"I firmly believe that especially the progressive rock side of things is really more of a continuation of how classical music has developed as against its evolving with popular music. I mean the 20th century brought some electronics into classical music Stockhausen and another writer John Cage, but somehow it still stayed separate from all classical music, or so we say mainstream classical music and I think prog rock in many respects took that over because what it did it embraced the new instruments, it embraced technology and it was very happy to mix it in with non-orchestral sounds, non-orchestral music."
Rick Wakeman: Prog Trip To Red Planet
Rick Wakeman is best known for being in the progressive rock band Yes across five tenures between 1971 and 2004 and for his solo albums released in the 1970s. Born and raised in West London, Wakeman intended to be a concert pianist but quit his studies at the Royal College of Music in 1969 to become a full-time session musician. His early sessions included playing on "Space Oddity", among others, for David Bowie, and songs by Junior's Eyes, T. Rex, Elton John, and Cat Stevens. Wakeman became a member of The Strawbs in 1970 before joining Yes a year later, playing on some of their most successful albums across two stints until 1980. Wakeman began his solo career in 1973; his most successful albums are his first three: The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973), Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974), and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1975), all concept albums. He formed his rock band, The English Rock Ensemble, in 1974, with which he continues to perform, and scored his first film, Lisztomania (1975). Wakeman pursued solo projects in the 1980s that varied in levels of success; his most successful album was 1984, released in 1981, which was followed by his minor pop hit single, "Glory Boys", from Silent Nights (1985). From 1988 to 1990 he was a member of Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe which led to his third Yes stint until 1992. He returned twice more between 1995 and 2004, during which he completed several more solo projects and tours, including his most significant of the decade, Return to the Centre of the Earth (1999). From 2016 to 2020, Wakeman was a member of Yes Featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman.
Keyboard legend Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble released the new album “The Red Planet” (2020). The album features 8 newly composed pieces, especially for this project, and harks back to Wakeman’s critically acclaimed debut album “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” where there were 6 heavy keyboard pieces based around a central subject matter. It is a serious return to “Wakeman Prog”… Rick has blown the dust off his favourite analogue keyboards and along with his with the latest keyboards, has used the same formula he devised when making his legendary albums “The Six Wive’s of Henry VIII” and “Criminal Record.”
Interview by Michael Limnios / Transcription: Katerina Lefkidou
Special Thanks: Bill James (Glass Onyon PR) & Rick Wakeman
What you miss most nowadays, from the music and the feeling of the past?
Rick: What I miss, very very much is the joy if record shops. You could go in, you might have an idea what you wanted to buy, but you would go in and you’d discover music, that you weren’t going in to look for, you would talk to other people in the shop and somebody they might go “Hey, have you seen this album?” and it was the wonderful communication that people had, discussing music and playing records. We used to go with people to each other’s houses and play records and play music. And the creative form of music communication as to what was happening , was with people, just talking to each other and I think what happened was, I blame the record companies a lot, the record companies what they did, they tried to tell us as new formats came in that they were replacements, so when CDs came out they said they were a replacement for vinyl records. And then of course they tried saying that streaming had replaced CDs. They made a huge mistake. They were just another way of hearing music and they should always have said here’s another way that you can have your music. What is happening now, the only good thing is that a lot of people, younger people are discovering vinyl record, and are realizing that being able to touch a record, looking at wonderful album covers and information on, I had people call me and say how fantastic it is to be able to read the information, because unless you had a magnifying glass, you could never read anything on a CD.
Chris Barber (jazz), Donegan (skiffle), Cyril Davis, Alexis Korner (blues), later folk, British folk and progressive rock, what are the lines that connect the British legacy of music?
Rick: I think they did have a connection; I mean you mentioned skiffle Lonnie Donegan and you know very well Chris Barber is a great friend, they’re people who wanted to explore what could be done with different kinds of music and weren’t just contempt with going “Oh, let’s play it like this”. They wanted to see how far they could push their music, without being told by other people what to do. And that is really the joy of these musicians that you mentioned, they never had anybody who said “You must do this. This is what you must do.” They just did what they thought was right what they thought in their head and in their heart, they just pushed it and they tried to do things that broke the rules, so traditionally “You can’t do that”, but of course you can. That’s what makes art in particular move on and grow and go to new areas. It is exactly that. A great friend of mine who is a college professor at the Royal College of Music, he is sadly no longer with us, he was my orchestration professor, he said to me: “The first thing you need to know, is all the rules of art, of music. Once you know the rules, you can break it. But if you don’t know what they are, you can’t break them. So, that is how new music is made. By people knowing what the rules are saying, I want to try something different with that, and that has remained with me since 1967, that has remained my rule. And that has been the rule of a lot of people you mentioned; they know what the rules are, they just break them.
