Those of us who teethed musically in the ’70s were blessed to witness the flourishing of a triumvirate of amazing keyboard players: Tony Banks, Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. All three were in their prime and playing in bands also at their musical peak. Yes were my favourite band in those years, and while Jon Anderson lacked the charisma of Ozzy Osbourne, and Steve Howe lacked the brooding menace of Ritchie Blackmore, Rick Wakeman was the real deal with his extravagant capes and his dazzling mastery of the banks of keyboards that seemed to surround him to head height. He was cool and seemed larger than life. In many ways, Wakeman was larger than life as a cursory look at his career shows him going from rags to riches (several times), from one wife to the next (four in total), with amazing musical high points (and some low ones) with Yes and as a solo artist, and a successful acting and writing career (the Grumpy Old Men TV Series and the Grumpy Old Rock Star series of books respectively). The glory years of Wakeman’s progressive rock contribution may have been the 1970s but he’s returned to the genre over his solo career and is now about to release his first progressive rock album of new material for nearly two decades: The Red Planet. The album will be released on 28th August (see the album review on this site!) so the timing was therefore perfect to have a chat with Rick about his career and the inspiration for the new album.
Rick is famous for being able to spin a good story but I had to start by sharing with him my own little tale of being a teenage fan of Yes in the 70s: I grew up in a fairly poor family and my prized asset was my admittedly very small collection of LPs. My favourite was Close To The Edge but the triple live album Yessongs was the one I desired but could never afford. I used to go to the record shop in town and stare longingly at the Roger Dean artwork on the cover. Eventually, thanks to a lucky bet on the horses I won the massive sum of £20 pounds so I shot right down to the record shop and finally got my hands on Yessongs. Rick chuckles at the story and happily adds his own not dissimilar reminiscences. ‘When I was a young kid in the late 50s my parents didn’t have any money at all so I had to earn money doing paper rounds and all that kind of lark. The most exciting thing was that you aimed for the next record that you were going to buy. Singles back then were five shillings (that’s 25p). The cheapest albums, called Pye Golden Guineas (released by Pye Record), were one pound and one shilling each, and then the more expensive ones were three pounds. I remember saving and saving and saving. I think I appreciated those records more than when I had the money to go out and buy whatever records I wanted. Talking about Close To the Edge, I think it was overall the best Yes album, I really do’ continues Rick. ‘I think it ticked every box. There are other Yes albums that have got some great tracks on them but for me Close To The Edge answers every progressive rock question. And as for Yessongs, I think it was a very brave live album to do because the technology to record live music back then wasn’t that great. I think it was a pretty decent achievement and I agree the cover was amazing!’. I point out that doing a triple live album was a brave choice too. ‘Well it was meant to be a double album’ confesses Rick ‘but we couldn’t agree on what tracks would be left off! So in the end I think it was our manager Brian Lane who, realising we’d never agree, said he’d talk to Atlantic Records to see if we could include everything. And that’s what happened and how it became a triple album.’
Coming to Rick’s extensive solo career, I mention the fact that on Wikipedia I’d read a claim that the new album, The Red Planet, was his 102nd studio effort, and I quiz him about this fact and where this compulsion comes from to create so much music, including apparently writing The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur album in a hospital bed! ‘Yes, the King Arthur story is true’ exclaims Rick before reflecting on the creativity question a bit and adding: ‘Well, it comes from a mix of my music teacher and my father. When I was learning to play music, they both said to me that music is for sharing; it is not something to lock yourself away with and play for your own enjoyment. The people who are listening are actually part of the same experience. So, remember to share what you do if you feel it is worth sharing, they said. I have gone periods of a year when I haven’t written anything that I thought was worthy of recording, but then suddenly you get periods where you like what you are creating in that moment. So, in terms of the number of albums, I‘m not sure if the 102 figure is quite right. And there’s been so many compilation albums as well. Record companies have bought stuff from other record companies and put different tracks together and given the albums different titles. I truly have no idea how many there are. And as for how many albums I’ve got of mine: about 30 in total – that’s mainly due to three divorces and four marriages!’
