Chris Squire: the hands that built prog

In 1968, 19-year-old Chris Squire came round in the geriatric ward of the Chelsea And Westminster Hospital, convinced he was dead. He’d ended up there after taking homemade LSD, and being found, crazed and gibbering, by his girlfriend at the flat they shared in nearby Kensington. “It was like being in God’s waiting room,” Squire recalls now. “For a while I really didn’t know if I was still alive.”

When he realised he wasn’t dead, Squire returned to the flat – and stayed there for months. “This girl looked after me,” he sighs. “She worked all day and I stayed in all day. The most I could manage was a trip to the shops at the end of the road.” There was, he insists, one good outcome to all this. “Day after day, I just practised and practised playing the bass.”

Squire’s drug misadventure was arguably the jumping-off point for a career with Yes that has lasted five decades and amassed around 30 million album sales. Despite those figures, the resolutely unsexy ‘prog rock’ tag means Yes never attracted the critical acclaim enjoyed by some of their contemporaries. Nor did they split up for any length of time and wait for their stock to rise. Instead, Yes just kept going, with Chris Squire permanently behind the wheel, and sometimes driving without due care and attention.

Yes’s line-up has changed with comical frequency, but Squire remains the one constant. His thunderous, acrobatic bass lines and harmony vocals have fired up every Yes album from their 1969 debut to this summer’s Heaven & Earth. But he remains an enigma: a multi‑million-selling rock star who can still go about his business without being accosted for an autograph or selfie every five minutes.

Today there’s more of Chris Squire than there once was. But, at well over six feet tall, he carries it well. Dressed from platinum-blond head to toe in black, the 66-year-old moves through the 15th-floor bar of London’s Langham Hotel with the unhurried, regal gait of a Tudor king, albeit one with an Alexander McQueen skull-print scarf draped around his neck.

His opening gambit – “Shall we get a glass of wine?” – is quickly followed by “How about a bottle?” And so, as World Cup pundits discuss Germany’s chances against France on a nearby plasma screen, Squire settles down with a glass of chilled Chablis.

“My first job was not far from here,” he says, casting an eye out of the window. “It was at Boosey And Hawkes, the music publishers. I’d been kicked out of school, and my mum took me to a recruitment agency and said: ‘My son likes music. Have you got anything for him?’”

Squire’s whole music career seems to have been marked by a series of happy accidents. Raised in the north London suburb of Kingsbury, he was a choirboy at his local church when he joined his first group. The church’s choirmaster, Barry Rose, who would go on to conduct St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, inspired Squire and friends to form their own choral group. “Barry turned us into the best choir in England,” he says. “When King’s College or St Paul’s went on holiday, we were the go-to choir.”

All was going swimmingly until 1963 when Squire heard The Beatles. “And I thought, fuck that, I want to be in a group that don’t use music stands.” Soon, one of his schoolfriends had pointed out “my big hands” and suggested they’d be good for playing the bass.

quire started playing youth clubs in a group called The Selfs and growing his hair. Before long the headmaster of his upmarket private school had given Squire and his schoolfriend two-and-sixpence to get their hair cut. “It was the last day of term and we wanted to keep our long hair for the summer holidays, so we took his money and walked out.”

The job at Boosey & Hawkes was only ever a means to an end. Soon The Selfs merged with The Syn, and the band started playing regular gigs at the Marquee. The Syn followed the musical arc of many mid-60s groups. “Like The Who, we started off playing Tamla Motown covers,” Squire explains. “But then psychedelia came along and we went a bit silly.”

Part of going “a bit silly” involved a weekly pilgrimage to UFO, a club in London’s Tottenham Court Road, where the budding Pink Floyd played. “It became a regular weekend thing,” Squire says. “Drop acid and go to UFO on Fridays, then the trip carried on through Saturday, and on Sunday you recovered.” Which is how Squire ended up sampling a friend’s home-made LSD. “I think I had a touch of flu before I took it, so it probably wasn’t a good idea…”

Squire freaked out in the middle of the night and ended up in hospital. Despite thinking he was near death, he was soon well enough to talk to the police, who wanted to know where he’d acquired the drugs. Pretending he was still disorientated, Squire gave them a cock-and-bull story about being approached by an Australian he’d never met before in the Earls Court Wimpy bar. And they believed him. In fact, you get the impression Squire has floated through life off the back of a side order of charm, cunning and good fortune, as well as his musical talent. Despite frying his brain cells with DIY hallucinogenics, Squire practised the bass day in, day out, convinced he’d found his vocation. “The Syn had opened for Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “So I saw what was possible, and I just had this innate faith that I was going to make it.”

