GEOFF DOWNES (YES/ASIA): “Most People Would Cite Close To The Edge As THE Classic YES Album”

Geoff Downes
Photo: Mick Burgess

He first made his name with Trevor Horn in The Buggles with the smash hit single “Video Killed The Radio Star” and then shocked the Prog Rock world by joining YES for their 1980 release Drama, before going onto form Prog supergroup ASIA in 1982. It’s been more than 10 years since he returned to YES and now, they are touring to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their classic album, Close To The Edge. Mick Burgess called up Geoff Downes to talk about the tour and also about the new archive live release from Asia, Asia In Asia: Live at the Budokan, Tokyo 1983.

How have the last couple of years been for you?

It’s been weird and everybody has had to adjust in their own way. It’s not been too bad for me in terms of creativity. I’ve kept writing and exchanging ideas and songs over the internet so I’ve been able to get a few albums done in the space of that time. It’s nothing compared to taking it out live and that’s what we’ve been missing. We’re hopefully over that now and looking forward to going back out again.

You’ve had almost two years off the road due to the Covid restrictions. Is that the longest you’ve gone without performing live?

I think it probably is. It’s actually been longer than that for us because we finished our last tour in August 2019 which is almost 3 years now which at my age is a long time. The forthcoming UK tour will be our first shows since then. We were intending on playing in Europe first but it was just too difficult as there were too many restrictions.

Talking of touring you’ll be on the road in the UK for a 10-date tour starting in Glasgow on 15th June. You must be looking forward to playing throughout the UK again?

We are very much looking forward to it so we are currently getting ready and rehearsing to get back into it after so long away.

You come to Newcastle on 26th June at the City Hall. This must be a venue you’ve played in many times over the years with both Yes and Asia?

I remember playing it on my first tour with Yes on the Drama tour back in 1980. I’ve played there many times. It’s a great venue and there’s always a great atmosphere. It’s an iconic venue. It’s a proper old British hall that has got a lot of memories for me.

The tour was originally going to showcase your 1974 classic Relayer album but you have now decided to feature Close To The Edge instead with it being the 50th anniversary of the release of that album. Will you now be saving that show for 2 years time for its 50th anniversary?

We’d like to do Relayer in full at some point but because the tour kept getting put back, it just seemed too good an opportunity to miss to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Close To The Edge. Most people would cite that as THE classic Yes album so it’s important for the band to do this. We have done it a few times before but this time it’s a “here we are again” situation.

Has this meant that you have had to rejig the rest of your set to fit in with Close To The Edge or have you simply replaced Relayer with Closer To The Edge and left the rest of your planned setlist the same?

We have taken Relayer out and replaced it with Close To The Edge for the main part of the show and we’ll play a selection of songs from the rest of our catalogue.

One of the great things of playing an album in full, is that you get to hear a song or two that you don’t normally play live. Did that bring any challenges to you to recreating the songs live on stage?

Some songs can be something of a challenge to recreate live. When we did The Yes Album in full a while back there’s a song called “A Venture” which was a piano solo type of piece which was something that had never been played live before so that was fairly tricky. When we did the whole of Fragile there were some tracks like “We Have Heaven” and “Cans and Brahms” that were a challenge to play but very enjoyable too. I think our fans get off on the fact that we’re not just dishing up the old favourites. We have a few surprises coming up on this tour that I think people will appreciate including a track we haven’t performed in a long time.

Steve Howe from the current touring lineup was in Yes and co-wrote all three of the songs on the album when it was originally released 50 years ago. Did he help you with the intricacies within the music?

Steve has an amazing memory so he can remember the bits from when it was originally recorded. It’s great to have someone with such a mind of information. He was there of course and has the inside knowledge of the music and how it was put together and also about the production by Eddie Offord and what he contributed as he was almost like a sixth member. It’s always good to have Steve to lean on.

50 years is an incredible time for an album to still be so highly regarded. What do you think it is about Close To The Edge that resonates with your fans so much?

