Notes From the Edge
Alan White
and the Beatles
nfte #247

Before Yes came into Alan White's life there were the Beatles. 

Alan was a struggling musician on the burgeoning London music scene in the late '60s when John Lennon spotted him performing in a club. Soon Alan would find himself in Toronto as part of what was christened the Plastic Ono Band, catapulting him into associations with John, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, as well as an elite echelon of accomplished talents.

Alan would perform on songs and albums that would hit the top of the charts and sell millions worldwide, including classic singles "Instant Karma!", "Imagine", and "My Sweet Lord", and he would work with other rock legends such as Eric Clapton and Phil Spector.

The goal of this issue was to capture Alan's memories on working with the former Beatles, both in the studio and on stage. What he gained from working with these talented musicians and songwriters would benefit Yes throughout his career with that band.


MIKE TIANO: Before we start with your meeting of John, let's get a little background. What was your exposure to the Beatles?

ALAN WHITE: I was about eleven when I first started listening to their songs on the radio, and I was learning the drums after playing the piano for quite a few years. My parents bought me a drum kit, and I started studying Ringo's double bass drum beat. When I finally got it down I thought I could play forever, and it was like that was the exposure to it. Then I started listening to the lyrics and harmony between the band musically and vocally, realized what a group was, and that was the first realization of what was to come afterwards.

MOT: Double bass drum beat?

AW: (Boom, ch, boom boom, ch) know. That's the first thing everybody learned at that time to play in a band, and once you got that down you were happening.

MOT: Did you think Ringo was a fairly adept drummer?

AW: Yeah, I think he did the right things at the right time. I don't think technically he's one of the masters, but I think he had a ways and means with the help of other people in the band of making the band play. He also had the charisma to make the band gel... a lot of people underestimate what he did.

MOT: I agree. He is very, very underappreciated.

AW: In fact, I saw Greg Bisonette do a clinic in Seattle, and a whole twenty minutes of his clinic is all on the Beatles and how [Ringo's] style affected their music and made it what it is today.

MOT: He is definitely a major component of the Beatles and very much underrated. Which particular songs of the Beatles were influential to you? 

AW: I loved all of the earlier albums, but ABBEY ROAD is a great album...I think THE WHITE ALBUM was a great album, and of course SERGEANT PEPPER was a landmark in music. They made lots of stepping stones like that, and people around that time and period basically just used them as a reference for a lot of other music, that's why they were as big and still as big as they are.

MOT: Were there any particular songs that were influential in terms of the melodies or the musicianship? 

AW: You know, Paul was a great influence in the band, and sometimes I'd see Paul play the drums and stuff like that, so it was very intermixed I think. Oh boy...I mean, it's hard to start, you know, I pretty much love everything they did. "Norwegian Wood", just a song that came out of nowhere. You can go on forever about the Beatles. Pretty amazing. "Back In The USSR" know, I mean it's endless. I could just go through all of the albums and say that was it, you know.

MOT: Did you ever see them perform, as the Beatles?

AW: Never, ever saw them.

MOT: Did you interact with any of them prior to your meeting with John?

AW: No. I used to go to Apple, though, I had some friends at Apple. Apple was like a house in Saville Row, and you'd just go in and the whole place was just like a vibe. Derek Taylor, who was their press agent, had a disco going on in his room 24-hours a day. It was just a great place to go, and I went there a few times with friends just hanging out, because that's what you did. If you were in the inner circle in London, you'd get to go there, but I never actually met any of them until John invited me to play in "Live Peace in Toronto".

Plastic Ono Band in Toronto

MOT: The story goes that you were playing in the club and John came to see you.

AW: I didn't see him when I was in the club...he saw me playing, he had to do this gig in Toronto and called me the next day and said "Can you please come and do the gig with me?" I thought it was a friend of mine playing a joke on me, you know, trying to sound like John Lennon, so I said no, you're just joking. I thought it was one particular person, and then I put the phone down, and then he called back five minutes later and he said, "No, it's John Lennon," and I said, "Oh really, I'm sorry," and he said, "No, no, no, that's ok".

He said, "Do you want to do a gig, man?" and I said, "Yeah, sure." He said, "Ok, I'll send a limo for you in the morning," next morning. The band I was playing with at the time, they were all pee'd off because I was suppose to do a gig that night with them...make some money for them (laughs), and I said, "Don't you realize I've got to go play with John Lennon?" We had to cancel the gig, then I jumped in this limo and went to the airport and next thing I was in the VIP lounge at Heathrow Airport, waiting to get on the plane with Eric Clapton, John, and Yoko, and Klaus Voorman.

MOT: That's one of those pivotal moments in your life to where things could have been very different; you could have been a faithful band member and said, "No, I'm going to stick with the band, John--you've got to find somebody else," and who knows what would have happened with your career at that point. But I would think that if the other band members had been given the same opportunity, they probably would have been hard-pressed to turn it down as well.

AW: I think they probably realized that, "Well, I would have done it if I was in the same position."

MOT: That was that Griffin, the band that you were in.

AW: Yes.

MOT: When John came to the club to see you, you had no idea he was there?

AW: No, I didn't. We were just on stage--I think he only came in for a short while, and he was in some back corner somewhere trying to stay out of the road.

MOT: Do you know why he was there? Was he there specifically to check you out?

AW: No, he was just having an evening out. He was just out in the town with Yoko, and they just went to that club by chance. I didn't even see him, he was in the corner of the club and he was just checking things out, that's what I had heard, and he was there for about half an hour, three-quarters of an hour, then left. But obviously he was impressed by what I did when I was there, so that's why he called me the next day.

MOT: You know that was for a fact, it was that somebody said he should go to this club and check out this band...?

AW: No. No, I don't think so at all.

Plastic Ono Band in Toronto

MOT: Prior to this you were hanging out at Apple, but you never saw him there.

AW: I knew some people who knew people at Apple, and I got invited there a couple of times just to be around. They liked musicians coming in and out all the time. Terry Doran was one of the guys who knew all the Beatles because he was a "car salesman"--they get everywhere--basically he said [to] come around. He used to work in George's room, which was a pink room with one desk in the corner, and it was in those periods where there was the meditation thing George was going through, and we just became friends, and he used to turn up in the clubs, and he was the guy who was in the inner circle of current bands in London. Maybe there's a possibility he spoke to John or George or somebody who worked for him like Mal Evens, and maybe they said, "John, go down and see this band, there's this drummer that you could use," but I don't know for sure.

