Skip to main content

Yes keyboard giant Geoff Downes: “At one stage I had up to 28 keyboards out on the road - I filled up half a semi-truck on my own!”

Geoff Downes
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

With a musical legacy over 50 years old and roots that reach into almost every rock family tree, the famous revolving door policy at club Yes means that this multi-headed prog monster only ever gets stronger. 

Yes circa 2021 unites members both new and old for The Quest, a new album with a classic take on the band’s sound.

As an early exponent of the 1980s’ new synthesizer tech, Geoff Downes first came to prominence alongside future super-producer Trevor Horn as part of new-wave duo The Buggles. But his early influences, remarkable keyboard skills and classical training soon conspired to make him the ‘go-to’ keyboard maestro for some of rock’s hardest hitting, longest running, and most respected bands.

High time, then, for a catch-up...

The Quest has a great mix of classic and modern keyboard sounds. What’s the Yes keyboard rig like these days?

“What was nice with this album was to go back to fundamentals in lots of ways. So there’s a lot of piano and Hammond organ and Minimoog. It’s really a ‘retro look’ in many respects. If you look at when Yes started out with Tony Kaye on keyboards it was very much based around Hammond and acoustic piano and those two instruments take centre stage for me. 

“But of course there’s stuff that I like to add. I’m very much into the technology of software synths and the comprehensive emulations of older analogue instruments. So it’s a mixture, really, of analogue and digital. That’s something I’ve always been very interested in.”

What’s your preferred source for that classic Hammond sound?

“We hired in a vintage B3 and that’s something that’s very close to my heart. I think that Yes music throughout the generations has always featured the Hammond organ. Certainly Rick Wakeman was a big Hammond exponent. And Patrick Moraz and myself on the Drama album, there’s a lot of Hammond on that.

“It’s very much an instrument that blends well with the rest of the band and the rest of the instruments. It doesn’t get in the way of the guitar or the bass. It has its own space.” 

Are you still using a big keyboard rig live?

“I still like to have hands-on stuff. That’s why I take about a dozen keyboards with me still. That ability to grab something quickly… Yes music is very musically complex. There’s a lot of switching parts and different sounds coming in. Mellotrons, and all of this kind of thing. So it’s good to have those to hand with the sounds available. 

“If you’re working with a couple of keyboards you have to be pretty clever with layers and so on. Which I’ve done in the past, but Yes music is a very full-bodied sound and so I think that to have an acoustic piano, Hammond organ, Moog, a brass synth, a string synth and string samples all on different keyboards is how I prefer to approach it live. 

“But certainly - when we’re recording with the band or working solo - there’s a lot more time to really experiment and work on sounds ‘in the box’.” 

Yes music is a very full-bodied sound and so I think that to have an acoustic piano, Hammond organ, Moog, a brass synth, a string synth and string samples all on different keyboards is how I prefer to approach it live.

Back in the day with musicians like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman, there seemed to be a bit of an ‘arms race’ with the amount of hardware being taken on stage.

“I think there was a bit of cock fighting going on! Certainly with those two. They were both people that I very much looked up to and they were the first guys that really took keyboards into the limelight. Before Keith and Rick the piano was just rattling away in the corner and it was the guitarist who was swinging the axe, chucking the shapes and pulling all the women. These guys came up and took the keyboard to a whole new level. 

“Keith Emerson was a showman. Straddling the Hammond organ, playing it back to front, slamming on the reverb unit. That was great. It really inspired me. When I saw The Nice at the Isle of Wight festival around 1968 it blew my mind. Seeing Keith Emerson chucking the Hammond around. He was the star of the show.

“I got to know Keith. And Rick, Tony Kaye, Patrick Moraz. I’ve got to know all of them over the years. It was great to go from seeing Keith and then having him as a great friend. A real dream come true for me.”

So how did you get started? Why keyboards?

“My Dad was a church organist and I would sit there with him and turn the pages. The organ was obviously a classical organ at that point and I was singing in choirs and would pump the organ bellows. I always wanted to have a career in music but not so much in the classical field. 

“I started to get into bands in my early teens and that gave me the inspiration to move on. I borrowed a Vox Jaguar when I was in a skiffle group when I was 14. I got my first Hammond organ when I was 16, which my Mum bought me. I was destined to do it. I went to music college and studied keyboards and piano and organ. I was constantly surrounded by music and that’s a great thing to have in your childhood and teens.” 

Your first big step into the public eye was with The Buggles of course. How did you and Trevor Horn get together?

“I moved to London once I’d graduated from music college and Melody Maker was the Bible for the musician back then. That’s how you got work. There was a whole column - ‘musicians wanted’. I would look through that and there was an ad saying ‘chart act wants keyboard player’. And it was from Trevor who was running a band for Tina Charles who’d just had a big hit record - I Love to Love - all across Europe. 

