All of these albums allowed us the freedom – even though we were working in a narrative – to pick the bits that we felt really would be best conveyed in musical form, and that’s what I loved about it – Oliver Wakeman
It’s probably fair to say that most fans of contemporary and classic progressive rock will be familiar with the names of both Clive Nolan and Oliver Wakeman. Clive of course from his work with Arena and Pendragon, as well as his rock musical works such as She, Alchemy and King’s Ransom, and Oliver from his time spent in Yes and The Strawbs (in the footsteps of his father Rick), and also through his own Oliver Wakeman Band and collaborations with artists such as Gordon Giltrap. What is certain is that both have solid reputations as keyboard players of significant note in the modern progressive music world. There are probably a fair number, however, who are unaware that, around the turn of the millennium, Oliver and Clive collaborated on two ‘rock opera’ type albums – a story based on Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky in 1999, and an adaptation of The Hound Of The Baskervilles three years later. These were both works of immense quality, but have remained hard to get hold of for some time now, and for this reason it is welcome news that both albums, together with a third disc, Dark Fables, containing material written for a planned third work based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein plus other bonus material, has just been released as a three-disc set under the title of Tales By Gaslight. I got together with Oliver recently to find out some more about this release, and fill out the bones of those particular Tales.
The first thing I asked was what exactly had been the catalyst to getting this particular collection put together, and what they had needed to work on to make it happen, in particular the new material on the Dark Fables disc. ‘Well’, says Oliver, ‘it started off in the first place as an idea of just releasing the two original albums in the box, because they hadn’t been available for such a long time. And I was getting emails from people saying, you know, ‘I don’t really just want to listen to this on some dodgy YouTube video, and I don’t want to spend a hundred pounds or whatever on eBay to get hold of them. I was getting these messages more and more, and it was clear there was a demand for these things. Anyway, after the From A Page set had done so well, the Yes management came to me again and asked ‘is there anything else that we could be involved in?’ And I sort of thought about these two records because they were out of print and available, and so we talked about doing that. And then, in management’s typical way, they said, ‘Is there anything else that you’ve got that we could include in this that would be relevant?’ And I remember saying, well, we’ve probably got a few demos and a few bits and pieces knocking around that we can make a third disc out of, and I said that Clive and I did start writing a third album, which got aborted, and we’d probably got a few bits and pieces knocking around for that. So the idea really was for it to become a sort of ‘odds and sods’ sort of album as it were. But then when Clive and I looked into our folders, we suddenly saw that we actually had about 35 minutes worth of music for Frankenstein, pretty well developed. I did start off thinking ‘Oh, we’ll just put these out so that people can have an idea’, but I went back to Clive and said ‘how about we do what we did before, you put some keyboards on this, and send me your stuff’ – and so he sent me some of his stuff and I put some more keyboards to it and some bass guitar, and then suddenly it was becoming similar to how we used to work. I’d say ‘okay, well, I’m singing this one, but who else have we got that could sing?’ – and suddenly other people got involved. I got in touch with Paul Manzi who sang a couple of tracks for me, and Clive is very friendly with Andy Sears, so he also sang a couple of tracks. I’ve done some work with a young girl called Charlotte Dickerson, and she came and did some work on it, and suddenly we found that it was really starting to take on a bit of a life of its own. My guitarist David Mark Pearce put guitar all over the album for us, and suddenly, it was like, okay, well, what else can we do? And then violinists came on board, and I spoke to Gordon Giltrap and he did some stuff, and before long we’d ended up with 35 minutes of Frankenstein getting more and more developed into really good versions of what they would have been had we finished it back then. We wanted to make this third album a really strong collection of pieces of music that weren’t used – not because they weren’t good enough, but because they maybe just weren’t right for the project we were doing. Also on Dark Fables are pieces of music from Hound Of The Baskervilles, one of which isn’t on the album itself because it’s to do with 221B Baker Street, which doesn’t really feature in the original story, and another is called The Baker Street Irregulars, which is based on the children that Holmes used to give money to for them to go and run around and find information for him, but they aren’t in the book either. I just wrote those because we were talking about doing a Sherlock Holmes story, so they were really strong pieces of music but just didn’t have a home. And I’m really not a great fan of just writing a piece of music and if it doesn’t work for a project just stick another title on it and pretend it’s something else. I’m a real stickler for when I write something that’s the story that the song is written for, and so it has to find its correct home – so they ended up on there as well. It bore itself out quite nicely when I sent it to the to the management company to listen to, because they ‘oh, we like the Dark Fables one best’ – so I thought ‘that’s cool’, because it means it must stand up quite well against the other two projects, which I which I was always very proud of anyway’.
