For all the grandiosity of his best-known musical projects – the concept albums, the rock operas, the sprawling prog-rock symphonies – Rick Wakeman remains a remarkably grounded character: unpretentious, straight-talking, warm and funny. Having discarded the excessive trappings of the rock and roll lifestyle – once a notorious boozer, he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol in twenty-five years – he has embraced the mainstream (Watchdog, Countdown, even Songs of Praise) while remaining fully true to himself.
Rick’s one-man shows are sporadic affairs. To keep them spontaneous and fresh, he spaces them out over several months, sparing himself the tedium of the touring life. The shows follow a simple, effective formula, alternating between solo piano recitals and anecdotal stand-up. Some of the audience come for the music, others have been brought in by the television appearances, and all are catered for equally.
The words and the music are deftly intertwined, with each spoken routine serving as an introduction to the next piano piece. A selection from Rick’s 1973 debut album, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, was prefaced with a hilarious account of its performance at Hampton Court in 2009, which featured a barely controllable Brian Blessed as the show’s narrator. Three times divorced (“whoops, there goes another house”) and with a fourth marriage pending, Rick was wryly aware of the parallels; he’s only two wives short of an autobiographical follow-up album, after all.
A well-connected man, who clearly relishes the company of other kindred spirits, Rick told us tales of recording sessions with Cat Stevens, songwriting lessons from David Bowie and bird-watching jaunts with Bill Oddie, displaying an expert comic timing that matched his skills at the keyboard. His musical selections ranged from Morning Has Broken – whose rippling flurries and intricate cadences typified his piano style – to a sublime medley of two Yes classics (And You And I and Wonderous Stories), via a bizarre and brilliant reworking of nursery rhymes in the styles of various classical composers (Mozart, Ravel, Debussy… and Les Dawson). Astonishingly for such complex pieces, everything was played from memory, without the aid of sheet music.
The set finished with another inventive tour de force: Paul McCartney’s Eleanor Rigby, played in the style of Prokofiev. “I don’t care what McCartney thinks of it”, Wakeman quipped. “He never comes to my shows, so sod him!” But as with his “Grumpy Old Man” persona, the grouchiness was only skin-deep. This was a warm, generous and oddly life-affirming show, from a rare talent and a true survivor.
(A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post and Metro.)
I’m calling you at your office, which is near your home in Norfolk. What sort of place have you got?
We’re in a village, just on the Norfolk-Suffolk border. My missus and I – and this is what happens to old rockers – we love gardens. When we bought the house, it was just grass and gravel. So in the past six years, we’ve put in roughly four thousand plants. We reckon we’ve got about another two years to go, and then it’s tinkering time. It’s a lot of fun, to watch something happen. My missus is much better at it than me.
I’d imagine that someone of your background would have a castle, at the very least. Are there any turrets on your property?
Oh, crikey. Well, the first divorce put paid to the turrets, the second one put paid to the moat, and the third one put paid to the castle. Rachel and I have got a little old mill house – and a windmill, would you believe. Without the sails; they went in 1953. It’s not a huge mansion, but it’s a very nice house. There’s only the pair of us – the kids have all grown up and long since gone – so what do you want to rattle round in a great big place for? Ian Lavender found it for us; he played Pike in Dad’s Army. He lives just down the road.
You’ll be coming to see us next Thursday at Nottingham Playhouse. What sort of show can we expect?
I don’t do tours any more. I do one-offs. I’ve got a long list of music that I can do: stuff of my own, and stuff of other people’s that I’ve worked on, and a few things that people wouldn’t expect me to play. And because I’ve done Grumpy Old Men and things like that, there are an awful lot of ridiculous stories that go in between. So it’s almost half stand-up, half music.
When you’re on your own, you’ve got a lot more freedom. But if you’re doing night after night after night, it does get into a bit of a routine. You start playing all the same pieces; you tell the stories exactly the same. Whereas if you spread them out over the year, you’ve forgotten the ones you did the last time. You’ll throw in stories that you wouldn’t have thrown in normally, and throw in a different piece of music. I started doing that about three years ago, and I found that it just worked so well, because every night it’s almost like an opening night.
What sort of audiences do you get these days?
It’s changed a lot. The music people obviously still come, from the Yes days and so on, and there’s a whole batch of people who started coming from Countdown. I hosted an alternative comedy show called Live At Jongleurs on ITV for eight years, so a lot of students started coming; admittedly that was in the Eighties, so now they’ve grown up a bit. Then you get the generation who liked Grumpy Old Men, and now I do a spot on Watchdog every week, so you start getting a real eclectic mix of people. A lot of people come along with their kids, who are learning to play; I often think they bring ‘em along to put ‘em off . And in some cases I’ve had four generations of family, which has been quite amazing.
