Music Interviews

Rick Wakeman: “If you’ve got good melodies you can do absolutely anything with them” – Interview

Rick Wakeman

Rick Wakeman

Rick Wakeman is pleasantly surprised. Joining him for lunch to talk about his new album Piano Portraits, we find ourselves first discussing one of the banes of his life, Anglia Railways. “Most of the toilets were out of order, but the train actually arrived on time, which is pretty unheard of,” he reports. “When I first lived in Norfolk around 2005 the franchise was run by a company called ‘one’, who were pretty bad, then the national disgrace took over, who were even worse, and then Greater Abysmelia, as I call them, took over and were even worse still. I used to have an exercise book where I would write down all the excuses for being late, and I kept it for a couple of years, but I had to stop as it was getting full!”

Today’s journey – on time for once – would draw a blank, and it seems to have boosted the keyboard wizard’s good nature still further. We are shown to a booth and food is ordered – on the proviso that we share chips – and Wakeman settles to talk about the new record. “I am genuinely thrilled with it,” he proclaims. Piano Portraits is, as its title implies, Wakeman’s own interpretations of time honoured songs, garnished with some of his favourite classical pieces. Simultaneously pleasant to listen to and artistically interesting, Wakeman’s instinctive plays giving the music a progressive tilt.

Were the pieces improvised at times? “Yes and no,” he says, cryptically. “The way I do variations is instinctive, but I know what I’m going to do. If I played them all again for you now they would be probably 95% of what you hear. It’s like the old fashioned composers doing variations, they were instinctively how they felt they should do the pieces, but that initial instinct then becomes the main part of the work. Once you get the run you would do that thing again and again. Anything you write essentially starts off as an improvisation, or as instinct, and then becomes a part. So that’s how these pieces start, and then they develop in tiny areas to become the arrangement you want it to be.”

There is a mandatory requirement for him, however. “It has to come from inside, it has to have feeling. That feeling has to flow from start to finish, there has to be a smoothness running through the whole thing. When we were listening back, we were saying at some points, ‘You can’t do that’, because it was jerking out of the feeling we were trying to create. That’s very much how Piano Portraits was put together.”

A good example of the flow of the music is an unexpected one: Wakeman’s six-minute version of Stairway To Heaven. “That was a weird one. It’s a song I’ve always liked, and Robert Plant is a great friend of mine. I always thought what a great melody it is – I’m a big melody man, and if you’ve got good melodies you can do anything with them, absolutely anything. As I mentioned earlier I think all the great composers used to take other composers’ melodies and do their own variations, which was a common theme. If you don’t have a good melody you can’t do it. Stairway To Heaven was a piece I was thinking of, and I listened to the original again, and as I did with a lot of the pieces I just played them as they were.”

Soon, the ideas were developing. “I went into the studio, with my engineer Erik Jordan. With Erik I would say, ‘If I’m doing something and it’s not working, shout to me to stop’. We’d had that with a couple of pieces, and then I said I wanted to try Stairway To Heaven. His eyes lit up and he said ‘Really? OK.’ I said I’ll either literally do it in one, or it’s gonna fall apart. So I sat down and played it all the way through, pretty much to the version we ended up with. The control room is upstairs at The Old Granary, where we recorded the album, and he came out and said, ‘I’ve got a suggestion. That flows really well. We’ll do something else, have a cup of tea, and then do it again.’ We did that, and without saying anything I played it all through, around 90% the same. It’s funny because you know when you’ve got something in the studio, and he said, ‘It works, doesn’t it?’ It was a strange one – you would look at the track listing and go ‘surely not’, but it works.”

Confirmation, if it were needed, that Piano Portraits is much more than an album of cover versions; these are some of Wakeman’s favourite pieces, seen through his eyes. “That’s a great way of putting it, and it is. One of the things I’ve always loved since my college days is taking music of other composers and playing around with it. I suppose that’s how you develop a style. The people from Universal said that the catalyst of this recording will be the style, because you’ve got good melodies from all the pieces, no matter where they are from, but it’s the style that will link them together, and flow. It’s lovely melodies more than anything else, and you can do a lot with them.”