"Waking up in the morning, seriously I love waking up in the morning, coming down. What really makes me happy is seeing other people happy. I found a lot of strange people for example in Christmas I enjoy much more giving a present then getting one. I love to see other people happy, that’s very important to me, that’s why I’m so happy to be involved with music." (Photo: Rick Wakeman)
Where does your creative drive come from and how do you want it your music to affect people?
My father always said to me, he was a good piano player, a good musician. He said to me, “Music is for sharing and so it’s very important that whatever you play you’re enjoying it, because if you enjoy it, there’s a chance that other people might enjoy it as well." That is for sharing. What drives me is my love for music, also to try and do as much as I possibly can, while I’m still alive, because you have to wonder how many wonderful musicians have died and what music they’ve taken with them, they never recorded or never played. Jon Lord was a great friend of mine and I know John had so much music that he was planning to do, wanted to do including, we were going to do an album together, we were writing music together. And he has taken that with him. So, it’s very important that you do as much as you can when you have the opportunity to do so. And it is my love of music that drives me. It’s what it gives to people and what it gives to me and a world without music, I just can’t imagine it. A world without Co-vid virus, yes, I could imagine, but not one without music. And unfortunately, what has happened with this pandemic is it has taken music away. With no concerts and one of the great things about concerts is that the musicians and the audience becomes one. That is the most fantastic thing and that at the moment, is something we don’t have. That I think it really affects me, it really upsets me and I know the only answer is if there was some sort of vaccine or herd immunity, so we could get rid of it and go back to doing concerts and I know for a fact that what would drive me to keep going is once we can have concerts together again and enjoying it as we used to I think we all would appreciate it even more.
Vangelis (Papathanasiou) made work and travelled into space with NASA. So, let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where and why would you really want to go with a time machine?
Rick: With a time machine, I’m not really interested in going back. I’m interested in going forward. I’d like to go forward maybe even a thousand years, and just see, because I think in a thousand years we will be on other planets, we will have discovered a lot more that we haven’t now, that will change the faces of everything. I find very interesting going forward and I find interesting to know what happens in regards to other planets, cause we have such a tardy amount of knowledge. We keep learning all the time. My father died in 1980 and I was talking to my wife about how much has changed in 40 years. If he could come back today, he couldn’t recognize anything. There were no computers back then, as we know now, no mobile phones, everything was so different, cars were different. He would come back to a different world, so imagine in a thousand years' time. We may have well discovered another planet similar to Earth, we know that they are out there and we know that this planet has started to die in the same way that Mars did. So that would be fascinating for me to do and what I would like to do I would like to go back I suppose to check out areas of history. That would be of interest, areas of dispute. Certainly, biblical areas back in time, two thousand years ago, that would be pretty fascinating to go back, cause I always found it fascinating that we know what happened, cause we have it written down, we have proof of all things that have happened for the 5-6 thousand years ago, but there’s still huge arguments over what happened two thousand years ago.
"What drives me is my love for music, also to try and do as much as I possibly can, while I’m still alive, because you have to wonder how many wonderful musicians have died and what music they’ve taken with them, they never recorded or never played." (Photo: Rick Wakeman)
What is the impact of the music in general what is the impact of your generation in music, or socio-cultural implication?
Rick: I think the impact is to be honest with you I think the answer will come in 50 years' time. I firmly believe that especially the progressive rock side of things is really more of a continuation of how classical music has developed as against its evolving with popular music. I mean the 20th century brought some electronics into classical music Stockhausen and another writer John Cage, but somehow it still stayed separate from all classical music, or so we say mainstream classical music and I think prog rock in many respects took that over because what it did it embraced the new instruments, it embraced technology and it was very happy to mix it in with non-orchestral sounds, non-orchestral music. And I would like to think that maybe in 50 years' time, a hundred years' time, it was accepted as the music that was really a part of how classical music had developed and I think that that could well be the case. Again, I would love to take a trip with the time machine as you said to me, move a hundred years and have a look.
Of course, I don’t know about the United States with progressive rock, but I know they have psychedelic and fusion jazz. In Europe, Germany, Italy there is a great scene, but UK always was the capital, the Mecca of progressive rock. What were the reasons that made the UK to be the capital of progressive rock and experiments?
