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28th July 2010
Famed for his innovative keyboard work in prog rock legends Yes, the musically prolific Rick Wakeman has also enjoyed a long and illustrious career as a solo artist with more than a hundred albums to his name and global sales totalling tens of millions. Perhaps less well known are his mellotron/piano contributions to seminal Bowie tracks 'Space Oddity', 'Life on Mars' and 'Changes' together with a wide array of session work for such luminaries as Ozzy Osbourne, Lou Reed, Cat Stevens, T.Rex, Elton John, and Alice Cooper to name but a few. And, to the present day, Rick's style of playing and songwriting has remained an influential effect on subsequent generations of keyboard players and musicians, with many citing him as one of rock's greatest ever keyboardists. A self-professed 'Grumpy Old Man', a tag consolidated by his appearances in the BBC TV show of the same name and his series of 'Grumpy Old Rockstar' books, when I meet up with Rick prior to a solo show in Lincoln at the end of July, he proves to be far from such as he chats away in an upbeat manner and with humorous demeanour. In fact, he claims that grumpy is actually funny...
METAL DISCOVERY: How’s it going?
RICK WAKEMAN: Yeah, alright.
(Rick Wakeman on what, for him, constitutes prog metal, an album on which he appeared as a session musician)
"...if you listen to Ozzy’s ‘Ozzmosis’ album...you listen to tracks like ‘Perry Mason’, that’s prog metal. That’s the closest thing you’re gonna get to prog metal."
Rick Wakeman in his dressing room at New Life, Lincoln, 28th July 2010
Photograph copyright © 2010 Mark Holmes - www.metal-discovery.com
Interview & Photography by Mark Holmes
MD: Is this your first time in Lincoln?
RW: No! At my age, at 61?!
MD: So you’ve played here before?
RW: Yeah, I played Lincoln many years ago, but I recorded the cathedral organ…that was quite good fun. I know the top half quite well because that’s where we did the cathedral and bits and pieces, but I don’t know the bottom bit. It’s interesting, even though you can see this place…but how the hell you get to it!
MD: Exactly. Lincoln’s road system is pretty naff.
RW: It’s unbelievable, it is. There’s a few…Bristol’s bad, Lincoln’s bad…we know all the bad places. And my sat nav decided to pack up just before so we were just going round, and you’re going away and can’t get back to where you want! But I like Lincoln; I do like Lincoln.
MD: It’s a pretend city. It’s a big town pretending to be a city.
RW: Yeah, it’s because of the cathedral, isn’t it, really. I used to live on the Isle of Man in Peel which is one of the smallest places but it had a cathedral - which is actually a tiny church but they called it a cathedral - so it was a city. The population was two thousand but it was a city.
MD: Isn’t Milton Keynes trying to get city status did I hear last week?
RW: There’s been a few places tried...
MD: Deserves it more than Lincoln, I think, it’s much bigger.
RW: Yeah, but I can’t imagine a football team called Lincoln Town!
MD: You’re right, actually! It’s like set in stone as Lincoln City, isn’t it.
RW: It is, yeah.
MD: These current solo shows were originally announced as one a month but have transpired to be a little more regular, particularly throughout July and September. How did you end up with a busier schedule than originally anticipated?
RW: Ohhh no! Well, that’s a hard one to answer. Originally, when I reignited the piano shows, the plan was to do one a month, and just to do twelve in a year. But then what happened, there was a couple of months before I was off doing something else so we stuck in two or three to make up for the few months we couldn’t. The thing that is important, I suppose, with it, they’re all very different. There’s three that I’m doing for Kevin Mayhew – they do ‘Concerts in Churches’, you know, which are mainly classical concerts in churches. When you’re doing churches…I did a couple of festivals - Chichester Cathedral, did Bath Abbey…and when you’re doing those sort of places, even though I don’t F and blind on stage, you do have to change some of the stories somewhat! So the concerts in, shall we say, more sacred venues are different. I mean, even though like I said, I don’t swear on stage, there’s a story where you go – “that’s not really suitable that story”, so you leave them out! They’re quite different story-wise. Also, musically, I’ve got a sort of setlist which has got twice as much as what I need. I do set out before I start each show and go, okay, this is what I’m going to do and, invariably, when I come in it isn’t. That’s the other nice thing, you can change things around, so they all become a little bit different. The other thing, as well, is that being on your own, you can change the stories around. I tell different stories in different places, as I said. To go back to what you asked, the reason it was only gonna be one a month is because I got my wrist slapped again by the old doctors, saying “you can’t do this”, because I had the old pleurisy back and all that sort of thing. They said – “if you want to drop down dead, carry on.” But, the truth of the matter is, the piano shows aren’t stressful in any way at all.
