SINGER WITH YES. COLLABORATOR WITH VANGELIS, KEYBOARD PLAYER ON THE QUIET, AND THE POSSESSOR OF STRANGE POWERS OVER POLICEMEN. DOES THE ABOVE REFER TO JON ANDERSON OR PAUL COLBERT? READ ON AND FIND OUT.
IT IS FRIDAY the 13th, and Jon Anderson has a dog and an idea. He comes down the stairs of his flat with his pet, and explains the plan for the day — would I mind accompanying him as he presents The London Festival Ballet with his outline for a new production and its music. Sounds good to me. What could go wrong, even on a date like today?
We approach Anderson's imaginatively parked jeep which is about to be determinedly wheelclamped, and the answer would appear to be 'nothing'. Two sentences from Anderson and we're in the jeep, driving free, with a half dazed clamp man in our dust, still clutching one half of a yellow horror. How did he do it? No one ever talks their way out of a clamping.
Obviously, Anderson's mind is working in the same direction. "Do you remember that bit in Star Wars," he enquires, "where Obi Wan Kenobi gets them into the space port by controlling the thoughts of the police..." Hang on, I know Yes have a reputation for cosmicness, but it just doesn't bear thinking about. Let's try something simpler. Keyboards.
"One of the classic things that amazes me," explains Anderson, warming to the new subject as we drive, "is that there isn't a choir keyboard around. It doesn't have to produce words, it could just be a-e-i-o-u. It surprises me that no company has done it. I work with Korg and I'm pushing them all the time." Though he may have 'vocalist' on his passport, most of Anderson's writing is done on keyboards, at his home studio. He professes to be "a great Vangelis fan" and considers that worthy has made a "quantum leap" in synthesis. As for his own technique, well...
"I feel a great frustration with a lot of technology because companies will build an instrument that becomes famous, and that's all they'll build for two years. And then, there were things like an old Roland keyboard where you could write in a bass line and hear it back in a different key by pressing a new note. There isn't that sort of capability any more, it's too simple. In some ways the great things that they found, they've forgot."
Later in the day he defines exactly what he'd like to see developed. "My dream is that I'll be able to sing to a computer and it will give me back the notes that I sang but with an orchestra, string section, brass section, woodwind and choir playing them." Fairlight already do their Voice Tracker system, and there's a similar vocals-to-MIDI product from Cherry Lane, but they're not there yet.
"I think you may one day have to copyright your own voice," insists Anderson, only half mockingly, "because someone will be able to say, 'okay, we'll have Robert Plant singing this line with these words', and so on.
"I know it sounds incredible and unlikely, but then, 20 years ago drummers would have said, 'what, a machine do this, no way...'."
But for the purposes of this particular jeep ride, what's this ballet stuff about? "I've always fancied getting into that sort of scene. I did a ballet about five years ago for the Scottish Ballet and nobody asked me again after that so it must have been fucking terrible." He'd backed out of using his own keyboard tracks thinking a full orchestra must be better "but to get string sounds like some machines you'd need a hundred players, and they do have to live, and they do charge a fortune for their services."
We park in a sloping residential road behind the Royal Albert Hall and stroll to the Ballet's HQ. As a breathtakingly beautiful woman leads us to her office Anderson whispers that we'll "just say you're an old friend of mine". Before I can enter into the spirit and tell her about the time old Jonbo and I really tied one on in the Hampstead Wimpy, she slips away to "organise coffee".
While she's gone, Anderson expounds the inspiration for his projected piece: "The Toltecs were the originals before the Aztecs. I had this dream of a gold shield put in a river by these three beautiful Indians, or maybe they were taking it out. It was a very strong dream because I wasn't asleep I was sort of relaxing under a pyramid. It just seemed a very interesting possibility that on this shield... were hieroglyphics, the same sort of hieroglyphics you get on NASA that they send into deep space, and that it pertains to light travel. The scientists were just getting into it, and that's how the Toltecs disappeared from the earth."
