Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Music and outer space are natural bedfellows. For more than one hundred years now, the imagination of composers has been fired by the cosmos, and Rick Wakeman is no exception.

The one-time Yes keyboard player has made no fewer than four solo albums looking beyond the Earth’s orbit, culminating in this year’s newest release, The Red Planet. Generous to a fault, he set aside an hour of his time to give Arcana a substantial interview to talk all things Mars, to look at the classical music that inspires him and to speak of the excitement of returning to progressive rock after two well-received solo piano albums.

Rick is answering the phone at home, settling down with coffee at an impressively early hour. He is in very good, conversational form, affable from the off. Firstly, and inevitably, we have to talk about the strange days in which we find ourselves. “I’m struggling with the lockdown, it’s driving me nuts!” he confesses. “There are no concerts, no theatres, no solutions. All the musicians I know are scratching their heads, and it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I’ve had every single tour and concert cancelled this year, and if one more person says to me, ‘It’s alright, you can reschedule for next year’, I’ll hit them! The truth of the matter is that it’s not rescheduling for next year, it’s what I would have done anyway. Everyone’s tearing their hair out. Someone I know tried a drive-in concert, and they said they might as well have sat in the driveway of their house with the radio on. The whole thing about concerts and theatres is the atmosphere, the people around you, the audience and those on stage – where all is one in a strange way.”

He pauses to take a sip of coffee. “I’ve seen some of the government guidelines that have come through about social distancing – which they’ve got wrong, by the way, it’s ‘unsocial distancing’. If you have the two metre rule, and you get 300 people into a theatre that holds 2,000 people, those 300 people will want to go to the loo. You put them two metres apart and it makes the queue 600 metres long. It’s just nuts. I’ve got so many friends involved with theatres and they just don’t know what to do. I do feel for the whole entertainment industry and for sport. They said it’s exciting football’s back – no it’s not! It’s like watching a practice match. The whole leisure part of life has been decimated by the Coronavirus, and I don’t know what the answer is. Are they going to have everyone three seats apart? I do know of a few married couples who would be very grateful to sit three seats apart! Unless there is some sort of immunity like the flu vaccine to give society a chance, and the virus mutates enough to weaken itself so it is no worse than a cold, that’s our only hope really. I think it’s going to take a long time before people have confidence again. But there you go, I’ve had my moan for the day! It affects everyone.”

With the decimation of the live schedule, did he consider not releasing the album? “No. The official release date was 21st August, but as you know with special editions and all that lark the pre-orders go out way before then. We worked so hard and for such a long time that we said let’s just go ahead.”

He is aware of the importance of new music to those spending so much time indoors currently. “It’s interesting you say that, because we have had a lot of people say the same thing. With the so-called online concerts, the novelty wore off pretty quickly, with the quarter size screen phone concerts. People realised it wasn’t the real thing. With new music you can still get it. I personally am very glad that we just managed to finish recording before all of this hit, because it does put some new music out there. OK, it’s not in the ideal scenario, but what is that these days? We felt justified because thankfully – touch wood – the reviews have been really good all around the world. What’s interesting is the hardcore prog rockers, who are brutally honest about what they like and don’t like – it has been heart warming to see them say they like it, which makes it even more worthwhile.”

The Red Planet was recorded with a carefully assembled band, the English Rock Ensemble, and listening to the music gives a clear idea of the fun had while making it. “It was a lot of fun”, says Wakeman, “because all the pieces of the jigsaw were the right pieces. I’d been looking for a concept for a long time, and it has to come to you – you can’t go out and find it. This idea came from a friend Garik Israelian, who is an astrophysicist, a complete rocket scientist. You can’t talk to them about football or the weather; they just look at you blankly. He’s a lovely guy, and I was introduced to him by Brian May, who also introduced me to Stephen Hawking, both good friends. They run a festival called Starmus, which is a festival where all the world’s greatest astrophysicists, loads of astronauts and people from NASA give lectures for a week which are pretty amazing.”

There is a musical element to their week. “To finish, they always have a concert. Brian’s done it a few times, of course, and I’ve done it. We did it last year in Zurich, and it was the 50th anniversary of man walking on the moon. I was performing with Hans Zimmer, Brian May and Steve Vai, a massive symphony orchestra and choir. They don’t do anything by halves, and at the end of it we played We Are The Champions, and every surviving astronaut who has walked on the moon walked on the stage. I’ve heard ovations at stadiums and concerts when bands have walked on; I’ve never heard anything quite like when those astronauts walked on, led by Buzz Aldrin. We were loud, but we were drowned out!”