The Syn didn’t make it, but by summer 1968, Squire had formed Yes with The Syn’s ex-guitarist Peter Banks and Lancastrian milkman-turned-lead singer Jon Anderson. Progressive rock fans usually work themselves into a lather about such albums as Yes’s Close To The Edge (’72), and not without good reason. But Yes had been breaking new ground ever since the jazzy rearrangements of Byrds and Beatles songs on their eponymous first album. “Emotionally intense and imaginatively conceived,” was music journalist and future pasta sauce maker Loyd Grossman’s assessment of Yes’s debut in rock magazine Fusion.

There are 13 ex-members of Yes to date, if anyone’s still counting. Squire isn’t, but agrees to offer a potted profile of some of them whenever their names come up. Gifted guitarist Peter Banks (who died last year) was the first to go, replaced by Steve Howe in time for 1970’s breakthrough The Yes Album. “Pete was always a grey, sad person,” Squire says. “And he really didn’t like the orchestra on [second album] Time And A Word.”

With Howe in the band, so began Yes’s imperial 70s reign. With it came a public persona: arty, virtuoso, terribly serious…. Close To The Edge was inspired by German philosopher Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Tales From Topographic Oceans by a Hindu scripture. On stage – and determined not to be upstaged by glittery cape-wearing keyboard ace Rick Wakeman – Squire sported a billowy blouson decorated with butterfly motifs, and played an extended solo titled A Bass Odyssey.

Unlike their hedonistic contemporaries Led Zeppelin or The Who, Yes were relatively clean living – to start with. “We were strictly a pot and hash band at the beginning,” says Squire, who’d sworn off LSD after his hospitalisation.

On one occasion, he and Steve Howe found themselves in a pub with Melody Maker writer Chris Welch and had no idea what to order: “We barely drank, so I think we asked for two Camparis.”

All of the band, barring Wakeman, were also vegetarian for a time. Squire lasted five years. “And then I went back to fish,” he says. “And then it wasn’t long before someone said: ‘Hey, there’s this really good steak restaurant I know…’” Only Howe still swears off meat. “Which is why Steve still looks like a fucking stick insect.”

In the meantime, Squire had been introduced to a new, less organic perk of life in a touring rock band. On Yes’s 1973 US tour, a member of their unknown support act, the Eagles, took him aside and, like the fictitious Australian in the Earls Court Wimpy bar, said, “Try this.” Squire dipped into the bag of white powder. “Cocaine,” he says, smiling.

At some point Squire also started drinking more than the occasional Campari. “I became very, very involved in wine,” he murmurs, peering into his Chablis like a fortune-teller pondering a crystal ball. Squire would go on to install a well-stocked wine and port cellar in the mock-Tudor mansion he shared with first wife Nikki and their three daughters in the rock stars’ enclave of Virginia Water, Surrey.

Then again, Squire could afford it. By the end of the 1970s Yes had scored eight consecutive UK and US Top 10 albums, and their bass player had made a solo album, 1975’s Fish Out Of Water, which featured his old choirmaster Barry Rose on pipe organ. Anyone needing a reminder should seek out a clip from a 1975 edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test, where Squire performs his pomp-rock single Hold Out Your Hand, backed by a string section and wearing what appears to be a cross between a kimono and a set of Laura Ashley curtains.

It was all getting “a bit silly” again. Yes’s 1974 album Relayer included a jazz-prog-fusion workout titled The Gates Of Delirium, featuring Wakeman’s replacement, Swiss keyboard maestro Patrick Moraz (“The best Hammond player I ever worked with,” offers Squire. “But Steve and him didn’t have a bond”). Unsurprisingly, NME denounced Yes as the “ultimate in Pomposity Rock”, and were soon championing the Sex Pistols and The Clash instead.

