Geoff Downes, an English keyboardist, songwriter, and record producer with the progressive rock band Yes and the supergroup Asia, chats with Kevin Cooper about forming The Buggles with Trevor Horn, playing Madison Square Garden with Yes, performing with Asia at The Budokan in Tokyo and the subsequent release of the deluxe box set and the forthcoming 2022 UK tour with Yes.

Geoff Downes, is an English keyboardist, songwriter, and record producer who gained fame as a member of the new wave group The Buggles with Trevor Horn, the progressive rock band Yes and the supergroup Asia.

In 1977 he formed The Buggles with Horn and he enjoyed success with their first album, The Age Of Plastic which was released in 1980 and which included the worldwide hit single, Video Killed The Radio Star.

In 1980 Downes joined Yes with Horn and released their album, Drama, the same year. After Yes disbanded in 1981, he helped Horn to produce a second Buggles album, Adventures In Modern Recording in 1981, although he was only primarily involved in half of it.

He then co-founded Asia with ex-Yes fellow musician Steve Howe. He left the band in 1986. In 2005 Downes reunited the original Asia line up and rejoined Yes in 2011, and he is currently a member of both groups.

Downes has also released seven solo studio albums, the first being The Light Program in 1987 and the last being Electronica in 2010.

Whilst busy promoting his Asia In Asia Deluxe Box Set and rehearsing for the forthcoming tour of the UK with Yes, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Geoff, good afternoon, how are you today?

Hello Kevin, I’m very well thank you and just how are you mate?

All is good thanks and before we move on, let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

That’s okay, it’s good that you are still interested enough in what we are doing to want to speak to me.

And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Well, what can I say; life at the moment is really good if not a little hectic (laughter). We have all been getting our sleeves rolled up for the forthcoming Yes tour and let me tell you, we are all really excited about it. It is almost three years now that Yes was out on the road and that’s a long time for a bunch of old guys such as us (laughter). We are all really looking forward to it, and I think that it’s going to be a great show. Being totally honest with you, this one, compared to previous Yes tours is going to be a relatively short one, but there is plenty more coming up elsewhere later in the year, but having said all of that, this first leg here in the UK is going to be great.

I was fortunate enough to photograph you at The Symphony Hall Birmingham on Tuesday 20th March 2018 when you were performing your Yes At 50 Tour.

Did you really, well that’s great, and being totally honest with me, just what did you think (laughter).

I had a fantastic evening.

Thank you for saying that the cheques in the post (laughter). The Birmingham Symphony Hall really is a great venue, but we are Nottingham bound on this tour, where we will perform in The Royal Concert Hall which I am told really is a great venue.

That’s right; you will be performing here in Nottingham on Saturday 18th June. I have heard a whisper that this will actually be the first time that you have ever played at The Royal Concert Hall. Is that correct?

(Laughter) and just who have you been talking to (laughter). Yes, that is absolutely correct; this will be my first time playing at The Royal Concert Hall. Is it a nice venue?

The only criticism that I get from people who have actually performed there is that they all feel that the walls have been painted a little too light, which means that you can still see the audience even when the house lights are taken down. People have likened it to performing on a cruise ship. But apart from that it is an absolutely great venue.

Oh really, well that’s a bit weird isn’t it. So, it’s not total darkness then when you are out on the stage. Well let’s just hope that it doesn’t destroy the atmosphere in any way. I’m sure that people will be focused on what is happening in front of them on the stage and not on the interior décor (laughter). But thank you for that’s; it is useful to know. Perhaps I should tell the audience to come along wearing their favourite designer sunglasses, that would help wouldn’t it (laughter).

How did you survive lockdown?

Well, I think that we all went a bit crazy. Not exactly stir crazy but I have to say that it didn’t stop us creating, and that was the most important thing for the guys in the band. We still managed to make music all be it in a different format, certainly working remotely, especially as half of the band now live in the States whilst the other half is here in the UK. It was a method that I was personally used to, working with the Downes Braide Association because together with Chris (Braide) I was working and recording in exactly that way. This was just exchanging files over the internet. It is something that I definitely feel that people have got more used to now, so it wasn’t that hard for us to adapt to that.