He returns to the concept behind The Red Planet. “A couple of years before that, Garik mentioned to me that 2021 would be the 50th anniversary of man arriving at Mars (seen above, in a global mosaic of 102 Viking 1 Orbiter images of Mars taken on orbit 1,334, 22 February 1980). He said, ‘It does look like your old friend David Bowie was right, there was life on Mars. A few billion years ago there were oceans and rivers. It didn’t have the atmosphere we’ve got but the new pictures, which will all be available online in a year or so, are phenomenal’. I went very quiet, and said, ‘You’ve just given me the concept I’ve been searching for.’ That’s when it all started. When I say it was hundreds and hundreds of photos, it really was, and I got those sent to me from my friends at NASA. I read up as much as I could and started picking out some of the great areas that are on there, and kept looking at them when I was sat by the piano”.

The inspiration flowed. “When I was looking at something and a musical idea appeared, I wrote it down. I built up a whole batch of musical ideas on the piano which I started putting into order. Then I started discussing with my co-producer Eric Jordan about the different sounds we were going to use. A few people had said to me, ‘You really should look at some of the classic proggy sounds that you used to use, but only used once.’ So I did! For example I went back over my No Earthly Connection album, and there were some mellotron flutes that I used as a lead instrument, but have never done since then. I wondered why that happened, because it worked so well! I looked at the various sounds that we wanted to use, and picked the three musicians I knew would understand what I wanted.”

The selection process was guided by the thoughts of his old friend. “David Bowie said to me, way back in 1971, to always pick musicians who will understand what you want. They could be the greatest musicians in the world but if they don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, you’re not going to achieve it. I rate Lee Pomeroy as the greatest bass player in Europe if not the world at the moment, he is a phenomenal player, and understands prog probably better than any progger living. He is a lovely guy. Dave Colquhoun is a phenomenal guitarist who does not get the recognition he deserves. He is one of Brian May’s favourite players. Ash Soan, the drummer, came out and did a concert with me in Cuba. I couldn’t get over how technically clever he was, he reminded me so much of someone in the Bill Bruford mould. I contacted all three of them and they all just said yep, we get this.”

Wakeman’s enthusiasm is infectious. “The reason it sounds like we had a lot of fun is because we did! Everybody was on the same page, and nobody was frightened to say anything. We threw things backwards and forwards, and Lee or Dave would say have you ever thought about making that section longer, because we could build this or that. I’d have Eric my producer on another side, and he could be brutal at times! I would do a solo and I’d come in and go, ‘Yeah, that was good’, and he’d say, ‘I don’t think so, but if you’re happy!’ So I’d go ‘Yeah, alright, what’s the matter?’ ‘I think you’ve got a better one in you’, he would say, ‘but we won’t do it now, we can come back to it in half an hour.’ I’d go out and do something fresh and then come back to it, and it would be, ‘There you go’. To be fair 90% of the time he was right, and that was the great thing as well, that everybody was in on it.”

The collaborative spirit spread to the artwork. “We wanted to discuss that when we started the album, which is what we used to do in the 1970s. The cover was so, so important. The idea came up about a pop-up, and we thought that was great, let’s have a pop-up! They wanted a picture of me on the front but I said no, put a spaceman if you like. They said that won’t show him doing anything musically, and I said it would if he was playing a mini-Moog! It was all this kind of discussion. The only thing on the next pressing was that a lot of people commented we would really like to have a list of all the equipment that was used. We took that on board, and the next pressings, which won’t be far away now, will have all that information. So we do listen as well!”

While The Red Planet will impress with its power and poise, it also leaves a mark thanks to compositions such as Arsia Mons (above), where the textures are stripped back and the band create evocative pictures. These moments show a subtlety rarely attributed to the genre. “You’re right”, agrees Wakeman, “prog doesn’t get all the credit it deserves with things like that. I think one of the reasons for that is prog started with vinyl, as you know. I’m a vinyl nut. One of the things it has is surface noise, and it’s one of the reasons that certain classical recordings struggled with vinyl, because if you had a very quiet flute section for example, suddenly the surface noise became very apparent, because it was amplified the same as everything else. Quiet pieces on prog records were very difficult because of that.”

