If Alan White’s résumé was limited to playing drums on John Lennon’s Imagine and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, it would be pretty impressive. But about two years after appearing on those pivotal Beatles solo records, he was recruited by Yes — then at the peak of their creative powers — to replace the outgoing Bill Bruford. The band has seen a ludicrous amount of lineup changes since that time, but the one constant has been White’s presence behind the drum kit. These days, back issues limit his time onstage with Yes to a handful of songs a night, but he still tours with the band and hopes to play for longer periods of the show after he regains his full strength.
As he prepares for a speaking engagement at the Iridium in New York City, White phoned up Rolling Stone to talk about his stint in John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, his early days with Yes, their time as unlikely MTV stars in the early Eighties and the recent drama that has split the band into two competing camps.
I’m sure you’ve told this story a lot, but tell me how you first met John Lennon.
The first thing I heard from him was a phone call when he asked me to play Live Peace in Toronto. Basically, he called me right out of the blue. I had my own band and we all lived in the same house in London like a lot of bands did at that time. I was cooking something in the kitchen like a stew and the phone rang. It was John, but I didn’t realize it then. I thought it was a friend trying to joke with me, so I put the phone down. Eventually I got a call back and he told me he was doing a gig in Toronto and was I available to play drums and can he send a car to pick me up the next morning.
I said, “Of course.” And then there it was. The car came. I went to the airport. That’s where I first met John in the VIP lounge at Heathrow. There was John and Yoko and Klaus Voormann. I was quite young, about 20, and a little bit shocked about where I was. At the same time, I seemed to be handling it like it was another day for some reason. Then he said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you that Eric Clapton is playing guitar.” And then Eric came out of the bathroom and basically we got on the plane and rehearsed there. I had a pair of drumsticks playing the back of the seat in front of me and they were playing acoustic guitars.
We got off and we went to the show. There were lots of fans following the car and all that kind of stuff. Then we arrived at the Live Peace in Toronto stage in front of 25,000 people. Then I started realizing that it was really happening. It was a pretty crazy two days for me.
How did John first learn about you to call you up?
From what I can gather, I believe he was in a club and he saw me play, but I didn’t know he was there.
What are your clearest memories of the Toronto show?
We got to the stadium and I went out to see the crowd and who was playing and Little Richard was onstage with a huge, big band. That was quite amazing. Backstage there was people running around like Gene Vincent. It was just really surreal for a while. I remember John being very nervous since it was the first thing he’d done since he left the Beatles, or was about to leave the Beatles. He was in the process at that time. Next thing I know, we went onstage. They had a drum stool and there was no drums. I went, “Oh, this isn’t going to be good.” Eric plugged his guitar in and they built a drum kit around me while I sat there. Suddenly, the sticks were thrown into my hand and John counted, “1, 2, 3 …” And we were in the first number. It was all kind of a flash in a pan.
What are your memories of recording Imagine with John?
I forget how long it was later after Toronto, but I got a call from Apple saying that John wanted me to be involved with the new album he’s making. I took myself down to John’s house and the next thing I know I’m in the studio and we’re rehearsing the songs. John passed out the lyrics so we could all read along before we recorded. And then there I was. I got into it and did my job like I always did in the studio. My main thing then was to play what was necessary for the songs. Evidently, John really liked what I was doing.
The whole thing was really like being in a family. Once you get accepted into the Beatles family and friends, it’s very satisfying. I got to know all the people around the Beatles. George came there one day. We used to have dinner on this long wooden table every night at the same time and I got to know George. The next thing I know, he asked me to play on All Things Must Pass.
There were a couple of drummers involved with Imagine. Jim Keltner played on “Jealous Guy.” I played vibraphone on that. On the song “Imagine,” that was quite magical. We recorded the song and went through it a couple of other times. Then we gave it a listen back. I remember at one point the song started with the drums at the very beginning of the song and the band playing. John played it so good by himself on the piano I said, “Why don’t you do the first verse like that?” He said, “That’s a good idea.” He said, “What do you think, Phil [Spector]?” The next thing you know, we tried it like that and John kept it.
Did you recognize that song as brilliant when you first made it?
Oh, yeah. When we did the backing track, I’m not sure how many takes we did. I think in the book they said nine, but I thought it was only four or five. They were all magical, but I remember the take that was actually used on the album. I remember that was very special. We all looked around and said, “That was it. That’s perfect.” There was a lot of feeling in the room that it was a bit magical.
Were the sessions for All Things Must Pass very different?
Yeah. That was a bigger group. It was Delaney and Bonnie’s group, George and Eric. There was a lot of people at the studio every day for about three weeks. When we all got there, we’d decide who was playing what. George would say, “One of you play drums.” That’s how we cut a lot of those tracks.
