Sunday, 4 September 2016

Interview with Julian Colbeck

As we await Anderson Rabin Wakeman, perhaps it's a good time to re-visit their spiritual predecessor, Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe. When ABWH played live, they had an additional guitarist and keyboardist. (ARW talked about a similar arrangement and even announced Gary Cambra for the touring band, although they are now working as a quintet with just bassist Lee Pomeroy and drummer Lou Molino.)

Julian Colbeck, who was that second keyboardist on the ABWH tour, kindly agreed to do an interview with me. Colbeck has plenty more to his career than his time in the Yes orbit: we also talked about his work with Steve Hackett and with Charlie. But we started with ABWH:

Can you talk me through how you got the job in ABWH?
In 1989 I was being managed by Pete Smith who was also ABWH's tour manager. Right before rehearsals were due to begin, Matt Clifford, who had played keys on the ABWH album, announced he was going to join the Stones on their Steel Wheels tour. This was interpreted as a bit of a slap in the face for ABWH (which it wasn’t, but..) and so they needed another keyboard player pretty quickly. I went up to see Jon [Anderson] in London, played a bit of piano for him in his living room, and was offered the gig. Next stop, go say hi to [manager] Brian Lane. Yikes!

How did you work out the arrangements between you and Rick [Wakeman]?
Essentially Rick plays and played all the ‘signature’ parts - solos, refrains etc. - and I played all the ‘orchestrated’ parts. Put even more simply, Rick plays all his bits and I played whatever was left; stuff that even an octopus like Rick couldn’t manage.

What was the mood within the band? Did the band and crew just consider this to be the real Yes?
The mood was generally good and there was a general acceptance of this being as real a ‘Yes’ as could feasibly have been formed in the past couple of decades. That said, everyone had their own dressing room (Jon had a wigwam that got carted around with us and to which no one ever wanted to get summoned) but as I recall, Bill [Bruford] and Rick spent most of their time with Tony [Levin], Milton [McDonald, second guitarist] and myself in the band dressing room. Steve [Howe] kept himself to himself but was never less than charming and civilized. OK, and weird, but in a nice way. 

What happened after the tour? And what's the story behind the French sessions that led to Watching the Flags That Fly [released as part of Jon Anderson's The Lost Tapes collection in 2006]? Who else was involved in the sessions?
The Opio sessions were designed as pre-production for the next ABWH album, which morphed into Union. Everyone was invited. No one came. Just Jon, myself, an orchestrator called Mike Marshall who Jon was also writing an orchestral piece with, and two crew. One of the crew, Rick’s keyboard tech Stuart Sawney, played guitar whenever guitar was needed that neither Jon nor I could hack. In particular, Stu plays the lovely solo on After The Rain [released as "After the Storm"].

Which songs did you co-write?
Some songs Jon had sketches of beforehand, some were my ideas that Jon and I fleshed out together. I’d say it was about 50/50, possibly 60/40 in Jon’s favor. I actually loved writing with Jon. It was inspirational, if challenging. I remember him being pissed off he couldn’t sing into a Roland MC-500 MIDI sequencer. Everything was recorded onto ADAT but none of it was ever intended (so far as I was concerned anyhow) as releasable material; just ideas and demos.

Then what happened – how did you hear that ABWH had merged back into Yes?
After the final ABWH tour, Jonathan Elias had come on the scene and ‘ABWH’ sort of ballooned into Union, which, so far as I’m aware, was a nightmare for which the word clusterfuck must surely have been coined. I was not involved in its recording in any way but one song I had had a hand in writing of (Take The Water… to somewhere, who knows?) made it to the album. I was neither credited nor paid. After ABWH I think I started work with Steve Hackett so quickly lost track of where the Yes guys were at or what they were doing. I certainly had no idea that ‘Watching The Flags’ would ever be heard of again and was utterly gobsmacked when one day it just sort of landed on my doorstep as a ‘record’. To be honest, I was appalled, even though some of the songs were good and some of the arrangements interesting. These were demos; not intended for public consumption.

[Colbeck also said that he cleared up songwriting and royalties for Watching the Flags That Fly with Anderson after the release.]

You then returned for Symphonic Music of Yes: what are your memories of that session?
Symphonic Music of Yes… ummm, not entirely glowing memories. At the time everyone was mad at Rick (who knows why this particular time) so they needed a keyboard player and so I obliged. It was produced by my chum Alan Parsons, so that was nice, but the music and sessions themselves I recall as being somewhat stressful and I didn’t (and don’t) like the album.

You did some further sessions with both Howe and Bruford: can you tell me about them?
These were much more fun. I worked with Steve and his son Dylan and we recorded all sorts of interesting things like Walk Don’t Run and who knows what else. With Bill, we did some music for TV. Again, this was great fun. Lord knows what happened to the music from either session.

You worked for several years with Steve Hackett: what did that period mean for you?
Working with Steve was always a joy. I did all manner of projects and things from live shows to live recorded gigs (Time Lapse - that band only ever played that one gig!), to duos, writing, you name it.

I've read that it was during the Japanese performances released as The Tokyo Tapes that you decided to retire from live performance. What brought about that decision?
 I simply looked around on stage during the final show and saw a bunch of old men - including if not especially, me. I was 44 at the time. Now I look back on those shows and see a bunch of young men. Life is funny like that.

