The Rick Wakeman Interview
By Shawn PerryPhoto: Lee Wilkinson
When I first heard Rick Wakeman's Journey To The Centre Of The Earth some time around its release in 1974, I was at once baffled and fascinated. It wasn't your average rock and roll set from Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath — it was weird and different with a narrator, an orchestra, a choir and a guy in a sequined cape surrounded by stacks of keyboards. My world had already been swallowed up by the antics of Emerson, Lake and Palmer; now the keyboard player from Yes was about to knock me silly with a blend of sophisticated pomp and circumstance I couldn't get enough of.
Throughout the years, as much as I loved the keyboards of Keith Emerson, I came to realize that Rick Wakeman was an entirely different animal. He had long fingers that gracefully flowed over the keys with a light, yet firm touch. He closed his eyes when he played and painted musical pictures in his mind. Obviously, he was educated, having studied at the Royal College of Music, and well-read, as evidenced by his adaptation of the Jules Verne classic. He was also (and still is) a bit of a history buff. When it came time for him to record his first solo album, he found inspiration in a book about Henry VIII.
After The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, an instrumental keyboard album, achieved unexpected worldwide success in 1973, Wakeman attempted to persuade the gatekeepers at Hampton Court Palace to stage a concert. He was flatly turned down, turned his back and went on to make over 50 solo albums, as well as record and tour on and off with Yes. Then, in 2008, Wakeman received a surprising phone call: An invitation to play The Six Wives Of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's ascension to the throne. Naturally, Wakeman spared no expense in making the show as over-the-top, musical and spectacular as possible. Best of all, he saw to it that the concerts were filmed and recorded for the masses to soak up and enjoy.
Having the unique opportunity to talk with the man behind this and many of other incredible pieces of music exceeded all my expectations. Wakeman joyfully went through every detail about how the Hampton Court shows came together. He shared insights about Henry VIII and the magnificent palace where he played and entertained. Wakeman told me about plans for other shows, and explained why he holds down so many part-time jobs. I had piles of questions to ask, but time was limited. So to finish, he gave me an honest and emotional assessment regarding the current state of his former band, Yes.
Congratulations on achieving your dream of performing The Six Wives Of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace.
Yes, it took a few years (laughs).
Can you take me through how it all came together?
Yeah. I have to go back. The album was done over a period of more than a year because we were so busy with Yes at the time. I was literally going into the studio in gaps between touring and doing stuff with Yes. When it finally came out, my manager at the time said to me, "Look, you're really busy with Yes, but would you like to do one concert to promote the album, a one-off concert?" I said I'd love to, so he asked, "Where would you like to do it?" I said, "Hampton Court." Now, at that time, you couldn't do concerts at Hampton Court; you couldn't do anything at Hampton Court. He said, "Well, they don't do concerts at Hampton Court." I said, "That was Henry's fun palace, really, and that would be a great place to do it."
We did ask, and the reply we got back at the time, was that we suggested something tantamount to treason and punishable by death — you know, the thought of having anything like that at Hampton Court. Those were the days when, I suppose young musicians, as I was then. When my manager said, "We'll do it somewhere else, like Royal Albert Hall or something," I threw my toys out the pram and said, "If I can't do it at Hampton Court, I won't do it at all." I threw my toys out the pram, carried on with Yes and everything was fine.
I forgot all about it until last year. I got a phone call, out of the blue, from one of main people at Hampton Court. I had met them before because I'm very fond of stately homes and palaces. I do go visit them a lot and they know me. He said, "Next year is Henry's 500th ascension to the throne — how do you fancy doing The Six Wives down here?" And I said, "I've waited an awful long time for this reply. It's been about 35 years." They laughed and said, "Things have changed an awful lot."
So I went down for a meeting. They do have concerts there, but the concerts are in the courtyard. For the size of the stage that I knew I'd need for what I wanted to do, because this is a one-off chance, the only place we could do would be right out in front of what they call the West Gate. Right in front of the main entrance. They'd never had concerts there before. But I have to say they were fantastic in getting all the necessary permissions.
After 35 years, you got the gig!
