Rick Wakeman, keyboard player, songwriter and Grumpy Old Man chats with Kevin Cooper about his love of old cassette tapes, supporting Manchester City, Nottingham’s one way system and ARW’s forthcoming tour.
Rick Wakeman is an English keyboard player, songwriter, television and radio presenter. He is also an author and actor. He is best known for being in the progressive rock band Yes across five tenures between 1971 and 2004 and for his solo albums released in the 1970s.
Wakeman intended to be a concert pianist but quit his studies at the Royal College of Music in 1969 to become a full-time session musician. His early sessions included playing on Space Oddity amongst others, for the late David Bowie. He became a member of Strawbs in 1970 before joining Yes a year later, becoming part of the band’s classic line-up and playing on some of their most successful and influential albums across two stints until 1980.
Beginning a solo career during this time, his most successful albums were his first three; The Six Wives Of Henry VIII (1973), Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1974), and The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table (1975). He formed his rock band, The English Rock Ensemble in 1974 which he continues to perform with.
Whilst busy finalising details for the forthcoming tour, he took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Rick how are you today?
Hi Kevin, I’m very well thanks. I’m still breathing which I think is a good thing especially when you get into your late sixties (laughter). At my time of life breathing is a bloody good way to start your day really (laughter).
I think that I have to agree with you on that. Anyway let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Hey listen, it’s not a problem. It’s my pleasure.
And just how is life treating Rick Wakeman at this moment in time?
I have to say that life at the moment is very good. I am one of those people who literally grabs whatever life throws at me. It doesn’t matter if I enjoy it or not I simply take it as it comes. I truly do like life. I like life, music, the entertainment industry; I like people so it is pretty good actually. I can’t complain at all really. This might sound a bit strange but I do actually enjoy waking up every day. And long may it continue. I don’t fancy the day when I don’t wake up (laughter).
My dad always used to tell me to buy the local paper and if I wasn’t listed in the obituaries then it must be a good day (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) yes, your dad summed it up perfectly; that is absolutely right (laughter).
I have to tell you that some years ago now you and I literally bumped into one another.
Really, where was that?
We were both late for our respective flights out of Birmingham airport and you literally knocked me off my feet (laughter).
I didn’t, did I? Oh bloody hell (laughter).
I was heading over to Dublin at the time.
I would have been flying back over to the Isle of Man at that time so it must have been at least eighteen years ago. Bloody hell, well, I do apologise and thanks for not suing me (laughter).
Eighteen years ago now, just where has the time gone?
When you stop and think about it like that you suddenly realise that life is terrifying.
Anyway I suppose that we really should speak about ARW (Anderson, Rabin and Wakeman). You will be touring the UK in 2017 and I have to ask you, after twenty-five years why now?
After the last Yes reunion tour Trevor (Rabin) and I have always said that we would both love to work together again with Jon (Anderson). However, over the years various things have happened which have been mainly management driven. Yes took some bad management decisions but I have to say that is the nature of the game. Then if we jump forward to the time when Jon and I left the band in 2005 we went out and played a few duo tours. All of the time that we were doing that we were constantly thinking ‘what’s next, what’s next, what’s next’ and everyone concerned all agreed on the fact that we wanted a band playing Yes music and it had to have Trevor in there. Since then, I spoke to Trevor and he is so up for it.
The difficulty was of course was that Trevor was working flat out writing and producing film score after film score, very successfully I must add. I was busy doing my solo stuff; Jon was also busy doing his solo stuff so it was a case of ‘yes let’s do this but when’ (laughter). Around three years ago Trevor came over to England for a meeting and we had a coffee and a chat and it was at that point that we agreed to do this thing. The problem was that none of us could simply take a two week break from what we were doing in order to slot this in, so we agreed that we would clear some time from our respective schedules. The problem is that we never really got around to it and then Chris (Squire) died. It was at that point that reality suddenly set in and we all realised that there is no such thing as immortality.
We all immediately contacted each other saying that if we didn’t do this thing now then we never would. We all agreed that we wanted to do this very, very much and so we agreed to look into some dates when we would all clear the decks and agree not to do anything on those dates other than ARW stuff. We agreed to completely clear July and August of this year so that we could have some fun with ARW and that is exactly what has happened.
I understand that you are currently working on a new album?
