Rick Wakeman says Yes to Tel Aviv

The veteran keyboard wizard is happy to invite audiences into his inner world.

Progressive rock musician Rick Wakeman. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Progressive rock musician Rick Wakeman.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A day after the 2014 inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame were announced last month, Rick Wakeman sounded every bit the country gentleman he is – except when talking about the hall of fame. Yes, the British progressive rock band that he was an integral member of during their most creative and successful period in the early 1970s, had been on the ballot for the first time but had failed to make the final cut. Wakeman wasn’t surprised by the news.
“I think the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has totally ignored certain genres of music, progressive rock being one of them,” said the 64-year-old keyboard virtuoso from his home in Norfolk in eastern England.
“That sort of says to me that the artists that get in are the ones that the people who decide like, rather than more objective criteria. If it was going to be fair, bands like Yes and Deep Purple [also nominated but snubbed] would already be in.”
“I’ve been to the hall of fame in Cleveland many times, and I go around there and sort of scratch my head sometimes trying to understand how some of the artists got in there. It doesn’t surprise me that Yes didn’t get in, and I very much doubt that Yes will get in there in the future.”
And even if they do, Wakeman adamantly stated he would have no interest in attending the induction ceremony – not because of any conflict with his former band mates but as a general statement about the selection process.
“I have great reservations about how artists get into the hall of fame. Yes should have gotten on their first year of eligibility [1989 – 20 years after the release of their eponymous debut album]. So I wouldn’t go to an induction ceremony in the future on principle.”
Along with bands like King Crimson, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd and Genesis, Yes was at the forefront of prog-rock in the late 1960s and early ‘70s – the criteria was longer, multi-passage songs, symphonic and classical influences, expansive instrumentals and fantasy-like lyrics that expanded the boundaries of rock & roll in a new direction. Fans considered it mind-blowing and detractors labeled it pompous and pretentious.
Wakeman – both in his work with Yes on FM rock late-night staples like “Roundabout”, “Your Move” and “Close to the Edge,” and as a solo artist, twirling around in a cape surrounded by a battery of keyboards creating epic albums like The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Center of the Earth – could cover both sides of the spectrum, sometimes within the same song.
“It was a wonderful time, because it was a creative time,” said Wakeman. “People sometimes ask me why there were so many great albums in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and the answer is that we were left alone to create.
“The record companies and the managers didn’t tell us what or how to record or demand a three-minute single. Instead, they just said – ‘deliver the album, we’re excited to hear it and when we hear it, we’ll work out how to get people to listen to it.’ And the DJs at the rock radio stations at the time could play whatever they wanted and weren’t stuck in a playlist. So we were left alone to make the music we wanted to make. That’s why there were so many iconic bands and albums from that era.”
Wakeman was well poised to join the mix, growing up with an equal dose of classical and pop influences.
He was raised learning classical piano and attended the Royal College of Music where he studied the piano, clarinet and orchestration.
“It was music I loved dearly. But at the same time, I was brought up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, a time of musical revolution,” said Wakeman. “And I listened to it all, from skiffle to rock & roll. And in the late ‘60s, I discovered bands like the Velvet Underground and the Vanilla Fudge in America, and I loved all that soul music from Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave.”
The fateful event that provided the final push into the rock world for Wakeman occurred in 1968 when a friend invited him to a recording studio to back a soul singer named Jimmy Thomas, who had been a vocalist in the Ike and Tina Turner Revue.
“It was my first session and it took place at Olympic Studios in London,” he recalled. “I sat at the organ and basically played the only way I knew how to play, which was in a classical vein. After we finished, the producers – Denny Cordell and Tony Visconti – called me into the control room.
“‘We want to talk about your playing,’ they said. And I started to say, ‘I’m really sorry, I don’t play like Booker T and I probably shouldn’t have been asked to do this session. And they answered just the opposite – ‘you keep playing exactly the way you’re playing now.
You’ll probably find in a few years’ time that everyone is copying you.’” Cordell and Visconti invited Wakeman back to the studio the next day, and soon he was being offered session work with everyone from Marc Bolan and T Rex to Black Sabbath.
“It completely changed my life,” he said. “I went to speak to my clarinet professor at the Royal College and told him ‘I don’t know what to do – I have all these doors opening to go play pop music.’ And he said simply, ‘go. You’ve finished the studying, now go enjoy music.’ So it was his advice that set me out on the course and provided me with the experience that I’ve been lucky enough to have.”
Wakeman went on to perform on such lasting records as David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and “Changes” and Cat Stevens’ baroque hit “Morning Has Broken.”
He joined the folk rock band The Strawbs in 1969 and stayed with them through 1971 and three albums. During that time, another life changing event occurred – Wakeman discovered the mini-Moog synthesizer.
“The Moog changed everything for keyboard players – it certainly changed my world,” said Wakeman.
“Until Bob Moog built the synthesizer, keyboard players were limited onstage to organ and electric pianos.
You couldn’t get much volume out of them compared to guitars. So when you had a solo, the band had to reduce its volume to a whisper while you did the best you could, and the guitarist would stand over on the side with a smirk.”
“Then the mini-Moog came along, with a sound that could cut through concrete. And suddenly we could be louder than the lead guitarists – and they hated us for it,” he added with a chuckle.
Wakeman brought his mini-moog to Yes in 1971, replacing Tony Kaye in the original lineup, and his playing created another ‘lead’ instrument on “Fragile,” “Close to the Edge” and the live Yes songs, which established the band as the prog-rockers’ prototype.
During that run, he launched his solo career with Henry VIII in 1973 and Journey the following year. By the time he left Yes in 1974, he was the most famous rock keyboardist on the planet and 1975’s Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table took his classical-rock mutation to its outer limits.
Over 30 years later, and a host of albums, Yes reunions including the Fragile lineup from 2002 and 2004, and side careers as a TV personality and author, Wakeman has toned down the musical histrionics.
And his upcoming show on January 20 at the Reading Club in Tel Aviv will feature him at the acoustic piano performing tunes from Yes and his solo endeavors and telling stories about them.
“I’ve done this a few times and it’s really great fun,” he said. “Everything I’ve ever written has been on the piano – that was advice from Bowie who said, ‘if it works on the piano, it will work on anything.’ So it’s wonderful to take the pieces back to the way they were at the time of their birth.
“In between, I tell some ridiculously stupid stories of how some of the pieces came about, and other bits and pieces of what’s happened to me over the years.
One writer in England wrote, ‘It doesn’t seem that anything normal ever happened to Rick – it’s always something really bizarre and funny.’ So, I’ll tell some of those stories too. It’s like having everybody in your front room sitting around the piano.”
The intimate setting and scaled-down music will surely have fans saying ‘yes,’ even if the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame says no.