Somehow still finding his way home and away – the Jon Anderson interview

Family Portrait: Jon Anderson, the prog rock legend caught on canvas by his eldest daughter, Deborah Anderson

More than 50 years after his debut recordings with Yes, Lancashire-born US citizen and legendary vocalist and songwriter Jon Anderson remains enthused about his music, eager to spread the word about his 15th solo album.

The prog rock icon is about to see the wider release of 1000 Hands, which took 28 years to complete and is out digitally on July 31st, with a CD and deluxe double-gatefold vinyl LP issue following a fortnight later via Blue Élan Records.

The title refers to the numerous guest musicians involved with the record, including Jethro Tull legend and namesake Ian Anderson; Jon’s fellow Yes alumni Steve Howe, Alan White, and the late Chris Squire; more recent sidekick Jean-Luc Ponty (Mothers of Invention); plus Billy Cobham and Chick Corea (Miles Davis), Steve Morse (Deep Purple), and Belgium’s Zap Mama.

Heavy touring commitments with his live version of Yes and other side-projects led to workaholic Jon, now 75, putting his latest solo opus on the back-burner for longer than he ever envisaged. But as he put it, “I would listen to the tapes from time to time and think, ‘This could have been a great album. One day I’ll finish it’.”

With that in mind, he finally set up at producer Michael Franklin’s Solar Studios in Orlando, Florida, laying down backing vocals to his original lead tracks, his host calling in an array of rock and jazz luminaries to fill out the songs, also including Rick Derringer, Jonathan Cain, and the Tower of Power Horns. And as Jon added, “Michael acted like something of a casting director, bringing so many great players. It was really exciting to hear the record open up and become what I had always envisioned.”

It’s fair to say this artist has one of the most recognisable voices in the business, the lead vocalist and creative force behind the band with which he made his name – a major creative influence behind ground-breaking early ‘70s Yes LPs such as Fragile, Close to the Edge, and more besides – featuring on the first nine albums before walking away in 1980, a spell which included crossover hits in 1977 with ‘Wonderous Stories’ and ‘Going For the One’ (from the album of the same name). But he returned in ’83 to a reconfigured group, resulting in multi-million-seller, 90125, including ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, written with Trevor Rabin.

Then there was his success with Greek composer Vangelis, including UK top-10s with ‘I Hear You Now’ (1979) and ‘I’ll Find My Way Home’ (1981), and since then embarking on projects with Japanese recording artist, composer, producer and arranger  Kitaro, prog-rock guitarist/producer Roine Stolt, and the afore-mentioned jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.

There are also his solo LPs, starting with 1976’s acclaimed milestone Olias of Sunhillow – performing all the music, playing every instrument, writing a storyline, singing all the vocals – and heading through to 2009 and Survival & Other Stories, the last with just his name on before this new addition. Meanwhile, time in recent years has been swallowed up through work with former bandmates Bill Bruford, Howe and Wakeman, then later Rabin and Wakeman again, with this affable East Lancashire lad inducted with Yes into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.

I caught father of three Jon – also a grandad these days – at home in central California earlier this week, happy to be hiding away from the coronavirus, ‘up in the hills’ near the village of Arroyo Grande, describing first where he was and what he was up to.

“It’s really magnificent to be here … under strange circumstances. Me and my wife, we love each other like crazy and we’re just happy to be safe. I don’t go out, because I’m asthmatic, so have to be careful, but all is good and I’ve just been working steadily for three months on a project which I’m very excited about.”

I’m guessing you have people looking after you from afar, and a local network supporting you during this pandemic.

“Just one guy who works at the local Trader Joe’s, an old friend who called up and said, ‘What do you need? I’ll bring it every week.’ Perfect.”

In the meantime, I’m guessing you’re keeping in touch with your family and close friends.

“All the time, on a constant level, as usual.”

I’ve had a few spins of the digital version of 1,000 Hands, and I’m really enjoying it. And as I understand it, there was a limited release last year.

