Q&A: Jon Anderson
The helium-voiced original frontman of Yes expounds on the band's mid-noughties reunion tour, his solo career of the time, and the resurgence of prog rock.
Ever since he was introduced to Chris Squire at a London club in 1968, Jon Anderson and Yes have been the most recognisable progressive rockers on the planet, thanks in no small part to Anderson’s elf-on-helium vocals. Not a band to bother the charts much, Yes did achieve some commercial success thanks to their 1983 hit single Owner Of A Lonely Heart, though ironically the song was originally intended for the Cinema side project. Breaking up and reuniting has become par for the course with Yes; in the early 90s, only Chris Squire remained from the original line-up, while Anderson, Rick Wakeman and Steve Howe, plus Bill Bruford, began writing and recording as, wait for it, Anderson-Bruford-Wakeman- Howe.
However, peace was once again achieved and both projects combined to record the Yes album Union. To celebrate their 35th anniversary, the classic line-up of Anderson, Squire, Howe, Wakeman and Alan White reunited once again for a tour aimed at pleasing their hard-core following, with the Boston leg recorded for release on DVD. Capturing Yes at their wonderfully self-indulgent best and recorded in 5.1 surround sound, Songs From Tsongas is something that no self-respecting Yes or prog rock fan should be without. Now embarking on a solo tour, Anderson was happy to talk to Classic Rock about Yes, The Harmony Festival For Healthy Living, ...and the fact that he’s a punk rocker.
Why did you choose the Boston show for the DVD?
That was actually the film company. They thought that Boston would be a good crowd. We aimed for one show and went for that, rather than recording many shows and then picking the best one. We were halfway through the tour and were in a good state, so we thought it would be a good idea to film it. It was good timing.
When you watch the DVD now, do you think it was the right choice?
Yeah. I mean, something always goes wrong at a show, and at this one the air conditioning wasn’t working. I was worried that I couldn’t sing, but the finished product sounds and looks great. At the time, we were all paranoid that it wasn’t a good gig, but because it was so hot we didn’t have time to breathe or think about it.
_Whose decision was it to reunite the classic line-up for the tour? _
We’d been in touch, and it was the right time, with it being the anniversary, to get everybody in the band who meant a lot to people out there. Rick [Wakeman] was somebody who all of a sudden said he wouldn’t mind doing the tour. You guys know, we’ve been touring for the last 10 years with other keyboardists, but we thought, ‘Let’s get the real deal.’ It was a good tour because we’ve all known each other on and off for 35 years, which is a lifetime for some people.
Are you going to remain together now?
Well, we need to have a break. We’ve been on the road with three or four albums in the last 10 years. We’ve said we’ll have a break for a couple of years, and then in 2010 we’ll get our wheelchairs out, pull ourselves onstage and croak our way through a show. Or whatever – there’s no time limit these days, and I’m so damn lucky to make music. I have a solo tour coming up, everybody’s doing something. You played the Harmony Festival For Healthy Living in California recently... Yeah, I just did it actually, two weeks ago. A lot of marijuana. Healthy and high living. Everybody was so warm and friendly, it was like we’d time-warped ourselves to 1967. It was really beautiful – we just had the best time.
Do you remember the old 70s festivals you used to play with Yes?
Yeah. They were always chaotic. The best ones were the National Jazz & Blues festivals. We had some great times there. We actually did Glastonbury a couple of years ago. That was fun. To me, they seem so big. It’s like a big holiday camp. A rock’n’roll holiday camp. I’ve been asked to do some next summer, solo. That’ll be fun.
_What are the oddest combinations of bands you’ve been billed with? _
The oddest combination I can recall is when we were billed with The Kinks. We were on first, and we wanted to do an extra song because we thought we were great, and Ray Davies pulled the plug on us.
It’s been said that people either love or loathe Yes, and there’s no in-between. Do you think that’s fair?
Lots of people love Yes, and lots of people don’t like us. But whether they hate the band – I’m not sure they care enough.
Do you think Yes work better on record or live?
Both. If you look at the history of the band, we’ve survived so many trials and tribulations, we could write a handbook on how to survive in a band. We survived the video era, and the only reason we survived punk and everything is because we were so good on stage. We knew we were good. There have been plenty of bands down the years that sounded great on record and were great on video, but when it came to going on stage, they died. The only reason we survived is because we’re great on stage.
We broke a lot of musical barriers. When you listen to albums like Tales From Topographic Oceans, with songs like The Ritual, it’s still really good music.
Do you believe, as ELP do, that punk harmed your career?
We were punk. James Cagney was a punk. Punk music was just a collection of ideas. I mean, when Yes were first going, and The Who, we used to break our guitars on stage. And then punk came along and saw how to make more money, and how to blow it up into something more important than ketchup. The way to make it more important was to attack the things that were important at the time, the established bands like us. But we survived all that, and we’re still going.
You guys have been playing together for so long now, how often do you need to rehearse before a tour?
Oh, we rehearse a lot. At least two weeks beforehand. You don’t want the first night of a tour to sound like you’re rehearsing; it has to sound like the finished article. We can do Roundabout without thinking, of course. But there are songs that we need to learn and learn.
What’s your favourite song to play live at the moment?
Everything we do. I have no favourites. Even the songs that are easy to play, you’ve gotta perform them so they’re fun too. They have to sound good every night.
YES GO BACK TO SCHOOL
Sort of. Jon is involved in a new Hollywood documentary movie that focuses on getting kids into rock’n’roll. A real-life School Of Rock, if you will...
“Last month, I was in LA singing with some teenagers who were doing a great version of Heart Of The Sunrise. They were doing some Frank Zappa too. It’s for a film coming out called Rock School, I think. It’s worth watching because you have 13-15 year olds really digging Zappa, Led Zeppelin and Yes, and they’re good.
“An incredible generation of new musicians is realising that progressive music, or prog rock if you like, has still got legs, and it’s still good.”
Rock School is due to open in cinemas in the UK in September 2005.