Yes keyboardist Geoff Downes is connected to some seriously intertwining music lore. By the time he joined Yes, Downes had already made history as one-half —with Trevor Horn—of the studio duo The Buggles, purveyors of MTV’s first video, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” When Yes disbanded in 1981, he co-founded the supergroup Asia. After years of solo work and detours that included a Kate Bush album, Downes reformed Asia in 2006, rejoining Yes five years later.
This Sunday night at the Arlington, Yes plays—in its entirety—their classic 1980 album Drama, which Downes had a hand in co-writing with producer Horn. But Downes did not come back merely to play the old hits; earlier this decade, he and Asia embarked on making new albums, from 2008’s Phoenix to 2010’s Omega. After rejoining Yes in 2011, Downes co-wrote material on such recent albums as Fly From Here.
“It’s important for any band’s longevity,” Downes said of creating new material. “Certainly in the case of Asia, I don’t think we had a long enough spell together in the first couple of albums.”
Downes also made waves as one of the first musicians to embrace the Fairlight CMI, an early synthesizer he used extensively on Asia’s 1982 self-titled debut, which also appeared on Kate Bush’s The Dreaming. While Yes was recording Drama, the eclectic singer-songwriter happened to be working in the studio next door. She poked her head in and asked, “‘What the hell of that?’ I think she got one of herself,” he said. That led to Downes playing on The Dreaming (the first album Bush produced herself).
“She’s very, very particular, a very, very determined musician,” Downes said.
If all of this wasn’t enough, Downes has also amassed a solo oeuvre under the moniker New Dance Orchestra.
Back to Yes. Baby boomers may best know them, but to Generation X, Yes is best known for its 1983 hit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart”—and many Gen X and Y kids heard it indirectly. In 1986, Def Jam rap acts sampled the shit out of the song (which itself was built out of a James Brown sample), including The Beastie Boys on their diamond-sellling debut Licensed to Ill (“The New Style”) and L.L. Cool J on his classic first album, Radio (“That’s a Lie”). Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Art of Noise, Lil Wayne, Will.I.Am and Nicki Minaj, and even Goyte have all taken liberal chunks of this Yes chart-topper.
“It’s a very interesting thing,” Downes said. “The snippets [have permeated] the psyche of a whole generation. It’s mapped into the [pop culture] DNA and it keeps that music alive.”
More recently, Downes noted, gangster rapper Styles P rapped over a loop of the Fairlight intro from Asia’s “Only Time Will Tell.”
Writing songs for Asia (which he co-writes with bassist John Wetton) is a very different process than creating new Yes music, which is “very much more cooperative, more of a group effort.”
Onstage though, there’s much crossover. “In terms of live performance, it’s not that different,” he said. “I’ve got sounds that apply to both.”
While the term “prog rock” may make good shorthand for rock critics, it’s largely inaccurate. “Yes has a very distinctive sound and has always have had. They weren’t around just to be a flagship of progressive music,” he said. “We’re not standard-bearers for prog rock music,” Downes continued, noting how varied “prog rock” bands King Crimson, Genesis and Pink Floyd sound from one another.
In addition to Drama, Downes also performs half of 1973’s Tales From Topographic Oceans for the very first time with the band. “I was not very familiar with it,” Downes said, “but I can see why it’s the Holy Grail for a lot of Yes fans. It has all these themes. It has a lot of video.”
Downes should know about video, given how The Buggles’ clip for “Video Killed the Radio Star” became the first video to play on MTV in 1981. In a conversation with the Independent earlier this month, Boy George of Culture Club (which just played the Arlington on Aug. 17) explained how nascent MTV was when his group began appearing on it; “a weird experiment,” the singer called it. Downes concurs with George O’Dowd’s take on the budding music channel.
“They didn’t really know what they were doing,” Downes said. “It was a big experimentation. A lot of it was shot on video, not even on film. In the early days, it was cobbled together in small studios. Making a video for their song “was something that was just told to us [from the record label], that there’s a new channel opened,” he continued. “It was only in the major cities to start with.”
The reason they made the video in the first place, Downes explained, was because “it was initially something to play in a foreign territory when the band wasn’t able to go out there. They’d put it on TV stations,” on shows like Britain’s Top of the Pops.
Even though you might say that reality shows killed the video star over at MTV by the mid-1990s, Downes is not pessimistic about the music industry’s current state.
“A lot of people have thought it’s gone downhill,” Downes said. “I don’t really see it that way. I always hope that with the use of the technology, the whole genre develops. It’s probably the same in every field. You can only take all of this so far.”
He does admit though that some sectors indulge in creative overkill. Downes compares some music production to what’s happening in the multiplexes:
“That’s sadly the way it has gone,” he said. “Now you try to see a film, in order to compete, there’s more and more extravagant special effects rather than a proper plot and pacing. That can be applied to the music.”
Lost in today’s atmosphere: the art of putting together an album with both potential singles and deep cuts; “more reflective tracks,” he explained. “A variety of style.”
Expect a good variety of style and sonics when Yes performs this Sunday night, and quite a bit of Drama.