For me, Relayer’s up there in the top three albums the band’s ever made – Alan White

May 2020 will see Prog legends Yes touring Europe, which will take in a series of eight dates in the UK, including one at London’s Albert Hall where, as part of its album series, fans will be treated to a complete performance of their 1974 album Relayer, plus renditions of other essential Yes classics. Their shows will consist of two parts, with the first set featuring songs from right across the band’s entire career, which will include several undoubted classics, and the second set a complete performance of Relayer.        

Alan White (photo: Gottlieb Bros)

Relayer was released during a period when an amazing amount of great prog rock was being made, with Dark Side Of The Moon, The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway and Red all coming out within a short time of each other. Many of the more adventurous musicians of the time, people like Jeff Beck and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, were being influenced by and including cutting edge jazz-fusion into their work. Yes incorporated certain elements of this into Relayer, and it’s certainly one of the band’s more distinctive albums, with the musical arrangements being conceived by Jon Anderson, with his gift for evolving complex pieces. It comprises only three tracks, with the epic Gates of Delirium, featuring several movements in varying tempos and claimed by Jon Anderson to be based on Tolstoy’s War & Peace, running in at 22 minutes, followed by two ten minute pieces, the frenetic Sound Chaser, followed by the more relaxed To Be Over, a piece almost at odds with Delirium and Chaser, given its almost ethereal approach and, says Anderson, was a ‘plea for peace.’ The album had an edgier, almost avant-garde feel and the music was somewhat different from earlier Yes albums; denser, darker and more aggressive, containing complex rhythms, quirky time signatures and analogue synths, with Chris Squire ignoring the rule book and playing bass like a lead guitar, Steve Howe tearing off some amazing guitar passages and Alan White holding it all together with some split-second time signature changes. The instrumental passages sounded like nothing Yes had ever attempted before, with some stellar musicianship which ranks up there with the very best of the musicians already making their name in prog.

The music and playing was different because, by the time Yes came to write and record what was to become Relayer, the band had undergone two significant changes in their dramatis personae, with drummer Bill Bruford leaving to be replaced by Alan White, whose short career to date had already included playing behind Billy Fury, Terry Reid and the Plastic Ono Band, and keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman walking away after his disillusion with Topographic Oceans, eventually to be replaced by Swiss musician Patrick Moraz, who joined the band from Refugee (essentially The Nice without Emerson) after an audition with Vangelis didn’t work out, though he was later to team up with Jon Anderson. Moraz only played on this one Yes album, but he brought a lot to the band and his faster, more aggressive jazz-funk style drove the music along and gave it a harder edge.

Relayer was released in November 1974 and was the first, and still the only, Yes album where all the songs are credited to Yes as a collective, rather than each piece of music credited to a particular musician, though the single Soon, an edit from Delirium, was credited solely to Jon Anderson. The album divided critics and fans, with some claiming it was just meandering without any creativity or inspiration, while others maintained it was a true masterpiece. Whatever, it reached no 4 in the UK album charts and no 5 in the USA.

So why Relayer, 44 years after its original release,and why now ? Long serving drummer Alan White, the only constant member of the band since joining in 1972, spoke to Velvet Thunder to enlighten us about it… “Every so often, we base a tour around one of the albums the band’s done throughout its career, and this time it’s Relayer’s turn,” he stated. “It’s one of the landmark albums in the band’s history. At the time we made it, there was some very adventurous playing and the music was different from what anyone else was putting out. The band was just being very exploratory around this time.”  He agreed with the comment about Yes’s music always being exploratory back then, and how Yes always sought to move forwards. “Well, we had a reputation for doing things nobody else did and, as a result, we got people coming to our concerts to see how we did it. Relayer was a big achievement for all the individual players in the band because everyone was a virtuoso with their instrument, we just pooled all the ideas together and this is what we came up with. It was very successful as well.”

Yes 2020 (photo: Gottlieb Bros)

Could Yes have made an album like Relayer had Patrick Moraz not replaced Rick Wakeman, given he brought a different skill set to the band, I wondered? “Patrick affected the kind of music we were playing,” Alan stated, “because, with Rick Wakeman in the band, the music was more classically influenced, but when Patrick came in, he added more of a jazzy kind of element to the music and to what we were doing at the time. But we’d been working on ideas for the music which became Relayer before Patrick became involved, and there was a lot of keyboard driven music, which was quite exciting.” Vangelis had been auditioned before Moraz, I queried? “Yeah, he had,” Alan agreed. “He was the first person we looked at because he was a good friend of Jon Anderson. We did a rehearsal with Vangelis, an audition-type thing, but I think he was a little bit too big for what the band was looking for at this time. He’s an incredible musician and an incredible person, but he’s a thing all to himself, he was too big to be in a band with us. I’ve since played on quite a few things with him, on different projects, which was a lot of fun”. The real question is, would Relayer have been anything like as adventurous had Rick Wakeman not left the band? “Oh, I’m sure we would have done another album, though whether as similar, maybe not, as Rick has a more classical approach to the keyboards. But Patrick brought in something different as he had more of a jazzy kind of thing, and the music became a little bit more aggressive. But everybody in the band wanted to prove we could do some great stuff without Rick being involved, even though Rick’s a great musician. So, this added a little bit more drive to it.”

