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28th July 2010
METAL DISCOVERY: The other thing I found of interest in the documentary about Yes is when you said – “we were totally self-indulgent”.
(Rick Wakeman on prog rock's original significance as an attitude towards making music)
"...how I always saw prog rock was, okay, we know what the rules are and we’re gonna break ‘em...but, what’s important is, you’ve got to know the rules before you can break ‘em."
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 that a retrospective opinion, or did you feel self-indulgent at the time when you were making that music?
RW: No, it was always self-indulgent. It’s a kid let loose in a sweet shop! The truth of the matter is it’s all down to finances. Yes were making a lot of money for the management, and a lot of money for the record company, a lot of money for the lawyers and accountants. We actually weren’t making anywhere near the money we should have made because they were nicking it all, but we didn’t really know that at the time. But, the thing that was interesting was, when you’re making the people that count lots of money they let you do what you want and, if you’re allowed to do what you want, you can become very, very self-indulgent. Having said that, I think it created some fantastic music at the time! [laughs] I’m not saying all the tracks and everything we did was great. Some of it you look at and go – “yeah, I might like to revisit that sometime!” But, at the time, we didn’t think that.
MD: It still is seminal music for other people, discovering that now and they weren’t even born then, and getting into it now, and being inspired by it.
RW: The one thing that, sometimes, the media forgets…there was a kid who was 16 – I know because he told me – in Buenos Aires and it was early nineties, I came out the hotel and he was there, and he had a copy of my old ‘Six Wives…’ album, and he said “would you sign this?” and I said “yeah”. As I was signing it, I asked “how old are you?”, he said “sixteen”, and I said “what is it you like about this old music?”, and he got really…I could see he was very upset when I said that. He said – “It might be old music to you but it is new to me. I only heard it for the first time last week”, and he said, “remember, every concert you do there will be people in the audience and it will be new”. I never forgot that. I never, ever forgot that. And he said – “People will be finding this record in ten years’ time and it will be new”.
MD: That’s a really good point.
RW: Yeah. My kids vary from 38 down to 25/26 and I can remember Oscar who’s my youngest at 26, when he was about 17, discovering The Who. I said to him – “Do you know how old The Who are?”; he said “I couldn’t give a toss, I just love the music.” I took him to The Who at Wembley last year to meet Pete and Roger and things, and what was stunning was I reckon half the audience were under 25.
MD: Really? Wow.
RW: It was amazing. Students galore there. So I’ll always remember that – “It’s new for somebody”.
MD: Definitely, a really good point. For me, prog, back in your original Yes era, seemed to be an attitude towards writing music…
RW: Breaking the rules.
MD: Precisely, but now it seems to have become more of a genre which is a bit of a paradox to have a genre labelled ‘progressive’ at all.
RW: I know.
MD: Do you think prog has lost its essence and significance to a degree as to what that term originally meant?
RW: Yeah, you’re right. The thing is, how we looked upon prog was…there were certain rules for how popular music was made – the length; how it was done; the start of the piece; same tempos…all those kind of things. There were rules on what was done. Even on an album the rules were you’d have x number of tracks, all three to four minutes long…there were very strict rules on how pop had been made which the record companies had worked to for years. Basically, how I always saw prog rock was, okay, we know what the rules are and we’re gonna break ‘em. If we want to change tempo half way through, if the piece of music actually feels it’s gonna end up nine minutes long then let it be nine minutes long. If it’s gonna be seven minutes long, it’s gonna be seven minutes long. It has all these changes and all these different moods, you know, how bad is that if that’s really how it should be. So I’ve always said, to me, prog is breaking the rules but, what’s important is, you’ve got to know the rules before you can break ‘em. If you don’t know what the rules are then you can’t break ‘em properly.
