CHRIS SQUIRE: A Wonderous Journey
Anderson, White, Wakeman & Howe Reflect On Their Fallen Comrade
by Rick Suchow
(published in November 2015 Bass Player Magazine)
It was a troubling announcement that caught the music world by surprise in May of this year: Yes bassist Chris Squire had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and would be forced to take a leave of absence from the band’s busy touring schedule. “This will be the first time since the band formed in 1968 that Yes will have performed live without me," said Squire, who co-founded the group and was the only member to appear on every album they released—more than 30 studio and live recordings in all. A temporary replacement was picked to fill in, and the band's website asked fans to send Chris well wishes for a speedy recovery as he underwent treatment for the disease. Yes devotees were rattled but hopeful; surely he would recover and get back to business. But just two months later the news broke: Chris Squire was dead. It seemed impossible; the ever-present progressive pioneer that grounded, glued and guided Yes for nearly half a century, was gone.
A musician of incalculable talent, Squire was a game changer for bass players around the globe. With a signature sound and a brilliant sense of syncopation and counterpoint, the big man nicknamed “Fish” was the cornerstone of Yes' sonic appeal and a fearless force in their live show spectacle. Armed with his Rickenbacker bass, Chris earned membership in that small, elite club of bassists who molded originality, technique and imagination into a form of playing style that had not existed before. He cited Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce and Bill Wyman as influences, but it was the Who’s John Entwistle that lit Squire up the most. He emulated Entwistle’s trebly roundwound sound and filtered it through his own classical intuition and keen ear for harmony that he developed in his youth as a choir singer. With an aggressive picking attack and machine-like precision, Squire’s bass playing quickly became one of the most dominant and recognizable sounds in rock in the early 70’s. Along with his enormously talented bandmates, including singer Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, and drummers Bill Bruford and Alan White, Yes racked up an incredible seven consecutive gold or platinum albums in their first ten years, a mind blowing feat that powered them forward for decades.
Christopher Russell Edward Squire was born in the London suburb of Kingsbury in 1948. His mother enrolled him in the cub scouts when he was a young boy but Chris hated it; when a friend told him he could make money singing in their church choir, he discovered not only his ticket out, but his inner musical talent as well. Trained by renowned choirmaster Barry Rose, who Chris later referred to as “the shining star of British church music at that time,” he was handed the road map for his future: “I learned from an early age the importance of practice and making a unit that was fired up to be the best,” said Squire.
He was in his early teens when the Merseybeat sound swept Britain, and when the Beatles, Stones and the Who arrived on the local scene, Squire found his calling. At 17 he landed a job selling guitars in a local music store, where he used his employee discount to purchase a brand new Rickenbacker bass. The burgeoning music scene also brought with it a new drug culture, and Squire began experimenting with LSD. After a bad acid trip in 1967, Chris withdrew from life and hunkered down in his girlfriend’s apartment for months. This would turn out to be the most important period in his bass development; he practiced relentlessly and raised his playing level by leaps and bounds. He vowed to never use LSD again, and emerged from the experience ready to face the world with his Rickenbacker at the ready.
Squire joined local bands including The Selfs, The Syn and Mabel Greer’s Toyshop. During his stint with Mabel Greer, he met the person who would co-charter the course of his new musical journey: Jon Anderson. They met at London’s La Chasse club where Anderson worked, introduced by the club’s manager. “It was right over the famous Marquee Club in Soho,” recalls Anderson. “I was always looking for a good band to work with, so I went over and spoke to Chris and we just hit it off right away.” The two bonded over their mutual interest of vocal music, particularly bands like Simon and Garfunkel and the Fifth Dimension. “We talked about music in general and had the same sort of musical aspirations,” says Jon. “We went straight back to his apartment and wrote a couple of songs together, and from that moment it was a question of, okay, how do we get this thing going?”
JUST SAY YES
Anderson and Squire plotted out the course of the group. They quickly re-shuffled Mabel Greer’s lineup and brought in Bruford and keyboardist Tony Kaye, and then honed their musical vision. “We both felt that we didn’t want to make pop music, because we were too old and we didn't look like a pop band,” laughs Anderson. “So we just talked about crafting music for stage and putting on a great show. And that was our main goal, from the beginning. I was studying a little about symphonic music, and Chris had a lot of choral music background, so we talked about that. We decided that if we get a band going we've got to have singers, it can't just be one voice with a backup band, and it’s got to be a fusion of all these musical ideas. Oh, and Mabel Greer’s Toyshop is such a long name, can we not get a short name?” laughs Jon.
