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Classic Rock Revisited presents an exclusive interview with...

 

Rick Wakeman of Yes

 

Rick Wakeman is most famous for the years he spent with Yes in the early 1970's.  In fact, for the last 25 plus years every subsequent keyboardist the band has employed has been held by fans to the Wakeman standard.  "How well can he do Wakeman?" " Can he pull off what Wakeman did?"  "He's no Wakeman!" Statements like this have been  said thousands of times at Yes concerts around the globe.  Now it is 2002 and Rick Wakeman has announced that he is back in Yes and will hit the road with the band and even is hopeful that they will again record. 

Wakeman, while best known for his work with Yes, is an accomplished solo artist who has been very busy in the new millennium.  He has released a DVD called Rick Wakeman 2000 that features solo performances and stories of each song told by Wakeman himself as well as releasing several other CD's.

- Jeb Wright May 2002 

Special thanks for this interview goes to Ben at Classic Pictures.  Check out Wakeman's DVD as well as the DVD/CD release of Journey To The Center Of The Earth and other classic rock performances by dozens of artists.  Also thanks to Rick for agreeing to do the interview.  Be sure to check out his website included at the bottom of the page.  .  

The Interview

Jeb: Am I correct in saying that Rick Wakeman is a music school dropout?

Rick: No he isn't. Drop out implies failing exams etc and being asked to leave. I passed all my exams but left mid term of the course as I felt that the openings that had appeared for me within the music industry were too good to miss. Sometimes you don't have to finish a course in order to finish your own course.

Jeb: How did you get hooked up with David Bowie to record “Space Oddity?”

Rick: I had done a session for Toni Visconti with a band called Juniors Eyes and had played the mellotron. Tony produced David Bowie and they wanted to use the mellotron and I was the only guy that Toni knew who knew how to play it! So I got the job and became great friends with David and have done quite a lot with him over the years. I learned more from David Bowie than anybody else in the studio as regards professionalism and how to work.

Jeb: The Strawbs were gaining popularity and it looked like they were going to be the band that broke you big but instead you left them to join Yes. What was it about Yes that got you to go?

Rick: Strawbs were going through a transition that I personally wasn't into at the time. I always felt that Strawbs revolved around the writing of Dave Cousins and that was what made Strawbs sound like they did. We did an album called From the Witchwood which contained some great songs but only half of which I would call Strawbs music. This upset me as I felt the band was meandering as regards to material. As it turned out, it all worked out well as I left to join Yes where I felt I could really add my weight in the keyboard orchestral department and Strawbs went on to have their biggest selling singles and albums, so everybody was happy. Dave and I are still close friends and in fact have just recorded an album together called Hummingbird.

Jeb: What was your first impression of each of the members of Yes?

Rick: Jon: great voice. Steve: great guitarist. Chris: great bass player. Bill: great drummer. I honestly can't remember back that far! I had seen Yes play so I knew what they were capable of.

Jeb: Did you do any of the composing for “Roundabout?”

Rick: Only the keyboard parts.

Jeb: The keyboard part in “Roundabout” is very famous. How did you come up with it?

Rick: I think Steve was playing the chordal riff and I was looking for something to play and tried a few things out. You know when something is right, and luckily something came up that was right!

Jeb: Was Fragile a difficult album to record?

Rick: Not at all, it was a wonderful album to record. The record company left us alone. The management left us alone. In fact everybody left us alone to produce what we wanted. That was a wonderful time. It happened on Close to the Edge as well. It doesn't happen too much these days.

Jeb: Was this the first time Yes and Roger Dean worked together?

Rick: Yes, it was the first time. Steve discovered Roger, I believe, and introduced him and his work to us. We were all mightily impressed and Roger became a really important part of the Yes family.

Jeb: Close To The Edge is one of the most complete prog rock albums ever made. What are your favorite moments on this record and why?

Rick: For me it's the church organ bits leading into the Hammond solo. As far as a keyboard player is concerned it's manna from heaven to be able to do something like this on record.

Jeb: How did you come up with the cover and any fond memories of recording this one?

Rick: Great cover. True Roger Dean. No silly stories I'm afraid. Sadness at the end of it all when Bill announced he was leaving to join King Crimson. It always puzzled us as to why he didn't leave before the album was recorded. If he knew he was leaving he could have given us a chance to bed somebody new in. It did put a dampener on the final few days.

Jeb: I have heard that you did not like Tales. I am one of the fans that probably took way to much LSD listening to this as a young man. I loved it. My favorite track is “Ritual.” Now this one I must argue with you. It is awesome!!

