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After five decades, Yes goes on making good music

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Geoff Downes, left, is on tour with Yes on its 50th anniversary. (Courtesy Gottlieb Bros.)

After 40 years in showbiz, British keyboardist Geoff Downes, who’s been in involved in some very creative collaborations, has learned never to judge a book by its cover.

For example, in 1980, The Buggles, his kinetic synth-pop duo with singer Trevor Horn, ushered in New Wave with its effervescent smash “Video Killed the Radio Star” — the first clip ever played on MTV — and at the same time received a surprise invitation to join prog-rock supergroup Yes for its 1980 recording “Drama” and subsequent tour.

The Buggles, respectful of artsy forebears, happily accepted.

The teamup wasn’t that far-fetched, says Downes, 65, who left Yes in 1981 but rejoined in 2011 for the albums “Fly From Here” and “Heaven & Earth.” He and founding keyboardist Tony Kaye are appearing on the band’s 50th anniversary tour that hits the South Bay this week.

Back around 1980, Yes lost singer Jon Anderson and organist Rick Wakeman after aborted Paris sessions with producer Roy Thomas Baker; the pair wanted a folkier direction, while guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Alan White and late bassist Chris Squire sought an edgier sound.

Since manager Brian Lane handled both acts, it was inevitable that Yes and The Buggles would cross paths.

“I think Yes was at a career turning point in 1980. When those Paris recordings didn’t work out, they had exhausted their whole, well, 1970s concept of Yes. I think they saw the idea of us coming in — two guys who were techno-minded and very pop-music driven — as an interesting new chapter and a way forward for Yes. Because what we did on the ‘Drama’ album was a whole new take on the band, says Downes, who soon went on to form the supergroup Asia with Howe. (Years later, he and singer-songwriter-producer Chris Braide formed his current group, Downes-Braide Association.)

Being punkier, more concise and hook-oriented than previous Yes material, and with Horn singing lead, “Drama” paved the way for similar chart-scaling efforts from later Yes regroupings, like 1983’s “90125” and “Big Generator” in 1987 (even though Downes was busy with Asia at the time).

“Those records are about as far removed from ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close to the Edge’ as you can get,” he says. “So we helped provide a bridge between those two periods.”

Downes wasn’t planning on rejoining Yes. But Horn, who was recruited to produce 2011’s “Fly From Here,” wanted his buddy (with whom he still occasionally performs as The Buggles) on board again.

On tour, he plays most of the often-complicated Yes catalog. “All the albums are different Yes chapters, and it’s just a fantastic story, really — a band that’s survived 50 years and continues to go forward and make good music.”

IF YOU GO
Yes
Where: City National Civic, 135 W. San Carlos St., San Jose
When: 7:30 p.m. June 20
Tickets: $65 to $85
Contact: (408) 792-4111, www.ticketmaster.com

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