MD: Yeah, I guess just one instrument to soundcheck which makes it easier in that sense.
RW: Yeah, it’s a very simple setup – the soundchecks are quick, everything works…
MD: So it’s just a turn up and play sort of thing.
RW: There is an element of turn up and play and, what I do, my friend Hoffy, we used to do the radio shows together, and he works during the day with his radio stuff, and then he’ll come out with me and do the merch, and it’s all…just in case, for whatever reason in case I’m knackered, he can drive home. I never am as I don’t like being driven. But it works really well. It’s not like doing a show where you’ve got to arrive and then there’s twenty crew telling you this aint working, that’s not working. Those are the things I couldn’t really do a lot of, so I realised I probably could end up doing more of the piano ones and so we just let it generally be known that yeah, if anyone wants anymore of the piano ones…then it went nuts, to be quite honest with you!
MD: Did you have to turn down many?
RW: Turned a lot down. Turned an awful lot down. The thing about the piano show in this sort of recessional period is, for the venues, to put it crudely, it’s cheap, because they’re basically only paying me. They have to rent a piano and a PA. Most places have already got a decent piano and a house PA, which is perfectly acceptable for this sort of thing. They’re not suddenly talking about having to get a lot of crew in for the theatres, which is where we mainly do it. They’re not talking about having to have a load of extra crew in because there’s three and a half tonne of gear. I don’t have to pay a crew and band. Also, the theatre doesn’t have to open until four o’clock in the afternoon. So it’s a very cost effective show for them. Everybody wins, and some of the places earn an awful lot of money. I don’t mind – it’s in the recession and it’s good for them. I think Bath made about nine grand or something, in profit. We’re not a greedy show. I’m happy, and everywhere we play makes a few bob as well. So, I think, at a time in the recession when even touring players which cost a few bob…
MD: So book Rick Wakeman and you’ll make a load of money!
RW: Well, to put it brutally, it’s the next equivalent, I suppose, to the stand-ups going around. The only difference is that I’ve got a piano.
MD: There’s a big resurgence in stand-ups too. A lot of them play arenas these days.
RW: It’s huge. Richard Digance is back out again, and he’s got a great show. And people like Gordon Giltrap are out…
MD: You’ve done some stuff with him, haven’t you.
RW: Yeah, I’ve done some stuff with Gordon. Doing the one person, or even two person, shows is something that works for theatres and places. So, yeah, I am doing more than I had intended and, of course, with the Jon Anderson and Rick tour at the end of the year…that has to be a tour because Jon’s coming over from America. What’s nice is that every night – this might sound a bit daft – becomes a bit of an opening night, really, because if it’s two weeks since the last one and you can’t remember quite what you did or said, it’s always a little bit different. And it is true that if you’re doing a tour, it does become a bit of a routine – you do tend to say the same things, and do the same stuff. So I really do like the fact that it’s a bit different.
MD: And for the audience too if they come and see more than one show.
RW: Yeah, we’ve had people come to quite a lot of the shows and the funny thing is, sometimes, they’ll go – “you didn’t tell that story”. I say, “no, I changed it to…”, and they say “well, we’ve got some friends with us and we hoped you were gonna tell that story”. I go “well, you’ve already heard it”, and they go, “yeah, we wanted to hear it again!” In fact, it’s the Jasper Carrott syndrome, and Monty Python, because Jasper told me that he stopped doing his Manchester United story and his mole story because he’d told them so many times and people complained – “where’s the mole story?”; “you’ve heard it a thousand times”; “yeah, we’ve come to hear the story.”
