Rick Wakeman Says Yes To Everything
Fans of progressive rock act Yes are used to watching its cape-wearing keyboardist Rick Wakeman perform in a particularly theatrical manner. His arms dramatically flail as his fingers travel across the keys on his array of synthesizers at a rapid speed.
Classicallly-trained since childhood, Wakeman turned his talent in numerous directions shortly after he entered his teens. He played on more than 2,000 recording sessions, which included Cat Stevens' "Morning Has Broken" and David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
I had the chance to talk to him at the end of a U.S. solo tour that's was set up like a "VH1 Storytellers" program. The much more subdued show exhibited his songwriting, interpretive powers and prowess on the piano and various synthesizers. It also gave American fans the opportunity to indulge in his wealth of enlightening and witty stories from throughout his career; something British fans are familiar with because of Wakeman's one-man shows and numerous BBC television appearances.
Typical of his frenetic working habits, the DVD Rick Wakeman: The Legend Live in Concert 2000 chronicles one of his music and tales performances. Earlier this year, he rejoined his musical brethren in Yes in a DVD, Yesspeak (35th Anniversary), as well as another tour.
JPG: As the press release for the DVD acknowledged, in America you’re known for your work with Yes and some of your solo work such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth whereas in England you have a second career as a television personality. I take it you’ve had to adapt your solo performance from one crowd to the next.
RW: I have. There are four associated pieces that I'm involved with that I do in this show with Yes, whereas in the UK I only do a couple. Some of the stories, which were quintessentially British, are obviously gone and Ive added a few other things in their place.
But you're right, in England, there is a lot more comedy in the show because I do so much of it on the TV.
JPG: Was the idea for this solo type of show the next step after appearing so much on TV or working on your autobiography? Were you inspired by the VH-1 Storyteller series?
RW: No, I started this about 16 years ago before VH-1 appeared. I started this format, in fact it goes back longer than, it goes back to about '82, '83. I was not just me on my own but I had a classical guitarist with me who was like a stooge on the side.
It started because I was hosting different types of comedy shows, appearing on everything from sitcoms to heaven knows what else. People were coming to the shows, wanting to hear the stories. So, I was starting to include them between the pieces of music, but it was a bit fragmented at first and I had to find a way of making it work. That developed over the years.
I stopped doing it for a little while and did the rock shows. Then I was abroad touring and then I would come back and do another year of them. And they developed along the tour. Eventually, in the year 2000 I took it in the UK as far I thought it could go. I've done pretty much every theater there is to do in the UK.
It got to what I call that dangerous stage because I could almost afford to go onstage just mention the name of the TV program that I was famous for and get a round of applause and whoops and yells for like 20, 30 seconds. That starts to get a little bit dangerous then because you start to become accepted for what you've done against what you're about to do. I actually announced that was going to be the end of it until an American agent called me.
JPG: Now, I was going through the biography chapter on the DVD and it used the term New Age to describe some of your music. I know being place in that category annoys some artists, would it bother you if you did, say, a sequel to Journey to the Centre of the Earth you found in stores’ New Age section?
RW: I really don't care where they put it to be honest with you. People give names to all sorts of things that they do. It's hard enough to actually get into mainstream stores, so they can put me in there, in the African Reggae section if they like. I'd just be delighted to be anywhere.
In fairness, I do such diverse types of music these days that it's pretty hard to know where to stick me anyway. (slight laugh).
JPG: You mention diversity, what are you working on?
RW: Well, the last year-and-a-half have been pretty much solidly Yes, working with the guys and out on tour. The solo tour on my own in the UK to support a prog rock album called Out There (by Rick Wakeman & the New English Rock Ensemble). It did well too. We were pleased. We did a big tour of it in the UK, big production tour. We're looking at releasing it over here.
There's some other weird stuff that I've done. Weird, I mean completely different. I've got a Christmas album, which will be coming out year after year in the UK which is just piano. That's done really well. That came out in Europe, and there's a fair chance it might appear in America too. Then there's another album floating around that I did. It's just piano and a huge choir called The Wizard and the Forest of All Dreams You couldn't have three more diverse things if you tried in one fell swoop. If they can just come out, that's fine. We're doing it slowly but surely in different places.