“Yeah, the record companies weren’t very interested. Even Atlantic Records turned me down. But we went on tour last year with the band, which originates from Orlando, musicians who went there to work at Disneyland and Universal and all these parks, and they’re so damn good, so I got together with them. The studio where we finished the album is in Orlando, run by Michael Franklin, so I was able to go over there and meet with eight wonderful, lovely people who were quite brilliant. We toured twice last year and were supposed to be on tour now. But of course no one is touring.”

Double Act: Jean-Luc Ponty joins Jon Anderson on this LP, as  on 2015’s Better Late Than Never (Photo: Cathy Miller)

Well, the album deserves to be heard. It’s been a long time coming, but for me it seems to continue perfectly the Jon Anderson story and musical journey as we know it.

“True, and as you know the crazy story is that about two-thirds of the album was recorded in Big Bear, a mountain area south-east of Los Angeles, and I had the best time in my life at that moment with some musicians I knew. I then took a couple of tracks down to Alan (White) and Chris (Squire), who were living and working in LA. They added energy on the album, and I always though it should be called ‘Uzlot’, a North country way of saying, ‘Come on, us lot, let’s play football!’.”

Mention of the contributors will have got the excitement factor up for Yes fans, and not just with Chris and Alan involved, but also Steve Howe.

“Yeah, it was like getting the old band back together, but in little bits. Steve came up at the very end. We split the song ‘Now’ into two parts, and for the second part, ‘Now and Again’, I just felt it needed some guitar. So I called up Steve, to see how he was, asked him, and he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that then – alright!’.

Incidentally, it only struck me after another listen to the new LP that there could be a link between that opening track and its accompanying album finale with ‘Then’ from second Yes LP, Time and a Word, from 1970 (and blimey, that’ll be 50 years old this year). Not least the correlation between the earlier track’s,

‘And in a time that’s closer, life will be even bolder then;                                                       Love is the only answer, hate is the root of cancer then.’

Compare that to the opening of ‘Now and Again’, as Jon sings,

“Now, knowing that now is the only centre to be, to feel, to see;
That somehow now brings you to home, brings you to eternity – you are, you see.                To know that now love is your heart, love is truly all you need.”

Honest Jon: Yes legend Jon Anderson, ready to share 1,000 Hands with the wider world (Photo: Deborah Anderson)

Just a thought. In fact, the new LP finale continues with,

‘Never forget that we are friends; Never forget here I am singing as you play;         Memories sing in this lifetime, memories never forgotten.’

There may be more links, ones far greater aficianados than me will spot. And we all love a bit of harmony, in more ways than one, right? There have been words between Jon and Steve in recent years, so it’s nice to think maybe enough water has flowed under the bridge for you to be back on better terms.

“Oh yeah … I mean, even the Beatles argued.”

I’d say maybe that’s part of what made them so special.

“Yeah, and necessity is the mother of invention. Everybody wants to put a lot of energy into a project, and because originally we were the Yes band, we were from different parts of England and all had our different attitudes to life, different energies, and everything. But I think it was that moment in time where I was very vocal about what I could hear and came up with ideas and helped everybody try different things.

“For instance, why would we try to do the song, ‘America’? But Peter Banks was in the band and he started playing the movie score (West Side Story) as a solo, and I felt that was perfect. Everybody put energy into everything we did. The Beatles went from love songs like ‘Love Me Do’, ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Ticket to Ride’ through to, all of a sudden, Revolver, Sgt Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road, expanding like wildfire. And that’s what Yes did, expanding into a musical zone that was very rare – it was kind of unique, actually.”

Incidentally, ‘America’ will be better remembered in prog-like circles for Keith Emerson’s version with The Nice, which clearly seemed to be an influence on the early Yes, who covered ‘Something’s Coming’ around the time of their self-titled debut album in 1969. And talking of the early days, does Jon remember much about that fateful first meeting in late ’67 when bar owner Jack Barrie introduced him to Chris Squire at La Chasse (where Jon worked behind the bar) at 100, Wardour Street, Soho? And bear in mind that I also said to him at this point that I didn’t want him to feel old, but I was born that October, so reckon his first co-write, ‘Sweetness’ (written with Chris Squire and his former bandmate Clive Bayley) is around the same age as me.