You also worked on Captain Crash vs The Zzorg Women, Chapters 5 &6 [a sequel to Flash Fearless Versus the Zorg Women, Parts 5 & 6], by Steve Hammond and Dave Pierce: tell me more!?
Yeesh! Yes, well that was along time ago, 1980 or thereabouts. I’d known the four writers in London in the early 1970s and had spent many a happy and stoned evening at their houses when the material was being written. In 1980 I left the band Charlie, with whom I’d made a bunch of albums, and moved to LA with Rick Jones and Dave Pierce. We moved in with the unfortunate Steve Hammond (one of the other four writers) and were happy to be supported by Steve’s long-suffering wife Sandy as we routined and rehearsed ‘Crash’. Crash ran for a month or so in a fleapit equity-waiver theater on Santa Monica Blvd but was an amazing experience with an amazing cast. I was the musical director and played keys. The cast was essentially seven gorgeous young LA actresses, three of the four writers, and Lewis Arquette, dad of the little blond Arquette girls who’d come in many nights and watch their dad perform. One night the sleezebag director surreptitiously recorded the show and that’s the album you can hear today. I never even knew anything had been recorded until I was given a copy of the album twenty years later. The music business really makes you go all warm and fuzzy, and so often too.

I'm curious about the Charlie reunion in 2009: what's the story behind that?
2009 Charlie album was essentially a Terry Thomas solo album but on which I played some keys so Terry ended up feeling it merited being released under the name of Charlie. Terry sent me stems and I recorded my parts in my own studio and sent them back to him. That’s it, really. It was and is a really good album but unless we could somehow release it under the name of the Foo Fighters, it stood about as much chance of selling or being played as I do of representing Colombia at free-form ice dancing at the next Winter Olympics.

There is an even newer Charlie album, Elysium, on which I actually played rather more keys and on which I think Martin Smith, a Charlie founder member and current player in ELO or something, also played. It too is a really good and solid album with some killer tracks. I loved playing ‘live’ on this; no sequencing, no auto correct, just me sitting at an acoustic piano, a Rhodes, or a B3 and playing shit. Well, not shit, I hope, but just playing. As for its chances of success, see above but switch Colombia for Pluto.

Do you have any more plans to work with Charlie?
I’d actually love to. Steve Gadd (the other Steve Gadd drummer) sadly died of cancer two years ago and the album is dedicated to him. I nearly died of cancer this past year too but since I still seem to be around I could be persuaded to come out of retirement, should we be able to be convinced that anyone would be interested in listening to us. Now I’m ‘so much’ older, I actually couldn’t give so much of a fuck about being an old man on stage. I wouldn’t have to look at me, the audience would, so that’s their problem.

Thanks to Julian for his cooperation.


  1. Thank you Henry. Looking at Julian's comments thematically several matters are reinforced.

    1) Rick the soloist (goes back to his years as a session man) rather than the orchestrator/writer. The two projects where he really offered orchestrated/writing parts are CTTE and GFTO. The two projects which have the richest most compelling orchestrations and the best transitions are CTTE and GFTO. Expect both of these to feature on the ARW tour. On Fragile, ABWH and Keys studio he is more the superb session player but expect lots of Fragile on the ARW tour. The really interesting element is what he will do with Trevor's material will he add depth or merely add solo's given he was only at rehearsals for 8 days and APB without J and JL rehearsed for 21 days I am expecting trademark solo's.

    2) Jon writing with Julian Colbeck is most interesting. Jon's relationship with Yes altered in 1978 when he stepped back director/organiser and stepped up as songwriter. For 90125 he was late entrant If you look at Paris/Generator his relationship with the others was dysfunctional and lead to his ideas being corralled and or rejected and he left. For ABWH he took ideas from Steve prepped with a sub band and presented to the others. Clearly he saw the sessions for ABWH the same and prepped with Julian however this time L/B/H were acting as a band and began prepping separately at Miraval which after a few days with Jon coming in went horribly wrong and now Jon's off to see Trevor Rabin for ideas. Come forward to 2007 + and exactly the same pattern emerges except the stay at home internet exchanges/re exchanges replaces the JC type vibing up. What will be most interesting is to see whether the decision after 5 years of exchanges to dump new ARW music in favour of a retro alternative Yes tour is not just a financial decision but also an artistic one. If Trevor moves on to his solo album after a round of touring
    count me as unsurprised.

    For this article helps clarify patterns of behaviour established over long periods of time and makes it clear ABWH1 and 2 were both cell like start ups.

    1. Hi Michelle, clearly by ABWH2 the group were dysfunctional as a collective unit, ARW want to work together. I doubt the ARW new music has been "dumped" as my understanding is 2-3 tracks are all but ready. I suspect they simply ran out of time to have that done to Rabin's standards before Lane had booked a tour. The tour also allows them to gel as a working unit [something Rabin has implied too]. The tour will test their commitment to each other to continue with finishing the recording. The tour will make or break them imho

  2. Thanks Henry and Julian for another report from the front as it was back then. But there is a wider political systemic aspect of whatever happens within music written or performed for financial reasons. Yes’ manoeuvring, like any other band at the time and now, essentially was/is dictated by with will of the audience – not the artists or the managers. Bruford’s comments at the time of the second half of the Union tour was how he looked forward to playing differing setlists and was told that it can’t be done “for technical reasons”. We need to stop blaming the artists and acknowledge our responsibility (as the audience) for what the end product is.

  3. Great interview. Very informative.