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Rick Wakeman: On ‘Piano Portraits,’ David Bowie, Yes in the Rock Hall of Fame and More (Q&A)
At age five, Rick Wakeman began taking piano lessons — talk about musical lessons that truly paid off decades later!
First coming to prominence as a member of Strawbs, Wakeman is internationally revered for his prodigious keyboard talents as a member of ’70s prog-rock giants, Yes. His stellar work with Yes, as featured on the classic albums Fragile, Close To The Edge, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Going For The One, and Tormato, signaled his emergence as one of music’s most gifted keyboard players.
Beyond his work with Yes and as a prolific solo artist, Wakeman’s skills as a keyboard player graced countless albums by artists ranging from David Bowie (“Space Oddity,” “Life On Mars,” “Changes”), T-Rex, Elton John, Cat Stevens and others. His latest project, Anderson Rabin and Wakeman (ARW) finds him teaming up with former Yes members, lead vocalist Jon Anderson and guitarist Trevor Rabin for a tour with plans in the works for a possible new album as well.
Concurrent with his work in ARW, Rick is also preparing to release a new solo album, Piano Portraits, an instrumental album finding him interpreting songs by the likes of The Beatles, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Cat Stevens and others.
Rock Cellar Magazine: You began taking piano lessons at age five. Was there a Holy Grail piano song you endeavored to learned and, once mastered, knew you were on your way toward being a good player?
Rick Wakeman: To be honest, no. My first piano lesson was in 1954 when I was 5 and there wasn’t anything around. There were people like Jimmy Smith playing the Hammond organ. There wasn’t anything to aspire to.
Then perhaps a classical piece you wanted to master?
Rick Wakeman: Yes, the piece that really inspired me more than anything else was “Peter & The Wolf” by Prokofiev. When I was about eight-years-old my father took me to see “Peter & The Wolf” and I just thought it was wonderful. Here is a piece of music telling a story and I thought that was just fantastic. That had a massive influence on me.
How did ARW, this new project with Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin, come together?
Rick Wakeman: You have to go back quite a ways. As you may know, Jon was very ill in 2005 and he couldn’t work for a bit. The other guys in Yes decided they wanted to carry on but I felt very strongly that you couldn’t have Yes without Jon singing and wanted to wait. But they had a democratic vote and they went out on tour with Jon and I didn’t want to do that so I left, as well as Jon.
Jon and I kept in touch. And decided we wanted to do some writing together. So over a couple of years we put together an album called The Living Tree which was just a duo, almost acoustic. We wrote the songs and then went out in England and did a duo tour, myself on piano and Jon on guitar and singing. It was very successful and we got inundated by people saying, “You’ve got to record these songs that go with it.” So we recorded the songs and put the album out and then we went and did a short tour in America.
Then we came back to England and did another tour there; this was in 2011 or 2012. All of the time we were talking about what we were doing and the way we wanted it to go and literally from the word go we went, well, the next stage has to be a band. There was only one name that ever came up which was Trevor Rabin. Obviously I’d worked with Trevor on the Union tour and also Trevor played on a track on an album I did called Return To The Center Of The Earth; he played on a track called “Never Is A Long Long Time.”
He sang it and did a phenomenal guitar solo. So we all kept in touch. The difficulty of course is I’m ludicrously busy, Jon was incredibly busy and Trevor is permanently busy with his multitude of soundtrack work and it was just a matter of when. Trevor came over to England and we had lunch; this is about three years ago. We said that we had to do this and Jon agreed as well. But again it was trying to find the time because all of us had such busy schedules otherwise.
To be brutally honest with you, the big catalyst came when our dear friend, Chris Squire died. When Chris passed away it hit me and I think it also hit Jon and Trevor as well with thoughts of their own mortality. You think, “hold on a minute, we can’t keep putting things off that we desperately want to do.”
Are there plans for a studio album?
Rick Wakeman: Yeah, there will be. So we got together and decided, “when can we free up some time to work together?” We all worked it out to around the middle of this year. We just concentrated solely on ARW. Then the interesting thing came with various record companies coming in with offers saying, “Yeah, do an album, do an album, do an album!”
We had a long talk with each other and went, “no no, this is the wrong way around.”