“Oh boy, oh boy! Well, it was a very magical moment. I’d been looking for a band to sing with, and tried a band managed by someone who managed Amen Corner, who were pretty famous at the time. They were aiming to create another band like them, and I went along to East London for an audition, where there was this big guy with a cigar – a typical manager – with a band in the room. They were really good. He asked what I wanted to sing and I asked him what the band knew. They suggested ‘Midnight Hour’, I said, ‘Why not?’, and then we did ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’. He then said, ’OK, can you come back next week? You’re in the top two. Come back next Tuesday, when the real manager’s here, and he’ll do an image test’. I said, ‘No! I’m a singer, not an image. You can get lost!’

“It was about believing in myself. I had a lot of musical ideas and once we’d started rehearsing, it was like magic for me. I hardly slept. I was so excited. We had a band that could play anything, but I suggested Bill Bruford, a jazz style drummer, quite remarkable in those early days. In fact, the early BBC tapes are damn good.”

When you and Chris got Yes together, were you properly focused on where you might be headed from the start?

“Well, there was a band in London called Family, from Birmingham. They were damn good, and I just wanted to be as good as them. And a band called Heads, Hands & Feet, with Tony Colton in that band (and also legendary guitarist Albert Lee and Chas Hodges, the latter later joining forces with Dave Peacock as mockney legends Chas & Dave). Then at clubs like The Marquee you’d get The Who come in, and Jimi Hendrix, and Keith Emerson’s The Nice were playing there. They’d come up to La Chasse and come to the bar, and I wouldn’t say anything to them because I was so very shy. But these famous people made me think I was in the right place, at least. I just had to work hard.”

As it was, Yes had their own Marquee residency by 1969, and the following year Jack Barrie took over ownership at No.90, Wardour Street, five doors down from La Chasse (he was previously an assistant manager to John Gee, with a great history of the venue here).

I only realised while putting a few questions together, it was five years ago this Saturday just gone that we lost Chris Squire. I’m guessing he’s always in your thoughts.

“All the time, and I think more so. He came to visit me on his passing. I was in Maui (Hawaii) and had this incredible dream about him, that he was passing away. I didn’t know, although I knew he wasn’t very well. Someone called and told me Chris died last night, and I said, ‘Yeah, I know. I saw him in my dream looking up at the sky, the light shining, these little tears coming down his lovely face. My wife said, ‘He loved you so much, Jon.’”

I guess that bond between thew two of you was nearly 50 years in the making.

“Yeah, and like real brothers, we didn’t get on all the time, but we were brothers, no matter what happened. I’ve mentioned it many times, but when Star Wars came out, I’d check into hotels as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he would check in as Darth Vader!”

It’s now five years since I first spoke to your old pal Rick Wakeman (with a link to that feature/interview here) and four years since I spoke with Alan White at home in Newcastle, Washington (with a link to our feature/interview here). While Rick’s happy where he is in East anglia between live engagements, Alan certainly seems settled where he is, stateside, as you are in California. It’s been more than a decade since you became an American citizen. Do you feel American?

“Very. I always feel that America’s got so much to sort out, it’s like the crazy child of the world.”

And led by a crazy child at present.

“Well, we’ve got this orange man in charge, and he’s an idiot. He’s a little baby that tells lies.”

I don’t see you as a figure who willingly speaks out publicly on politics much, but with all that’s gone on, and the hate speech the likes of Trump continue to come out with, keeping quiet’s not an option right now. You have to speak out sometimes, right?

“Well, In the Vietnam War I was very clear that it was the most stupid thing in the world, as reflected in Apocalypse Now. And America’s a mess, but it’s now ready to change. Barack Obama was so good as a leader, then the pendulum swung the other way and we have the orange man.”

Hopefully not for much longer though.

“No, he’s out of here! And he’ll lose all his money, you watch!”

I hope you’re right. And where does your beloved, Jane, hail from in the States?

“She was born in Alexandria (Virginia), near the capital, Washington (DC). I was in LA and she was living in Santa Barbara, working for (actor turned film director) Ron Howard, involved in music for films, running part of the firm, and knew so much about all that. An amazing woman in my life. I’m very blessed.”

And is it now 23 years married for you two?

