I find these interviews with Mr. Wakeman really enjoyable. I think you will too if you give them a chance and are at least a little bit interested in 70s rock.
Have you heard the one about the tall, blonde geezer in the silver cape?
Rick Wakeman shows Phil Sutcliffe how to make doughnuts.
LADEEZ AND gennelmen! May I introduce to you the one and only, the fabulous, the outrageous, alarming, courageous, charming Mr Rick Wakeman (available for extravaganzas, limousines for hire, knock you up a packing case at the drop of a hat, masonics and barmitzvahs on ice).
To quote Basil Brush and Jimmy Dean your favourite keyboard maestro is a ‘BIG, BIG MAN’. Or if you prefer a more classy source, Christopher Marlowe (who had that chart-topper ‘Dr Faustus’ circa 1593), Wakeman is an Overreacher, a man who having conceived a grand project will commit body and soul to making it reality even if it’s essentially impossible.
Which sounds more alarming than charming because it only takes into account the performing face of Wakeman.
Sure he’s the blonde wizard in the silver cape casting spells of astonishing music from his Dalek army of electronic keyboards and carrying that extravagance to absurdity he’s the great, goldskinned god Thor in `Lisz-tomania’ (getting panned by critics, selling albums by the million).
But his fans know the truth that he glitters like a pearly king in a friendly, Cockney way.
The god-wizard is also the mud-clad footballer slogging through the sleet, looking silly and distinctly inelegant in the cause of fun and charity, and most of all he’s the guy in jeans sat behind a pint and a double port at his local, The Saracens, in High Wycombe, enthusiastically discussing any subject you care to mention.
He’s the musical heavyweight who grew up on Kenny Ball and Lonnie Donnegan and now likes Mud for their character, humour and taking care with their music (though he dismisses most teeny pop as ‘pram rock’).
Rick Wakeman is game. He`s Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear both. He’s the kind of character who makes it feel good to be alive and sod the expense.
The urgent business before we could get the probing questions under way was the 2.30 at Towcester. Rick had got a horse and he felt Mike Ledgerwood from A&M should not miss this golden opportunity to invest in what could only be described as a racing certainty — and at 25-1.
Did I detect a shade of doubt and resignation in Ledgerwood`s agreement to match the ardent tipster’s bet? Persuasive he was though and I’m only glad I’d lost my shirt the previous week for Rick’s latter-day Arkle, a nag called Cavaltino, trundled in fifth.
“Well, about 50 per cent of my tips do come off,” said Wakeman. Ah, yes.
Rick is also a great “Have you heard the one about…” man and our progress to the portentious was further impeded when he burst forth ever so refined with a “Hello, I`m Johnnie Craddock and I`m going to show you how to make doughnuts just like Fanny’s.”
And then there was the one about the sheep but he said “No, that takes too long. I’ll tell you after we’ve done the serious bit.”
Oh, now what was that question custom-built to bare the Wakeman soul? “Er, what are you doing next?”
“Now you have to promise to keep it under your hat . . .” Of course, would I? “Well, in fact I’m doing a musical version of The Complete Works Of Shakespeare. It will be a 146-album set and it’s scheduled for release in March, 2003, that is. We hope to put it out for the price of a single album.
“Anyway that’s the sort of story that was going round on our tour of the States in the autumn. That could be because I told it to one really nasty American journalist and he swallowed it.
So I kept on getting asked about it and I’d say ‘Oh yes, I wrote it all last night. It’s a hundred hours long’. ‘Gee, have you written it all down?’ ‘No, it’s all in my head’.”
And rock musicians blame journalists for rumour-mongering! It’s no wonder the word is out now that Wakeman is filling in his spare time by writing `The Bible: The Authorised Rock Opera’ and following his meeting in Brazil with Ronnie Biggs, an orchestral interpretation of ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (okay, I admit / started that one).
Rick is quite unrepentant about his addiction to the grand (grandiose?): “I can’t help it. I don’t like my ideas watered down. Like in a journalist’s terms if they tell you to write 500 words and then cut it down to 200 you’re not happy and the person you write about isn’t happy.”