Having said all of that, it has to be said that there is nothing quite like being in a studio together with the rest of the band; that really is something that is quite special. In the same way, I think that it can be equally creative in the way that we applied ourselves to it, and that was most certainly the one thing which kept us all going, knowing that we could still go forward and create rather than just sitting there, not being allowed to go out anywhere.

Long gone are the days of flying a master tape all over the world.

Yes, they have, they totally have gone. That is something which you never hear of nowadays. This so-called new method of recording has been like this for a good few years now, especially when you talk about collaborations. The artists who supposedly record these collaborations actually never meet (laughter). They never get to meet; one of them will record the vocals in a studio on one side of America whilst the other part of the vocals will be recorded over here in the UK. So, as you can imagine, it is something that has been going on for quite some time now. Having said that, it is an interesting way of working because people are recording their parts on their own; they are not made to feel restricted in any way so it can actually, in some ways, have some benefit whereby they can all go their own way and hopefully everything comes together.

Just put my mind at ease and assure me that Yes will not go down the same route as the hologram Whitney Houston or ABBA (laughter).

(Laughter) no, we are trying our very best to avoid that one (laughter). And of course, ABBA is doing a similar sort of thing aren’t they but let me assure you that Yes will continue to always play live. As long as we are capable of playing live, then we will play live and let me tell you, there is nothing like it, even if you have put on a bit of weight, or you have lost a bit of hair or whatever it is, there is still something about being in that situation with some guys in a band that you respect, that you get on with and that you enjoy making music with.

You mention the ABBA thing, I don’t know if you have seen it or not, but they have actually made them look younger than they did when they were making records back in the 70s (laughter).

(Laughter) yes, I have, and it is almost like an age reversal process. It really is quite bizarre. To be totally honest with you, I’m really not a fan of the whole hologram thing. It’s a bit like looking at a cartoon really isn’t it (laughter).

It is; it really is. When I first saw the images, it took me back to 1969 and the song Sugar, Sugar which was originally recorded by the cartoon band The Archies (laughter).

That is so very true. One of the beauties about a band like Yes, and certainly from my own standpoint in Yes, is the fact that every night is different; you are not following any specific brief, you are simply up there, you get on a high simply by playing to the audience, and it’s great to receive their appreciation for what it is that you are doing. A hologram is not going to experience any of that side of it (laughter). It has always been very important within Yes that there has always been a very strong live presence.

Now, I would like to speak to you about the Asia In Asia Deluxe Box Set Geoff, is that okay?

Yes, that’s absolutely fine. I am quite happy to talk about it and explain just how it all came together and how it all happened.

Let me firstly say that I received my copy a few days ago now and I have to say that it really is a classy, professional, and fantastic item that I am sure all Asia fans will be scrambling to get their hands on.

It is, isn’t it? When I first received my copy, I thought, ‘well, someone has really pushed the boat out here’ because it has got all of the ingredients of an absolutely phenomenal package and certainly with all of the different coloured vinyl, the badges, the pins, together with the artwork which I firmly believe is one of Roger Deans most explosive things that he has ever done. So, it has got all of the hallmarks of being a very collectable item, I think.

How much input did you personally have with the project?

Well, I think that it was more to do with the fact that the concert was available but it was only a bootleg recording that was circulating and to be honest, it really was very poor quality. When we signed the album over to BMG, who are handling a lot of the Asia catalogue now, they really felt that it warranted this super dooper treatment, and we were all very much behind it. I had to approve the audio recording and that side of things, plus we had to approve the artwork too. I have to say that I think that everyone was totally blown away with it, and we all said, “let’s just go with this because it really is great”. In terms of the one concert that we performed, almost forty years ago now, I personally feel that it really does show in great detail exactly where we were at during that time.