(Laughter) well, we are, sort of, yes (laughter). There has been music flying backwards and forwards but Trevor actually said to both me and Jon “hold on a minute guys, this is not a bank raid, it is a long term deal. We are not doing this for the money because if we were then we would be better off staying as individuals. This is a long term thing which has to be looked at in a different way”. Both Trevor and I can earn far more doing our own thing than we can working as a group and so can Jon. So what we decided to do was to go out on the road and play whilst all the time learning more about each other as individuals.
We continued the writing whilst we were away from home, working together out on the road living in each other’s pockets. We took the decision that maybe next year after the European dates that we would then be ready to make a really hot, really tremendous album. We don’t want to make an album of good songs and good material. We all agreed that we wanted to make it something really special. So yes, we have got some good material, really good material which admittedly wants a lot of work and some things doing on it and that will be done, but we are not in any mad rush to get it done. We want to do this for all of the right reasons, so yes, there will be an album but I imagine that we are looking at a release date of autumn 2017.
You will be playing here in Nottingham on the 21st March at The Royal Concert Hall. What can we expect?
(Laughter) I think that you can expect a few surprises. It will be all of the Yes elements of the Yes classics that I would expect that the people in the audience would want us to play, but there are going to be a few surprises in just how we are going to approach some of them. What I can tell you is that the band is astonishing. We have got Lee Pomeroy on bass who has previously worked with It Bites, Take That and some bloke called Rick Wakeman (laughter). We also have Louis Molino III on drums who has worked with the likes of The Tubes, Trevor Rabin, David Cassidy, Kim Mitchell, Julian Lennon, Kenny Loggins and Cock Robin. I have to say that they are both jaw dropping in how they play.
In fact, I can say with my hand on my heart that this current line-up of musicians is the best line-up that I have ever been part of playing Yes music. They are absolutely astonishing so when you have musicianship such as this in a band it can only lead to great things on stage, so without a shadow of a doubt it is going to be good (laughter).
You have previously played here in Nottingham, just what do you think to the city?
To be honest I know Nottingham incredibly well because my wife and my in-laws lived there for many years. In fact my wife was born in Mansfield so I know the area really well. So playing Nottingham is quite special for me and also for my wife.
Apart from the one way system (laughter).
(Hysterical laughter) I find the one way system in Nottingham hilarious (laughter). I have recently been back up to Nottingham because my wife and I took my in-laws on a nostalgic trip around the city to the places that they used to live. They are descendants from the family that started Nottingham lace many years ago. So we all went on a trip down memory lane once I had made sure that my satellite navigation system was bang up to date (laughter). Only god knows what happens when you drive in and around Nottingham. Whenever I drive to the Nottingham Playhouse I can see it sometimes but I can never actually get there and then you suddenly find yourself outside The City Ground (laughter). I just sit there quietly and think to myself “just what the bloody hell am I doing here” (laughter).
The last time that I saw you perform at The Royal Concert Hall was on Friday 2nd March 2014 when you toured the UK with Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. I have to ask you just how good are the acoustics in there?
The first thing that I would have to say is that the acoustics in the Concert Hall are very, very good. However, it is far different in there when you play a rock gig to what it is when you play a classical concert. I have personally been to many concerts there at The Concert Hall and it is good; I find the acoustics in there to be very good. Having said all of that it does help when you have got a good team working the sound system. But in general I have always enjoyed playing there, very much.
Does touring still excite you?
Yes it does, but the moment that I no longer get that buzz then I will stop. If I’m not enjoying it then how the hell can I expect other people to. I will continue until I no longer enjoy it and I can tell you now, that day will never come. In fact I have got written in my will that on any tombstone or plaque dedicated to me it has to simply read “it’s not fair, I haven’t finished yet”. And that is actually what is written in my will.
I recently interviewed Dave Oberlé from Gryphon and I have to say that he remembers you very fondly. He actually said that, in his opinion, Gryphon would not have been as successful as they were without your help.
Dave is a lovely man and that is very sweet of him to say that. I absolutely love the band and it was a pleasure to have them play on my show which I put on way back in 1974 at Crystal Palace. I persuaded my manager Brian Lane to take them on and Brian managed to get them a good deal with Atlantic Records. I really do love the band with Dave and Richard (Harvey) and it is great to see them back together playing again. I thought that they were tremendous and I still do.
I asked Dave what the highlight of his career had been and he said that it had to be Gryphon supporting Yes at Madison Square Garden on 20th November 1974 on Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans tour.