The funny thing was we had a meeting. I had my business manager, lighting designers, stage builders, props builders, engineers, recording engineers, film companies — I had them all around the table. One of the things I've learned over the years is that when you want to do something over the top — then, when you are doing your pitch, so to speak — make sure your pitch is even further over the top. Banks are different now, but in the (old) days, if you wanted to borrow $10,000 from your bank, you'd go and ask them for thirty. With a bit of luck, you'd walk out with ten, which is exactly what you went in there for in the first place.
I sat around this table, and I had all my lists and things. I knew that I wanted at least to have a string ensemble up there. To get a string ensemble, I said, "Right, I want a full symphony orchestra. That's what I'd like." And I knew I wanted some singers, so I said, "I'd like the full English Chamber Choir." And then I said, "I want a seven-piece band, minimum. I want actresses. I want a fifty meter wide stage. I want to light up the palace. I want a cathedral organ suspended in space with a staircase that comes out of the stage, like the 'Wizard of Oz'." I said I wanted a piano suspended in mid-air as well, again within the staircase. I went through all this and it was completely ridiculous. I sat and waited to be knocked back with what I could have.
Martin Nicholas, one of the lighting and prop builders, said, "Yeah. I think we can do all that." And the film company said, "Do you want 16 cameras, plus cranes?" "Yeah, we can do that." I sat there, and one by one, they all went, "Yeah, we can do that. Yeah, we can do this." And then, of course, my accountant spoke up and that's when things normally go dreadfully wrong. He said, "I only have one question, Rick." And I said, "What's that, Tom?" And he said, "You're not expecting to make one penny out of this, are you?" I said, "No," and he said, "In that case, go ahead. Because I can assure you, if all of this happens, you won't." I said, "I know Tom. But there's only going to be one 500th anniversary of Henry's ascension to the throne. I'm only going to have one chance at doing this."
I knew we wouldn't get any sponsors because the recession had started. Banks have folded up over here and so did the sort of companies that would sponsor this sort of thing. But there was only going to be one opportunity to do it. It was great and everyone around the table went, "We're with you." I have to say, the team that was put together, everybody in it just desperately wanted to make it work. So, when the time came to finally walk out on the stage — which was almost a year later and an incredible amount of work — it was an incredibly emotional feeling.
When you played the two shows, you had your band the English Rock Ensemble behind you. Aside from Ray Cooper, did you invite anyone else who played on the original album — you know, like Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford and Alan White?
I looked at this — about getting guests and people on board. Steve, Chris and Alan were away working as it was. That wouldn't have been possible to have them anyway. And the amount of rehearsals involved. I looked at it really closely, and of course, I had the Acoustic Strawbs doing a set as well before we came on. Chas Cronk and Dave Cousins both played on the original album. I spoke to the stage manager, Rick Price, from the early days, and he said, "Rick, if you're going to start changing musicians around on stage, it could start to get very complicated. If you want this to be really slick, and go through, almost like a musical story, you can't really chop and change musicians on stage." That was the reason we didn't go ahead with that idea.
Everyone — you, the band, the English Chamber Choir, the Orchestra Europa, even Brian Blessed — just sound spectacular together. With so many players involved, I can imagine rehearsals could turn a bit chaotic.
Like a jigsaw puzzle. Basically, what I did first of all, I revisited the album. I went back and placed myself in 1971 when I first started it. I really tried to get in the mindset of how I was then. I remember very clearly having to think a lot about the length of each piece, the length of the solos, simply because of what would fit on to vinyl. When you think about it, there were some critical constraints around then. I remember certain areas that I'd always wished were longer. In fact, when I played some of the pieces live with the band, they were, indeed, longer.
The original title was Henry VIII And His Six Wives, because there was meant to be a track for Henry. But by the time I finished the Six Wives, I said to my engineer at the time, Paul Tregurtha, "OK, let's record this track," and he said, "There's no room." So that's why Henry got dumped and it became The Six Wives Of Henry VIII.
I had to bring Henry back and this was a great opportunity. The title was always going to be "Defender Of The Faith," which was the name the pope gave to Henry VIII. I have to be honest with you — the piece was never recorded originally, but I remembered the main theme of the whole thing, and I took that and wrote the piece. I tried to think of it in the same style and in the same manner as I was writing in 1973. I thought if you're gonna have new pieces in there, they've got to match. They can't stick out like something that doesn't belong.
