brent johnson speaks with Geoff Downes, the noted keyboardist who has played with The Buggles, Asia and now Yes …
But only Geoff Downes can say he was the first thing you heard when that video started rolling.
Downes was The Buggles’ keyboardist, and it was his spacey, tinkling piano riff that opened the futuristic new wave track. But that’s hardly the only highlight in his three-decade career.
The 59-year-old Brit is one of pop’s unsung musicians. He and bassist Trevor Horn formed The Buggles in the late ’70s, hitting No. 1 on the U.K. charts with ‘Radio Star.’ In 1980, the duo joined prog-rock heroes Yes for the album Drama. Two years later, Downes found massive success as the keyboardist with rock supergroup Asia — a band later discovered by a new generation thanks to South Park and The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Oh, he also joined the Guinness Book of Records — for playing the most keyboards on stage in one performance, 28.
Thirty years later, Downes is back with Yes. He helped write much of their new album, Fly From Here — produced by his old Buggles partner Horn. Downes and the group’s latest lineup — longtime members Steve Howe (guitar), Chris Squire (bass), Alan White (drums) and new vocalist Benoit David — toured the U.S. with Styx this summer and will kick off a European tour in November.
Pop-Break’s Brent Johnson spoke with Downes via phone about Yes’ new project, his MTV legacy and whether the internet has killed the video star …
Pop-Break: You only played on one Yes album before this, right?
Geoff Downes: Yeah, in 1980, we did Drama. And in fact, the song ‘Fly From Here’ was written around then — we just never got the opportunity to finish it. And I think that was one of the reasons Chris Squire got Trevor involved [with the new album]. He always thought that song maybe should have been included [on Drama]. So I think when the opportunity to record a new Yes album came up, everybody felt it was a good time to review that song.
PB: How did it feel to be back in the studio with Yes after 30 years?
GD: It was really great fun. And obviously, I’ve worked with Steve a lot over the years with Asia and various other projects. It was nothing unusual for me to be in a room with Steve. Also, Trevor was there all the time, as well. It wasn’t so weird. Having said that, it was still very, very exciting to me to be involved with the guys of Yes.
PB: Did you have to re-learn a lot of the old Yes material to go on tour?
GD: Yeah, there was some stuff I’d not done before. Yes’ stuff is pretty challenging, especially for a keyboard player. You’re looking at a lot of Rick Wakeman parts — they’re very complex. But I’ve certainly done quite a bit of this stuff before, so it wasn’t too difficult to get back into it.
PB: You’ve been involved in a lot of famous music over the years. Is there ever a time when ‘Heat Of The Moment’ comes on the radio, and you’ll sit and listen? Or do you turn it off?
GD: When ‘Heat Of The Moment’ and that first Asia album was so huge — particularly in America — I remember sitting in the car with [lead singer] John Wetton. ‘Heat Of The Moment’ came on the radio. So we changed the station, and said, ‘Let’s not listen to that.’ But we changed the station, and one of the other songs from the album was on. That kind of brought it home how big our first album was. Having said that, it’s still a buzz when you hear your music on the radio.
PB: When did you find out The Buggles were going to be the first band played on MTV?
GD: I didn’t find that out until quite a few weeks after. ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was actually released in 1979. It wasn’t a big hit in America. It was a very minor hit. So I thought that was pretty well it for The Buggles in America. I figured: If that wasn’t going to be a hit in America, then nothing was. So I sort of forgot about it, really.
But a couple of years later, someone called me up and said, ‘Your song was actually used as the first video on this new channel that started in New York City on cable.’ I was sort of like, ‘Yeah, okay, what’s the deal with that?’ Of course, what I didn’t know was MTV was going to make a massive inroad into the whole psyche of American culture very quickly. So it’s always something one views in hindsight rather than that it was a big exciting thing at the time — because it wasn’t. Nobody knew how well MTV was going to do.
PB: Is it an honor to be part of the trivia question, ‘Who was the first band on MTV?’ Or has that been annoying throughout the years?
GD: It’s something I’m quite proud of actually. It does come up in trivia quite a bit. It is quite an honor to have your music starting the very first channel that made such an impact all across the world. You have MTV Europe, MTV Asia. I don’t think it has much to do with music these days — it’s kind of morphed into the reality-culture television. For better or worse, that’s the way it’s gone. But it was an exciting time those first four or five years.
PB: Video may have killed the radio star, but do you feel like the internet has killed the video star?
GD: I think the whole idea of ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ was how technology changes peoples’ perceptions of music. It wasn’t specifically about video — it was about how things get superceded. You look at things now, and it’s quite prophetic — not just because the way video came but also the way peoples’ perceptions have changed, the way we’ve buy music has changed. People don’t walk into a record store anymore and buy music. They buy it online. And they don’t always buy an album — they buy just one track. ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ is interesting in that way. It’s quite a prophetic piece.
PB: The Guinness Book of Records had you as having the most keyboards on one stage. How did that come about — having so many keyboards in one console?
GD: I was collecting them at the time, and the guy that built the first Asia stage built this podium to house the keyboards. It was so big, I thought I better fill it up with some stuff. I ended up with 28 in one gig. I think it was an Asia MTV special in Japan in 1983. I did actually every single one during the course of the show. A few bars on each one.
PB: How many keyboards do have on stage with Yes these days?
GD: I have about 10.
PB: Can we expect more new music from Yes in the future?
GD: I think so, yeah. I think the Fly From Here album is the start of a new chapter. It’s the first album Benoit has been the vocalist on. I feel Yes is still very much an active band, and I think we look forward to doing more stuff in the future.
For more on Yes, visit their website.