RICK WAKEMAN on Playing with YES Again: “Without CHRIS SQUIRE and ALAN WHITE, it Could Never be Repeated”

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The lyrics of the Who’s “My Generation”, “hope I die before I get old” certainly do not apply to Rick Wakeman. At 73 years old, he remains a staple of the live circuit, and has no intention of slowing down.

Rick’s latest album, “A Gallery of the Imagination”, explores many different styles, much like an art gallery showcases different types of sculptures and paintings. It contains many clear prog influences, especially in the Moog solos and there are also two solo piano numbers, which reflect Rick’s classical roots and show influences from the Romantic period. Equally important is the strong song and melodic influence on the album, with eight unconventional vocal tracks, with Rick’s distinctive descriptive music carefully arranged around the lyrics.

Examples of the variety contained within the album are the fun yet wistful elements in “A Day Spent on the Pier”, a track describing time spent at the seaside, written in Southwold and evoked by Rick’s own memories of happy childhood days spent on the helter skelters in Brighton and Clacton and on the pier in Southsea. Rick wrote “The Eyes of a Child” with his thirteen grandchildren in mind, aware of the responsibility of trying to fix the world for following generations, whereas “Cuban Carnival” celebrates the light-hearted fun times Rick spent in Cuba with his band, the English Rock Ensemble.

Currently touring the US in March and April, Rick Wakeman took some time to talk to long time Yes fan and Sonic Perspectives collaborator Rodrigo Altaf, when pre-production and rehearsals for the tour were taking place. You can read their chat below; and remember that for more interviews and other daily content, Sonic Perspectives is on Facebook, Flipboard, Twitter and YouTube, where you can be notified about new content we publish on a daily basis.

Interview Transcript:

Let me start by asking you about the upcoming tour in the US. I’m assuming you’re doing pre-production now. what can you reveal of the shows?

It’s a one-man show. I mean, I’m really lucky. I do about four or five different kinds of shows, which is great. It’s a great variety. This particular one is the one-man show. I have a piano, a couple of keyboards and I play music that I’ve been associated with throughout my life, such as Yes, obviously, David Bowie, Cat Stevens, even The Beatles, all sorts of different music and then some of my own. And then in between I tell lots of stories about things that have happened to me, all quite funny, all quite silly, and some of them even have a semblance of truth to them. So it’s almost like having everybody around for dinner.

Excellent! And you recently released an album called “A Gallery of Imagination”. Can we expect to hear some songs from that, or do you keep that for a separate kind of show?

On that album, there are songs with a band, and then there’s two piano tracks. And I’ll probably play both the piano tracks on the show.

Okay. And what is the intention with the English Rock Ensemble? Are you planning a tour separately with a band setting to play those songs or not?

Yeah, we just played two nights in London to sold out crowds, which was great. And the band is so good, and already they’re looking at dates for probably next year, for us to come over and do a tour with them. This is something I’ve not done with the band in America for many, many years. So that will be great.

Is North America a tough market to crack for that kind of music, or do you find it’s receptive?

It’s not. I’ve discovered over the years that it has a very dedicated following of people who love the music. And they know what they like and they like it done properly and they like it done well. So if you do that, then it’s a great relationship. You’re never going to sell out a stadium, but you certainly can get enough people in to make it very worthwhile and very enjoyable.

Photo by Joel Barrios

Absolutely. And speaking of the album, I think in a way, “A Gallery of Imagination” is kind of full circle for you because it’s inspired by your first piano teacher, right?

Yeah, that’s true. It is. From when I was five years old, one of the first things she said to me is “You are a musical painter. You’ll be painting pictures to music” and “I want you to, after you’ve learned a piece, you’ve read the music, you’ve learned it, close your eyes and paint pictures.” And I did that, and I still do that to this day. I really do. People have often asked me why I spend more than half of a concert with my eyes closed, and it’s because I’m doing exactly that. I’m painting pictures and what’s interesting, they’re never really the same pictures. And it just occurred to me: how nice would it be if I did an album where I could encourage people to paint their own pictures to the music? So that’s exactly what I’ve done. And you’re right, it’s a full circle. Yeah.

And I like how all those songs are very personal to you. “A Day On The Pier,” for example, comes from your childhood memories, correct?

Yeah, very much so. I have my own personal memories related to the pieces, but I’m very interested to find out what other people’s memories are when they listen to the music. I’ve already had quite a lot of people in the UK reach out to me, and I’ve had an amazing response from people who have got their own stories and a lot of people who are doing everything from painting their own, actually physically painting pictures, to doing sculptures, to doing all sorts of things. Which is lovely because art is connected. One of the things we’re looking at doing over here in the UK in May is renting a space and turning it into a gallery, and inviting people to bring along anything that they’ve done that has been inspired by the music, and having an evening doing that. And if that works, then we’ll take it around a few places.