I did two other pieces as well. I wanted the equivalent of an overture, more than anything else. Just to set the scene of the whole thing. The other problem, which my guitarist Dave Colquhoun said to me, was: "What are you gonna do for an encore?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, in fairness, you're bound to get an encore. And you can't play a piece from another album. It just won't work."
"Right, OK, that's a good point…" So, I wrote "Tudorock" as a fun piece for the end, specifically for that purpose. Then what I did with them — I recorded them all simply on piano. An interesting thing — something David Bowie taught me years ago. He writes everything on a battered old 12-string guitar and he said to me, "If it sounds good on this. By the time you get good instruments and great players, it can only go to another stage. You should always write on the piano. You make it sound good on the piano (and) it can only get better as it moves on." So, I wrote, played and recorded them all on the piano, listened through, made a few changes until I was a hundred percent happy.
I went to see Guy Protheroe, who's a great friend of mine and runs the English Chamber Choir. He's a great conductor and a great orchestrator. I said, "Look Guy, I'm going to do a short score, which is basically what you do to give an idea of how you want the scoring to be done. Can you please do the orchestrations and conduct for me?" Which he did and he did a great job.
I then sent the equivalent piano parts to each of the band. I did not give them a clue as to what the orchestration was going to be, but I gave them the piano parts with basic instructions on what I wanted to do. When we met up for the first rehearsals with the band, we played it all through and there were certain areas that I knew would just work fantastically with what Guy was doing. There were a couple of areas that I knew would clash, so we changed those. After five days with the band, the orchestra came in. We rehearsed with the orchestra. The choir came in, and we rehearsed with the orchestra and the choir.
In the meantime, there were a ludicrous amount of production meetings. I think there just over 240 people involved. When we went to Hampton Court, the stage and seating took two days to build. There is no seating. We had to build a grand strand and the seats.
How many people were you able to accommodate?
We were limited to 5,000 per night.
Henry VIII was also a musician and composer of some renown. What do you think he would have thought about all this? Would he have loved it? Would he have sent you to the Tower?
(Laughs) Henry was quite a go-ahead guy in so many ways. It's sort of strange, you say to the average person, "Henry the VIII," and they go, "Yeah, fat and had six wives." But there was a lot more to Henry than that. He did put on weight in later years. It's generally accepted that that happened when he had a fall off of a horse and fell on his head. It's widely believed by all the historians that was the start of all the problems. He put on a lot of weight and became eccentric, erratic, but he was king. Ruler of all, so there was nothing anyone could do about it.
I think he would have loved it because Hampton Court Palace was really his party place. It was owned originally by Cardinal Wolsey. The history books will tell you that Wolsey gave it to him as a present. Probably, the real truth of the matter is that Henry said to Wolsey, "I'm having it. If you don't give it to me, you're dead," which is pretty much what happened. So he gave it to Henry and Henry used it, had wild parties there. He was also a great supporter of the arts. He brought in fantastic paintings. He had all sorts of musicians come in to play. He was just a great patron of the arts.
Hampton Court Palace was really a joint patron of the arts and party palace really, so I think he would have really approved. They wouldn't let me, but I wanted to leave one seat, right in the middle and in front, free. If anyone would have asked who it's for, I would have said, "Henry."
When you played Hampton Court, did you manage to conjure up any royal apparitions or spirits?
I did stay in one of his quarters there. They let me stay in one of his rooms that he actually used. I wondered if it would be freaky or not, but it wasn't at all. (Laughs) Mind you, I was so tired that I just nodded off to sleep. But they gave me pretty much free reign for many, many months to go around the palace.
There was one room in particular that I was taken into, which is not somewhere the general public can go. They said they used to use this room, but nobody would stay in it. I asked why and they said, "Just walk through it to the next room." And I walked into the next room — and this was in the middle of summer and it was pretty hot. I walked into the next room and it was like walking into a freezer. It was ice cold. I said, "Crikey, how do you keep this room so cold?" The gentleman said, "Feel the radiator." I felt the radiator and it was red hot. He said, "People who have stayed in here at night have left." There are an amazing amount of stories, and quite a few apparitions and spirits and ghosts have been seen. It doesn't surprise me in the least.
But on the other hand, what's interesting is it's not a spooky place at all. I've walked around there at night, long after the public has gone when I was given free reign to wander around. Even in dark corridors and empty rooms, it is not a scary place. It's still a place that makes your jaw drop and go, "This is outrageous."