An interesting point about these re-releases is that there must be a market who have never had the chance to hear them before, I suggest. Personally, while I was aware of the Jabberwocky and Hound Of The Baskervilles albums, I’d never heard them. But what’s interesting, I think, is that a lot of people probably don’t even know they exist. People know that Clive’s done a lot of that type of thing since with Alchemy and all that stuff, but of course alchemy was like almost a decade later when it came out, but so similar in approach and mood to Baskervilles and people don’t realise that. This was almost the genesis of it in a way, the the seed that grew into it. Oliver concurs with this: ‘Yeah, I think you’re right. Clive has sort of trod that path quite a lot in terms of what he did subsequently, and I think the work he’s done on those albums is really great stuff. What I think was quite nice about the work that we did together was that even though Clive and I are both keyboard players, we’re both quite different types of writers. And in fact we’re both different types of keyboard players. So we actually bring almost four different facets to it, which is two different keyboard styles and two different writing styles. And some of the music is stuff that I’ve written on my own, some he’s written on his own, some of his have musical parts in of mine, or vice versa, or sometimes they are really complete co-writes. And the thing that we always did was, we never really concentrated on who wrote what; we concentrated on what was the best way of telling the story. So that’s why we always said the key thing was the collaborative effect of trying to get the story across the best way we could, musically – and I think that was the bit that was really good fun about it in a way, the old ‘park the egos at the door’ thing that says, like, ‘What’s the best thing that we can do here? What’s the best piece of work we can create?’ And so yes, that’s right, if people are aware of his later work, then they might go back and be quite surprised at how it all started off’.
This answer forestalls the next thing I was going to ask, which was the point of how unusual it is to have two keyboard players collaborating, as one might think they would step on each other’s toes, but Oliver is quick to refute this. ‘Yeah, I think as I said, our playing styles are very different, and our writing styles are very different, so that didn’t really happen. But I think they can actually complement each other – it’s odd that people wouldn’t think about that if you had two guitarists in a band. When you consider the keyboards, you do actually bring so many different colours and styles, you know. We both do a lot of orchestration work – Clive was particularly keen on the orchestration for those albums, he really went to town on a lot of that stuff – but the way we construct pieces and write the melody lines is very different. I think that light-and-shade, push-and-pull way of writing and playing made a really interesting result, because it didn’t just follow the formula from start to finish. Clive was doing a lot of work around that time experimenting with three and four-voice pieces of work, where I was looking at ‘Right? How’s the best way we can make this piece of music really rock? How can we make this piece have this sort of feel?’ The track Picture Of A Lady I always remember as being a very, very gentle piece to write, and in fact I still play that now whenever I go out and play with a singer. And that that was what the the material had with lovely bits of light and shade, going into full-on orchestrated bits. Interestingly somebody talked to me the other day about it and asked if it’s a bit like an audio book. And I said that in fact it’s almost the opposite, where an audio book is somebody reading the story to you with tiny little bits of incidental music. I said, ‘Imagine the roles are completely reversed. It’s almost like the soundtrack to a novel’. I thought that was an interesting way of describing what we did’.
