a church in Stockport. Even before heading off to Leeds School of Music in 1971, it was obvious to family and friends that he had the making of a future star.
His older brother Gordon was in awe of the young man’s talent and drive. “From the early days he always showed the potential of a showman, like the time at 13 he sprayed his brand new school shoes silver. I also remember in ’67 making him a huge cabinet for his bass speaker in the basement of our big old house. He thought it was magnificent! I wish now, though, I’d had a tape running the time he played an extemporization on Whiter Shade Of Pale and Nights In White Satin at my brother Andy’s engagement party back in October ’69. It was simply spellbinding. I just knew then he had that amazing mystery for creating music.”
Geoff’s exposure to other musicians at college in Leeds led him in 1974 to She’s French, his first real band. “We started off (under the name) Nathaniel Mouse. Melody Maker used to run band contests, and we got to the Northern finals. We used to play at a lot of clubs in the north of England. We were playing very experimental stuff, jazz-fusion mixed with Yes and classical stuff – a real mish-mash of styles.”
Upon graduating in 1975, Geoff left She’s French and moved to London to seek his fortune as a musician. The first months in the big city were difficult, but he managed to squeak by with session work and the odd gig – even performing in a dinner-dance band with renowned British rock writer Chris Welch on drums. An early band situation Downes considered after his move to London was to rehearse with Electric Light Orchestra founding member Roy Wood and his glam-rockers Wizzard. “I was in rehearsals with them for about three or four weeks, (but) it didn’t really work out. It was shortly after I had moved to London, and I had gone to a few auditions – Roy offered me the job of the keyboard player, so I rehearsed with them, but it didn’t really seem as if it was going anywhere.”
Meeting Trevor Horn in 1976 set his career on a new course. The catalyst for Geoff and Trevor meeting was the Tina Charles Band, an English disco outfit. “About nine months after moving to London, I bumped into Trevor. He was living with Tina at the time and looking for people to play in her band. Whenever she did a tour, I’d go on the road with her.”
As his commitments to Tina Charles included road work only, Geoff looked for other sources of revenue to make ends meet. The keyboardist had been invited to join guitarist Gary Boyle in a rejuvenated version of his jazz-rock band, Isotope. “I was playing with Colin Wilkinson, the drummer with Tina’s band, and a guy called Steve Shone, a bass player, and I’d met Gary when I was at Leeds Music College; he went there a few years before I did. He asked me to join – and I played with them for a very short period of time, but I was still involved with Tina Charles. It was kind of a bit here and a bit there, and eventually Gary decided to move back up North again. He didn’t take it any further.”
When the Tina Charles Band split, Downes and Horn continued working together. Working on disco records, Horn would produce, and Downes would perform the overdubs. Two successful singles to bear the Downes/Horn production credit were Monkey Chop by Dan-I and Back Of My Hand by the Jags.
Another source of revenue was “the jingles scene, which was remunerative and used to keep me going. I would write the commercial, produce it, and play on it.” His brother Gordon -then- recalls it was not a terribly lucrative lifestyle. “Geoff had been earning a meager living writing jingles for TV commercials, using a clapped-out Hammond organ that was his 17th birthday present from the family. He told me his most successful jingle was for British Gas.” He also remembers that during this time, his younger sibling had been living in a “tacky old bedsit with moss growing on the walls near Earlsfield station (South London).”
In the late 70’s, Downes & Horn began working extensively in the studio together, working on commercial jingles and perfecting their own style of electro-pop music. By 1979, as The Buggles, they completed Video Killed The Radio Star and stormed the pop charts. Lightning struck twice when the two were invited to replace Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson in Yes in 1980.
Although a short-lived endeavor, Geoff cemented a friendship with Steve Howe that would manifest itself several times over the next 25 years. Asia grew out of the ashes of Yes, as Downes & Howe joined together with Carl Palmer and John Wetton. “The success with Asia came very quickly. It was if I had stepped off one bus and another came along right away.”
After the surge to super-stardom in 1982, Wetton left in late 1983, although Greg Lake was brought in to take Wetton’s place, it would be a short collaboration.
