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I’m Still Standing: Having Conquered Earth, Rick Wakeman Takes Prog-Rock into Outer Space with ‘The Red Planet’ (Q&A)
Rick Wakeman cemented his reputation as one of the godfathers of progressive rock after joining Yes in 1971. The keyboardist’s first album with the band, Fragile, included two staples of classic rock radio: “Roundabout” and “Long Distance Runaround.”
Before joining Yes, Wakeman was a member of the Strawbs, a folk rock group. During that period, Wakeman was an in-demand session musician, recording with Elton John, Cat Stevens, and David Bowie, whom he calls “the most inspiring person I ever worked with.”
Wakeman moved in and out of Yes as he launched a prolific solo career in 1973 with The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It was the first of more than 90 solo albums. Wakeman formed his band, the English Rock Ensemble, in 1974; the group continues to record and tour with Wakeman. Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a 1974 live concert album with narration by David Hemmings, inspired the 1999 sequel, Return to the Centre of the Earth, narrated by Patrick Stewart. Wakeman will reissue a box set of Return to the Centre of the Earth in 2021 that will include unreleased audio and video material.
In 2017, Wakeman released Piano Portraits, a collection of solo piano versions of classics like “Space Oddity,” “Stairway to Heaven” and “Help!” Wakeman continued the theme the following year with Piano Odyssey. The critical and commercial success of the albums led to 2020’s Christmas Variations, Wakeman’s interpretations of traditional holiday music.
In recent years, Wakeman performed with two former Yes members, guitarist Trevor Rabin and vocalist Jon Anderson, in Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman. Also known as ARW, the group disbanded in 2020.
Wakeman debuted season one of Rick’s Plaice — named for the fish — in 2020. The entertaining subscription video series features live and archive performances, discussions of keyboards and gear, a look back at musicians Wakeman has performed with, and answers to viewer questions.
Prog-rock fans and music critics have been ecstatic about Wakeman’s 2020 album, The Red Planet. Its eight newly composed instrumental tracks mark a return to Wakeman’s progressive rock roots. Wakeman was inspired by the three missions scheduled to land on Mars in 2021.
The titles of the album’s tracks are named for geological formations on Mars. The first single, “Ascraeus Mons,” derives its name from a large volcano in the planet’s Tharsis region. The album is available on vinyl and CD with pop-up artwork.
And now, a little back-and-forth with Rick …
Rock Cellar: How do you write music about a place no one has ever been?
Rick Wakeman: In a strange way you almost imagine you’re there. I got loads of fantastic photos, both online and other stuff that I got from friends of mine at NASA. You dive into them. I had all the photos scattered around the piano and just looked at them, went into sort of a semi-daze and then if I came up with something that I thought really fitted the pictures, I wrote it down. I did that over a period of a couple of months until I’d got lots of manuscript full of different bits of music.
Then I started putting them all together. It is quite amazing. The photos these days are so good. They’re almost, you could be standing there taking the photos, they’re that sharp and bright. And you can sort of imagine that you’re there.
What I do when I do a project anyway, I try to avoid getting involved with anything else. I could just lock myself into whatever the subject matter is. With so much happening with Mars, with three missions arriving in March, they’re on their way there already, plus they’re already talking about how they can set things up so that the first astronauts can get there. They’re looking heavily at how they can actually put astronauts into a form of hibernation.
It’s a really exciting time. Especially since they discovered that yes, it does have water and that two or three billion years ago it was like Earth.
So suddenly it turns out that my great mate David Bowie could well have been right, there was life on Mars.
Rock Cellar: Did working with David Bowie influence your interest in outer space?
Rick Wakeman: I had it before, I must admit, but David certainly added more fuel to the fire because it fascinated him so obviously with “Space Oddity” and “Life on Mars?” It obviously fueled that and I got heavily involved over the years with NASA. They’ve been kind enough to send quite a lot of my music up on the shuttles, which I’ve got some wonderful photos of the crew in the shuttles with my CDs flying around in the air, it’s great.
I first started working with David in 1969 when we did “Space Oddity.” Then right through with other stuff and through Hunky Dory and then a little bit of Ziggy Stardust, then on “Absolute Beginners.” Then in ’76, ’77, I moved to Switzerland where he was living at the time. And we became neighbors. I say neighbors, we both lived up the same mountain. If you live in Switzerland you haven’t got much choice, really.
And we used to meet in a little club called the Museum Club in Montreux and we used to just talk for hours, everything from music to politics to life in general. So I knew him very much as a person as well. But he was the most inspiring person I ever worked with. He was just amazing. He knew just how to work in a studio. He always picked fantastic producers like Tony Visconti, Gus Dudgeon, Ken Scott.
He also knew how to work with musicians and how to treat musicians. I learned so much from him. It’s been my template for how I work.
Rock Cellar: When you finally get a chance to tour with The Red Planet, how big a production will it be?