The way it seemed to me, I suggest, is that whereas the works that Clive has written on his own, such as She and Alchemy, are written very much as ‘a musical’, with an eye to staging and performance – some of the stuff he does is so visual in your mind that they could be turned into big-budget Disney films in places. Jabberwocky and Baskervilles by contrast seem to me as more like rock albums designed to be listened to as a piece of music without the added dimension of physical staging. ‘I think that’s about right, yes’, agrees Oliver. ‘I remember one thing my dad said to me years ago about musicals, and how the music is written in a particular way to sort of steer you along along a pathway, so during a song you’ll get ‘Oh no, here comes the monster – tra-la-la la-la’ or ‘I’m about to die, but first a song!’, that sort of thing. ‘Here I go and watch me climbing a tree, I’m climbing a tree…’. And and that is a perfectly valid way of doing those sorts of things, and is great for that type of art form. But with us – and I know, I sound like I’m mocking, but I’m really not – with the music that we wrote for those albums, what we tried to do – or certainly the stuff that I wrote – is I tried to pick on an emotional connection between people at that point. So the piece of music might find a little section in the story about an interaction between two people, and rather than say in the lyrics, ‘he looked at her, she looked at him’, it’s more about emotions. In Picture Of A Lady there was, ‘if she’d turn and look my way, I’m sure that I would gladly stay’, so you actually put yourself inside the characters. How do those characters feel at that moment? How do they react to each other? And at the end of the day, that’s what’s really strong about songs, that you can write a song about something from an emotional perspective, and someone else can pick up on and interpret that song in a completely different way, and still get warmth, comfort, agreement in that piece of music. Anyway, that’s how I enjoy creating pieces of music’.
I mention at this point that what I found with Jabberwocky is that it’s different stylistically; the two albums are significantly different although you can tell they were created in the same way. Whereas Baskervilles is very much the Alchemy sort of, ‘Victorian tale of derring-do’ and a lot of the music goes along with it that way, some of Jabberwocky, is more a sort of medieval thing – a bit like the Rick Wakeman King Arthur album, lots of fanfares and that kind of thing in there. ‘Yeah…’, Oliver muses. ‘I think that comes from Jabberwocky being a nonsense poem, it was a lot less structured in its narrative. We were able to write a story around this, especially as we saw Rodney Matthews’ artwork very early on in the process. So we had an idea visually of how the how the album was going to look, and so we could sort of base it in that… well, ‘cartoon’ is the wrong word. But it allowed us to go into areas where it was a bit darker, but it could also be quite light, in places. There’s a track Coming To Town, which is almost like the villagers doing ‘Chinese Whispers’, ‘It’s got big teeth! It’s got big claws!’. I mean, the song is essentially about a monster ravaging a town and killing people – but the music is done in a way that says, ‘You’ll can never guess who’s coming to town. It’s that bloody monster again!’, you know? The contrasting way of looking at it. We’re taking it seriously, of course, but there can be lighter moments. I think the best parallel, like you said, is the King Arthur thing, that’s right’. I concur with this, saying that for me it works well because there has been quite a bit of grandiosity leading up to that point, and suddenly it’s kind of punctured by this quite tongue-in-cheek rock track. The album is very varied like that; it goes from style to style, but it fits together. very well. ‘Yeah, I think that was really good fun. And I was really pleased with the final result for that album. But then you have poignant ones as well, like, you know, The Burgundy Rose, where you get the whole feeling of that character. You can almost imagine it is an animated film, it has that sort of feel to it. Whereas Hound Of The Baskervilles, because the narrative is so strong and so evocative, the music had to match that feel of a slightly oppressed Edwardian period society, and also there’s a very descriptive story that you have to match with quite well. As a result there wasn’t a great deal of levity in it, but we tried to find places where we could jaunt it up a little bit – I think like Three Broken Threads, the piece of music in there, which is a very upbeat, very pulsing piece of music about a carriage chase through the streets of London. So yes, they have different styles for sure. I mean, the Frankenstein stuff that we did for the third one, it almost goes to a different place again. It becomes quite dark, because while Hounds has a sort of positive end in a collaborative build to a big finale, the Frankenstein project, you know – spoiler alert, it’s not a happy story! So the music that we’ve written for that, which we’re going back through, is quite dark and, in certain places, it’s a little challenging as well. There’s the track Why Do You Hate Me on there, which is about the confrontation between the doctor and the monster. Again, it’s another one of those emotional points. The doctor who created him who is is technically his father, and he’s going, ‘Why? Why do you despise me?’ The the monster is almost driven to madness, and just thinks the only way he can ever get the doctor’s attention is by killing everything that the doctor holds dear. And that is essentially the story, these intertwining lives, which are always destined to end up sad. So the music goes down that route as well. You end up trying to write the music to fit the story’.