You played with Ginger Baker a couple of years later. Was he as wild as the legend suggests?
[Laughs] He was a total character, Ginger. About six months ago, I did a Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp with him. He’s still kind of the same. He’s Ginger Baker. He’s got a vibe to him that’s just Ginger. I became very friendly with him over the years after being in [his band] Air Force. I was living in the Valley in L.A. and I remember Ginger calling me up and said, “Can I borrow a drum kit?” I was like, “Sure, of course you can.” He said, “Why don’t you bring another one of your kits down here? I’ve got a gig to do for charity.” It was at a club in the Valley. I said, “OK, that sounds fine.” There were a lot of drummers there. I played onstage with Ginger and after we finished everything, I was playing “White Room” and some other songs, I said to him, “Ginger, who is this charity we’re playing for?” He said, “My charity.” I said, “We’re doing this whole show for you?” He said, “Yes.” He was apparently just playing so he could make some money and fly his horses over from Africa back to America.
Were you a fan of Yes before you joined?
Yeah. I’d heard of Yes. I was playing with a man called Terry Reid on the English circuit and I remember playing a show somewhere in Cornwall. I remember the music playing at this place and I went, “Who is that?” And it was The Yes Album. I said, “This band is really good.” I remember seeing them at Wembley Pool supporting somebody. They were very impressive and I remember Chris Squire in his long boots onstage. I went, “These guys are really good musicians.”
And then I got to know Eddy Offord, who was the producer for their first few albums. I was sitting in a pub with him in London. We got to be very good friends. One day Jon [Anderson] and Chris came around and he said, “Yes want you to join the band.” I think Chris Squire saw me play with Joe Cocker previous to that. I was just finishing a Joe Cocker tour when Yes asked me. I agreed and said, “When are we rehearsing?” They said, “We don’t really have any rehearsals and we’ve got a gig on Monday. Can you learn the repertoire between now and Monday?” It was a Friday. I said, “Well, I’ll give it a shot, but it’s a long shot.” I just went the whole weekend and listened to the music and got used to it and then there I was in Dallas, Texas, going onstage with Yes with pretty much no rehearsals.
Was taking over for Bill Bruford intimidating since he’s such a fantastic drummer?
Bill was really a great drummer. I have a different style. But I had been in a band prior to that that did a lot of arrangements in different time signatures and lots of things like that. I was prepared for different time signatures and the way the band flowed, but I added more of a rock element than Bill did. He added more of a jazz element and I believe at that time the band wanted to go a little bit more in that direction. So I wouldn’t say it was intimidating. I’d just say I did my own version of what he had done before.
How did you feel about Tales From Topographic Oceans?
Did any part of you feel that four songs across two records was a bit much? [Laughs] It was quite an adventurous thing to do. I remember that we just got into it. Jon came up with the ideas and Chris and myself worked together on a lot of rhythm section stuff and we just dove into it. Our heads were immersed in this whole album. It happened to be four sides of a double LP. We had to cut five minutes out of Side One since it was 27 minutes long when we recorded it.
How did you feel about punk when it broke?
A lot of those groups declared war on bands like Yes [laughs]. Yes is a kind of animal that just goes along and does its own thing. It’s a particular style of music that is considered progressive even though I don’t like putting labels on music. The punk rock era was a little bit rebellious for us, but we worked consistently through that whole era and had really good audiences. It didn’t really affect anybody in the band at that point in time. I don’t think many of us paid attention to it that much, to tell you the truth.
How did you feel in 1979 when Jon and Rick Wakeman left the band and the Buggles joined?
Jon and Rick were itching. … Rick was already established. He’d already made a few albums. I played on one of them, Henry VIII, I think. They had an itch to do their own solo thing for a while. There we were: Steve [Howe], Chris and myself. We were around London and I think we said, “We’ll book a rehearsal studio on Monday morning and whoever turns up is in Yes.” The three of us turned up and that’s where we came up with Drama.
Geoff [Downes] and Trevor Horn were rehearsing in the room next to us. It was just coincidence, really, and Trevor learned we were next door. Yes was one of his favorite bands and he kept coming in and hanging out. Then he said, “I wrote a song for you guys.” I don’t know, we got to be kind of friendly. The next thing I knew, their equipment moved into our room and that was Yes again.
What was that tour like for you?
It was great. It didn’t sound that much different to me. Trevor Horn had a voice that was kind of similar to Jon Anderson’s, a bit different. We sold out Madison Square Garden for three nights. The band’s notoriety didn’t really change that much.
So then why did the band break up when the tour was done?