I just tend to write all sorts of different things. It does confuse issues sometimes, but I can't help it.
JPG: Doing so many different projects is there is an excitement about it rather than having so many irons in the fire.
RW: I enjoy the diversity. I'm waking up and every day is different. I've got this one-man show and I've got these different types of albums and it's great working with the guys in Yes and I've got this soundtrack thing coming up. I still do a lot of TV work in England. I've got a series showing on the BBC. I love the diversity of being able to do bits of everything. I don't think I could handle just doing one thing. It would drive me mad.
JPG: As far as Yes, your biography is kind of comical. He’s in Yes, out of Yes, in Yes, etc. What is it about that group of musicians or the music or both that you keep returning?
RW: In theory, I only really left twice, which is once in '74 after Tales from Topographic Oceans. Again in 1980 when Jon and I left together. In the periods of time after that I rejoined when it was AWBH and it became Yes. At the end of the "Union" tour, Steve, myself and Bill Bruford were told by the management that they were going back to the original lineup that held the name. Neither Steve nor I, particularly left then, right from the word go that it would be superfluous to leave at the end of the tour. Then at the end of the Keys to Ascension there were two management companies floating around who were arguing with each other over various bits and pieces. One of em booked a tour for me. And the other one booked a tour for Yes. I'd signed a contract and there was nothing I could do about it. So, I found myself out on a solo tour.
I left a couple of times, but you're quite right, the thing that keeps bringing me back and the thing that I love is…it is a Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor thing. I love the band dearly. I love the guys dearly and I love the music dearly. When I'm not there I miss it terribly.
JPG: That reminds me. I attended an Anderson Buford Wakeman Howe show with a fellow writer. He was able to obtain a setlist and it not only had each song but the exact minute and seconds that each would be played. For the band and you, does a live show still have to be that completely precise?
RW: Not anymore. Not anymore. Certainly, my shows vary a lot and the Yes shows that we've just done vary considerably. Things do change. You could say, even though it was a good show, the AWBH, you could say that was the end of the, shall we say, clinically by rehearsed theory. If there was a solo 12 bars long then it would always be 12 bars long.
Now when we do things like that, if there's some inspiration going on then it goes longer. No inspiration, it goes shorter. The band is seriously more adaptable now. I think that's one great thing the band's learned, which was on the last tour that we did…I think the Full Circle Tour was so successful, I mean, people actually noticed. While the band was still wonderfully tight, in so many ways it had loosened up. You know what I mean?
JPG: Which brings me to the rumor that had been going for several months of a summer tour uniting Yes and the Dead.
RW: That one's been floating around. The interesting thing somebody at our management said, Oh yeah, this tour could be organized with you and The Dead.' I thought, Well, this ought to be interesting.' Eventually we got to talk to somebody over at the Dead and they knew nothing about it. The words we got back were We know nothing about it. Not a bad idea type of thing.' And the last I heard was that Chris Squire had been speaking to somebody. What it seems to be like somebody sitting in an office somewhere who came up with the idea and then told everybody about it without actually asking either band.
At some point I'd be game. I'd like it. Yes would do our own things, but maybe we could do some things together. That to me would be interesting or would make a lot of sense. You probably know more about it than I do.
JPG: It would seem like a possibly strange evening, but after talking to you about the loosening up of Yes’s live performance, it could possibly work out.
RW: I'd be up for it and I'd do my level bit to make it work. I think it's one of those things that could work if all concerned want to make it work. But if there are any doubts, any lingers, it shouldn't happen. It's certainly something that's dreamt up by some management office somewhere without actually doing their homework.
JPG: As far as the idea you mentioned of musicians working together, I know that The Dead always seem to be up for that type of thing.
RW: Well, I certainly am! I started my career when I left college working with so many sessions. I love working with other people. There's a great vibe out of that. So, for me there would be absolutely no problems whatsoever.
JPG: Speaking of schooling, I read that you had music training, did it focus on classical studies and eventually lead to a degree?
RW: I started classical training when I was five. Then I did all the various exams and private tutoring, then went to the Royal College of Music and was there to finish up a year and a half. I went through the whole bit. I was trying to be a classical concert pianist.