Not that Yes cared. “Did we notice punk rock? Not at all,” insists Squire, who claims that the closest he came to liking punk was when his 12-year-old daughter Carmen got him into The Police’s Outlandos d’Amour debut album. “We were getting the music papers sent to us in America, and we’d see we were being branded as dinosaurs by these new bands, and we’d think, ‘’Oo are you?’ – and then walk out and play to 120,000 people.”

Off tour, and back in Virginia Water, though, Squire barely had time to draw breath. There was always another album to write, another tour to plan, another vineyard to investigate… But he now had something to help keep him going.

“I got involved in cocaine,” he admits. “Blame the Eagles. But that was it. As far as I know, no one in Yes ever did heroin.” Apart from the time he and Nikki were at a party being thrown by Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott. “Phil was a naughty boy. He said: ‘Do you want a line of coke?’ And there was smack in it.”

Squire drove home from the party – “one did in those days” – in a euphoric haze: “We came to these traffic lights and I just stayed there. After a while Nikki said: ‘You do realise the lights have changed from red to green four times since we’ve been sitting here?’ I was just sat behind the wheel going: ‘Hmmm, this is good.’”

Yes had weathered punk, but the wheels were now coming off the band. Spiritually minded Jon Anderson would later grumble about how certain band members’ drug habits were putting his chakras out of balance. But Squire insists that drugs weren’t the problem, and that by 1978’s Tormato album, “We were all sick of each other and needed a break.”

Anderson and Wakeman walked out after aborted sessions with producer Roy Thomas Baker. Another band might have thrown in the towel. Once again, though, Squire’s innate faith carried him through. Anderson and Wakeman were quickly replaced by vocalist Trevor Horn and keyboard player Geoff Downes, aka The Buggles, whose Video Killed The Radio Star had just been a huge hit. “They were huge Yes fans,” says Squire. Another happy accident, then.

Downes, who is back in the current line-up, described what it was like joining Yes in 1979: “They all had their own limos, and were buried in that ‘rock star with a big house’ image.”

The next Yes album seems to have been recorded to a backdrop of screeching Rolls-Royce tyres and urgent phone calls to managers, wives and drug dealers. It had the appropriate title Drama. “We’d sold out four Madison Square Garden shows in advance,” recalls Squire, “so we had five weeks in which to get the album done before then. That’s where the cocaine was useful. Because it was night after night of sixteen-hour sessions.”

Released in 1980, Drama fizzled with Class A’s, but its urgency and energy were preferable to the over-ripe Tormato.

Yet the line-up didn’t last, and Squire soon found himself at a Christmas party swapping numbers with Jimmy Page. “John Bonham had died, and Jimmy wanted to start playing again.” Squire roped in Yes drummer Alan White and the three met up at a studio in Maidenhead. Page was on a health kick. “Jimmy was really behaving himself,” says Squire now. “Only smoking cigarettes through a holder.”

The trio demo’d four instrumental tracks, and Squire’s dad suggested a name for the blossoming supergroup: XYZ. According to Chris, though, Zeppelin’s over-protective manager, Peter Grant, objected to the Y for Yes coming before the Z for Zeppelin. It was the first big problem. The second was that they didn’t have a singer, and despite Page’s promises, Robert Plant never showed up. “For that reason it just fizzled out,” he says.

In the meantime, Steve Howe and Geoff Downes went on to enjoy a US No.1 album in 1982 with their new group, Asia. Squire must have been just a bit jealous and hungry for revenge?

“No, not jealous,” he insists, as I refill his glass. “I did think, though, that Asia was a bit corporate American rock and sounded as if it had been assembled by radio programmers.”