We’re not gonna go straight in and do an album. What we felt was the best idea was to work together and to tour together and get to understand each other even more and then we’ll get down to the album.
Yes, we have been sending music back and forth to each other but with all the weeks of rehearsals we had I learned more about Trevor than I knew during the Union tour a way back and I know Trevor felt the same about me as well plus the fact that in the band we have the most astonishing bass player and drummer.
How do you remember Chris Squire?
Rick Wakeman: Well, there are a mixture of memories. He was very unique as a bass player and inspired a lot of people. In fact, the bass player in ARW, Lee Pomeroy, who is widely reckoned to be the finest bass player in Europe, Chris was his idol. He modeled everything on Chris and then went to another stage. Chris influenced so many people.
My memories of Chris are his great stage presence and his playing and his unique sound, which I’ll never forget. On the other side of things — and we laugh at it now — his timekeeping, not talking musically I’m talking in general, was appalling. (laughs)
Waiting for Chris was sort of a hobby for anybody that was in Yes. If we were due to leave at 10 in the morning, if you could get Chris out of bed and down by 12 you’ve done brilliant. Chris was unique; he was a character. I knew him for 45 years. It was a sad loss and it still is quite hard to reconcile that he is no longer with us.
In the early ‘70s, there was an explosion of progressive rock bands with Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer the leading practitioners of the genre. How do you account for that music gaining such popularity?
Rick Wakeman: Quite honestly it was mostly down to the general public. Record companies were run by people who actually listened to the general public; they didn’t tell them what they should be listening to or doing. When bands like ELP, Yes, (Pink) Floyd and all those were going out and doing gigs and building up a big fan base and then making records which sold in droves, not a result of any particular promotion by the record companies but simply because the bands were out there playing and people like what we did.
Thankfully in the early ‘70s and up to around ’76 or ’77, the heads of record companies actually cared about that. They would let you make the music you wanted to make and their job was to get it out there. It all started to go wrong when accountants started to take over record companies. They’d say, “Okay, the bottom line has to add up first time ‘round.”
Let me give you an example. When I signed with A&M Records as a solo artist I signed a five-album deal but there were options all the way around with the record company. I remember Jerry Moss saying to me, “Well, we don’t expect to make any money form the first album and we’d like to come close to breaking even by the second album and we’d like to be going into profit by the third album.” As it happened, my first album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, did extremely well but record companies would invest in artists. No way did Ahmet Ertegun or anyone at Atlantic Records dealing with Yes and turned around and said, “This is the album you’ve got to make; this is what you’ve got to do.”
How did the concept for your new Piano Portraits album come together?
Rick Wakeman: It wasn’t my idea. (laughs) A lot of friends of mine said this kind of idea was staring me in the face and asked why it took so long to do it. We’re doing this interview almost a year to the day that David Bowie passed away. David and I were good friends and I did a lot of stuff with him. The number one radio station in the UK, Radio 2, I did a tribute to David and did a version of “Life On Mars.”
I played the song and they did a web came of it and two days later the presenter there told me, “The web cam you did of ‘Life on Mars’ has over two million hits.” I said, “You’re joking?!” A lot of people are asking, “why don’t you record it for a cancer charity?” Normally I’m against doing charity records as most of them lose fistfulls of money but I thought this was a good idea and recorded it for the Macmillan Cancer Trust and it did very well.
It was a physical number one for six weeks. Then I started getting calls from record labels, some big and some not so big, all saying, “Hey, we’d love for you to do a piano album in a similar style to that you did for ‘Life On Mars.'” I thought it was an interesting idea. I spoke to all the labels to see how they’d envisioned it and Universal were great because they envisioned it exactly as I did — as a real mixture of music, not losing sight of what the original songs stood for but always working as piano pieces.
So I decided to do it and went into a studio about an hour from my house, which has my favorite piano in the world, a model D Steinway. We spent quite a few weeks recording this album. We knew that every piece had to be a performance; you couldn’t just edit stuff. There were no time constraints. We had some really productive days and others where I felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall. The other thing that was interesting is there were some pieces that I thought would work fantastically well that didn’t work so we didn’t include them and gave up on them and other pieces that I felt would never work, worked great — like “Stairway to Heaven.”