“And Trevor gave me the job. Then when Tina came off the road and stopped to have kids Trevor and I stuck together. We started working together, rescuing people’s dodgy demos! Trevor would be producing and I would do all the music and we’d make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. In the end we thought, instead of doing all this for other people, why don’t we do something for ourselves? And that’s how the whole Buggles thing came about.” 

It was very important to The Buggles that we had that ‘technology edge’. Using all kinds of delays and distortion to get something different.

And there was a real explosion of new music technology at the time...

“Oh yeah. We were really technology-driven. We wanted to get every sound out of every gadget we could. When we were doing that first album - when we got signed to Island Records - we got signed as producers and writers and artists. So when we started to record that album, and in particular for Video Killed the Radio Star, we really pushed the boat out.

“We went to all the big studios in London. We drove the engineers mad because we were trying crazy things that the guys at EMI or Abbey Road hadn’t done before. They were very strait-laced in their approach, then these two guys off the street came in with a record deal, telling them how to get all these crazy sounds…

“We were very much into the studio. The instruments we were using like the Minimoog and the Solina Strings, I used them to create our own ‘wall of sound’. It was very important to The Buggles that we had that ‘technology edge’. Using all kinds of delays and distortion to get something different. “

Would you describe yourself as a player or an engineer back then?

“The two things are not disconnected. I think that I like to be able to use the technology in a good way, in an artistic way. I don’t see the two things as being disjointed. Sometimes people are a ‘musician’. They can play very very fast runs on the guitar, but they haven’t got a good guitar sound. You’ve got to have a combination of the two things where you’re able to create your own feel and your own sound but at the same time you need a certain amount of technique in order to be able to pull it off.” 

The classic song of that era was, of course, Video Killed the Radio Star. Was that just one of many songs you were working on at the time?

“I think we always knew that that was the leader. That was the one that got us a deal with Island in the first place. Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records, heard the demo and told the UK office to sign us lock, stock and barrel. We took the demo around to a lot of places and got rejected until Chris came in and said, ‘we see this, we see what you’re doing here’ and we were snapped up. 

“On the strength of Video we knew that we had to pull the rest of the album out of the bag, but that one was the one that took up all of our time. It was the first single. It went to number one when we had the rest of the album still to consider. It was the kickoff for both of our careers, Trevor as a producer and me as a keyboard player.” 

And it was the first song played on MTV.

“And that’s a Trivial Pursuit question! It was a point of history for Trevor and myself. It was the first music played on MTV and the intro is all on keyboards. But when that happened Video had been out for two years and at that time MTV was only on a few cable networks. It wasn’t even in New York. 

“So at the time, it was something of an afterthought. We’d already done the Yes thing; Trevor had produced Dollar and I was making the first Asia album. So it was something someone said to us one day. “There’s a new channel started up in America and they used your video to start the whole thing.” And I thought “Ah, that’s nice.” At that time nobody knew it was going to snowball and six months later it was everywhere.” 

Tell us about the transition of Buggles to Yes. That seemed quite a leap at the time. How did that move come about?

“Well, it was down to the fact that we were managed by the same management company. The Buggles and Yes were stablemates and that’s how we got to meet the guys, in the management’s offices.

“At that point they’d just come back from Paris, from the aborted sessions there with [producer] Roy Thomas Baker. Rick had gone off to do solo stuff and Jon was doing Jon and Vangelis. There were just the three guys left and Trev being a singer and myself being a keyboard player, there was that opportunity to work together. 

“And they really loved The Age of Plastic album and asked if we’d like to do some writing for them. That’s how we got into the rehearsal studio. We made I Am A Camera which turned into Into The Lens. Machine Messiah - Trevor and I had quite a big hand in that. We just joined forces and then Chris [Squire] said ‘This is going really well. Why don’t you guys join us and we’ll call it Yes and we’ll go out?’ There was no secret formula. It’s like we morphed into them.”

And then there was the Asia album. That was a huge record, especially in the States.

“Yeah, it was the biggest album of 1982. Which, considering it was our debut album, is pretty amazing. I think a lot of people think that it was by these ‘four prog heroes’… Though not so much myself. Despite being in Yes I wasn’t ‘prog royalty’ like the other guys. It was just very natural. It was a great thing. 

“The thing that clicked for me was when I started to work with John [Wetton] and those songs became the fabric of that first album. Heat of the Moment, Sole Survivor, Only Time Will Tell. The record label started seeing this and saying ‘this could be pretty big’. 

The Hammond is a totally different technique from any other instrument. You‘ve got to change stops… You have to take your hand off. You never have that ‘two hands all the time’.

