Yes Drummer Alan White:
Looking Back & Going Forward
Without Chris Squire
By Charlie Steffens
At the beginning of 2015, it was announced that progressive rock veterans Yes would be co-headlining a string of North American dates with Toto. What the group didn’t expect six months later was the loss of their one and only bassist Chris Squire to leukemia. But the band plays on and Yes alumnus Billy Sherwood has been hired to fill in on bass for an indefinite period. The 2015 Yes lineup is drummer Alan White, guitarist Steve Howe, vocalist Jon Davison, keyboardist Geoff Downes, and Sherwood on bass and vocals.
On the opening night of their tour with Toto in Mashantucket, Connecticut, Yes performed an emotional tribute to Squire. As they played “Onward,” a stirring ballad from 1978’s Tormato, a spotlight shone on Squire’s white Rickenbacker bass. Images of the iconic bassist, the only member to have played on all the group’s albums, displayed on the overhead screen.
While certain obligations lie ahead, such as Cruise To The Edge in November, and a European tour scheduled for Spring 2016, Alan White is uncertain about the future of Yes. He says for now it’s just a matter of playing their best. “Billy Sherwood knows all the parts inside out,” he assured me. “And most of the songs we do, I’ve played them a million times. I wouldn’t say it’s like riding a bicycle because no Yes song’s like riding a bicycle. But, at the same time, I know all the parts. It’s just a matter of getting it to work with a different bass player. It’s not going to be easy. It was so sudden, and everything was so fast.”
The drummer backtracks to the day he found out about Chris Squire’s illness. “I got an e-mail one day, just saying that he wouldn’t be able to go on tour in August because he had just been diagnosed with leukemia. But he’d known about it for a couple of weeks before he had told the rest of the band. My heart just sank. But he was optimistic. He said, ‘I’m going to go in the hospital for four to six weeks and when I’m out I’ll be on the road again next springtime. So just go ahead and do this tour without me. Billy knows all my parts and harmonies, and then I’ll see you next Spring.’ But after a month, I got signs that it just wasn’t good.”
White and Squire had such a close relationship that when Yes disbanded for a couple of years in the early 80s, the two collaborated with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page for a project called XYZ. Many hours were spent in Page’s recording studio fleshing out material, but sessions stopped and the XYZ project was set aside. Nearly a month after Squire’s death, Page mentioned in an interview that he had recently been mulling over releasing the elusive XYZ tapes. Page said he had been meaning to get in touch with Squire and White after he was finished releasing the last batch of Led Zeppelin reissues.
“The funny thing about all of those tapes is that Chris and myself wrote most of the music,” White says. Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant had considered getting involved with XYZ; White recalls Plant’s decision to forego the project: “He listened to the stuff, and he finally went, ‘This is a little too complicated for me.’ It was certainly working. Chris and myself would go to Jimmy’s studio on a nightly basis. I mean, we never started doing anything until 10:00 in the evening and we usually worked till it was daylight. That’s the way it was back then. And, of course, Peter Grant got involved and our manager got involved. That was the kiss of death to the whole thing. Managers don’t see eye to eye. They want their pound of flesh, and the whole thing got screwed up and just started going out the window.”
As expected, moving forward with Squire will be difficult for White. To go out onstage every night without his irreplaceable counterpart and friend will be bittersweet. “We were the only two that kind of lasted through every version of Yes since ’72. People have come and gone and come back again, and Chris and myself were just holding the banner. So it was more like a team and it got to be a very brotherly kind of thing.”
One of White and Squire’s shining moments they shared together onstage with Yes was when they would play “Whitefish,” an instrumental medley where both players would play awe-inspiring solos.
“I knew what he was doing before he did it on the bass,” White explains of their unique fusion. “He knew when I played live what I was going to do next. It’s a bit rough. The hard thing is going to be going onstage. Chris wanted me to keep the band alive and going. Billy’s a great player and he’s got a great voice and he can handle all the parts. It still won’t be the same.”