I think Trevor Horn really felt his vocation was in making records rather than performing live at that time. That’s when we went back to London and Steve got into doing Asia with Geoff. Myself and Chris were just off by ourselves and we were like, “Well, how do we move Yes forward?” We met a few times at Chris’ studio and then we got this call that there was this guy in town, Trevor Rabin. We had dinner with him one night and then we ended up jamming at Chris’ studio. Then we became friends and that was the beginning of what was the band Cinema. We were going to call the band Cinema. But then we spent nine months rehearsing the music that became 90125.
Can you go back a bit and tell me about playing with Jimmy Page on the aborted XYZ sessions?
In the earlier part of that period, Chris said to me, “Jimmy Page wants you to come out west and come over.” We started jamming in Jimmy’s studio for a while. Chris had some ideas. I had some ideas. Most of the stuff we actually recorded was stuff that Chris and myself wrote. And then the management got involved, like Peter Grant and Brian Lane. I remember Robert [Plant] coming down and listening to the music and feeling like it was a bit complicated for him. It could have been a band at that time if Robert joined, but it kind of fizzled out once the managers got involved.
But the songs leaked out somehow.
I often question myself as to how those songs got out to the public. Funnily enough, a few years ago I was at a function that Paul Allen was throwing in Seattle. It was celebrating the life of Jimmy Page. I was talking to Jimmy for a while and then Paul came up. Jimmy said, “I want to dig those tapes up and finish them off and release an album.” I said, “Just call me.” I think he put the project on hold though when he got back to England.
Wow. It would be pretty amazing if you finally finished it and put it out.
Well, I need to get in touch with Jimmy and be like, “Let’s finish those tapes off.” Maybe we can get Robert to sing on them or something. That would be quite amazing.
How did you feel about Cinema changing its name to Yes?
The thing is that Jon heard a few of the tracks that we recorded. He thought they were really, really good and he wanted to try singing on them. As soon as Jon sang on those tracks, it became Yes again. The funny thing is, when Yes asked me to join them, that same week I got asked to join Jethro Tull and I got asked to join America. That was all in one week. I think I choose the right thing. This year I’ve been in the band 47 years.
How shocked were you by the success of “Owner of a Lonely Heart?”
For us, it was just another song, but I knew it was good because it was very different sounding. It had a big-band feel. It was all over the place. We were experimenting a lot with that song. A funny thing about that song is when we recorded the drums, Trevor Horn sent someone to take my cymbals and tom-toms away. I had a bass drum, a snare and a hi-hat. That’s all I was left with. Then they came and took the hi-hat, so what you hear on that record is me playing bass drum and snare drum. Then they layered all the other stuff back in to make it sound like a drum kit.
I’m a big fan of Big Generator. Tell me your thoughts on that record now. Did it live up to your hopes?
Yeah! It wasn’t as good as 90125, but it was still a great album. I thought it was a little more rock-y. The song “Big Generator” is pretty much a big rock song. And then it has some really great stuff on there. We recorded quite a few of those backing tracks in Italy. We spent three months doing the backing tracks and then finished it off in London. It was quite an interesting album to go through.
I imagine you felt some pressure to make a hit as big as “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”
Yeah. Obviously we wanted to keep the flow going. I think in that respect it did well for that. But 90125 kind of, over the years, became bigger and bigger. I’m not sure how many albums that sold, but it was something like 12 or 15 million.
Did you feel betrayed by Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe?
My approach to it and Chris’ approach to it was we were steering Yes and moving forward with Yes the whole time. They had often done their own things in different forms. I didn’t necessarily feel betrayed, but at the same time it was something for us to deal with. But we just put our heads down and carried on making Yes music.
Was there talk of hiring a new singer and having a separate Yes?
Yeah. We thought about it. Jon came back and then he left again. The whole thing became a bit crazy over a few years and we were just moving forward. We’ve now got Jon Davison, who is spectacular onstage and a very, very talented guy.
What’s the deal with the Union record? Why are they so many sessions musicians playing on it when you had more than enough actual members of Yes?
That was more of the other side rather than us. They did that album with a lot of session musicians. Everything around that time period was very disjointed. We got together and did the tour, which was very successful and I enjoyed it immensely. I think it was more to do with Jon’s side of what was going on.
How was it sharing the stage with Bill Bruford? It had to be an adjustment to play at the same time as someone else.
Well, we sat down at the beginning of the whole thing and we were doing rehearsals and I said, “Some of the songs we’re doing, like ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and stuff, have very big stamps in your style. You should play those songs.” He said, “No, you play them really good.” On most of the songs, he just wanted to play percussion and add the icing on the cake, as it were. I did a love of the slave work.