You’ve had a strange journey, from symphonic prog-rock keyboard player to TV pundit and professional grump. How did the TV work come about?
It started properly when Danny Baker had a Saturday night chat show. I was only meant to do a minute, but Danny knew a lot of my silly stories, so he said “just go for it”. I ended up doing ten minutes. The following Monday, my agent thought it was Christmas. We were getting offered everything. I’ve got a lot to thank Danny Baker for.
I suppose I’m quite lucky, because when you get older – I’m 62 now – you get to a stage where the media go: oh sod it, he ain’t gonna go away, let him do what he wants. For a long period of time, you’re expected to do what you’re known for doing. But when you get to a certain age, they leave you alone.
So I have a really nice time. I’ve got a radio production company, and I get a fair amount of mainstream television, which is great. I still do the great big shows – in fact I’m off to South America later in the year with the band and orchestra, to do the big orchestral prog-rock shows, which we do in big stadiums out there. I still do the band shows occasionally, mainly at festivals. I’ve got the one man show, I do the “Grumpy Old Rock Star” books every eighteen months, and I still do my recordings as well.
So every day is different in some way, and that’s really, really nice. I’m not sure I’d be very good at routines. But I’m always up at a quarter to six at the latest, and I’m rarely in bed before midnight. It’s the old expression: there’s not enough hours in the day.
On the musical front, you recently did an album and a tour with Jon Anderson. Is anything else planned between the two of you?
We’re off to do the same show in America, in late October and early November. Jon lives there, and we’ll do about twenty shows. While we’re over there, Jon and I will meet up with [former Yes guitarist] Trevor Rabin, and that will be the next project: Jon, Trevor and myself. We’ll do that next year, and hopefully some shows will come out of that.
Jon and I are of a similar ilk. We don’t like to stand still, do what comes easily, and live in the past. For us, the past creates the present and the present creates the future. We hate managers, and so we don’t have any. We decide what’s best for the music and what’s best for us, and then we bring somebody in to look after it. Too many bands today seem to work for the management. When we bring management in to do things for us, they work for us – not the other way round.
In terms of the group dynamic within Yes, I’d have expected you and Jon to be poles apart. He’s the other-worldly dreamer, and you’re the more earthbound soul. Is it a case of opposites attracting?
Exactly. Jon is one of my dearest friends, and we do have certain things in common. We both love football, and we both obviously love music. I understand Jon, and Jon understands me. And I think that’s the secret. We are both heading for the same thing.
To give a bad analogy: if we’re both starting off at London and we’re going to Tokyo, there’s two ways you can go. You can either go via Anchorage, or you can go via Moscow. So there’s one stage, even if you’re heading to the same place, where you couldn’t be further apart. As long as you’re heading for the same destination, it really doesn’t matter how you get there.
When you say that you understand Jon, does that extend to the lyric sheets of the classic Yes albums?
Um… (pause) some of them. I’ve talked to Jon a lot about them. Jon is a wordsmith, and to some extent they stand on their own, as a sort of surrealistic poetry. They do have very strong meanings for Jon, in every respect. But they can have different meanings for other people, and that’s not a problem at all. As Jon always says: as long as people get their own meaning from it. On The Living Tree, the album that Jon and I just did, I think he hit the sort of form lyrically that he had back in the Seventies. I thought it was tremendous. I always get excited waiting for Jon’s lyrics, and it was the same thing with Strawbs, waiting for Dave Cousins.
I find it weird that Jon’s place in Yes has been taken by the former lead singer with a tribute band. There have been some strange episodes, but this is up there with the strangest of them.
When Jon was very ill, five or six years ago, the right plan would have been to wait until Jon was fit again, in two or three years’ time. But for reasons known only to themselves, three of the guys said: no, we’re going to go out. Personally, I think you can’t have Led Zeppelin without Robert Plant, and you can’t have The Who without Roger Daltrey, so how the hell can you have Yes without Jon Anderson? But they decided that they could.
I don’t have anything to do with it. As far as the classic line-up is concerned, that will never see the light of day again. Yes was always a special band, and now it has turned into a gigging band. It’s trotting around, playing as many shows as humanly possible, and it’s just a great shame.
Is there a sense in which you still feel like a member of the band, even if you’re not officially part of it?
It’s like saying: does Bobby Charlton still feel part of Manchester United, even though he doesn’t play? Of course you are. But as regards what’s been going on for the past five years, this doesn’t have anything to do with me at all. I’ve changed clubs, as they say.
I don’t know whether Yes were ever considered as part of the counter-culture, but you’re certainly not part of the counter-culture now. You’re doing mainstream shows on BBC1.