The Toltecs were a race that pre-dated the Aztecs, and who mysteriously vanished from the face of the earth. All of them. One theory holds that they got so disgusted with the way the world was going, they simply walked into the desert to die. As we pore over the sheaf of stage set drawings, and listen to the outline home-demo Anderson's produced, he remains quiet about his own alternative and I begin to wonder how much of it was to test the plot out on me first. Anyway the music, the concepts, and the set designs all appear to go down well.
As we re-emerge, and march back up the hill to his jeep, a deep, shared understanding forms between us that perhaps the world would have been a better place if the Toltecs had stayed and the traffic wardens had buggered off into dunes. His car's been clamped. Yet he's still smiling. This is a genuinely calm man.
No Star Wars escape this time. We're ready to seek a cab when Anderson recalls his pet pooch and about turns to rescue the animal from the back seat. We stare through the windows. The dog's not there. Another shared understanding forms. We left the dog in the street in the original escape from the clamping men. Quel horreur.
Urgent phone calls and further cab rides ensue, during which time the tape recorder leaps off again. In the midst of all this keyboard technology, did he still sing much, I wondered?
"Every day, and I'm writing songs every other day. I'm pretty critical about the way I sing and I like to think I'm getting more mature in my style, and that that will come out in the next two or three years... better emotion, better expression."
Is that something you can work on, I quizzed, as we turned into his street? "No it comes with time... look for that dog over your side, poor little thing's probably running around."
In the event, the dog had hoofed off with the smarts-of-the-day award by calmly waiting outside the entrance of the flat until the next resident opened the door. He'd then bolted upstairs to comfort, or so the commissionaire reassuringly told us, as we hovered outside.
In the fourth cab of the day, en route to the unclamping office, we ponder Yes. Choice of producer is usually a tussle between Chris Squire, who likes to dive into a hi-tech studio, and Anderson who prefers a different ambience.
"Like working with Vangelis, we prefer to do it in a house, somewhere exotic like Greece or Rome for a bit of good weather. Then do the mix in a studio, obviously." And there are plans for another Vangelis collaboration.
"I was driving in Los Angeles when a cop stopped me. I didn't have any identification, no passport, no driver's licence. So he asked me who I was, and I said my name was Jon Anderson and I was in the group Yes. He said, I know them, if you're from Yes, what was your last big hit, so I said 'Owner of a Lonely Heart'. And he said, if you're Jon Anderson, sing it for me. So I stood there by the side of the car and sung the whole thing."
"He said, yup you're Jon Anderson. And he booked me."
The recording of "90125" with Trevor Horn had been an 'experience' — not a relished one judging from Anderson's comments in the queue to the unclamping counter. They really had spent weeks in pursuit of one drum sound, and in general Anderson (commendably) believes Horn spent too much time on the machinery (hiring in his own Synclavier) and not enough on the performance. But, he did get you a huge hit, Jon. Yes, he did, Paul.
As far as the new album goes: "We did all the writing last year and now we're at the stage of finishing the studio mixing and overdub work. It's taken a long time because we had a couple of months off here and there to give us all a refresher." Unfortunately they now have to prove themselves yet again as the acclaim they gained from "Owner of a Lonely Heart" onwards has slipped from the record buyer's mind.
The new album — perhaps "The Big Generator", and perhaps April — will be different again: "two or three pretty strong commercial pieces and the rest is good stage material. Trevor Rabin is a very prolific writer but then again I have the strength when it comes to doing the lyrics and actual tune, to come along with something different and make it more of a Yes song."
"Excuse me... do you have a yellow thing?"
We turn to confront the blatantly French woman, two places up the queue, who obviously recognises the Yes vocalist but doesn't quite know how to put it. Anderson nods assent. "It is worse for me," she tells us. How can that be? "I have two." Not even Obi Wan could have sorted out that one.
Interview by Paul Colbert
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