Q & A With Jon Anderson: The Making of “The Friends Of Mr. Cairo”


You’re not going to believe this. I hardly believe it myself. When I first heard “The Friends of Mr. Cairo” back in 1981 (or any of the gazillion times I’ve listened to this masterpiece over the years, for that matter), I never thought I would actually have the opportunity to interview Jon Anderson about his almost mystic collaboration with Vangelis. As I was writing my review of the album (Music That Makes Men Think—Think You Can Handle It?), I took a shot, found Jon’s Facebook page and, on his wall, asked if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for me. His publicist responded, said Jon would be happy to answer my questions, but I would have to move quickly, because Jon was leaving for “the road.” Failure was not an option, so Jon had my questions within a few hours.  Here’s the interview—short, sweet and illuminating…just like their music…

Q. How did your collaboration with Vangelis operate? Did you write your lyrics first, after which he produced the music? How did you both know when every song was the best it could be?

A. We created every song spontaneously, sort of ‘chance music’;  he would play, I would sing along with him with very ‘open’ ideas in his studio…then after one song finished we would rest a little, then we would try another idea, and so on…eventually we had about 3 or 4 musical ideas to choose from at the end of the session, we would do this for 2 or 3 days…then we would listen to what we had, and pick the best ideas. I would go home at the end of the week with songs to write lyrics to and Vangelis would start producing the music around those ‘first takes’…that’s how we created all our albums.

Q. What inspired you to write these particular songs—especially “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”?

It was just the way Vangelis played the music at that moment, I said it felt like an old style movie, and he would do his ‘Douglas Fairbanks’ impersonation, so I said let’s get some actors to pretend to be Cagney or Bogart, and so on…that’s how we built the song; it was based on the “Maltese Falcon’ movie, where Peter Lorre was Mr Cairo, the fat man was Sidney Greenstreet and Humphrey Bogart was the private eye…such a fun thing to do…great production from Vangelis.

A. What messages did you hope to convey through the songs on the album?

Music is very powerful and movies are, they change our thinking in very subtle ways; there is the story that Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson listened to this album as he was starting ‘Thriller” on which they did ‘voice overs’…

‘Mr. Cairo’ inspired Michael Jackson’s “We Are The World”
Quincy has told me Michael was very inspired by the ‘Cairo’ album and when Donna Summers recorded ‘State of Independence’ around the same time, Michael and Lionel Richie, Steve Wonder, Diana Ross, and many more, sang back-up vocals on that song…and on that session, Lionel and Michael started writing the song ‘We are the World’…amazing to think that would happen.

Q. What’s your favorite song on the album and why?

A. ‘State of Independence’ is such a powerful idea for me, I go into a trance when I sing it at every show I do…it was written in Paris. I walked into the studio, and Vangelis had just started the groove…he pointed to the mike, which was on, and I sang the song nearly word for word. Vangelis and I had this wonderful telepathy…pure magic…

Q.  Sometimes it’s a bit difficult for your fans to grasp the full meaning of or references to the lyrics of your music. What’s the method to what some people perceive as your “lyrical madness”?

A.  mmmmmm, not sure if it’s madness.  I sing what just comes to me in that split second, and most of the time, I write between 60% and 80% of the lyric first time, because I’m thinking of a theme and an idea as the melody comes to me…then I will listen back and figure out what the lyrics are saying to me…it is a lot of fun to write…I don’t spend too much time analyzing the lyrics, sometimes I use lyrics as metaphors.

Q. What’s your personal philosophy of life and your understanding of why we’re here?

A. Ok!!…we are here to find the Divine ‘Light’ within…each being has the perfect ‘light’…enjoy the fullness of life each day…stay healthy, be kind and friendly, and shine your inner ‘light’ to everyone you meet, be thankful for the abundance of life, from nature, to all of life’s experiences, to the glorious sunsets, the stars and moon at night..the great mystery…flowers, birds and animals that surround us…and the amazing cacophony of the human consciousness that surrounds us each day……cheers….jon

I Couldn’t Have Said It Better Myself

How’d you like that last answer? Okay. So I left in the “cheers….jon”, because Jon Anderson was speaking to me.  Now that I know how the lyrics for “State of Independence” materialized, when I listen to it, I’ll always know the song is a vortex to his soul.   Thank you, Jon…and Vangelis.


  1. Knowing Susan as I do, this interview meant something more than asking questions. This was a revelation into her own psyche. The interview was a piece of the “Great Jigsaw Puzzle” of the meaning of this most incredible album. Jon Anderson’s answer were perfect. They completed one small section of the mystery of “Friends Of Mr. Cairo” an album I also have enjoyed over and over for the past thirty years. Has it really been that long?

  2. Wonderful interview! One of my favorite Jon Anderson albums. I remember seeing the video on MTV (once). Thank You!

    • Susan Hawkins says

      Ed, you don’t know how happy I am that you commented on the interview! I didn’t know a video existed, so I went to YouTube, searched for “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”, and there it was–so you can see it again. My only disappointment was that it only covered half the song, and the last part is equally as compelling as the first. Thanks so much for writing!

  3. Great interview. I always thought that the concept of Vangelis and Jon putting music together like that was a brillant idea. Nice story about how they created such lovely music.

  4. Jeroen van der Goot says

    Wow, Susan, this is a treat indeed! I’m surprised that the post is so recent. Nostalgia had me Goooogling for the making of of The Friends of Mr. cairo, which is such an amazing album !!!
    I gave a comment on this album on Amazon-France a couple of years ago when nobody had done so and by the statitics I gather I made quite a few people as happy as we feel…
    (I need to get off the iPad to check out YouTube, now ! Good work !)
    Cheers, J(er)o(e)n

    • Susan Hawkins says

      So glad you liked it, Jeroen! Getting those comments from Jon about the album was one of the highlights of my life.

      • Jeroen van der Goot says

        I’ll bet it was one of the highlights of your life. Humanity could send this album into space ; just like they did with the Pink Floyd music. (I gather extra terrestrial intelligence would have the most beautiful idea of our civilization ; far from all the barbarism that we in fact still have on earth Today.)

        It’s a pity that you didn’t ask Jon Anderson if there isn’t any video material of the sessions with Vangelis… The pictures of the Maltese Falcon are indeed very nice (great movie !), but do not replace any real “making of” documentary like the Darkside of the Moon one, for example…

        • Susan Hawkins says

          Agreed! I’m still blown away by how the lyrics for “State of Independence” came about. I wish I had thought to ask Jon if there is any video of those sessions, but you can easily find out by posing the question on Jon’s Facebook page. That’s how I got the interview! Ironically, I heard the song “The Friends of Mr. Cairo” on the radio only once, many years ago as I was driving through North Carolina, and as I recall, I don’t believe they played the entire song. Fortunately, I’ve always had a cassette tape of the album in my car, and now a CD!


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