Rick: Your opinion and you are entitled to it.

Jeb: Speaking of that, as a Yes fan... Many of your fans were into major chemical experimentations. Was Yes as well into expanding their consciousness?

Rick: I purely drank. I've been teetotal now for seventeen years though. You would have to ask the question to the individuals concerned. This is not an area I know much about and not one that I wish to, to be honest. I have lost so many friends through drugs it's sickening. Personally I'd be happy to see the death penalty worldwide for pushers.

Jeb: Let's jump to the album in Paris being recorded in 1979. It has been many years ago so I hope you can tell me what really happened that brought and end to Yes with Wakeman and Anderson.

Rick: Alan broke his leg skating and we all went home and never reconvened. It was not a happy time. The record company wasn’t happy and we, as a band, weren't happy. Nobody seemed to want to play on anybody else's songs at the time and in the end Jon had enough. He said he was leaving and so I joined him! All water under the bridge now. The past only shapes the present. The present shapes the future and that's what counts.

Jeb: Now lets jump to 1990 and it is ABWH recording in France. Why didn't Chris participate and why didn't he let you use the name Yes?

Rick: We were doing the second ABWH album in France and the management of Yes and our management got together to discuss a merger, which seemed very logical. Sadly it destroyed the making of the second ABWH album but we had a Wally of a producer thrust upon us anyway so who knows how it would have turned out! We couldn't use the name Yes because we weren't Yes. It's quite simple really. If people leave a band, then they leave the name behind. It just so happened that four people who were quite important to Yes all happened to have left and joined forces. Whilst to a lot of people this was four fifths of a Yes, the fact is that we weren't and Chris was perfectly correct in keeping the name for the Yes that was then in existence.

Jeb: Did the whole fighting thing feed your creativity and make you work harder as a unit?

Rick: There was no fighting at all. The press enjoyed it and made up stories as they do, and we just got on with sorting the problem out in as best a way possible. Hence the Union tour, which for my money was the best tour Yes ever did, and the Union album, which is a piece of brown smelly excretion.

Jeb: I am a big sucker for behind the scenes stories. Please take your time and think this one over... Can you please share a few moments from your experiences with Yes concerning the best time on stage with Yes?

Rick: Too numerous to mention. Certainly every show on the Union tour was a winner.

Jeb: The worst time on stage with Yes.

Rick: Tales from Topographic Oceans tour. It's very hard to play music that you are not into. You can play the notes, but there is so much more to music than playing notes.

Jeb: The funniest thing on stage with Yes.

Rick: A giant fish appearing up from the middle of the stage during the Union tour. Some strippers appearing courtesy of the crew on a last night somewhere. I can't remember the tour or the venue, but I can remember the strippers, although their faces are a bit of a blur.

Jeb: The saddest moment you had in Yes.

Rick: Every occasion I left. I always felt though that my leaving was always in the best interest of the band. I cried on two of the occasions. The first time and in 1979 in Paris.

Jeb: Any studio experiences that was unique?

Rick: Nothing that hasn't already been widely reported on numerous occasions.

Jeb: Any sexy, sordid or salty stories of the years in Yes?

Rick: Yes of course and do you really think I'm going to tell you what they were? Dream on!

Jeb: Now that Yes and Wakeman are together again will there be new music? Your gut feeling?

Rick: I hope so. I would really like to think that this can run and run, but only time will tell I suppose.

Jeb: This is thrilling news for millions of fans. How did it happen? I mean who called who and how did the conversation go?

Rick: There were no calls and it all happened over quite a period of time. I sort of answered everything as regards to the re-joining at my website www.rwcc.com, which will probably be quicker for you to look at than for me go through it all again.

Jeb: I have seen Yes with and without you and to be honest both were great concerts, however, there is a special magic with a chap named Wakeman on stage. Why? What happens and will it still be there?

Rick: I really don't know. For me it is the natural affinity I have for both the music and the other guys. I can read them both as musicians and as individuals and I suspect they have the same abilities. This particular line up also has the uniqueness of having five highly individual musicians and five individual personalities. Put this particular combination together and for some inexplicable reason the sum of the individuals as a whole becomes immensely greater than the value of each individual. A genuine case of 1+1+1+1+1+1=25! Will it still be there? Of Course and I think that this time it could be even stronger. Everything has met at the right time to make this happen and it is happening for the right
reasons too: the music and the desire to make it together.

Jeb: I have been watching your DVD Rick Wakeman The Legend Live In Concert 2000. First off, The Legend! Pretty impressive title! Are you comfortable being called a legend?