MOT: As far as you know, John happened to be there and saw you, and was impressed by you.

AW: Yeah, he thought it was really cool to use a real young up and coming kind of guy, and took me under his wing, as it were.

MOT: That's really a great ego boost... John Lennon comes to see you for a few minutes and said yeah, I want that guy to play with me.

AW: Well yeah, it was at the time, but as I tell everybody it was really a part of my life when I had just turned 20 years old or something like that, and I was in music bliss--playing lots of stuff. We were the end of the world band kind of thing, and it was very, very gratifying...but later on in life you look back and you kind of go I was so naíve and young at that time; I didn't realize what I was doing, and it just becomes a kind of like, I really did that part of history kind of thing, and then you start realizing but only ten years later or something like that.

MOT: After you have some time and perspective upon that. So you have this major legend asking you to play with him, but there's another legend involved: Eric Clapton. How did you feel when you heard that Eric Clapton was going to be involved as well? 

AW: I didn't actually know until I got to the airport; Eric sat next to John, I came in and got introduced to the both of them, and we sat down and just started just chatting, it was like being in any circle of friends. The atmosphere was immediate.

MOT: Very natural.

AW: Yeah, very natural.

MOT: What happened on the plane to Toronto? Obviously you didn't know any songs going onto the plane.

AW: Well, we got on the plane, it was a VIP kind of hush-hush thing through all of the backdoors out to the plane. We didn't see any public until we got on the plane, and we were all in first class up front. But John said, well, we need to rehearse some things, and the whole back of the plane was empty, so we all walked back to the back of the plane with a guitar, I had a pair of drumsticks, and I was playing on the back of one of the seats in front, and the rest of the passengers were just like occupied in what they were doing. 

We were just having a kind of jam session in the back of the plane, and John goes well, do you know the Carl Perkins version of "Blue Suede Shoes", and I said, "I think so." He said, "Well it's got the 'One for the money...' It's got the extra beat in it," and I said, "Yeah, but I could put in the extra beat in, that's no problem as long as I know what you're doing," and we just rehearsed all those kind of standard songs you've heard forever, and it was great. We rehearsed for about an hour, just playing around the back. Eric and John both brought their guitars and were playing away, and it was pretty good fun. Nobody bothered us at all.

MOT: Did they have acoustic guitars as opposed to electric guitars?

AW: Yeah, a couple of acoustic guitars and Yoko was there and Klaus was there. I think he had a guitar too...yeah, I think they all had just guitars, and I had a pair of drumsticks and I was playing on the back of the seat in front of me.

Live Peace in TorontoMOT: But there were a couple of original tunes like "Cold Turkey".

AW: Mal Evans said, "You've got to do that one on stage because it's so good." I didn't know it and nobody else did; he [John] decided let's not do that one because there's an extra bit in it and it's not going to be easy to play. It was something he wrote very recently just before we went to do the gig in 1969. He said we can't do that, initially; on the plane we didn't do it but we went through it in the dressing room, just before we went on stage. And that's why we did it.

That is very funny, I just recalled all that. I remember Gene Vincent stood there, we were like rehearsing, and John got sick because he was so nervous about playing. He was throwing up in the bathroom, but we'd gone through that before because Eric got into playing it, and I just carried along with it. Eric remembered the song and said we can do this, and we all just sat around and while John was throwing up in the bathroom we said, yeah, we can do that. So that's the scenario (laughs). He was real nervous about going on stage.

MOT: You never rehearsed any of Yoko's stuff on the plane, did you?

AW: No.

MOT: It was all totally improvisational?

AW: Yeah, totally. Somebody started playing and we all went for it.

MOT: Was this something that he was contracted and had to do, or did he want to do this? Was he excited about doing this?

AW: The impression I got was something he said he would do and didn't realize he still had to do it; he didn't have a band, so they threw the band together in like a day because he was contracted to play this show in Toronto, and that's when he called me. But I think initially he probably would be more prepared to do it if it was like a real deal, so just he threw this whole thing together to do that very quickly. It was more to do with his manager, Allen Klein. It was part his fault and John said, "I don't believe I'm doing this stuff," but then it was a make it work kind of thing. I think the bed-in [in Montreal] is where he promised to do the gig, and that's when he went back to do it.

MOT: That was probably kind of a long plane trip so it probably gave you enough time to get a few tunes together.

AW: Well, yeah, we pretty much did the whole set, saying we'll do this, we'll do that, and then basically a lot of it was just down to fate when we got there. It was we just take the bull by the horns and see you after the show, and everybody performed, and came up with the goods.

Plastic Ono Band in Toronto

MOT: Any particular memories of the gig itself [September 13, 1969]?

AW: Yeah, lots of them. Meeting Gene Vincent and Little Richard--they were all backstage and we got there...Allen Klein was John's manager at the time, so we got met by a motorcade of limos. We're all riding in one limo and there were a bunch of fans following us in cars, but pretty high intense security everywhere you went, and lots and lots of guys with suits hanging around.

Then we went to go down to the gig, and somebody was playing at the time when we got there. We went into the dressing room and were sitting there, and in walks Gene Vincent and I'm going, wow! I got to meet Gene Vincent after all these years and Little Richard...just a bunch of people kept coming in and out of the dressing room, and we were all just sitting there waiting to play. And that was, like I say, being at that age, pretty inspiring, and your mouth open going, wow! All these guys are coming in and out, and John was kind of nervous--he got sick, but it was just a physical reaction to going onstage again, since it was the first gig he'd done since he was with the Beatles, and so there's a lot of emotion going on, but once again I'll say I was just young and it was just going on all around me, and I was like, I'll just do my part.

MOT: Just going with the flow.

AW: Yeah.

MOT: How did it sound on stage? Was it happening for you guys?