There have certainly been highs and lows in Rick’s solo career in terms of album sales. While everyone knows the highs, I am curious as to which of the less successful albums he felt really deserved more attention and success than they received. ‘Probably Return To The Centre Of The Earth’ responds Rick. ’I was incredibly proud of it as a big orchestral concept album. It did OK, actually, but it didn’t do anything like the original Journey To The Centre Of The Earth or The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur. The album Out There which I did with the band – crikey, 20 years ago now – that disappeared without trace but I thought it had a lot of interesting stuff on it. There are also certain projects which I like to do which I don’t expect to be a commercial success. For example, I did an album called The Suite of Gods with an opera singer, Ramon Remedios. It was an album that I really liked but it disappeared almost without trace because it didn’t have the commercial aspects – synthesisers and an opera singer is a bit of a strange combination! Occasionally I’ll get it out and listen again and I’m really proud of it. If I sat down, I could probably think of half a dozen that I think it would have been nice if they had done better. I do what I believe is the best I can do so that I know I can always hold up my head knowing that I did the best I could do at the time.’
The subject of space has been a common theme throughout Rick’s career. One of his first breaks was getting to play the mellotron on David Bowie’s Space Oddity (the start of a lifelong friendship). In Rick’s own album discography, there’s No Earthy Connection, 2000AD Into The Future, and Out There. And now of course the new release, The Red Planet. I’m therefore very curious as to where this fascination with all things extraterrestrial came from.
‘It goes right back to 1959 when Yuri Gagarin was the first man into space’ explains Rick. ‘I was a ten-year-old lad and I remember seeing the pictures of Yuri Gagarin in his capsule and I thought it was absolutely amazing. For my birthday my parents bought me a shiny silver spacesuit. I think it cost my Dad about a pound which was a lot of money in those days. I loved that spacesuit. It was all plastic – plastic helmet, plastic jacket, plastic trousers, and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. And then in the 70s, thanks to the tours with Yes, I started to meet astronauts from NASA. My music went up in space on some of the missions too. The first thing they took out was 2000AD Into The Future and that was on cassette. I’ve got wonderful pictures of CDs floating around in the cabin. Moving ahead a bit further, I put together the Out There album with a space theme but just as I was finishing it the terrible Challenger disaster happened which is why I didn’t release the album straight away. We held it back. I wanted to dedicate it to the crew because I knew some of them quite well. And before we put the dedication on the album, we did speak to all the families to make sure they were happy for us to do so. That’s also why we never really marketed the album because the last thing I wanted was that anyone would think we were trying to cash in on a horrendous disaster. Moving forward into the 21st century, Brian May, who has always been a great friend of mine, called me to invite me to the STARMUS Festival which is a festival of music and astrophysics and all things space that had been founded by Stephen Hawking, Brian May himself, and an astrophysicist called Garik Israelian. The first STARMUS event I did with them was down in Tenerife and it was fantastic. I got to meet Stephen Hawking, and Brian May played with me and my band. Last year I was at the STARMUS festival in Zurich, and at the end every single surviving astronaut who had walked on the moon walked onto the stage; I’ve heard reactions from audiences all over the world for bands and people for the last fifty plus years but I never heard anything quite like that; the place went berserk. We played We Are The Champions as they walked out and the audience pretty much drowned us out.’