Rick: It's better than "dinosaur!" Recently I was down in Argentine and a journalist said to me, "I'm going to call you Rick if you don't mind." I said, "Of course but why did you say that?" He replied, "By calling you Rick I am implying that you are still heavily involved in the industry of music. If I call you Mr. Wakeman that implies that you are in semi-retirement and are much older than me. If I call you a legend then that probably means you are about to die." I told him to call me Rick! The DVD is one type of show that I have done over the years and came about because of all the television I do here (England) outside of music. I do loads of chat shows, quiz shows, cameo spots in sit-coms and even hosted a stand up comedy show. I hosted 80 of them. This gave me an additional new audience that demanded stand up within my shows and many had no idea I even played keyboards. Therefore, I devised this show to keep everybody happy. To my amazement it was a hugely successful tour and played to packed houses everywhere. It is very British though and I have not even attempted to take it to other English speaking countries. I'm not sure what they would make of it to be honest, as outside of the UK I am just perceived as a musician.

Jeb: That was a funny line about the suffering children that were dragged to your concert by their parents. Do you feel more comfortable in the spotlight now as opposed to 25-30 years ago?

Rick: As you get older, you don't necessarily get wiser but you do have more experience to draw upon in order to make personal views and decisions. A lot of what happens in the world genuinely hurts me inside and I would like to do more than I already do but God only gave us 24 hours a day and so I have to be frustrated in this area. Chernobyl seems to have been forgotten. How quickly we forget about all events when a new one appears. Perhaps Billboard should have a disaster chart changing week by week. They have so many charts already that another one wouldn't go amiss!

Jeb: The Beatles tunes were a great thrill as well. How many Beatles songs have you done like this? How do you marry up the Beatles song to the classic composers style and will there ever be an album like this?

Rick: There is an album of instrumental Beatles tracks called Tribute. This has not been released in America, sadly. It is available at the website shop. Working on Beatles tunes was not difficult. A good melody can be arranged in so many wonderful ways and McCartney is a master of his art.

Jeb: You have the ability to play with technical mastery and convey deep emotions through your playing. Which is more important to you and why?

Rick: Both have equal importance. I am so pleased I had a long and thorough musical training. It means that almost nothing is impossible. A musician is like a writer in as much as a writer can only write according to the knowledge of his vocabulary. His imagination will also be limited by this knowledge. Musicians are limited by their knowledge as well, so the greater a vocabulary of technique and musical knowledge a musician can have,
then the more possibilities can become reality. Having said that, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing and a lack of it can make composers do some weird and wonderful things. A good balance within a band is crucial if you really want to create something a bit special and a bit different.

Jeb: How did you decide on the tracks to include on the DVD? What songs almost made the cut?

Rick: I let the director of the film, Robert Garofolol decide. He did not know my music particularly well so he put the DVD together very much as a neutral. He is a close friend as well, which is a great help. There was quite a lot that didn't make it and many of the stories were edited out or not used. In fact, it was mostly stories that didn't make the
cut.

Jeb: Many of your solo albums have themes. How do you approach writing in themes such as King Arthur or Black Night At The Court Of Ferdinand? How is this different that playing on a rock album?

Rick: It's strange really. I don't make plans to do anything in particular. It just seems to happen. In the last two years I have recorded classical albums, albums with piano and choir, prog rock recordings, film scores, themed concepts and collaborations with people such as Dave Cousins from the Strawbs. I just do what seems to be happening in my mind at the time. Unfortunately, a lot of things happening my mind at the same times so I always seem to be working on at least three projects.

Jeb: So many albums. Seriously, what inspires you to keep writing?

Rick: It goes in spats. Sometimes I write nothing for a year and then suddenly I find myself writing furiously for a couple of months. There are no rules. It just happens and I don't question why it is like this.

Jeb: How do the ideas stay fresh?

Rick: I have no idea. As I said earlier, I don't question why I suddenly get inspiration and then inexplicably nothing happens for months on end.

Jeb: How do you avoid writing the same song twice?

Rick: To the best of my knowledge this has never happened, although I have deliberately borrowed ideas from pieces order to create a certain musical part in others. This seldom happens though.

Jeb: In 2001 you released Journey on DVD. Yet another theme. When did the idea strike you to remake this epic tale in musical form?