Early 1984 saw Wetton’s return, but also Steve Howe’s departure. The band limped forward. The third album ASTRA suffered from poor sales and little interest. Asia faded into obscurity and a seemingly premature death.
With Asia placed on the shelf, Geoff accepted an invitation from Steve Howe to produce the first GTR album, a project between Howe and former Genesis axeman Steve Hackett. The timing, on the heels of the disappointing performance of ASTRA, was perfect. “It was straight into the GTR album then. In a way, I didn’t really have time to reflect on the lack of success. When ASTRA came out, I was in the studio with GTR. It occupied my mind.”
GTR obtained a modest amount of success with the single When The Heart Rules The Mind, after which Geoff returned to the studio to work on his first solo album. His aim was to create a deep, textured sound through the use of keyboards, with one man at the helm. Calling upon his classical training, and by synthesizing a variety of cultural influences into the music, he managed to blend sound and technology in a revolutionary manner.
He named his solo effort, The New Dance Orchestra, and chose the sub-title The Light Programme, paying homage to early radio days in his homeland. “When the BBC started off, they had one station, and then they fanned out into about three stations. The original pop program was called the Light Program. The news/documentary program was called the Home Service. And of course they had the World Service as well, which they still have. It’s the BBC’s biggest station.” Lack of support from the record company doomed the project, although it later gained cult status over the years as a keyboard classic.
Unknown to most fans, Wetton and Downes continued to write in the months and years after the failure of ASTRA. Meeting at various studios around London, the partners churned out dozens of demos with no particular project in mind. Geoff recalls that the songwriting sessions were essentially for Asia material, but that the results were not always appropriate. “It’s basically stuff that John and I were writing that we didn’t think was suitable for Asia at the time. Mostly middle-of-the-road stuff. Mostly ballads.” One of the songs, We Move As One, found a home on former ABBA singer Agnetha Fältskog’s solo album, Eyes of a Woman.
With his first solo album in the can, Geoff returned to the producer’s chair, once again with Steve Howe. Following the success of the GTR album, Hackett departed, leaving Howe to recruit San Jose musician Robert Berry to round out the line-up on guitar for the second album. According to Geoff, the move was not enough to secure the record company’s interest in what had become GTR II. “I produced that one as well. When we were about two-thirds of the way through the album, Arista Records was not happy with the direction the band was taking. They weren’t thrilled with the idea that a group called GTR had only one featured guitarist as such. Arista indicated that unless the band came up with a line-up that they would be interested in, they wouldn’t fund them any more. At that point I wanted to leave. I had my own things to do. I didn’t want to watch the band on its knees.”
In 1987, an attempt was made to resurrect Asia, without Howe or Palmer. In their place were former Thin Lizzy guitarist Scott Gorham, and drummer Michael Sturgis (of A-Ha). But once again, the timing was off. “By that time, we weren’t getting any interest from anybody. In order to have launched it again, we’d have to have some sort of record deal. It wasn’t the right timing for us to get it back on track again. There was JVC in Japan who made a fairly substantial offer, but by that time, it had petered out. Scott and Michael were putting the 21 Guns thing together, so they split off to do that.”
With GTR finished and Asia again on hold, Geoff turned his attention to his solo material in Advision Studios. At the time, he began working on a new project, Rain, at the suggestion of Geffen’s John Kalodner. “John (Wetton) went off and started writing with a few other people, and I ensconced myself in Advision Studios in London. This is when I started building up a series of tracks by myself and working with other writers like (my friend) Johnny Warman, as an alternative project. Rain started from the fact that Kalodner was quite interested in my doing some stuff with Max Bacon. I’d just come off doing the second GTR album; it was an extension of that in a way.”
It was during the Rain sessions where he had another encounter with young vocalist and session musician John Payne. “I originally met John briefly during the GTR sessions. Max had decided to go back (home). He lived up north, so it was quite difficult. Phil introduced me to John again, and we replayed a lot of the vocals. I was keeping in touch with Kalodner. We were trying to get (the Rain project) going, but he was unsure about it. The idea was to get it on Geffen, but it never really emerged that way. Time went by, and the songs accumulated, but there wasn’t really a great deal that could be done with them.”
