Alan White A Veteran Yes Man!

By Roy Rahl

Anyone who is able to keep the same job for over forty-five years (and enjoy it) deserves a lot of credit. When that job involves being in a band that consistently produces records, promotes them with long tours, and regularly has fellow members rotate in and out of the band you are indeed doing something special. Such is the life of Yes drummer, Alan White. Mr. White has been there from the glory years of the seventies through to the present day. His discography with Yes as well as other groups and performers is extremely impressive.

I had the opportunity take a few moments of his very busy day to get in a few questions with Alan. This is a man with a lot of history and there was much to talk about in a short amount of time. I’ll admit that out of greed and self-indulgence I chose to focus on two albums many Yes devotees love but the casual listener rarely hears: Tales From Topographic Oceans and Relayer. I think you will enjoy his insights.

Many people do not know that Mr. White is also present on several albums and tracks from John Lennon’s solo career, including the iconic Imagine album and also the song “Instant Karma”. When someone is reminiscing about working with John Lennon I tend to stop what I’m doing and listen. I really enjoyed speaking with Alan, albeit only briefly. I hope you enjoy the interview as well.

Roy: I have to say that you are all over the discography of my life! I have been a devoted Yes fan since the seventies, your Yes career obviously played a big role. You’re kind of ubiquitous in my album collection!

Alan: Good. I pull up everywhere!

Roy: Tell me about the upcoming Yestival tour, especially as I’m going to see it when you come to Vegas in August. What am I going to see?

Alan: Well, we’re building up to a good show. We’ve got great plans on what to do. We haven’t actually hit the road yet. I leave tomorrow morning, in fact. The planning that I’ve seen should turn out to be a good show. Of course, second on the bill is Todd Rundgren. We know his music and he’s a great guy and a great performer. I just saw him recently with Ringo Starr. And then we have Carl Palmer opening up. He’s doing a legacy thing for ELP [Emerson, Lake, and Palmer]. It will be really, really cool!

Roy: Are you doing the whole album concept like you’ve done in the past or are you doing a bit of everything?

Alan: For the tour this time, it was Steve’s idea actually, we’re going to be playing one song from every album from 1970 to 1980.

Roy: Wow.

Alan: There’s a lot of material there. A lot of great material. Some we’ve played before, but there’s a couple of songs you might not have heard played live. There’s one song I’m doing where it’s been quite a long time since we played it. I had to think about playing it and rehearsing it because I never actually played it onstage. It will be interesting.

Roy: I’m looking forward to it. It sounds like it’s going to be something special to see.

Alan: Yeah, and the kind of stage set we’re planning on is very cool looking. It’s impressing the whole band, that’s for sure.

Roy: Well, you guys have always had the great Roger Dean inspired stage setups.

Alan: Absolutely.

Roy: Technically your first album with Yes was the live album Yessongs, because Bill Bruford had to leave the band suddenly right before the tour and you were given the unenviable task of filling in for him at the last minute …

Alan: Well, he decided that he wanted to form a band with Robert Fripp; King Crimson. It was what he wanted to do. He was more of a jazz type player and the band were leaning more to playing with the influences of progressive rock and jazz and all kinds of mixtures of influences.

Roy: I love Crimson, but Yessongs is my all-time favorite live album.

Alan: It’s got a lot of character to it, I’ll tell you. I was still learning it. It was a little unfair to me because we made it in the first three months I was in the band. I said, “Guys, this is a little unfair, I’m still getting used to the music!” [Laughs] They said, “Well, it’s sounding good, man, don’t worry!”

Roy: Well, that was my question, what was going through your head when all of a sudden it’s like, “Hey guess what, you get this enormous music to cover!”

Alan: Yeah well, quite frankly I don't think I had any head going on at all! Everything was going on and it was just a mixture of musical notes. I was jumping into the deep end and if I could swim to the other end all was good. [Laughs]

Roy: You certainly did it.

Alan: Yeah, I turned to them and I said, “Look, I’ll give you guys three months to see if I’m enjoying myself. You give me three months to see if you’re enjoying me play.” I keep thinking this was my forty-sixth year in the band! [Laughs] So I must have done something right!

