(Steve Howe at House of Blues, Chicago, IL. 3/18/11. Photo by Jeff Elbel.)
Steve Howe’s career has ranged far and wide since recording a Chuck Berry cover in 1964, produced by legendary recording pioneer (and troubled writer of 1962 #1 hit “Telstar”) Joe Meek. Though he scaled commercial heights during the 80’s with Asia, Howe is best known as guitarist for progressive rock veterans Yes. A healthy cross-section of Big Takeover readers may favor the upstart punk rock which supplanted Yes’ ambitious, complicated and dismissively-dubbed “dinosaur rock” during the latter 70’s. In recent years, however, progressive rock has become embraced by younger culture as an underground phenomenon and alternative to shallow pop. As a result, there is fresh appreciation for the passion and meticulous craft that Howe and his bandmates continue to deliver after four decades together. Perhaps your iPod mixed songs by Wire, the Ramones and Yes in shuffle mode today. Mine did, too.
Yes is currently touring with the latest version of its evolving line-up, featuring founding bassist Chris Squire, drummer of 39 years Alan White, keyboardist Oliver Wakeman (son of Yes veteran Rick Wakeman), and Mystery vocalist Benoit David. The group is also preparing to release its 22nd studio album Fly From Here this summer. Howe spoke with The Big Takeover on March 18, 2011, the first day of two shows at Chicago’s House of Blues.
(L-R): Oliver Wakeman, Chris Squire, Benoit David, Alan White, Steve Howe
BT: I’ve heard that your “Rites of Spring” tour leans most heavily upon Yes’ classic albums, and that you’re waiting until Fly From Here is released before playing your new material. How much work is left to do?
SH: We’re at the mix point. Trevor [Horn, producer] and ourselves are likely to change things at the last minute, though, which is one reason not to play the new material yet. We want to see how this thing sticks on the wall first, once we’ve finished it. We’ll hopefully approve stuff by the end of April.
I shouldn’t be saying it myself, but some of this old material we’re playing still blows me away. To think that we did Fragile and Close to the Edge in the same year is astonishing to me now. I don’t know how the hell we did that. We were very young, very keen and prepared to work hard. And we still are – the “work hard” bit, anyhow [laughs].
BT: Since this tour interrupts recording progress, does the time away offer perspective that will affect what happens next?
SH: To an extent. There are two schools of thought. In one, you start making an album, and then you never stop until you completely finish it. The opposite of that is you do tracks, and then you come back to them. You do some more tracks, and then you come back even later to the mixing. So, you’re always thinking fresh. You’re not thinking, “God, I’ve been on this record for three months. I just want to stop hearing it!”
This is how we made our earlier records, and it may prove to be a much better way. In the early days, we could never have one period of total immersion, until we did Topographic Oceans. That was the first time we said, “Okay, life stops until we finish this record.”
But the records made before that were made around, and involved, life. Close to the Edge, Fragile and The Yes Album were made as we lived and toured, and stopped and started. I think, most probably, they were better because of it. They benefitted from renewing that fresh approach.
BT: Can you characterize the new music, or put it into context with other Yes recordings?
SH: I’d love to be able to, but I’m not sure the vocabulary has really been invented [laughs]. I would say that it has turned into a good team record. I really hope that we all like it as much as we think we do at the moment. The collective enjoyment is very important.
It might be a little bit closer to Drama [Yes’ first LP with Trevor Horn from 1980] than we actually thought before. That might be due to the fact that Trevor cares a lot about the music. He’s a great writer, and has written some songs with us. There’s some air moving on this record. I don’t think it’s very predictable. I think people are going to go, “Ouch! Ooh!,” in surprise. I don’t think they’re going to go, “Oh, God, it’s another Yes record.” [laughs]
BT: With Benoit and Oliver in the band, are you able to play more material from an album like Drama than you could with Jon Anderson [Yes’ founding frontman, who was absent for that project]?