Rick Wakeman: Obviously, because there are multiple keyboards on board, I can’t do it with the four of us who recorded it. I’ve worked out that when we actually do take it out on tour there will be probably eight of us to really do it justice because I never have had things on computer and back tracks playing along to it. I’m old fashioned. If it’s live, it’s live.
So sometimes the only way to do it is I’ll pull in extra musicians. I’ll probably pull in my son, Adam, if he’s not working with Ozzy [Osbourne], he’ll come in and do some parts. And I’ve got another son, Oliver, who might do some bits and pieces as well. ‘Cause I want it to sound as good as possible live because it’s not that easy to play this because there’s an awful lot of rehearsals.
Rock Cellar: As you put together the elements of a new project, where are vocalists in order of importance?
Rick Wakeman: Once I get my hands on a project, when something appears that inspires me, as I start putting music and things together, it really does become very obvious as to what kind of album it’s going to be. And this album, right from word go, I thought, this has to be an instrumental album. This has to be a keyboard instrumental album in the same way that I did The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Criminal Record. It’s not an album that I want to have vocals on. It’s not something that I need that vocalization to help paint the picture of what I’m trying to do.
So there was never a moment where I thought, oh, I’d like to have vocals here or I’d like to put some vocals on this. It was always very much down to the music, the sounds, and the themes.
Rock Cellar: You’ll re-issue a box set of Return to the Centre of the Earth in 2021. What new material will be in it?
Rick Wakeman: On Return to the Centre of the Earth it’s pretty much what was on the original because it was long on the original. But we’ve added a lot of little touches to the box set and other bits and pieces to go in that we discovered. For example, what we used to sometimes do back then was a radio play version, which had edited versions of all of the songs.
And we discovered that because that had been long missing. So we kept finding little bits and pieces to put in and the stories and old interviews. It was a great time because when we did Return to the Centre of the Earth it was at a period of time where, to put it politely, prog-rock of any form was certainly not on anybody’s menu really. It was incredibly out of fashion.
But it was just something that I believed that I wanted to do. It was important to me. It genuinely nearly killed me, it really did, because I was very ill at the end. It was just fantastic to do and to pull in friends to get involved and to get Ozzy to sing with a back track of a symphony orchestra was quite amazing.
Rock Cellar: What can we expect on Rick’s Plaice?
Rick Wakeman: A lot of people at shows said to me, we’d like to know more about your gear, we’d like to know more about people you’ve worked with, all this kind of thing, and historical stuff. I used to have a radio show in England called Rick’s Place. It was actually a very successful radio show on a Saturday morning. And I thought, if we take that and make it visual, then I can use the opportunity to have a bit of fun. But also talk seriously about some of the keyboards, about some of the music, some of the people I’d worked with who sadly are no longer with us, playing a bit live, some archive stuff, having some questions from viewers, that kind of lot.
And we put a little trailer together and trialed it with a few people we know, who loved it. We’d like to think that it’s watchable and for people who like music and like what we do find it interesting. That certainly seems to be the feedback that’s coming back. We’ve done six in series one, we’ve got a New Year’s special that we’ve recorded. That first appears New Year’s Eve, that. And then in February we’ll record series two.
The response so far has been really, really positive and people seem to enjoy it. We had great fun making it. We just laughed nonstop. It was interesting to me looking back on the old footage and actually talking about some of the keyboards. ‘Cause it reminded me of times when I was working with people like, for example, Bob Moog, working with Kato-san of Korg keyboards. Things that you sort of semi-forgotten about but suddenly being with a keyboard brings it all flooding back, which was lovely for me too.
Rock Cellar: The solo piano projects of the last few years have been a great success. How do you choose the songs to re-record?
Rick Wakeman: I start with a short list. On both of them, Piano Portraits and Piano Odyssey, there must have been 40 or 50 on the short list. Then, rather than just look at the list, I’ll do that, I’ll do that, I’ll do that, I sit at the piano and just see what happens when I play the pieces, whether I feel that there is an arrangement that I can put together in a style that’s maybe a bit different that works really well. And that whittles it right down to about 20. Then that’s when I actually record them all. And then listen and decide which ones I think work the best and do it like that.
There’s a bit of a scientific process to it but at the end of the day it all boils down to musically how I feel about them.
Rock Cellar: Were you influenced by the prog-rock bands that formed in the 1960s? And if so, which ones?
Rick Wakeman: Vanilla Fudge. I loved Vanilla Fudge, I thought they were fantastic. I think the whole prog-rock thing in the UK, yes, there was sort of what I’d call semi-prog-rock bands at the time. King Crimson, they were before a lot. And also early Deep Purple and early Genesis, obviously. Deep Purple’s first album, Shades of Deep Purple, which was in 1968, had some what I’d call proggy stuff on there. Listen to their version of “Help!” It was the original lineup, with Nick Simper, Rod Evans, Ian Paice, Ritchie Blackmore and Jon Lord, of course. And what they did on tracks like “Help!”, they were taking pieces of music, and their own, and doing them in ways that people weren’t thinking at the time.