Roy: [Laughs] About that, your first studio albums with Yes were Tales From Topographic Oceans and Relayer. For me, those two albums represent the most dramatic shift in writing styles between two consecutive albums of Yes history.

Alan: Oh yeah. We went into another world. We were rehearsing the album for three months, Topographic. And then it took us three months to record it. So, it was a long, long process. You know, I really see the fruition of that now because Topographic is one of the sought-out albums that kids listen to. I’m seeing the younger people coming up to the gigs. Last year, for example, the audiences were really getting off on it, especially Japan. They were singing all the words to everything!

Roy: I always laugh because I work with a lot of kids and I joke with them that I once bought a two-record album that had four songs on it! [Laughs]

Alan: [Laughs] In the old days when we used to play the full album we would play somewhere near three and half hours. We played all of Topographic and then the encore number was “Close To The Edge” which is over twenty minutes. So that showed you how long we were on stage! In fact, we did about fifty shows on that tour worldwide and my hands were bleeding some nights. I mean, it was really … my sticks actually rubbed the skin off my hands.

Roy: Oh my goodness.

Alan: It took a while to get those calluses and now I can’t get rid of them! [Laughs]

Roy: You went from that to Relayer, which has to be Yes’ hardest edged album.

Alan: I consider Relayer, from the bass and drum point of view, kind of ground breaking, inventive rhythm section stuff. Songs like “Sound Chaser” and “Gates Of Delirium”, there’s a lot of stuff going on in both of those songs from the bass and drums.

Roy: Obviously, you have Patrick Moraz replacing Rick Wakeman, but it’s such a sizable shift between those two albums. What changed besides Moraz?

Alan: Yes is very good at painting different colors on itself, like a chameleon, but also at the same time retaining the same sound. It’s a pretty strange kind of sense because that one’s got a totally different kind of atmosphere but you can tell which band it is. It’s just a different thing. When people ask me, “Which album do you like and which song do you like playing off which album the best?” It’s really hard for me after we built twenty-one studio albums. The lifespan of the band next year will be five decades! So I cannot really pinpoint anything that I like more than anything else! But at the same time, I have favorites to play on stage and some songs I don’t like playing so much.

Roy: I know for me “Gates of Delirium” is what I put on when I’m frustrated and I just need to let off steam. I turn that one up to eleven and I feel so much better when it’s done.

Alan: Is your mind spinning still?

Roy: Well that soothing part in the middle and the resolve just kind of settles you into a good mood after all that was going on in the beginning of the piece.

Alan: It certainly is a journey and an experience to go through that album, especially “Sound Chaser”, which is a song we played on stage. We hadn't done it for quite a long time because we used to open with “Sound Chaser”. We had to drop it as the opening song because we couldn’t play any of the songs later in the set because it was so fast. [Laughs] It was such a ridiculous speed! There was another song from Tormato, “Release Release”, which I wrote. It hit so fast that we couldn't play it anymore because it was interrupting the set because all the speeds of the other songs just went haywire.

Roy: With “Sound Chaser” you also have to lock in so much with the bass and the guitar because you are all doing that same rhythm.

Alan: The thing about “Sound Chaser” is that you can tell when the rhythm section is really working tight together when we shift gears like that, like a car shifting gears on a freeway. That was the whole idea behind it. So we did the same thing with music, if you can understand that! [Laughs]

Roy: I totally get it. When you have been in a band for as long as you have been in Yes, how does time and age affect your and the group’s approach to songwriting? Do you sometimes try to get back to the seventies or are you just so over them and want to move on?

Alan: Well, I think the seventies are kind of special to everybody in the band. But at the same time, you try to come up with creative new processes that use your knowledge, as it were, from that time and apply to more modern techniques and more modern kinds of sounds and different things. You encompass everything you have learned over the years and trying things out.

Roy: Your approach to music when you’re in your twenties and thirties is going to be different than when you’re in your fifties.

Alan: Oh yeah. Yeah, you get seasoned, as it were, like everything in life. All the experience you’ve gained over the years you try to apply it and, in fact, to use it to teach the younger generation what’s going on kind of thing. I’m sure they appreciate it.

Roy: That’s one thing that I’ve noticed. I’ve been to I don't know how many of your concerts and there is very definitely the old guys like me there. But you’ve got a lot of young people in the audience. The music is still attracting a fair amount of young people.

