Chris Squire: Starship Trooper

The devastation felt by fellow musicians and fans following the news of Chris Squire’s death has been immeasurable. Tributes have accurately portrayed Squire as one of the world’s most innovative and talented bass players, as well as recognising his gregarious personality and ability to keep Yes functioning at the highest level, despite what often appeared to be an ever-changing line-up.

For all those accolades, his loss on a personal level has been keenly felt by those who’ve worked closely with him over the past five decades, and Yes drummer Alan White has been a constant rhythmic companion for 43 of those years. Despite sounding clearly distressed at the loss of Squire, White is keen to pay tribute to his close friend, reflecting on the last few weeks and how Squire had remained optimistic about defeating the disease.

“It isn’t an easy subject for any of us to approach and it has been a difficult couple of weeks,” he says. “We knew what was happening quite a while ago but it really happened quicker than we anticipated. Finally, the thing that let him down was his heart, not the cancer, as he just got very weakened by everything. I did speak to Chris quite often when I could and he was fully optimistic about beating this thing and going on the road next year. His attitude was wonderful and I didn’t see this blow coming for a long time. It’s been really devastating for everybody involved and he was like family to me. I’ve been married to my wife for 33 years but I’ve known Chris 10 years longer than that. So you get to know somebody like family, how you can count on them, and how he always seemed to be there when needed.”

From a musical perspective, the pair had developed an understanding that remains rare. There was an unspoken, subconscious appreciation of how a song would develop when in the studio, or which direction any subtle, fresh twists added to onstage performances would take. Squire’s style was also pioneering, often using the bass to provide a lead melody, and as White accurately observes, that technique became part of what made Yes albums so idiosyncratic.

“I can see him now with a Rickenbacker on, playing his bass almost like a lead guitar,” he says. “It really was distinctive and became a big stamp on what Yes’ music is, and was, throughout all the periods of the band. You could always hear Chris’ style within the music. In the music business, Chris was an icon and a guy who had developed a style nobody else had. He really laid the foundation stone for a lot of bass players and musicians to look up to, including myself.

“We went through so many really incredible times together. I played with him constantly for the last 43 years, so it’s pretty heart-wrenching for me to be all of a sudden faced with performing without him. We had a relationship where we didn’t have to speak that much to each other about what the other person would do. We just knew over the years what was going to happen next, you know?”

Squire’s musical reputation aside, his role within Yes was pivotal. The only member to appear on every album, he became the band’s natural leader, especially in later years when their line-up was more fluid. Yet even during the 1970s, Squire felt an immense responsibility to ensure the music they were recording was at what he perceived to be a high level, something White recalls would lead to a few inner tensions – especially with Jon Anderson. But it was that creative spark and occasional abrasion between the pair that he believes was responsible for creating such high-calibre music.

“The band was started by him and Jon, and they had what I would say was a great relationship, even if a lot of other people wouldn’t!” says White with a wry laugh. “Let’s just say they had a very yin and yang relationship. Jon would love something and Chris would think it was awful. Chris wouldn’t like something but Jon would adore it, sometimes out of spite I think. So that yin and yang aspect was really the beginning of what Yes was and what Yes became. It was the fact that Jon and Chris were tugging at each other’s strings, trying to get the best out of what there was, that made it great. It would usually end up being better because they both decided on something down the middle and that always worked incredibly well. It really would happen a lot.

“I think, over the years, Chris felt he was one of the go-to people for Yes. He was always there, making sure we were doing the right thing. He gave a lot of thought to the band and he thought of the band as the number one priority. It was a huge thing in his life. It was the driving force for him to wake up and carry on with it every single day. He was also always so proud of the fact that we were Yes and always a little bit different from other bands. We had our own kind of stamp on the industry.”

Above: Chris Squire with Yes bandmate and friend Alan White. Photo by GETTY.

Squire was far from a dictatorial presence within the band, though. Indeed, he would often quietly watch from the side of the studio before making his point. Rick Wakeman once noted that Squire was someone who would “come to the fore when necessary”, and it was that ability to sift out any musical weakness and firmly state an opinion when it became essential that became central to the Yes machine. It’s an opinion shared by White, who recalls with fondness the countless times when that happened.