Whoa, that should be great! I can share what I did with one of your songs. I didn’t paint anything, but I listened to “A Mirage in the Clouds” with my daughter, and she loved it too. She’s eight and she has a great sensibility for music, so thank you for that.

Oh, great! Yeah, thank you!

And “The Eyes Of A Child” is a message to your grandkids in a way. As a parent, I can definitely relate to that message of trying to fix the world and all these issues that were leaving to the further generations.

Exactly. I mean, I have six children. I say children, but the oldest boy is 51. And I have thirteen grandchildren, and I’m very aware of the mess that they’re being left. So, that was very, that particular trade is very much down to kids. They’re not a lost as we sometimes think they are. They know full well what we’re leaving them with. It was important to me to try and simply get that message across. And also, one of the lovely things about children of all ages is that they don’t put a date stamp on music. They either like it or they don’t. And that’s how music should be. There shouldn’t be a date stamped on it, although there has been a lot of that for years. “Oh, that’s a 70’s track. That’s a 90’s track.” No, it’s a piece of music and you either like it or you don’t. So, I’m thrilled that the new generations don’t think like perhaps we used to.

Photo by Joel Barrios

A few years ago you were part of a very successful show in the UK called Grumpy Old Men. I’m turning 50 next year and I find out more and more I can relate with being Grumpy [laughs]. What is it about getting older and getting more and more annoyed with everything? [laughs]

Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. I was very lucky I was on every single program. It was huge over here, absolutely massive. And the guy, Stuart Prebble, who devised in and produced the original one, it was done very cleverly. We didn’t know the subjects. We would be put in a room camera put in front of us, and he stand behind and go: “women drivers,” and away you go, you just talk. And then he edited it all afterwards, it was great fun. But I asked him how it all started and he said he was in a wine bar. About six o’clock one evening after leaving the TV studio. And he said there were two guys sitting there, businessmen. And one of them said, “I’m fed up with the train. The train was delayed again. I was delayed this morning coming in, when I had to change trains. The other train never showed up. It was full up, it was dirty, I couldn’t even get a coffee. It’s absolutely disgusting.” And, and then the other guy said “yeah, no, you’re absolutely right.” And then he said, “well, I’ve gotta go. See you on the platform at eight tomorrow.” [laughs]. And he said, that summed it all up that we have a good moment, vent about it but then bam we just got on with it. And he said, I decided that the grumpiness is funny. You don’t get angry, because it’s all true, but you have to laugh about it. And he started thinking this would be a great, great bit of fun for a program. And then he said, “and the first one I thought, I’ll have to get Rick on this because he’s grumpy.” And it’s very true. We do moan about things, but we can’t do anything about it. And you end up laughing. There’s nothing you can do. I mean, I’ve got some good friends in parliament here in the UK. One of them actually said to me – we were talking about protests. And he said “the truth is we like protests!” [laughs]. And I said, “why?” He said, “because often or not people will have a march, they’ll calm down and they’ll end up having parties and concerts at the end of it, they get it out, they’ll have a lovely time and then they go home.” And nothing gets done, nothing changes. He said “we get more worried when nothing happens.” We go “what are they doing?” Amazingly enough he said, these are peaceful protests. And they do a bit of good at the end of the day because it points a few things out and we can get on to do it. But in general, we’re more worried when nothing happens.

Yeah, a hundred percent! And I’m curious about your recording of “Space Oddity” with David Bowie. When you guys created that track, did you get a sense that you were doing something that would last so long?

I can honestly say yes I did. I played the Mellotron on that, on that particular track. We did it in three hours, in and out. And that’s when David Bowie and I became really good friends and he said, “listen, you’re a piano player, would you come and do some piano for me?” I said “yeah!” And that was the start of the friendship. And “Space Oddity,” when it was finally mixed and done, it was actually the very first stereo single in the UK on the Phillips label. It’s quite unique if you can find one on the Phillips label, that’s a real bit of history. But when I heard it, I thought “this is so, so different to anything being played on the radio!” It was 1969 and it was just so, so different. And I was convinced that it would be a big hit. It was a sort of a minor hit first time around. I think it got top 10, something like that, just in. But it didn’t make number one until it was re-released in 1974, I think it was. It was just a great, great song, our great track. I play it sometimes on stage. I’ve also performed it with different people over the years, which has been great, same as I have done with “Life on Mars.” He was such a great songwriter. He was way ahead of his time, David, and bless him even though he’s up in stardust heaven. He’s still an amazing influence on so many people!

Photo by Joel Barrios

He is indeed. And I think people always ask you about your acceptance speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that was awesome by the way. But as a Rush and Yes fan, I must ask you about playing with Geddy Lee on that occasion. What did it feel like?