That’s right, that was a great tour. In a strange way even though they were almost a medieval rock band in their own way using the instruments that they used, they were in many respects ahead of their time. I think at the time that the American audiences just didn’t get it. They didn’t quite understand just how clever this band was. I think that they appeared almost too soon if you know what I mean. I personally think that they would stand a great chance now.
They are hoping to increase their fan base and get back to where they were a few years ago now.
Many moons ago I think that they got as far as they could because in a strange way I don’t think that music was ready for them. I loved them to bits and still do.
It has to make you feel good when you see that there has recently been a massive resurgence in interest in Progressive Rock, especially form the youngsters.
It is totally unbelievable. It really is astonishing. When I did the Journey To The Centre Of The Earth Tour we had people outside of the venues looking at the audiences and the demographics which came back were amazing. At some places as high as thirty percent of the audience were people of twenty years of age and younger. It was actually quite interesting to see and I was taught a very interesting lesson by a sixteen year old Argentinian lad when I came out of my hotel one day. He approached me outside of the hotel holding a copy of my The Six Wives of Henry VIII album. I asked him how old he was and he told me that he was sixteen; he spoke good English and so I asked him what he liked about the old music.
At that point he got really irate. He said “Mr Wakeman, this may be old music to you but it is new to me. I only heard it for the first time last week”. He said never forget that there will be people in your audience that will be hearing it for the first time and so for them it’s new. He went off down the road and I have to say that I was shell-shocked. I turned and went back into the hotel and my drummer Tony Fernandez was sitting at the bar and he said “you looked shocked” and I said “I am, I have just been taught a massive lesson by a sixteen year old kid”. And to this day I have never forgotten it. If you hear Ludwig Van Beethoven’s 5th Symphony in C Minor for the first time it’s new. And so from that day on before I walk out onto the stage, wherever it is, the last thought that comes into my mind is there are people out there hearing this for the first time, it’s new.
I wish that I had taken the lads name because he was amazing really, so it really doesn’t surprise me that there is a resurgence in interest in Progressive Rock, because people are always discovering new music. It’s a good healthy thing I think. The best part about all of this is that there is no longer any stigma attached to the fact that you like Progressive Rock, not like there was back in the good old days (laughter).
Is all of this new interest in Progressive Rock perhaps leaving the door open slightly for the resurgence of the concept album?
I take on board what you are saying but in my own personal view the concept album has never really gone away has it (laughter). I don’t think that anything is taboo anymore. I have come to the conclusion that if it is good and it works then it will do okay. If you stop and take a look into people’s music collections these days they all have such eclectic tastes in music. It is incredible. Isn’t it fascinating to know that because of the demand for albums to be released on vinyl there is now an eight month waiting list in order for you to get you work pressed onto vinyl. A high ranking director at Universal Music told me that there needs to be another twenty or thirty pressing plants at least.
What shocked me, in fact I almost fell over, is that there is a massive demand for cassettes amongst the younger generation of music buyers which is growing out of all proportion. When you think about that you have to remember that almost sixty percent of the cars still on the road today, still have a cassette player in them. I’ve got a few old cars which I love and I recently showed my eleven year old granddaughter a cassette player in my car. She looked at me and asked “what’s that granddad” (laughter). I took her home to her parents in an old convertible Jaguar and I played a cassette tape as I drove and she said “wow, when did this come out, it’s fantastic” (laughter).
When we arrived she ran off into the house shouting at the top of her voice “dad you should see this, it’s fantastic. You have to get one“ (laughter). We are talking about something that is around forty years old now. But I have to say that the quality is still great.
You feel quite strongly about how the music industry introduced the compact disc don’t you?
Too bloody right I do. This is where I get on my high horse about this because, in my opinion, the music industry made massive mistakes and the biggest mistake they made is that they used the word replacement instead of addition. So instead of saying that the CD had come out which was another way of getting your music, they said that the CD was going to replace the vinyl album. As a result we have now lost all of our record shops; record sales are next to nothing, they have just got it all so very wrong. What’s interesting is that music belongs to the people and it is the young people who are now discovering things that the industry took away, which they had no right to take away and it is good to see that they are now demanding them back.