In 1989, Geoff started working with former Asia and ELP alumnus Greg Lake on a collection of songs. Even after the Asia In Asia period of 1983, when Lake briefly replaced John Wetton on bass and vocals, the men had managed to maintain a friendship and a deep respect for each other’s talents. Looking to form a new partnership, they went to work under the title Ride The Tiger. “Myself and Greg set up a studio for about a year, after I had been at Advision. Because it was two people coming together from very different directions, Greg said it was like ‘riding the tiger’. We wrote about eight songs altogether. There was a lot of stuff that never saw the light of day. There was a version of a song called Street Wars we did with Michael Giles, the original King Crimson drummer. Michael played on a lot of the stuff.”
But before the new duo could finalize their plans, Asia would surface once again in 1989. Although Wetton and Palmer toured parts of Europe with a string of guitar players and a new keyboard player, John Young, Geoff was brought back into the fold when Geffen got serious and authorized the release of a new best-of collection, THEN AND NOW. But the euphoria was short-lived, and eventually Palmer left for the ELP reunion, and Wetton moved to LA to work on his first solo album.
Back in England, Geoff found himself in a unique position. Asia had always been the perfect venue for his keyboard talents, and this would be the ideal opportunity to re-form the band in his image. He relished the thought that, in the face of their detractors, Asia would once again survive against all odds. “The band that wouldn’t die, eh? Well, we’ve had some good and bad times, but hopefully the legend lives on. Certainly, I want to keep the thing going because the concept of Asia – playing music that is panoramic, symphonic and rock at the same time – is something a lot of British rock bands have given up doing. It’s good that we haven’t let the band lie down because there are a lot of people who like what we’ve done.”
Recruiting singer John Payne, whom he had met during the GTR sessions, they went to work on the fourth Asia studio album AQUA. With the return of Steve Howe once again, a world tour ensued in 1992 on the heels of the hit song, Who Will Stop The Rain.
With the AQUA tour winding down, Geoff released his second solo album, VOX HUMANA. A radical departure from THE LIGHT PROGRAM, the new record featured a multitude of vocalists, performing tracks mostly written by Geoff and Johnny Warman. From the beautiful rendition of Ave Maria (vocals by Emma Stace) to the instrumental Howe-like Concerto, it clearly showed the keyboardist’s maturity as a composer and musician.
Many of the tracks were leftovers from Geoff’s production years with Advision studios in London and Brighton in 1988-89, and had been considered at one point for the Rain project. Tears, with Max Bacon on vocals, was written as a group of Downes/Warman compositions assembled in the basement of Advision’s London studios in February 1988, while Video Killed The Radio Star, a staple of Geoff’s solo set during the Asia shows, appeared as an instrumental. By the time a deal for the album’s release in Europe had been reached, Geoff substituted a new version of Video… featuring Glenn Hughes on vocals. Although far from a commercial success by any stretch of the imagination, VOX HUMANA was most certainly a must-have for any Downes fan.
While awaiting studio sessions for the next Asia release, the keyboardist took time to complete his third solo album. Unlike his previous solo outings, EVOLUTION contained no original compositions, but consisted entirely of instrumental versions of Downes’ favorite rock classics. “It’s largely based on people asking me about my influences. I used to play some of them on my own, in a quiet moment, and some friends said that I should do my own versions. It started with groups like Moody Blues and Procol Harum. I wanted to do a cataloguing of groups that had impressed me with keyboards over the years.”
With the end of the AQUA tour, Howe returned to his solo work, with Geoff and John Payne returning to the studio to produce ARIA in 1994. Joining them in the studio and on tour were guitarist Al Pitrelli and drummer Michael Sturgis. Although the resulting album contained such new Asia classics as Military Man and Feels Like Love, the short tour failed to ignite any great level of interest.
The two men soldiered on without management and produced ARENA in 1996. “There’s a lot of conflict on the album, especially on the cover with the lion and the serpent at opposite ends of the arena. That’s really what the album is about, the battle between good and evil. After all of that, we really wanted to do something that was nice and uplifting (with the final track, Bella Nova). It’s almost like going up in a balloon. One doesn’t want to finish every album on a note of gloom and doom.”
