Words and Photos by Geoff Bailie
The prog community was rocked by news of the passing of Yes drummer Alan White.
I expect, no matter where you are in the world, if you went into the street and asked people you met: “Have you heard of Alan White?” few people would say yes. But if you asked people: “Have you heard John Lennon’s Imagine?” you would get a lot of positive responses. The fact is that a lot of world has HEARD Alan White, even if they haven’t HEARD OF him.
Instant Karma, My Sweet Lord, Jealous Guy, Owner of a Lonely Heart… all radio staples and all featuring Alan White.
His entry into Yes is interesting – as a friend of the band’s engineer/ producer Eddie Offord, he was in their circle, even to the extent of drumming on a rehearsal version of Siberian Khatru which appears on some of the recent reissues of Close To The Edge. When Bruford left the band a week before the tour to support that album, Alan White got the call. The band no doubt reassured by the jam they had had, by his credentials playing with John Lennon and George Harrison, and by how he’d jumped on a plane with Lennon, Eric Clapton and Klaus Voorman to play at a festival in Toronto the following day with the only rehearsal being on the plane (albeit a 1972 Yes set was more complicated!).
His first album appearance with the band was on the iconic Yessongs albums where the majority of the tracks have him playing on songs Bruford recorded with the band in his own way. Prog band member changes are often controversial… but this was one case where the new member fitted so well, he lasted for 50 years!!! The legendary Tales from Topographic Oceans came next, with White very much making his mark on Ritual, and who can forget the opening salvos of Soundchaser and the epic drumming on Gates of Delirium on Relayer which came next.
It’s perhaps overlooked that White also played his part in Yes songwriting, with Turn of the Century, Release Release, Changes, Shoot High Aim, In The Presence Of, and To Ascend all featuring his specific contribution, nevermind all the group written songs. With more than 3,000 YesShows to his name, his presence and contribution to the band was vital!
Unlike many Yes-men, Alan didn’t have a prolific solo career. Ramshackled from 1976, his only solo album is… interesting… with really only Spring (Song of Innocence) standing out. The White album from 2006 is much more satisfying, featuring a strong get of performances and songs. Foreshadowing the final Yes line up his was part of, White and Billy Sherwood formed the rhythm section of the first line up of Circa: Their overlooked debut album is really worth checking out – it’s not an album of rock hits or prog by numbers, but instead a combination of great writing and playing which rewards the listener with repeated listening.
In recent years, Alan has made no secret of the health challenges he faced. Yet he carried on – except when medical treatment prevented, Alan was a presence at as many YesShows as he could be, taking the stage during the show to rapturous applause. He took up the drum stool and put his heart and soul into his parts. I last saw Alan White at the Yes50 show in London in 2018 – his contribution was magnificent and truly made it a special night. With The Quest, we got one last Yes with Alan White album, and the opening track The Ice Bridge contains that classic White “thump” that makes the music distinctly Yes.
I spent part of today watching this great clip… as part of the Circa: debut tour they played a 40 minute medley of Yes tracks from Looking Around from their 1969 debut through to Lightning Strikes from The Ladder, featuring tracks from all of the albums, and many, many Alan White signature moments. Check it out here
No doubt Yes will be paying tribute to Alan White on their forthcoming U.K. and Ireland tour. He will be missed, but his spirit will be there in the music he was so integral to, and I’m sure for band and fans alike this tour will be a celebration of his legacy.