What was going on when Jon left the band in 2008? He said he didn’t really enjoy his last few tours with you guys.
Yeah, well, Jon is a wandering kind of minstrel. He likes to do lots of different projects and he’d have ideas about things. Chris and myself were more down to working in line with what we’d been doing. And so Jon was taking off and doing those things. In that respect, we decided to carry on.
How did you feel about bringing on a new singer in 2008?
Did any part of it feel weird? We just carried on. We looked into who could fill Jon’s shoes. We just had these ideas and just carried on searching until something connected and worked. And then we ran into Benoît [David]. He sang for a while and then he found it a bit of a strain at the end of a European tour and that’s when we were looking for a singer yet again. We ran into Jon Davison and he was a huge fan of Yes music. I never actually met him, but I do remember getting a call from someone who was interested in being the singer in the band. I didn’t realize until he actually came to do an audition that it was him that called me, but he never left a number. If he had, we could have decided on Jon a lot earlier.
How were the Hall of Fame rehearsals when both groups came together?
That was fine. We just decided what numbers we were going to do and we rehearsed in Brooklyn at the place where they held it. It was all a TV-run kind of thing. We had a couple of run-throughs. It was quite interesting and lots of fun to play with Trevor, Rick and Jon again. It was especially fun since Steve Howe was playing bass on “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” which was really a surprising combination. Everybody just smiled and got on with it. It went pretty well.
Who owns the name “Yes” since there are two of them now?
Well, there’s not really two of them. This Yes I’m in is the guys with the Yes name and always had it. And so legally, we are still Yes. Even though the other guys were in it for long periods of time at different times, they’ve all done other things. Chris and myself had never done anything else. We just carried on.
But they call themselves “Yes featuring ARW.” How is that legal if you guys own the name?
They can legally do that because Jon still has some of the copyright. It’s kind of a legal thing. They they can say “Yes Featuring ARW,” but they can’t call themselves “Yes.” We own the logo.
Do you see any chance of a reunion? Maybe another Union-type tour?
People ask me that question all the time. I’m not going to say definitely no. I’ll say there is a possibility, but everybody is getting up there in age now. I don’t see it as out of the question in the next few years and we do get together and create some kind of … I definitely won’t say “no.” It’s a “maybe.”
Do you miss Jon?
I always got on with Jon very well. I spoke to him on his birthday. He was out enjoying himself with Jane, his wife. I spoke to him, but we really didn’t talk about business. I was the best man at his wedding and Jon always brings that up. It meant a lot to him.
How is your health these days?
I had back surgery a couple of years ago. I’ve been steadily getting better since then and I’m starting to play more and more. It’s pretty good right now and I feel good every day. I’m moving forward.
Might the day come when you play a whole show with the band?
Yeah. There’s no question. They say it takes a couple years to get pretty normal again, as it were, and that comes up in July. I’m aiming towards that.
You guys are going to Japan soon. Are there plans after that?
Sure. We’re doing a whole summer tour this year.
Are you playing America?
Yeah. We’re doing about 35 shows, I believe.
Will it be a different kind of show than you did last year?
Yeah. We’re working on doing something different, yes. The promoter in Japan wants us to play Close to the Edge in its entirety, so that’s going to be quite a long part of the show.
And the American shows?
We’re working on some kind of different show, or at least thinking about ideas. But the summer tour will be more of an amphitheater tour and there’s a few bands on that.
John Lodge is on it from the Moody Blues and Carl Palmer. It’s a kind of prog show.
Is it the Moody Blues or just John?
No. Just one of the guys that formed the Moody Blues, John Lodge. And also Carl Palmer doing a tribute to ELP.
Will Tony Kaye be a part of it?
I don’t know whether Tony is coming on the summer tour or not. He just did the cruise with us. I think they’re working on that right now.
Is there a possibility of a new Yes record in the near future?
Yeah. Pretty much everybody in the band has put thoughts out about new material. I think we’re thinking about it. We couldn’t possible get there this year, but possibly early next year we could venture in and make a new album.
Do you get why some fans are a bit frustrated by this impasse and just want to see you and Steve on the same stage as Jon? When you see the Stones, you want Mick and Keith and Charlie all up there.
I know. We get that a lot. You know, who is to say? One day.
What’s happening at the Iridium?
It’s the 50th anniversary of Live Peace in Toronto. I believe there’s some kind of John Lennon festival going on in New York. They wanted me to do the Iridium and done one of those Q&A kind of things. It’s on the 31st of March at the Iridium on a Sunday night.
I’ll let you go, but I’m really hoping you finish the XYZ album.
That’s a great idea.Hopefully we’ll persevere with that.