I think it’s because it has so many ingredients and so many facets to it. It has dynamics, terrific lyrics and production. Every player on that album made a massive contribution to that album and it’s always a pleasure to play Rick Wakeman’s parts from that. “And You and I” is probably my favourite Yes song as it just personifies the glorious melodies that they come up with. There’s almost spiritual feeling when I play that as if it’s coming out of your soul.

What have you got lined up for the rest of the evening? Will you be doing “Machine Messiah” from Drama, the album that you did when you originally joined Yes back in 1980?

We did that one on the last tour and it’s a fantastic piece which I’m very proud of. In terms of where Yes was at the time, I was one of two new guys coming into the band so I was so pleased that we were able to create a song that really worked like that. I think Drama was a very strong Yes album.

Will you be playing songs from your latest album The Quest that you put out last year?

I think we’ll be doing a couple from that album which will be fun. I think we’ll be doing tracks from virtually every era of Yes but of course the focal point will be Close To The Edge. We have such a wide history and every era of the band has been able to create something great and that’s why the music of Yes still goes on today.

Talking of The Quest, this is your first album without founder member Chris Squire. Did it feel strange at first making a record without Chris around?

There’s no replacing Chris although Billy Sherwood does a fantastic job. If anyone was going to come in and do Chris’s part then Billy was the ideal choice having worked with Chris on various projects beforehand. Chris was such a pioneer but he saw Yes going on for as long as it possibly could so we are carrying on his legacy and we hope to keep going as long as we can.

It’s always a challenge coming into an established band and replacing a key member. Of course, you did this when you replaced Rick Wakeman in 1980. How did you deal with that pressure?

Fans can be particularly vitriolic especially Yes fans and Jon Davidson had the same thing coming in for Jon Anderson but I think you have to play yourself. You can’t hide behind the cape, if you like, and try to be like someone else. The strength of Yes is that people have come in and been themselves and that’s resulted in a lot of great music.

Did it make it more difficult for coming in off the back of your hit with “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles.

I think they thought we were very odd choices and Yes were seen as an ethereal, revered band from afar and with all this mystique. We were these identifiable faces from Top of the Pops and our claim to fame at that point was that we’d had a couple of Top 10 singles. I think Chris Squire particularly understood where we were coming from. He always had a vision for Yes to develop and not play safe. It was a dangerous move for them at the time but the album that we came up with in Drama was a great album. It almost paved the way for Yes going more mainstream with 90125. You’d never have recognised Yes as putting out “Owner of a Lonely Heart” five years previously. I think our version of the band moved Yes from the ’70s into the ’80s.

It is important for you as a band to grow and develop creatively isn’t it?

I think the fans get it that you’re challenging yourself and not just resting on your laurels and playing the same set time after time. I think Yes fans want us to make new music and continue to try new things out. Yes, has always been a very experimental band. Close To The Edge is a very experimental album and that has been a hallmark throughout their career.

As far as the current lineup of Yes, you’re joined by Jon Davison on vocals and Billy Sherwood on bass. Alan White has been unwell recently. Is he OK to tour now or do you have another drummer to fill in for a while?

Alan will be sharing the duties with Jay Schellen, who is a great drummer and he does some of the heavy loading but it’s a great thing that Alan will be with us to play on this tour. I think since Billy came in for Chris back in 2015 so this is the longest serving lineup in yes history. [NOTE: Since this interview Alan White has sadly passed away. It was his intention right up until the end to be part of this tour.]

What are you plans once the UK tour is finished?

I think we’ll take the show to The States in the Autumn. I’ll probably be out touring the States in the summer with Asia which still features Carl Palmer and Billy Sherwood will probably be playing bass and we have Mark Bonilla on guitar and vocals. He used to play with Keith Emerson so it’s quite a small family that we pick from as everybody has worked with somebody else at some point or another. It’s the 40th anniversary of Asia’s first album so that’s one of the reasons for the tour. I’m looking forward to playing with Carl again. He astonishes me that he can still hit those drums even harder than he did back in the ’70s. He still has all the chops. It’s always a pleasure to play with Carl. He’s such an exuberant character. I’m very lucky to have played with some of the best musicians in the world and Carl is certainly one of them.