With no supporting tour for ARENA and a failed attempt to reunite the original band for a tour, Geoff placed Asia on the shelf temporarily and released his new solo album, THE WORLD SERVICE in 1999. Based on his early encounters with the BBC growing up in Manchester, the concept album explored the global sounds that emanated from the family radio.
Fortune smiled on the band once again in 2001 with the release of AURA, featuring the most diverse collection of musicians on an Asia album ever – including the return of Steve Howe. “I went down to Steve’s place in Devon and brought the basic tracks with me. I played him those and asked which ones he’s be interested in. He said, ‘I could probably only fit in two, or maybe three.’ He really liked Vinnie Colaiuta’s drum tracks. He was very impressed with that, and hearing Tony Levin as well – as obviously he’d worked with him on ABWH. He was pretty excited, so I left him the tape.”
AURA, unlike its predecessors, brought Asia’s lavish productions back to the foreground. Fans and critics raved about the new opus, and the band set out on their most extensive tour in almost ten years. Joining Downes and Payne on tour were newcomers Chris Slade (AC/DC, The Firm) and a new discovery, Guthrie Govan, on guitar. “He sent a tape through and we were pretty impressed with that. When he came down, he was quite exceptional. We realized there was a hell of a lot more to him than just filling in a few holes. He really blew us away when he came in and played some of the solos – we said ‘This is something else!’” Fans around the globe were blown away by the new lineup.
Downes’ latest solo venture, his new recording SHADOWS & REFLECTIONS, was finally released in 2002. To coincide with the release, the keyboardist scheduled his first ever solo show, performing in London at St. Cyprian’s Church. The concept of a solo show had actually been kicking around for quite some time. “I could actually turn the clock back seventeen years when I did my first solo album. I went to see Rob Dickens at Warner Records (Geffen distributors in the UK), and he had this idea about putting on this one-man show with all my keyboards at the (London) planetarium. So it was something that had been around for quite some time, but I never really had the chance to put it together and do specifically a one man show.”
The setlist for the 2002 show included glimpses from all aspects of his career. For many, the highlight of the night was Downes’ solo performance of the Yes classic Tempus Fugit. Aside from the DRAMA tour of 1980, it had never been performed live until that night. In addition to Video Killed The Radio Star and a number of Asia classics, Downes introduced a new piece especially for the evening, The Bridge. His solo show was eventually released as CD #2 in the series of music from the Platinum fan club later in 2003.
After spending the summer of 2003 on the road in the US (on the Asia Across America acoustic tour), Downes and Payne decided to relocate the Asia machine to the US to record the follow-up to AURA. “I think we feel that this is the right time and the right place for us for this next album. It can be very creative sometimes to move away. I remember when we wrote the songs on (ALPHA). John Wetton and myself actually wrote most them in Los Angeles, back in the Hollywood hills. We literally wrote every song on the album in the space of a month. What’s nice here is that we’ve got the chance to meet a lot of the musicians who actually played on AURA again. I think it’s going to be good for us. I think we’re going to come up with a very interesting album.”
For the first time since 1982-83, the Asia lineup remained stable, with Slade and Govan entering the studio alongside Downes and Payne to record SILENT NATION. Although the band claimed no outright “concept” for the record, some timely undertones were quite evident. “I don’t think that it is so much a concept album – it’s more a perception. It’s not a brash, outgoing statement. Some people have said, ‘Silent Nation, does that mean America?’ It’s not specific, it’s more about people having a say, you know – the things that are not said sometimes. Suppression of nations, and that kind of thing, was in some ways to the forefront and not heavily stated.”
With the release of the new album in late 2004, the dawn of 2005 brought Asia fans an incredible amount of band and related activity. A 40-date European tour kicked off in January, bringing them Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Russia, Belgium, Spain, Italy (where they were joined onstage by Carl Palmer), Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark and back to their native England. Further dates in Mexico, South America and the United States capped off a furious touring period in July. After a much-deserved break, the band hit the road once again (with Uriah Heep and Dio) for some gigs in the UK and Europe in December.
