Interview with Alan White of YES

Alan White is decorated, sophisticated, and—one discovers upon meeting him—surprisingly understated. But after a half-century of drumming for YES, one of the most influential progressive rock acts, the septuagenarian shows no signs of slowing down as he readies himself for another series of YES shows. 

Born on June 14, 1949 in the village of Pelton in northeast England, Alan was influenced early on by his grandfather, who played piano, and his uncle, who drummed for local dance bands. He took up piano at age six, but played percussively, which prompted his parents to get him a drum kit. We should all be such wise parents.

In addition to his YES credits, Alan has performed on over 50 albums by other artists, most notably with Joe Cocker, Ginger Baker, the Ventures, John Lennon, and George Harrison. 

As Alan sat back in a lounge chair in his home in Seattle, alongside his wife Gigi, he was the picture of a life well-spent as he recalled his humble origins, his extraordinary fortune in working with half of the Beatles, and a career that landed him, without surprise, in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. 

You are turning 70 in just a few short weeks. I guess that makes you one of the youngest rock ‘n’ roll pioneers. 

[Laughs] Ha! Well, sometimes I feel like one of the oldest, but you’re right. I started young, and I was around to see many of the early pioneers, and to play with a few. I don’t know if I think of myself as a pioneer. It’s been a good time.  It is still is a good time. I’m getting ready to go back on the road.

You’re going to miss Seattle in the summer.

It’s already hot enough here. It’s 80 degrees today. The summer will be hotter.

How long have you been living in Seattle?

As a permanent place, about 30-something years. Every time I came out here I liked it and eventually I decided to stay. It’s a nice place to live.

When I was going to school at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire, you lived nearby.

That’s right. I had a house in Oxford, but I was born in Newcastle, which is up north… and now I live in Newcastle, Washington, so there’s probably something to that.

At least a happy coincidence… So, let’s talk about the new tour. There truly aren’t that many drummers your age, or from your era, who still have the energy to play the types of shows that you play. I saw Ringo recently and he only gets behind his drum kit for a few numbers—the rest of the time, he stands up and holds a microphone. 

Well, Ringo is a tad older than I am, but I know what you’re saying and it’s true.

From a performance point of view, drumming requires more energy than guitar or piano. Drumming—especially drumming on the types of songs that YES performs—is tough. It’s a workout.  

Yes, it’s actually a workout, but you learn to pace yourself. It’s a good workout, and it keeps you healthy. 

Do you still play every day?

Yeah, sure.  I mean, I practice or just play for enjoyment. I don’t think I miss a day. And now currently, because we’re going on the road, and there’s a couple of pretty difficult YES songs to play, I’m practicing quite a bit. I’m taking it seriously.

What’s the hardest song to play?

Well, on this tour, the hardest song that we do, and that we haven’t done for quite a while, is “The Gates of Delirium.” That was from the Relayer LP.

I remember seeing YES numerous times during the “YES in the Round” tour. You had this wonderful rotating stage, which allowed for a constant change of perspective and a front-row for many more people.

That’s a long time ago. You remember that? It was a great show. It was accepted really well. People loved it. We haven’t done that in quite a few years.  

What’s the show like now? How is it different?

It’s different in theatrics. We’ve got a really good projector system, a really good lighting guy. And, of course, the musicianship in YES has always been really, really good. It’s a very enjoyable show. We actually will have three bands on this tour. YES is headlining and there’s also Asia and then Carl Palmer. And Carl has a special guest: the Crazy World of Arthur Brown. Carl was Arthur’s drummer when he first started. So, it’s really four bands. It will be a good day’s entertainment. Roger Dean will be there.

I have a piece of Roger’s hanging in my house.

Do you have his arm or his head or what?  

[Laughs] I ran into Roger at San Diego ComicCon and he was selling prints of his artwork. I hate to say it, but most people there didn’t know who he was. So, we spent a lot of time talking about YES and he was kind enough to draw  for me—the stag on the island detail that was painted for one of your album interiors.

Yes, that’s a lovely piece. He drew that for you?

He did. Tell me about the coming show. How long will YES play?

Well, as I said, there’s four bands, so we can’t play as long as we usually do. When we’re out alone, we’ll play 2 hours and 15 minutes, or thereabouts. But this show is about an hour and 45 minutes. Between the four acts, it’s nearly four hours of music.