Continuing, Rick then reveals the moment of inspiration for the new album: ‘I was talking to Garik Israelian and a couple of astronaut friends of mine. They were asking me what music I was doing. I said I wanted to do another prog-rock album about space but I needed an inspirational subject but I was looking around and struggling to find one. Garik then said that he wanted me to do the STARMUS Festival in 2021 where he said we’d be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first launch of a probe to Mars. And I went very quiet. Garik asked “is everything OK?” and I replied “You’ve just given me my subject: Mars!”. I know quite a lot about Mars. I’ve got lots of great pictures taken on Mars and it’s always fascinated me because it’s pretty certain that two million years ago Mars was pretty much like Earth: it had seas and rivers, and it had oxygen but far less than Earth. I said to Garik, “Not only will I do the festival, but I’ll play the music there as well!”. So that was the start of it all. I’d been trying to put progressive rock stuff together for some time but based on musical knowledge rather than inspiration. It was the whole subject of the red planet that gave me that inspiration. It got me very excited about it all and I hadn’t had that for a long time. One of the things that’s really hard, believe it or not, is to do a proper instrumental album because it’s difficult to get melodies in that are recognisable and it is something that you can’t bluff.’ I observe that in any instrumental album, the quality of the material has to be better because you can’t hide behind the story or some emotional hook in the lyrics. ‘Yes, you’re quite right’ agrees Rick. ‘The emotion has to be totally in the music. You haven’t got the lyrics. You haven’t got a story. It has to be told by the music and not by lyrics. Someone asked me why I hadn’t done more instrumental albums and it’s for that simple reason. You’re having to tell a story without the words. That can only come from the inspirational side of things; there’s not a formula to do it.’
I point out that as an instrumental prog album it will inevitably lead to comparisons with The Six Wives Of Henry The Eighth or Criminal Record. I ask whether this would be a fair comparison and Rick concurs and explains how he drew on those early albums for ideas: ‘‘Yes, there have been some comparisons and to some extent a lot of them are very valid because what I did do was I went back and listened to certain of my prog albums. The Six Wives of Henry The Eighth and Criminal Record were two of them. Even though not an instrumental, I listened to No Earthly Connection too. And whenever a sound would appear, I’d go “hold on, I like that. Why didn’t I ever use that more?”. For example, on No Earthly Connection, there was a lot of use of the Mellotron flutes and I thought that sound was so right for what I wanted to do. So, I made note of a lot of sounds that, when the right opportunity came, I used on The Red Planet. So, when people say there seems to be some of The Six Wives of Henry The Eighth or Criminal Record in there, they are quite right, but they were sound influences rather than composing influences.’
I pick up the reference to the Mellotron flutes since the beautiful flute theme on South Pole is one of my favourite moments on the album. ‘Yes, that’s the Mellotron flute. I’ve always liked themes. I’ve always started from the tune, not from rhythm or chords which is why I so much like the early Yes albums because everything stems from melodies. Jon would come along with a melody and we would work around it and play around with it and that would create the music. In later years it became more about a few chords or a nice rhythm and then Jon was left to try and put tunes over the top which in a lot of cases was very difficult. I think music has to start with a memorable tune and everything builds around it, not the other way around. I’ve always done that with everything I’ve written.’
I mention that I still have the original vinyl version of The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur with the gatefold sleeve and vinyl-sized booklet and it’s great to see that with The Red Planet there’s the pop-up vinyl sleeve and a vinyl-sized booklet. Rick warms to the point: ‘One of the things I’ve always objected to the way the music industry has been run is that it always comes up with that dreaded word “replacement”. We were told CDs would replace vinyl, and then digital downloads would replace CDs, and then streaming would replace digital downloads. And it’s wrong! Basically, what they should have done is say “we have another way you can have your music”. What’s happening now is that people are discovering those other ways. Vinyl is now increasing its sales tremendously. People love the tactile nature and vinyl quality is excellent. Even cassettes are coming back again. When CDs came out it was great and all that, but I don’t know anybody who could read any of the writing on a CD cover! The CD covers became immaterial; none of them were half-decent. When we did an album (in the past) you started thinking about a cover from day one. Actually, I started talking about the cover for The Red Planet with Rob Bailey last year while we sat outside a café in Lytham St Annes. I said I wanted it to be something that is memorable. The planet Mars had to be there obviously, but I liked the idea of having a few weird things involved but not in a surrealistic way – it’s not a Roger Dean subject. I love Roger to death but Roger has always created his own planets. I asked Bob to try and get some reference to keyboards in it and also I said I would like a hidden reference somewhere to David Bowie because we were such great friends. So, Bob came back with the idea of putting the Minimoog on the front cover and including a subtle Bowie reference (spoiler alert: it’s the lightning bolt on the astronaut’s suit button!). Then he said “I thought we could do this” and he’d brought a mock-up with the pop up and opened it. I went “I love it!”. And I love it because covers should be special. They should be something that people want to hold. A number of people have commented how great the cover is, as well as the booklet that you can read without a magnifying glass!’
