Stockport’s Geoff Downes On The New DBA Album, Buggles, Yes And Asia
Collectively, Downes Braide Association may not be one of music’s better-known names although individually many will be very familiar with the work of these two Northern boys. Stockport-born Geoff Downes first emerged as one half of the Buggles, duo whose single Video Killed The Radio Star topped of the charts in 1979, before he joined prog rock giants Yes. As a founder member of supergroup Asia, Geoff formed a formidable writing partnership with bass player and vocalist John Wetton and later teamed up with Chris Braide, from Warrington.
Singer-songwriter-pianist Chris Braide has, for some years, been based in California where he has enjoyed enormous success writing and producing music for film scores, advertising campaigns and working closely with artists including Lana Del Rey, Christina Aguilera, Beyonce, Paloma Faith, Britney Spears and Marc Almond. Together Geoff and Chris have released three studio albums and are now set to release a new CD/DVD Live In England, on 29 November, recorded at their only live performance at Trading Boundaries, East Sussex, in September of 2018. The album also features artwork by the legendary Roger Dean.
I recently caught up with Geoff who told me about the new Downes Braide Association live album and how his career has developed from his roots in Stockport.
“After three albums we thought of doing some live stuff,” Geoff said. “It’s nice to be able to address all of our albums to date and we’ve put together a compilation from the gig we did last year. A lot of people have said very positive things about DBA and we’re hoping this will be a nice catch up for the people who aren’t appreciating it yet.”
Geoff’s musical history covers a broad spectrum while Chris is a leading light in American pop circles. I put it to Geoff that, together, they have created a delightfully accessible brand of prog rock.
“It’s not prog rock, per se, but it does have certain aspects of that, a penchant to long songs. Chris is very pop-orientated with the people he’s worked with over the last ten years or so. It’s like a top 10, really, of the pop chart! A lot of his love is in progressive electronic music. Chris was a big Buggles fan and that was the thing that inspired him to approach me and suggest writing together.
“It’s been a joining of two slightly different forces but it’s very enjoyable to work with Chris. We work very well together and we seem to see things from a similar view.
“It was at the time we reformed the Buggles, briefly, to do some charity shows in London. At that time Chris was working with (Buggles writer, producer, vocalist, bass player)Trevor (Horn) on a project called The Producers. We were effectively thrown together in that environment, so Chris approached me shortly before he moved to the States. I was working in America soon after and so we started getting some ideas down.”
Whilst DBA was conceived as a studio project, the concert was a great success and features material from the albums Suburban Ghosts (2015) and Skyscraper Souls (2017) together with tracks from Geoff Downes’ time with Buggles and Asia.
Geoff and Chris were joined by Andy Hodge (bass guitar), guitarist David Colquhoun and special guest Big Big Train’s David Longdon (vocals, flute) with narration by Barney Ashton Bullock.
“It was a most memorable evening,” said Geoff, “and we believe we have managed to capture the magic of the whole night. We hope it gives a rare insight into the special songwriting and production relationship Chris and I have developed over the last decade.”
Geoff recalled first learning to play the piano aged six and the influence of his father, a bank manager, whose love was playing the organ at St Thomas’s Church in Stockport. “On Sunday’s I used to go to the church with him and watch him play and pulling out stops. I was quite fascinated by music at that time and started singing in choirs with the Royal School of Church Music, that was what inspired me to follow academic courses. When I began to write with other people this stuff was a big influence, certainly English church music.
“I went to music college when I was about 20, up in Leeds, and graduated from there. I headed straight down to London and got into doing all sorts of things. Music was a very considerable part of my life from a very early age. In my early teens I used to play in soul bands and things like that and as I progressed I started to get into the underground and bands like Caravan, Soft Machine and Procol Harum. They really took over and I was always interested in keyboard-driven bands and, in due course, I got into Yes. Keyboards had only really started to come to the fore at that point, something I credit to Keith Emerson, who was my hero at the time.”
The first big break, for Geoff, came when he answered an ad, in Melody Maker, placed by Trevor Horn who was looking for a keyboard player to join a band he was putting together for Tina Charles.
“We were both very interested in studios and production and gadgetry and the Buggles was a kind of extension of our own dreams. We would be… not a faceless band but a band that sounded like it’s name, The Buggles, but it wasn’t a band, it was just two guys messing around in the studio!”
Their first single Video Killed The Radio Star hit Number 1 in the singles chart in the UK in October 1979 and in 15 other countries. The Buggles’ management also looked after Yes who had just been depleted by the departure of vocalist Jon Anderson and keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman and so Geoff and Trevor were invited to contribute some songs.
“For us it was a weird dream,” Geoff laughs. “I think we brought a lot to Yes at that point. I wouldn’t say they were rudderless but since Anderson and Wakeman had left, they were just playing around with riffs and ideas. We went into a rehearsal room with them and threw a few songs into the ring and they said ‘Why don’t you join us? Trevor, you can sing, Geoff, you can play keyboards.’
“Both Trevor and I were big Yes fans anyway. There were progressive influences in the Buggles stuff but the brief was we wanted to break in to the scene and two guys as an electronic duo, you can’t form a prog band around that. It was a dream for me because being the keyboard player for Yes is probably one of the highest profile keyboard gigs you can ever come across. For me, it was a real breakthrough.”
Joining Yes introduced Geoff to guitarist Steve Howe. In 1982 they would join together with drummer Carl Palmer and bass guitarist and vocalist John Wetton to form Asia. Over the following 30-plus years Asia would enjoy huge success around the world with their highly commercial rock sound. At the heart of their success was the writing partnership of Downes and Wetton.
“I was the least known in rock circles but after all the bands that they’d been with – Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and King Crimson – those guys were looking for something else. They’d done all the big long pieces in the seventies and when I got together with John, that was the real core of the whole thing. We realised that we had very similar styles of writing and how we wanted to take Asia forward with the songs. It was a very productive writing partnership that John and I developed.”
Geoff was deeply saddened by Wetton’s death from cancer in 2017. “He was a brilliant singer and a brilliant writer and a very good friend. It was very tough when John passed away because it was the end of a chapter for me of writing with someone that I had such a natural rapport with.”
With such a prolific career, is there one particular highlight that stands out for Geoff? “There have been wonderful times throughout my career. When Buggles got to Number 1, that was a fantastic feeling, going into the record label and they said ‘You’ve done it, you’re Number 1!’
“But the first Yes show that I did in Canada, actually, in August 1980. That stands out because I’d never done anything like that before, in front of 20,000 people in Toronto in what was, then, the Maple Leaf Gardens. It was a huge highlight from my career. I thought ‘Wow, I’ve come a long way from watching my dad play organ in church in Stockport!’”
Geoff returned to the Yes fold in 2011 and is looking forward to touring with them again in 2020 together with a second Downes Braide Association show with Chris Braide at Trading Boundaries in February.
Downes Braide Association: Live In England is released on 29 November and is available to order from Cherry Red Records, Catalogue no SKU X2XCD004. A vinyl edition of the live album is scheduled for release in February 2020.