Efforts were made to reduce the volume, but to little avail. “With Yes, we had a few places where we tried to be as quiet as possible, but what ended up happening was that in the quiet sections the instruments were brought up to quite a high volume, so you didn’t get that atmospheric background. It was the same for classical music. If you listen to the opening of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony on vinyl, it’s so quiet all you here is a hissing noise! The moment CDs appeared, that all changed. Suddenly you could have a pin dropping and it would be as clear as anything. That was something we discussed, Eric and I, that we could make use of atmospherics knowing that it would be clear and wouldn’t have anything disturbing them. On the album, some of the atmospheric areas ended up being longer than I had originally written because of that, and that was very much where the lads said ‘that could be a bit longer, we don’t feel we’ve settled into that enough’. It was a mixture of old sounds and old things, bringing them into the 21st century and using the new technology to make them the best they could be.”

Rick Wakeman in the 1970s (from the Rick Wakeman’s Place website)

Talk of crackly records brings back a personal memory of my own, that of the opening of Mars from Holst’s suite The Planets – very much emerging from the depths. The Red Planet’s last track, Valles Marineris, has a complicated time signature that draws a parallel with Mars. Was that something Wakeman wanted to pay tribute to? “Not musically. I deliberately didn’t nick anything from Holst, but certainly it is a very powerful piece of music, and one of the things about Valles Marineris (below) is that if you go online and look at it, it’s huge! It goes on forever. I found one thing which was like a drone flying all over it and through it, and it’s just really mesmerising.”

Wakeman wanted to recreate this in musical form. “What I really wanted was to have something powerful, something that ran all the way through it in a strange way. It started as a form of Bolero, a very weird time signature, and it is weird how it changes all the time. Then I was building things on it but the underlying line was always there. When we did the recording we built it from the bottom up, and it was very important that we didn’t lose that. Sometimes it almost disappears, but it is there. When you look at the pictures online and in books, certain things catch your eye, and I wanted little bits that came in and out that would be eye-catching things, like a little melodic thing which is like, what’s that over there? It was meant to be a trip in the valley, and certainly I think Holst, considering he had no pictures of the planet, he didn’t have anything that I had, what he did with The Planets suite was nothing short of magnificent. He had no idea they were blue or red planets, he had so little to work with, and yet he captured it.”

This leads us on to other musical depictions of the great beyond. Rick himself has another three albums on the subject, which he considers. “I did an album called Out There which I enjoyed. It was sort of a concept but nothing like this. It came about when filming a concert, very seriously out the front someone said to me ‘where does music come from?’ You can’t hold it or touch it, but you can feel it inside, so where does a piece of music come from? You can’t dig it up in the garden so how does it come to you? I said that’s brilliant! And they said well give us the answer! I said can I go away and work on it? So I worked on it for quite a long time, the idea that perhaps everything came from space, which is enormous. It finished that it all came from space and filled out, and a bit like radio waves – you can’t hear Radio 4 or Planet Rock unless you tune your receiver in to get it. So maybe all this stuff is flying down, and if they just happen to be tuned in to receive it they get it. I worked on that principle, and I think it was my wife that said that’s great, but if it’s falling down from all the galaxies and that, where is it out there in the first place? I thought oh, great, here we go. So I came up with a thing called the great musical cathedral in the sky, that was firing this out all of the time.”

Unfortunately Out There, released in 2003, suffered from its juxtaposition to a terrible tragedy. “I really liked the album”, he says, “but we never promoted it for the simple reason that when I finished it, literally the day I finished it, there was the terrible disaster with the Columbia shuttle. I knew three of the astronauts on it. I changed the cover and did a tribute to them, but I didn’t do any promotion because I didn’t want anyone to think we were trying to promote it on the back of such an awful disaster. I got permission from the families to do it but the album to put it bluntly disappeared without trace. That for me was a shame because it was an interesting story.”

Another space odyssey, No Earthly Connection, was released in 1976. “I would like one day to do a two-day event where we play all the stuff from space”, he says. “I’ve made about four albums based on space now. It would be great to do them all, but I’m not sure if it would have much appeal or if any promoter would back it.”

Part two of this interview can be found here, with Rick discussing touring plans for The Red Planet, along with some of the classical music he has been enjoying during lockdown.

1 thought on “Talking Heads: Rick Wakeman

  1. Pingback: On Record – Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble: The Red Planet (Snapper) | Arcana.fm

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