MD: To me, then it was all within the context of a well written song but now it seems like there can be a song structure there but certain bands will shit all over the song with virtuosity. Dream Theater…actually, I’m a really big fan of Dream Theater, but they sometimes shit all over a good song with all these elaborate keyboard/guitar/bass harmony runs that are out of the context of the actual song.
RW: Jordan’s a good mate of mine, I know Jordan very well. They supported Yes on a couple of tours at the turn of the century, and I know all the guys very well. I mean, it’s what they want to do and they do it very well, but you are right. I think one of the things you have to be careful with, and Yes fell in the trap to a certain extent, all bands do, is that – “We can do this, therefore we will” and “we are capable of doing this so we’ll throw it in”. The eighties, to me, was such a disaster because there were huge technological changes. A new toy would arrive and everybody, instead of saying “let’s see if there’s a piece of music we can use it in”, it was “oh great, let’s just use it because it was great”. That’s why you had so much techno rubbish in the eighties because the new stuff came through but the people who were using it weren’t thinking about it musically, they were just thinking about using it as a piece of equipment. I mean, yes, we tended, on certain things, to fill in every gap going…
MD: But that was original back then and progressive, in terms of actually progressing something.
RW: Well it was, yes. Then we’d do the opposite thing when we did pieces like ‘Close to the Edge’ and, in fact, even in ‘Roundabout’ which has about fifteen different time changes and key changes, but we only did them because they felt right.
MD: Absolutely. Do you remember Goblin from the seventies?
RW: Yeah, I do remember them.
MD: They did a lot of the Dario Argento film soundtracks like ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Profondo Rosso’. They were actually a prog band too. I interviewed their old keyboard player, Claudio Simonetti, about three years ago and he made an interesting observation that…we were chatting about Dream Theatre actually, and he said that apart from Jordan Rudess there are no keyboard heroes anymore like you had in the seventies with yourself, Rick Wright, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord and whoever else. But he said, now, that’s all died out and it’s all guitar heroes. Why do you think that’s died out?
RW: Because of the keyboards. I don’t think there’s any doubt. There are some good players around but, the problem is, when myself…I mean, Keith and I have sat down and talked about this, and Jon Lord. Jon was very bright because Jon, really at the end of the days, stayed with the Hammond and the piano. That was a bright move. I still think that Jon is the best rock organist that this country’s seen; I think he’s sensational. But the thing that’s interesting is that when I started and you got hold of something like a…well, I’d been playing for a few years and there were some quite rubbish Italian electric pianos floating around, and then things like the Moog came along. There were no pre-sets; you just spent a week in your hotel room with your headphones desperately trying to get it to make a sound that, eventually, you’d get something like a bumble bee farting in the bath! Then you went – “great!”, and you’d make a note of every little knob and where it was. And that became your sound, and you knew where it was. Nobody else could copy it because you had to change ninety dials to get to that, and you got used to playing around with the little things. So you created sounds that were very, very much your sounds. And the same when the early synths came along. They had no pre-sets so you had to find your sounds. You were recognisable not just for the style you played but the noises you made. Now, when keyboards started with pre-sets and nothing impossible, and sampling, basically, to some extent, they all sound the same. I still do the thing with my keyboard room, which is a huge keyboard room that I use, is that I wipe all the internals or adapt and edit them, and I do my combinations so that they’re mine. I think one of the problems is that keyboard players, it’s not that they’re lazy but we had no choice but to spend weeks trying to get a sound out of an instrument. They don’t now; they press a button and there’s a great sound so they’ll use a great sound. I think because there are so many thousands of great sounds, it’s quite hard for any keyboard player to really try and come up with a very individual sound. It’s very, very difficult. I don’t think it’s because there aren’t the players about, I just think that it’s very difficult for them.
MD: It’s got to be partly audience perception as well. Like Steve Vai is still regarded as a guitar legend, as well as Joe Satriani, and they’ve been around for over a couple of decades, but keyboard players seem to have fallen by the side.