Rick: I think there’s an answer. The late 1960s was a period of time where a lot of good musicians were learning to play classically, like myself or going to colleges, to join the cause of music but instead of being ten years before that, where the early music they were interested in was the classical music they were going to discover they were interested in as myself in the popular music of the day and interested in how popular music was being played in different countries and how it was done. So they wanted to play it as well as classical music. And for me it was very, I played in rock bands, blues bands, jazz bands and they were great but it was not challenging, because blues it was 3-chords blues, which was great to play, but after a little while ago I’m bored with that. So, what I wanted to do was get involved with music, that has more depth to it. Pushing yourself. So basically, I started using the classical instruments that I had and the technical knowledge that I had with classical music and started putting that into more popular music in different ways. And I was learning a lot by doing a lot of sessions with different artists and different people and a lot of them embraced my ideas of what I wanted to do and I kept meeting lots of other musicians that wanted to do more than just play three chords and play in a blues band and that really is what I think in England was spiraling, was because a lot of musicians who played who didn’t want to play like everybody else. And I think that has started in England. In fact, I know it did. And that was something then, that when these musicians who were technically very proficient started playing together, that’s when the great bands started coming together. And I think that why the UK was unique in how it started.
"What I miss, very very much is the joy if record shops. You could go in, you might have an idea what you wanted to buy, but you would go in and you’d discover music, that you weren’t going in to look for, you would talk to other people in the shop and somebody they might go “Hey, have you seen this album?” and it was the wonderful communication that people had, discussing music and playing records." (Photo: Rick Wakeman)
What is happiness for Rick?
Rick: Waking up in the morning, seriously I love waking up in the morning, coming down. What really makes me happy is seeing other people happy. I found a lot of strange people for example in Christmas I enjoy much more giving a present then getting one. I love to see other people happy, that’s very important to me, that’s why I’m so happy to be involved with music. Because in general, I think you have to say that music, makes people happy.
What moment changed your life the most, what has been the highlight and what has been the worst time in your career?
Rick: One has some pretty high and some very awful times. But you can’t appreciate the high points, unless you’ve had the low points. High points I’ve had a lot of. Probably certain recordings that I did. Working with Hunky Dory, doing life on Mars was a high spot for me and doing Dragonfly, Morning has Broken with Cat Stevens, obviously working on albums like “Close to the edge” or “Fragile” with “Yes”, working with people like Lou Reed playing in all sorts of bands, in the Black Sabbath, all sorts of people. These were all little stepping stones of high spots, culture-wise, playing all the big arenas around the world, which I’m lucky I’m still able to do every now and then. Also, to be able to, I suppose, another high spot would be being able to write the music that I really want to, that’s always a high spot, I mean I’ve had lots of low spots, there was a period in the 80s. The 80s were a strange time for me, musically, because nothing I seemed to do seemed to fit with what was happening musically anywhere. I thought that was a tough period of time. And also another low spot is, I’ve been married four times, I’m very happily married with Rachel, my wife, 18 years now, we’ve been very happy, but during the divorce, I’ve had three divorces, during those when you’re absolutely left with absolutely nothing and you’ve got music that you want to record and you cannot afford to go anywhere to record it, or play it, or do anything, that’s a very low spot, when you can’t do what you love.
My last question is too many experiences in your life, too many experiences in music. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience?
Rick: I’ve learned to listen and take a rest, for example in recording I’ve me a man I respect very much his name is Erik Jordan who is a great engineer, good musician as well and he will always be very honest with me. If I do a solo and I think it’s really good and I come into the studio and I go “Hey I thought that was really good” He will openly say sometimes “Um, I think you can do a lot better than that.” “And I’ll go well I thought it was really good.” “And he’ll go “Okay, if you think so, but I think you can do better than that.” So I’ll go “OK, well, I’ll try again and he is really always right and I’ll come back and he’ll go “That was better wasn’t it?” and I’ll go “Yeah” So, I’ve learned to listen, that’s something important, I’ve also learned to understand that people have different points of views and to accept those points of views, musically. I’ve always tried to, even music that I don’t particularly like. I’ve always tried to play, so that I can get an understanding of what other people do to get. I’m not very fond of country and western music, but I’ve played it and I’ve played it quite a lot with some very good country musicians and now, even though it not my favorite kind of music, I do understand it. So, I think it’s important to understand what other people are doing musically. I don’t think there’s a day where I don’t learn something. My father said to me, music is the longest never-ending apprenticeship course there is. We will always be learning. And he said to me the day you think you know everything is the day you should close the piano lid.
(Photo: Rick Wakeman)
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