“I remember that during some of the early days when we used to be mixing the album,” he says. “Back then it was all about striving for perfection and making music nobody else was really doing. We created a standard by ourselves and the musicianship from everyone concerned took off in leaps and bounds. The bar was set pretty high back then and still is.

“There’s a very famous picture I’ve got here on the wall of our engineer Eddy Offord and the band. The photograph is of the whole band all with their hands on the faders on the desk and he’s just watching everybody. That really was what it was like as everybody wanted their parts to come out. Sometimes, when something was going on, Chris would take a seat in the background. But when it was required, he would always step up and be forthright about things and would say, ‘No, I’m sorry guys but this is the way it should be.’ Nine times out of ten, we would end up doing it that way, and then later you’d admit to yourself that it did sound great. He was a perfectionist. If there was ever a slight flaw in the system or the music, Chris would find it. That would then be shared and we would try to resolve it.”

Such a quest to record music that Squire deemed to be flawless was undoubtedly hugely trying, and indeed tales of afternoons spent arguing over single chord changes are rife. Even on more productive days, when ideas had developed into plausible tracks, there would be overnight changes of heart, leading the band to discard vast swathes of music to begin the writing process all over again. With hindsight and perspective, though, White recalls such tales with an appreciative and warm fondness, clearly thankful that Squire’s presence had pushed the band in the right direction.

“I can’t tell you the amount of times where we would take something home and come back the following day into the studio and Chris would say, ‘This doesn’t work at all, we need to try it this way,’” White says. “He’d take the stuff that we’d spent all day doing, listen to it in the car and then come back in the next day and say we needed to start again. That happened on so many occasions in Yes, but things always sounded better in the end.”

At times like these, it seems unseemly and almost tasteless to even consider what lies ahead for Yes. The loss of Squire remains both shocking and distressing, and it feels extremely inappropriate at this time of mourning for his family and bandmates to even consider discussing future plans. There’s a feeling that all concerned need a period of reflection away from the band, and the mere notion of touring or recording seems trivial in comparison to the personal loss felt by those close to the bassist. Yet White is determined to bring up the topic.

“When he was ill, Chris asked me personally if I would keep everything going, regardless of what happened, which is what we are now attempting to do,” he says. “The only thing that ever concerned him was that Yes carried on, that we were respected and that the band always had top-class musicians creating music in our own style. He was very much the driving force in that whole area.

“It’s not going to be easy but we’ll have to just get on with it. We can’t just drop our tools – we have to keep the Yes name going and really keep this torch alight. I certainly will be carrying a torch for Chris to keep everything going, generating great music and putting together some great stage shows. We just have to make it happen, and the sense of perfection he always had should still maintain itself in the music. We have to keep that rolling on and keep the Yes name alive.”

He was always so proud of the fact that we were Yes and always a little bit different from other bands. We had our own kind of stamp on the industry.

With a certain cruelty of timing, the band are embarking on a summer tour of the US throughout August and September, giving them only a short time to recover before appearing again onstage. Billy Sherwood had already been recruited for the tour, given Squire’s inability to perform when battling his illness, and there’s every sign that he may ultimately become Squire’s permanent replacement.

For all those practical difficulties, White is hoping the fans will embrace Sherwood, given his virtually impossible task of replacing such an icon. He is also acutely aware that it will be emotional to perform without his friend in front of him, and admits that he finds it a dreadful prospect.

“On this next tour we’ll be using Billy Sherwood, who was a very close friend of Chris’ for a lot of years,” says White. “He knows the bass and moulded himself on Chris in the early days, and is familiar with pretty much every Yes part there is. Hopefully people will accept that now. He was in the band for a while as well, so it’s not like he’s going to be an alien character coming in.

“We know how much Chris will be missed and hopefully we can make up for it. The tour starts in August and it would be wrong to say I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be really hard for me to get used to not looking at his huge framework on stage in front of me, driving the band. All I can do is just get back into the driving seat with everybody else on stage and basically do it for him. I’m going to have to buckle up and get on with it.”

Photo below by Barry Plummer.