AW: Well, then it came for us to go on stage, and everybody got a little bit nervous, because we were just winging the whole thing, and I think once we got up there--it's beforehand that, when something like that happens, it really affects you. When we got on stage in front of the people, John just handled everything; he was like loose as could be. I was playing a drum kit I'd never played before, and people were just throwing drums in front of me. I was sitting on a seat, and they'd put them down, and I really hadn't had time to adjust them or make them into a regular drum kit like I was used to, so I was trying to adjust them and getting ready to count in the first number, so it was pretty fast, the whole thing.

MOT: Any memories come to mind about playing these songs during the gig--anything happen during these songs?

AW: Not really. I mean, once you start playing everything else disappears. It's just a matter of basically adjusting to the people around you, and then all of the sudden it becomes an the inner circle, which people are just playing music together on stage. The audience which are out there becomes subliminal--just enjoying the fact they're watching you. It gets like an inner circle of people; it's like an unwritten language really, that you talk to each other through music, and everybody knew that everybody could play and just settle down into performing. 

MOT: You rehearsed all the Lennon songs, but was the Yoko portion totally improvised?

AW: Yeah, that was all improvisation. It was very immediate, and it's who played what when at what time. That was all being created at that time, and that's what it became what it is. It's kind of like...that's the whole attitude to art...what is happening is right now, and it's being recorded, and that's what it is. I mean, it lasts forever as this.

MOT: Did you think it was cool and you went with it or you did you think "What the hell is this?" and just did your thing?

AW: Well, it was a slight kind of thing, her rolling around in a bag onstage you know, like screaming her head off (laughs), but that's what it was, and you could get into that form of art as she saw it. You become part of it; you're just drawn into it. I made an album with him and her after that. Which I haven't got, which I'd like to hear again; it's very funny. I'd like to find that album.

MOT: You're talking about the FLY sessions? FLY was the title of that album.

AW: Right, that's right. Yep.

Plastic Ono Band in Toronto

MOT: When the gig was over, what happened directly afterwards--did you party with all these legends like Gene Vincent?

AW: No, actually we got rushed out of there pretty much immediately. We jumped in the car, and we were gone. I think we just went straight back to the airport and went back to London. It was a very quick in-and-out kind of thing, and yeah, John was happy. He was having lots of fun, but it was so immediate, the whole thing--I mean that's the word to use for the whole thing--so immediate and things were happening so fast that really it was in-an-out and done before you even knew, and all of the sudden I was back home.

MOT: Did you, Klaus, and Clapton fly home while John stayed behind?

AW: That's right, I think we flew home, and John stayed behind and went somewhere else...he went to another place and we headed home, but like I say, it was a very immediate kind of things happening quick and fast everywhere.

MOT: Did he say anything to you prior to your departure about getting together again when he returned to London, or did he leave it open ended?

AW: No, that was open ended. It was just like a one-off thing, and then I got the call later to do a lot of session work in the studio with him. He obviously enjoyed my company, but I also felt like even though he wasn't that much older than me he was playing a kind of a fatherly figure role to me, and he just enjoyed what I did musically with him; he never ever told me what to play, I just played. I did my own thing, and then he liked everything I did. He liked the emotion I think.

MOT: How about Clapton? Did you run into Clapton after Toronto?

AW: Yeah, and I got lots of comments from Eric too saying he really enjoyed playing with me. I saw him on the ALL THINGS MUST PASS sessions, and we got to be pretty good friends. I saw him at a couple of parties I went to at Jimmy Page's house. He called me "Whitey" all the time; "Hey, it's Whitey," and so he became a friend in that sense.

GIGI WHITE: Alan and I had just met, and we went to a birthday party that Jimmy Page had for his girl friend, Charlotte, at their house, and that's the time that Alan was working with Jimmy and Chris [in the aborted XYZ project]. I barely knew who Alan was when I first met him, and Eric was talking and he spilled beer all over me! And I had no idea who it was, and they was talking for ages, and he walked away and Alan says, you know who that was? I say no, and he said that was Eric Clapton, and I said, "Oh! He can spill beer on me, no problem, it's fine!" (laughs)

AW: That's a famous party where there was a whole tent set up with all these musicians and amps and nobody could find any drumsticks! Jimmy Page and me were crawling through the Range Rover, I said I'm sure there's a pair here somewhere! Jim Capaldi, Simon Kirke, there was like six or seven drummers, and nobody had any drumsticks in the whole house, and nobody could play, so we never played!

MOT: Have you seen him in recent years?

AW: I haven't seen Eric for quite a few years, but he's a really nice guy. He's one of my favorite guys I've ever played with and met in the music industry; he's really genuine.

MOT: How did you become involved with "Instant Karma!", your first post-Toronto session with John?

AW: I got the call again, said John's having a session. "He wants you to play drums on it," and I said fine. So I took my drums down there, set them all up, and everybody came in. Then I met Phil Spector, and he said, "Well, I've got a demo of the song." Instant Karma!They played a demo of the song, and then John came in, and we started messing around with it, and then he says, "Well, we need a drum break here," and I said I've been experimenting with kind of playing a drum kind of beat, but when it comes to the drum break, you play in a different meter, so it kind of steps aside of the meter for a while. And he says, "Well, I'm not too sure what you mean," and then instead of using a high hat or a cymbal, I'd use a tom-tom instead, and Phil Spector recorded it like that; that's where you get that dum-di-dum-di-dum, but when it comes to the drum break dum-di-dum-di-dum-dum-dum-dum, you usually do something like that, but I didn't. I took to another meter, where it goes into another meter, so which is another feel, and John goes "I love that!" and it was something I'd been experimenting with, because when you get to the drum part, it just goes in another area and then comes back to the song again. So I started doing that, and he loved it, and they really made a feature out of it on the record...

MOT: The drums are very prominent on that record, more so than a lot of pop singles. Really up-front.

AW: Yeah, Phil got to like the sound and got to like all that it was, and Phil Spector also records multiple things on tracks. So at the end of the day we were overdubbing piano, I think, and there was John Lennon and myself. He was playing lower keyboard, and I was playing high keyboard going dang-dang-dang-dang, there was those two pianos, and Gary Wright and I think there was a guy from Badfinger. We were all going just dang-dang-dang, and he was taking all the sound in and like making it what it is.

MOT: George Harrison was on that session.

