Yes: Steve Howe Talks Life, Steel Guitars, and 50 Years of Yes

  When a band does an anniversary tour, it’s often a 10, 20, or even 30 year celebration with band members still relatively young and spry, ready to take on their crowd of fans young and old. When bands are five decades into their career and still performing like they haven’t aged a day for their just as valiant audiences continuously flocking to shows all over the world, it’s impressive. Not to mention that the band currently doing this is Yes: one of the most legendary progressive rock bands of all time. Their immense talent and stunning ability to craft intricately orchestrated songs was already impressive 50 years ago, so with 21 studio albums under their belt, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a full national tour underway, impressive doesn’t even cut it.

  Steve Howe joined Yes in 1970, helping the progressive rockers grow as an English band, flourish as musicians, and peak as charting artists. He is one of the most influential members of the band, a successful solo artist, and an overall musically passionate human being. At 71 years old, he couldn’t be more enthusiastic about his craft — it’s what he loves to do, simple as that. I was honored to get to speak to him about that, his life, and the history that comes with being in an adored band for 50 years.

50 years of Yes, can you even believe that? You’ve held one of the strongest progressive rock fanbases. How do you think you have done that?

  Well, I suppose we must be half decent! We have done a few things right. I don’t know to what extent one can say that we stuck to our goals or stuck to our guns or whatever, because I don’t think we did. Like the ‘80s; we didn’t stick to any plan then, but maybe that was accommodate-able…is that a word? We could accommodate change and maybe that is what helped us go on, because now we revere very much the early music and want to play it very close to the original recordings.

  You know, obviously you have got to have endings and stuff like that, but basically what we respect more than most lineups of Yes, is the value of what there is when you put on a record. Say, here’s Going for the One, what is that about? So when we played that album — which we do do the whole album, you know we did the whole album series a few years ago and we might pick it up again next year — but basically doing the whole album was evident us that this is an album band.

  Sure, Aerosmith, Rolling Stones…they’ve got their singles and you can tap your feet to them anytime you like, but basically, Yes has been successful and yet it doesn’t have that massive hit single factor. I think that has been very healthy, because A) they are all about commerciality and can you remember the singular chorus and the repeat chorus, repeat, repeat. And we don’t do that. We basically are an album band, and the more we remember that and revere to that, then I think the better that the music will be.

I agree! I know that one of my favorite songs of yours is “Close to the Edge,” and I feel like that’s a song that really made an impact on each of its listeners. Did you ever think that not having those chorus-by-chorus songs would help you guys make those impacts?

  Well, yeah! We were different. We didn’t fall into the usual trough of commercialism, we didn’t have shortened intros, and we didn’t have repeat choruses. I’m glad that you like “Close to the Edge” so much, because I think as an album, also, that is a tremendously original concept for an album. We are opening our current show with “Close to the Edge” and people have been saying to us, “When you played ‘Close to the Edge,’ we were bowled over!” Then we would start with “Close to the Edge” and go on to other things. When we do our long set, because we have two sets: the casino set, of which we just finished playing three nights on the run, and we have a longer set, which is in two parts. But both sets always, start with “Close to the Edge,” because that is a quintessential place for Yes to realize our ambition.

  Certainly Jon [Anderson] and I who wrote that song, we basically wanted to go further than we had gone already with “Roundabout,” which was 10 minutes long. We thought we should make something really, really symphonic, like sumptuous and not in a hurry to finish, because when you remember that all Rick Nelson songs in the ‘60s were all two minute songs — only allowed to be two minutes long! Well, they’re great recordings, I happen to like Rick Nelson, and he had a great guitarist with him called James Burton. They had songs like “Fools Rush In” and some amazing songs, but they were all two minutes. Can you imagine how restrictive that was for an artist? Albums allowed jazz musicians to record much longer pieces. Like Miles Davis could record Bitches Brew, but before that — before albums — you couldn’t record something that was like longer than 10 minutes or something. So, thank god for albums, and thank god that Yes is an album band.

Thank goodness is right! Do you think that the creative process of Yes has changed over time?

  Oh, yes, radically changed. I think that the demands for performance have changed. I mean, we changed that ourselves because in the early days we didn’t duplicate very closely the records. When we remembered the ones we just made, we would play that one quite well, but as time went on and lineups changed and people came and went, people got messy. They no longer would articulate the exact, precise parts. Unlike now, which we do everything as if it has been orchestrated, which they weren’t always, but we learned those parts note for note and that is what I believe makes the band, the band.

  That, though, is different than the ‘70s where we were just trying to push on. Certainly the ‘80s I can’t speak on, because I was in Asia and working on GTR and some more, but by the time I rejoined in the mid-‘90s, we had started to get a lot more intricate. The word is actually replicated and respecting the order that is created on the original record. I think that is what people have come to expect of us.

