Steve Howe, an English musician, songwriter, producer and best known for being the guitarist in the progressive rock band Yes, chats with Kevin Cooper about Bill Bruford leaving the band, working with Jon Anderson, being signed to Atlantic Records and Yes’ Close To The Edge 50th Anniversary UK Tour 2022.

Steve Howe is an English musician, songwriter and producer, best known for being the guitarist in the progressive rock band Yes that was formed in 1964.

Initially Howe first played in several London based blues, covers, and psychedelic rock bands for six years, including the Syndicats, Tomorrow and Bodast. When he joined Yes in 1970, he helped to change the band’s musical direction, leading to more commercial and critical success. His blend of acoustic and electric guitar helped shape the sound of the band.

The band briefly disbanded in 1981 but Howe returned to the group in 1990 and has remained a full time member since. He has also had a prolific solo career, releasing a large number of solo albums which have achieved various levels of success.

In 1981 Howe teamed up with Geoff Downes (who was also a member of Yes), singer and bassist John Wetton and drummer Carl Palmer, to form the super group, Asia. Howe left in 1983 but rejoined them in 2006 when the original line up reunited for a 25th anniversary tour. After releasing three albums Howe announced his decision to leave the band and concentrate on Yes and his solo career.

In 2007 he founded the Steve Howe Trio, a jazz band with his son Dylan on drums and Ross Stanley on Hammond organ. They released both a studio and live album in 2010. He continues to perform with Yes, the Steve Howe Trio and as a solo artist.

In April 2017 Howe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Yes.

Whilst busy rehearsing for their Close To The Edge 50th Anniversary UK Tour, Steve Howe took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Steve, good afternoon, how are you?

I’m alright thanks Kevin, how are you?

I’m very well thank you and before we move on, let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all, it’s my pleasure.

And the most important question of the day is, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Well, what can I say, life at the moment is treating me the same as it is treating everybody (laughter). Joking aside, life at the moment really is okay. We are all learning just how to get through things in a different sort of way but yes, we are all moving on.

We have to speak about the 50th anniversary of the Yes album, Close To The Edge.

Well, I have to say that would be nice but only if you really want to (laughter).

Looking back, does it really feel like it was fifty years ago?

No, to be totally honest with you it really doesn’t. If I am honest with you, then it really is a bit of a shocker especially when you get those types of anniversaries come around, not that I go out of my way to celebrate that many anniversaries, but, having said that, some are important. The fact that this album is still resonating in its own sweet way, really is quite remarkable and quite enjoyable. We all love playing the album on stage, and we have most probably never gone on stage without playing one of the songs from the album. Now, as you know, we are about to get back out on the road and play the whole of the Close To The Edge album. That is also a delight because playing songs is just playing songs but playing an album really does give you the chance to settle into that time warp of 1972 (laughter).

I assume that you will be playing the album in strict chronological order.

Oh yes, it has to be. That is the only way that we want to play it, and hopefully, that is how we will present it, in a totally strict chronological order.

It is reported that it took you some five months to record the album. Was that the normal speed of recording for Yes at that time?

(Laughter) to be totally honest with you, that is a very misleading statement.

Really? In that case, please do tell me more (laughter).

Recording the album may very well have taken us over the period of five months, but that was three days here, two days there and a week there. It most definitely wasn’t a continuous period of time, unlike some of the other records that we recorded back in the 80s and 90s. They were all three months and more of continuous time spent in the recording studio. So, with Closer To The Edge, it was all about us going in and out, recording the music, then returning to it a week later after we had played a few more shows. You have to remember that Yes were a working band, so it was impossible for us to take time off to record an album. It simply had to be incorporated into our touring schedule.

You played a ninety five date promotional tour of the album. Unfortunately, as you were about to start the tour, Bill Bruford left the band to join King Crimson which meant that you had to set off on the tour with brand-new drummer, Alan White. Were there any nerves or worries at that point?