AW: Yeah, he was, he came in. I think he played acoustic guitar, but it's not that prominent on the record. He was just in the corner, but you know, playing sessions when you got more than one [Beatle]...even one Beatle's enough in the room, and when there's two of them the whole room kind of tends to revolve around them as people, so everybody's like, you're in awe. You're sitting in the same room, they did so much musically to change the world, basically.

MOT: That is really a great story about just changing the meter, because you would extrapolate off that with Yes--on a grander scale obviously--but right, it wasn't just a straight 4-4 beat. You get that break, it was out in left field and pulled back.

AW: That's it. Yeah, you can depart from the music, but the thing is with Yes, the whole band departs from one element and then goes over here and comes back, and then all three people go over there...I always tell people at drum clinics there's no rules in music. You can basically do whatever you want to do, and the people who create the rules are the record companies, because they want to appeal to the masses, but I don't think Yes has ever thought in that direction because we just do what we want to do.

MOT: When it was released "Instant Karma!" was a major milestone; I was a big Beatles fan, and I loved John Lennon... I heard "Instant Karma!", and it was like, "Listen to that drummer!"

Video: "Instant Karma!" from December 2000AW: I used to do the same thing with Jimi Hendrix. I'd end up next to the speaker with my ear on the speaker, going, "This guy's amazing." Unbelievable. I used to sit there and go, this guy is just out there, he was happening. I was about 15 or 16 years old, and I went to a real small club about 20 miles away from where I grew up. Jimi Hendrix was playing so I went there with a couple of friends who could drive, and there's about 300 people in the club, and I'll never forget it. I was shorter those days; I only grew after I was 15, and I was jumping up and down trying to see the band, and I could see it, and I ended up jumping up and down the whole night--I never stopped the whole night, but mostly because of the excitement and the power of the music. They were just great onstage. He was just...onstage, he was another kind of John Lennon as far just couldn't keep your eyes off of him--what he was doing was magic.

MOT: Electric, very much so. So you did "Instant Karma!", then the next thing you did were the IMAGINE sessions?

AW: Yeah.

MOT: There's nothing in between? And again, John basically just called and asked you to play?

AW: Sure--actually I don't think John called me. A guy called Terry Doran...he was a friend of myself and some of the guys in my band. He was a guy that hung around the clubs, and he worked for George. He was George's right-hand man; he did everything for him. He had an office in Apple, and he was one of those guys in the early days when the Beatles were first starting, he use to be a car salesman or something like that--befriended them, and when they made it big, they knew him, and George said come down to London, I'll pay you a salary, and you could work for me as my assistant. And he called me, I think he said "Well, John's gonna record a new album, and he'd like you to do it," and I said fine, and we got my drums from the house.

They picked my drums up, and we went down to Tittenhurst Park, which John had just bought from Ringo I think at that time. He was having a bunch of construction done, and there was rubble in the kitchen, but the studio was intact, and it was right off the kitchen. It was just a very small studio room with an 8-track recording system that Ringo had put in there, and that's how we did IMAGINE. We went in, started rehearsing...

MOT: Did you actually live at the house?

AW: Yeah, I stayed there.

MOT: Did you have your own room or your own quarters?

AW: I just had my own little bedroom I'd go to, and I stayed, I think it was about ten days we spent there. Everybody who was on the album kept coming in, but I stayed there and Eric stayed there, and myself, John, and Yoko basically were the main people who stayed there.

MOT: Eric Clapton?

AW: Yeah.

MOT: He's not credited on the album.

AW: He played on a couple of tracks, but he came there for a couple of days and was in and out, and he just hung around. Whether he didn't want to be associated with it or whether he didn't use what he did, I don't know, but I know he was there for a couple of days, and George and...what's the name of the guy from Badfinger--the guy who killed himself...

MOT: Pete Ham.

AW: Yeah, he was down there, but he just come everyday when the session started. It was basically a little nucleus that was just out the whole time.

Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon's "Imagine" MOT: In the video ["Gimme Some Truth"] you seemed kind of subdued. I was wondering if you were still in awe of the whole thing.

AW: I was a kid. I was just like doing what...playing my role as a drummer within the music and trying to do as best I could kind of thing. I don't think I was subdued so much as yeah, probably in awe more than anything.

MOT: Let's go over some of the tracks that you played on. How about the title track "Imagine"? From hearing "The Lost Lennon Tapes", it sounded like that song went through a lot of different variations before the final one.

AW: No, it didn't. I don't think it did. John never told me anything to play, and he never said, "No, you needed to be doing this here."He just always let me do what I wanted to do, and he left it open like that, and I see I've heard those "Lost Lennon Tapes", and I don't know how correct they are, because from my recollection, we did a bunch of work on changing it around, but the version they actually used was like the third version that we ever did. It had more emotion; John was in the corner, and it looked like on that version...the feeling in the room was that everybody knew that that probably was the best thing we could have gotten out of the song, and it was just a charismatic feeling within the room. John sang it, and we finished it and went, "I think we got it," but we did other takes, but I think that's the one they used...we all knew.

MOT: I distinctly remember one version where you tried something different with the drums where you'd add a little fill in places.

AW: Yeah. I think they dispensed with that; they just wanted to do a dead-straight approach. I think the reason being was because the lyrics were so fantastic, that they were concentrating on that part of the song.

MOT: On "Jealous Guy", you only played vibes, right?

AW: Yes.

MOT: How did you come to play vibes and not the drums on the track?

AW: I studied piano before I played drums so I had a good knowledge of the keyboards, so Jim Keltner was down that day and John said, "Well, maybe Jim should play drums and you play vibes." And then I came up with the line (sings) dun dun dun, dun dun dun and John loved that and said, "Just keep playing that," and they mixed it really loud, and the music sort of becomes a part of the whole song big-time. That's why he wrote in the album "Alan White, good vibes" because he liked that kind of think I did, and I also remember it was just a weird session that day...

The studio wasn't that big like I said, but there was a door in the corner which was the bathroom, and the only place we would get a good sound on the vibes was in the bathroom. I spent the whole day in the bathroom playing the vibes, and they opened the door about two inches, so I could see everybody through the count-ins and all that stuff, so I was just playing my own little thing in the bathroom.

MOT: How about "Gimme Some Truth"?

