Few musicians have a résumé quite like Alan White.
Before joining the formative progressive rock band YES in 1972 as its drummer, White performed with singer Joe Cocker, and was a member of the Plastic Ono Band, alongside The Beatles’ John Lennon; Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono; Eric Clapton; and Klaus Voormann. He was also chosen by Lennon to play drums on the wildly popular album Imagine.
YES peaked commercially in 1983, when its album, 90125, sold more than 3 million copies, Owner of a Lonely Heart landed at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100, and MTV put the song’s video on heavy rotation. The band has sold more than 13 million albums; earned six Grammy nominations (winning one); and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in April 2017 with Pearl Jam, Journey, Joan Baez, and Tupac Shakur.
White, 68, and his wife, Gigi, moved to Newcastle in 1991. The couple have been married 35 years, raised two kids on the Eastside, and are still active in the local community. White performs a free concert with his side band, WHITE, most summers during Newcastle Days. Newcastle City Council honored White by designating Sept. 12 Alan White Day.
YES will mark its 50th anniversary this year with performances in North America, South America, Europe, and possibly Japan.
White stopped by Donn Bennett Drum Studio in Bellevue to discuss memorable moments in his long musical career.
On Working with John Lennon and Recording ‘Imagine’
John was a great person. I was a young drummer, and he seemed to like having me around. He would tell me, “Alan, whatever you’re doing, keep doing it.” It was a wonderful experience, very uplifting in my life. I was really naive about the music business, and it all came upon me very quickly. I didn’t realize what it all meant until it was over. It was like a family atmosphere, a very communal collection of people recording daily. We would sit down and have dinner together, go back, and maybe do overdubs at night. The only thing I remember about making (the song) Imagine was that we only took three takes of the backing track. After that, it was obvious to everyone we got the right take.
On Touring and Longevity
I’ve been dealing with a back problem, but had surgery in May, and it’s much better now. At one point, we had to take another drummer on the road. I was only playing half the set. I played everything except two numbers during our tour last summer. For the 50th Anniversary tour, I plan to play everything. I’m feeling much better and building my strength up again.
Touring is difficult when you get older, and traveling in general is harder these days. Every day you have to get up, go to the airport, and get to the next gig. It’s very strenuous. After you’ve done about 25 shows, you start to feel a bit tired, but it’s doable. When you tour, you can’t take a break and come back to it. You have a full crew on the road and need to keep it rolling because it would cost a fortune to stop everything and take a break.
I get asked quite a bit, “How come you guys lasted this long?” (I think it’s because) the music is always evolving, and it keeps audiences listening and interested. We see three generations of fans at our shows. I get 12-year-olds asking me for autographs after shows. I think these kids may have been brainwashed by listening to their parents’ music growing up, and their parents’ parents (laughing).
On YES’ Induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
I went to see Heart (and Rush) inducted (in 2013), and (Rush lead vocalist) Geddy Lee said to me, “I can’t understand why we are getting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame before you. Our music was heavily influenced by YES.”
We’d been nominated a couple of times before, so a possible induction was hovering for a few years. I think we put it on a back burner. I found out (we were inducted) watching the Today show one morning.
When we finally got in, it was quite something for everybody. The sad part was that (YES bassist and co-founding member) Chris Squire (who died in 2015) never got to see that happen. Quite frankly, he was the one that wasn’t really interested, but it would have been good to see him playing onstage. I know everyone would have enjoyed any speech he would’ve made.
“It just made sense to move here. The Eastside is a wonderful place to live, and I love it here.”
On Living in Newcastle
Gigi’s family was from this area, and she wanted to be near family while I was on the road touring for long periods of time. I used to come here with her to visit over the years and came to love the area. Our kids grew up skiing, snowboarding, wakeboarding — there are so many great activities here. We always had a boat and just love the outdoor culture. The schools are great, too. It just made sense to move here. The Eastside is a wonderful place to live, and I love it here.
The other thing I love about this area is the energy of the music community. It’s overflowing with people who are great musicians, with genuine friendship amongst them.
When we first bought our house, the area wasn’t called Newcastle, but they changed the name to Newcastle shortly after we moved in. I was born maybe six miles away from Newcastle, England. In the early days, I used to work with bands in Newcastle, U.K. I joked with friends and told them I made a phone call to the mayor of Newcastle, Washington, and they changed the name of the city for me (laughing).