Returning to the tracklisting, he picks out the album’s opening track, The Beatles’ Help. “I remember Help as the pop song for the film that they did, but then in 1968 I bought the Deep Purple album Shades of Deep Purple, and they did Help on there. It was the original line-up with Rod Evans, Nick Simper, Jon Lord, Ian Paice and Ritchie Blackmore. Jon Lord got some amazing sounds out of the organ and it was like a ballad, really lovely. Jon and I became great friends, and I remember talking about it shortly before he died. I said that I do this slow cover version of Help on stage sometimes, and he agreed it always seemed like a ballad and not a pop song. I was speaking to a great friend of mine, the guy who owns the piano we recorded on at the Granary, Andrew Giller, and he said that in 1970 to John Lennon.

“We were talking about it and he said ‘I thought you did Help like that because of John Lennon, because you knew him’. I said ‘Yeah, I knew John Lennon quite well, and in fact was with him a couple of days before he died’. He said in 1970 he did an interview, which I’ve never seen but it must be somewhere online. In the interview he talked about Help, where he said how much he didn’t like the recording they’d done, because he had written it as a melancholy ballad. The lyrics – ‘When I was younger, so much younger than today…’ – he wanted it as an opening to a slow ballad. Because of the film it had to be redone, but he always felt it should be a ballad. I thought, ‘wow, that’s really interesting, that I should actually be doing it the way the composer thought it should be’. So I listen to that in a different way now.”

Most of the pieces have a story behind them. “I’m Not In Love wasn’t a choice of mine, it was suggested by someone at Universal. I like 10cc but it’s not a particular piece I like. It has a great tune, but after that they run out of ideas for me. It’s like nobody could come up with an idea for the bridge or chorus, so let’s just put a load of junk in the middle and meet up at the other end kind of thing! So I said I’d try it, and I thought I’ve got to turn this into a piece. I started playing around with it, and we came to record it. I said it’s probably going to end up around 45 seconds long, so I’ll play it as I feel it, doing as much with the tune as I think can be done. So I played it through, and Erik said ‘You’re almost there’. I said it’s a bit short, but he said ‘No, it’s over three minutes. It does stand up, and you don’t miss the middle bit. Have a little think about it, and in a couple of days’ time we’ll do it again.’ So most of them had a story behind them.”

In the midst of all this chat, lunch has arrived. “Please have a chip, you’re going to have to dig into these!” he insists. Taking a bite of his sandwich, he moves on to consider the version he offers of the Yes song Wondrous Stories. Was it a tribute to the recently departed bassist of the band, Chris Squire? “No it wasn’t, although Chris was obviously a great friend. I’ve done my own little bit for Chris with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was rather pleased about that, I said I wouldn’t go unless they gave him a posthumous award and inducted him. I never thought in a month of Sundays they would do a U-turn, but they did. So I thought that’s fine, I’ll go. And in fact my next mission is that I would like them to induct all the people from bands who have died who deserve to go in – like Jon Entwistle, Jon Lord – those who missed out, and have one great ceremony to induct these people in. Just because they’re not with us doesn’t make their contribution any less. So that’s my next mission. I think if it’s right, they’ll do it, as it could win them a lot of support.”

“There is no such thing as perfection, as you know, but it is the closest I get because the piano is my number one favourite. You get a feeling of it all coming from the heart.” – Rick Wakeman

He returns to the tale of Wondrous Stories. “It originally came about because I left Yes in 1974, and in 1976 Jon Anderson called me up from Switzerland. He said ‘We’re about to start an album, I want to send you a couple of songs to listen to’. So he sent me a cassette, and there were two songs on it just with acoustic guitar – one was Going For The One and the other was Wondrous Stories. I called him, and said ‘This is what Yes should have been doing after Close To The Edge. Great melodies.’ So he said, ‘Do you want to come over and do a bit?’ So I went over, and rejoined the band! Going For A One was a good album, with Awaken a great track – there’s some good stuff on there. Wondrous Stories was the piece that got me back, with a great tune and some lovely lyrics. Universal said I should put a Yes song on there that I’m associated with, and I said Wondrous Stories because it has these good associations for me and pulled me back into the band. You can’t play around with it much, because it is what it is, but I did change the middle solo section to make it more in keeping as a piano piece, rather than what was on the record. Apart from that; it’s kept very much as the original. Jon loves it.”