And that really is fantastic because the word ‘choice’ is coming back. I won’t be happy until record shops have opened up again. I have a firm belief that it can return to how it used to be and if I can play any part in getting that done then believe me, I will.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
That’s easy, today. I know that it sounds daft but for me every day is a serious high because it is another great thing that happens. However, if you are talking about events then I could tell you about loads and loads of them. Doing the original Journey To The Centre Of The Earth concert or the original Six Wives Of Henry VIII concert at Hampton Court were both highlights for me. I could also mention Yes playing five sell-out nights in a row at Madison Square Garden or me being the first Western artist to take a band down and play in Cuba. I could simply go on and on and on (laughter). My life is just littered, it’s wonderful.
Who has inspired you musically?
That’s easy, David Bowie, Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev and my dad.
What was the first record that you ever bought?
That was Have A Drink On Me by the late Lonnie Donegan (laughter). An old 45 on the PYE label.
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
The first proper concert that I went to was when I was sixteen years old and I went to see The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in London. You had to be eighteen years old on order to get into the concert and so I borrowed a student union card off a mate of mine. I just thought that they were tremendous.
Do you have any ambitions let to achieve?
Yes I do, literally hundreds (laughter). In fact I have got a list of musical things that I want to do. I am in the middle of writing a ballet, and I am currently writing a serious opera together with a musical. There are also two more concept albums that I want to record, so as you can see the list is just enormous. So it is just a matter of keeping at it. So I will keep working my way down the list until I am no longer capable.
At what stage in your career did you feel the most musically satisfied?
With everything that I do I always try to do my best and there is always a certain amount of satisfaction that comes out of them. You do get certain moments where you feel really satisfied. I can remember the time when I put Journey To The Centre Of The Earth back together to how it really should have been and when I toured with it and it felt just right so that gave me an enormous feeling of satisfaction. It is always nice when you get the feeling that you are finally getting something right.
What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?
That would have been a piece of music that I wrote myself called Gone But Not Forgotten. My mum died at midnight back in 1997 and when I got home I played that piece of music. I thought that I had played it twice but in fact I had played it for around four hours. I was just playing it whilst having pictures in my head of my mum.
Did you enjoy being a Grumpy Old Man?
(Laughter) very much so and I still am (laughter). I really did enjoy that a lot. For my sins I was the only person that was on the show in every single episode.
In 2014 you were made King Rat of the show business charity The Grand Order Of Water Rats. That must have felt very special?
Yes it did. It is a great honour to be voted King Rat by your peers. I did two years as King Rat and when you consider that there have only been eight hundred and ninety Water Rats in a hundred and twenty-seven years, there has been less than a hundred and twenty-seven Kings because occasionally a King does it twice just like I did. You are immortalised on the great board at The Grand Order Of Water Rats in Gray’s Inn Road, London. That was a serious honour.
You are a huge Manchester City fan, so what do you expect from them this season?
I think that Pep (Guardiola) has certainly stamped his mark on the club and has made some incredibly brave decisions (laughter). For example, sending Joe Hart off to Torino is a very brave decision to have made. However, the club has had so much success since it was taken over and moved to the new stadium the big question is how you keep improving on that. I suppose that you have got to start thinking about the Champions League. Last year my personal view is that we got to the semi-final and it was as though the club had gone as far as everyone had expected them to go and it struggled to take that next step.
I think that Pep will try to install into the players the mentality that not only are they expected to get to the final, but they are also expected to win it. He certainly has that winning temperament about him. I do hope that the supporters are patient with him.
At least you are in the Premiership. Spare me a thought as a long suffering Nottingham Forest supporter.
I have to say that Nottingham Forest are a total enigma similar to Brentford who I was a director of for many years (laughter). We came up to the City Ground and beat you and all of the Forest supporters are shouting “how did that happen” (laughter). You look at Forest and you just think to yourself ‘how on earth are they where they are?’ You see teams in the Championship who struggle to get attendances of eight thousand and then you have Forest whose income has got to be three times that of some of the smaller clubs, then why. You have to say the same about Derby County too. I listen to Talk Sport a lot and I do get a bit sick to death of hearing Forest supporters going on about the fact that you won the European Cup.
I get so angry that it’s almost a case of, ‘hello I’m awfully sorry but times have changed and the game has moved on’. Remember you are only as good as your last season. No club has a divine right at all to be in the Premiership, none at all.
On that note Rick let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been a pleasure and I hope to see you here in Nottingham next year.
Thanks Kevin, you take care and please do come and say hello when we get to Nottingham. Bye for now.