Rick: It was something I had wanted to do for years. Technology meant that I could really fuse all the musical ideas I live within a symphony orchestra and choir. I knew that I could put Ozzy Osbourne in the orchestra and make it work for example. Ozzy was brilliant! I had many friends on board such as Trevor Rabin and Bonnie Tyler and I was really knocked out with the end result. The album was given target figures to sell around the world and it reached these figures everywhere except for America where it became more difficult to find in the shops than finding a condom machine in the Vatican! I was really disappointed about this but life goes on. Luckily it sold well elsewhere in the world. We have already done the first live performance in Canada and more are planned for next year.

Jeb: How did the orchestra get involved?

Rick: I have worked with the London Symphony Orchestra before. The time was in 1974 when I did the original Journey To The Center Of The Earth. I love writing for orchestras and orchestrating in general. My heroes in this field are Rimsky Korsakov and Prokoiev.

Jeb: As a very focused performer, producer and musician how difficult were you to work with during this performance? How did you get all the others to share your vision?

Rick: I don't think I was difficult but being the only one who knew what it would sound like completed -- this was difficult for all concerned, to see the pieces of the jigsaw coming together and then being put to one side for the final piecing together. What also didn't help was the fact that I contracted Pleurisy and Chronic Double Pneumonia during the latter stages of the recording. It wasn't helped by the 22-hour days for three
months. I was given less than 48 hours to live.

Jeb: I have heard that you tend to create such a live extravaganza that you eat up profits! Did this happen on Journey??

Rick: Yes, I have invested much of what I have earned in the live extravaganzas and why not? I like to do things properly wherever possible and if people have bought an album with an orchestra on it then wherever possible I try to give them that orchestra in a live setting. I don't do that so much these days sadly as most of what I earn and have earned is eaten up through my very poor record of having been married and divorced three times

Jeb: At the same time you were doing Journey, you left Yes? Why? I mean the band was hitting the big time --since you joined by the way-- and you walk out? What happened? Who did you first tell in Yes that you were out of there?

Rick: This is going back a few years now and is quite simple to answer. I didn't like Topographic Oceans and still don't. People forget that you can be in a band and be a fan as well. I am a great Yes fan. I was part of the Topographic Oceans and had the CD format been around then perhaps I would never have left, as there was certainly enough material for one CD. The problem was that back then we had the constraints of the long-playing record. We had too much for one album but nowhere near enough for two and so it was padded out. For me, we lost the good stuff that we had amongst some poor quality music. My opinion is that is true. That fuelled my decision. I didn't like this road that Yes were going down in any band there must be an equal amount of give and take. I could not give to this kind of music, as I have nothing to offer it. I was really pleased when I heard Relayer, as I knew I had made the right decision as there is nothing on there that I could have offered anything too. I would not be adverse to playing stuff from Topographic Oceans as I know a lot of people like the music but that is all a part of a musician's life.

Jeb: I heard that in 1975 you collapsed and had a minor heart attack.

Rick: Three actual and the third was not very minor!

Jeb: While in the hospital you wrote the King Arthur album. There has got to be a good story behind this...

Rick: It's a parallel musical autobiography. I was told I would not be able to play live again and should retire. There is much of me in that album, personally. The main theme is probably the best I have managed to produce.

Jeb: You have made a couple of guest appearances here. You were on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. How the heck did you end up working with Sabbath? What songs are you on and what were they like in the studio at that time?

Rick: I can't remember the songs but I have been friends with the band since the late sixties. Most guest appearances come about because of friendships. I think the world of Ozzy and we are really good friends.

Jeb; What did you play with TREX?

Rick: I honestly can't remember. I did "Get It On."

Jeb: How did you get involved with Cat Stevens? Has he lost his mind? Do you feel it is a shame he stopped making music?

Rick: Again, he was a friend. He is great to work with. I respect all people's beliefs, providing they are used for the betterment of mankind. He was very sane the last time I spoke to him! I was sad when he stopped making music as I believe that if God gives you a gift, he wants you to use it in a good way and bring happiness and enjoyment. He is making music again now, I believe.

Jeb: Last one? Did you really throw a tomato at the original artwork of a Yes album?

Rick: Yes.

Jeb: Why? You don't seem like the sort of guy that goes around pelting works of art with vegetables. What's the story?

Rick: We had paid a fortune for the artwork, which when we were shown it, we all agreed we had been ripped off. It was a pile of brown smelly stuff. I picked up a tomato and threw it at it. The album was meant to be called Yestor but was hastily changed to Tormoto. The tragedy about that album is that it had probably the worst cover of any Yes album and contained some great music. Sadly, the production of the album was poor, very poor. If there is one set of tapes I would like to have in order to remix, it's this album. There are some gems in there.

 

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