People are really getting their money’s worth. Will you be playing mostly the YES classics?

Sure. We’ll be doing our better known songs, as well as a number of things that span the years.

Are you happy with where rock music has gone?

Let’s put a positive spin on it. It’s not bad.  

That’s funny.

I mean, it’s in a pretty good place right now.  A lot of the bands that were really good in the olden days are still playing their music, and they are very seasoned. They sound as good as ever. 

But there are very few authentic new rock bands coming up. It’s hard to name many beyond Greta van Fleet.

They’re a pretty good band…. There’s always incarnations of rock ‘n’ roll, but not a lot of hardcore rock ‘n’ roll bands now, that’s true. YES was always playing in the more progressive area, with an element of rock.

Do you think that rock ‘n’ roll is finite? That 20-30 years from now, it will be over?

No, it will never die.  

You have more faith in rock than you did in YES. You’ve said that you didn’t think it would last this long.

Absolutely right. I didn’t think it would last, and I have to pinch myself when I say that.  47 years is a hell of a long time being in the same band. We pray we can make it 50 years.

Who were the drummers and bands you admired most when you were coming up?

I used to listen to Ringo when I was a little kid.  I liked the Beach Boys and the Beatles.  Then I got into more fusion-type guys in my teens. I listened to people like Lenny White and adapted some of the things from his style into rock ‘n’ roll, which set me up for playing in a band like YES.

Speaking of Ringo, did you consider him an influential drummer?  An important drummer?

He was one of the first guys I listened to when I was learning to play.  He went “boom, boom-boom,” and I said, ‘Oh, I can do that!’  So, you have to start somewhere.  And Ringo was a good place to start. But now, after playing with John Lennon and George Harrison, every time I’ve seen Ringo recently, he says to me, ‘Oh, you’re that bloody drummer.’

You’re fond of him.


You were speaking about him six weeks ago at Beatlefest, when you were on stage with Ken Dashow.

Yes, that was a lot of fun. And after the YES tour, I’ll be going up to Liverpool for another Beatlesfest for a week. They’re a lot of fun and I get to talk about what it was like to play on George Harrison’s songs and John Lennon’s songs.

Tell me about how you ended up with John.

Well, he called me up and asked me to do Live Peace in Toronto, basically.  I was making dinner one day and I was living with a bunch of guys—we had our own band and we were touring all over London, and the phone rings. He called me up out of nowhere and asked me to do this show. He said he saw me playing in a club one night. And when he first called, I didn’t think it was him—I thought he was a friend of mine putting me on, so I put the phone down on him. And I said, ‘Some guy is trying to play around with me.’ And then he called again and said, ‘No—this is John Lennon and we’re doing this gig. Would you play with us?’ And I kind of dropped the phone. Then I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’  And I went to the airport next morning in a limo. And John and Yoko were there.  And he hadn’t told me on the phone but then he said, ‘Oh, by the way, Eric Clapton is playing guitar at this show.’ So we got on the plane and went there and went straight from the plane to the gig and played Live Peace in Toronto.

That must have been like being in a dream.

Yes. I was only 20 years old, so it was a little bit dreamlike. I didn’t realize until 10 years later, when I said, ‘Oh, did I really do all that stuff?’ Then John invited me to play on the Imagine LP and I got to know George there, because George was on those sessions, too. I played on quite a bit of the Imagine album. George was there for about a week and I got to know him well. So, when he was ready to make his solo album, he called me and asked me to do some work on it. So, I played on maybe half of the All Things Must Pass album. It was a lot of fun. 

Was Phil Spector there while you were working with them?


What was it like working with him?

Phil didn’t come out of the control room very much. George was kind of in control in the studio, but I met Phil quite a few times. And he was alright back then. Kind of a little bit of a weird character, but we got on with it.

You’ve had a storied career, Alan. Do you still hear your influence on other rock acts?

Not necessarily my influence, but I do hear the influence of YES on quite a few bands.  

What’s your advice to young drummers today? I think a lot of people give up too early.  They think, ‘I’m really good at doing this, but I don’t know how to apply it,’ you know? And they just fade out a bit.  But really good people should stick to their ideals and keep moving on and getting better and better. If you get to a certain level, you’ll definitely find something that works.

YES will be at the PNC Bank Arts Center on Sunday, June 16