I observe that opener Ascreus Mons has the feel of an overture. ‘That’s the church organ’ reflects Rick. ‘The church organ is something I’ve used a lot over the years. It’s always been what I’ve called a kitchen sink instrument, along with the choir. So, when you’re building up the music and you think it can’t get any bigger, you throw in the church organ and then you throw in the choir. I didn’t want to do that here. I wanted to go back to pieces like Jane Seymour or Judas Iscariot where I used the organ standalone and created things that I added to the organ. And so it was deliberate in that track to let the organ start on its own and allow the music to build around it. When we finished that one, Erik Jordan (the producer) said that whatever else we did, that track had to open the album because it felt like a forward to a book that tells you what’s going to happen.’
Moving from the organ to the piano, I flag that I was struck by the lack of piano on the album. ‘That’s right, the piano is not a major part of the album’ confirms Erik. ‘There are quite a few places where we’ve used the piano, often with different sounds and different echoes. I tend to pick on sounds that I feel work for the piece so that’s why there’s no Catherine Howard type of piece on the album because there wasn’t one that I wrote that I felt needed that. So, it has got piano but you’re quite right that it’s not as much as on a lot of the previous albums.’
Valles Marineris has a more epic feel to it which I guess is a result of the fact, revealed in the album booklet, that some of the material has its origin in ideas for an Anderson Rabin Wakeman album that never materialised. ‘Yes, it’s true that some of that I wrote in 2019 because Jon, Trevor and I were looking to do an album. Valles Marineris was a very simplistic thing at the time based on Ravel’s Bolero. I gave it to Jon and Trevor and they both really liked it. It all then went a bit pear shaped. Jon’s wife was very ill (she had to have a major operation for cancer), and then when she was better the same thing happened with my wife, so everything just got stopped. That’s why there was nothing last year from ARW. But I was really quite pleased with Valles Marineris so it was an opportunity to put it right and use it on this album.’
Mention of ARW brings us back to further questions about Yes and one particular fact that I found strange about Rick’s own live set: the one Yes song that is played often is Starship Trooper, which appears an odd choice since it wasn’t one that was written when he was in the band. ‘I think it was one of the few Yes pieces that you could play around with’ explains Rick. ‘They are what they are and if they are not played as they were meant to be played then they don’t sound right. But Starship Trooper was always a piece that I felt could be more of a rock piece than the Yes Album version which had an acoustic nature to it. I thought to make it much more of a rock song, making it quite different to the original. It also gave us a chance when playing live, especially at the end, for everyone to have a bit of fun and have a go.’
Sticking to the subject of Starship Trooper, I mention that most people know the song title comes from the famous science-fiction book of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein, but I wonder whether Jon Anderson ever explained what the lyrics were actually about. Rick laughs before responding ‘I’ve asked Jon about what some of the songs mean for years and I don’t think I’ve ever had the same answer to be brutally honest with you. I honestly have no idea. I love Jon’s lyrics because they could mean whatever you want them to mean.’ Rick then tells of a meeting with a fan sometime in the 70s:
Fan: I’ve discovered the real meaning of Your Move.
Jon: Oh yes?
Fan: It’s all about the different moving planets in the different galaxies that are all sort of slowly coming together to form one great giant galaxy.
Jon: That’s good.
(Fan leaves happily)
Rick: Jon, is that what it’s all about?
Jon: No, it’s about a game of chess.