Alan: Yeah! Well, it’s funny you see … we get teenagers who listen to a lot of albums. They’ve got all the albums for us to sign and that kind of thing. I always say to myself, “Oh, these guys have been brainwashed by the parents.” [Laughs] It’s kind of like torture. Then they get so into it they know the words to everything, all the licks and all the drum parts. You know, it’s very, very cool!

Roy: Whenever I see them I always think to myself, “These kids are musicians. They’re all musicians.”

Alan: Well, in certain points in America and around the world the first two or three rows are all young long-haired guys trying to work out how we did things.

Roy: Right. While there is certainly great young talent out there, in a lot of modern music there’s not this vast talent of people really exercising their musical craft on their instrument like there was in the seventies. The musicians are left kind of going back to the seventies to listen to that.

Alan: There are still a few bands that are still proficient. There used to be a band that opened for us quite a while, Porcupine Tree, they’re really good. Just here and there you hear bands and go, “Wow, these guys are writing good stuff.”

Roy: I think the young musical mind, at least back when I was a young musician, likes to hear what’s being played but wants to hear where it came from also.

Alan: Exactly. We’re doing this tour right now and it’s pretty extensive. We’re also in the back of our minds building up for next year because it’s the fiftieth anniversary of Yes next year. We’ve got a lot of advanced planning and we’re going to be working a lot next year.

Roy: I wanted to talk to you, and I know you’re running a little short on time here, about your work with John Lennon. You were all over the Imagine album, which is stunning, including the actual “Imagine” track. But I wanted to spend some time on a track not on that album, “Instant Karma”. That song features the drums more prominently than anything I can think of that Lennon ever wrote. Did he just let you go for it?

Alan: He just said, “Alan, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. It sounds wonderful.” And I said, “Okay, thanks!”

That came out of nowhere, that song. I did that before Imagine, as you know. I got a call early one morning about nine o’clock from Mal Evans, the Beatles’ road manager. He said, “Alan, John loves everything you do. Is it possible that you could throw your drum kit in your car and get down here in about an hour, to the studio?” [Laughs] I said, “Well, quite frankly, they’re already in the car. I’ll just jump in the car and head down to EMI Studios to the main studio where they record all the Beatles stuff”. We’re going in there, I get the drums in there, I set them up, we get the mics going, and John’s in the control room talking to Phil Spector. And, [Laughs] it was kind of a mishmash of things going on at once. Mal said, “John recorded this.” He said, “He wrote this song last night and he wants to record it today and he wants to release it next week!” [Laughs] And I went, “Oh, okay! What’s the song? I’d like to hear it!” He just played it through on the acoustic guitar and sang the song. Klaus Voormann was there and me. We started picking up the vibe, a shuffle kind of thing. I said, “It’d be really cool if I played this not on the cymbals and just did a drum instead. So I used a low tom where I would probably use a ride cymbal. Then we created some breaks in the song, John and myself. I said, “Why don’t we just stop here and I’ll do a drum break leading us to the next section.” He thought it was a great idea. Then they put a slap echo on the drums.

I was experimenting at that time doing breaks that were out of metre with the rest of the song. So it was kind of a shuffle but I played the drum break like a rock drum. That’s all those drum breaks are. I’ve got people I play with to this day, like Mark Hudson, and quite a few people when I do Rock-n-Roll Fantasy Camp … every time I walk into the room he says, “Play that drum break!” [Laughs]

Roy: [Laughs] Well it must feel good to have that known so much that everyone wants to hear it over and over again!

Alan: Uh, yeah, I guess!

Roy: It’s funny, I spoke with Steve Lukather of Toto …

Alan: Ah, he’s a good friend of mine. I love Steve.

Roy: He told me about getting some midmorning phone calls from Michael Jackson and hanging up on him because he thought it was a prank. I understand something similar happened with you and John Lennon.

Alan: The same thing! I thought it was a fan playing a joke on me!

Roy: Oh, it sounds like you’ve got to run. I really appreciate you spending some time with me. Next time will talk more in depth about Yes and I’ll also be sure to ask you about your famous Shepard’s Pie recipe!

Alan: [Laughs] All right! Thank you, Roy!