Gimme Five: Alan White on songs with Yes, John Lennon, David Torn and Tony Levin

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On this special edition of Something Else! Reviews’ One Track Mind, we hand the reins over to Yes drummer Alan White, who also had a signature stint with John Lennon.

Find out more about the unique relationship, nearly 40 years strong, between White and Yes bassist Chris Squire. Go into Phil Spector-produced sessions with both George Harrison and Lennon, and get new insights into this year’s memorable free-form collaboration between White, guitarist David Torn and bassist Tony Levin …

“INSTANT KARMA,” with John Lennon (single, 1970): This appropriately named tune, Lennon’s third solo single, was recorded at London’s Abbey Road Studios the same day it was written — and hit the shelves at record stores just 10 days later. “Instant Karma,” with a rumbling drum cadence from White, peaked at No. 3 in the U.S. as the Beatles’ “Let It Be” was rising to the top of the charts.

Alan White: I was just waking up in the morning when I got a call from (longtime Beatles assistant) Mal Evans. He said John had just written this song and he wanted to record it today and release it next week. ‘Come down here, now.’ We all met at Abbey Road, and I had an idea of what I wanted to do. It was kind of one of those things where you are playing a rhythm, but when it comes to a drum break, you play in a different meter. It came naturally — and John said: ‘Alan, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. It’s wonderful.’ There were only a few of us in there. John, myself, (pianist) Gary Wright and (bassist) Klaus Voorman. He and I played piano overdubs afterward. I was on a piano with John, and Klaus was on the other. Phil Spector liked to take multiple sounds and make them sound like one. He’d never put one tambourine on a record — he had to have 15 of them.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Alan White talks about starting over with a new vocalist in Yes, his initial dates with the band, and favorite moments from working with David Torn, Tony Levin and John Lennon.]

“FLY FROM HERE,” with Yes (FLY FROM HERE, 2011): Yes’ seemingly ever-shifting landscape of personnel changed yet again in advance of this, the progressive rock band’s 12th studio album. In many ways, the album harkened back to an earlier, more epic period in Yes’ history, as it began with a 25-minute song suite split up into six parts. Through it all, White and bassist Chris Squire — together since 1972 — have remained the band’s bedrock foundation.

White: It’s one of those relationships where, after you’ve been playing with someone for almost 40 years, you know what they are going to do before they do it. You can anticipate what might happen in some places, how the little accents will fall in different spaces. You get used to that — and the styles begin to match so well together. It really helps when you work with a lot of real talented musicians, too. Everyone in Yes has been pretty much a virtuoso in their own right. Steve Howe and Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman, every one of them is really, really talented — and you bounce off that.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Yes cofounder Jon Anderson talks with us about returning to a favorite from ‘90125,’ rocking out with Vangelis and Tolstoy — and, yeah, how mountains really did once come out of the sky.]

“BEWARE OF DARKNESS,” with George Harrison (ALL THINGS MUST PASS, 1970): White’s appearance on Lennon’s “Instant Karma” date led to a spot in Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound on subsequent sessions for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. “Beware of Darkness,” a key Beatle-ish deep cut, was part of a career-defining project that had been certified platinum six times by the time Harrison passed in 2001.

White: That really is one of my favorite tracks, though I forgot about it for a while. Then I was in Liverpool for a Beatles festival week they do every year, and they did a concert at the philharmonic hall with four different bands playing four Beatles projects. I played five numbers of John’s, and at the very end they played that song. I had forgotten about it. It was really, really good. I remember that Ringo played tambourine, and that was kind of weird. He only came by occasionally. I said to George: ‘Why don’t you get Ringo to play?’ It felt a bit weird. He said, ‘No, I want you to play the drums on this one.’ It was in the same studio as ‘Instant Karma.’ Everybody turned up every day, and we’d listen to what George wanted to record. Then everybody picked who would play what. That’s why there are three drummers on that record — and none of us can remember which tracks we play on! I do remember playing on ‘Wah Wah,’ “My Sweet Lord,’ ‘Isn’t It A Pity’ and ‘Beware of Darkness.’

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Tony Levin goes in-depth on his trio project with David Torn and Alan White, discusses performing on John Lennon’s final sessions and contemplates the future for King Crimson.]

“HOW DO YOU SLEEP,” with John Lennon (IMAGINE, 1971) A sharp jab at Paul McCartney, Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep” couldn’t have been more different in tone or texture from sensitive moments like the album’s title track — completed, White said, in just three takes. Elsewhere, White had to ramp up into a heavy-metal political vibe on “Gimme Some Truth” too, making this album one of his most complete efforts as a drummer. Still, there were some uncomfortable moments as White scanned the content for “How Do You Sleep,” which included a number of biting insults directed by Lennon’s former writing partner, including: “The only thing you done was ‘Yesterday.’”

White: That was one of the songs that John gave me all of the lyrics beforehand. He said: ‘This is what we are about today. This is my message. Tell me if you want to play on it.’ I read it, and thought: ‘Oh God, I know who this is about!’ But it wasn’t my place to tell him not to say it. Besides, it was a great number.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Billy Sherwood discusses his decade-long tenure with the legendary prog-rock band Yes, and how it all fell apart.]

“ULTRA MULLETT,” with Levin Torn White (LEVIN TORN WHITE, 2011): A modern amalgam of sounds that skitters breathlessly from prog to free jazz to fusion to cinematic ambiance to something approaching psychedelia, the Scott Schorr-produced Levon Torn White was somehow as modern as it was old school. That’s perhaps best heard on this track, which begins with a Tony Levin bass signature that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on an old record from his time with King Crimson, but then quickly moves well outside of those expected parameters. He’s brilliantly matched, both in tone and complexity, by the free-form musings of Torn and White.

White: When we were first getting into it, we were all just trying to find our own way. And that was kind of cool for me. I think all of these ideas have been doing through the three of us for a lot of years, and those things just naturally come out when you’re inspired by the people you are playing with. It was mostly improvised but, at the same time, it still sounds really articulated. There are spaces within all of that stuff to breathe. One of the things is to let the music breathe, to let everybody have their run of the mill. That’s one of my main secrets of Yes’ success, too. I don’t like drummers that overplay and fill every little tiny hole. Space is everything in music.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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