I was sorry to learn this morning that long-time Yes drummer Alan White flew away from this mortal coil yesterday. I’ve seen him half-a-dozen times live over a 30ish year period, and he was one of those cool, cool cats who could play hard, complicated works for hours, without looking like he was exerting himself, and while exuding genial “what could be better than doing this for a living?” vibes, always. After Yes founding member Chris Squire died in 2015, White became Yes’ longest continually serving member, an honor he held until his death. (Though in recent years, his health had been such that Jay Schellen had been deputized by Yes to do some of the heavy lifting in concert settings, allowing White to play select songs and pieces, adding flash and flair to the proceedings instead of anchoring them). In the end, White was a member of Yes for half a century, from 1972 to 2022. How many artists can claim careers like that?
Yes are, of course, known for their complicated family tree, with various members coming and going and going and coming over the decades, rival troupes attempting to claim the “Real Yes” banner (oftentimes with both sides having excellent arguments for said claims), and radical changes in tone and style creating a fan base that is often widely enthusiastic in their appreciation for certain eras of the group, and lackluster or even antagonistic about other eras. For all of Alan White’s gifts, in the minds of some sizable portion of the Yes fan base, he was damned or denigrated for no other reason than the fact that he was not Bill Bruford, the founding drummer of Yes. Bruford is a genius, yes, in his own ways, and he went on to become a member of the Progressive Rock Royalty for his subsequent service with King Crimson, Genesis (briefly), UK, and his own various solo and small group projects. No argument about the merits of Bruford’s work and career, but most drummers aren’t him, obviously, and Alan White brought his own formidable gifts to the Yes fray, ending up playing on several of my own personal favorite Yes albums (e.g. Relayer, Drama, and Fly From Here).
It’s also important to look at the roles that Alan White played outside of Yes, and the esteem in which some of the most acclaimed rock musicians in history held his work and deployed his skills. He spent most of the ’60s backing such then-big, but now-mostly-forgotten rock and pop stars as Billy Fury and Alan Price, along with stints in Ginger Baker’s Air Force and Balls (a proto-supergroup featuring Denny Laine of the Moody Blues and Wings, and Trevor Burton of the Move, among others). In the cultural paroxysm that followed the dissolution of The Beatles, with each of the four Ex-Fabs working to establish themselves as unique solo artists, White was tapped to serve as the live and studio drummer for John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, appearing on the three records that arguably stand as the pinnacle of John’s solo career: Live Peace in Toronto 1969, the “Instant Karma!” single, and Imagine. White’s band-mates in the original incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band were John and Yoko, Klaus Voorman and Eric Clapton, and later incarnations of the group included George Harrison, Billy Preston and Nicky Hopkins. If that weren’t enough of an endorsement, John’s fellow ex-Beatle George also tapped White after their “Instant Karma!” appearance together to serve as one of his time-keepers on the epic All Things Must Pass album, again, arguably that particular Beatle’s peak recorded work as well.
By 1972, Alan White was gigging regularly while living in London with producer-engineer Eddy Offord, famed for his work with Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes, among many others. During the final stages of recording Yes’ legendary album, Close to the Edge, Bruford made the decision to jump out of Yes and into King Crimson. As White had gotten to know and spend time with the other members of Yes via his association with Offord, and given his impressive chops and resume, he was offered the gig, on short notice, to replace Bruford on the group’s imminent tour. (Selections of White’s work on that tour were released on the classic Yessongs album, a three-slab set that may be the exemplar and prototype of the live rock album idiom in the ’70s).
As Yes evolved and (occasionally) went into periods of hibernation and inactivity, White remained stalwart and steady behind his drum kit. He only released one solo album, Ramshackled, in 1976, when Yes decided that each member of the group needed to do so, whether he wanted to or not. White worked with a collection of colleagues from his Alan Price Set days in the ’60s, allowing them to write and sing the songs, while White just did what he did: he played the drums, really well. White also occasionally guested on other solo albums by Yes members, or with fellow travelers like Gary Wright and Paul Kossoff and Donovan and Joe Cocker, but, at bottom, he was Yes’ drummer, for better or for worse, in health and in (lately) sickness, until time, damnable time, finally took him away to the great drum riser in the sky.
His work and music gave me a lot of joy over the years. While I would have been hard pressed to imagine Yes existing and continuing on without Chris Squire, they’ve done so, and having already deputized Schellen to support White in his later years, I sort of expect that they might do the same thing again, leaving guitarist Steve Howe as the solo “classic era” member still standing in the group. (Of course, if the group undergoes one of its regular re-permutations that brings back classic era singer Jon Anderson and keyboardists Rick Wakeman and/or Tony Kaye, then all bets are off about the future). I guess from where I sit, as a fan, Alan White was such a stoic and supportive and solid member of the group for so long, that I’d feel okay if his passing was the final straw that made his colleagues, new and old, say “Yeah . . . that was a great run, let’s let it go in style.”
I’ll guarantee you that there will be plenty of drummers in plenty of bands out there who will keep Alan White’s work alive by playing plenty of his songs for plenty of audiences, for plenty of years to come. Yes don’t have to carry that sole responsibility to their collective graves. So RIP to a great player. All things must pass, indeed.