AW: Well, that's a song that John, before we ever did any of these sessions in IMAGINE, he came up and he gave everybody who was a regular player a list of lyrics; that's one of the songs he was pointing out--it was a statement you're making, and if you don't want to make a statement, then don't play on the record. Everybody read through all of the lyrics on the album, and before they played on anything, he made sure everybody knew that that's what they were playing. And that was one of the songs that stuck out obviously, because he making a statement towards other people.

MOT: "Oh My Love"?

AW: (laughs) I don't remember that one so well; it was just a...

MOT: Pretty straightforward...

AW: Very straight forward (sings 'Oh my love...'). Great song, but it's all John. My part was very simple in some of these songs, but John just let me get on with it and never said, "No, you need to be doing this."

MOT: How about the Paul-bashing song, "How Do You Sleep"?

ImagineAW: That's another song where he made us read the lyrics beforehand, because he says, "Well, you know I'm pretty much having a go at one of my friends," and you know, they were all enjoyable to play on, but me being naïve at the time I was just getting on with playing the music, just enjoying playing music and understanding what I was doing and where I was doing it at the time only became evident later.

MOT: While you were recording "How Do You Sleep", was there any conversation that arose about the subject matter?

AW: No, it was all in the lyrics I think (laughs). I think it was all in the lyrics, and you know we'd get a break for dinner in the evening, and then you sit around a kitchen table, which was a huge, like, 12-foot long table.

MOT: Yeah, there's footage of that on the film.

AW: Yeah, with George sitting opposite and John's sitting was just something he had to do and wanted to do.

MOT: Any memories of "How"?

AW: Oh, "How"...that was a kind of different song to play because it had some odd meter in it too, I was enjoying the challenge of playing it, but he liked it, and he kept it relatively simple. But the inner workings of the song I think, they're more complex than people think, because it's like all based off of his voice; so you just have to really concentrate on how he was singing it, because it just slows up there and it picks up again, so the whole song is going up and down the whole time, it's very much a very felt kind of thing in the studio.

MOT: How about "Oh Yoko"? Any thoughts on that?

AW: (laughs) Thoughts on that--"Oh Yoko"--my God. Yeah, it was a good song, but I feel it was kind of like he was just trying to please her by doing that. I don't think it kept in line with, some of the class...

MOT: It was almost a throw-away.

AW: Yeah, a throw-away kind of kept in line with what he wanted to do for her, and I don't think it has the class of some of the other songs on the album.

MOT: So, along with working with John Lennon, you also worked with Phil Spector on a lot of these sessions. Any memories or stories that pop into your mind?

AW: Just small things like John walking up to hi [and] in front of me, saying [to Spector], "I'm giving you my white Rolls-Royce outside." (laughs). That is what he said; he said, you've done a great job, I'm giving you my Rolls-Royce.

MOT: He said that to Phil?

AW: Yeah, and he gave him his white Rolls-Royce--the huge one that he used, and he gave it to him that day. He said take it, see you've done a good job... amazing.

MOT: How was the interplay between John and Phil in the studio?

AW: They both had a go at each other a few times--you know, butting heads, but that's what to create something like that is what it's all about. Nothing's that easy..."But Phil you don't realize," and Phil's going, "No, John, John, it's got to be like this." Pretty interesting conversations, but out of all that butting heads, comes something good usually. You get the ultimate goal.

MOT: From the conflict sometimes comes great art.

AW: Well, you see it onstage with Yes.

MOT: (laughs)

AW: Many times. There's a lot of head-butting to get to that point.

MOT: How is it that you didn't end up playing on the whole album? There are tracks with Jim Gordon and Jim Keltner.

AW: Jim Keltner, yeah. Well, Jim Keltner was around town; he was doing all of these sessions, I think for Ry Cooder or somebody like that at the time, and he's also worked with John in different ways before. Jim's a great player, and he's a great person, and he's still a good friend of mine. He's one of the weirdest guys in the world; he's got the strangest sense of humor, and he just sits back and takes it all in and does what is necessary, and he became a really, really great friend of mine. That's how I ended up playing with Joe Cocker afterwards, because he was playing with Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and Joe Cocker called me and asked me if I'd be the second drummer, and he was a great guy to work with. Very easy double-drummer situation, because he left space for you, and as a result you taught yourself how to leave space for him when he was doing his thing, so great, great person to play with. 

We were very good...great temperaments and bounced off each other a lot and made everything work... he knew John and knew people around town, and he was one of the sought after kind of musicians, drummers, that were around at that time, and I didn't mind, I always respected his playing. He played on "Jealous Guy", and I said I'll just play vibes, and John said, "That's a great idea, play vibes," and so that's how it worked out.

MOT: Were you around for those other sessions then, like "I Don't Want To Be A Soldier, Mama" or "Crippled Inside"?

AW: Yeah, I was there the whole time. It was very much a family-type atmosphere.

MOT: How did you decide who would play on those tracks?

AW: John would say "Well, I think maybe Jim's style is suits this one," and it was fine. There was no bad feelings anywhere; it was all amicable through the whole thing.

MOT: Were there any benefits for you personally, besides doing the sessions and getting paid for it, when IMAGINE was released? Were you elevated in status in the rock press?

AW: I don't think so much, I mean a lot of the press was just on John, because he was such a focus of attention right then, and people who played on it were basically... obviously I'd meet people in bars and clubs and they said, "I saw you played on the new Lennon album"... I think it was deeper than that really, because it was an experience that I probably went through--it's really hard to convey to people, because it was just like being part of his family, and I think he felt that like I was part of his family, because I just fit in really well with everything, and that's why he used to talk to me, and like I said at the beginning of the interview, it's more like he took me under wing and became like a fatherly figure.

MOT: A mentor.

AW: Yeah, and he just watched what I did, but basically never told me what and how to do it. It was...he just let me do my own thing, and that's what I respected mostly about the whole thing. It was like whatever I did, it worked, and I think it was more a sense of the atmosphere in the room at the time and just being in tune with what was going on.

MOT: Did the FLY sessions occur directly after IMAGINE?