And that really is the essence of prog-rock. It’s to know what the rules are but then break them. So that you create your own rules. And I think the lovely thing is now there’s hardly a band in existence that doesn’t have some sort of prog-rock in them, whether they realize it or not.
Because at one time back in the ’60s a lot of music was formatted. I did loads of sessions for people, and every song was a format. Prog-rock broke all those rules. And that enabled musicians of all kinds to go, well, we can do it as well. So it played a massive part in creating the diversity of music that we’ve got today.
Rock Cellar: You’ve had five stints with Yes. Was there a general reason why you would leave the band?
Rick Wakeman: It was always musical. Yes was never a sociable band. We all had very, very, very strong opinions about things. And we used to argue like crazy. In fact most of the people, if they came along to a rehearsal or whatever, thought the band was breaking up. But that’s what created the music in the long run. But you know, music is all about give and take. On occasions I left when I felt like I can’t give anything to the direction that the music’s going in now.
So what’s the point; if I can’t give, I don’t want to take back. Equally, when I came back to the band it was because musically I felt, great, I’ve got something to offer and the band’s got something to offer me. And that’s when it’s at its best. I also think it’s very healthy because the times I went away and I was working with other musicians, great musicians, and trying out different things, when I came back to the band, I had something new to bring back as well.
And I think sometimes when a band has a change of personnel or breaks up for a little while and then gets back together again, it’s often very fresh because they come back with new ideas that perhaps you wouldn’t have had if you’d stayed together. Plus the fact that it’s always difficult when you’re living in each other’s pockets as a band. However much you work together greatly and love the music and however much you like each other, there comes a period of time when you want to kill each other [laughs].
Rock Cellar: I get that and I’m not a musician. But people can’t understand that. They ask, “Why did the Beatles break up?”
Rick Wakeman: I say to people sometimes, look, imagine if when you went to work, and when you got up in the morning and you came down for your breakfast, then the people you work with also came down for their breakfast. And then you traveled together to work, then you worked together, then you stopped and had lunch together, then you work together in the afternoon, then you drove home together, then you had dinner together, and then if you’re gonna watch television, whatever, you did all that together. And the only time you didn’t see them was when you went to bed. I don’t care how much you get on, there will be a moment in time when you would want to pick up your knife and fork and stab them.
And that’s what’s it’s like with a band. With Yes, certainly with ARW, we’ve learned, yeah, we’re friends, Jon, myself and Trev and obviously Lou Molino and Lee Pomeroy, but we give each other space. We know to give each other space, even though we do enjoy each other’s company but it’s limited.
Rock Cellar: You mentioned on Rick’s Plaice that The Who was a band that you would have loved to have played with.
Rick Wakeman: Yes, absolutely.
Rock Cellar: What made them such a great band?
Rick Wakeman: I think they were so great because they were one of those classic examples of four people who were all incredibly talented but when you put them together they became even more talented. I was tremendous friends with John Entwistle. We were very close. Phenomenal bass player. Pete [Townshend], great writer, unique guitarist. I love unique guitarists like Pete and like Brian May.
And Moonie [Keith Moon] was just on another planet. I knew Keith really, really well. I remember talking to John one day, and I said, “‘My Generation’ was such an amazing track and single when it first came out. Nobody had heard anything like it; to have a single which had a bass solo on it and also a drum solo at the end was just ridiculous.”
And he said, “Yeah, the drum solo wasn’t really intended, it’s just when we got towards the end Moonie never stopped. And just carried on.” He said, “That was basically the thing of what we did. When Pete came along or one of us came up with a new piece of music to learn, we’d discuss, Roger [Daltrey], myself and Pete, how it was gonna go and then we’d play it and then Moonie would just basically do a drum solo.”
Moonie was far more talented than people think. I saw them live so many times. I was brokenhearted when we lost John. I had the pleasure of playing with John. I had a TV show in the UK called Gas Tank and John came on as one of my guests. And we played together and he did a phenomenal bass solo on it. I loved him to bits.
I went to see them shortly after John died because they were on tour in America. And they were in that terrible position, I don’t think any of them really felt they wanted to play at the time but they were on that famous V-1 down the runway and they had to take off. I saw them at Madison Square Garden and I went back after and talked to Pete. I really felt for him. To do that tour with knowing that John had only recently died while they were rehearsing and putting it all together was so tough. But he was an absolute pro on stage.
The band was great and they got that happy sort of medium between a Who show and also honoring John. Very hard to do and I have so much admiration for them doing that. For Pete and for Rog, they lost not just Moonie but they’d lost The Ox as well. I mean, not easy, a lot of people would have just given up. But they wanted the music to continue and work and I just take my hat off to them. And it’s a band that was exciting to watch. The music was always exciting to listen to. They were in their own league. They were a very special band.