Over the years, Yes have undergone a number of changes in key personnel, with an estimated sixteen musicians having played in the band, some more than once, but few have had the kind of effect Moraz had on the band. Given his longevity in the band, I was interested as to what was Alan’s take on this? “Patrick’s an amazing keyboard player and his ability to adjust to what we were doing was pretty incredible, but like you say, everybody who came into the band over the years seemed somehow to have an influence on the direction of the music in one way or another. If you go through all our albums back to back, they’re all pretty diverse, but there’s still a common thread as there’s Yes music in them all, but at the same time there’s the influence of the people playing it.”

Despite the success of Relayer, Patrick Moraz was asked to leave the band, and later claimed he was never even paid for what he contributed to the successful Relayer 1976 tour, after Jon Anderson had played Rick Wakeman some of his new song ideas, which he thought were better than their previous work, so Wakeman rejoined the band and Yes released Going for the One in 1977, which made no 1 in the UK album charts. “Indeed, which was another landmark album in the history of Yes and, yet again, pretty adventurous in some ways. We were using telephone lines to record the keyboards,” he laughed. “When the church organ in Parallels came in, I was ten miles away from Rick when he was playing this. I counted him in and suddenly this big organ came in and we were all playing together.”

There’s a school of thought amongst Yes fans about Relayer being almost the ‘black sheep’ of Yes’s 1970’s albums… too dense and experimental for classic rock radio and too jazzy and abrasive for the average prog fan. “It’s a very complex album, and I agree it is an acquired taste,” Alan said, “but at the same time I must admit it’s one of my favourite Yes albums.” I reminded Alan he’s on record as stating “Relayer is one of the most creative and interesting musical compositions in the band’s repertoire, challenging and extremely enjoyable to play. People often ask what my favourite Yes album is, and from the perspective of where the rhythm section is coming from, I always single out Relayer”. Would this this still be his view as Yes prepares to tour the album in 2020? “Well, it’s still one of my favourite albums,” he agreed.  “You see, every Yes album is so diverse and different in certain ways, and it’s kind of hard to isolate one from the other as being my favourite album, because albums like Topographic Oceans took us so long, and Relayer was the next one, and it’s very much a musician’s album. For me, Relayer’s up there in the top three albums the band’s ever made. But there’s something different about every Yes album, and about the character of the band making the album.”

From a musician’s point of view, Relayer contained some quite outrageous time signatures. As a drummer, I wondered did he find these hard to come to terms with and play?“ No”, he replied adamantly. “At the time, as I said, everybody in the band was very adventurous, and I would just come up with a rhythm which was new, and sometimes something would develop from this. I came up with the rhythm for Sound Chaser, and the whole song developed from the rhythm I came up with. I ask someone to play it and they’d say, ‘I can’t play this,’ and it’s hard for us to play today, but we did it. It’ll take us a while to get match fit to play it again, but we’re rehearsing for the tour at the moment.”

After our talk about Relayer, I concluded by asking Alan about his early days pre-Yes, when he’d played with stellar talent like Billy Fury, Terry Reid and the Plastic Ono Band, and I wondered, given he must have a wealth of stories he could tell, had he ever considered an autobiography? “Well, yeah, I’ve been asked by quite a few people to do this”, he laughed, “but I keep saying ‘I’m not finished yet’, and then they reply, ‘well then, we’ll do a sequel’. I mean, I’ve got enough stories to last a lifetime but it’d have to be done at the right time, and I’m still playing in Yes.  I was really young when I played with Billy Fury, about 17. The band I was in won a talent contest, and we ended up backing Billy. With the Plastic Ono band, at the time I had my own club band in London and, somehow, John saw or heard of me and, when he was putting the Plastic Ono band together, he called me. So, I ended up going to the airport, went to Toronto and ended up playing at the ‘Live Peace concert,’ with Lennon, Eric Clapton and Klaus Vorman.”

Before he was even 21, Alan White had already experienced more than many drummers do in a lifetime, and he had still to join Yes and make his name as a musician. With all he’s achieved in his playing career, and the memories he has, any autobiography he wrote would be well worth a read, that much is certain!

(Tickets available from Yes Official)