Which doesn’t mean you have to be inflexible. Until the 11th hour of preparations for ‘The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur’ it was set for Tintagel Castle, the fabled HQ of the Round Table.
Wakeman visited A&M’s offices the day before flying out for Japanese tour and talked with Ledgerwood about this, that and nothing in particular and then as he was halfway out the door Mike chanced to ask how things were progressing at Tintagel. Rick said: “Oh we had to drop that idea. We’re doing it at the Empire Pool on ice. Ta-ta.”
Which may have provoked the greatest avalanche of dropped jaws in the history of rock music.
It also suggests why he found a soul brother working with Ken Russell on `Lisztomania’: “Everyone says he’s outrageous.” (Alarming? Courageous? Charming?) “Maybe that means I’m the same. Off my head. Perhaps we’ll share a cell one day in the loony bin.
“In that case when Tintagel fell through Wembley was the only other possibility. They said the ice would still be there from some show so I thought it would be a pity to waste it.
“What I like about Ken is when he gets an idea he doesn`t just talk about it, he does it. The minute you discuss an idea it’s going to change.
“With my projects I see the whole concept at once, not only the shape of the music, but the way it should be presented and played throughout its life-span.”
As with Russell, extravagant creations have led to extravagant criticisms. The only time it disturbed Rick’s bonhomie was when a writer implied he was some kind of con-man laughing up his sleeve at the poor punters who thought his overblown efforts were magnifident.
A year on Wakeman still bridles at the slur and promises to throttle the guy if and when they meet – though I suspect the confrontation would end with Rick buying the misguided fellow a drink.
On the general run of scribblers he’s far more mellow: “Criticism is nearly always helpful in letting you know what a show looks like from the front.
“And I do leave myself open to self-opinionated people who want a vehicle for their style of writing which is generally sarcastic.
“It’s like walking in front of the firing squad. I love that. That’s what it`s all about.
“The funny thing is that at the moment I think I’m heading for where the critics have always wanted me to be. I’ve just gone by my own route.
“After I left Yes I worked with an orchestra because it had worked well on ‘Henry The Eighth’ and my band wasn’t ready to do the whole thing itself at that stage. After the Wembley ‘King Arthur’ concerts I knew exactly what our faults were as a live band.
“You have to learn by the things that go wrong and learn openly. I hate to read of guys going off the road to ‘get themselves together’. You should be getting yourself together in the public eye.
“I agree with what the critics said . . . except about ‘Journey’ and ‘King Arthur’ . . .”
Then he realised what he’d said, that he agreed with his detractors about everything except everything, and laughed at himself because the conflict is insoluble and absurd and evermore shall be. Musicians like Wakeman put maybe a year of their lives into creating what they trust is a beautiful/boogieful album and writers like me put maybe an evening of their lives into deciding it’s rotten and saying so in the most readably pungent way. That’s entertainment/democracy/civilisation I guess.
Or as Rick put it: “I wouldn’t put out anything I didn’t like. It’s my life.”
The smaller Rock Ensemble line-up seems likely to please almost everyone, even the faithful millions who took his last two epics to the top of the charts in the UK and the States.
“It’s taken me a year and half to get this band together and now it’s beautiful. It’s exactly what I wanted, though there again it’s a matter of the other man’s poison.
“Even though I’ve been doing all those grand things I get terribly embarrassed. I could do things that sounded clever but I would leave them out even though they were right musically because people might say I was just showing off.
“I was notorious with the band for giving them stinking hard pieces to play but I realised I wasn’t taxing myself as a keyboards player. Now I’m giving myself a tough time and it’s so much more satisfying.”
Apart from the bemused interviewers the States audience seems to have given Rick and the Ensemble a reception that was ‘a thousand per cent’ better than their grim trip with the elephantine ‘Journey’ show in ’74. They average 6-7,000 a night which is I good going these days.
