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Toronto Politicians Should Be Shot — The Missing Link — Bolan Incognito — Stereo Oddity — The Seventy-Five Percent Solution — Tales Of Topographic Padding — The Yes Pistols — The Onion Twat — The Wrong Five — The Conscience Of Yes

Anyone who thinks that Yes' current 35th Anniversary Tour is nothing but your predictable run-of-the-mill cash-grab reunion should read the group's entry in the 1982 edition of The Harmony Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Rock.

The first rude awakening is the list of then-current band members, which include Trevor Horn on vocals and Geoff Downes on keyboards. Next comes the group's history, which is littered with numerous tales of discontent and departure. Then, just in case you can't read between the lines, the entry concludes by spelling out the inevitable with a grim prediction: "1981 may well be recorded as the last year of Yes."

So don't go thinking that a 35th Anniversary Tour was by any means a sure thing because not only was Yes comatose and on life support for many years, even if it had survived, there was no guarantee of the following line-up surviving intact with it: Jon Anderson (vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Chris Squire (bass), Alan White (drums), and Rick Wakeman (piano and synthesizers).

Now unless you're a die-hard Buggles fan, chances are you'll probably agree that the above-noted line-up is, indeed, the all-time classic configuration of Yes. But given their fragmented past, does the band think so as well? That's just one of the questions I put to Rick Wakeman backstage at the Air Canada Center when Yes recently came to Toronto.

But first, I'm pleased to report that Yes are in superior musical form these days; far better than on the many occasions I've seen them in the past, dating back to 1973. Having attended numerous concerts over the past 40 years—many of them perfunctory, and some which were radiant—I can honestly say that this was one of those select few performances that I would classify as being truly transcendent. The warm fellowship and subtle interaction between the band members throughout the course of the entire three-hour concert was unmistakable and a genuine joy to behold.

Unquestionably, the high point of the show is Anderson's impassioned rendition of "Show Me," which is one of the five new studio tracks that appear on the band's new career retrospective album The Ultimate Yes.

There's also a refreshing interactive aspect to the show as well: in keeping with the organic nature of Yes' philosophy, there are no giant video screens on display, so you actually have to pay attention to what's happening live on stage. You know, just like audiences had to do back in the Sixties and Seventies.

I also had ample opportunity to see the band interact with various fans after the show. To a man, they were all generous with their time: cheerfully talking, posing for photos, and signing autographs—all this, despite the fact that they had already spent three hours signing autographs in a record store earlier that afternoon. And although Yes had to be in Michigan for another show the following evening, it was close to midnight before the band members finally left the venue and returned to their hotel.

Earlier that evening, I had arrived at the venue some 45 minutes prior to my scheduled interview time of 6:30. Nevertheless, I was promptly escorted to a dressing room where Rick Wakeman was already patiently waiting for me, even though the other band members had already gone back to their hotel an hour before.

When it comes to keyboardists, rock music has known many a stellar session man, from Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins to Mike Garson and Scott Cushnie. But towering head and shoulders above them all, both literally and figuratively, Rick Wakeman indisputably reigns supreme as rock 'n' roll's greatest keyboardist. There's no denying that the high quality of his historical session work; his peerless band member credentials; and his voluminous 30 year solo career all add up to an impressive trifecta that no one has ever come close to matching.

During the course of the interview, Wakeman was as unstintingly gracious with his candid opinions as he was with his time—especially since he had less than an hour to get ready to go on stage by the time we were done. He's also extremely passionate when he talks about a subject that personally means a great deal to him. Which exactly is how our conversation began: spontaneously, before I even got a chance to ask the first question.

RICK WAKEMAN: I like Toronto a lot, it's a good city. The only thing that really annoys me about Toronto is that you're turning Maple Leaf Gardens into a grocery store, which is absolutely nothing short of disgusting. I mean how…

The people who run Toronto somehow can't see that in the music business and the entertainment business, there are about no more than four, possibly five, venues in the entire world that are synonymous with rock 'n' roll, the birth of rock 'n' roll, and all the things that happened to it.

Madison Square Garden is one. The Hollywood Bowl probably another. The Glasgow Apollo is another. And Maple Leaf Gardens is the other. It's absolutely synonymous with rock 'n' roll events.

Plus, if you take all the classic hockey games that have gone on there…I think you were one of the founding five or six—

JEFFREY MORGAN: "The Original Six."

WAKEMAN: I knew it was something like that. When you look at that building and think of all the classic things that have gone on there, you think: If ever there was a place where the politicians should have one iota of common sense…That's the place you should have your Canadian Hockey Hall Of Fame and your Canadian Rock Music Hall Of Fame.

Have some theatres in there that can show films all the time. Do things properly that the American's never got right with Cleveland. Where you have cinemas, IMAX, the whole thing. People would come from all over the world to see that. It would be a huge, huge attraction if you put everything into it. It's perfect for that, you'd make it totally legitimate.