Ah, but that happens to a lot of people. It’s like all the alternative comics, that I used to introduce when I did Live At Jongleurs. They’re all mainstream now. It’s what happens. Underground music in the Sixties eventually came overground, with people like Marc Bolan and T. Rex, and it became establishment.
I guess that every stream has got to join the big river…
All that “mainstream” really means is that enough people like it to bring it to the surface. And that’s happened to so many alternative comics, who are now as straight as the people that they tried to be against in the early days. Which is lovely, you know? That’s what happens. And it will always happen. It will never change.
So if the Rick Wakeman of 1973 could see the Rick Wakeman of 2011, what would he make of him?
He’d be very happy he was still alive! (Laughs)
(This was written for LeftLion in February, but never published.)
The syncopated, propulsive rhythms that have come to characterise the UK Funky genre have been around a lot longer than you might think; just check the remix of Push The Feeling On by Nightcrawlers, which went Top Three back in 1995, and you’ll begin to get the picture. Similar rhythms underpin Joseki’s two contributions to this EP, the first release on Richard Powell’s Connect For Music label. (And seeing as it’s his first release, we’ll forgive him the hyperbole – “a new chapter begins in House and Techno” – just this once.)
Speak And Dispell takes its time to build, as vocal cut-ups are layered over moody washes of synth and understated, frisky beats. Just when you think that things are plateauing out, a key change nudges the track up a gear. It’s nearly four minutes before the UK Funky influences make their presence felt, adding spice to the tech-house stew.
Then it’s over to Morris Cowan, formerly known as Taylor, whose debut album (Circa) is due out on March 16th. The Good Fellow Ship is a more contemplative, less overtly dance-oriented affair, which blends woozy drones with sweetly abstract piano figures, before resolving into a steadily pulsing final section.
Finally, it’s back to Joseki for the cut with the biggest kick: the insistently lurching Moyo, which scatters glistening electro-boogie splinters over descending bass squelches and arpeggiated squeaks. Its playful, genre-melding inventiveness is typical of the whole EP, which sets a suitably high standard for an intriguing new label.
Two years ago, demoralised by poor sales and scant recognition, The Pierces were ready to throw in the towel. At that precise moment, the gods deigned to smile upon them. Coldplay’s bassist called up from out of the blue, offering to produce their fourth album, You & I. Liking what they heard, and spotting its commercial potential, their UK label went for the big push. Radio Two lent its support, as did stations such as Magic and Smooth.
All of a sudden, after over a decade in the business, The Pierces have become a “buzz” act. Last week, only Lady Gaga and Adele sold more albums in this country. And this week, by way of preparation for the summer festival circuit, the two Pierce sisters, Catherine and Allison, embarked on their first ever headline tour.
Curiously for an act who are currently at Number Four in the albums chart, The Pierces hadn’t quite managed to fill the Rescue Rooms to capacity. (Perhaps their new-found “adult contemporary” audience were too busy putting the kids to bed.) In terms of scaling up as a live act, these are still early days for them, but the duo seemed ready to embrace the challenge. Catherine (the plump-lipped platinum blonde) was all rock-chick glam and pop-star allure, while her older sister Allison (dark-haired and demurely frocked) counterbalanced the pouts with a gentler, more measured approach. The contrast was an effective one, but Allison did at times seem distracted, even faintly perturbed. If something was bothering her, then she didn’t succeed in fully disguising it.
The new album might be characterised by a glossy West Coast sound that evokes comparisons with Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac, but as the live set demonstrated, The Pierces have a wider range of influences at their disposal. The show opened with the greasy, grungey riff of Love You More, and it closed with the wry, deadpan satire of Boring – one of several songs that draws its inspiration from the sisters’ experiences at the fringes of the fashionable New York indie scene. Introducing I Put Your Records On – a rock star girlfriend’s lament, if ever there was one – Allison warned us of the perils of dating a musician. Given that Catherine was once engaged to one of The Strokes, it seemed strange that Allison took a rare lead vocal on this particular song, but perhaps the lyric was better served by a measure of emotional distance.
The new fans responded warmly to current radio favourite You’ll Be Mine (or “the one-two-three song”, as more casual listeners have been calling it), whilst the scattering of longer-term admirers were cheered by the inclusion of three numbers from the duo’s unfairly overlooked third album, Thirteen Tales of Love and Revenge. A surfeit of production sheen marred the new single Glorious, but this was offset by the exquisite two-part harmonies of the quietest number, The Good Samaritan.
After the show, Allison and Catherine headed straight for the merch stand for an extended meet-and-greet, which they threw themselves into with unforced enthusiasm. Second chances are rare in the cutthroat world of pop, and their gratitude was well-placed. And on the evidence of this delightful show, their delayed good fortune was equally well-deserved.