Tim Hughes talks to YES, Asia and The Buggles synth player Geoff Downes

FOR a man with a formidable track record in rock music, Geoff Downes is remarkably modest.

The keyboard wizard who provided the iconic tinkling keys and effects for The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, and flights of fancy for supergroup Asia, is a Guinness World Record holder, for heaven’s sake – one performing with 28 keyboards in one show. 

Now the artist who helped put the ‘prog’ in rock, is back with his best-known project – YES.

On Monday Geoff and his Grammy-winning bandmates return to the New Theatre Oxford to perform two seminal albums: 1971’s Fragile and 1980’s Drama, in their entirety – the latter for the very first time.

Along with them will be such prog-rock classics as Owner of a Lonely Heart and Starship Trooper. 

And, as an added treat, the band will be joined by legendary guitarist, producer – and fellow Buggles founder Trevor Horn. It will be the first time he has played live with the band since the original Drama tour 36 years ago, shortly after Geoff joined the band which had been founded by Chris Squire and Jon Anderson in 1968, starting a merry-go-round which has seen 19 members come and go.

Geoff replaced prog icon Rick Wakeman, who later replaced Geoff, who again went on to replace Rick. But if their history is convoluted and confusing, this tour is very exciting indeed. So how does Geoff feel about being back behind his bank of synths?

“It’s great, and things are ticking along nicely,” he says softly. “We are doing two albums in their entirety, so it has been interesting to analyse the parts and see how it goes together. I have to try to remember as faithfully as possible how to do the core parts.”

The tour sees the band bounce back after the death of bassist and co-founder Chris Squire, last year. Chris’s place is respectfully filled by Billy Sherwood, alongside current members Steve Howe, Alan White and Jon Davison.

YES occupy a central place in rock history, pioneering a progressive symphonic style of rock, characterised by epic compositions and mystical and cosmic lyrics,.

The band were already in full flow when Geoff joined, finding success in 1971 with The YES Album and then Fragile. They recorded 21 albums.
Unlike Wakeman, or the late ELP keys player Keith Emerson, Geoff insists he prefers not to hog the limelight.

“I’m more of an orchestral player than a virtuoso lead or soloist like Rick or Keith,” he says.

Emerson’s suicide by gunshot earlier this year, shocked the prog world, and left Geoff deeply affected. It was the end of the line,” he says. “I knew him socially and he was a huge influence. He inspired me to get behind the keyboards and go on stage, so to hear what had happened was a nasty shock.”

The band were still reeling from Squire’s death of leukaemia, at the age of 67.

“I was utterly devastated,” says Geoff. “It was a big blow when he got sick and said he didn’t want to tour, but he told us to carry on and said he’d be back when he was well. He would have been doing this tour had he not taken a turn for the worse.

“You can’t think of YES without thinking of Chris Squire. He was there from the beginning and on every album. So we wanted to continue his legacy and it’s what fans wanted. YES fans are very intense people.”

The presence of Horn in Oxford (other than the Royal Albert Hall, Oxford is the only show he will be joining) brings back memories not just of mid-period YES but of The Buggles. How does Geoff look back on the visionary electro outfit?

“I like it in a different way,” he says. “YES was the big break that got me up on stage, and I was grateful to get that opportunity and to discover YES’s music as I went along, but with The Buggles I was there from the beginning – and it was pure pop.

“I remember the first time I heard Video Killed the Radio Star on radio, and it sounded amazing.

“It isn’t just a normal pop record. Without being pompous, it had a lot of depth and was a forerunner to electro-pop. It sounded unreal but we worked very hard to get it to sound like that. It was experimenting, and that’s its charm.”

And will he be attempting to top his record for the number of keyboards on stage? “No, he says. It used to get a bit over the top.
“This time it’s just the 10.”

YES play the New Theatre, George Street, Oxford on Monday. Tickets are £39 from BookingsDirect.com