Anderson also marveled at Squire’s bass ability. “He had his act together on his Rickenbacker, the sound of his bass was amazing. When we started writing he would use his bass very much as a main instrument, like a solo part. The guitarist at the time, Peter Banks, was sort of backing up ideas and then would jump off and do solos, but the bass was the central key to the musicality of the songs we did in those early days.” Squire also had an innate ability to interpret Anderson’s songwriting ideas, and created bold bass statements to support his songs. “I hardly ever said anything to Chris about what he should play,” says Jon. “He always seemed to naturally go for a very powerful driving part, and then when I would start to sing he'd go very melodic and underpin what I was singing. By the time we did shows and concerts, there was this beautiful soundboard that was created, generally through Chris' understanding of bass and my vocal. The concept of those together within Yes was that edge of magic that was different than most bands of that time.”
When Banks left Yes after two albums, Squire called up guitarist Steve Howe on Anderson’s recommendation. Howe was a perfect match for Squire’s style of bass playing. “Chris had invited me to play with the band,” Howe recalls. “He was really a formidable bass player who was kind of thinking different, outside the box, as we say now. Most bass players were just playing the roots. With Chris, it was like he jumped over the fence and saw it from the other side. His way of thinking was that classical music is more interesting, jazz music is more interesting… why not rock?”
Howe connected with Squire’s playing brilliantly. “When we started working together we aligned,” Steve explains. “We played the same things, or he’d play something because I did something. We played off of each other.” Howe points out that Squire’s playing raised everybody’s game in Yes. “Bill Bruford and Chris were a very powerful early force, and they both made each other sound great, and Chris certainly affected my playing because he was capable of a lot more than most bass players were at that time. And also, he swung. He rocked, he swung, he pounded. Like me, he was trying to use all the techniques that you could get out of an instrument; his was the bass, mine was the guitar. It was great. He was a high player, but I think we didn’t notice much at first because he was always convincing. When somebody’s playing convincingly, you don’t stop and say, ‘Oh god, the guy’s all the way up his neck,” laughs Steve. “Chris was a very mobile player, but also, if you listen to the records, in the studio he was a very dynamic player. He didn’t play at one peak all the time, which can happen when you work on stage a lot. There were moments when his thoughtful, feely kind of playing was really the key; we realized that we were all able to do that, and suddenly we were playing differently. And that was a real beautiful thing. Being part of the team, he added a tremendous amount. Not a lot of bass playing was as interesting before him.”
With Howe, Yes scored their first big hit with The Yes Album, which reached number one on the UK charts. After keyboardist Rick Wakeman replaced Kaye in 1971, Yes broke out in America as well, recording the classic recordings Fragile and Close To The Edge. Wakeman fondly remembers Squire’s unique quality. “He was one of those rare musicians that pretty much refused to be influenced,” says Rick. “He was the ‘influencer’, if there is such a word. He treated the bass guitar as more than just propping up the bottom end, and truly considered it to be a lead instrument that deserved recognition, and that’s what he gave the instrument.”
After the release of Tales From Topographic Oceans and Relayer, creative differences began to cause cracks within the band. They took a well-needed three year hiatus, and everyone went to work on solo projects. Squire’s Fish Out Of Water was particularly well received by critics, and showed off his songwriting and lead vocal skills in a big way. The album reached number 25 in the UK and number 69 in the States.
While his impeccable sense of time served him well musically, Squire’s concept of real time was less honed; his tardiness was legendary. It was a source of frustration for some within in the group, particularly Bill Bruford and guitarist Trevor Rabin, who replaced Howe in 1982. “It drove Trevor crazy,” Jon Anderson recalls. “He never had to go through the experience of somebody in a band always being late for a plane trip or a car or a bus. Everything was always ‘Where's Chris?’ He was always late. But Chris was a very funny guy, he had a very dry sense of humor. He’d joke and say, ‘Yeah, you can always put on my tombstone ‘the late Chris Squire’. And that sums him up, you know?” Drummer Alan White offers his own take on it: “Chris would always say that he knew everyone was telling him to come early, so he just came when he thought he should come. And then he’d say ‘I don’t like to wait for people, so that was his answer,” laughs Alan.
