Wakeman is one of the most creative and talented men in the modern music industry. Beside playing on several albums with Yes, Strawbs and several other artists, touring with a lot of those bands and releasing more than 90 solo albums, he has also found the time to write several books and contributing to the “Grumpy Old Men” comedy series on BBC and also running his own radio show on Planet Rock.
This article shows that he always may have enjoyed a good laugh. Have fun!
Art with a Capital F
RICK WAKEMAN on the aesthetic of bodily functions, as applied to rock concerts.
Dressing-room confidante: CHRIS SALEWICZ
Rick Wakeman returns from the Hammersmith Odeon backstage bar to his dressing-room: “`Ere. Fluff`s just told me this great joke. It`s alright.
“It`s clean,” he considerately points out to photographer Pennie Smith and Dee, the lady who designs the cloaks that hide the Wakeman paunch from his audience in those onstage moments. “There`s this randy eagle who fancies coming across a female eagle…”
He rambles to the end of the joke.
Then Brian Lane, his manager, walks in the door, which pleases Rick very much indeed, since he can start telling Fluff`s joke again to a new audience.
Brian Lane all the money is
With the Westminster Bank
he is merging
He says, “Nothing for you”
Like a typical Jew,
He`s as tight as an ant that`s
That`s a little extract from the concert`s programme, which Wakeman wrote in his spare moments.
Here`s another little extract:
“Martin Shields (Fartin` Martin), Brass and Vocals: It has been said that when Martin takes field he goes like the wind. It also smells like the wind. A former baseball player, he was forced to quit because his pitching was so bad, an attribute matched only by his singing. Martin gets scared before the big occasion, his wife tells us, as she has to wash his underpants after concerts.”
This is, in fact, a reference to a gig that the English Rock Ensemble aka ERE. (Couldn`t think what we were going to call the band and everyone`s going round saying “Ere? What we going to call ourselves.”) played in Seattle. During the first number Shields had a slight accident.
Ummm. Why did he… Urrrhhh… Do It, Rick?
“Well, when you`re playing high notes on the trumpet you tend to tense up, and he – how shall we put it? – overtensed.”
Now, gentle reader, there`s absolutely no reason to feel bashful when reading about that little incident. Why, Martin is such a friendly soul that he even doesn`t mind his boss telling it to all the audience after the first number of the set. Doesn`t even mind being made to bend over with a spotlight shining on his bum.
In addition to this, Wakeman, when onstage, is very keen on frequently suggesting that the audience visit the toilets.
Crumbs, Rick, why are you so obsessed with bodily waste matter?
“I don`t know, really. Perhaps because there`s so much shit in the rock`n`roll industry.”
It`s a man`s life in the English Rock Ensemble.
The last couple of years have not really been too good for Rick Wakeman.
The Heart Attack was not much fun. Unlike journalist James Cameron, Wakeman does not look back on his coronary thrombosis and view it as a fascinating experience. There will be no concept album based on it. No, Rick is able to say quite positively, “I don`t want to have another one”. There is apparently not much likelihood of this. “I was lucky. I was young. And as long as I look after myself I`ll be alright.”
(It puts him one up on Steve Emerson, though).
Then there was “Journey” and Rick`s rather dumbly believing that it was economically viable, after the album had already peaked, to tour the States with a full orchestra in tow.
And then, of course, there was “Arthur” on ice bringing the total loss up to somewhere around the quarter of a million mark. Wakeman would probably still do “Arthur” all over again. It would probably be necessary for him to find a new manager, though; Brian Lane candidly assesses it as having been “a total disaster”.
Apart from “Arthur” being a financial disaster, the Wakeman musical reputation was also severely damaged by the whole fiasco. Even though Wakeman defends the album artistically, and by pointing out that it had much higher sales than “Journey To The Centre Of The Earth” (“it was huge in Belgium”), the record remains a brainstorming, clumsily produced turkey. The frozen version was a little better, but not much. Ultimately not even pantomime skating horses could prevent “Arthur” from being a downright, boring drag.
A certain sense of guilt and dishonesty, then, runs through this writer`s spirit as he waits for Rick Wakeman to turn up in his dressing-room. The interview will, almost certainly, be thoroughly painless, but there is the possibility, going on past form, that the gig may deserve tearing to shreds.
Could I eat a man`s bag of crisps and then slag off his synthesizer playing? Of course I could.