Oh, it’s great. I mean, I’m a big Rush fan. I’ve known the guys for quite a long time, quite a few years. So that was a lovely to have Geddy with us. He was the perfect choice to come and play that. He was great. The speech wasn’t meant to happen. I was actually planned just to say the usual “thank you”. And then I was standing up there, Trevor Rabin on one side and Jon Anderson on the other. And as people were saying their thank yous, I noticed the noise from the audience getting louder and louder. Cause everybody was talking, nobody was listening. They just wanted to hear the bands playing. And I thought, oh, this is it! Trevor knows I do a lot of standup comedy over here in the UK. And he said, “liven it up Rick, for heaven’s sake.” And I said, “I can’t do it.” He said “go on, go on, go on” [laughs]. And John went “yeah, go on, go.” And I hadn’t planned anything, so I thought, well, I’ll go up, I’ll do a one-liner and if it goes down quite well, I’ll do a bit more. So I went up and I did a line about my first sexual experience, and the place went quiet and then burst into laughter. And then he went quiet again. And I thought, “it’s just like doing a, a standup show. They’re waiting for the next joke!” So I enjoyed myself and went on and it was interesting. I thought, “well, I’m, I’m probably gonna get shot at, you know, for doing this” [laughs]. But the reaction was actually fantastic. And I had all sorts of people call me to talk about it – Eddie Van Halen, you name it! They call me and said, “thank God somebody’s done something like that!” And it’s nice to know that it’s become a bit more lighthearted, with the acceptance speeches since then, which is great. So maybe I, maybe I got something right.

Maybe! [laughs]And that show was as close as we’ll ever get to what Yes did on the Union album and tour. And I know some of the members do not appreciate that Union experience. What’s your take on that time in Yes’ history?

 I loved it. I loved it. It was a unique thing. There was eight of us who’d been involved with the major albums and tours at that time. And I loved it. I thought it was brilliant for both the band, the music and for people to come along and see something a little, well, quite as I would say, a little different. Quite a lot different. I’ve had a hell of a time, I thoroughly enjoyed it and it could never be repeated. I mean, there was talk of another reunion, but I said, “absolutely no way.” Because, we don’t have Chris Squire anymore. We don’t have Alan White anymore. You just can’t do it. You know, let’s have the great memory of what we did.

I agree! And for me, the general rule in music is you have one idea, you write one song, you have two ideas, you write two songs and so on. But in Yes, that rule is completely subverted because one song like “Siberian Khathru,” for example, one of my favorites, could have a million ideas thrown in together and it works so well. At what point did you guys say “okay, the song is ready, it’s done, let’s record it”?

Well, we always rehearsed together for about two months before we went in the studio. And then the pieces were developed and I would think they were probably 75% ready when we went into the studio. And then the last 25% happened in the studio. And so they were ready when we finished in the studio, really. Bill Bruford always used to say “everything is time allotted.” When it’s finished in the studio and it’s recorded and it’s mixed, it’s done, that’s it. Because you can always go back and redo and re-add and redo forever and ever and ever. And sometimes that’s the wrong idea. It’s the best idea to just to let it take its natural course, and see how long ends up to see what it is as a piece. I think that’s the right approach. I’ve always tried to do that as well. If I write a piece of music, sometimes it’ll end up having four minutes. Sometimes it’ll end up having fourteen minutes. You know, it is what it’s meant to be. You can’t contrive. And that was the great thing about Yes, it allowed music to be what it should be.

Photo by Joel Barrios

Absolutely. Well, Rick, thank you so much. All the best with the upcoming tour and with the new releases and new plans for the year.

That’s very kind, Rodrigo. Thanks very much my friend!

With over 50 million albums sold in five decades and an enviable reputation as a wit and raconteur, AN EVENING WITH RICK WAKEMAN: HIS MUSIC AND STORIES will be an opportunity to share musical memories and riotous reflections in the company of a true rock legend!

RICK WAKEMAN 2023 US TOUR (Tickets for all shows will be available through RWCC.com and each local theater’s ticketing site)

March 25 – Clearwater, FL Capital Theatre @ Ruth Eckerd Hall
March 27 – Atlanta, GA Variety Playhouse
March 30 – Bethlehem, PA Wind Creek Events Center
March 31 – Atlantic City, NJ Sound Waves Theater @ Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
April 1 – Montclair, NJ Wellmont Theater
April 3 – Red Bank, NJ The Vogel @ Count Basie Theatre
April 4 – Ridgefield, CT Ridgefield Playhouse
April 5 – Huntington, NY The Paramount
April 6 – New York, NY City Winery
April 9 – Derry, NH Tupelo Music Hall

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