Squire’s love of a good laugh was contagious. Wakeman recounts once turning the table on his mate: “During the Union tour, there was a moment in the show where through a trap door in the revolving stage, the lid was opened without the audience being able to see what was happening. One of Chris’ bass guitars would be handed up to him but appeared to be coming out of the floor. It was a moment Chris loved, although he initially wasn’t that amused when on the last show he discovered that I had replaced the guitar with a giant inflatable fish. The audience loved it. And so did Chris when photos appeared everywhere!”
With all the ups and downs, regular personnel changes would become the norm for Yes; by 1983-- the year they scored their biggest commercial success with the album 90125-- fourteen different musicians had already come through the band’s ranks. But Chris was always the only bassist, and in many ways had become the de facto leader of the group. They would never reach that level of success again, but Squire remained focused and steadfast on keeping the group working, writing and recording. They released six more studio albums in the 90’s, and another three after that, touring constantly and retaining their huge fan base.
Squire also branched out with side projects on occasion, including the band Conspiracy with guitarist Billy Sherwood (who is currently playing bass in Squire’s place on this year’s Yes tour), the short-lived XYZ with White and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and several recordings with Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett. In 2007 Chis returned to his early passion and released a solo album entitled Chris Squire’s Swiss Choir. But it is his work with Yes that his legion of fans will remember him for the most, and he will be sorely missed by the members of Yes who had the honor of sharing the journey with him.
“He had a fun life,” says Anderson. “He lived life very largely and he became a rock and roll icon and celebrity, in the sense that he lived a wild life.” Alan White ponders a Squire-less Yes: “There’s not many bass players who had a tone like Chris. In fact, he set the standard for that kind of bass sound. He set the bar for a lot of people. It’s going to be very hard without him, playing onstage and not seeing that huge framework of a guy in front of me that was the foundation of the bass section. It’s not gonna be easy to do that.”
Steve Howe fondly recalls a bonding moment he had with Chris a few years ago before a gig. “Chris and I sat alone in a room and we just talked. Just two blokes in a room with a cup of tea and talking, and how we could make things better in Yes and things like that. And those moments we didn’t have enough of. I’m going to miss the opportunity to just have more one-to-ones with him.”
Perhaps Anderson sums up Squire’s legacy the best: “One of the great bass players ever, and his musicality will be listened to over the years and people will start to realize what he put into Yes music that made it very special. He was very harmonic and very melodic with his bass, and very, very unique. He was definitely one of a kind.”
DRIVING THROUGH THE SOUND
Chris Squire recorded or performed with more than a dozen basses in his career, but he is most closely associated with his iconic 1964 cream colored Rickenbacker, the bass that helped him create his signature style. Although many refer to it as a 4001 model, that’s not quite accurate; it was actually an RM1999 model (serial number DC127), imported to the UK by the Rose-Morris company, Rickenbacker’s official British importer in the early 60’s. Build-wise, it was identical to the 4001S, with dot fingerboard inlays, no body binding and a single output.
The RM1999 didn’t originally have a cream finish; the new bass that Squire bought from his employer Boosey & Hawkes in 1965 had the Rickenbacker fireglo finish, similar to Fender’s sunburst. When the flower power era arrived, he covered the instrument with flowery wallpaper, only to tire of the look soon after and had a guitar tech remove it, which required shaving and sanding. Remarkably, Chris covered the bass again (this time with silver reflective paper), and when he got bored of that he returned to the same tech for a repeat repair job. The tech applied a cream lacquer and wisely suggested to Squire to leave it that way.
After multiple sandings the bass had actually become lighter in weight. Squire would later say that this was a factor in its unique and slightly brighter sound; none of his other Rickenbackers sounded like it, including the limited edition 4001CS signature model that the company designed in 1991, a virtual replica of Squire’s cream bass. Another notable quirk in his RM1999’s sound was a weak treble pickup, which had a lower output and “tinny sound”, as Chris described it.