I have to say that, in my opinion, the remixes really do sound fantastic.

Yes, I have to totally agree with you on that point and say that they have really cleaned them up nicely. I have to say that the concert now sounds much better than I remember it sounding at the time (laughter). It is a very collectable piece, and when you sit in front of it, it really is like a proper memento. It really is a great package.

I have to say that I have just one small criticism of the box set.

Really, what’s that?

Well, I have hunted high and low on mine, both inside and out, and I simply can’t find any autographs anywhere (laughter).

(Laughter) well, there you go. Maybe, just maybe, if you bring it along to The Royal Concert Hall on Saturday 18th June, I will get it signed for you.

Whenever I am looking at the box set two words always spring to mind; professional and classy. I think that it is most certainly a must have for all Asia fans.

Yes, I think so too; I totally agree with you on that point. Aside from the fact that it is the only concert that Greg (Lake) played with us, which always means that some Asia fans might say, “without John Wetton it is probably something that I wouldn’t want to have”. I think that you have got to look at these things in a 360-degree fashion and say, “well, that is where the band was at the time” and this is a great reminder of just what we were all doing at the time. From my standpoint, having gone to Japan for the first time which was an enormous experience, together with the whole wave of MTV behind it, plus the fact that we were bouncing off three different satellites, having had to buy one hours’ worth of time off a specific satellite, if it had gone wrong then we would have lost the show completely. It really was exciting stuff and pretty ground-breaking at that time.

Is the box set a pretty good representation of the events of that evening at The Budokan In Tokyo?

I have to say that I think that it is pretty good. I would certainly say that there are some very useful bits of information within the package as well about just how we had to record a parallel show just in case the satellite link did go down. So, we recorded an entire show which was running in tandem with the live broadcast, so it would have been fairly easy for them to switch that over, and feed in the backup as it were. Thankfully that never happened, so it is raw in that essence, but it does capture exactly what we were about that night. I’m very proud of it as it was a tough thing to pull off particularly in a country that we had very little or no knowledge of.

The reaction of the fans, not just the ones who were receiving it via satellite, but the actual Japanese fans that were in the audience, was incredible. People were always telling us that the Japanese fans were really quiet and that they just sat there, listened to the show, applauded during the breaks in the songs and then they went quiet again. However, it was a pretty raucous night and that surprised me a lot actually (laughter).

Considering that the concert took place some thirty-nine years ago now, it sounds as though you have got a fantastic recollection of the events of the night?

Yes, I have. I can’t remember what I did last night but I can remember the concert very well (laughter). That is most probably down to the fact that it was such an iconic event, and it was a very special time to go out to Japan for the first time, seeing just how crazy the fans were. It really was like Beatlemania when we got to the airport. It was a great thing for us because we hadn’t always had a great following there.

Did it feel at the time that you were involved in something special?

It did, yes, it really did because there were lots of film crews there; MTV had given away tickets via a competition that they were running, where they were to fly people out to Japan for the show. All of the top MTV DJ’s were there, so yes, it really was a big thing. David Mallet, the British director, who had worked with (David) Bowie and Queen was there and it really was big league, that’s for sure. It was nerve wracking as much as anything, but it was also very rewarding.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking back, would you change anything?

Not really. Some people might say, “If it had been with John Wetton then it would have been a completely different show.” However, I personally don’t think that it would have been a different show, simply because it was already choreographed, and everything had been put together, pretty meticulously I must add. It is what it is; it is a moment in history that has been extremely well presented within this box set.

You have mentioned John leaving and Greg stepping in. Were there any nerves at that point?