It isn’t a terrible thing to expect from a group of talented musicians! Actually, speaking of GTR, I was actually able to speak to Steve Hackett back in December and he spoke nothing but great things of you and the time in that group.

  Oh, lovely!

What do you have to say about that band and that time of your life?

  Well, it was on a roll. I mean, after Asia was enormously successful, although rather short-lived, GTR kind of did exactly the same thing. Steve and I had a very magical period for about six months when we wrote that album. There was actually a sort of collaboration with a couple of guys who joined the band eventually, but we had got the whole thing sorted out, like what songs were worked. We had just wrote “When the Heart Rules the Mind” and most of the material here or there, Max or Phil would help us a bit.

  I mean, it was a very brave thing to do. I guess at the time I was on such a roll between leaving Geffen and going with Arista, like Atlantic were to Yes in the ‘70s, these kind of labels don’t exist now. I know that they exist physically, but the support and the excitement that having a big label say, “No, this is going to move numbers and we’re going to do good business here.” It was such a big shot in the arm. It was so supportive, so we were having a great time.

  Like I said, those first six months I will never forget. Steve and I got along so well. I think with the taxing role of forming a band and building a record and then going on tour… well, Steve and I had very different experiences prior to that. I was completely used to being in a band that everybody fought to lead and for leadership, you know, and that was called Yes. In Steve’s experience, he was really used to running a solo band. He was in charge and that was it. That actually didn’t conflict with me, because he had offered me 50/50 control. That is what we agreed on, for each of us to have 50/50 control of the band, because what we didn’t anticipate was how much push we would get from the other guys. I guess the difficulties came from trying to control the band, helping to be creative, and like Asia, it was a short-lived experience. But it was a great time and I loved it.

I’m glad you loved it, because so many people loved what came out of it. It brought some really great music in many lives, like my own. You, as well, were a solo artist and have your own solo records. I think that my personal favorite album of yours is Turbulence, but I was wondering if there are any albums that you are especially proud of.

  I knew that when Atlantic agreed to release our solo albums, I thought that it was a real opportunity. What they didn’t expect was that like three years later I came back with another one! [Laughs] But, they actually liked me for it and they also liked me for them to release both those two first solo albums on CDs on Atlantic. You see, the other guys didn’t and then later on they asked me, “How come your solo albums are on CD?”  I answered with, “I asked them!” I had said to the guys at the label, “Will you release my albums on CD now that we have got the CD format?” And guess what? They said, “Oh yeah, we would love to!” Well, funny enough, the other guys didn’t! [Laughs]

  Basically, I went on to make 12 solo albums and there are two kinds of albums that I make: the first few, with Turbulence being the only exception. The first two, of which I call my jamboree approach. I try to show everything I do: whether it be tap dancing, playing a flute, and doing all the weird stuff, but also playing guitar and writing and doing all that. Although, when Turbulence came along, I decided that I didn’t do albums like that and I was going to create an album that was really streamlined, and really became a direction for my music. The grand scheme of things eventually went back to the original jamboree, but then I started to make more and more like Turbulence. Basically, I usually make albums that are more like Turbulence that have one particular idea that I can then move around in.

  As I’ve said, they’re really like jamboree. I mean, I’m playing jazz here and weird, psychedelic stuff here and a band here and then I’m singing and then I’m not singing. I kind of like those, but I think I should be more in the Turbulence mindset, where I pick a style and put all of my music around that. I’ve actually got a new album coming that, strangely enough — well, it is not finished yet so I can’t tell you the title, even though I do have it — it is actually a mixture of instrumental and songs, but not quite in the same way. I have learned, and what I have been trying to do, is to learn. Learning about making solo albums has been beautiful. It is one of my favorite things that I do.

And you do it so well! Speaking of things you love, you, specifically, seemed to bring the slide guitar to the forefront, at least for an English rock band. How did you get into it and how did you integrate it into the music you guys made?

  That is a really interesting question because basically it was there before. By that, I’ll explain. When I was about 10, I was listening through my parents records and I remember being amazed about how much I loved them. They were Les Paul and Mary Ford. I mean, astounding records. Les Paul playing his arse off, if you excuse the expression. Basically, I got exposed to guitar through, not only Les Paul, but a singer called Tennessee Ernie Ford who had a brilliant guitar team. Jimmy Bryant played the guitar and the other guy was Speedy West. Now, he played steel. So even before I played the guitar I had heard this stuff and I thought, “Jesus, if that’s a guitar then that is what I want to do!” Although, it actually wasn’t a guitar, it was a steel guitar, but then Santo and Johnny came along and had a hit with “Sleep Walk” and I decided that I had to play this guitar. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know what it looked like, I didn’t know how you did it, but I had already loved the guitar and I wanted to play the steel guitar.