Squire’s string choice was Rotosound’s Swing Bass roundwound set, standard gauge. He played with a pick nearly always, using Herco heavy gauge picks, and attacked the string either in front of or behind the bridge pickup depending on the brightness he wanted. His picking technique was also unique; by holding the pick just barely in front of his thumb, he would hit the string first with the pick and then with his thumb a millisecond later. Squire said that the string’s harmonic was more pronounced because of “more contact with the human body”.
Chris rewired the bass with stereo outputs in the early 70’s. His purpose wasn’t to play in stereo; he simply wanted to route each pickup separately to various effects, and felt that certain effects were better matched for the neck pickup and others for the bridge pickup.
The instrument held up fairly well over the years, until a stage accident required Squire to bring it to luthier Michael Tobias for repair. “The work was done in the mid to late 80’s,” recalls Tobias. “If I remember correctly, the peghead had been broken off more than once. When I got the bass it was hanging by a thread and there was almost no glue surface left. The break was almost straight through under the nut. Because of the way that Rickenbacker cut out the truss rod access, there was not really much area to re-bond. I got a new rod system from Rickenbacker and made a scarf joint so there would be some area to glue. I recreated the original peghead with the proper wood and attached it, shaping it to the existing neck profile, and matched the paint.”
Tobias also offered some insight into the weak bridge pickup: “It was actually dead. I got a new pickup from Rickenbacker and installed it but Chris did not like it. He told me I had changed his bass and he wanted it back the old way, so I put the old pickup back in. It would pick up slightly from the working one and make some sound but not on its own.”
Other basses in Squire’s arsenal over the years included a Fender Telecaster, a Fender Jazz Bass, a green custom-made 4-string that Chris designed with Jim Mouradian, and an MPC Electra 4-string. An interesting feature of the Electra was its use of interchangeable onboard effects, installed as pairs of circuit cards in the bass cavity. Chris also played Lakland and Yamaha 4-strings, a Ranney 8-string, and several models that Tobias built for him.
“The first one we made him was a Classic 5 in 1985,” explains Michael. “It was painted solid red, inlaid with ‘The Doctor’ on the fingerboard. Chris tuned the low string to A rather than B (A-E-A-D-G). The second bass was a Basic 5 in 1987, painted Cherry sunburst. The third was an extra-long scale 4-string tuned B-E-A-D. I went out 5 frets past the nut; the scale length was about 44”, like a full sized upright. It actually looked to scale on Chris since he was such a large guy.”
Perhaps the oddest bass Squire played was a triple-neck made by Wal, given to him by Rick Wakeman. Although Chris found it virtually unplayable because of the neck warp, a Japanese company named Kid’s duplicated it in exact detail. Used on the Yes song “Awaken”, it featured 6 strings of an 8-string bass on top (tuned A-D-G), a fretted 4-string in the middle, and a fretless 4-string on the bottom. He would sometimes play fingerstyle on the triple-neck.
Squire also played Moog Taurus bass pedals and utilized a boatload of vintage effects controlled via a single pedal board during live shows. Effects included a custom made tremolo, Maestro fuzz, T.C. Electronics chorus /flanger /pitch modulator, T.C. Nova reverb and delay, Boss OC-3 Super Octave, and a Mutron III. He eventually replaced the Taurus pedals with samples triggered from an E-Mu ESI 2000.
Chris used several rigs over the years, but his original Marshall 100-watt amp and 4x12 was a mainstay. At various times he also used Sunn amps and cabinets, Ampeg SVT-2 Pros, Ampeg 8 x 10’s, and a pair of Clair Brothers custom 6x12’s built with each speaker pointed in a different direction, so that when they were laid flat Chris could easily hear himself wherever he was on stage.
TEN ESSENTIAL CHRIS SQUIRE TRACKS:
“No Opportunity Necessary, No Experience Needed”
Yes, Time And A Word [Atlantic, 1970]
Taking a Jack Bruce-like approach to this Richie Havens song, Squire’s bass is exquisitely front and center—not just musically but sonically: The engineer mixes the album on headphones that lack bottom end, instantly creating the early “Yes sound.”