I observe here that this is something that I like about it, because I remember reading Frankenstein as a teenager, and the book is nothing like the film adaptations they made of it. The book is an amazing piece of work, it was well subtitled as ‘The Modern Prometheus’, and it’s such a morality tale that works on on so many levels, it’s far from just being the horror story that they made it later. Oliver agrees strongly here:’Yeah, well, we we did that with all the stories actually, we went back to the original books. When we were finishing the Frankenstein material off I deliberately went back and read the book again, to see what bits stuck out. Where did it take me now, 15 years later, as a writer? And some of the pieces stayed as they were; there’s a fun piece on there called Descent Into Madness, which is just, you know, a keyboard-fest with over the top playing and lots and lots of interesting lines flying around. But it is all about leading to the end of the story where they’re both reaching the end of their lives in in grief and torment. All of these albums allowed us the freedom – even though we were working in a narrative – to pick the bits that we felt really would be best conveyed in musical form, and that’s what I loved about it’. It was certainly a masterstroke getting Robert Powell as the narrator (Dr Watson) for Baskervilles, I note – because he does a superb job of conjuring up the atmosphere. ‘He really does, doesn’t he?’, agrees Oliver. ‘He’s actually one of the few actors to have played both Holmes and Watson. He was really methodical with it – I remember him asking what we wanted to do about the letter H! He went on to clarify that by saying ‘Well, you know, back in those days, they would have pronounced hotel as ‘otel, rather than hotel. Or would you rather I pronounced it in a modern way of saying hotel, which more people are aware of?’ And I said, No, go for the authentic feel. That’s what we’re trying to convey here. We did as much as we could to be respectful to the story, and Robert was tremendous’. It’s a good choice of story as well, being action-driven, rather than a typical Holmes ‘Aha, I deduce from this cigar butt that three weeks ago, you took a train journey, but it was slightly delayed…’ That’s not going to work is it? ‘Absolutely, you’re exactly right. As a story it’s more driven by Watson than Holmes, and with the other characters like Henry Baskerville, and all of the things that converge toward the end, it was perfect.’
At this point I bring up the cast of musicians who appear on the albums, which is exceptional. Tracey Hitchings in particular gives a brilliant vocal performance in Baskervilles, and it is fantastic to hear the late Peter Banks contributing plenty of great guitar solos across both recordings, though it isn’t broken down as to exactly where he does play. Oliver is justifiably enthused about this subject. ‘Yes, there are some superb performances, and you’re right, it is great to have Peter on there. We didn’t break down the guitar parts – we liked the idea of a sort of fun guessing game – and it’s been 20 years, but I can probably remember a few! On Jabberwocky, for example, it’s pretty much all him, he does pretty much all of the lead parts on that album. When we get to Baskervilles he did less, I think had less time available to us at that point. He did a particularly beautiful guitar solo on By Your Side, which is just lovely. I remember thinking when I wrote that, it needs a guitar solo there, but what I had in my head was completely not what Peter plays, and what I heard what he did, I was slightly taken aback. And then when I listened to it a second time, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s just amazing’. I couldn’t or would never have imagined that, and he just pulled it out of the air. And that’s what Peter was brilliant at doing, finding melodies you would just never expect. Then we had Arjen Lucassen, who came along and played on Seldon and Shadows Of Fate which were perfect for him to show off his talents, and of course Karl Groom, the wonderful guitarist from Threshold, who was always very unassuming sitting there behind the desk, and then he gets up and rips off a blinding solo on Run For Your Life. We were very lucky, really, to get such great players to work with us. Tracey Hitchings, as you say, was tremendous – I’ve liked everything I’ve heard her do, but I think these albums just suited her perfectly, the amount of variety she was able to put into the work. I particularly love how she does the mid-section in Coming To Town, and the little vocal refrain just before the guitar comes in is what I call one of those ‘magical music moments’, where somebody pulls something off which is unexpected yet perfect – the mark of a great singer’.