Is this the perfect album for Wakeman, in a sense, sitting at the junction between classical and pop music? “In many respects, it is,” he agrees. “There is no such thing as perfection, as you know, but it is the closest I get because the piano is my number one favourite. You get a feeling of it all coming from the heart because it is a great touch instrument, and playing around with melodies is something I love doing. It’s putting together the ingredients of all the things I like.”

There was just one proviso. “There are some obvious pieces to do that I’ve been involved with, such as the Bowie stuff, Morning Has Broken, Wondrous Stories. I did say to Universal that with the others I’m going to do a shortlist, but I don’t know if they’re all going to work. Any time I get to a situation where I’ve only got eight that work, and the others don’t, I don’t want to pad it out – so as long as you’re happy that, if I turn around and say I can’t make this work, can’t make it flow, will you be happy with that? And they said yes, absolutely fine, and that took a lot of the pressure off. We had about 24 that we whittled down to the shortlist.”

Not all were a success, and some he wrestled with for days before admitting defeat. “There were some that didn’t work. Bohemian Rhapsody I wanted to do as a little suite but I couldn’t make it work! It was annoying for me because Brian May is one of my dearest friends, and I wanted to play it to him. The original had every ingredient you could wish for, so when it has that it is very difficult to make an adaptation. How can you make a variation when every melody is absolutely thought out so well? We spent around three days on it, but Erik shouted ‘Move on!’, and that was that.”

Does he still play ‘classically’, from the music itself, as a concert pianist might do? “Occasionally. With the classical pieces on here I did get them out and play the originals, like Clair De Lune. It was really funny thinking ‘I’ll change that’, with these great composers like Debussy and Fauré, though. ‘Oh yeah, I’ll have a little muck around here – you shouldn’t have done that, lads!’ I’ve still got all my music from college. I do enjoy getting the music out and seeing what I’ve got. It’s my heritage, it’s why I do what I do.”

“I’ve still got all my music from college. I do enjoy getting the music out and seeing what I’ve got. It’s my heritage, it’s why I do what I do.” – Rick Wakeman

Wakeman’s musical concerns run further than the solo piano, and in 2016 he became reacquainted musically with Yes band-mates Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin, forming ARW, and completing a substantial US tour. “It’s nuts at our age!” he laughs. “We don’t have technicians, we have carers! I mean Jon’s 73 now, I’m 67, and Trev’s 65. It’s hilarious, we’re doing things we did in our 30s. We still feel it, it’s only when you look in the mirror and you go ‘Shit, I’m not young anymore!’ Jon said something to Trevor when we were in the dressing room once, and he said ‘What was that creaking?’ and Trev said ‘It’s you!’”

They had to change the approach from that in their 30s, mind. “We were very sensible on the tour, and made sure we got rest because there was a lot of travelling. We were told by the promoter, ‘Listen, with the greatest respect you’re not spring chickens any more. If you want to give your all on the performances you do, you’ve got to look after yourself for the rest of it.’ The tour was too long, and everyone got colds. I caught pneumonia and they filled me full of morphine for the last two gigs. We had a meeting with our management and said we won’t ever do three months again, we just can’t do it. We’ll space things out more, at our age we’ve got to! We did have a laugh as well though.”

“We were told by the promoter, ‘Listen, with the greatest respect you’re not spring chickens any more. If you want to give your all on the performances you do, you’ve got to look after yourself for the rest of it.’ The tour was too long, and everyone got colds. I caught pneumonia and they filled me full of morphine for the last two gigs…” – Rick Wakeman

They also found fresh musical inspiration. “Jon lives in Northern California, and Trev lives in the Hollywood hills, so we would send stuff backwards and forwards to work on. We had quite a few record companies come to us and say they want an album, so we initially thought let’s get it done before the tour. Then we were on a conference call once and said ‘This is nuts, why are we doing this? Why do we have to do an album now? Why don’t we just go out and play, enjoy working with each other, discovering new things we can do which can only make the music better?’ We can then start putting pieces together, put them out when they’re ready, when they’re at a standard that we want, not just because somebody wants them out. So we decided to do that, and do this properly. We’ll work on the material, and when we’re all 100% agreed that it is the high quality we want, it will happen. There’s no point in putting something out for the sake of putting something out. So what we decided to do on the English tour, and Japan and so forth, is to get together and work on the ideas and take it from there. I would think by the summer we will have some tracks, which we will either release separately, or…” he pauses, “the word ‘album’ is difficult these days, but we’ll only release tracks that we wanted to be in.”