The best example of that is I wanted to do “Bohemian Rhapsody” as a little suite but I could not make it work for a way that would make me happy; it just drove me mad. Overall we ditched about six or seven pieces.
You cover “Help” by The Beatles. Back in in the ‘70s, John Lennon once remarked he was considering covering it as a ballad and you pulled it off.
Rick Wakeman: That’s interesting, I never knew that. You have to go back to 1968. I bought an album which is still one of my favorites; it’s called Shades of Deep Purple which was the original lineup of Deep Purple before they changed to what is known as the classic lineup. They did a version of “Help” on that album which was much slower than the original.
Jon Lord got some phenomenal organ sounds on it, really outrageous. I felt that was fantastic; they’d pulled the piece apart and it worked tremendously well. In my one-man piano shows that I do every now and then I throw “Help” in and I do it the same way as I’ve done on the record. It’s proven to be incredibly popular, which is why I put it on the album. It’s one of those wonderful pieces which had a melody that is so lovely that you can almost do anything with it. That’s what makes it such a joy to play.
You played piano on the original “Morning Has Broken” session for Cat Stevens and do your own rendition on the new album.
Rick Wakeman: I went to the studio for the session. It was just him with an acoustic guitar and me at the piano. We played it through for his producer Paul Samwell-Smith who said, “It’s a bit short, guys.” It was all over and done with in about 40 seconds. Cat said, “We really need a piano introduction on this” so I played around and gave him some ideas and he threw some ideas back at me and we eventually came up with the little piano interlude between each of the verses, which has become synonymous with the piece now.
It works well as a piano piece because of those little vignettes of piano in between the verses. In a strange way, it’s as well known as the actual tune.
Was there a track that was bit trickier than others or more difficult to find a fresh way to reinvent or reinterpret?
Rick Wakeman: I suppose you could say “Stairway to Heaven.” The secret to that song was to think of it as a performance. I closed my eyes and literally imagined that I was on a huge stage in a huge auditorium with a grand piano, no audience and I actually walked to the piano and sat down and played it. That’s how that was done.
How did you come to work with David Bowie on the Hunky Dory album?
Rick Wakeman: I had been doing a lot of session work with Tony Visconti and the late Gus Dudgeon, who worked out of the same offices in London. Both of these producers had worked with David Bowie. Earlier in 1969 I had done some sessions with Tony Visconti for a band called Juniors Eyes and in the studio was a mellotron that had just been delivered.
I discovered pretty quickly that keeping a mellotron in tune was a nightmare. But after some experimentation I discovered a way of manipulating my fingers in order to keep it in tune and also avoid hearing the constant clicking of the loop tapes after they reset every eight seconds.
When Tony was recording “Space Oddity,” David wanted to have the mellotron as a featured sound and asked Tony if he knew someone who understood the instrument.
Tony recommended me and called me up. (Author’s note: While Tony Visconti produced the Space Oddity album, it was Gus Dudgeon who produced the “Space Oddity” single after Visconti declined to work on it.)
At the time, as well as doing sessions, I was working in the evenings in a big 17-piece soul band in a ballroom 30 miles outside of London and I was actually rehearsing with them when the call came through. I drove to London and did the session with David and all the other session guys and was quite simply bowled over by the song, its arrangement and production. It was far and away the standout piece of music I had ever the privilege to be part of. Through “Space Oddity” I was booked to play on some of the tracks on the Space Oddity album.
Then later David called me up to his house in Beckenham, Kent as he wanted to play me some songs. It is one of the most vivid musical experiences in my life, if not the most vivid. I arrived at his house and sat at his beautiful grand piano whilst his played all the songs that were to appear on the Hunky Dory album, on his battered 12-string guitar. He always said to me that he wrote so much on this old 12-string because if the songs sounded good on this old instrument then they could only improve when quality instruments were added.
He played me some tracks by Biff Rose too and I remember going out and getting a Biff Rose album myself as he had obviously influenced David and I wanted to involve myself in David’s influences in order to give my very best for the Hunky Dory music. David told me he wanted the songs to emanate from the piano and so I was given very much a freehand in what I played…the perfect scenario for me!
