Geoff Downes has led a charmed rock-star life. He is a member of Yes; he co-founded the new-wave band, the Buggles; and he co-founded the super band, Asia, writing many of their hit songs.
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The keyboardist and songwriter was delightful to speak with. Downes started his career as a session musician; he also played music for commercials.
“When I first joined Yes, Trevor (Horn) and I were in the Buggles. We had the same management as Yes and it grew from there,” says Downes. “The Buggles were very different than Yes.”
The Buggles, a new-wave pop band, which came on the music scene in the late 1970s, established its place in history with the MTV video hit, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which Downes cowrote.
“This added technology and electronic elements fused into their progressive rock sound, creating the extra edge that changed the band’s trajectory.”
Downes’ time with Yes was short lived. Yes disbanded in 1981. Downes went on to form Asia along with another Yes casualty, guitarist Steve Howe. Asia is probably best known for the song, “Heat of the Moment,” cowritten by Downes.
Subsequently, Yes reformed in 1982. It wasn’t until 2011, 30 years later, when Downes rejoined Yes.
“Considering the fact I am doing something I love, I grew up with music, I studied music and I played music. So many musicians and bands have one hit and disappear. I am fortunate. The fact I can go out and make a career doing what I love and sustain it is a real privilege,” he says of his 40-plus years in the industry. “I thought I’d have a fling for a bit and get a proper job. I am still looking.”
There have been many hills and valleys for Downes, but he loves what he’s doing.
“I still get nervous before I play whether it’s a small club or in front of an audience of 25,000,” he says. When Yes performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London before 5,000 people, Downes said that before the show he was both nervous and excited to play at the iconic venue.
“You want to do your best to elevate the audience so they have a good time. Then there’s a point where I settle in and can enjoy performing. Every night is a different; I’ve played 400 shows with Yes now,” he adds.
One of the founding members of Yes, Chris Squire, died in 2015 due to leukemia.
“Chris’s death was a big blow to all of us. We’ve had to reshape, rethink and recreate and it’s been a tough time,” he says. “Chris wanted the band and its legacy to continue. Billy Sherwood, who’s been with the band since 1980, was appointed by Chris to take his place.
“Billy was a natural choice for Chris. Chris was an iconic bass player and his vocals were Yes’ sound,” he explains. Replacing Squire’s vocals is a task that Sherwood has done well.
Yes was a pioneer using technology and electronic sound. The electronic element was used heavily throughout the 1980s especially in the album “90125,” which contained the megahit, “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” This added technology and electronic elements fused into their progressive rock sound, creating the extra edge that changed the band’s trajectory.
“The key is to follow your heart. It’s important to believe in yourself,” says Downes of the lessons he’s learned during his time in the music industry. Throughout all of the challenges he’s faced over the years, Downes realizes that staying focused and believing in what he is doing is imperative.
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