Although he is primarily thought of as the longest-tenured guitarist of Yes (and an original member of Asia), Steve Howe has been issuing solo albums since 1975. And with a multitude of these releases offered over the years, it may prove a tad difficult to keep track of Howe’s solo output. That’s where the recently released Anthology: A Solo Career Retrospective comes in handy.
Consisting of 33 tracks recorded over a 36-year period, the wide-ranging material touches upon dirty rock ’n’ roll (“So Bad”), tunes that would have fit perfectly on ’80s-era Yes or Asia albums (“Sensitive Chaos”), tranquil country (a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain”), and a collaboration with the English Chamber Orchestra (a reading of Howe’s classic “Mood for a Day”). And this is not the only Howe-related release unveiled this year. Yes has issued Live from Seventy- Two, which is available as a double-disc, triple- LP, and a whopping 14-disc boxed set.
Was it easy or difficult to select the songs for Anthology?
It took a while, but it was good fun. It was something I wanted to do in an organized way. We treated each album respectfully and tried to get a running order that we thought might work as a listening experience. We couldn’t only focus on what we wanted to use from each album, but also how it worked with the next album. I was able to reflect more on the general styles of music that I did across the albums. On the first one [1975’s Beginnings], it’s quite surprising how much rock guitar there really was, and the way I’ve mellowed out in later years. This anthology documents those transitions.
By and large, was the material presented to Yes to record first, or was it written specifically for your solo albums?
A bit of a mixture. In the ’70s, Jon [Anderson] and I worked up songs, and sometimes the songs that didn’t end up with Yes ended up on my albums. But many were only fleetingly played to Jon or other members. If I played them for the band and they didn’t work, they would have a little stigma attached to them, so I wouldn’t rush to put them on a solo album. With some music, I’m very open to collaboration, but music that is either highly personal or tells a little bit more about my life, I might not want to collaborate on. The stuff that I did on my solo albums was the music that I felt was most personal.
What do you think of your guitar sound and the overall band sound on Live from Seventy- Two, especially as compared to Yessongs?
I think everything is a mixed blessing. In ’72, I was using a Fender Dual Showman amp, with two 15-inch speakers, which was the most unpopular speaker for sound engineers—they preferrred 12-inch speakers. I had just been on tour playing guitar for P.P. Arnold, opening for Delaney & Bonnie with Eric Clapton, and somebody showed me a Dual Showman. When I joined Yes, my goal was to get one of those amps. It wasn’t a Marshall 4x10 or 4x12. It wasn’t as conventional. As far as the band sound is concerned, one’s got to be very realistic. When we did Yessongs [a three-sided live album from 1973], the band and [producer] Eddie Offord sat in the studio for four months, editing and mixing as if it were a studio album. For the mixes, everybody’s hands were on faders, and we plowed through three albums of music. No other live album was done like that. Yesshows and subsequent live albums were mixed very much like Live from Seventy- Two. They were more like board mixes with a few approvals, as opposed to a fully fledged group commitment. So as far as comparing Yessongs and Seventy-Two, we should have much better sound on Yessongs. But in general, the sounds were very good in the early days. What happened to sounds when they went on tape wasn’t always bad. Sure, tape loss and tape hiss and all that is moaned about, but there was also a warmth and a beauty to the sound that we had.
Let’s discuss some of your favorite guitars you’ve used over the years.
The 1964 Gibson ES-175D was my main guitar when we did The Yes Album. Then on subsequent albums I used to experiment with a different guitar on each—usually a Gibson, but not exclusively. Fragile was an ES-5 Switch-master, and then Close to the Edge is all about an ES-345. Tales from Topographic Oceans was the ES-345 and a Les Paul Junior that I really loved at that time. Relayer was completely played on a Telecaster. Going for the One was a nice blend of a 175, pedal-steel, a Stratocaster, and a mandolin. Tormato was a confusingly difficult album to make from a tonal standpoint. Rick Wakeman had the Polymoog, which I think most of us thought was a dreadful instrument. It just didn’t sit like a Hammond organ or a Fender Rhodes or a piano, and I struggled to find a guitar to work with it. I mainly played a Les Paul Custom on that album. When it came to Drama, I was fully back into using a whole array of guitars, but I played the 175 a great deal again. One other guitar I should mention is the Martin 00-18, which was the guitar I played “Clap” on, and was on the intro to “Roundabout.” It was—and still is—the most important acoustic guitar I’ve got, although I’ve got many other nice ones. I’ve got a hundred guitars. Some of them are beautiful collectible things, but many are hardworking guitars, like the ones I’ve just mentioned. Once I used a guitar on an album, I’d have to take it on tour, because if I wanted to play “Close to the Edge,” I had to play it on the guitar I played it on in the studio.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard you discuss your memories of playing guitar on the Queen song, “Innuendo.”
I was in Montreux, and Queen were recording at Mountain Studios—the same studio where we made Going for the One. I go in, and they played me the whole album, but they saved “Innuendo” until last. I was incredibly blown away. They said, “We want you to play on that. Why don’t you race around like Paco de Lucía?” Brian May had three Gibson Chet Atkins, which are Spanish guitars. I found one I liked, we started doing takes, we tried different approaches, and then we went to dinner. After dinner, we went back to the studio, listened through, and comped together what you hear today. It was just a lovely experience with a lovely bunch of guys.