“Yeah, but when people ask how long, I say ‘1,000 years’. It feels longer!”

You mentioned Maui before. Wasn’t that where you were wed?

“Yeah, an amazing event on many levels. It was wonderful, and Alan (White) was my best man.”

So I gather. I think my invite got lost in the post, but we’ll gloss over that.

“Ha!”

As you’re talking to someone settled for the last quarter-century in Lancashire from my native Surrey, I should ask if you keep in touch with your Accrington roots. Have you still got family and friends in the area?

“Yeah, my brother’s there, and his kids. We keep in touch, once a month maybe. And when I come over, they all come to the gigs. It’s funny, when you come from a small town, I remember some of the people from there and keep in touch with David Lloyd …”

Ah, the legendary Lancashire and England cricket all-rounder turned commentator, also known as Bumble, two school years younger than Jon and brought up a few streets away.

“Yeah, he lived around the corner from me and was my arch-enemy. We played football on the car park at Accrington Stanley’s Peel Park ground. He’d bring his team and we’d have battles galore, football and cricket. He’s a good old friend, and I was in touch with him about three months ago. It’s great to talk to him. Someone sent a video of him walking around Accrington, going to the football, in his flat cap …”

I saw that. A great watch. Bumble has a real passion for Stanley, something I appreciate as a fan of non-league Woking FC, having seen them play at the Crown Ground many times, and reporting on Bamber Bridge and Chorley fixtures there too in the past. Clearly though, I don’t go back as far as Peel Park (the old ground where Jon was a mascot, ball-boy and trialist, now a public park, Stanley playing their last matches there in 1962, with the old club dissolved in ’66, a new one emerging at the current ground in ’68).

“Well, the ground is still there, would you believe.”

Next time I’m passing I should make a pilgrimage in your honour … and Bumble’s. And while David Lloyd’s accent is distinctive to cricket fans, I’ll add here that Jon these days has something of an American/East Lancs hybrid accent. You hear those Lancastrian tones in his music here and there though, all these years on, something I also get listening to Neil Arthur and recordings with Blancmange. And I’m all for that. He clearly hasn’t lost it.

“Yeah … especially when I’m watching Man United. I get so angry! And I found out recently that (Paul) Pogba gets paid (around) $300,000 a week, so I give him hell!”

Do you still look out for Stanley results?

“Oh year! My brother’s son gives me all the information now and again.”

A Lancashire lad maybe, but I understand your Dad had Glaswegian roots and your Mum had Irish and French links. Were you aware as a boy of that background being different to many of your neighbours? Did that make you feel like you were destined to travel and be something other than an East Lancashire factory worker or something of that ilk?

“It’s funny, I wrote a song last week about how I would run everywhere. I don’t know why, but maybe from five or six, and then I started working on a farm when I was nine, about two miles away, and I’d make some money for the family, because my Dad was very ill. Someone asked the other day the first concert I ever saw, and I said it was my Dad on stage in 1946. I was in a stroller, my Mum serving pies and cake …”

I lost Jon at that point, my mobile phone safety buffer used up (we tried via Skype earlier, but he couldn’t hear me, leading me to call back another way), so I retried from my landline. God knows how much that will have cost … but he’s worth it, of course. Anyway, aiming to carry on where we left off, I tred again, and he finally answered with the line, ‘You have to put another penny in the gas meter’. He wasn’t so far off, I guess. So where was this farm you mentioned, Jon?

“In a place called Huncoats, top of Burnley Road there. Me and my brother would deliver milk all over that side of Accrington, near where we lived (Jon was on Norfolk Street). And we sang all the time, I remember singing Everly Brothers songs in the mid-‘50s. Actually, I just watched Blackpool playing Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup on YouTube – the Matthews final.”

Ah, 1953 and all that. Matthews, Mortensen, Lofthouse … And speaking of those formative years, how good were Little John’s Skiffle Group, your early band? Ever make any recordings?

“I hope not! Ha! We used to do Lonnie Donegan songs.”