Aside from Asia, Geoff recorded a new album with long-time friend and Asia co-founder, John Wetton. The album, ICON, was released in April on the Frontiers label to much acclaim from fans and reviewers alike. It would mark another significant turning point in the history of the band.
In addition, the keyboardist prepared to tour for the first time in twenty-five years with former Yes bandmates Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White on the “More Drama” tour. The tour was to have included Squire’s band, The Syn, Howe playing solo, Geoff performing with Alan’s new band, The White (with whom he had recorded an album earlier in the summer), and an encore with all four men performing tracks from the DRAMA album. However, due to a number of extenuating circumstances, the tour was cancelled, much to the dismay of fans around the world.
January 2006 brought with it changes to the world of Asia that shook the band to its foundations. In late January, Downes, John Wetton, Steve Howe and Carl Palmer announced to the world their intention to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the forming of the band and the recording of their debut album. A reunion tour was promised, along with hints of a live DVD and the possibility of a CD of new material. Amidst the fallout from the announcement, Geoff performed solo in Japan in conjunction with his sponsorship deal with Roland keyboards, and then toured the UK in March with John Wetton as iCon on the heels of the homonymous release (with guitarist John Mitchell and drummer Steve Christie.)
While awaiting the Asia reunion tour in the autumn of 2006, Geoff looked to a few other projects by accepting the invitation of Yes drummer Alan White to record a new band album, WHITE. In June, he paired up once again with John Wetton for two shows at the Raglan Festival in Wales, performing acoustically as a duo as well as with iCon. Wetton and Downes followed up the shows with recording for what would become the second iCon album, RUBICON, to be released in October.
The four original members of Asia regrouped in England in August to begin preparations for their long-awaited world tour. Rehearsals soon moved to Rochester in New York state for a week in advance of the start of the American tour on August 29th. The capacity crowd at the Water Street Music Hall welcomed the returning rock heroes with a night of standing ovations. The band treated the crowd to the entire debut album as well as selected tracks from their respective heritage bands – Video Killed The Radio Star from the Buggles, Roundabout from Yes, Fanfare For The Common Man from ELP, and The Court of the Crimson King from King Crimson. Further dates in the USA solidified their return to the concert stage in front of crowds of enthusiastic fans stunned to see the original band together once again.
During a break in the Asia world tour, iCon reconvened in Japan for a series of dates to promote the RUBICON release. Wetton and Downes treated fans to a setlist of new iCon tracks and rarely-played Asia favorites, including Don’t Cry, Go, Only Time Will Tell, Die Is Cast, Voice of America, Paradox/Let Me Go, Meet Me At Midnight, The Glory of Winning, Never In A Million Years, Days Like These, Rubicon, Sole Survivor, Open Your Eyes, The Smile Has Left Your Eyes and Heat of the Moment. iCon would continue to tour between Asia obligations, including shows in Russia in early 2007.
The world tour for the Asia reunion soon ramped up again, bringing the band from North America to the UK, Japan, Mexico, South America, a second leg of the tour in North America before culminating in a European tour in July of 2007. A show in Japan would be filmed to mark the reunion and released as “Fantasia: Live In Japan”FANTASIA: LIVE IN JAPAN. Further dates in late 2007 were cancelled when John Wetton was sidelined for heart surgery. Fortunately, John quickly recovered, allowing the band to start work on exactly what the fans were waiting for – the first Asia album from the original lineup in more than two decades. PHOENIX did not disappoint, impressing fans and rock critics alike. With the release of the album in April of 2008, the band toured the world once again, injecting the setlist with new classics: Never Again and Extraordinary Life.
With a break in touring in January of 2009, Wetton and Downes assembled what would be a very special night for fans of the iCon project – a concert at St. Mary-Le-Bow church in London. The concert was to mark the release of their ICON 3 album, with the concert filmed for later release under the name URBAN PSALM. Fans were treated to yet more rarely-played Asia classics such as Countdown To Zero, My Own Time and Rock and Roll Dream. iCon would continue to tour as Asia touring allowed. The summer of 2009 featured a joint tour with prog legends Yes – a pairing that would hint at a new stage in Geoff’s career to come. Touring in support of PHOENIX wrapped up with a series of festival dates in August. Their appearance at a festival in Cambridge, UK, would be recorded for a video release entitled SPIRIT OF THE NIGHT.