AW: No, it was down the road a ways. I think it was months later, but you know I got the call again and said John's doing an album with Yoko, and we went in, and that was bizarre recording (laughs), because she's just wailing away, and he's like playing loud guitar, and I think Eric was involved in some of those. I know around the same time I did an album with George for Doris Troy, that was really interesting. It was a good album, and a lot of Delaney and Bonnie's band played on that, and they were all around London at the time. It was just you knew people, you got in there, you just got on with your work basically, but the FLY sessions were more bizarre because she'd do the same arty kind of thing with a sack and all that kind of stuff in the studio. Sometimes you'd kind of look at the wall and go "Am I really doing this?" (laughs), but it was just bizarre, off-the-wall kind of music.

MOT: Was it akin to what happened in Toronto then, that it was all improvisational?

AW: Yes, and that was in the studio. I don't know whether she went back later and did some of the vocal things. I think the whole idea about it was this is what's happening now, and this is art, and this is what's going to be in it. This is what it's going to be forever, and we're putting it down on tape.

MOT: Performance art in a sense.

AW: Yeah, kind of like...yeah, very spontaneous, improvised, and very left-field you know what I mean. It's just like this is what the moment is in time, and it's going down on vinyl.

MOT: Subsequently you did some live gigs with John and Yoko?

AW: Yeah.


AW: The live tracks on that album came from the Lyceum in London. Have you seen that photograph? Of the Lyceum in London? I think it was in the album. It's a photograph that we took backstage, and we're all holding things that say "War is Over", little placards, and I'm standing between Keith Moon and George Harrison, and there's Delaney and Bonnie up here and Jim Gordon and there's a bunch of kind of crazy guys that used to hang around the clubs in London, like three or four of them in there. Lyceum in LondonLegs Larry Smith is a drummer from Bonzo Dog Do-Dah Band, and he's in there, but basically it was just going to be myself, Klaus, John and Yoko, and Eric, and when Eric turned up, he brought the rest of the Delaney and Bonnie band with him, so they stalled the whole thing for about half an hour, and they whipped all the equipment out of the van and set it up, and all of us went on the stage together, not knowing what we were going to play. 

So that's when they started the jam session, just starting with a riff that went on for a long time, and people kept taking solos. It just went on, and all these people in the Lyceum couldn't believe who they were seeing onstage of course, and it was just like a jam, and I had Keith Moon banging away on my 16" tom-tom. The whole time he was playing there, and I was playing, and Jim Gordon's playing over there, the horn section, and like about eight guitarists onstage or something. So one thing I had learned at a very early age is when something's just going on and on and on--it's the same thing, and we soloed ourselves out--how do you get out of the song, because nobody knows who's doing what, so I taught myself to just start speeding the song up.

So I started speeding the song up, and everybody went with me, and then what you do is you speed it up so fast that nobody could play anymore (laughs). It was so fast, so it was like nee-nee-nee, and it becomes one note, and then you slow it down, and go bomp and finish it (laughs). That's the way to do it, I started speeding the song up, and they're all going yeah, it's going somewhere, it's going somewhere, it's going somewhere. It's going faster and faster and faster, and it gets so fast, nobody can play that fast anymore, and then you can slow it down and oh, it's finished. That's the only way you do it.

MOT: Kind of force the big ending.

AW: Force the big ending, yeah, so emotionally you have to kind of direct what's going on. We could have been there for hours playing the same thing.

MOT: Any other thoughts about that Lyceum gig and interacting with John at all?

AW: Only, you know it was one of those things...I know that it was a gig that John didn't expect to do, but for some reason contractually, he had to do it, and I got a last-minute call, and said get yourself down here right now and get your drums, and it's like John has to do this gig, wants to do this gig. I remember going to Apple first, and he [was saying to] Alan Klein, "Why are you making me do this?" It was something contractually that he signed up for or something like that without knowing, and he had to do it, but in the end, it became really great evening and he enjoyed it.

MOT: I take it that was probably also a jumping point to other bands like, you say, Joe Cocker and Ginger Baker's Air Force.

AW: You see, at that time in the music industry in London--I sometimes reflect and wonder what Steve [Howe] and all those guys were doing, because they were doing the kind of start-up thing, and Steve was maybe with Bodast... it was just a close-knit circle of people that once you're in you used to meet people all the time and became friends. Keith Moon and myself, Trevor Burton [of the Move], and Denny Laine [of the Moody Blues and Wings]--I remember sitting having dinner with Ginger one night and he stood up and broke the table. It was bizarre sense just met people like that the whole time, and it was an incredible part of your life, because it went down in rock and roll history, because there were so many people creating so many things at that time, and I saw Stevie Winwood when I was like fourteen. I said this guy's just amazing.

MOT: After this particular gig, did you see John after that at all? That was your last gig with John.

AW: Last gig, yeah. No, I think we played again in the studio. I think it was in Apple, because they had a studio downstairs, and we'd just like messing around. I was there, and John said come and play and stuff like that, but I think that was basically the run of the period. Shortly after that he moved to New York.

MOT: You're saying you played on some sessions that never saw the light of day?

AW: Well not sessions so much as jamming and songwriting to a degree...if he walked through the door right now, we'd know each other and remember all of those things, of course.

MOT: I take it John never came to see Yes?

AW: No, but I know he knew of the band...when THE YES ALBUM came out, I think I was touring. I was like somewhere like Devon, we were playing this club somewhere, and some guy was playing THE YES ALBUM, and I always remember hearing Jon's voice and Hammond organ, and I think it was "I've Seen All Good People" or something like that. I was playing with Terry Reid at that time...I got into the album as they were playing it in the club as we were setting the equipment up.

Prior to me being involved with Yes we [John and Alan] were talking one time and I said, have you heard THE YES ALBUM, and he said it was a unique sounding band. It was just a casual conversation...and I remember listening to him saying that's a unique sounding band, and thirty years later, I find myself playing with the same band. It's quite unreal.

MOT: John knew of Yes?

AW: Yeah, I think he heard the band. I remember at one time...I think maybe I was talking to him about hearing it around that time, because the band was '68 when it came out with the early stuff, and I was still working with John like in '70-'71, as FRAGILE was coming out, and I'm sure I was either in a car with him or something like that, and I said something like, "Well, I heard this band playing before." He said, "No, no, I've heard it--I've heard that band on the radio," or something like that, so he knew of the band before. Even with Yoko since then, she's always known of the band, and I don't know whether it's because I've been involved with them, but she definitely knows about Yes.