This Wakeman character that`s put on display for the public is, it must be said, thoroughly bizarre. The boozing Man Of The People – though his guts may well be a miasma of Watney`s Special and “red `ot Ruby Murrays” (curries to you and me) slides his oversized lips round a can of Coke. (It had been whispered that strenuous attempts were being made to keep him off the more potent stuff until after the show) and discusses his persona as rock`n`roll oddity:
“I honestly… I don`t… It`s very difficult to explain, you sod!!!
“I think it`s a big disappointment for lots of people when they see someone onstage, or read what they say in interviews, or see them on the box or meet them and they`re different characters. I hope that I`m not any different when I`m working and when I`m not working. I don`t think I am. Just a stagestruck layabout, I suppose.”
Do you see yourself as part of modern showbiz, or as an important figure in contemporary music?
“It`s very difficult to answer without being egotistical. I`d like to think I was a part of showbusiness, but in the same breath I`d like to think that some of the music might stand up in twenty or thirty years` time. Or even later. I`d really like that.”
You`re concerned for your immortality, ehh?
“If there`s such things as dear little astral plains and ghosts that can have a look down on what`s happening, I`d love to look down in a hundred years` time and hear someone playing a piece of my music.
“It`s an egotistical view, but I think everyone`s got an ego.”
You`ve got to have an ego to be a rock`n`roll musician and go out there onstage surely?
The considered balanced front falls away. “Yeah,” cackles Wakeman, “I`ve got terrible stage ego. I love it. I hate to say it.”
It should go without saying that Rick Wakeman “never” suffers from stage fright.
I put it to him that without the humour that`s found in a Wakeman show – from the onstage clowning to the programmes themselves – much of his audience might well find his lengthy “pieces” a bit heavy going. With them the seriousness is deflated and the music becomes far more accesible.
He agrees: “We like to make them feel part of the concert because then we can feel part of them and really close that gap between the stage and the audience.
“That`s what I enjoy about it. Love it, in fact. Can`t help it.”
Very much in the Music Hall tradition…
“Oh yeah. I wouldn`t disagree with that one iota.
“The one thing that`s lacking in all the rock concerts or shows that I go to – unless they`re pure comedy bands – is that they`re all very serious. There`s easy bits to listen to, and some bits that you have to concentrate quite hard on, there`s often bits of music that are quite sad, but the one thing that`s always lacking is that people never laugh. And people wanna laugh.
“The point that really proves this is when you get the guy who`ll go up onstage and say what to me is a totally unfunny line – something amazingly unfunny – and the audience will howl with laughter. Because they want to. I`m sure you`ve seen it; you know, the guy says (John Denveresque accent): `Oh dear. My string`s broke`. And they`ll go `Aaaaaaarrrgggghhh Haaaaaaarrrrgggghhh.` Howl with laughter.
“And I`ll think `Bloody idiot`. I howl with laughter when I see that.
“So what you try to do is that you take the music very seriously and break it up with a couple of little musical bits which we hope the audience will find amusing. In “Anne Boleyn” we do a big piss-take of virtually every form of music going. From Classical to out and out rock`n`roll. And we tell a few funnies which we hope string the show together.
“Basically, I`m trying to put on the show that I would like to go and see.
“If I emerge as an absurd idiot – which most probably I am – then I`d like the audience to come and take the music seriously, but also see what this is all about. It`s all very genuine, so I just see it as I would like to see it if I was coming to see Rick Wakeman.”
Maybe the “Daily Express” in his briefcase is a clue. Maybe you should just glance at the titles of Rick Wakeman`s albums – excluding “Journey To The Centre Of The Earth,” of course – there`s more evidence of Englishness in the titles of “The Six Wives Of Henry Eight,” “Arthur” and the Stonehenge cover shot of “No Earthly Connection” than is osmosed by any other British rock musician to the right of the folk scene that I can think of. Excepting Ray Davies of course.
Consider the considerable number of Wakeman extracurricular activities – the upmarket hire-car firm, the flight case firm, the musical instrument company (How many companies do you have, Rick? “Cor. I`ve got a memory like a nun`s sexual diary. A complete blank.”) – and his overlordship of his band (“Billy Fuehrer they call me. It`s very sad.”) and the country house and even the Arthurian cloaks he sports onstage. I`m convinced that whether Wakeman admits it to himself or not he`s revelling in some curious character combination of overgrown schoolkid – the lavatory jokes etc – and feudal baron.
Is Rick Wakeman a nation of shop keepers? Or is he St George?