Yes, The Yes Album [Atlantic, 1971]
Squire makes innovative use of tremolo and fuzz effects, and displays his penchant for well-placed descending scales and interesting note choices. For example, check out his fill at 1:56 where he starts on a high A and plays a descending C major pentatonic scale into the root of the F chord that comes next. He repeats the pattern several more times before the song eventually arrives at its extended slow-build outro, which features cleverly layered multi-tracked bass parts. In this section Squire navigates a repeating 2-bar guitar loop of G, Eb and C chords by mostly avoiding the root; he starts out playing the fifth of each chord (D-Bb-G), then adds a G pedal, an E under the C chord, and continues on from there where he builds his wall of bass.
Yes, Fragile [Atlantic, 1972]
On the band’s breakout hit, Squire’s spirited bass line is perhaps his most iconic. What bass player hasn’t attempted to play it? If you listen closely, you’ll hear Chris doubling his own part an octave higher on a Gibson acoustic guitar.
“Close To The Edge”
Yes, Close To The Edge [Atlantic 1972]
This classic four-part suite captures the bassist’s brilliant sense of syncopation as he and Bruford take unexpected rhythmic twists at every turn. After a nearly 4-minute intro, the song kicks into the first verse at 3:55 via a nasty 6/4 groove. Listen to Squire’s clever accents in this part, in which he never strays far from the root of the A chord. In the first bar he accents a high A (the 14th fret of his G string) on beats 5 and 6, then switches up the accent in bar two by playing the note on the and of 5 only. The entire pattern propels the tune forward under Jon Anderson’s lead vocal. When the arrangement finally circles back around to this section again at 6:04, Squire takes an entirely different approach and plays a darting 4-bar pattern in 4/4 (with Bruford) against the rhythm of the 6/4 verse. When the kinetic frenzy finally settles into cosmic dust for the song’s third movement, Squire puts down the bass and delivers a sublime supporting vocal performance.
“Gates Of Delirium”
Yes, Relayer [Atlantic, 1974]
One of the most complex pieces ever recorded by Yes, Squire’s contrapuntal approach and expert ability to navigate difficult time signatures are hallmarks of this epic masterpiece. Check out his innovative bass work at the 8-minue mark, where the band shifts into a two minute section in 9/8. Delirium indeed.
“Safe (Canon Song)”
Chris Squire, Fish Out Of Water [Atlantic 1975]
A wonderfully orchestrated arrangement from his first solo album, this 15-minute opus may the bassist’s grandest musical statement of all. Note how he beautifully syncopates a two octave descending major scale in A at the song’s two minute mark, starting and ending on the third of the scale, then solos effortlessly over the next section of the piece in 11/8.
Yes, Yesterdays [Atlantic, 1975]
Originally released on a 1972 Atlantic Records sampler, “America” finds Chris and company paying homage to one of his favorite groups, Simon & Garfunkel, albeit with a wild arrangement and a muscular quarter note bass attack in the verses. His innate sense of harmony enables him to put his own spin on the chorus; he cleverly pedals the root for the first two bars, then pedals the fifth the second time around. While the shortened single version of this track may be more familiar to Yes fans, it’s worth seeking out the full 10-minute version that includes Squire’s subtle nod to Leonard Bernstein’s “America” in the song’s extended intro.
Yes, The Ladder [Beyond Music, 1999]
A deliciously quirky tune by Yes standards, Squire powers this 7/8 romp that shifts gears midway, where he unleashes a furious two-bar solo break.
“The Fish (Schindleria Praematurus) (live version)”
Yes, Live At Montreux 2003 [Eagle 2007]
Chris one-ups his original studio version of “The Fish” with this exhilarating live performance that segues into parts of “Tempus Fugit” and “On The Silent Wings Of Freedom”-- all bass showcases for Squire. Check out the live video of this 2003 performance as well (you’ll find it on YouTube) which has great close-ups of the big man on his Rickenbacker. His unique picking techniques are on display; note how he’s able to eek out harmonics with fundamentals by striking the string with pick and thumb starting at 1:35, and then check out the precision of his clean up and down picking motion a minute later. Also of interest is his use of double stops above the 15th fret at 6:50 that builds to full-on chord strumming at 7:20. An extra added bonus: Squire’s onstage showmanship is in fine form.
“A Life Within A Day”
Squackett, A Life Within A Day [Esoteric Antenna, 2012]
The title track from Squire’s collaboration with Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett is like a Pink Floyd-meets-Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” affair, which breaks out into a 32nd-note chops-busting middle section. Check it out but strap yourself in.
- Rick Suchow, November 2015