In October, Geoff would be honoured in Armenia for his role 20 years earlier in the Rock Aid Armenia project which raised funds for victims of the devastating Spitak earthquake in 1988. More than 30,000 Armenians were killed, with tens of thousands injured. On October 2, Geoff was received by the Prime Minister of the country who awarded him with the republic’s Order of Honour medal, the highest Armenian State Award that can be bestowed on foreign citizens. Other participants in the project – Ian Gillan, Tony Iommi, Dave Gilmour and Brian May were also decorated with the Order of Honour.
Early 2010 brought the release of a second Asia reunion album, OMEGA. An extensive European leg kicked off the tour in April, bringing the band to Finland, Russia, Italy, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria, France, Netherlands, Germany and back home to Great Britain. One of the dates in Switzerland would be filmed for a third reunion live release, RESONANCE. With the band members’ heritage tracks now dropped from the setlist, OMEGA would be heavily featured on the tour. Two further tours of North America with added dates in Central and South America and Europe in 2011 wrapped up touring for OMEGA.
A break in the tour in 2010 gave Geoff an opportunity to join up with his old partner Trevor Horn for a Buggles reunion concert in London on September 28. Referred to as “The Lost Gig”, the concert raised funds for the Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability. The show featured all tracks from THE AGE OF PLASTIC, and included a special guest – original Buggle Bruce Woolley. Geoff would continue to work with Horn when Trevor was invited to produce what would become a new Yes album. Drawing on the leftover DRAMA-era Yes track, Geoff Downes was asked to record with the band for the new album, a gig which resulted in being asked to re-join Yes after 30 years. The resulting album, FLY FROM HERE, featured the Downes-Horn title track extended into a full suite in classic Yes fashion. Extensive touring with Yes followed, with Geoff joined onstage by Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Alan White and vocalist Benoit David. Due to vocal issues, David would be replaced in early 2012 by newcomer Jon Davison, in time for a tour of the Far East. Yes toured with Procol Harum in the summer of 2012.
While Geoff was rejoining Yes in 2011, a new creative partnership was being forged, which resulted in the 2012 release PICTURES OF YOU, under the banner Downes-Braide Association, with English singer/songwriter/producer Chris Braide, who had recently relocated to Los Angeles where he was much in demand writing for and producing A list clients such as Beyonce, Christine Aguilera, Britney Spears, David Guetta and a host of other chart toppers.
Not to be outdone, Asia returned to the studio in early 2012 to record their third post-reunion album, XXX, in celebration of their 30th anniversary. Further Asia touring occupied the fall of 2012, once Geoff’s obligations with Yes concluded for the summer.
Tours with Yes an Asia followed in 2013 and 2014, taking in much of the world once again. Asia recorded a further studio album in 2014, GRAVITAS, and Yes recorded HEAVEN AND EARTH.
More collaborations with Chris Braide followed. SUBURBAN GHOSTS, in 2015, continued the Downes Braide output, to critical acclaim. 2015 also saw the renewal of Geoff’s collaboration with Greg Lake. Their project from the 1980s, RIDE THE TIGER, finally saw a mainstream release, again to critical applause. (Sadly, Greg Lake passed away in December 2016.)
However, 2015 also saw tragedy strike. Ever present Yes leader Chris Squire died and John Wetton was diagnosed with colon cancer, which took his life on January 31 2017, shortly before Asia embarked on a 41 date arena tour as special guest of Journey.
Geoff spoke movingly at John’s funeral. Some new Asia songs had been written and it is intended they will see the light of day.
Yes has continued to tour every year, with the 50th anniversary of the band being celebrated in 2018. Downes Braide has released its 3rd album, this time with a full band and Roger Dean cover, SKYSCRAPER SOULS.
Geoff Downes is beyond doubt one of the foremost keyboard players of rock. His textures have always pushed boundaries, with signature synth sounds. Geoff’s Hammond playing is also world renowned. His award winning songwriting crosses genres, from pure pop to classical prog. His love of music is as fervent now as it was in his teens.
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