“It`s subconscious he tells me, with a nervous batting of the constant tic his right cheek suffers. “It`s not conscious because you can`t create things… I mean, you can create a situation like that if you want to. It`s just what I am. It`s why I think the music press either hate me or like me because you either have to take me as I am or forget it, because I can`t change.”
Neither, apparently, can his approach to his work: You never lie awake worrying that you`ve driven up a blind alley with the scale of the compositions you`re working with?
“You can always climb over the wall at the other end. A lot of people said that we`d hit a brick wall at the end of “Arthur” but we climbed over the wall. You don`t turn back or wait for The Relief Of Mafeking.”
Yes, that`s right. Rick Wakeman would not dream of getting down and getting funky and making a rock`n`roll album filled with three minute songs.
And why does he only get involved with “weighty concepts”?
Ummmm… I don`t know. I really don`t know. I just find them good to write for and good to write to. It`s like painting a picture.
“Without dropping myself in a lot of trouble there`s a lot of difference between painting a Van Gogh and painting by numbers.”
Yikes!!! Maybe you could cut your ear off onstage during the encore tonight.
The Man Behind The Music ignores the suggestion: “I`d rather spend a lot of time and do what I believe is a Van Gogh – Which is important to me – than get my Toyland Book For Beginners and do an album.”
The backdrop is suitably ambivalent: castle spires/organ pipes/clusters of swords. Very Charlton Heston. Very Camelot.
A very large part of the Wakeman appeal is certainly attributable to the soulwrenching need for a keyboards hero. A frisson of sheer delight runs through the audience during the first number – an “Arthur” number – the first time he plays two keyboards together. During those fractions of the set when he isn`t holding the reins on the sound with at least one set of keyboards Rick Wakeman dances a sort of constipated – sorry, all this scatological imagery is catching – Twist, accompanied with an insane grin.
He is also completely asexual.
His playing is very good. Wakeman`s favourite composers are Mozart for melodies, Rachmaninov for orchestrations, and Chopin for style. The last is very evident. He also rates the Vanilla Fudge highly, maybe that`s where he gained his sense of histrionics.
This is the first time I – and almost certainly most of the audience – have encountered Wakeman without orchestra. The English Rock Ensemble may cluster about The Star like a set of six portly plastic garden gnomes surrounding the Big Ears model, but they`re no slouches when it comes to the music. Not great musicians, perhaps, but quite able to hold down their instruments` roles as well as the roles that the orchestra had written for it and crawl about the stage with their boss making faces at, say, John Dunsterville during his acoustic guitar solo in “Catherine Howard.” Vocalist Ashley Holt also runs up and down the stage with arms stretched out aeroplane-like when Wakeman goes into a synthesizer solo in “Catherine Parr.”
This concert, though it may have the trappings of a mediaeval pageant, is definitely closer to Music Hall. There is, for example, “The Roadies Lament” – a reworded “Lumberjack Song” – that opens the second half of the show and there is the constant banter from Wakeman: “Sir Lance-A-LOT” (nudge nudge).
Material is played from all four Wakeman albums – five if you include a snatch of Liszt`s Hungarian Rhapsody Number 13 during the encore – and it`s really rather good if not exactly intellectually edifying. Whereas so much of the material featured at the “Arthur” show was weak and insubstantial, now it`s fiery and, yes, at times I can even see why so many of the audience find it raunchy. Not my sort of raunchiness. Indeed, on record not my sort of music whatsoever but as A Good Evening Out… Yes, it works.
To make it work in the way it does, it has been suggested that Wakeman merely picks up his ability and “plays down” to his audience?
“No way. You can`t play down. It`s impossible. Absolutely impossible.
“Rock audiences have a lot more intelligence than classical audiences. If you`re playing a piece of music from an album they`ve got, they`ll know the piece really well. You can`t possibly play down: The kids know exactly what they want to hear, how they want to hear it, and how they want it done!!
Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble leave the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon for the third and final time on this tour.
They probably have a rider in their contract which specifies that ERE`s dressing-room must contain a communal bath into which the seven leap after the gig ends to hold farting contests deep into the night.
Yes, finally! I think…..?
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper. Any errors in the text from the original magazine may not have been corrected for the sake of accuracy. If you have a music-related web-page where this fits – please make a link to the article. With credits to the original writer of the article from all of us music fans!
This number of New Musical Express also contains articles/interviews with these people: Buffy Sainte-Marie, Graham Parker, Louis Jordan, Jimi Hendrix, Horace Silver, Jimmy Castor, Nazareth, Bill Bruford.
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