You could have theaters for concerts, you could have restaurants, you could have libraries; it would be absolutely unbelievable. And then do the same thing for the hockey team. Because you've got the place.

I'll tell you what: in 25 years' time, people will be going:

"Where's Maple Leaf Gardens?"

"Oh, it's that grocery store around the corner."

It's unbelievably tragic. I get on my high horse about it because it's one of the few places…They knocked the place down in Glasgow, the Glasgow Apollo, which was synonymous with UK rock music probably more so than any other venue in Great Britain. Now there's a whole group of people who make pilgrimages to the site. And they're up in arms that it was knocked down: How could people knock part of the history of rock 'n' roll down?

MORGAN: That's why people go and stand on the parking lot where the Cavern Club used to be.

WAKEMAN: Exactly right! Now you look at the history of what's gone on in Maple Leaf Gardens; if anyone could make a list…

MORGAN: Sinatra, Elvis, Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Who…

WAKEMAN: Somebody one day has to point a finger at the town politicians, whoever they are, and say: You should be shot. Because if ever you had something that was gonna attract people from all over the world, that's it, sitting there. And you're gonna turn it into a grocery store. It stuns me.

I think there should be a plaque put up that says: This famous building full of heritage and history was turned into a grocery store by the wankers who call themselves politicians for Toronto. Because one day—probably long after I'm dead and buried—the city will come to regret it.

But there you go, I've had my little bit. Fire away. Anything you like.

MORGAN: You played on David Bowie's first album and you played on Lou Reed's first album. You were a member of Strawbs and for the past 32 years you've been a member of Yes, on and off. So what I want to know is this: in the anthropology of rock 'n' roll—

WAKEMAN: (laughs)

MORGAN: —is Rick Wakeman the missing link between the glam rock era and the progressive rock era?

WAKEMAN: Well, I did all Marc Bolan's stuff as well. A lovely man. I did all T.Rex.

MORGAN: I was looking for a credit on his albums and couldn't find one.

WAKEMAN: I did a lot of—

MORGAN: The singles?

WAKEMAN: Yeah, I did "Ride A White Swan"…"Get It On"…In fact, at the time when Marc was really at his height, when T.Rex were just selling shed loads of stuff, I was sitting up at Regal Zonophone with him and Tony Visconti and Marc was having a huge argument with the record company. He was so fed up with them. And he had this song he wanted to record and, for whatever reason, the record company didn't want him to record it. And he said, "Sod it. I'm going into the studio, let's record it." And Tony Visconti, who was the producer, said: "OK, but the record company won't release it."

So we went in and recorded this track. He only pressed up, I think it was 5,000, and it came out under the band name 'Dib Cochran And The Earwigs.' And it was only way after his death that it came out that it was Marc. I wish I had one. I mean, they've been going for five thousand dollars on eBay if you can find one, they're so collectible.

But I'd play on everything from pop records to a lot of the glam stuff to rock stuff to classical stuff. I used to get called to do all those things, it was great. I really enjoyed it because I like people who are adventurous. When you sort of take away—and there's no pun intended—all the glam and glitter, you have to see what's left. And there's a lot of music left. And there were a lot of people like Lou Reed, people like Marc, who had a lot to offer, they were really very clever.

David Bowie is far and away the cleverest man I've ever worked with. Far and away. Absolute walking genius, David Bowie was, to work with. I did about 2,000 sessions in four years, and of all those sessions the person I learned more from, was David.

MORGAN: In terms of music or attitude?

WAKEMAN: Both. Absolutely both.

MORGAN: Because he would've been around 20 at that time.

WAKEMAN: Yeah, he was in his early 20s. And he was just…Gosh, he was so far ahead of the game. He absolutely listened to nobody who he felt didn't have anything worth listening to. He wasn't into listening to managers and record company executives. 'Cause his argument was: "If they want to be musicians, let them go and make a record, don't tell me what to do." And it was a wonderful attitude.

I can remember, in Trident Studios in London…how old was I….Crikey, it was 1969, I was 20 years old. In fact, when we recorded it, I was 19 years old when we did "Space Oddity" originally because it was March 1969.

I remember going into the studio, and we recorded it, did my Mellotron bits, and walked up the stairs to go into the control room. And he was in there having a blazing row with the guy from Phillips, the record company guy. Because he wanted the single to be in stereo. And there weren't stereo singles then.

And he said, "This is stereo."

And the guy said, "No, we don't do stereo singles. Juke boxes are in mono, everything's mono."

And David said, "I don't give a damn, this is stereo. In a little while, everything's going to be in stereo. There's going to be stereo jukeboxes. Everybody's going to have stereo at home, this has to be in stereo."

"Well, we're not geared up to press singles in stereo."

"You'd better start getting ready."

"Well, we're not going to do it!"

"Well, you don't have the single then!"