(Laughter) well, what can I say. It was a situation which Bill (Bruford) had created, and of course we all loved and respected Bill immensely for what it was that he wanted to do, but it most certainly was not the best of timings (laughter). Alan (White) got thrown in at the deep end and was immediately put under the spotlight. Alan was, and is, a very talented drummer who we believed would rise to the occasion, and that is exactly what he did. He simply got on with learning the album, and basically, throughout those early shows, the rest of us kind of dragged him through the songs, because there were four people who knew exactly what could happen, whilst Alan was the new guy who was thinking, ‘I think this is what should happen’ (laughter).

We were all doing our very best to help him, but he also helped us tremendously by stepping into Bill’s shoes and coming through it all with flying colours. Don’t forget, Alan was a big-name drummer; it wasn’t like we got Joe Bloggs in to play the drums. This was a well-known drummer, and basically, he bought something to the band that only he could bring because he had the style, the adaptability, maybe more than Bill, to be able to go with us when we went on to record Tales From Topographic Oceans, or when we went somewhere else. I personally feel that Bill may have got restless with us wanting to do other projects that weren’t even as commercial as Close To The Edge because he didn’t like commercialism in any way. I think that is fairly true to say. Bill created the situation where we needed Alan, but we just took that onboard and simply got on with it.

The album was actually released three months after the promotional tour had started. Was that planned?

(Laughter) what can I say except that was the sort of usual nonsense that we, as a band, had to put up with. The tour had obviously been booked sometime before we had finished the album, which was, in our opinion, absolutely stupid. It was partly based on people being a little greedy; wanting us to get out there and start earning the big bucks once again, because Yes was a big band. Another problem with the album’s release and the tour is that the album was actually released in different places at different times (laughter). Its release really wasn’t an international moment; it was firstly released here in the UK, then in Europe, then it was released in America, so that can formulate a funny stop start sort of thing.

But, in all honesty, we really should have gone out on tour when the album was out there. The more times that we were caught out by this booked tour before we had finished the album, the more we put our foot down and said “we just can’t really do this”, but it kept happening time after time after time. In all honesty, it was a product of the momentum, the desire, the booking agents, the bands manager and the record label; all of those people saying, “let’s get on with this” to which we replied “well we haven’t quite finished the album yet” (laughter).

Life in different times.

Indeed, yes very much so.

The album has been re-released on no fewer than three separate occasions; is there anything special planned with the album to celebrate its 50th Anniversary?

No, nothing at all; only the fact that we are going out on the road and playing it (laughter). I would have to say that at times, there have been marginally different versions of the album released. One version that stands out in memory is where you finally get to the fabulous church organ section; it has been recorded 10db too loud (laughter). I think that is because either they used the wrong master, or they didn’t adjust the master copy when they were pressing the records and CDs. So, there are a few glitches in it if you like, but fundamentally, they couldn’t destroy it too much with that even though 10db is an awful lot of level to be too hot (laughter).

To be honest, I find that a little disappointing as Atlantic Records once released a version of And You And I with a pre-vinyl ending (laughter). I have always found that to be quite ridiculous. Having said that, it just goes to highlight the rush to get on with things. There were glitches like I said, and it is a very adventurous record when you think of it in 1972 terms. Yes was a band that was wanting to be symphonic; they wanted to expand the music, and we were never going to be trapped with the three minute song concept where you got an introduction, verse one, and then the chorus.

We all totally hated that. So, we basically threw it out of the window and got on with inventing our own imaginative arrangements, which involved many songs, together with many instrumentals. One thing that we must never forget is although we talk about songs, and the title Close To The Edge is a song, but of course Yes were not shy of instrumental work and that’s one of the things that balanced if you like, the song element was the instrumental.

You co-wrote the album with Jon (Anderson). What was he like to work with?

Jon and I first started writing together on Roundabout which is the opening track on our fourth studio album, Fragile. There always had been a lot of shared ideas whenever Yes were writing for a new album. I was thrilled when I played the rest of the guy’s Mood For A Day and they insisted that I put it on the album. I was never going to turn that down (laughter). By the time that we were on tour, and we hadn’t as yet written the Fragile album, Jon and I wrote Roundabout together, which I have to say is a pretty good piece. So basically, Jon and I started a style of writing; we would use Jon’s lyrics together with my melodies and all of these things would morph together.

