Rick Wakeman: Keys to the kingdom

By Scott Kara

Legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman is returning to play his extravagant works. He talks to Scott Kara.

Going solo - Rick Wakeman. Photo / Supplied
Going solo - Rick Wakeman. Photo / Supplied

It was one day during 1971 - Rick Wakeman can't remember exactly - and David Bowie had invited him round to his house to listen to some new songs he'd written.

The pair knew each other well, and Wakeman had played mellotron on Bowie's 1969 track Space Oddity. So, with his battered old 12-string guitar, Bowie proceeded to play for Wakeman, a young and on-the-rise keyboardist at that time, songs like Life On Mars, Changes, and the rest of the songs from Hunky Dory.

"He played them to me one after the other and said, 'I want them all to be piano-based on the new album, so make some notes and write them as you would play them on the piano and everybody can work around you'.

"I said to him, 'these songs are fantastic but why are you playing them to me on a shitty old 12-string guitar?"'

The answer turned out to be simple: "He said, 'I write everything on this guitar. If it sounds good on this guitar, when I come to add other instruments it can only get better.

Too many people fool themselves by thinking they are writing something great by writing it on a great instrument with a great sound. It's the great sound that fools them'. He said, 'Rick, you'll do your own album one day, and when you do, make sure everything you write, you write on the piano'."

It was that bit of Bowie wisdom that established Wakeman's way of songwriting to this day. "So everything I've ever done I've done on the piano first," he says.

And when he returns to New Zealand next month for the first time in 37 years, it will be just him, playing his vast canon of work solo, on a grand piano.

Given the elaborate and over-the-top arrangements of his most famous pieces, like his debut solo album The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973) and follow up Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974), and his pioneering work with 70s prog-rock survivors Yes on albums like Fragile (1971) and Close to the Edge (1972), then it might sound like a bit of a stretch that he can actually pull it off solo.

"But I can thank David Bowie that they work," he says. Though, "I don't know if you can do prog-rock on the piano."

His last tour to New Zealand was in 1975 when he played with the Auckland Symphonia (as it was known in those days) at Western Springs. They performed Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Wakeman says it was one of the last times the piece was played live, because soon after the sheet music went missing.

The story goes that after New Zealand they went to South America for some shows but the music was lost upon its return to Britain. However, four years ago a conductor's score resurfaced when a bunch of boxes belonging to Wakeman were delivered to his house.

"It was in the bottom of the box. It was absolutely sodden and looked like a child's papier mache. It's taken over two years for a very clever musicologist friend of mine to repair it," he says.

And, after his solo New Zealand shows, he will start preparing for a world tour playing Journey To the Centre of the Earth once again. He hopes to bring the show here later next year.

The early 70s period was key to Wakeman's career trajectory. He freaked people out back then by piling stacks of keyboards on top of each other and releasing albums like Six Wives, an instrumental keyboard concept album about, well, the wives of Henry VIII. Though his record company was not impressed at the time, it went on to sell more than 12 million copies.

In Britain, as well as a musician, Wakeman is also known as talk show host, stand-up comedian and as one of the regulars on popular comedy series Grumpy Old Men.

This work has had a big influence on his solo shows, in which he mixes music with stories and funny anecdotes about his life - including insights into collaborations with Bowie, Elton John and Cat Stevens (he played piano on Morning Has Broken) and discussing "goblins and pixies and all sorts of nutty things" from his prog-rock days.

He has been a sporadic member of Yes over the years, with his last stint in 2002. "We realised we didn't really have that much in common apart from the music, so why pretend we've got to be sociable and go out to dinner together?"

It's not likely he will rejoin the band, since original singer and his long-time friend Jon Anderson is no longer the frontman. Yes is just not Yes without Anderson, resolves Wakeman.

He's happy with where he's at now because musically he can do whatever he likes. "There is strange thing that happens as you get older as a muso. I'm 63 now and there is an attitude that, 'he's not going to go away so let's let him do what he wants'," he jokes.

He also has a laugh about what he believes is his greatest contribution to music. "There were no such things as keyboard stands [in his early music days]," he says. "I couldn't find anybody to make them, so I used to go to furniture stores and buy chests of drawers and cut them out to slot the keyboards in. Then I started piling them up, one on top of each other. So that's what I'm going to be remembered as: the guy who put keyboards on top of each other."

Who: Rick Wakeman
What: Master rock keyboardist, solo artist and on-off member of 70s prog-rock survivors Yes
Where & when: Wellington Town Hall, October 6; Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland, October 7
Essential listening: Solo - The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1973); Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974); With Yes - Fragile (1971); Close to the Edge (1972)

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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