I can vividly recall driving back home afterwards and saying to my wife that I had just heard some of the greatest songs ever and that this album was destined to be an absolute classic. I had never said anything like this before and have never said anything like this since. David very much let me have free reign in the studio. David simply said to play the music as piano pieces in my style. I wish all sessions had been like that! Mind you, they wouldn’t have had these great songs. I had wonderful freedom. David’s band really had the hard job, working around what I was playing.
They were great players and a joy to work with. There was a lot of camaraderie. I felt privileged to be a part of it.
Didn’t Bowie ask you to join his band?
Rick Wakeman: It was a very surreal situation to be honest with you. It was around July of 1971. If I recall the place correctly, David was at the Hampstead Country Club with Mick Ronson. I remember David being incredibly flamboyantly dressed and looking amazing. He sat down with me and told me about his idea for Spiders from Mars and the plans he had.
He said he would love me to be in the band with Mick, Woody and Trevor. I was really honored.
I absolutely loved David’s music and really felt proud to have been a small part of some of it in the making.
However, I was suddenly faced with somewhat of a dilemma, which looking back was even more of a monumental decision than I realized at the time. The day before, Yes had asked me to join as their keyboard player and so in the space of twenty-four hours I had been offered the chance to join the Spiders from Mars and Yes.
Truth is, it was an impossible decision, but I made the decision to join Yes because I felt that, even though I knew David would give lots of freedom to the musicians in the band, there would be a limit as to musical contribution and I really wanted to be involved with writing and being part of a unit where the 5 members were all equal, (another debatable point as it happens).
I felt I would have more opportunity to write music. I called David and told him and he was extremely understanding. I watched David reach incredible heights and the Spiders gain well deserved tremendous recognition.
I wish I could have been part of both. I told David this one day in the Museum Club in Montreux (Switzerland) in the late 70’s when we were both living there and used to meet up occasionally.
Yes fans have professed their displeasure that the group being passed over for years for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Why do you feel the band has not been afforded that overdue honor until now?
Rick Wakeman: I was one of the people who pushed hard for Yes to get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in the mid to late ‘80s after the 90125 album and “Owner Of A Lonely Heart” single.
Now I’ve gotta be brutally honest with you, I don’t care anymore if we go into the Hall of Fame. I’m just bewildered why Yes isn’t in the Hall of Fame. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame many times in Cleveland and walked through it. My daughter lives in Cleveland. I walk ‘round there and there are some bands and artists in there where I go, ‘Why are they here and a band like Yes isn’t?’
I ask myself that and it does for me question the validity of how people get in. Because of that I’m not particularly sure that it has the validity that maybe it claims to. For whatever reason prog-rock is and always was very badly represented in there, and when you consider, especially in the ‘70s, the role prog rock played in music and today with a lot of young bands, I find it bewildering.
After years of being passed over, Yes is finally being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. There was talk you might not attend, what is the latest?
Rick Wakeman: I am very pleased to announce that as the Hall of Fame have now agreed to present Chris Squire’s wife with a posthumous award acknowledging his massive contribution to Yes, I have agreed to attend the Induction ceremony in New York to both stand proudly with my fellow bandmates Jon and Trevor and also to watch Chris’s wife Scottie collect this well-deserved award on his behalf.
I also hope that this move to acknowledge members of bands who sadly did not live to receive their own honor, means they can get them posthumously in the future.
Looking back at your work in Yes, what album stands as the group’s milestone?
Rick Wakeman: There are three albums for me that really do that. With Fragile, we knew what we were doing but there was a lot of experimentation that went on and the end results far surpassed what we dreamed we could put together; tracks like “Heart of the Sunrise” and “Roundabout.” Those tracks turned out amazing. That album gave us a way of working and within Fragile we all suddenly became aware of what our jobs were within the band.
Putting the long track of “Close To The Edge” together and the semi long tracks like “And You And I”? was a giant leap for us. The sparkly sounds at the beginning of “Close to The Edge,” that’s all natural nature sounds, bells, winds, birds; we went out and recorded them and put them all together.
That took so long but the end result was quite unique. But I suppose the moment we really knew what we were doing in every respect would have to be the Going For The One album. I suppose more than anything else the track “Awaken” absolutely nailed it where we all knew exactly where we were going and what it was gonna be. When I’m asked by people, “If people want to know what prog rock was all about in the 70s, name a track” and I always say “Play ‘Awaken.’”