When we came to Close To The Edge, we worked on it, quite often on tour, and I don’t know how we did it but, after shows, on days off, in gaps and things, we would get together and basically mess around on two guitars and a cassette recorder (laughter). Those tapes are in fact the blueprint to Close To The Edge, together with many other things that Yes did. All the way through the 70s Jon and I didn’t really sit in our own houses writing together; we were most probably writing much more when we were on tour. That was definitely true with Close To The Edge. Obviously, later on everyone got their own studios; I even got my own which I would mess around in (laughter).

Also, another strength that Yes had was having the patience to arrange the music prior to actually going into the studio. We would get the ideas from everyone involved and arrange them prior to stepping into the studio. Every guy in the band had something to add to the arrangement. If someone didn’t like something, then they would put something in which they did like. Having said all of that, I have to say that it would take Chris (Squire) a while to decide what his bass part was going to be, but once it was there, it truly was amazing. We had the strength to allow me to arrange my guitars as overdubs, and that was something that I really did enjoy. I started doing that petty early on in my relationship with Mark Wirtz who produced the Tomorrow album.

I’m so glad that you have mentioned Mark. Just how did you come to play the guitar on the Mark Wirtz Orchestra’s single, Theme From “A Teenage Opera”?

(Laughter) just who the hell have you been speaking to (laughter). Well, here we go. One day, way back in 1967, I turned up at EMI expecting to join in a session, and there was nobody there. So I said to Mark “where is everybody” to which he replied “no, it’s just you” (laughter). I looked at Mark and thought ‘oh my God this is what I have been waiting for’ (laughter). Mark said, “get yourself into the studio, set up and this is what I want you to do”. So, we double tracked a guitar, on a tune which you rightly know as being The Theme From A “Teenage Opera” and that was it, I was sold on overdubbing on tracks that I didn’t even know what they were until I walked into the room. That really was exciting.

After that I became a really keen session guitarist, not that I did a lot of big sessions, but I did sessions for Mark Wirtz and other people. But that initial session on that particular tune really did inspire me because we were only talking about a guitar. For the whole three hour’s it was ‘this guitar this’ ‘the guitar that’ and ‘can you play that again’ (laughter). So, basically that was my introduction to just how we were able to change things after the event. Once you had put a rhythm guitar on, you could then add a lead guitar or textural guitars.

Whenever I think of a Yes album cover, I automatically think of Roger Dean’s artwork as I believe that the two go hand in hand.

Good. Yes, they do, very much so.

Just how did that marriage come to fruition?

To be totally honest with you, the Yes album was a bit of a blot really. Don’t get me wrong, we got it together and it wasn’t bad, but it really was kind of weird and spooky looking and we all agreed that 1971s Fragile album needed something a bit more stylistic. So our relationship with Roger began with the Fragile album. We all could see and knew that Roger’s work was really going to be pretty exciting. When he did Close To The Edge of course, we went from almost nothing on the outside, just the terrific logo work that he had developed by then. It was at that point that the well-known Yes logo came into play, really on Close To The Edge. The Fragile album is more of a mock-up of the word Fragile and Yes.

So basically, Close To the Edge set the bar. There were big, lavish landscapes inside the sleeve, complete with an almost personal, handwritten approach to the way that the type set was done. The photographs on the rear of the sleeve also included a photograph of our co-producer Eddy Offord who really, along with Roger Dean deserve as much credit as anybody else because he was the only guy who knew how to put us all together and get the sound to work with us all playing lots of notes and not in a very conventional sort of way (laughter). It wasn’t as though the guy just didn’t have to think about the bass because all that it was doing was dumb dumb (laughter). In actual fact, the bass was going nine to the dozen (laughter).