SH: We’ve been playing “Tempus Fugit” and “Machine Messiah.” We feel that they’re part of the great lost music of Yes that was ignored because particular members weren’t there at its creation. I’m not saying Rick [Wakeman] suggested “I’ll never play that,” but when he came back to Yes, there was more willingness to play music from his own era. I was doing the same thing. I was more willing to play music from the periods when I was in the band. It seemed to make more sense. [Howe spent most of the 80’s apart from Yes, during the period including the band’s popular 90125 LP.]
At times, we thought that was the rule. But then we found it was a claustrophobic rule. I think that Oliver and Benoit helped to make that a wide-open situation, but it was heading that way anyhow. There was an owning up to the band’s material overall. No one says, “I didn’t play on that record, so I’m not playing the song live.” That idea is out the window.
BT: An obvious example for you would be a song like “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Rather than owing an obligation to play Trevor Rabin’s arrangement faithfully, do you bring a different quality to that?
SH: I hope so, with respect for Trevor. We did invent a new section on the end where it goes to C-sharp major. I have another style of guitar break there. I don’t really know how Trevor played the main solo, so I invented my own slightly more bluesy solo. That’s an opening we’ve all got.
I do most of the song very much like Trevor does, because I think those are the right parts to play. But in an improvisational section, I’ll follow my own lines. If I’m playing a Peter Banks or Trevor Rabin solo, or maybe something that Billy Sherwood did, I would not feel obliged to play those improvisations precisely. I think that’s what comes from the individual, rather than the arrangement of the song.
(Steve Howe at House of Blues, Chicago, IL. 3/18/11. Photo by Jeff Elbel.)
BT: Progressive music in general and Yes in particular seem to be resurgent at the grassroots level. It made me think of the time when Yes was most accepted on mainstream radio, and the cultural change that happened when bands like the Ramones and the Clash began to gain popular favor. I’m curious regarding what you felt about such music then or now. Did you appreciate it either as pop music or a cultural signifier?
SH: It took a long time, but not necessarily because it was a competitive situation. Yes really did have a foothold at the time when those bands came along, and the feeling was that Yes was a kind of rock dinosaur and these younger bands were more vital and exciting. We just came through other areas. We still went to Japan, and through the states. There was very much a London/New York basis of that movement in music then, that we call punk. It allowed us room elsewhere.
Years and years later, when it was absolutely rolled ‘round and gathering moss, out comes a group called The Libertines. I heard this band, and went, “I haven’t heard rock and roll played like this for a hell of a long time.” It was like an oasis in the desert. That desert, I think, started in the 80’s and moved into the 90’s. At the time, a lot of rock didn’t rock. It didn’t carry the momentum that rock was supposed to carry. But I heard the Libertines and thought, “Oh, I love this.”
After getting the albums, I found out that they’re these crazy guys, into heavy drugs and everything. I was thinking, “Oh no, I really hate all that.” Then they split up, and Pete Doherty became the leader of Babyshambles. I got the first album of that, and loved it to bits. I went, “I love this guy. He’s so nuts.” It’s got so much inspiration. The second one, produced by Stephen Street, should have been wonderful. But it was like someone had turned the switch off. To me, everything was lost. The rock had gone, and the safety net was in.
The guitarist and producer of the Libertines and the first Babyshambles seemed to understand the need to keep that flavor of madness in the music, a bit like Salvador Dali. It’s an ingredient you’ve got to have in rock. There’s got to be an edge. It’s like Keith Richards said in his book; there’s got to be a bit of craziness, otherwise you end up with sterile records that had the potential to have that emotion and drive, but don’t deliver.
So that would be my story. I didn’t believe in it much at first, but when the Libertines and Babyshambles came through, I thought that was a marvelous period. I couldn’t take it out of my studio. I loved to drive it loud and have those screaming guitars. Some of them were a bit out of tune, but the guys were just getting their heads down and bashing. So, it took a long time, but I got there.
I still need to have rock energy in music. Not in the same way, but I hope with the new Yes album that we’ve carried that rock message. Forget the poncing around with all the arty-farty music. Yes is fundamentally a rock band.
BT: And that madness that you’re talking about is part of it?
SH: I hope so. Very faintly, at least! [laughs]
(Yes at House of Blues, Chicago, IL. 3/18/11. Photo by Jeff Elbel.)