Rick Wakeman - Interview

  by Andrew Twambley

published: 21 / 6 / 2022




Rick Wakeman - Interview

Andrew Twambley talks to ex-Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman about touring with his long-term project The English Rock Ensemble, how he nearly became one of the Spiders from Mars and his friendship with David Bowie.





Article

The word ‘legend’ is used far too often these days…but what does it even mean? One of my favourite definitions is “…an old story that is widely believed but cannot be proved to be true.” The life of Richard Christopher Wakeman CBE must fit into that definition, and, Good Lord, he can tell a story. When researching this mythical character, I calculated that I needed three hours to even scrape the surface, but, as my slot was much shorter, I decided to mostly ignore Yes, as people already know about that, and concentrate on the man himself and some of his intimate recollections and anecdotes. But that can be a dangerous route to travel as not only did we run into stories of David Bowie and King Arthur, but also came face to face with tales of dodgy curries and nicknames referring to the art of self-pleasuring. While many rock stars can be distant, guarded and protective of their own image, Rick Wakeman is a man you just want to go out for several beers with… PB: You are about to kick off a tour with your old pals at The English Rock Ensemble, a band of merry folk you put together in 1975 after you first left Yes. Why and why now? RICK WAKEMAN: One of the things that is often overlooked is that people who have bands or who are solo artists are totally reliant on agents and promoters who want to book you, and they look at it purely on a financial basis. If it will work out for them, they book you. If not, they don’t. If I am doing one of the big extravaganzas like ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, where we sold out two nights at The Royal Festival Hall, or ‘The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table’, where we sold 12,500 at The O2, then that would be easy but with the current project less so. I would love to do more shows with The English Rock Ensemble but it’s finding the promotor that’s the issue. The English Rock Ensemble is a strange beast in that it’s a bit like a soccer team with a pool of players. Depending on the type of show I want to put together I will take from that pool and use them, which is great, but you are reliant on the availability of the players. Also, unless you can offer them tons of stuff, they go off and work with other people. It’s not as straightforward as many people think, which is a shame! PB: How many of the original crew are still there? RW: From the original 1975 band… none. Tony Fernandez is there but he is semi-retired and lives in Portugal, and with all the restrictions it’s impossible for him to come backwards and forwards. He was the last of the originals who is still in the squad. We have superstar Hayley Sanderson on vocals who has been with me for a while. Its an interesting thing about girl singers in that they can sing all the men’s stuff, but men can’t sing the girls’ stuff. PB: Do you have a particularly close family member in the Ensemble? RW: Ah, yes, my son Adam is involved. This production is so keyboard orientated that it is just not possible to play it all myself, unless I grow another hand out of my bum, so having Adam along is great. He has that unfortunate ability to understand what I do and he is a bright lad, so is the perfect person to come in and take some of the load off me. He also plays guitar. It’s just a matter of grabbing him between Tony Hadley and Ozzy Osbourne. He’s not doing much at the moment, so that’s fine. I have him for a short window of time. PB: What tracks will you be playing on this tour? RW: That is one of those things that is always a dilemma. I will be including some different stuff. but you don’t want to not play stuff that people expect to hear. The way I look at it is, “If I was going to the concert, what would I really like to hear?”. So we will do a track from ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’, probably ‘Catherine Parr’, we’ll do a little suite from ‘Journey…’, a little suite from ‘Arthur,,,’ and I can throw in some stuff from ‘1984’ because that was Chaka Khan, and Hayley can sing those songs. We will certainly throw in a Yes track as Hayley can tackle Jon Anderson’s voice….not many men can! And we will chuck in a few new arrangements for good luck. PB: Any plans to extend the tour? RW: Believe me, I did ask and they just said no. I am hoping that if this gets received well that plans may change. This type of thing is always audience, fans and media driven, so if it goes down well and there s enough response then hopefully an agent is going to look at it and sort something for the summer. This particular show and band is ideally suited for festivals. But, as you know, things are just coming back to a new normality, so nobody really knows what’s happening. So, we will see. PB: When I write my book it’s going to be entitled ‘Rick Wakeman Changed My Life’. Back in the early ‘70s I was listening to Slade and The Sweet and I can recall the exact moment that my elder bully-boy brother walked in, ripped ‘Cum On Feel the Noise’ off he record player and put on ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’. At first I thought WTF but then it dawned on me. Do you remember those days? RW: Yeah (Laughs), I was still with Yes at the time but it was a weird situation. I was signed to A&M through The Strawbs, and A&M had a clause in the contract saying that if anyone left The Strawbs they could come in and ask for a solo project. I was in LA at the time and the head guy asked if I would like to do a solo project. I said that I would love to, and that’s how that started. In ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ era, keyboards were still in their infancy but were getting better. I just thought there was no outlet for keyboards as such. Keyboards were becoming more important in bands. Keith Emerson did a lot but that was mainly Moog and organ. I wanted to use a lot more keyboard stuff and thought the keyboard needed a new outlet, so it was very much a new adventure. There weren’t even keyboard stands at the time! I went to a few companies and asked if they could make me a keyboard stand, and they laughed at me and asked, “Why? You are the only person who sticks them on top of each other. So, why bother?” The funny thing is that a good number of years ago I walked into a pub in Richmond, and there was a guy at the piano and he had two keyboards on top of the piano, and as I walked by he said, “Oi, this is your fault,” and I thought that was really quite sweet. PB: Now going off at a vicious tangent, I once heard a story about you but could never verify it. It concerns a golf tournament abroad. Didn’t the announcer introduce you with a new and more interesting nickname? RW: Oh my God, this is absolutely true. I was living in Milan and it was about 2001. A great friend of mine, Brian Burke, who was head of Universal at the time, called me up, and said that Universal needed a fourth man in a golf tournament in Milan and asked me to join them. He said that it was not going to be a celeb event and I was just going to be part of their team. So, I turned up and it was a lovely club with a good few thousand people floating about. Anyway, at the first tee we had to hit our opening shots over a small lake about 120 yards away which should have been no problem. There was an Italian lady announcing the players as they came onto the tee. We got up there and she announced the captain in Italian, “E sulla prima ter della Universal,” and then said his name. He teed off, there was a round of applause and it eventually came to me…”E dal gruppo rock Yes, Mr Rock Wankman.” The crowd applauded politely but my guys were on the floor howling with laughter. So, I marched over to this lady and said, in broken Italian, “No, no, my nomeh eh Rick Wakeman.” “Oh, scusa, scusa, signore,” she replied, most apologetically. So I went back to my ball and she announced me again, “ E dal gruppo rock Yes, Mr Rick Wankman”. The lads are now falling apart, so I put the ball down and whacked it in the lake. And from that moment on, everybody from Universal, whenever I go in, says, “Hi Rock, how’s it going?” PB: Excellent, Moving back momentarily to more serious stuff, I believe that in 1971 you very nearly became a Spider from Mars? RW: Yes, it was July ‘71 and I had been along to the first rehearsal with Yes. On the same day I had a call from David Bowie saying he and Mick Ronson wanted to meet me in a pub in Hampstead for a chat, and so we arranged it for the following night. I spoke to the lads at Yes the next morning, and Chris Squire said that we had all got along so well that they were keen for me to join Yes. I immediately accepted and that was that. Then I went along to meet David and Mick and David said, “I’m putting together a band called The Spiders From Mars, and we really want you to be the keyboard player.” So, I was offered both jobs on the same day, which was amazing but I had made the decision to go with Yes, which David always said to me was absolutely the right decision. There was a ceiling with David. Playing his music, which I love, would have been great but there was no way I would be doing any of my own music and no way I would have done anything like ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’. Also, David changed his band regularly so it was probably short term. David and I lived quite close to each other in Switzerland for four years and we talked about this often. We used to meet up in a little club in Montreux and put the world to rights, and he always said it was the right decision for me to make. David is without doubt the most influential person I have ever worked with. I learned more about how to work in a studio, from him and Tony Visconti and Kayden Scott than I have done in the rest of my career. PB: I must tell you about my last Friday night. I was in North Wales having a pint and a curry with a good mate of mine, Paul Brett, and this planned interview came up… RW: Hey, I know Paul.. PB: Paul said to me, “When you speak to Rick remind him of The Strawbs album ‘Dragonfly’ which we played on together, and see if he remember how many pints we put away in Dave Cousin’s pub, The White Bear, in Hounslow.” RW: Yeah, it was Dave Cousins’ local and it was very much a folk club and was the spiritual home of The Strawbs. Paul Brett was round there all the time, a great friend of Dave’s who