RW: Well, I think you’ve also got to think about the collapse of the record label as well. They don’t sign great guitarists, they don’t sign great keyboard players, they’re just looking for front people and things.
MD: You announced in 2001, I read, that the theatre tour you did that year would be your last and then you re-joined Yes a year after and kind of toured for three or four years, big lengthy tours. Then in 2006 you decided to stop lengthy touring but you seem to be slipping back into that again with the shows coming up at the end of this year. Do you find the live stage irresistible still?
RW: It’s very difficult. I wasn’t very well at the turn of the century and that’s one of the reasons I did that, but then you start to feel a bit better and the Yes opportunity came along, and it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and I think it was the right thing to do. But I stopped again in 2006, you’re quite right, because I was absolutely…
MD: …shattered…
RW: Yeah, to put it bluntly. I came back and Rachel, my missus, she said that we’d just do simple things like going shopping to Morrisons and she said she’d find me standing in a line for no apparent reason….“where’s the trolley?”…“what trolley?”, you know. I was absolutely zombiefied and I just thought that I’ve really got to be sensible here because my medical history is not great. I wouldn’t go back into doing the…I like doing the concerts but it works quite well doing the one-offs because you’ve got gaps in between, and I’ve got the radio, and the books, and other things.
MD: That’s Planet Rock you do, isn’t it?
RW: Yeah, I do Planet Rock and I’m doing an Irish rock radio show coming up soon as well, plus I do a column for Classic Rock magazine. I’m still in the music room/office at six o’clock every morning, regardless. I like working, it’s just hotels and the constant travelling that I think does your head in.
MD: Home comforts and so forth.
RW: Well, I drive home every night regardless of where I am. If it’s less than an eight hundred mile round trip I drive home. I live in Norfolk so I’ve done Cornwall and back.
MD: So you’re not too far from here then.
RW: It’s actually only a hundred miles to my house from here, it’s just a crap journey! It’s all across country where I think there’s more speed cameras than I’ve ever seen in my life!
MD: I have to ask this – you have the ‘Grumpy Old Rock Star’ books out and you’ve been labelled as a “grumpy old man”, but where did that tag come from originally as you always seem pretty good humoured?!
RW: Oh, but grumpy is funny! You think about it, grumpy, even before it became a fashionable word, if you said “grumpy” it would put a smile on your face. It’s not angry.
MD: In a Jack Dee kind of way then, maybe.
RW: Exactly, there’s a fine line between being grumpy and angry. I mean, grumpy is you moan about something and have a real go at it. It’s very English; it’s more English than British and we just moan about everything. I know from friends I’ve got on both sides of the house in government that they’re quite happy for the general public in England to have a moan because then, after a week, they’ve got it out of their system, and they just carry on and do whatever they were going to do anyway!
MD: That’s true!
RW: We moan about the trains, we moan about hotels, we moan about everything, but we don’t do anything. We don’t do anything about it at all! The French…I used to use the analogy of the French…if the French weren’t happy about the price of bread, as much as bread is the staple diet, they would not buy bread for weeks, until the price came down, and eventually the price would come down. In England, we’d have a good moan about it and buy an extra loaf! [laughs] That’s exactly how it is so it actually becomes funny. My great friend Stuart Prebble who devised ‘Grumpy Old Men’, he said it’s purely that he wanted a programme that people would love but go – “do you know, that’s absolutely right.” So it’s funny. It’s not a joke, it’s an observation. But it’s true. We’re dreadful at it! I think one of the best ones was when the truckers got everyone to boycott the garages for a day and not buy any fuel, and the outcome was, I think, Blair put the petrol down by 2p, and everyone went – “Yes! What a result!” And then, three weeks later, they put it up 7p! The argument the government gave was that the loss for the country in revenue on the day that everyone didn’t buy it was so heavy, they had to put it up in order to get that back. So all it succeeded in doing was putting it up 5p and everyone went – “oh, alright then”! I mean, it’s unbelievable, that’s what we are.