So, in an effort to maintain an air of authenticity like you have with Six Wives, have you looked into staging Journey To The Centre Of The Earth at, say, the mouth of a volcano in Iceland?
(Laughs) We're going to do Journey next year at the Royal Albert Hall. I don't know whether they'll let me turn the Royal Albert Hall into a volcano, but we're going to do that. The interesting thing is that since doing Henry, the Quebec Festival wants to do Henry there next year. The full works with the orchestra and choir. Obviously, they haven't got a palace, so it wouldn't be quite the same.
It's nice to know because everybody finished those two shows and went, "Surely we'll do another one again." I told everybody there's a good chance we might and everybody had a lot of smiles of their face. And Journey is something that's been asked about a lot, so we certainly will be doing that one again. And perhaps, the year after that, King Arthur on ice. Who knows?
Or, perhaps, on the grounds of Tintagel Castle?
Absolutely! I'd love to bring all three to America some time. I'd really love to do it, but it's just the expense.
I saw you perform King Arthur in 1975 here in California.
We didn't do it on ice, unfortunately. And we didn't have the orchestra and choir.
No, but it was fantastic nonetheless.
These days, you're pretty busy doing radio, you have a TV talk show, and you write a column in Prog magazine.
I have two books out as well.
Right. How do you balance all these activities with your music?
(Laughs) I get up at quarter to six every morning. I stopped the big touring long ago. I decided anytime I do a show, whether it's a piano recital to whatever it was, I wanted it to be special. I've got my radio show, I've got the books out, I've got the television schedule, which is mainly out of Australia and New Zealand at the moment, and online. I've been very lucky over here as well. I was part of an enormously successful series called Grumpy Old Men. It's just massive over here. Because of that, I've suddenly ended up, adding to the list, by doing lots and lots of corporate after-dinners, which is really funny. Over here, I'm probably known as much, if not more so, for the TV comedy shows I've had...
I have The Legend DVD and your delivery is brilliant. I know you've done some acting, but have you ever thought of doing stand-up?
I do stand-up shows. There was a really funny thing in a very well-known magazine here a few years, which I have to say, made me chuckle. I got a phone call from a friend of mine, who's a big comedian. He said, and I won't mention the magazine, "Have you seen this magazine? They got their polls in." I said, "There's no point of me looking at the polls. I never appear in any music polls any more. I'm too old." He said, "No, you're quite right. In 'Best Band,' Yes are nowhere. In 'Best Musician,' you are nowhere. But you'll be interested to know that you're Number 3 as 'Best Stand-up Comic'. I just fell on the floor laughing. Now, there's a sign of the times.
I know we have to wind up, so I only have a couple more questions.
Is it time for Yes to call it a day?
(Slight pause) Um…yeah…the truth is...it's a very difficult situation. I could never envision Yes without Jon (Anderson) out front singing. I think the band, what I call the "classic" lineup — we're all in our 60s. Jon is in his mid 60s. Jon's been feeling very poorly, as you know. I speak to Jon every week. I think it's very sad. I think Yes deserves a real fitting finish, and it's not been allowed to have it. I think it's sad.
When you were with the group recently, my understanding is that you wanted to do a new album and that just didn't happen.
Jon and I pushed really hard in the things we wanted to do. I suggested that we put together a very special, full-year package of winding the band down, of doing special Yes weekends, all over the world. Maybe 10, 15 a year, of special weekends, special shows, the real full works because Yes should go out as a spectacular band, which it was. It's not a gigging band. It's going around doing it. I get hundreds and hundreds of e-mails from people are who very unhappy and think it's very sad. I think it's sad. And I think it's not the way I would have liked to have seen the classic Yes sign off.
I spoke to Alan White last year and was surprised when he told me they were touring without Jon Anderson.
They said, "Oh, you should come." And I said, "I'm not going out. You cannot have Yes without Jon. Jon has not been well and I will wait until he's either better, and if he's not, then we won't do it." Can you imagine Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant? Can you imagine the Who without Roger Daltrey? Queen? Yes, I know they go out, but you can't replace Freddie. You can't do it. I just think it's disrespectful to Yes and I think it's disrespectful to the fans, but there you go.