Rick: Why didn’t you tell him?
Jon: If that’s what it means to him, that’s fine!
If the fan interpreted Your Move in that way then one wonders what the same fan would have made of the meaning of the Yes masterpiece/monstrosity (delete as appropriate, based on your personal view) Tales From Topographic Oceans which appears to be about much loftier themes than chess. ‘Indeed, the album was about the Sanskrit scriptures’ confirms Rick, adding that it would take 80 years to read them all before confessing that the inspiration was from a more mundane source: ‘The idea came from Jon and I who were reading about it in the Sunday Express and that was it!’. Rick’s candid views on the album seem to coincide with those of many fans: ‘There is a lot of very good stuff on Tales From Topographic Oceans and there’s a lot of padding and rubbish. We all agreed in later years that if CDs had been available at the time then there wouldn’t have been a problem because one of the tracks might be nine minutes, one might be twelve, one might be eighteen, and one might be fourteen, but because we wanted to do one track for each side of the vinyl, they had to be padded out to make the necessary time to fit on the vinyl. And that wasn’t Yes. The album always annoyed me because of that.’
When recording an album about the spiritual heights of The Orient, one might expect perfect spiritual harmony in the studio, so I quiz Rick about mysterious rumours of there being electric cows present. Rick laughs at that one and explains ‘Yes, it’s true about the cow. Basically, we couldn’t agree where to record the album. Jon and I wanted to record it in the country, and Steve and Chris wanted to record it in London. And Alan, bless him, could never make a decision and was quite happy wherever it was recorded, so it was decided by the management that we’d record in London but we’d try and make it look like the countryside. And so they brought in bales of hay and picket fences. We had a giant cutout cow with electric udders that went up and down. It was absolutely ridiculous! Unfortunately, there aren’t any photographs of it all. A pity because they would be priceless now’ muses Rick.
Moving on to a couple of lesser acclaimed Yes albums during Rick’s time with the band, I ask Rick about the Tormato album cover and whether he is guilty of influencing that cover.’ Yes’ confesses Rick. ‘They showed us the cover and I thought it was the worst cover I’d ever seen. There was always a bowl of salad there – to keep the vegetarians happy – and there was a big squashy tomato which I picked up and threw at the cover and it dripped all down the painting. Someone shouted “That is the master painting!”. The intention had been to call the album Yes Tor after the hill of the same name in Devon but Brian Lane, our manager, jumped in saying to take it away, photograph it, and call the album Yes Tormato’ That was a clever bit of thinking on the fly, I observe and Rick concurs ‘It was; it was brilliant’. Coming to the music I bluntly ask what he think went wrong with that album. ‘The album suffered because it had about seven producers’ reflects sadly Rick. ‘There were so many fingers on the faders and nobody could agree. And it was a great shame because there’s actually some good stuff on there like Arriving UFO. I’d love to get hold of that album personally and see what is remixable.’
I’m curious to hear Rick’s views on the two Keys To Ascension albums from 1996 and 1997 because in my view they represented a return to form by the band. ‘Keys To Ascension had the possibility of being a very good album. There were two things that I think got in its way’ explains Rick. ‘First of all, this was a period of time when prog-rock, and particularly the sort that Yes played, was about as in vogue as putting condom machines in the Vatican. You were really struggling. Secondly, we had some very good material but what it did lack – which is something we spoke about earlier – is melody. Every piece started from chord sequences or rhythms that had been put together and Jon was basically trying to put melodies over the top. And that’s not the strength of Yes. For me, it was too long. We could have made it shorter and used the best of what we’d got and paid more attention to melodies. It was not a bad album; it was just the wrong time. It was interesting to do and it’s what I would call a “nearly album”.’
In closing, I wish Rick good luck with the album and hope that Covid-permitting we will see him out on the road playing it next year. ‘That’s the plan sir, that’s the plan!’ replies Rick energetically. In the meantime, we will have to settle for getting familiar with the fabulous material on the new album!