That was a very tough decision for John particularly to make, and also for Greg. We were committed to do this show; we had already signed various contracts, together with all sorts of stuff, so the legalities were that we simply were not able not to do the show. When we got Greg in, having worked closely with Carl (Palmer) as we know and Greg having a similar type of voice that was in King Crimson; Greg really was a natural choice to come in and do it. I personally feel that he did remarkably well; he didn’t know the songs at all, the range of the songs was slightly higher than his normal singing voice. Because of that, we had to transpose, which was a bit of a nightmare for me because I didn’t have an auto bar which I could simply drop everything down a tone, or something like that. Moving forward from there, I had to relearn all of the parts in different keys, which at that time was something that I did at music college so I should have known how to do it (laughter).

We have to remember that this was the very first concert broadcast live from Tokyo to America.

Yes, I think that’s right. As I have said earlier, it really was pretty hairy simply because these things can and do go wrong, even now with all of the modern technology. Bearing in mind just how much technology has come on, particularly in communications, when you think about what we were dealing with back then, back in 1983 we didn’t have anything like the communication network that we have now. I think that they were pushing boundaries within the technical department as much as anything.

Most people, including many of the fans will say that Heat Of The Moment is the standout track on the album. Did it feel special when you wrote and recorded it?

I think that when John and I wrote that song, it was an afterthought on the first album funnily enough. The original track when we were discussing it with the record label was going to be on the Only Time Will Tell album, as the leadoff track. I think that both John and I knew that we needed something else and so just before we were due to go into the studio to record the album, we got together one afternoon and said, “‘look, what about this”’ and we put it together in one afternoon. It all came together very, very quickly. As soon as the record label heard Heat Of The Moment they instantly said, “that’s it, that’s the song we want, it really is amazing”.

Do you ever tire of playing Heat Of The Moment?

I will tell you what, when you have written something that people know and recognise and it is still an evergreen song that is played on radio stations all over the world, I still get a chill whenever I hear it being played on the radio. Whenever I play it on stage, I never feel as though I am on autopilot or anything like that. I really do get a kick out of it because I think to myself, ‘I wrote this song with John; we have got all of these people in front of us in the audience, they are jumping up and down enjoying themselves to it’ and that in itself is, to me, a real privilege.

You formed the band in 1981 with Steve (Howe). What was the catalyst behind that?

(Laughter) that really was a strange set of circumstances. I had continued writing with Steve after we had both left Yes; we had been working together on some stuff, and John Wetton’s then girlfriend was working in our management office, and Steve got talking to John, and they started working together on some stuff. Then, they were looking for someone to join them on the drums, and they mentioned Carl (Palmer), so Carl was asked to come in, and then they said, “we need a keyboard player”, and that’s when Steve said, “I have been working with Geoff in Yes and he is the man” (laughter). So, I went in, we all started to play together, and everyone looked around and said, “here we go”’ (laughter).

Whenever you read the names off, Downes, Howe, Lake and Palmer, you were a supergroup long before supergroups were heard of.

I think so, yes. In fact, that is how the record label billed us. They said, “this is the first British supergroup”’ and so it became this tag that they put on us. As you say, it was early days of the supergroups; there had been Blind Faith before, but in terms of a commercial entity that was mainstream music, these four guys had all come from progressive bands, not so much me but certainly the three other guys; here they were playing mainstream music, that was accessible to college kids all over America. That was the thing that the record label liked to pigeonhole us with, and say, “I told you, this is a supergroup” (laughter).

Putting you firmly on the spot, what is your favourite Asia album?

I can’t deny that the first album, Asia, to me will always stand out because I think that you can look at these things with hindsight and, with hindsight it doesn’t really have a bad track on it. I think that it is a very powerful album, and I think that it is also a very varied album. It has all of the ingredients that you look for in great music, in terms of the fact that the melodies are there, the arrangements are there, the performances are there from all of the musicians, so when you put all of that together, then you put Roger Dean’s wonderful logo with the dragon coming out of the sea, we managed to get all of those things perfectly right on that album. I would definitely say that was in there as well.

Taking you back to 2005 how was the Asia reunion?