You are also a founder member of Asia and you have a rather fine boxed set coming out celebrating your show in Tokyo in 1983. Why did you decide to finally release that show at this time?

We’ve relicensed a lot of the Asia catalogue to BMG Music Group so this is all part of that. We felt that it never really got much of an airing. I don’t think there was ever a full recording available of the show. We went through the archives and put this package together. It’s a nice box set with some great Roger Dean artwork. I think it’s nice that people can have a package that they can look at like they did back when they used to buy vinyl. There’s plenty to look at. For bands of our ilk, it’s something that the fans really appreciate.

The boxset features CDs, vinyl, Blu-ray, a book and various pieces of memorabilia. Were you involved in putting that together?

We made suggestions and proof read everything. We just wanted to make sure everything was just right and they’ve done a great job with it. It’s a keepsake and not like a digital download.

It is something of a historic show for Asia as it features Greg Lake on vocals for a couple of shows. What happened to John Wetton at that time?

I think John was going through a few personal problems at the time and it was just not possible to continue on that basis. We were committed to do this show in Japan and we felt that we still wanted to do it. We had great backing from MTV and a lot of organisation had gone into it and Greg came in and he did a really good job. He had a similar voice to John in many ways, with his rich English baritone and he came from a similar musical background.

Brad Delp from Boston was mentioned at one point. How close were you to getting Brad to sing with Asia?

That was just an idea put through by the record label as John Kalodner was in touch with a few American bands at that time. A few names were put forward like that but Greg was about the closest we could get to John and was the right choice for us at that time. Of course, John came back eventually and we sorted it out, we carried on and that was it. It was a strange time for us but the performance was pretty strong in Tokyo so I think it worked out well.

How long did Greg have to learn the set?

He had six to eight weeks. We rehearsed in London for two weeks and then rehearsed in Japan for another two or three weeks.

Did you have to adapt the music to fit Greg’s voice?

Not really. There wasn’t a great deal of detuning that we had to do. He has a slightly deeper voice than John, Greg is a baritone and John more a tenor but their annunciation was very similar. Don’t forget that John took over from Greg as singer in King Crimson. They were both from the Bournemouth area. I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was something in the water?

As is traditional in an Asia show, you each get your own time in the spotlight. You chose “Ihiri-The Setting Sun” and “Bolero”, why did you choose those pieces in particular?

“Bolero” is the end piece on “Cutting It Fine” on the first album and that was something I came up one night in the studio and I built it all up. It became very personal for me as a piece of music which is why I focus on that in the live show.

Do you have any plans to bring Asia over to Europe?

At the moment we just have plans to tour the States but you never know. If it goes well, we might think about some European shows.

Do you have any time to fit any other projects in at the moment or perhaps some live shows with Chris Braid in support of Halcyon Hymns that you released together last year?

Yes and Asia is pretty much it for me at the moment. We’ll be doing another Yes album at some point this year. We’re keeping busy with that and keeping going so that’s the main thing for me this year.

Interview and photos by Mick Burgess

Asia in Asia – Live at the Budokan, Tokyo 1983 is available now.

YES are on tour in the UK right now:

June 2022

15th June Wednesday Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
17th June Friday Manchester Bridgewater Hall
18th June Saturday Nottingham Royal Concert Hall
20th June Monday Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
21st June Tuesday London Royal Albert Hall
22nd June Thursday York Barbican
24th June Friday Birmingham Symphony Hall
26th June Sunday Newcastle O2 City Hall
28th June Tuesday Dublin Eire Vicar Street
29th June Wednesday Cork Eire Opera House

For more on Yes visit:
For more on Asia visit:


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

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