When Yes plays an Auckland show on its current tour in November of this year it will be just the second time the band has played to a New Zealand audience. But Alan White, the band’s drummer since 1972, says they’re “well aware” of a New Zealand audience, of “huge support” for the band from “down that way” and he tells me that they’re grateful for that support and “thrilled to be coming back so soon”.
The 2012 show was “great” as far as White can remember. He adds, frankly, “it’s hard these days to remember individual shows – we’ve played so many, you tend to remember the really bad ones I guess, they might stick out, but we’re playing as well now as we ever have. I truly believe that. This band is well honed and we’ve all kept at it enough to just know how to do it”.
And these are big, long, physical shows. Yes has taken, recently, to playing some of its classic albums in their entirety as well as a run of hits from the other records.
“Yeah, it is a big show”, White says, chuckling. “It is really hard work actually – but it’s great fun. And that’s what keeps us going, that’s why I’m out there doing this – I still love to play this music. Last tour we were doing The Yes Album and now, for New Zealand and Australia it’ll be Fragile and Close To The Edge but there’ll be some new material too – songs from our latest, Heaven and Earth and then some of the other things from across the years. So it’s really a Greatest Hits show, you get a bit of everything”.
White cut his teeth playing in clubs in the UK at that thriving time – the mid/late 1960s. He recorded albums with The Alan Price Set and then one day he got the phone call that changed his life.
He laughs as he tells the story – a story he’s told so many times.
“I was making dinner, and there was a shout that the phone was for me – I didn’t have much, so it was probably just beans on toast or whatever, but I get to the phone and it says, ‘Hello, it’s John Lennon here, I saw you play last night and I’d like you play in my new band’ or whatever. By this point I just hung up the phone. I was convinced it was a prank – someone was ‘aving me on. Thank god he phoned back! He rang straight back and he pretty much told me that he got that kind of reaction sometimes, but it really was John Lennon and that he’d seen my band playing the night before and he liked my drumming. And that he was making a new band and could I join them in Toronto…”
White leaves that bit hanging. He knows that anyone who asks him about that already knows where that story ends. It ends with White, days later, on stage in Canada, a member of Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band – Klaus Voormann is on bass, Eric Clapton on lead guitar. John Lennon is all but howling at the moon. Barking out rock’n’roll songs, signing off from the biggest pop band in the world – making noise with a whole new energy, a whole new band.
“It was pretty surreal”, White says, chuckling. “Look, I really didn’t think about it at the time – I’m convinced of that now. I didn’t quite understand that magnitude – because how could you? I was 20 or something. And I thought I played quite well. And this guy from The Beatles asked me to join his band because he thought I played quite well. It was great for my career but it did kinda make sense at the time – I knew it was a great opportunity. I remember thinking ‘you’ve worked hard, you’ve earned this, good on you’ but it was about 10 years later, on stage with Yes somewhere, it was only then that I stopped to think about how charmed I had been, what an incredible foot up; magical”.
The hook-up with Lennon lead to work with George Harrison – White played on All Things Must Pass – and to touring with Joe Cocker. There was studio work with Lennon too. After the appearance on Live Peace in Toronto (cut just days after Lennon contacted White by phone) he was back in the fold for the Imagine album. That’s White playing on the song Imagine.
“Sometimes I stop to think about that now”, White tells me. “You hear that song everywhere. I don’t think it meant much more to me than a job at the time. But now I do think about that. How my life would have been very different without that”.
And then the call to join Yes. To replace Bill Bruford – a “phenomenal player”.
“Well”, White says, “you just back yourself. I was a fan of this music – I was interested. And I could see that there was something in it for me, beyond just playing the drums. I’m a composer, a musician and the fit with Yes meant that I could explore other sides of my playing – away from the drum-kit. That’s always been very important”.
Yes, like almost any band, is filled with egos – White chuckles about the “balancing act” of the band, he confirms the “lunacy” of the mid-70s, when Rick Wakeman’s story about ordering a curry seemingly by accident, but eating it on stage all the same wasn’t even the strangest thing that could happen during a Yes show.
“It was quite mad, yes. A lot of it. But we made it through. And the thing that’s always been of interest to me in this band has been the music – and now that’s all we care about. It’s a job, of course. And we’re fortunate that we can go around and play these shows – that people still care, but I’d only do it if I thought we were up to it. And we have a singer now who is really hitting his peak – and we as a band are playing this music as good – and I really believe this – as when we made it the first time around. And what’s really worked with Jon Davison and helped him to find his position in the band is that for the latest album we all took turns writing. Jon came to each of us and we co-wrote with him. So we’re all having a chance to put across our music, our voice, our ideas. And through that I think Jon has completely found his – and he knows how the band works. He knows how to write material for Yes. And this material is up there with our best”.
White is grateful for his career – “it’s now that you can look back and say that you’ve really been blessed; I can say that, I know it’s true” – and he’s looking forward to playing in New Zealand again. “I like that place. I know a few people there. And you were good to us last time. And you’ll enjoy this show. Well, you should do anyway. And we will. I know we certainly will”.