Being totally open and honest with you, I personally liked some of the stuff that we did on that reunion tour back in 2005, when we got back together again. I thought that my song writing was as strong as ever when we got back together and maybe the only other album that stands out in my memory and one that I would feel very happy about doing it again is the Omega album. There really are some great songs on there, I think.

Well, I last saw Asia performing live at Rockin’ The Park here in Clumber Park, Nottingham back in 2013 when you opened for Family and Roger Chapman.

That’s right, yes, we did, and I remember that. That really was a brilliant show; we had a great evening.

I have to ask, is Asia still an ongoing concern and will we see you back out on the road here in the UK?

I’m so pleased that you have asked me that. Well, as you know, it is now some forty years since the first iconic Asia album came out, so we are planning, right now as we speak, to do a tour of the States this coming August, and I am talking about the whole of August pretty much (laughter). We have been over there before; in fact we went over there three years ago now, when we were involved with The Royal Affair Tour. Carl (Palmer) and I will be in there somewhere, those two well known, rather old stalwarts (laughter) plus we will have Billy (Sherwood) bass and Marc (Bonilla) on guitar, both of whom will be with us once again.

Marc spent some years playing with the Keith Emmerson Band who, funnily enough, sounds remarkably like Greg (Lake). In fact, I would go as far as to say that Marc sounds like a cross between Greg and John. I have to say that we are really looking forward to it, these anniversaries keep coming around and I feel that it is a shame not to celebrate them in some way. Asia really has been an important part of my life and career if you like, because it was one of the bands that I formed. Sometimes, when you are there at the front end of a band, it has a very special meaning or even an extra special meaning for you because you have been there right from the very beginning.

You mention the fact that you played on The Royal Affair Tour. I recently spoke to John Lodge (Moody Blues) and he was telling me just how much of a wonderful time he had with you all.

Yes, we did, and let me tell you, John Lodge is a truly wonderful guy. Funnily enough, during lockdown John and I wrote a couple of songs together; remotely of course (laughter). After that, John sent me a song a couple of months ago and I was going to put some keyboards on it, so I did that, and John really liked what I did on it. He really is a nice guy, and when I was in Barbados, John came over to help me celebrate my wedding anniversary. He came along, we had a big party, and it really was fantastic. He really is a lovely guy.

He really is; it’s just a pity that he supports Birmingham City (laughter).

That’s right; John really is a Bluenose (laughter). He goes to the games with our mutual mate, Jasper Carrot. They are both Birmingham Blue through and through.

You mentioned earlier about celebrating anniversaries. When I was speaking earlier to Steve about the forthcoming fiftieth anniversary of Close To The Edge, I asked him if the record company would be doing anything special to commemorate the event and he said no, the only thing happening is Yes going out on the road playing the album in its entirety. I thought that it was an anniversary that should be celebrated in some way.

Yes, I totally agree with you on that, and I do find it a bit odd really. If I remember correctly, as I recall they did something last year or it may have even been the year before with Close To The Edge. I think that they repackaged it and added a few more bits to it. However, none of what they did coincided with the anniversary which I really did feel was a bit odd. Thinking about it, I suppose that the record companies have their schedules, and that’s the way that these labels operate. They have a window, and they want to get something out, or they wait too long, and the moment passes, and the anniversary has gone. To be totally honest with you, that is something that we, as a band, are never really in control of.

You mentioned being at the front end of a band and being there since the beginning; well I can’t talk to you without mentioning The Buggles.

(Laughter) well there you go, that is going back even further.

You and Trevor (Horn) were responsible for Island Record’s very first number one here in the UK.

That’s right, yes, we were.

That was a fantastic achievement when you consider the calibre of the artists that were signed to Island at that time.

I think that Island had already had nine records reaching number two before The Buggles came along. When you think about Traffic, Stevie Winwood, Robert Palmer, Bob Marley of course, Roxy Music, they really did have the creme da la creme of the music business at that time. Generally, Island kept hold of their roster of artists for only one or two records; bands like Free and Emmerson, Lake and Palmer; it really was a fantastic label to be on. Chris Blackwell really was a proper guru, not at spotting talent, but having really good people around him. He really did know just how to run a record label. He was very much an artist’s man, he really did have a lot of business acumen, but he always put the artists first.

