Musical history cannot deny that even the plainest faces come alive with promise at the very mention of “Yes”, “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and glittering keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman. Best recognized for being part of the legendary prog rock fraction “Yes,” who were inducted into the a Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, and for the solo albums he released in the 70’s.
Fashioned in a sparkling golden cape, Wakeman parades a flamboyant extravaganza while delivering staggering solos to his audience. He has also gained recognition for his studio work with the likes of Bowie, Black Sabbath, and Cat Stevens. He is also an author, TV presenter, and some say master of comedy. His solo albums, “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” and “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” left their mark while preheating the planet with a musical sophisticated anarchy.
Rick Wakeman will be making a highly anticipated appearance in the SohoJohnny “Let Me Help, Inc” / #IAMNOJOKE Virtual Celebrity Benefit Concert taking place on https://www.iconcert.tv from 7 PM ET – 1 AM ET on Tuesday, November 24th, 2020.
Louder Than War: If you had the technology that we have now back then when you recorded songs like “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” would you have changed anything?
I think things would have changed because you used the technology of the time. I mean you look back to the 70’s albums, the music probably would still be the same but I’m old school. If new technology comes along, I don’t use it unless I think it’s going to be helpful. So, in other words I’ll let the music decide whether it needs new technology or not, rather than “Oh here’s some new technology so I must use it.
You have a cool and crazy reputation, have you had your ultimate stage fantasy yet?
Well not with people watching…..do you know what? This is going to sound corny but every time we go on stage it’s a fantasy. There is something very special about it and you have to really love every second of it. I’ve been really lucky because I played in some amazing huge places and I’ve also played in very tiny places to little or no people, and we still do the same show. I did a show in Australia at a 1500 seater to three people, which was quite funny. There are clubs that they have up in Australia in the middle of nowhere which people from surrounding villages and towns go to for entertainment. They have big venues for shows, all kinds rock shows, cabaret shows and people go for entertainment. It was 1985 and I arrived at this particular one which was about 200 miles north of Sidney somewhere. There was nothing there but rocks and land and the club. I walked in there and the manager said hello and asked me what I was doing there. I explained to him that we had a show tonight and he claimed it was the week after. He pointed at a poster which said it was next week. I took the contract out of my bag and saw that the show was for today. And he said, “well so it is.” I asked him what we could do about it and he reminded me that we were in the middle of nowhere. He said no one from the town will ever get there in time. He asked if I could do it next week and I said no. He said if I played tonight that I get paid. So, I thought to myself the worst scenario is that I would treated like an extra rehearsal. I asked him if he could get anybody there and he told me he would see if any of the staff would want to see it. Then I asked him how many staff he had, and he had answered, three. We did the show and for the first half here were three people there in a venue with 1500 seats. I actually thought we played very well but for the second half of the show two of them had gone home. So, we just played for the one guy and it was really funny because when we were finished I asked him over the mic if he wanted an encore. And he said “no not really.” Every day is an adventure, you know it’s really good.
I love adventures. Can you recall a moment in time they changed the whole trajectory of your life?
Yes, there’s a few. When I was 12 years old which was in 1961 all around the west London area where I lived loads of bands were forming. Everybody was in a band. As long as somebody had a guitar and somebody could sing you had a band. There was a guy close to us where I lived called Ken and he had a drum kit. It was the cheapest drum kit you could buy from Woolworths. It cost 30 pounds. It was so thin that when he hit the bass drum it actually changed from being round to oval. It was that bad. He had another problem he couldn’t keep time. But he had a drum kit and he had a van which made him the bandleader. He had a friend that had a bass and we had a very good guitarist named Alan Leander. I got roped into playing the piano at 12 years old, and it was fantastic. We played like everybody else did in church halls, in civil defense halls anywhere you could play. When I look back, we were dreadful. It really was bad! The band was called the Atlantic Blues. At age 12 when somebody asked what I did I could say I was in a band so that was pretty good. From there I joined a couple of other bands. My dad really encouraged me to play. He was a great piano player, my dad. He said “play as many different kinds of music as you like and plays many kinds of music that you don’t like.” He said “then you will learn why other people might like it.” I played in dance bands, jazz bands, I played for weddings, funerals, and strip clubs….I played quite a lot of wrong notes in the strip clubs…. I even played country and western on the old Jim Reeves Show. I’m really not keen on country and western but my mom used to love it. The only way I let her play it was if she played the record backwards and the dog came back to life. It was great though and my life was just music from that moment of the first Atlantic Blues Concert that we did. People were very happy just to see a band on stage even though we weren’t very good. So that was a pivotal moment where I knew where my destiny was. Then of course I ended up doing some sessions for some good people and learning that way after I left the Royal College of Music (which was a great place to be). I never did anything else. My whole life just revolves around music. I woke up in the morning thinking music and I went to bed thinking of music. When I was asleep, I was thinking of music. I don’t know what the hell I would’ve done if I hadn’t done music.
You’ve played sessions with some of the most iconic legends on the planet. Is there anyone whom you haven’t played with that you still want to?
If I sat down long enough, I could come up with a list of people. Certainly, I would’ve love to do something with The Who. I just loved them from day one. I would have loved to do something with Amy Winehouse. I think that was a total tragedy. Her voice was maturing all the time. A classic example of being around the wrong people. Those being around her were not strong enough to make sure that she didn’t waste her life. I’d like to play piano on a track with Adele would you believe? I’d love to do that.