“It was a perfect storm for us. We were the first band signed to a new label [Geffen] and they had a lot of money to throw at promoters and publicity. We had the material. We looked the part. We didn’t look like a bunch of guys from the ‘70s with beards and pullovers! We were a summer band. It was goodtime music. There were a lot of things going for us at the time and that’s why it took off in the way that it did.”

It really set the tone for the time. A modern rock sound. A lot of it is really keyboard led.

“At that time I was really building up my arsenal of keyboards. I had these big sounds. I had the very first [Sequential Circuits] Prophet-10 in the UK and it was really groundbreaking. I had the Fairlight and that was a very original sound to hear. The intro to Only Time Tell, with the horns from the Fairlight with the Minimoog. I was using all this stuff. Anything I could get my hands on to create something fresh and unique.” 

Is there anything from that era that you still have?

“I have a few bits and bobs but I got rid of most of it. It was too complicated to store it all and too complicated to fix it when things went wrong. That was a problem with a lot of the old gear. It didn’t last very well - especially on the road,  and I took a lot of stuff out on the road. At some stage I had up to 28 keyboards out. I filled up half a semi-truck on my own! 

That magic number 28. Wasn’t that the world record for keyboards on stage?

“I think so, yeah. I don’t know anyone who’s ever had more than that. That was on the Asia tour in 1983, in Japan, live from the Budokan. I had four remote keyboards, bass pedals… all kinds of stuff. Those [Moog] Taurus pedals used to shake the auditorium. They sounded great. 

“I’d certainly still like to have a Solina - or the ARP String Ensemble as they were also called. I’ve still got a Minimoog and that’s something that I’ll always cherish the sound of. But the Prophet-10 was the big sound that I liked to have under my fingertips. It was a power synth. You could put two sounds either side so you could have a big brass undercurrent on one side and a string sound for the crash on the other. Good times. I really enjoyed it.” 

As a great soloist is there any particular instrument that you like to solo with?

“Well, every keyboard feels different so they require a different approach depending on what you’re doing on it. Certainly the Minimoog has a very light action. You could play a lot faster than you could on a weighted action keyboard. There was no resistance. Generally I do prefer a weighted action because you can get a lot more expression out of them. 

“And the Hammond is a totally different technique from any other instrument. You‘ve got to change stops… You have to take your hand off. You never have that ‘two hands all the time’. You’re constantly adjusting things, speeding Leslies up, slowing them down. People think that you’ve got a keyboard and you make it sound like an organ. But it’s not like that. 

“Things like the [Hohner] Clavinet D6 for instance had a clunky springy action to it that required a technique to get a good part out of it. I just built the techniques up, so I could play each intuitively.” 

What’s it like being part of Yes? You’re all great players. Are you fighting for attention when you go in to write and record?

“This particular line-up is the longest standing Yes line-up in its history which is quite amazing, since we sadly lost Chris [Squire] in 2015. It’s a great feeling being in a band like Yes. It’s an ‘out of world’ experience when the band is on fire. You get carried along on the wave of it. They’re such a musical band. A powerful band. A dynamic band. The history of music in Yes goes back over 50 years. It’s incredible.

“You dig into those songs and realise the contributions that all the different members have made over the years. It’s a great experience to play that music on a big stage, with a big PA… The bass is growling, the drums are powering and Steve is thrashing his guitar notes out. It’s a great feeling.”

For the new album, The Quest, were you still able to record as a band?

“We did some of it after the alleviation of lockdown. I did manage to work with Steve and Jon [Davison] on certain things. The rhythm section were grounded in America so they had to record their parts over in Los Angeles: Billy [Allen], Alan [White] and Jay [Schellen]. 

“It wasn’t a painful way of working. We were very communicative. Our modus operandi these days is to utilise the ability to transfer files, to bounce ideas around.”

One last question. With so many line-up changes over the years. What’s your favourite Yes line-up ever?

“I can’t deny that the Drama line-up was my particular baptism of fire, going from a studio musician to suddenly being thrown into the spotlight. So that was an incredible thing for me to be included in that line-up.

“But I think you’ve got to look at the classic line-up of Rick, Alan, Chris, Steve and Jon Anderson as being the definitive line-up that did those great albums in the ‘70s. From Fragile to [Tales from] Topographic [Oceans] to Going For The One. There’s some incredible material on those albums.” 

Are there plans to tour The Quest?

“Yeah. We’ve got a fantastic line-up. We’re hopeful that we can get this album out there and show people what we’re capable of.”

New Yes album The Quest is out on 1 October.

Editor-in-chief, Tech Group
Get over 70 FREE plugin instruments and effects…
…with the latest issue of Computer Music magazine