When Trevor and I were signed by them, it was an unusual signing in a way because Island had a lot of Reggae acts and they had most of the progressive British rock acts as well, prior to us joining; it really was a great label to be on. There was a certain kudos to the Island logo, and with Chris Blackwell at the helm, it was incredible.

And you were also in the right place at the right time with the iconic video for Video Killed The Radio Star being played all over the new kid on the block, MTV.

That was all down to Russell Mulcahy who later went on to produce some really big videos for the likes of Duran Duran, and I think that he got very expensive after that. Video Directors, at that moment in time, were getting a fortune or should I say that they were spending a fortune on these promo clips (laughter). Then of course, as you mentioned, MTV were on the ascendancy which meant that every record label had to fork out for their artists to make a video that was going to get played on MTV because it was all very well getting your record played on the radio, but MTV was an instant which would captivate people and MTV would be playing your video at least ten times a day.

I can’t let you go without mentioning Yes, can I (laughter).

Only if you must (laughter).

I was going to put you on the spot and ask you which you preferred working with, Asia, Yes or The Buggles?

To be honest with you, and this is not Geoff Downes sitting on the fence, but I have to say that I love working with both Asia and Yes. Having said that, I do still talk to Trevor about The Buggles as well. We still play around with the idea of going out and doing a few shows here and there, as we have done in the past. Each band out of those three, and really, I should also include the Downes Braide Association with Chris Braide, they are all very different in a way because, certainly with Yes, from my standpoint I’m not playing a lot of my parts; I’m actually playing music that was written by other keyboard players. So, that to me is much more of a learning curve.

However, with something like Asia because the music is embedded within me, I don’t even have to think about that, and the same goes with The Buggles stuff. As I have mentioned earlier, when you are there at the beginning, it has an extra special meaning for you.

You have now been in the music for some forty-eight years. Have you enjoyed the ride so far?

(Laughter) what can I say, so far so good. I’m still kicking along, and I am still enjoying it. I always consider it to be a great privilege the fact that I can still do something that I love doing and that really is a great privilege. It’s an honour that the fans have been so dedicated and have stuck with me through all the various ups and downs. There you go, there’s a quote for you (laughter).

If I had to push you for just one, what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

That’s pretty tough for me to answer to be honest. I think that when we played Madison Square Garden with Yes, that was a really iconic venue to play. It had always been a dream of mine that I would be on stage with a band who I respected and who I was really into as a teenager. And then all of a sudden, there I was standing on a stage in the middle of New York City, together with these amazing musicians. That was a real milestone for me. There have been many highlights, even going way back to The Buggles when I first heard Video Killed The Radio Star on Capital Radio in London, that was a moment that I will definitely remember. I am so thankful that I have been fortunate to have some great times which have left me with some really great memories.

What was the first record that you bought?

The very first record that I bought was A Scottish Soldier by Andy Stewart.

Who did you first see performing live?

Don’t laugh but that would have been the Carl Denver Trio.

What was the last song or piece of music to make you cry?

I can see why you leave that question to the end (laughter). That really is a good one, flipping heck (laughter). To be honest with you, I always cry at music. I think that it would have been The Greatest Showman that always makes me cry. I really am too soppy (laughter). If I go to the theatre, like I have quite recently, I always cry at The Phantom Of The Opera. For me, it is a combination of the music together with seeing all of the actors up there on stage, and when they all take a bow at the end of the show, that really is emotional. My wife will say to me, “just what are you crying for?” (laughter).

On that note Geoff let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been great.

No problem, Kevin, I am really pleased that we finally got to chat in the end. You stay safe and I will see you when we get up there to Nottingham. Don’t forget to bring along your box set (laughter).