If you are a prog rocker, you are long familiar with keyboardist Geoff Downes' work, including his stays with the Buggles, Yes, and Asia. Hailing from Stockport, Cheshire, England, Downes first crossed paths with singer/bassist Trevor Horn in the mid-'70s, which led to the formation of the Buggles, and in 1980, a global hit with "Video Killed the Radio Star," the first-ever video aired on MTV when it launched on August 1, 1981.
Around the same time, the duo was invited to join their favorite band, Yes, which resulted in one of the more underrated albums of the band's discography, Drama, also issued in 1980. With Yes going on hiatus shortly thereafter, Downes remained with their guitarist, Steve Howe, forming Asia (along with singer/bassist John Wetton and drummer Carl Palmer), and conquering the charts with "Heat of the Moment."
In 2011, Downes returned to Yes, and has manned the keyboard post ever since. In 2018, he took part in the group's 50 Years of Yes tour. Speaking to Songfacts shortly after its launch, he touched upon a variety of topics, including the stories behind some of the biggest songs he helped co-write.
Geoff Downes: They all have really great, different voices. I think they all added something to Yes' history. But Jon particularly is a consistently brilliant singer - probably more so than the other two, without criticizing them in that way. But the way Jon approaches the songs, it's almost as if that music is in his DNA. He's completely effortless in the way that he delivers them.
Songfacts: How does the songwriting work primarily in Yes?
Downes: It's not a load of guys sitting around in a room composing songs. It comes from people bringing in their ideas, and they get worked into other things.
From my standpoint, on the last album, I did songwriting with Jon Davison, and Steve wrote with Jon as well. It's quite important to have the vocalist involved, because the words and the lyrics and the range of the melodies have to be within their facility to get them. But Yes is a very musical band, so there are a lot musical sections that come from various permutations, and they cross over into these pieces that we come up with.
Songfacts: Let's discuss certain songs you co-wrote from throughout your career.
Downes: Sure. I remember the first song we brought into Yes, called "I Am A Camera," and it actually appears on the second Buggles album [1981's Adventures in Modern Recording]. That was one of the songs we took into Yes when we first met up with them and they asked us to write some stuff. It was effectively just a small, four-minute pop song. And of course, they opened it up and treated it as an epic that became "Into The Lens," which is about 10 minutes long on the Drama album. It was quite fascinating to put a song like that in and see how those guys treated it, and how the sections developed.
Songfacts: What do you recall about writing "Does It Really Happen"?
Downes: That was one that was written in the studio. Chris was playing a bass riff [sings the riff] with Alan, and I started whacking some chords over the top of it. It really developed in the studio. It was more of a jam, how it initially started out.
Songfacts: What is the meaning behind the song title, "Tempus Fugit"?
Songfacts: What do you recall about "Heat Of The Moment"?
Downes: John [Wetton] had a chorus part that was actually in a different time signature from the one that ended up on the recording. It was like a country song. He just had the chorus part, and I had a verse part, as well. So, we just put the two together one afternoon, we wrote the middle bridge section the following day, and that was it.
The song was really put to bed like that. John wrote all the lyrics, and the rest is history. It was actually the last song we wrote for the album, funny enough. And it became a big hit single.
Songfacts: "Video Killed The Radio Star"?
Downes: It was a nod towards technology. Trevor [Horn] and Bruce [Woolley] were the other two writers of the song, and came up with the initial ideas. They had been reading some very obscure science fiction novels, and then I came in and did all the orchestrations and the intro, the bridge section. Once we got it into that shape, we felt it had some potential, and that was it. It just came about like that.
I think [the filming of "Video Killed The Radio Star"] was September of 1979, just before the single was released. We felt at the time that the nature of the song and title of the song, that the stops were pulled out to try and pull off something quite original. We got together with director Russell Mulcahy, and the rest is history. I think he had a wacky idea of how he wanted to make the video, and he was using a lot of the lyrical content — the band in studios, girly vocals, and that kind of thing. It was almost a parallel of what went on in the lyrics. I think it was all done in a day.
["Heat Of The Moment"] was Godley and Creme, who started to become quite significant players in the game, as far as MTV was concerned. They were doing a lot of video clips. But you've got to bear in mind that when that stuff was being shot, it was being shot by video camera, so it had a certain kind of "look" about it. It wasn't film or anything like that, that had kind of a rough edge to it. People were starting to get very creative with videos then, starting to use a lot of graphics and a lot of things that would make it more interesting for the viewer. Something other than just footage of a band playing. All of a sudden, they were injecting all sorts of effects.
Songfacts: How would you compare playing in Yes today to previous eras that you were a part of?
Downes: It's pretty much the same. When I joined in 1980, it was a real baptism of fire, because I hadn't done anything like that before. It was quite awe-inspiring to be in that position, playing in front of 15 to 20,000 people, from doing mainly studio work before. That was a real eye-opener for me, and I got a real taste for it, because it was great to be able to play music in front of that many people, and to be appreciated like that.
Coming back in 2011, it was almost like this clock had been turned backwards, because the original Drama lineup was back together again in the studio. I've always felt very at ease being in the band.
Songfacts: The past few years have seen the passing of John Wetton and Chris Squire, both of whom you worked with. How would you like them to be remembered?
Downes: I think they were both incredible giants in not just playing bass and singing, but the writing output of both of them. Certainly, I miss both of them a great deal, because they were very fundamental to my career. Chris pushed me forward from the very beginning, and when John came in, we had a wonderful writing relationship and we wrote great songs together for our projects. We just seemed to hit it off really well as writers. I miss those guys a great deal. But, I'm thankful they were such a big part of my life, and they really changed the course of my destiny.
June 28, 2018
Our interview with Jon Anderson
For more Yes, visit yesworld.com
For more Geoff, visit geoffdownes.com
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