The guitar parts were flying in and out, the keyboards were going from synth to church organ. The saving grace was that the remarkable Bill Bruford was actually a very minimalistic kind of drummer; he never wanted to take up a whole lot of space. Bill never had four Roto Toms, four Tom Tom’s and six Cymbals. He basically had a very basic kit. But, going back to Roger who is going to be on tour with us, he really did play a major part in the exclusive visual design of Yes for all of these years. I have to be totally honest with you and openly admit that the albums that we did without him due to unforeseen and very stupid reasons, really were quite disastrous when compared to the beauty which he had created before and what he has created since. He really does draw his imaginative areas in the world; he often draws them from places that do exist, but he always manages to make them even more surreal. And I think it’s that which is the key to his success with us.

I have to tell you that I am an old soulie at heart and I first became aware of Rogers work when he designed the cover to the 1971 Motown Chartbusters Vol Six album which depicted a scarab type space vehicle. It truly was amazing.

Really, I will have to look that up. Roger has done many other things so that really doesn’t surprise me.

On the subject of soul, how did Yes find themselves signed to Atlantic Records which was, at that time, predominately a Soul and black artists label, being home to the likes of Aretha Franklin, Milt Jackson, Tyrone Davis, Clarence Carter and Otis Redding to name but a few?

Atlantic Records is a label that I am extremely proud to have been associated with, and that is why my first two solo albums were on Atlantic. I didn’t want them to be released on any other label. It is really great being signed to Atlantic. Now you have to remember that this story started long before I came along because Yes were signed to Atlantic around the same time that they signed Led Zeppelin together with a lot of other bands back in the late 60s. Just after I joined Yes, I heard this rumour that if the third album, which as you know is the Yes album, and the first one with me on it, was not a hit then they were going to drop us (laughter).

I have to say that I found that to be a little bit scary but, fortunately, we delivered the Yes album, and it was a very successful album. They didn’t tell us to piss off (laughter). So, basically, Atlantic really was very much a personal label because if you rubbed shoulders with the late Ahmet Ertegun, who as you know was the founder of Atlantic Records, and he liked you, well let me put it another way, if Ahmet didn’t like you then he wouldn’t sign you (laughter). Not only did he have to like the music, but he also had to believe that the people who he was working with were real players. After all, you have to remember that Atlantic signed the likes of Ray Charles. This really is a phenomenal label to be a part of and is really something to be proud of.

Basically, they really were just a great bunch of guys, all working towards the same goals and aims, especially Ahmet. There were times when he would come to me and ask me what I thought about things, and I have to say that I was very flattered that someone like Ahmet would care about what I thought. But he wanted the bottom line; he always wanted the truth. He would often ask me, “is it all as good as this” or “what are you going to do”’ and even “why haven’t I signed this record” he said to me one day when we were working on our Keys To Ascension album. There was a real relationship there between the two of us, and I personally think that the story of Atlantic Records is a wonderful indemnification if you like, about the greatness of the Ertegun’s really.

You have been referred to many times as being the pioneers of progressive rock. Would you agree with that?

Well, to be totally honest and open with you, I don’t know if pioneers is the right word when you consider King Crimson and Pink Floyd were around at the same time as Yes (laughter). You have to remember that psychedelia started all of this, and therefore what happened during the 70s was that the musicians who were hot to trot in the psychedelia era, like me, were then moving onto a new platform and they had to get more sophisticated, a bit more real, but certainly not commercial. Basically, Yes became an album band because of the musicality that we offered together with the length of the songs.

But basically, we were developing just what was going on in a lot of other people’s minds, with the likes of ELP (Emerson Lake & Palmer), Genesis and a lot of the other bands. Basically, there was suddenly a freedom, and that has always been my first requirement, as a musician, to be free to do as I like. Although I do take ideas from other people, I will take hints and I will take comments such as “will you play this”’ and “why don’t you play that” which I will always take on board, but in the end, I have got to feel that it is me who is making the choices, as far as what the guitar is going to do. That has always been a beautiful thing which has a lot to do with my rejection of my school education, which was a bit rough, a bit bumpy, it certainly wasn’t creative in any way, but music was, and I found that place myself.