Rick observed: “The kids won’t go to the big stadiums over there any more. They would rather have two nights in a smaller hall where everybody can see and hear properly and that’s a trend I approve of.”
Such restraint is hardly the trend in Brazil which turned out to be one of the most surprising and delightful events of Rick’s life. The Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, who joined the Ensemble for their short tour, had just done a free park gig to an estimated audience of 380,000!
Wakeman played little ole basketball stadiums which sold out twice nightly at 25,000 a time but, being more used to appreciation than adulation even from his most fanatical Anglo-Saxon followers, he could hardly credit the response.
“For some reason we are the biggest international act in Brazil. Apart from our normal age-group of fans there would be 4-5,000 kids waiting at the airports as if we were the Beatles.”
They were so successful that the grateful promoter offered Rick, his wife and two children a month’s free holiday in Brazil any time he would do them the honour . . .
Rick loved the country which “vibes on music and football” where he could visit a samba hall at four in the morning and find 4,000 people having a ball — and where nobody ever seemed to get angry.
It seemed strange that his ultra-organised and English compositions should be the fave rave where the lifeblood pumps to a fiesta rhythm but Rick found that the Brazilians also loved European Classics.
Rick brought 300 albums back which, he says, make the so-called Latin American played by British dance bands “look like a turd on a roast dinner”.
But there will be no Samba Symphony or Rumba Rhapsody from Rick:
“I can’t imitate music that doesn’t come naturally. Any influences will be just subconscious.”
Which brought me to another penetrating question: “Er, what are you doing next? Wasn’t there talk about a ‘Suite Of Gods’?”
“I had to shelve that for a while. After ‘Arthur’ I still had to think in terms of using an orchestra and I finished the `Suite’. I really like it. But then the band came good and the `Suite’ was er, what’s a better word than no fucking use, er, obsolete.”
Still fortune smiles on the courageous and charming and at the end of the Brazilian adventure Isaac Karebcheski (give or take an eski), conductor of the BSO, asked Rick if he would consider writing an orchestral piece for them. “Funny you should say that . . .” said Rick, and a certain `Suite` he happened to have knocking about the place will be premiered in Rio next December.
Right. Time for the coup de grace, the Parthian Shot, the apogee of the interviewer’s art: “Great Rick, but what are you doing next?”
“I had no problem deciding on the theme for the new album because I had the idea in my head for five and a half years. Then I didn’t have a band or enough experience to know even what instruments I wanted to write it for.
“It’s called ‘No Earthly Connection’ and it’s about various natural phenomena which scientists don’t like talking about because they can’t explain them away: the legend of Atlantis, Stonehenge, the Bermuda Triangle where a million tons of shipping and a lot of planes have been lost without trace.
“I’ve linked this to the idea of a sixth sense, which might be your soul and which I’ve called music. It’s the part of you that can grow and be passed on when you die. The major track traces it through the life of one man from his birth to his old age when he sees others making the same mistakes he made and he can’t do anything about it and all he has to look forward to is snuffing it.”
So clearly Wakeman is not contemplating any retreat from grandeur and hopefully understanding of all this will come with the lyric sheet, an aspect of the enterprise Rick is well pleased with: “I’ve never been happy with my words before but I worked on them for six months and I think they’re good. And we’ve got five singers in the band now for vocal harmonies.”
A more practical concept could also endear him to his fans before they hear a note: “It’s a double album but I’m trying to get A&M to put it out for the price of one. It’s only an extra piece of wax. It just means double the work for us and that doesn`t matter at all. Nobody’s got the money they used to have and I keep on thinking how in the past couple of years I’ve only done five British concerts and still the people have stuck by me.
“That would be a start to paying them back. Then we plan to do a full tour some time after the release in April. It’s become possible again with the smaller band.
“I just want to show the fans how much I appreciate them. Most sincerely folks. Well, I know it sounds awful but I do mean it.”
Charming and a great attraction everywhere no doubt. But he never did tell me the one about the sheep.