It’s not a secret: this man has a way with words just as fine as he does with music, and he can be easily carried away with both kinds of narrative. So one can easily imagine how difficult it can be – speaking to Rick Wakeman right before his concert, when there’s a lot of stories to spin and listen to and only so much time for it all. Actually, the rather abrupt end of our conversation came when the maestro was due to go on-stage yet was equally eager, having been asked to sign the “King Arthur” cover, to tell a tale behind its backside photo. He did – to the switched-off recorder, leaving it behind the current interview scope. Maybe, next time…
– Rick, given how many albums you’ve released, and I think I have about one hundred of these, do you have recollections of everything you’ve ever recorded?
Um… Yes, I do, actually. I couldn’t put them all in the right order, but certainly I do recall all of them – every single one that I did. To have a hundred of those, for you, I think you need to seek medical help, ’cause that’s certainly strange to have so many. (Laughs.)
– Well, I don’t have the “Aspirant” trilogy but I do like, say, “Vignettes”…
“Vignettes” is one that I do enjoy and “[Romance Of The] Victorian Age” was good fun to do, but the thing is, I don’t know what I’m going to write. I know that it sounds silly but if you’re sitting down to play and you start to write music, sometimes for whatever reason what comes out is suitable for a band or suitable for orchestra, and sometimes you just go, “This is a piano piece!” So I never try and adapt a piece of music to make it fit a band or fit an orchestra. If I think, “This is a piano piece,” then I will play it as a piano piece. And I think that’s important, and I’ve been very lucky with different record companies that they’ve understood when they called and ask, “What are you doing?” and I’d say, “Well, I’m in the middle of a piano album,” and they’d go, “Fine!” or if I’d say, “I’ve got a sort of a prog album or whatever it is.” So they’re all different, but one of the reasons they started to become a bit different was in the ’80s, when different countries asked for different things: for example, Japan still wanted very heavy synth albums so I produced some synth albums; a lot of Europe – Germany, Austria, Switzerland – suddenly wanted almost a meditation type of music, so I did the “Aspirant” series for them; and then, South America wanted big prog rock extravaganzas for the orchestra and choir.
– What about a minimal setting? Once I was thinking whether to buy “Rick Wakeman’s Greatest Hits” album, and I’m glad I did when I discovered it was an instrumental re-recording of those, including all of “The Journey,” with only keyboards, bass, guitar and drums on there. So do you find such a setting easier to work in or restrictive?
Oh, that’s a very good question… I don’t know. The thing that’s good for me about those pieces is that I can thank David Bowie very much, ’cause David told me many years ago to write everything on the piano. He said, “If you write it on the piano and it works as a piece of music, you can do anything with it.” He writes everything – I sometimes tell this story, and I might tell it tonight – on an old twelve-string guitar, a really horrible old twelve-string guitar, and he says, “If it sounds good on this, then I know it will sound good whatever I do, it can only get better and better and better.” And so everything that I’ve ever written, I’ve done on the piano, and the great thing about that is that you can’t get any more minimalistic than when you’re sitting at the piano.
– Would Bowie’s “Life On Mars” have worked so well without your part on it?
I’ll probably tell this story tonight now that you’ve reminded me. I was very lucky with that album [1971’s “Hunky Dory”]; I mean I’d worked with David on “Space Oddity” and I did “Memory Of A Free Festival” and “Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” with him, and then he called me ’round his house and said, “I want to play you some songs,” and he played me “Life On Mars” on this battered twelve-string – that phenomenal song – and my jaw dropped. He said, “On the album, I want it to come from the piano, not from the acoustic guitar. So I want you to make some notes, learn the song and then play it almost as a piano solo, and I would get the band and everybody to work around what you do,” which was wonderful. Some people have said, “You must’ve worked really hard to do that arrangement,” but it was actually very easy ’cause everybody had to work around me.
– And it was very recognizable just like your solos on the recent Billy Sherwood projects where one can easily pinpoint when it’s your piece. How did you achieve this instant recognizability?
