Gimme Five: Geoff Downes on Asia, Yes and "Video Killed the Radio Star"

Geoff Downes, who’ll finish the year touring with both Asia and Yes, joins us for a special edition of One Track Mind to talk about key moments with both bands — including songs from Asia’s just-released XXX, featuring the rest of the original lineup of Steve Howe, Carl Palmer and John Wetton.

Downes also delves into tracks from the two Yes projects on which he’s served as keyboardist, 1980’s Drama and 2011’s Fly From Here. And, of course, no talk with Downes would be complete without mention of the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” the Trevor Horn collaboration that launched MTV …

“FACE ON THE BRIDGE,” with ASIA (XXX, 2012): The lead single from Asia’s 30th anniversary release, “Face on the Bridge” reached No. 1 earlier in the summer on the Planet Rock UK Airplay and Amazon UK MP3 Progressive Rock charts, pushing XXX to No. 69 in the UK Albums Chart — the highest chart position for Downes and Co. since 1985’s Astra. “Face on the Bridge” was perhaps the perfect lead single for the project, in that it conveys the more central presence of Downes’ keyboards on this project.

GEOFF DOWNES: Each album is different. I suppose Asia was known in their early period for Steve’s contributions on guitar. In many ways, Asia doesn’t borrow a lot from the bands we were involved with before, but at the same time there is a musicianship and a musicality that doesn’t change. That allows people to extend themselves on certain levels, to give and take, according to what is required by the song at the time. With this particular album, and this particular group of songs, the keyboards were more of a focus.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Geoff Downes talks about Asia’s resurgence since a reunion six years ago with its gone-too-soon original lineup.]

“MACHINE MESSIAH,” with YES (DRAMA, 1980): Though dominated by a heavy, guitar-focused edge, this next-gen recording from a reformulated Yes grew out of an early track composed by Downes and Trevor Horn, both of whom joined the band in 1980 after working together as the Buggles. “Machine Messiah,” which features a quote from the toccata of Charles-Marie Widor’s Symphony for Organ No. 5, is marked by an appropriately churchy turn from Downes.

GEOFF DOWNES: I grew up with church music in my bones. That music was very much part of my household. John Wetton had a similar background, and so did Trevor. So when I started writing with both of those people, you can hear those elements. Certainly, “Machine Messiah” was a piece that really developed. We wanted all of those aspects in it, church music and technology and pop. It was a hybrid of all of that. Yes then was able to do different things with it as a band, chord structures and so on. That’s a hallmark of Yes’ successes through the years.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With 2011’s ‘Fly From Here,’ Yes attempted something it hadn’t in decades — a multi-part thematic suite — while striking a delicate balance with its platinum-era modernity.]

“VIDEO KILLED THE RADIO STAR,” with THE BUGGLES (THE AGE OF PLASTIC, 1979): Though released years earlier as the Buggles’ debut single, this track became the very first music video showed on MTV, aired at 12:01 a.m. August 1, 1981. Listen closely to the lyrics, though, and Horn and Downes are conveying a more general truth about the technological advances that have overtaken the music industry.

GEOFF DOWNES: That was the whole essence of the song. It wasn’t specifically about video succeeding over radio. The song was about how technology was changing lives. In many ways, that was a very prophetic statement — when you look at the way that people receive music now. Technology is very much the medium now. The lyrics talk about machines writing music, and that’s actually happened, too. All things considered, it was a very prophetic song.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: ‘XXX’ builds on Asia’s long-ago arena-pop successes, adding a few notable new prog-rock elements. The results are the best thing since its platinum 1982 debut.]

“FLY FROM HERE, with YES (FLY FROM HERE, 2011): The title track from Yes’ comeback 2011 recording, “Fly From Here” had a lengthy gestation period — having first appeared as part of the band’s tour in support of 1980’s Drama, then later as a separate recording by Downes and Horn as the Buggles. By the time Yes finally completed the suite of songs as a studio recording last year, “Fly From Here” had remained unfinished for decades.

GEOFF DOWNES: In some ways, I think it was a book that remained unfinished. That was one of the reasons that, when Trevor was asked to do production on the Fly From Here album and they decided to return to that suite, that I was asked back into the band. I had been a fundamental part of that, having written that with Trevor. It became something much more significant, once we got into the studio. Now, it’s another chapter in Yes’ history.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Wetton examines three of his most important musical stops – Asia, King Crimson and UK – while frankly discussing how drinking nearly ruined all of it.]

“I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL,” with ASIA (XXX, 2012): An episodic, emotionally raw track from the third studio album after Downes’ 2006 reunion with the original lineup of Asia. Downes and Wetton combine for one of the most propulsive moments on XXX, as an insistent keyboard girds what becomes perhaps the album’s most committed vocal.

GEOFF DOWNES: I think it’s John’s favorite track on the album. It was one of the songs that came out of our writing sessions, and it had a lot of emotion in it from the first. The way that John and myself write is very much from the heart. It’s one of my favorites on the album, too. It shows that we still have emotional and metaphysical ways of writing songs that people can relate to — that we are able to convey music that instills feelings in people.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.