So, I went to music, and I found that to be the most stabilising thing. I got out of school as fast as I could; I was fifteen, and I said “good riddance” to school (laughter). I didn’t need school anymore as I was going to be a musician. And that was the dream that I had, and that is the dream that I’ve still got (laughter).

You have released 22 solo albums together with your work with Yes. Are you always writing and working?

(Laughter) well, let’s just clarify that, I have recorded thirteen solo studio albums, from Beginnings to Love Is, then there are seven Home Brews which is a session of quirky tapes recorded in my home studio, and then there are a couple of live albums, and obviously a hell of a lot of guesting. So, 22 is a slight exaggeration but I will take your idea on board (laughter). Basically, that started really early when in the mid-70s when Yes were going to take a break, when we asked Atlantic, here’s Atlantic again, here’s another Atlantic story for you (laughter). Who would have thought that a label, any label hearing that all of the members of a group were all wanting to leave the group and record solo albums. The label would have been terrified and most probably would have dropped the band. The thinking from the labels point of view was once one of them has a hit they will simply split up.

But no, Ahmet said “okay no problem, we will give you all a deal; it is all the same deal, you do one record, you give us the record and we will put it out”. So Yes had a sort of break before we recorded Going For The One. And basically, that was a relief because although I had given five years to the idea of what Yes was, I had written more songs as is evident on the Beginnings album, and for me that was not only a way of exploring that music on my own, together with directing, producing, and all of those things, I gradually did it with more confidence, strength and expertise gathering all of the knowledge that I had gleaned from all of the producers who I had worked with up to that point, and from who I continue to work with to this day.

I still continue to do that to this day. I once worked with the late Sir George Martin on a project, and that for me was a real learning curve. George really did put me under immense pressure because he gave me some music and I had to say to him, “actually that means nothing to me, absolutely nothing at all” (laughter). He may as well have handed me a sheet of blank paper (laughter). The only thing that I needed to know was what all of these terms were that he was using such as ‘going back to this part, playing that part’ and ‘returning to that part’. I honestly didn’t have a clue (laughter). Having said all of that, basically he was good enough as well as the other players on that particular record who were kind enough to me. So, learning from other people really is, for me, the key and also collaborating is the key. As I have mentioned earlier about the organisation within Yes; none of Close To The Edge would have sounded the same if we hadn’t have been those five people.

Writing for Yes and writing for your solo albums, do the two require a different headspace?

To be totally honest with you, not really. Initially I just write, and I am not even thinking where it goes. I like to not have any idea as to where it is going. I simply follow the course of what this music says to me. However, as the time has gone by, and particularly with our last album The Quest, when we started preparing that, I did actually write six that I was thinking about Yes. That wasn’t because I needed to or it was something that I had committed to on a publishing deal, it was just something that I thought ‘I could just see if I could get some of these songs into Yes’ (laughter). And that is what happened with Dare To Know, Music To My Ears, and numerous other songs, in particular Leave Well Alone.

So, basically, I wrote those particular songs with Yes in mind but if Yes didn’t want to record them then that’s fine. It’s no skin off my nose, as I will put them onto another record (laughter). There can be, and there was at times, like the late George Harrison found with The Beatles, there can be resistance to your songs from within the band, for example, if you had John Wetton and Geoff Downes writing ten songs for an album, then it is extremely difficult for you to try and wedge a few of your songs in there. It was the same when I originally joined Yes; Chris Squire and Jon Anderson were the main writers in Yes and I did manage to get a few credits on the Yes album, but you could see that there was already an existing writing team in the band, and that was a good thing.

I wasn’t joining a band that didn’t know where to go; they knew exactly where they wanted to go. It was just a question of whether I was going to join them, and whether I could both elaborate and collaborate with them, and as I say it was all down to the arranging. It really didn’t matter who wrote the song just as long as Yes arranged it, then it would come out sounding like Yes.