But at the age of 14 I joined a rock band. My father encouraged me. I played in pretty much everything, jazz bands, folk bands, rock bands, dance bands. I played in weddings, funerals. I even played in strip clubs. Played a few wrong notes in the strip clubs, but I still played there. (laughs)
JPG: So from the beginning of your career, you dealt with a diversity of projects.
RW: I think I have a very inquisitive nature. I'm the sort of person that if you and I were having a discussion about, I dunno, I'm just making something up, if the Aztec Indians came up in the conversation then if I was at home and after the phone had gone down, I'd be over to the encyclopedia and I'd be looking up Aztec Indians and then looking it up on the net. Probably spend the next four or five hours downloading stuff and reading all about it.
I've just got this inquisitive nature that goes into music as well. I wanted to try and find out what different styles of music are about and play em. So, I did all of that.
JPG: In the DVD biography, it mentioned several times your piano teacher, Mrs. Symes. Some people are lucky enough to find a true mentor/teacher. What type of advice did she give you that sticks with you to this day.
RW: She gave me a lot, really. There's two different types of advice that she gave me from a young age. She put me in lots of competitions, which I really enjoyed doing. Although they did have to me bring down…
Without going into a long boring story…Initially, all the concerts and competitions I won and I thought it was the standard rule that what happens was on a Saturday you went into a big competition somewhere and you came home with a cup. I thought that was the rule of thumb. So it brought me down a peg or two by entering into a competition well above my age group. I didn't like that. I didn't like that at all.
She sat me down and said, she was really kind, You have a talent. You can only go as far as you want to go. I will help you.' She was good like that. Also she taught me one thing which was not to waste time because when I was at school I'd have long trips to school and I wasn't getting home until five, six o'clock in the evening. Three hours homework and I still had to do three, four hours practice a night. And she just taught me to make the most of practice, not to waste time and make practicing interesting.
She said the worst thing about any job that anybody does if they have to practice at it and it's boring, it doesn't mean the job's boring, it means that the way they're set up to do their practice is boring. She taught me how to make practice fun. I think about that. And she was always there to encourage. She was a very special lady. I was very sad when she passed away some years ago because I couldn't help but think of the thousands of people that probably have passed through her music schools through the years who've, how can I say, who may not all become professional players but certainly got a great deal of pleasure out of the way she taught music.
JPG: She does sound like she had a profound effect on you. Do you practice every day?
RW: When I'm not on the road I do. When I say practice, I've got my own methods of practicing. Practicing could entail the way you're playing when you're writing music or doing things. I don't practice when I'm on the road cause you're doing two-and-a-half, three hours a night anyway. But when I'm at home I tend to…a bad day will be an hour. A good day can be anything up to eight.
JPG: I noticed when you played in concert, there was more flash to your movements. Your hands were waving. Maybe it was because you in a big venue. On the DVD it it almost reminded me of Robert Fripp, where you’re exuding the least amount of energy to get things done.
RW: It's much harder to do the one-man show in some respects. You're conserving everything from mental energy to physical energy. Certainly, when I was doing the rock shows with my own band, I still wear the capes and things. We do all sorts of things, climb up ladders up a rig and all sorts of things. Just as mad as ever. This is a different kind of show, got a different kind of audience. Perhaps 25% of the music audience comes to these shows normally. A lot of the time you're dealing with everything from eight-year-olds to grannies. It is a different kind of show. You're quite right.
JPG: Overall, if you’re able to be objective and subjective at the same time, what would you say Rick Wakeman’s strengths and weaknesses are as an artist?
RW: Strengths and weaknesses? Weakness is I say, Yes' to everything. I do too much. What happens is I end up not doing myself any good physically and mentally. You find that you can't do anything for a month or something.
JPG: I understand that. You work nonstop for a long period of time. You’re amazed you got it all done, and then you body just says, Guess what? You’re done.’ And you drop from exhaustion.
RW: Absolutely. I've been down that road a few times. I've got to try and teach myself that one. It's a bad thing.
But a strength is the fact that I suppose I'm lucky that the good Lord gave me God given talent. I don't call it work. That's why I like working hard, if you know what I mean? Every day is a joy. I love doing what I do and I've met some wonderful people all over the world. And I couldn't wish for anything more, really.