From all this you will gather Wakeman needs very little invitation to talk – the interviewer’s dream, in fact. Now his button has been pressed on the role of Trevor Rabin in Yes. “Trevor, to me, saved Yes in the mid-1980s. At that time, anything to do with prog and bands like Yes was the equivalent of the porn of the music industry! For Trev to come in on 90125 like he did, it was his album in many respects, because Jon came in late. It saved Yes. I’m convinced if that album hadn’t happened, more so than Big Generator, I don’t think there would be a Yes today.”

Eight years after Rabin joined Yes, he and Wakeman finally met. “The Union album came later, which was ridiculous. That’s where I met Trev, and we got on like a house on fire. The thing that was interesting was that we had, and still have, a form of telepathy, where I know what he’s going to play! I know a lot of it is fixed parts that you do, but I just know where he’s going to go, and he does the same with me! A lot of people said that on the tour we grinned at each other a lot, and it was because that was the situation. He’s also a very un-guitar like player, he’s a very generous musician. A lot of musicians don’t know the meaning of not playing too much, not playing all the time, and he knows just when to play right back and not over the top. Robert Fripp’s got that skill, and Trevor has too. A joy to work with, absolutely brilliant.”

“He taught me to be my own man, to believe in myself. He was very strong willed, very generous to other musicians and other people in the studio. He knew how to treat people, musicians and studio staff, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was a smashing fellow.” – Rick Wakeman on David Bowie

He stalls on his chips, and seems genuinely worried for a second. “Have some more of these before I eat them all!” As we pause it is the ideal moment to ask him about David Bowie, whose presence he still clearly misses one year on. What personal artefacts did he leave with Wakeman? “I would say that a large percentage of what I did after meeting him was done because of him and what I learned from him,” he says with great feeling. “He taught me to be my own man, to believe in myself. He was very strong willed, very generous to other musicians and other people in the studio. He gave you a lot of freedom and the only time he would ever say ‘Don’t do that’ was if he had something – or someone else – in mind, like a French horn player. He knew how to treat people, musicians and studio staff, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was a smashing fellow.”

This being Wakeman, there is another tale to tell. “A great story is that one of the last things I worked with him on, which was a film – I can’t remember the name. He called me out of the blue – in the mid-1980s this was – and he said “I’ve got this theme, and I want some Rachmaninov style piano on it. Do you fancy it?” So I said yes, and we met in Ladbroke Grove, and went and reminisced for about two hours. We went into the studio, he played me the track and I did the Rachmaninov piano which took all of 20 minutes, and then we went and reminisced for the next five hours! That was the last time I worked with him on a professional basis, but I saw him a few times after that, when he was doing these films. The last time I saw him was on the Isle of Man, he was doing a film over there (Everybody Loves Sunshine).”

Returning to Bowie’s legacy, he considers again. “He taught me a lot about how to work in the studio, I learned a lot about how to have respect for studio time, I learnt a lot about how to respect other musicians and to use different musicians according to the project that you were on. He could be quite forceful in all those areas, and that was why people respected him. I realised that if you took those attributes and used them, then that was when people would respect what you were doing. He was always aware that if you had the right people there it would turn out better.”

And so it did. “I would never have done Journey To The Centre Of The Earth if I hadn’t worked with David, because nobody wanted it – the record company didn’t want it, the management thought it was nuts, you can’t do it – band and orchestra, no. Nobody wanted it. But when I talked to David about it, he said if you really believe in something, then do it. He said there could be two things – if you do it and it fails, at least it’s failed by your own mistakes, but if it succeeds, then trust me, people will climb on board and take the acclaim, which is exactly what happened. I certainly wouldn’t have done the concept albums and the things that I’ve done if I hadn’t worked with and met David. He was genuinely that important, and I’ve said that many times before.”