Putting you on the spot, what would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

(Hysterical laughter) okay well I am looking for my first reactions, simply because I am not going to dwell on this (laughter). I can’t deny that with the success of Yes, there were a few magical moments. For example we played Madison Square Gardens a few times, and when you play that place, and you come off stage and your lovely wife is waiting for you in the dressing room, you feel like you have finally made it, and when you finally compose your thoughts you think to yourself ‘just how much better could this be?’ (laughter). You are at Madison Square Gardens and the crowd are outside still screaming for more.

Other things like having a few hit records; me being named the top guitarist here in the UK, and about to become the top guitarist over in America, those kinds of things, those ingredients, make you feel happy, but I do promise you that I didn’t exactly let them go to my head, neither did I decide that I had done it all now (laughter). I hear that the late great guitarist Merle Travis, whenever he had some success, he used to say, “well I’ll go back home now and put my feet up” (laughter). He always said that after success a guitarist needs to go back to work; he believed that was when the work started; when you had been given the opportunity, as you have got the people listening.

That is what I wanted more than anything else, to know that my music was being heard. To me, that might be the most important thing about all of this. I would hate to be able to play like this and that nobody knew that I even existed. I know a few guitarists, who play great, but they are completely unknown and that might be a particularly hard thing for them to accept and put up with. Another example would be Albert Lee, who is one of my favourite artists from the UK, who has played with The Everly Brothers and Emmy Lou Harris to name but two. Albert really is a phenomenal guitarist, and yet you know that you most probably have to be a guitarist to know about Albert.

He is so good, and he didn’t really want the kind of success that I did. He never wanted to be in a band, and he would never compromise, but that’s where Albert and I differ, I did learn to compromise. Not only am I good, and I have some people skills otherwise I simply wouldn’t be here (laughter). The one thing that I quickly found out was that compromising really can work. You don’t even have to compromise one hundred percent you just have to do it to where you allow people to realise that you are not an idiot, and you are not an egotist, but you are actually going to enhance their career as much as they are going to enhance your career. And it works; all of the other members of Yes really did enhance my career (laughter). So, it never would have worked if I had been a total egomaniac and it was all down to me. Having said that, it always amazes me as to just how many people still come up with that scenario.

You are currently busy rehearsing for your forthcoming UK tour. Are you looking forward to being back out on the road?

Yes, I am I really am immensely. It will be almost three years since we last toured, and let me tell you, that is a very long time. Being honest with you I have to say that at this moment in time, I have absolutely no idea as to how I am going to feel. People have told me that after the break you do feel really good; you get back in there and think ‘oh yes, this is great’. What you have to remember is that I am seventy-five, I am pretty healthy, touch wood, and I am kind of ticking over on my music and my love of the guitar the same as my love for my children, my grandchildren, and my wife. Basically, they have all kept me balanced.

Having said that, for me to get back on stage is going to be interesting, if not fascinating for a while. I don’t know, I think that I am going to be patient. I think that it will take a little bit of building, together with a little bit of rehearsal. My moto is that I am as ready as I can be, If I’m not ready then that is completely my fault, because I didn’t practice enough, and I didn’t do enough homework. However, I won’t allow that to happen. We will have enough homework, we will have enough rehearsal, and I doubt whether anyone will be that nervous really.

You will be here in Nottingham at the Royal Concert Hall on Saturday 18th June. Do you enjoy performing here in our fair city?

I have performed in Nottingham a few times now and I always find the city to be a pretty nice place. Let’s just hope that it is still nice as I haven’t been there for a while (laughter). As you know, we haven’t done as much travelling as we usually do and that is purely and simply down to Covid-19. I absolutely love performing at the Royal Concert Hall and I will remember it as the place where I have not trod the boards in many years due to the virus. There will be some compromising and there will be some whinging but basically, like I said earlier, we have played at Madison Square Gardens but basically every stage is an opportunity to connect. I like twiddling on my guitar, I like the guitar to sound great, I like to feel good, I like to wear good clothes, I like to tune up my voice before I go on, but basically, the most important part is to put that guitar on me, plug the thing in and let me go.

On that note Steve, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it really has been wonderful.

Thanks Kevin you take care, and I will see you when we get to Nottingham. Bye for now.