A year later, Jon Anderson had rejoined Yes, and Trevor Horn was ensconced as producer. Yes emerged, as if from cryogenic storage, with a hotshot young guitarist, Trevor Rabin, and a state-of-the-art Fairlight sampling synthesiser. The subsequent album, 1983’s 90125, become Yes’s biggest-seller ever, and delivered a UK and US hit with Owner Of A Lonely Heart. A harsher critic might call that album corporate American rock. But what saved 90125 was that Yes again broke new ground by using sampled sounds left over from Horn’s last production gig, punk svengali Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock album. “Nobody had heard those sounds before,” says Squire, proudly. “It was all very new.”

By now, though, Squire’s marriage had broken up and he’d moved to Los Angeles where he began his blurry Hollywood phase: “There was a party every night.” Meanwhile, the redux Yes could be seen performing on MTV and disguising their forty-something wrinkles behind Dynasty-style hairdos. It couldn’t last. And it didn’t. Anderson walked out after 1987’s Big Generator.

“I never wanted to call that version of the band Yes,” Squire insists. “But it was [Atlantic Records executive] Phil Carson who said: ‘Why try a new brand when the old one has been so successful?’”

You suspect that Squire has been adhering to that maxim ever since.

“I know I’m the only member of Yes to have been in the band the whole time, but it’s not by design but by default,” he insists. “I’ve always been the one left holding the baby, and what happens is new people come along to help me hold it.”

Current members Steve Howe and Geoff Downes have been in and out more than once. Jon Anderson is currently out, due to ill health, and their new album Heaven & Earth has American vocalist Jon Davison helping to hold the baby – and sounding remarkably like Anderson.

“I spoke to Jon Anderson not long ago,” reveals Squire, who gives the impression that some ex-Yes members are sitting on a substitutes’ bench just waiting for the nod. “We had a nice chat. I think we will do something together again – it’s just that he may not be up for full-scale touring.”

As for Rick Wakeman – a fully paid‑up member of the ‘No Jon Anderson, No Yes’ club, and King Rat of the showbiz charity organisation The Grand Order Of Water Rats – Squire’s not so sure. “I don’t think Rick’s interested,” he sniffs. “He’s in his own world, working his way towards his knighthood.”

Life for Chris Squire seems more sedate now. These days he lives in Phoenix, Arizona with third wife Scotland and their five-year-old daughter Xilan. “It’s been good for me to have a young kid again,” says this father-of-five, “especially one that’s had an iPad since she was two.”

For Yes, the days of limousines, mock-Tudor mansions, 120,000-seaters and the Eagles’ marching powder are a distant memory. So too, though, are the brave new sounds that typified the likes of Drama and 90125 in the 80s. Yes albums nowadays sound like old Yes albums but without what Loyd Grossman might call the “emotional intensity”. When Squire spends five minutes dissecting the shortcomings of Yes’s current label, Frontier Records, there’s a sense that he misses those good old bad old days.

Nevertheless, Yes are still in demand. By the time you read this they’ll be deep into a US tour. Just don’t expect to hear much from Heaven & Earth. “The tour had been sold as ‘Yes does Close To The Edge and [their 1971 album] Fragile,’” admits Squire.

Which is fine, except Fragile contains solo compositions by three ex-band members, some of which could be described as ‘challenging’. Right now drummer Alan White is tackling his predecessor Bill Bruford’s atonal solo workout Five Per Cent For Nothing. “It’s some sort of exercise in drum logistics,” Squire laughs. “We’ve rehearsed and rehearsed it.”

However, as Squire drains the last of his Chablis and prepares to toddle off, you know he’ll weather this storm like he has every other storm in the band’s history. “I still enjoy it,” he says. “It’s part of me. It’s what I do.” From lapsed choirboy and would-be acid casualty to CEO of Brand Yes, it’s not been a bad life for Chris Squire.

Mark Blake

Mark Blake is a music journalist and author. His work has appeared in The Times and The Daily Telegraph, and the magazines Q, Mojo, Classic Rock, Music Week and Prog. He is the author of Pigs Might Fly: The Inside Story of Pink Floyd, Is This the Real Life: The Untold Story of Queen, Magnifico! The A–Z Of Queen, Peter Grant, The Story Of Rock's Greatest Manager and Pretend You're in a War: The Who & The Sixties.