I can thank… (Pauses for thought.) I’m trying to think of this producer’s name – he’s sadly no longer with us – the original producer of Joe Cocker; I forgot his name, which is just terrible. I did a session for him, and Tony Visconti was there and it was amazing really, because I was booked to do the session; I was only seventeen, eighteen, something like that, and it was a big soul band, it was for a chap called Jimmy [Thomas]… I suddenly started to forget names! Jimmy was the male singer of the Ike and Tina Turner’s band ’cause Ike never sang, and Jimmy did. Jimmy was doing a solo album, and I got a call to do it; it was a track called “The Running Kind,” that I’ll always remember, and Denny Cordell was the producer, that’s the name! It was a big brass section, very soulful, and I love soul music, but I don’t play like that! So I sat at the organ and played the only way I could, the only way I knew how to play, and Denny called me, “I want to see you, come in the control room.” I went in and said, ‘You’re going to give me a turning-off, aren’t you?” He asked, “How old are you?” I said, “Eighteen” or whatever. He said, “Why I’m going to give you a turning-off?” I said, “Because I didn’t play like Booker T or what you probably wanted me to play.” He said, “What you learned to play, lad?” And I said, “Well, I’m classically trained… I do do play in rock bands but not really, but I’d like to play more sessions so I learned to change.” He said, “No, no, no, no, no. Don’t change. You do what you do.” Why? “‘Cause it’s very unique. I’ll lay you odds in money that within two or three years everybody will try and copy what you do.” I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “Yes. Come and see me tomorrow morning in my office.” He had a record label called Regal Zonophone in London. And I said, “I can’t.” He asked, “Why not?” I said, “I’ve got a math exam, I’m still at school.” He said, “You’re at school?” “Yeah. And then I’m going to the Royal College of Music, I’ve got a scolarship there.” He said, “We need to have a big chat. Come and talk to me.” So I went off and spoke to him, and Tony Visconti was there, and that’s how I was introduced to Marc Bolan and to David Bowie. So it all started from playing the only way I knew and thinking I’ve got it all wrong, that’s how it started. And I suppose that was the luckiest thing that’s ever happened for me.
– Could you call that “a glimpse of heaven”?
Yes, it was to some extent, because nobody had ever said things like that to me before. And, of course, I was very fortunate to play on probably two of the most recognizable piano pieces – “Morning Has Broken” and “Life On Mars” – and to arrange both of those. Now, the interesting thing is, if it hadn’t been for Cat Stevens wanting to do “Morning Has Broken” and David writing “Life On Mars” then that would never happen and wouldn’t have helped people to recognize the way I play. So I have a great debt of gratitude to both David Bowie and to Yusuf Islam, or Cat Stevens, a great gratitude. And it was an amazing time! It was an amazing period of time.
– But you still don’t play clarinet you were supposed to master alongside piano for the college!
Do you know what? I don’t know where my clarinet is, but I’ve still got my little soprano saxophone, and I haven’t played a note on it for forty years. My one problem is, if I do something, I like to do it properly – I mean, I can play the clarinet, it’s not disastrous, but I’m not the standard that I would like to be. And it annoys me. And even though I’ve sung on a few records – I sang on “Rhapsodies,” I sang on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Prophet,” I did all of that – and the only reason it started was because we were stuck up in the mountains (laughs) in Switzerland, with a mobile studio, and nobody could get up there to us to do “Rhapsodies.” It was absolutely impossible, there were five feet of snow, so I ended up literally doing it all by myself. I mean I can play rhythm guitar and do bass parts – I never do it because the whole thing with music is to play with great musicians which lifts everything up. That’s why David Bowie was very clever, because on most of his albums, and every time he became what I call somebody different – might it be with Ziggy or whoever it was – he pulled in new musicians to work with ’cause he loves to work with different people.
– But when you do this format you have the unique possibility to tell stories. And by the way, once I talked to Jon Anderson and suggested he hook up with you because both of you are great storytellers, and that was what you did.
Yes, we did. We did three tours: one in America, two in England. [He’s a] great friend, Jon. But the funny thing about Jon is, he has a very addictive laugh, and one Jon starts to laugh he can’t stop. So what I used to try and do was to get him laugh, and we had such fun in those days, ’cause he said to me before the very first tour, “What should we talk about between our pieces?” And I said, “It doesn’t matter. You start talking and I will interrupt you.” He said, “Will it work?” And I said, “Trust me. I do this all the time on British TV.” So that’s what I did. And we had just great fun.
Photo: © Eugene Veinard exclusively for DME