Yeah, I’d love to do that. I’d also like to do something, maybe just one track with Ed Sheeran. I know Ed, we don’t live that far apart. I guess anybody who is quirky and instantly recognizable and different and he certainly was that. Old school I would’ve loved to play a track for McCartney I suppose. That would’ve been really, really nice. But I’ve been so lucky with the people that I’ve had a chance to play with. I played on about 2000 records over the years. When I look back some people would give their right arm’s to play with just one of them. There have been some classics who I really enjoyed playing like David Bowie. We were friends for a long time, and he was the most influential person I ever worked with. I loved him. He was a total doer. He hated people that he called could have…. If anybody would’ve said to him “oh I could have done that“ he would get quiet and answer “why didn’t you then?“ If he wanted to know what it was like to walk down 5th Avenue wearing a miniskirt and high heels he would do it. Instead of wondering what it was like he would find out what it was like. We were both neighbors in Switzerland for a few years, we lived up the same mountain, but then everyone in Switzerland lives up a mountain. We used to go to a little club called The Museum Club. We were talking one day, and he was wondering about communism, so he went to live in East Berlin for a period of time. I learn more from David and his producers about how to work in the studio and how to work with musicians and how to treat people than anyone, and I am eternally grateful.
That a really cool tribute. So now back to your reputation that precedes you, what’s the most trouble you’ve ever gotten into?
We need to set up a book for this. I’ve gotten into all sorts of trouble. I’m just trying to think of something that’s actually printable. I’ve got into some real scrapes over the years. Everything from having a kid out of wedlock when you’re still married, that was a tricky one. It all worked out really, really well and everybody gets on great. It wasn’t the first thing it won’t be the last either. I was arrested in Russia before communism collapsed. I got arrested in Moscow for stealing a KGB uniform. I was in real trouble for that. Then, I was arrested on another occasion for having something I shouldn’t have had, and then again for illegally buying an admiral of the fleet’s uniform out of Russia. I love going to the Eastern Bloc because all of my favorite composers like Stravinsky are there. Before communism collapsed, their rules were incredibly strict. I always got let go again because I was there working for nothing and doing stuff for music. It wasn’t an invited guest kind of thing. They did make my life a little bit tricky at times. I tell that story on stage I wrote that is one of my anecdotes in one of my Grumpy books. I have a book called “Grumpy Old Rockstar” and one called “Say Yes.” I met the guy who arrested me years later.
It was very funny. The way I got out was the one thing they couldn’t get was records. I promised this guy loads of LPs. I told him I would get them for him guaranteed. I had to send them to the East Berlin airport. That was the first thing I did when I got back to England. I made sure he got them. A few years later the Berlin Wall came down and communist collapsed and I was at Heathrow Airport. They were hundreds of people around and I saw this guy and I thought “I know you.” He looked at me and I could see the way he was looking at me that he knew me. I recognized him, his name was Igor. I said hello. He said “Interesting, things have changed.” I asked him what he was doing, and he was said he was now an officer for the airlines. Then he asked, “ Do you still have that KGB uniform?” I said “yeah I do.” He said “since everything is changed and the wall has come down they are 10 a penny now.” I asked him if he had all the records I sent, and he told me yes and then I said to him “well their 10 a penny now too.”
Love that! A lot of musicians say that this surreal time has a great been very creative for them, what’s your point of view?
I’ve done a lot. We were in the middle of moving when all of this happened. It has been a creative period. I’ve been very lucky because my window looks out over the river and my piano is in the window. I’ve been working the last year and a half on a musical. It’s almost like you feel guilty, “why should I be allowed to enjoy myself and do things.” I think it’s going to be very interesting to see later next year the fruits of what’s been created during 2020. I’ve been putting together a short musical play and dance in conjunction with a friend of mine from the Royal Ballet for schools of all ages. That’s been great fun to do. That’s something I’ve had on the back burner that I’ve wanted to do for years, and now I can work on that. It’s been great to do that. There are no concerts, no tours and I also do a lot of television around here.
You could have me ask you any question in the planet, what would it be?
Do I ever see myself running out of things to do? The answer is probably no because I’ve got a huge list that I’m asked all the time about including projects, music, books, and all sorts of things to do including comedy scripts. My eldest boy Oliver is 49 now and he actually saw the list and he asked me if that’s all the things I want to do. And I told him yes. He said I would have to live till I’m 130 to do all of that. I agreed with him but then I added something to my will which was that if I have a tombstone I want written on it my name obviously, the year I was born and the year I died, and then underneath, “it’s not fair, I haven’t finished yet.”
In 50 years if you finally do die what do you want your legacy to be?
My dad who I loved so much sadly died 40 some odd years ago… He was a wonderful man and very wise and a kindly man. Right from a very early age he sat me down and said “whatever you end up doing, whatever you are in your life just try and do one thing. Try and leave the world a little better place than when you joined it.” He said “because if everybody did that just how wonderful the world would be.” I never forgot that. The one thing I would like to think is that my children and grandchildren, (I’ve got 12 grandchildren), …. I’d like them to think that perhaps musically I’ve left a few things that help makes things a little bit of a better place, and also the stupid things that I did I hope puts a smile on their face.
I want to thank you for getting involved with the “Let Me a Help INC and the #IAMNOJOKE benefit concert that set\ to take place November 24th from 7 PM to 1 AM Eastern standard time.
Oh no problem at all. This is such a great thing to do. We did a track from a live recording that I did in a cathedral in England. I hope it goes really well for the foundation.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.