Even before joining Yes in 1972, Alan White (1949-2022) had drummed with John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, George Harrison, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, Billy Fury, Denny Laine and Billy Preston. Had he quit the business after playing on Imagine and All Things Must Pass his place in music history would have been assured.
Yet he’ll be best remembered for his almost half-century with Yes, which saw him inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2017, and covered an extraordinary breadth and range of music within that ever-changing band.
Here are ten of his finest creations with the affirmative prog giants.
Heart Of The Sunrise (Yessongs, 1973)
When Bill Bruford left Yes after Close To The Edge, eleven days before a huge tour, White – friendly with their producer Eddy Offord - was invited to join. He was given just three days to learn their challenging repertoire, and debuted with them in Dallas Texas on July 30, ’72.
The ensuing pick-and-mix live album featured three Bruford tracks but the rest was White, swiftly mastering such implausibly tricky numbers as Starship Trooper, Roundabout and this monster.
The Revealing Science Of God (Dance Of The Dawn) (Tales From Topographic Oceans, 1973)
For his first studio album with the band, did Yes ease White in with a simple, straightforward piece of work? They did not.
Tales… is famously one of the most divisive double albums in rock history. Ambitious or pretentious? Cosmically inspired, or up its own black hole? Either way, its sprawling sonic journey through Hindu and Yogi texts is, to this day, like nothing else, and White’s versatility gives it, vitally, some kind of through-line narrative.
The Gates Of Delirium (Relayer, 1974)
The one where Patrick Moraz replaced Rick Wakeman, Relayer is a unique album even among the Yes discography. Arty, aggressive in parts, its 22-minute Side One (ie, this track) was effectively Jon Anderson’s stab at War And Peace.
He and White, so enthused that you might even say they sometimes got carried away, experimented with sound, for one section toppling over huge piles of car parts they’d sourced from a scrap yard. Trevor Horn reckoned this music changed his life.
Sound Chaser (Relayer, 1974)
From the same album, recorded in Chris Squire’s home/garage studio in Surrey, although it sounds like it comes from Mars, a whirl with jazz fusion and even – no really – funk. It counter-intuitively blends Howe’s flamenco guitar and Moraz’s wild synths and, like so many Yes numbers, shouldn’t coalesce to make sense – yet does.
You wonder if any other drummer could possibly have glued together all the disparate impulses and influences at play in the music of Yes.
Going For The One (Going For The One, 1977)
After a hiatus during which each Yes member made a solo album, with White releasing 1976’s Ramshackled, the latest line-up reconvened in Montreux to come up with an album of – by their standards - shorter, sharper songs (excepting the15 -minute Awaken).
They landed another Number One, at what in the media bubble was considered the height of punk. White co-wrote Turn Of The Century, but the clear flagships were Wonderous Stories and this electrifying rush of energy.
Release, Release (Tormato, 1978)
A much-mocked album, not least by Rick Wakeman: Chris Squire once said he thought that Wakeman and Howe were competing to see who could play the most notes within each bar. The White-Squire-Anderson co-write Release, Release, however, is weird and intriguing.
Composed under the working title 'The Anti-Campaign', delving faintly into sociology, and featuring a football crowd cheering during the solos, it’s an atypical offering, with White’s double-tracked drums unignorable.
Machine Messiah (Drama, 1980)
Another new chapter for Yes, with Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes in for Anderson and Wakeman. Drama was a rushed recording, but fairly well received, despite the new boys getting booed onstage.
Machine Messiah was described by rock writer Chris Welch as “unexpectedly heavy metal”, and White referred to it as “his baby”: he reportedly egged a tiring Squire on to learn the difficult bass parts required. Many were surprised to get Black Sabbath when they’d braced themselves for Buggles.
Owner Of A Lonely Heart (90125, 1983)
The production by (now ex member) Horn defined the next extension of Yes, as 90125 gave the supposed “dinosaurs” another lease of life and by far their biggest selling album.
Owner Of A Lonely Heart of course crossed over into places which had never been on Yes’s map, and White’s contribution was crucial. While its Fairlight frolics are the opposite of old school drumming, Horn told this writer that he and White spent happy hours putting the rhythm together with their new tech-y toys.
Rhythm Of Love (Big Generator, 1987)
With Yes now a much-changed pop-rock beast and Trevor Rabin pulling most levers, this troubled album saw Horn leave halfway as “it was just warring factions trying to kill each other”. Somehow they got it done – could it be that drummer, holding everything together again?
This single, described by Rabin as “just sex” (we’re a long way from Fragile), even boasts a quasi-Whitesnake video, while White’s big booming entrance is the very essence of 1987 rock.
Fly From Here Part 1: We Can Fly (Fly From Here, 2011)
Their personnel switched around like football managers for years, but perhaps the most realistic “return to form” came when White, Squire, Howe, Horn and Downes combined with singer Benoit David on this slick yet emotive Horn production, the 20th Yes studio album.
Revitalising this lost song, which Buggles had written and Yes had performed live on the Drama tour, proved an inspired idea. As always, Alan White knows when to taxi and when to lift off.