MOT: So those jam sessions you're referring to before he went to New York, was that the last time you saw him?

AW: Yeah, pretty much. I never saw him when he was in New York. Yeah, he went on his trip, and then he obviously met this band, and it's around that time he's with Harry Nilsson and they were getting pretty loaded (laughs).

MOT: You've seen Yoko since then?

AW: Yeah, I have. When the "Imagine" movie came out, it was a premiere, and I went to the premiere, and then there was a party at the Hard Rock afterwards, and I sat at the next table, and my manager at the time Tony Dimitriades was sat at her table, which was behind me, and he came over and took me over and I sat next to him, and he said "Alan, this is Yoko--Yoko--you haven't seen him for a long time," and she remembered me... it was cool.

MOT: Do you remember where you were the night John got shot?

AW: The night John got shot, I was working I think. We were on the way to a gig.

MOT: The DRAMA tour, probably. [Yes was on tour in the UK but actually had the day off on December 8, 1980.]

AW: Yeah, and oh, it was just mind-blowing. It was like where were you the night Elvis died--exactly the same kind of syndrome, and if oddly enough, to backtrack, the Elvis thing, we [had just seen] him. He was staying in the same hotel as us like just prior to that, and we were on one floor, and Elvis was on the other floor, and I think Jon went up to meet him, but I don't think he ever saw him, but his cousin or something that worked for him gave Jon one of the necklaces with a card...what was the name--TB whatever? It's like a arrow in it--taking care of business or something like that. It was one of those things, and everybody who worked for him had a gold necklace with this on it, so Jon got one from this guy. I think he still has it.

When John got shot, I don't remember exactly where I was... it was such a great loss to the music industry and the world. The guy said some great things and had a great life and was so talented. I mean it was unbelievable, and he was a very strong-minded kind of guy who did what he wanted to do most of his life, and obviously he was one of those guys who was a rebel--a struggler, and had a definite statement to say to society. Overall, you can hear it, but he left behind a lot of those statements, and I remember we were in New York not long after that and walking past the Dakota, and all the flowers and everything like that. In fact, every time we go to New York, Gigi and myself always usually just take a walk around it.

MOT: At Strawberry Fields?

AW: Every year they have the ritual. It just shows you how influential he was.

MOT: I guess that wraps up John Lennon. I want to see if you have any recollections or memories of the ALL THINGS MUST PASS sessions. How did you get involved in those?

AW: I think because George played on some of the early [Lennon] sessions, and obviously he liked the way I played whatever in the studio, and I got put into those sessions. It was like we pretty much went into the studio everyday for three weeks, and just got involved in making a lot of those tracks, and at the same time, the Delaney and Bonnie band came in and Eric, and a lot of different people came in at different times, but George wanted to do his thing, and he had a lot of good songs I thought. And yet again we were using Phil, and it was just a really great time. All Things Must PassEverybody would turn up everyday and also was a great sense of family unity about it, working with John. George was pretty much the same; it was like one of the guys and was never too far out of place, but they were just taking care of business, getting some tracks down, and everyday I'd just turn up for three weeks, and like I say, in some of those tracks, like "My Sweet Lord" and stuff like that...

Ringo turned up one day. You know, people used to pop in and out all the time, and I was playing with John. John was there too, and George, and Ringo. The only person who wasn't there was Paul, and we were all playing in the studio, and I thought, "Well, Ringo, play the drums." It's like being three parts of the Beatles, and Phil said "No, no, no," and Ringo said, "No, no, no, I'm going to play tambourine." So I played the drums, and I'm playing with John and George, and Ringo stood next to me playing tambourine. It's kind of weird feeling at that age to be doing that, so it was like being involved in the family. It was kind of like a family atmosphere every time they got together.

MOT: That particular session was during ALL THINGS MUST PASS?

AW: Yeah.

MOT: Is John on that album, uncredited?

AW: Yeah, he didn't want his name on it; he just was there for fun, just playing.

MOT: Do you remember what that track was?

AW: Was it the Dylan track? 

MOT: "If Not For You"?

AW: Yeah, "If Not For You", I think. That was the one that John was on I think, and then I know that Ringo was definitely playing tambourine on "My Sweet Lord".

MOT: You played drums on "My Sweet Lord"?

AW: I don't even know which one they used. They did two recordings of that. They did one with Jim Gordon and one with me, but I know I did one of them, and I don't know which one eventually ended up on the album (laughs).

MOT: The thing is back in those days they would just list the musicians but not break it down by song.

AW: Yeah, right.

MOT: So it's hard to tell who's playing on what song. But from listening to it, you can't tell if it's yourself or...

AW: I think the version is there's me playing drums and Ringo playing tambourine. That's what it sounds like to me.

MOT: That album's got something like twenty or so songs.

AW: I think I played on like maybe a third of them. I played on like about six or seven tracks on it.

MOT: Was Clapton at any of those sessions?

AW: Yeah, he played on most of them.

MOT: And as you know, it was a triple album, so there were the two albums, which were straight-forward songs, and the third album, which was a series of jam sessions.

AW: Right.

MOT: Are you on those jam sessions?

AW: Yeah, on some of them. They just took a compilation of a bunch of the different things...everybody kind of like finished the track for the day, and everybody would wander out and start playing again, and that's where they sprang from.

MOT: Did you see George after ALL THINGS MUST PASS and you were in Yes?

AW: Yeah...In L.A., we were at a party with him, him and Tom Petty but they were extremely drunk, both of them (laughs). We said hello, and he was very nice, his wife was really nice...

MOT: You've seen Ringo since the ALL THINGS MUST PASS sessions.

AW: Yeah, we saw him down at the Pier a couple of years ago. I knew the tour manager, and I knew his son Zak who said, "You know Ringo?" and I said, yeah, I know him from ages ago, and they took me to his trailer. Barbara was there and she said, come in, it's good to see you. They said "Alan White's here," and Ringo was in the bathroom, he said, "It's that bloody drummer!", and he was about to change. So I said, I came by to say hi. I was standing by the door and Ringo's in the loo, and he was talking to me. I said I can come back later, and he said, no, it's no problem (laughs). He started changing for the set and we just talked for a little while about old times.

MOT: You've worked with John and George, with and without Ringo. Have you ever worked with Paul McCartney?

