Geoff Downes – “An Inordinate Amount of Time in the Bath.”

by Martin Popoff

Hard rock fans’ favourite progressive rock band Yes recently were dealt a body-blow when founding member and bassist Chris Squire passed away from leukemia at the age of 67. However, as Squire had overtly stated in the past, the show will go on, and on it has, with the band set to play live on the Cruise to the Edge (along with Marillion and 25 other like-minded art rock consortiums), as well as mount a co-headline tour with Toto.

Both will require a replacement for the beloved “Fish,” and really, there was always only one choice, ex-Yes member and Squire collaborator Billy Sherwood (if we can all agree that Billy Squier might not be right for the job).

“Well, Billy is an extremely professional musician,” begins keyboardist Geoff Downes. “And he worked with Chris quite a lot on other projects. And I think that Chris was his man—he got him in the band in the first place, and he appointed Billy to take over this tour. So it’s like Billy has kind of come back into the family, you know? And I think that’s one of the good aspects—if there are any good aspects—that have come out of all of this.”

“It certainly happened quickly,” continues Downes, on the space of time between Squire’s diagnosis and his passing. “I think it was about three months ago or so, Chris contacted all of us and said that he’d been diagnosed with a serious illness, and that he didn’t feel he would be able to do the tour. Largely on the basis that he was going to have a series of treatments that would preclude his involvement in the tour. And it was his suggestion that we got Billy at the time, as the stand-in for Chris, and really just see through this tour with Toto and the cruise that we had booked. But events took a turn for the worse. Everyone was absolutely shocked and saddened and really quite mystified. Because I think we all felt that with the right treatments and stuff, he was gonna make a full recovery. Sadly, that was not the case.”

As I told Geoff, whenever I spoke to Chris recently about retirement and these advanced years of the band, he seemed to get the point across that he was satisfied with what he’d accomplished in life—and indeed, what rock ‘n’ roller can claim much more than the contents of a run like Squire’s?

“He quickly took it on board in a brave and almost a kind of laissez-faire fashion,” reflects Downes. “Chris was very much a kind of ‘what will be will be’ sort of guy, rather than making any great ‘on down the line’ aspiration. I know for a fact that a lot of people are saying, well, you know, why isn’t Yes in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and all this. It didn’t really bother Chris, to be honest. I agree with you; I felt he felt that he made his contributions. Yes was very much in his DNA. He was there from the beginning. He was there through every single chapter and episode of Yes. And I think that tells everybody in the outside world what a great contribution he did make, and aside from all of that, what a great guy he was too.”

And he was always late! Seriously though, an endearing part of Squire’s personality was his laid-back, and some say “slow” personality. Even his nickname Fish... “is a mixture of a couple of things,” notes Geoff. “One of the reasons was that he used to spend an inordinate amount of time in the bath. But also, his birth sign is a Pisces. And I guess that he was always destined to be Fish. But sure, one thing about Chris, although he was famously late for a lot of things, when it came to the actual show itself, he grabbed it with both lapels and he got stuck in. The stage was really Chris’ world, and I think that he was extremely professional, he always put on a great show, people loved watching him, he stayed animated. He had a great sense of detail towards aspects of Yes music. So yeah, in all of that, he will be very sadly missed by all of us. You know, he always said that Yes music will continue whoever is in the band. And I think that we hope to honour that legacy and take the band forward as far as we can on that front.”

With (Arr!) Billy on board, Yes will hit the open waters on the aforementioned Cruise to the Edge. “We’ve done two so far; this will be the third one coming up in November,” says Downes. “And it’s quite a lot of fun actually. The fans really appreciate the fact that they’ve got their sort of... they are fans of the bands that are on board, and they can see a lot of bands that they might not see under normal circumstances. So it’s a bit of a carnival atmosphere in many ways. But first time we went out, we had kind of rough seas. It was a bit strange playing with all the equipment sliding around on the stage, but we got through it. But it’s good fun. The fans really do appreciate the fact that they could to see you, and they get to hang out with you a bit, and it’s quite a relaxed kind of event, really.”

And new to the discography is Like It Is: Yes at the Mesa Arts Center. Curious title, and in fact, the second one called Like It Is (after a 2014 release celebrating a show in Bristol). On the naming, Geoff figures that, “We all felt that it was something that was happening now, rather than... even though the music is taken from all those albums back in the ‘70s, Like It Is kind of describes a bit what it is now. And going on that score, it’s nice that we were able to document those tours, and those four live albums with Chris before he passed away.”

Moving forward, the vibe at a Yes show... with the weirdly relaxed way some of these songs are played (proceed to “Close to the Edge”), is there an element of Grateful Dead and Deadhead culture creeping into the cult of Yes?

“Well, the people in the band are getting older and the fans are getting older,” chuckles Geoff, ultimately not buying the concept. “It’s more of a kind of old family getting together. That’s how I can best describe it. It’s kind of nice, you know. I think that people respect what we’re doing, and people are largely glad that the band continues, and we do what we do best, I think, and that is to get on stage and perform.”

And as for new music, there must be a spark there, given Billy’s skills and ambitions, and given a lead singer in Jon Davison now broken in on one studio platter... “Well, yeah, it’s obviously early days yet as far as that is concerned, but I think that is not out of the question. I think Yes will always look to the possibilities of making new music. I think that’s important to keep not only us feeling fresh about things, but also for the fans, that they know we’re not just regurgitating the old stuff. It’s important to add new material along the way, as we go. That’s what Yes has always been about—change and new ideas and breaking new boundaries.”