Londoner Steve Howe was born in the spring of 1947. He picked up the guitar at 12, after listening to one Chet Atkins, who had a contagious style of guitar playing that afflicted young enthusiasts the world over. He was also a keen follower of jazz masters Django Reinhardt and duo Les Paul & Mary Ford, so, how in hell did he wind up as one of the pioneers of progressive rock guitarists in light of that? ...read on.
In 1964 he started his first band called the Syndicats who released a few rock & roll singles such as, On the Horizon, Crawdaddy Simone, and even covered Maybelline by Chuck Berry. He then moved on to a new group The In Crowd which eventually became Tomorrow, released a couple of singles, this time with a psychedelic approach, Revolution, and My White Bicycle for example. But they split up in 1968 and Steve found a new outfit called Bodast who had a serious following but the label went bankrupt and the one album they recorded in 1968 wasn’t released until 1981, The Early Years, and then by RPM Records in 2000 called Spectral Nether Street: The Complete Collection. After Bodast, Howe again was looking for a band to play in, and went for auditions with The Nice (with Keith Emerson) and Jethro Tull, but never got a call back.
So in 1970, when the already established progressive rock band Yes fired their guitarist Peter Banks, Howe was their man. They recorded their first album with him that same year called The Yes Album, which raised eyebrows and had some commercial success. But it would be their next effort Fragile in 1972, and the hit single Roundabout that shot them into stardom. In that song he uses his beloved Martin 0018 for the acoustic intro and a Gibson ES5 Switchmaster for the electric parts. He stayed with Yes for 10 years until they broke up, but also cut 2 solo records during those years, Beginnings (1976), and The Steve Howe Album (1979). The second of the 2 have Steve in top form playing classical guitar and his Gibson Les Paul on Vivaldi’s Concerto in D, and another medievale rock romp on All’s a Chord, which contains towering riffs melting into lovely acoustic fingerwork.
The 80s proved to be a very busy decade for Howe, he first formed a supergroup called Asia with Yes-mate Geoff Downes - keyboards, John Wetton (King Crimson) - bass/vocals, and Carl Palmer (Atomic Rooster, Emerson Lake and Palmer) - drums. In 1982 and 83 they put out 2 albums, Asia and Alpha, respectively, giving us such hits as Heat of the Moment (top 40 hit), and Only Time Will Tell. The first album sold over 4 million copies in the U.S. that year, and over 10 million worldwide, and as the cherry on top, got a Grammy for Best New Artist 1982. Alpha also managed platinum status, with Don’t Cry cracking the charts; an album full of ‘arena rock’ tunes - wall to wall organs, percussion, screeching solos - that didn’t match their first one, according to the pundits of the day, yet still was quite a feat.
Howe then left the group to form another supergroup GTR in ‘86 with ex-Genesis Steve Hackett, pulling off another Top 20 single When the Heart Rules the Mind. They say Rock is all about ‘ego’, and Progressive Rock pushes that even further, call it ‘orchestral ego’, where the players see themselves as ‘composers’, a little more sophisticated than mere showmen, hence the classical and jazz bits that were hallmarks of the day, and they were Gods. Steve Howe’s hand in creating this style of rock was integral. He was able to morph different styles like jazz, country, classical, flamenco, baroque, raga, and rock and make it his own. His musical I.Q. was off the charts. For some prime examples of his masterful touch, check out his finger work on solos such as Yours Is No Disgrace (The Yes Album), where his tidy arpeggio licks break open with drenched wah wahs, sliding off into psychedelic territory, then a mix of country/ragtime on Clap (same album), and Machine Messiah (Drama-1980) where he shreds solo runs into mesmerising tremolo fingering and a howling whammy bar strangled to perfection.
The musical bed-hopping soon continued, Yes got back together without Howe and released 2 new records that were purely commercial, with 90125 and its hit single Owner of a Lonely Heart, their first and only #1 single. But band member Jon Anderson wasn’t happy with the commercial direction the band was going and left to hook up with Howe and former Yes mates Bill Bruford and Rick Wakeman to form Anderson Wakeman Bruford & Howe, because they didn’t have the rights to the name Yes. They put out one self-titled album in 1989, with guests such as Downes, Rhett Lawrence, Max Bacon, and Vangelis. It went gold in the U.S., and listed #30 on Billboard 200. That was a one-year effort. Then, imagine, they formed a new lineup of Yes, with Chris Squire on bass, drummer Alan White, Trevor Rabin on guitar and keyboardist Tony Kaye. They released Union in 1991 to rave reviews and took to a world tour.
However, Howe being Howe, he left the group again to resume his solo career. He put out 6 records such as Turbulence (‘91), The Grand Scheme of Things (‘93), and Quantum Guitar (‘98), where he arranges, produces, plays electric,12-string, steel and acoustic guitars, mandolin, keyboards, basses, and percussion. The man is never bored, he has collaborated with artists as diverse as Queen, Dixie Dregs, Lou Reed, Fish, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And let’s not forget The Steve Howe Trio, who put out The Haunted Melody in ‘08 Travelling in ‘10.
Over the last few years Steve Howe still has his motor running, releasing 6 Homebrew records which comprise new material along with some older tunes, where he plays all instruments, and is basically his anthology of his work.
The name Steve Howe is not a household name, but it should be. His abundant talent, curiosity and natural-born perseverance to create and have a lasting impact on music was, and is, epic.
Chapeau Steve Howe!