Friday, May 27, 2022

RIP: Alan White

lett -/\= from Luque, Paraguay, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The first sound I ever heard from what would become my favorite band was a peculiar drum break played through a Fairlight CMI, an early sampling keyboard. That sound opened "Owner of a Lonely Heart," a song that was unlike anything else heard on Top 40 radio at the time, with all of its quirky little "whiz-bangs," as producer Trevor Horn called them, that came courtesy of what were cutting-edge instruments at the time.

The band was Yes, and drummer Alan White played that opening fill on the Fairlight.

Alan White died yesterday at age 72. He was a mainstay of a band that was noted for its frequent personnel changes, having manned the drummer's throne since 1972. Back then, he was rooming with Yes producer/engineer Eddie Offord and had sat in on a rehearsal with the band when original drummer Bill Bruford was unavailable. Being thus well known to the band, he was the obvious choice to step in when Bill left Yes for the more experimental pastures of King Crimson.

Alan had some big shoes to fill. Not only had Bill brought a jazzy complexity to Yes's early music, but he also left Yes in need of a drummer less than a week before their world tour was set to begin. Alan had three days to learn the band's entire repertoire, but he proved up to the challenge. It probably served as incentive to nail Bill's parts that the rest of the band threatened to throw Alan out the window of the third-floor room where they'd convened if he declined to join.

He was far more of a straight-ahead rock drummer than Bill had been. While he changed a lot of Bill's signature parts in concert to suit his own style, he didn't dumb them down. He just gave them more directness and power. And that was the same approach he took to Yes's intricate music in the years to follow. Characteristic of his style is a section in the long instrumental passage of "The Gates of Delirium" that's played in 11/4 time. Where a lot of prog-rock drummers would take the opportunity to get flashy in a section like that -- Bill, for one, would have danced all around the beat with clever little flourishes -- Alan's heavy beat centered on a pair of eighth notes on 3 and 7 on the snare, followed by a single hit on 10. Workmanlike and to the point, but very effective. He brought a similar rock 'n' roll punch to the entirety of the 1980 Drama album, which in my opinion stands as one of his finest performances.

Most of the world will remember Alan as being the drummer on John Lennon's iconic songs "Imagine" and "Instant Karma." He also played on several tracks on George Harrison's All Things Must Pass triple album, and he'd worked with Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood before signing on with Yes. So when he joined Yes, the band clearly knew they were getting a solidly reliable timekeeper to pick up where Bill had left off.

He hit the ground running with Yes. Not only did he have to get up to speed for an entire tour in three days, but then the band went into the studio to record their ambitious double album Tales From Topographic Oceans. And he proved up to the task, and then some. He features on a long and riveting percussion-driven section on the final track, "Ritual," that would become an audiovisual delight in Yes's live shows. He also stepped up on piano, writing and performing the part that ends "Ritual" when keyboardist Rick Wakeman wasn't around to contribute.

Those little unsung contributions were abundant over the years, as Alan would reveal in interviews that he wrote this or that passage on piano or guitar. He also added backing vocals, and he shared the keyboard duties on the 2001 Yes album Magnification with bassist Chris Squire, when the band decided to move ahead as a quartet without a permanent keyboardist in the lineup. Alan's piano work on that album is featured on "Can You Imagine," a piece sung by Chris, and the band built the song "In the Presence Of" around a piano melody that Alan played in the studio during the recording sessions.

Alan and Chris kept the Yes flame burning after the band broke up in 1980. They cut a Christmas song together, called "Run With the Fox," in 1981, and joined forces that same year with Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page in a failed attempt to create a new supergroup. In 1982, they met guitarist/singer/songwriter Trevor Rabin, and the band they created together, called Cinema, ended up evolving into the reunited Yes that gave us "Owner of a Lonely Heart" in late 1983. Many members had passed through Yes's revolving door since then, with only the rhythm section of Chris and Alan remaining constant, until Chris's death in 2015 left Alan to carry on with a band that no longer had any original members in the lineup.

Alan had been ill in recent years, and the band had been touring with a second drummer, Jay Schellen, to help him shoulder the load. Yes had just announced a few days ago that it would be touring its Close to the Edge 50th anniversary tour without Alan. The end, it seems, came quickly, and tributes from his Yes bandmates poured in on the official Yes website, with everyone remembering what an easygoing, down-to-earth, and friendly person he was. In a band filled with big egos and difficult personalities, Alan always did give off the impression of the guy who was just happy to go along with whatever the rest of the band decided to do -- while offering his own memorable contributions along the way.

He's the third member of Yes to shuffle off this mortal coil, following Chris Squire and original guitarist Peter Banks. And his departure comes just days after the death of Vangelis, who made four albums with singer Jon Anderson and had auditioned in 1974 for the role of Yes keyboardist, a job that ultimately went to Patrick Moraz.

Alan's death is a reminder that the heroes of rock's classic age are slowly fading away. But even as they pass, we can remain grateful for the musical creativity they've graced our ears with over the years.

Thanks for the music, Alan, and rest well.

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