He fought and he was right. He was dead right and it was the first stereo single in the UK. And a massive monster. He was always one step ahead of the game.

He was always incredibly prepared in the studio. He said to me: "Never waste time in the studio. Studio time's really precious. Whilst you might have the money to waste in the studio now, there might be in years to come a time when you might wish you had that money. You'll look back at the time you wasted."

He never wrote in the studio, everything was already done. He was always what he called "75 percent prepared." You go in and he'd get the piece that far, and then the studio would take it that extra 25 percent. He respected the studio, and I think that's the one thing he taught me more than anything else: respect the studio. It's not a plaything.

He was light years ahead of his time, and it was an absolute pleasure to work with him. He respects what he can do more than anyone else I've ever met. Amazing character. Amazing man.

MORGAN: Speaking of memories and Maple Leaf Gardens, I saw you playing with Yes on the Tales From Topographic Oceans tour in 1973, and then I saw you a year later in 1974 during your own Journey To The Center Of The Earth solo tour. And I have to say, you seemed a lot happier playing your own music.

WAKEMAN: I love Yes dearly, but I didn't enjoy Topographic Oceans. At the time I actually said it was an over-padded pile of shit. Those were the days when things were very black and white; we weren't mature enough to sit down and discuss things.

The truth of the matter is, I still don't like the album. There's a lot of very good things on it; there's some very good moments on it. But there's tons of padding. When we went in to do it, we had too much material for a single album. So you either made it into a double album—which means write a lot more stuff—or you just reduce the size and make it into a single album. The fact of life is, we went the wrong route and we didn't have any other material. So there was padding for days on it. And Yes had never done that and I really objected to it. Vehemently objected to it.

MORGAN: And that's why you ended up taking a walk for the first time.

WAKEMAN: Absolutely. We've all discussed it for a long time since then, and everybody actually agrees now that if the world of CD had been with us then, that problem would never have arisen. One track might've been eleven minutes, one might've been nine, one might've been twenty-six, one might've been fourteen. They would've had their natural length. It was an album that was eventually tailored and padded out to fit four sides of an album.

And I didn't like it. So I left.

MORGAN: Well, because you've left the band several times—

WAKEMAN: Actually, I only left twice. I left then, and then rejoined literally two years later for Going For The One.

And then I left with Jon in January 1980. Jon and I left at the same time. We'd been in Paris and it was a shambles. It was just an absolute shambles. I mean, nobody was talking to anybody and everyone was fighting. The whole thing was just farcical. Then Alan went ice skating and broke his leg and we all pissed off. (laughing) It was really funny. It was very rock 'n' roll.

Nobody knew what to do with Yes! You've got a prog rock band that's coming into the big punk era. What the hell do you do with this band? Ahmet Ertegun had flown in and had wanted us to do a punk record and we told him to F off.

So Jon and I'd had enough. We said, "That's it. This isn't what Yes is all about." And we both left. And they carried on. The Buggles came in and they did Drama. And then what happened was, at the end of the '80s, the ABWH—Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe—was formed.

It was such a mess because there was ABWH playing all the Yes stuff that we'd written. And there was what was lovingly known as "Yes West" on the west coast, which was basically Chris and Allan and Trevor and Tony. And the managements between them came up with this idea: Why don't we all join forces? Which, I have to say, for the stage show, was just fantastic.

But the album was just awful. I don't even classify it as a Yes album, the Union album. I always call it "Onion" because every time I hear it, it makes me cry. It was an absolute pile of junk because, basically, they wanted to get us out on the road really quick so they left this complete moronic twat to mix it. And, of course, it was the early days of computers, so he just basically wiped off things that Steve did, that I did, got his mates on, and it was a joke. It was an absolute farce of an album.

The tour was fantastic. But Steve, Bill and myself were told right at the beginning that the "Yes" name, which was owned by the Yes management people in California—and also Jon because, even though Jon was doing the ABWH, he still had an ownership in it—they said: "When the Union tour finishes, there's no way we want to keep an eight piece band going. So you, Bill and Steve will be surplus to requirements, so you can all go bugger off."

But what happened was, management had gotten the mood of the Yes fans completely wrong, because the five that were left weren't the five that the fans wanted.

So as I say, I didn't leave.

MORGAN: Then let me put it this way: given the fact that you left twice over your principled beliefs, and that you're level headed about what's good and what's bad, would it be safe to say that you're the conscience of Yes?

WAKEMAN: (smiling) Um, to some extent. To some extent.

Next Month: Part II of the Master Wakeman interview: How To Stop Drinking In One Easy Lesson — Chalk And Cheese — Old Rockers Never Die — Remembering The Coop — The Devil's Music — Yes Monster — The X Factor — Plus: The Secret Hidden Meaning Of Jon Anderson's Lyrics Finally Revealed!!!

Jeffrey Morgan
June 2004
Photo by Mike Tiano