AW: Yeah, it was only a brief experience. I think it was in the Speakeasy Club years and years ago, when he was just forming Wings. We went in there one night and I sat around the table--there was Denny Laine and Paul McCartney, and we had a slight jam session; it was no big deal. It was the creation of Wings; there was Paul and Linda, and Denny Laine. Denny has been a friend of mine from prior to playing with Joe Cocker and John Lennon. When I was a kid we used to play in a band called Wolf together and we knew each other pretty well. It was like the inception of Wings, I think they just finished recording their first album, or something like that.

MOT: How did you happen to be at the Speakeasy? Were you hanging out and they just happened to be in there?

AW: Everybody who was a musician in London who had done gigs outside of town we all used to go to the Speakeasy on the way back to town every night, it was right in the center of town so a lot of musicians used to congregate there and just have fun, and generally end up in big piles on the floor (laughs). It was kind of a crazy place but it was very famous.

MOT: So Denny introduced you to Paul?

AW: Yeah. I think I never got involved with Paul initially because there was a little bit of rivalry there between Paul and John. If I was playing with John you can't play with Paul professionally

MOT: Did Paul mention your work with John or George when he met you?

AW: No. Not at all. It was one of those late night scenarios, it must have been one or two in the morning, everybody had just had a good night out.

MOT: Do you remember what you jammed on?

AW: No, I have no idea, that's how late it was (laughs). It was something like a blues, or something like that, it wasn't any Beatle stuff.

MOT: Did you see Paul after that?

AW: We did see him after that. We were recording "Rhythm of Love" at AIR studios in London. We needed some piece of equipment and Paul had [it], and someone went to borrow it. Then Paul came in and was hanging around the studio when we were cutting the track just for about half an hour or something.

MOT: Did you talk to him at all?

AW: Yeah, he was great. The jolly old Paul McCartney.

MOT: Did he make any comments about the track?

AW: Yeah, he liked it a lot, he thought it was a really great track, which it was...well recorded, in a great studio...he was doing an album next door, something to do with Wings.

MOT: I want to ask you about the BBC interview you did in December 2000. They wanted to know about Lennon artifacts and they spoke to you about the drum set...

AW: Video: "Imagine" from December 2000Mainly they were after information about the piano which was sold and they were doing a whole video documentary on artifacts that have been sold by different artists.

MOT: They flew out to Seattle specifically to see you and talk to you about this...

AW: Yeah it's in my storage right now but it's going to be displayed at the Issaquah Music Festival, [August 10-12, 2001] .

MOT: But the drum kit was in storage when they called you...?

AW: It had just come from England...

GW: It had been in our storage in England and we just had our container arrive just a few weeks they called...

AW: So we unwrapped it and took it up there [to Don Bennett's drum shop] and they cleaned it all up and made it look good. What happened was the bass drum had a hairline crack in it that we had to fix. Part of the seam had come away from where they wrap the drums, which they did in that day, they don't anymore. He fixed all that, but it's taken a while for them to do it. So we'll put it all back together again, the whole thing.

MOT: For the interview you set up the drum set and discussed the IMAGINE album... [The videos on this page are from that interview.]

GW: They interviewed him and he played, and it was really cool, because they played "Imagine" and he played along with it, and it's the first time he played that kit on so many years and he was having so much fun, he smiled through the whole thing.

AW: Was I?

GW: You were. I've never seen you do that. You said it felt really good.

AW: They played the track in the drum studio where they sell drums and they filmed the whole thing and me playing along with it. Don Bennett said to me the piano sold for two million pounds, I wonder how much the drum kit's worth! I said I don't know, I'll just keep it.

GW: It was funny, because he said I forgot how good this kit sounds.

AW: It did sound good though, yeah.

GW: It was very special; it was a nice moment.

MOT: I'm sure it was emotional as well.

AW: Uh huh.

GW: It was; I was crying. That drum kit's really been locked away in our storage in England for, gosh, probably since we met, almost twenty years.

MOT: Have you considered putting it in a museum?

AW: It may eventually go in the [Rock 'n' Roll] Hall of Fame, they're talking about it right now because there's a John Lennon exhibit there that's two or three floors, and they said, "We'll get back to you, but we're trying to find a place to put it, we'd love to have it," but it's where it fits in.

MOT: I think Yes is kind of carrying the Beatles baton as far as creative songwriting and musicianship.

AW: I think mainly you get that from a lot of the harmony work that goes on within the band, and certain kind of elements of the music chorus-wise in the songs that retain like a very melodic kind of chorus that sticks in your mind like the Beatles used to do, but in and around that kind of stuff...Yes diverse so much...

MOT: It's like taking the Beatles to another level.

AW: I know what you're saying. It's like "Give Peace A Chance", and the relative emotion that goes with that music is carried on into Yes music, yeah, and a lot of that has to do with Jon, because he had a lot of feeling for all of that kind of stuff.

MOT: "Send an instant karma to me" in "All Good People"--it's funny that's in that song, and here you are (laughs), the guy who played on that song.

AW: That's very funny. Every time when we do that and he sings that I go's like a poke in the head kind of thing going, oh yeah, I did that too.

Plastic Ono Band in Toronto

MOT: In closing is there anything else you want to mention about John Lennon?

AW: I don't know, except like I say, when you get further down in life like this, and you look back at that and the amount of good that he spread throughout the world through his music, and being around him you could feel that. He just wanted everything to be peaceful, better, and just wanted the good for mankind basically, and then to see somebody who twenty-four hours a day emanating that was fantastic, and to be involved with it and around it for those few years was fantastic.

David Marks handled the mixing for the Live Peace in Toronto concert and photographed the Plastic Ono Band during their performance. David heads the Hidden Years Music Archive Project/3rd Ear Music, an organization whose goal is to restore, catalog & transfer the analog archives of South Africa (tapes, posters, & photos) into a digital format. Visit the 3rd Ear site for more information.

The pictures of the Plastic Ono Band are ©2001 David Marks/all rights reserved, with exclusive permission granted to Notes From the Edge for their usage. Usage of those (and any) pictures on this page is strictly prohibited.

Notes From the Edge #247
August 11, 2001

The entire contents of this interview are
Copyright © 2002, Mike Tiano