Bob Catley from Magnum is also always good value on these sort of projects, I suggest, due to his very demonstrative, theatrical vocal style anyway. He’s the kind of guy who could sing Love Me Do and make it sound as if he was wrenching it from the depths of his tortured soul… ‘Oh that’s right, he is perfect for this sort of stuff absolutely. Actually, I’ve got a good story about Bob, from when I got married. I’d invited him to the wedding, and when I sent the invitations out I had this little setlist printed up, because so many of the guests were musicians, and they could just get up and play throughout the night, which was great. Anyhow, Bob came up to me and just said [adopts Brummie drawl] ‘I don’t know any of these’. I said ‘But Bob, they’re all pretty much ’60s and ’70s rock standards, how can you not know these songs?’, to which he replied ‘I only sing Magnum songs’! Anyhow, he said there was one that he sort of knew, which was the chorus of Mustang Sally – not the verses, just the chorus. So I have this abiding memory of Bob up there singing in a backing vocal chorus to Mustang Sally while someone else sang the lead. I couldn’t imagine anyone better at singing Mustang Sally than Bob Catley, and he didn’t know it!’ We both laugh at the thought, as I suggest that he must have been very close to his ceremony being taken over by a 40-minute performance of On A Storyteller’s Night or something!
It will be timely, I think, for people who might have missed these albums first time around to discover them, because they are too good to remain a secret, almost. ‘They are, yes. I mean, they did pretty well when they first came out, they got a lot of attention. But we released them at a time where people weren’t really using lots of guests, so we were slightly unusual at the time by doing that. And a lot of bands were doing pretty much standard prog records, by which I mean five piece bands with lots of long form music, that sort of thing – I’m not being disrespectful in any way there I must add! That seemed to be what a lot of people were doing as prog was starting to get a bit of a following again, which was great of course, and still is. And these two albums, even though they were regarded as prog albums, didn’t really fit any sort of mould that other people were doing, so we were slightly unusual. And I think that they deserve a fair crack in it, for sure – it’s a shame when they went out of print and people couldn’t get hold of them any more. Because if you if you find the dodgy mp3s on YouTube and stuff, there’s an awful lot of views and people obviously enjoy it. So I’m hoping that this time around people get a chance to listen to them, and people who got them the first time think ‘yeah, I remember those now’. Particularly now as you know, for example, Peter Banks has passed away, and there’s a lot of musicians on there that you wouldn’t have expected to work together. Since Clive’s gone on to do his Alchemy stuff and the Arena and Pendragon work, and I’ve had the Yes and Strawbs things and what not, you can actually look at where our careers have gone and go back and think, well, right back at the beginning of all this, these two guys did these things here. And I will say, it’s really nice that, though Clive and I don’t speak all the time, when we got back together with this, we really enjoyed ourselves, sending files across and all of that. That’s brilliant, I like that. We just dropped pretty much straight back into it. And that’s what’s great about musicians, you know, if you’re not in one of the big bands where you fall out, we all just keep on and enjoy each other’s company’.
As a final note, I remark on the superb design quality of the three books which come in the box, which really enhance the listening experience, a subject with which Oliver is justifiably enthusiastic: ‘Yeah, a lot of that is Peter Pracownik’s artwork, he was very generous. I went down to his house down near Tintagel, and we just sat there going through his his collection – he’d painted the front cover to Baskervilles, and I said, ‘Oh, I could do with some bits for the inside’. And he just kept pulling out painting after painting of the most beautiful art, evocative of what could be Dartmoor, and he just said things like ‘Well, this is a picture of the Tor’. And I said ‘Oh, that’s amazing’, and he just said ‘Yeah, you can use that one’, ‘That one’s lovely’, ‘Yeah, use that one as well!’. He just gave me painting after painting to use. That was so generous of him to just be so giving with his artwork. So that was lovely. And Rodney Matthews as well, who did the Jabberwocky artwork, when we did the CD for Jabberwocky, he actually let us use the original pencil sketch that he did for the cover as well. So there’s new discs and everything. So you know, he gave us new artwork as well. And there’s a pencil sketch of the main character, which he then gave me as well. So I’ve got the original on my wall, which is so nice. Everybody that’s been involved with this project has been really, really enthusiastic about making it something special, which is marvellous. It’s so nice when people get behind the project as much as they have with this, it’s been brilliant’.
Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the look as well as the sound of this collection is magnificent, and for anyone who missed out on these on their initial appearance – and even people who got the originals – there can’t be a better way to own them than this. The inclusion of the Dark Fables disc as well – far more than a mere bonus – makes this a very attractive proposition indeed. And put together by a couple of very nice guys as well, which certainly is a bonus! Dare I say ‘it’s a gas’? No? Ah well, perhaps best not then…