introduced me to Paul. I probably lost count of the number of pints once we got into double figures. It was a serious drinking pub. That’s for sure. Paul is a lovely guy, agreat musician and did some wonderful stuff…he’s in Wales now, isn’t he? PB: Yes, making music and guitars. RW: Is he really? He is a talented guy, I always liked Paul. PB: He also tells me that you ran a club in Acton and you booked Bowie one day and only two people turned up RW: Four, actually. Dave Cousins used to run the folk club at The White Bear and he said, “You should start one.” So, I went to this pub in Acton, The White Heart, which was an Irish pub which had a nice big room at the side. So, we came to an arrangement where I paid the landlord next to nothing, and he took a bit of the take and had the extra bar money. I called it ‘Brewer’s Droop’. We did okay but I had a bit of a problem because I owed the landlord about £50 and I hadn’t got it. It was about 1970 and I was speaking to David Bowie, and he said, “ Look, I will put my old Davey Jones hat on and come and do a night for you.” Now he was huge then, having already had a hit with ‘Space Oddity’. But the only date he could do was a date that I was doing a Strawbs gig. So, I had a mate of mine, Colin Spear, sort it out. I told him to be prepared for tons of people. I had put a whole column ad in ‘Melody Maker’. Anyway, after the show I called him at about midnight, at home, after my gig, to see how it had gone and he said, “It was a total disaster.” I said, “What do you mean?” He replied, “Well, nobody believed that David Bowie was going to come to The White Heart.” A lot of folk clubs at the time used to do the crafty thing of announcing a big act like, say, Al Stewart, was coming, then on the night announcing that he couldn’t make it. That was a big trick of the folk clubs back then, and everyone obviously thought, “Oh, it’s one of them!”. This was in the days before email and mobiles, so word couldn’t spread. David thought it was hilarious. He told me that he did it like the old days and came from his home in Peckham on the tube with his twelve string. The next show we did, was with some local act and the place was packed! PB: You seem to be involved in The Stormus Festival which is music and astro physics. RW: Yes that was started by Brian May, Professor Stephen Hawkins and a wonderful Armenian guy called Garik Israelian, who was the guy who proved the existence of black holes. These guys wanted to incorporate music and space with amazing results. The last time we did it was just before lockdown in Zurich with a full symphony orchestra. There was Brian May, myself, Brian Eno, Hans Zimmer and loads of other great musical acts, and at the end of it we played ‘We Are The Champions’ and every surviving astronaut who had walked on the moon came on stage. It really is the most fantastic event. I sat through a Stephen Hawkins lecture, didn’t understand a word but was fascinated. When it returns, if you like music and are remotely interested in space, it’s well worth going along.# PB: Okay, Rick, I have one final question, and it doesn’t concern Yes or capes. I need you to tell Pennyblack about that dodgy curry and…Geoffrey. RW: Oh, God (Laughs). Well, that’s a very long story and I need twenty minutes.. Pb: You have four…. RW Right, Okay. Well, basically, many years ago I got stopped by the police on the way home and I was one over the limit on the old-fashioned breathalyser. I had eaten a very nasty curry at lunchtime, a curry that decided that it needed to see fresh air. The policeman who stopped me was not the nicest of policeman, but another turned up who, fortunately, was a friend of mine. Anyway, I was desperate for the toilet and told them that I would not last until we got to the station. Nice policeman persuaded nasty policeman that I should use somebody’s house, so nasty policeman went up to the nearest house and told the owner that he was requisitioning her loo for his prisoner. To cut a long story short, I was sitting on this lady’s downstairs loo with the policeman’s boot wedged in the door, presumably because he thought I was about to escape down the U bend! So, I was sitting there thinking what a bizarre situation this was when through the crack in the door came my ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ album cover, and the owner of the house said, “Would you sign this for my son Geoffrey?” which I did, much to the policeman’s annoyance. Anyway, thirty or so years later, a guy at one of my piano concerts turned up with a pile of stuff to sign. So I was signing all this stuff and I came to the ‘Journey...’ album and I said, “ I’ve already signed this,” and he said, “ Read it!”. So, I looked at it and it said, “To Geoffrey, I have been arrested and I am sitting on your Mum’s bog. Best wishes Rick Wakeman.” I said, “Geoffrey,” and he said, “Yes, I was only about five at the time. I wanted you to see it and verify it!” A very funny story. PB: Thank you.



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Visitor Comments:-

2233 Posted By: Martha Worc, Florida, U.S. on 13 Apr 2022
I have followed Rick Wakeman's music for most of my life. I always knew he was an exceptional piano player. I did not know what a great storyteller he was.



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