A quick rendition followed of Lonnie’s third single, ‘Lost John’ B-side ‘Stewball’ from 1956. But the line quality deteriorated when I switched phones, and I don’t think I’ll be able to upload it and pass it off as a great Jon Anderson lost skiffle tape and make my fortune.  That said, we’ve been mesmerised by Jon’s vocals from the very start, I reckon. On a similar front, was there a voice he heard and thought, ‘That could be me – that’s my career from here!’?

“At that time, it was the Everly Brothers with my brother, and I’d sing a lot of commercial romantic songs in the mid-‘50s, and then Buddy Holly. And of course Elvis Presley – my brother bought the vinyl Elvis Presley album, and a little Dansette record player. So I heard all those incredible songs. So my brother wanted to be Elvis and I wanted to be Roy Orbison, and I’d sing his songs.”

All great influences, and it wasn’t until he mentioned Amen Corner that it struck me that Jon and Andy Fairweather-Low shared similar styles in places.

“Yeah, I think we all copied Americans in the ‘50s, and you tended to give that delivery in your voice, copying those recordings.”

Of all your recordings over the years, is there one particular LP you’re most proud of? I’m guessing this latest record would be in with a shout.

“I always say the same thing – it will be the next one!”

Ah, so will there be a 1,000 Hands Chapter 2?

“Yeah, we’ve been working on half a dozen or so songs already, and more follow every week. I’ve an idea for one large piece that could work, but it takes time to sort that out. But now this album’s out, we’ll be able to release part two next summer maybe.”

And do the contributors on the album include any of the next generation of Andersons (as I know they’ve all been involved in music to at least some extent, including vocal duties on various Yes projects, all three from his first marriage to Jennifer), I ask … to initial silence. Actually, at this stage, Jon was distracted after someone arrived at the door with some wine. Nice work if you can get it. I repeat my question.

“No, Deborah’s sang on albums I did before, but now concentrates on incredible documentaries, covering such powerful subjects. My youngest daughter, Jade, is the best singer, but now has three boys. God bless her, she gave us some grandchildren, and we just love them, of course. We see them every Friday, and they’re beautiful. And my son Damion’s in London and, like me, he loves to create music of all different kinds. God bless him, he’s a very beautiful man, he really is.”

Of all the collaborations down the years, from Yes to Jon and Vangelis, Anderson Bruford Wakeman and Howe, Anderson/Stolt (with Roine Stolt), the Anderson Ponty Band (with Jean-Luc Ponty) and the Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman version of Yes, which turned out to be the most fun, in the studio and on the road?

“I think probably ABWH was a fun experience, but …”

Do you think that’s because you all felt you had nothing to prove by that stage?

“Oh God, no, there’s always a lot to prove. But every collaboration, like when I went out with Trevor (Rabin) and Rick (Wakeman) a couple of years ago, that was really damn good. And with Jean-Luc Ponty it was amazing. He’s from Brittany, and my great-great-grandparents were too, so we felt connected. And when I look back to the tours in the ‘70s we were out on tour so much, and the fact that we could make Fragile and Close to the Edge in one year was something.”

Well, that was some going, I’d say.

“Absolutely.”

And are you still discovering new music? What’s floating the Anderson boat right now? My friend Phil, a big fan since day one (he’s a little older than me, he won’t mind me saying) wondered if you’ve heard Big, Big Train, fairly new and much lauded  prog rockers on the block.

“Yep, and also, my favourite guy is Jacob Collier. He is going to be, to me, the best thing that’s happened in music in my life. He’s amazing. He’s conquered a lot, can do incredible orchestrations, and has a good knowledge of music and light-hearted soul, and he’s touching millions of people now. He’s amazing.”

And finally, when the gates are open again post-COVID-19, any chance of live dates with the new material?

“Yeah, I’m doing videos at the moment from a live show on the tour – around 10 days in – and it turned out to be a pretty good recording. Everyone plays so great. We’re also recording ourselves at home, recording some of the songs from 1,000 Hands. And it sounded really good.”

Live Presence: Jon Anderson in action, and he hopes to be on the road again sometime soon (Photo: Tami Freed)

For more information about Jon, his back-catalogue, and 1,000 Hands, out digitally on July 31st, then on CD and deluxe double-gatefold vinyl album on August 14th via Blue Élan Records, head to https://www.jonanderson.com

 

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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