  Now, on an album called The Lost Tapes of Bodast it came out originally like that. It actually has recently been re-released on a new format that I helped to do, but it is an amazing record. The guitar sounds precede Yes, you see. Basically, they are fantastic sounds. Also, that is the first time I play steel guitar — on a song called “A Thousand Years.” I play a bit of steel on there and as they say, I wetted my appetite or I put my ankle in the water, if you will. It was great, and then by the time I did “Fragile” or “Close to the Edge” actually, I think then I had bought Fenders and Gibson steel guitars and I had started to work out how to play them properly. Basically, I love the steel guitar almost — almost! — as much as I love the guitar. Well, I don’t.

  The guitar is one thing to me. It’s classical, it’s acoustic, it’s electric, it’s 12 string, it’s steel, it’s pedal steel. So I am just a total freak on anything guitarist-ic. So basically, to play the steel is a treasure that I have. Right now we are playing “Soon,” which is a great opportunity for me to play beautiful tunes with a beautiful sound. You know, which is all about launch and distortion. Then we also play “Awaken,” which has got steel guitar in it, too, but a lot simpler steel guitar. “You and I” was the first Yes tune that I really used the steel, kind of like, but not really, properly. Although, it was a real steel guitar.

  Basically, I adore steel guitar; particularly when, well there are so many great players, but Speedy West was my original player who I love. Now, there is just a wide, wide ranking, like Jerry Douglas, although he plays the acoustic steel. He plays the steel as though it isn’t the steel. Forget the difficulties and amazing trouble you have to go through to play the steel, he makes them all history. I think he might be the most brilliant guitarist around. I don’t like to segment guitarists into categories like, “Oh, he plays the steel,” or whatever. I mean, the guitar is an instrument, so you don’t have to play just one kind. There was no way that I was just going to play the same blues guitar sounds that everyone else was playing. So I had to find a vehicle for my guitar ideas. It left the blues, left all that. I love blues, but it is not what I play. I do other stuff. I move around, I use a bit of blues influence, but I thank you for asking me about steel because it really, really is a highly emotional thing.

  If I could just finish by saying that the reason I started playing was because I could hear things in my head that I couldn’t play on the guitar and that included sliding and vibrato. The blues guitar was all about finger vibrato and I didn’t particularly like that; I actually found it a bit annoying. But, of course, not when Eric Clapton plays like that. When I, personally, played like that I found it rather annoying. So I thought, “Well, if I do that on the steel, what’s it like?” I loved the sound when I did the vibrato on the steel notes. Basically, the steel was my solution to my desire to make noises outside of what the guitar makes.

Going back to Yes a little bit, you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That is an amazing feat. Did you ever think that you guys would end up there?

  Well, some people kept wanting it. I don’t know if wanting things is ever really a good idea. There were some people who would moan on and on about not being in it. I was like, “Look, don’t worry about it!” It’s not like you can force an award. Well, you can pay someone to give you an award, like talk to somebody.

  There was a feeling, though, in Yes that we were always underestimated in Rolling Stone magazine. In fact, they were a real nuisance to us. They usually wrote horrible things about us. Actually, when they did a big book about rock ‘n’ roll bands, they gave us a paragraph! Not a page, not three pages, but an insulting, singular paragraph; which, presumably, was meant to squash us much smaller than ELP or Genesis, or other prog. bands. Now, this has changed considerably, but because of that Rolling Stone attitude — which we always thought a real let down, a real disappointment — we didn’t play up to people.

  The one thing about Yes that I am very proud about is that, generally speaking, we didn’t stroke people, we didn’t play up to them, we didn’t pamper them. I hate that. That is really obnoxious. I am here, at this level, as successful as I am, because of the things I have done. Not because of the people I persuaded or stroked or favors I have done. I don’t do that. You either like me and I play the guitar and that’s it, or I don’t come. I don’t come to parties where I am not free, because my message as a musician is freedom. I have a tremendous amount of freedom. I love my wife, for example, for understanding this and allowing me to be a free, roaming musician even though we have kids and a house and a life. So, that is where we are. To want things from time to time, when they come (of course) and you don’t expect them, that’s nice… but I won’t say there wasn’t an expectancy.

  We kept hearing that maybe they were going to consider us and so many people said, “Why not do Yes?” Just last year I was asked to help pick five bands out of a list of almost 20 that I thought should be inducted, but you kind of lose interest when you get busy, and I honestly don’t know if any of those bands were even inducted this year. Either way, when you look at how many people were inducted it puts it into perspective. If you’ve been impatiently waiting to be inducted, because there are thousands of bands that have been inducted and most of them — I would say most, I wouldn’t say all — in my view, deserve to be there. There are other bands that also deserve to be there, you know?


The anniversary tour hits the Wellmont Theater in Montclair on July 7, Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City on July 14, St. George Theatre in Staten Island on July 15, Paramount Hudson Valley in Peekskill, NY on July 17, Theatre at Westbury in Westbury, NY on July 18, and The Fillmore in Philadelphia July 20 and 21. Their U.S. fan convention will also be taking place this year at The Fillmore in Philadelphia on the afternoon of July 21.