Our generous interview time is drawing to a close. Final question time then – what song would he play at the inauguration of Donald Trump, if he had free rein? Wakeman smiles. “I would probably do some variations on the hymn Fight The Good Fight I think!” But then he thinks anew. “I was there when the elections took place. I love my politics, and for my sins I do quite a bit on the intellectual property front. I’m lucky, I have a lot of friends on all sides of the House of Commons, and it’s amazing how privately they agree on everything but in public they’re just not allowed to, it’s funny! Politics fascinates me, and I spent many hours in the presence of and talking to Fidel Castro. It’s interesting meeting people, you get a whole different perspective on what you read about. I’m lucky with who I’ve met.”

He returns to the pressing nature of Trump. “I have a couple of very good friends in Congress, and I went on a political programme there just to chat about things. There were a couple of people on there who were very much in the know, and I said, ‘So, it’s pretty much a done deal, isn’t it?’ And one of the guys said ‘No. Trump will win’. And I asked how. He said, ‘Donald Trump is saying what the average man in the bar, the street, the house and at work is saying.’ It’s no different to Brexit, and look at your last general election. Look at how the exit polls were so wrong! You can no longer do a poll of a few hundred people, it doesn’t work like that. We also know for a fact that half the people who come out of the polling station, when they’re asked for what they voted, will tell a lie, because it’s one of the most private things.”

He’s running late for radio now, but wants to finish. “He said, ‘I think what will happen is that Donald Trump will have to temper a lot of the things he’s said,’ but he said if he’s clever like Reagan was then he will put clever people around him, and he just becomes the front man, however outrageous he might be. So if he’s got clever people around him it could just turn out to be quite interesting. It cracks me up with what he says on Twitter, I mean someone should really have a quiet word and say don’t do this. I’d love to meet him, it would be interesting!”

Wakeman has a political observation for the UK, too. “One thing that amused me was that you’ve got America and the UK, who hold the flag up as being truly democratic countries, you get the Brexit thing and people say ‘we want another vote, we don’t like this one’, and the same thing happens in America. You think here are two of the biggest democracies in the world complaining a lot about other people and how they work, and suddenly they think they can change what they don’t like!”

Returning to Trump, he has a burst of optimism, “Maybe he’s not going to be as awful as people think he will be. I don’t think it’s a bad step that he is friendly with Putin. We know a bit about what goes on, I mean I go to Russia quite a lot, but surely it’s better to have someone as your mate, rather than someone you’re openly hostile to. I don’t see anything wrong with that! I’ve never met Putin, I know quite a lot of high ranking Russians, but I’ve got a funny feeling it could actually work out quite well in a strange way. It’s going to be a wait and see.”

We have time for one final story – and it’s another from the excuses book of Anglia Railways. “When I go home I get off at Diss, 20 minutes from Stowmarket,” he says. “What I would do is call my wife from Stowmarket, and say, ‘Hi Rach, I’m at Stowmarket, running 20 minutes late, so I’ll be home in half an hour’. And she’ll say fine, I’ll get the dinner on, or whatever. There’s this wonderful day which I recall. I was at Stowmarket, on the phone to my wife, and I said ‘You’re not gonna believe this, we’re on time’. She said ‘I haven’t even started the dinner!’ so I said ‘Well that’s alright, I can call in and get a takeaway or something!’ And at that moment the guard came on, with a wonderful Norfolk accent, and he said ‘There’s gonna be a bit of delay, because unfortunately I’ve dropped my whistle on the track. Unfortunately we’ve got to move the train so we can get the whistle, and to reverse the train we’ve got to get permission, so there’ll be about a 20 minute delay.’ My wife’s listening to this and said, ‘Have you got someone to say this to wind me up?’ and I said ‘No, he’s dropped his whistle on the track, I’m gonna be 20 minutes late.’ She said ‘I’ll get the dinner on.’”

Rick Wakeman’s Piano Portraits is out now through Universal. Tour dates and further information can be found here.

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