MD: I see stand-up like a band playing their hits that people want to hear when they go to a gig, you know what I mean. Like, you want to hear that joke again.
RW: That’s right. I think one of the classic ones was Monty Python when they first went out on the road…
MD: The parrot sketch?!
RW: Well, Eric told me that they put together a whole load of new sketches, a whole load of new things, they went out and did the rehearsals and the warm-ups and people went “oh…”; “well, don’t you like the new stuff?”; “we want to see the parrot and the silly walk!” And so, basically, they just put in all the old, original sketches in and people loved it, which is what Little Britain did.
MD: Crowd pleasers.
RW: That’s it, it’s very interesting.
MD: I watched the Prog Rock Britannia documentary quite recently, when it was repeated on BBC Four last Friday, and there are some interesting points you raised on there…
RW: Whatever I said, I dread to think!
MD: In relation to buying prog records in the seventies, you gave the analogy it was like “the porn of the music industry”.
RW: Oh yeah, in the late seventies, yeah.
MD: Was it really that stigmatised?
RW: Yeah.
MD: Seriously?
RW: Well, no bull, but around about 1980…it’s sort of hard to say but in 1979, say if you were down to selling half a million records a year or something like that because the punk era had already come in, by the end of 1980 you probably would, if you were lucky, you would do a hundred thousand.
MD: Was that due to the new wave of metal that kicked in around that time?
RW: No. I mean, I have an interest in theory and the way it works, and a lot of people said – “Oh, you know, it’s punk that did it”. I always sort of laughed at that a little bit. I mean, for my sins, I was the person who discovered The Tubes and signed them to A&M in 1974 or whenever it was, and Fee Waybill was a great, great friend. But, I think what happens is, my theory is that music is the first thing that anyone owns as a kid. All the time you’re living at home you don’t have a choice what you eat, what you wear, where you go…
MD: What was the first record you bought as a kid then?
RW: My first record I bought as a kid was Lonnie Donegan. He became a great friend over the years. But, the thing is, it’s the first thing you own and there is nothing better than to hear your parents shout up the stairs – “Turn that bloody racket down!”
MD: If skiffle was considered like that then, now you’ve got death metal and whatever!
RW: I can remember getting The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and – “What a row”…“Yes! That’s mine, it’s not yours!” And what you do, what a generation does, is rebel against the previous one. You’re stuck, initially, for the first twelve/fourteen years of your life in what your parents have created. Whether you like it or not, that’s what you’re living in. So, the first thing that you can physically have that costs you nothing because you can hear it on the radio, on the telly or wherever, is music. And so you tend to rebel against what your parents had which is why it was interesting that the eighties rebelled unbelievably against the seventies. You couldn’t give away anything from the seventies or the eighties. When the nineties came, by the middle of the nineties, that era of people coming through, they had the same thing against the eighties but they’d have a look back at the seventies and go – “wow, there’s some good stuff”. And again, when 2000 came, they started looking back at the eighties.
MD: Yeah, and you look at some of the big bands now, like Muse, it harks back to prog.
RW: Well, yeah, there’s loads of bands but Muse are great.
MD: It’s not labelled as prog now…it’s still, in a way, a dirty word for commercial music.
RW: Well, yeah, but it is, admittedly, getting much better.
MD: I find it interesting with a band like Radiohead, one of the biggest commercial prog bands ever but they’re never labelled as prog. They get called pop, rock or whatever.
RW: Absolutely, they are, you’re right. A lot of people have used a bit of it. I argued to a lot of people that if you listen to Ozzy’s ‘Ozzmosis’ album, you know, you listen to tracks like ‘Perry Mason’, that’s prog metal. That’s the closest thing you’re gonna get to prog metal. A lot of the bands are like that now. Any bands that come through now, well, that come through the noughties, they’re gonna suffer in the next ten years. It’ll be another ten years before they’re back in favour again. Even your pop bands like Take That, they had to wait fifteen years before they could come back again.
MD: Absolutely, before they had an audience ready for that again.
RW: It is the generation – you hate what your parents bought so it’s something to rebel against. It’s natural.