Rick Wakeman is truly a musician’s musician. He is revered by pop culture fanatics as the keyboard mastermind behind the prog-rock giants Yes and as one of the luminaries of the genre, but has stood among giants. He has written songs with the likes of David Bowie and Black Sabbath as well as releasing solo albums of his own.
That includes his latest effort entitled Piano Odyssey, which features an orchestra accompanied by a choir to perform classic rock songs in arrangements composed by Wakeman. They perform renditions of the Beatles, Queen, David Bowie, Yes, and of course, his own solo songs. With all of the rock stars biting the dust these days, prepare to witness the truth spoken by a true living legend of rock n’ roll.
After four decades of being one of the most well-respected musicians in rock n’ roll that’s still consistently putting out albums and touring, what do you think is one of the core elements, not just in your music, but in music in general, that has people keep coming back to rock n’ roll in an unforgettable way? Or, even representing what most people consider to be rock n’ roll in a classical context now?
Rick Wakeman: I think a lot of it is down to generations. The interesting thing is, I’ve got six kids and the oldest is about 47 and they go down to 30 and most of them play instruments. My son Oliver played in Yes for two years and Adam, who’s about 45, has been playing with Ozzy Osbourne for 17 years now. Both my daughters play, and I talk to them about this, but what’s interesting is they say is, “What’s interesting for you Dad, is that you can remember when rock n’ roll was born.”
They said, “You can put a date on things.” And as generations have gone on, nobody puts a date on anything anymore. The music is either great, or it isn’t, you either like it, or you don’t. The interesting thing is that a lot of musicians, and a lot of young musicians, I get a lot that come to the shows and talk, and they’re interested in the history of the industry that they’ve joined. They’re interested in how they’re able to make music, how it got to that stage, what happened before that may have subconsciously influenced them, or the different ways of recording or what has happened. A lot of them will go back and look back on some of the instruments we used and say, “I want to try that, I want to do that.” And they’ve shown it even more so in the last couple of years because I can’t honestly speak for Canada, but I can certainly speak for the UK, vinyl is now outselling CDs.
Check out this music video for a beautiful, piano version of “Morning Has Broken” from Piano Portraits.
Yeah, it’s the same way over here too.
Wakeman: What’s interesting is that I speak to a lot of people buying vinyl and the thing is a lot of musicians didn’t even know it existed. They had no idea it existed because there was a very, well, I call it a bad period of time, which was mainly in the ‘80s, it started. Which is where manufacturers of hardware for music told us for example, that the CD replaced the album, vinyl. “You don’t need that anymore. You need a CD.”
Then we’re told, “Downloading, that’s going to replace your CDs.” What’s happening now with new generations is that they’re like, “Well, hold on a minute. We don’t like this word ‘replacement,’ we prefer the word ‘addition.’ We prefer you to say, “Well, hold on a minute, we’ve got an option, four, five or six ways that we can listen to our music.” We may want to listen on different formats at different times. It’s easy to take an iPod with 500 tunes, we can take that with us when we’re on the go, that’s easy. But when we’re at home, how nice would it be to take the album off the shelf, take a look to see who’s on it, and then play it? So you’ve got that tactile thing as well.
It’s very interesting, in this country again as well, that people have started producing cassettes again. Because we have quite a silly situation, don’t ask me how it’s happened, I was told 55 percent of the cars on the road in Britain have cassette players in them. So people started to produce cassettes again and it’s fantastic because there are options. Thankfully, we’ve lost this dreaded word ‘replacement.’ It is the same with musical instruments. I know a lot of young musicians who have gone back and have discovered the old vintage synths and vintage keyboards that were around, but there are a lot of them. That is so healthy, that is so good, and I think we have these generations that don’t like this ‘replacement’ word.
There is an interesting thing about new music because I’ve always looked upon music as the first thing that anyone actually owns for themselves when you’re a kid. If you think when you’re, I don’t know, 12, 13, 14, 15, even 16 years old, you are very reliant on your parents, or whoever brings you up.
They decide what you’re gonna wear, they decide what school you go to, they decide what you’re gonna eat, and they pay for everything. You are stuck, so once you find your own music, that’s the first thing you’re gonna own, they can’t stop you from doing that. There is nothing better that any kid likes to this day more than hear those words coming up the stairs, “Turn that horrible racket off!” That’s brilliant, that means, “That’s mine.” What’s interesting is that ten years down the line, they’ll look back on that and go, “Hey, there’s some good stuff there.” I mean I can remember the ages when punk came about. It absolutely killed prog and various other things like that. Young kids went, “Aw great, this is it, this is ours. This is what I like.”
I mean, I’m great friends with the guys like The Jam and all that sort of thing, and they said, “We love prog rock, but it wasn’t for us, but we loved it, but we can’t say that because the fans would say, “You can’t like that.” But then, ten years down the line, the next generation will say, “Hey, there’s some really good stuff there.”
That’s what’s really healthy now, you can really listen to most radio stations and you’ll hear such an eclectic mix of music. You hear punk one minute, then Led Zeppelin, then it’s not impossible us in there or something. It’s so wonderful that music doesn’t have a date stamped on it anymore.
I think that’s a really excellent point you raised because not only is it incredibly relevant, but it’s becoming bigger. Even to speak to the point you made about synthesizers, now there’s that whole movement of electronic music called synthwave with guys like Perturbator that are merging old-school instruments with digital recording technology. So you really get the best of both worlds.
Wakeman: Yeah, what’s great about that as well is they’re getting these old instruments and they’re finding things to do with them that we never did in the original days because we had moved on to the next thing. So there’s always new things to do with these old things and they’re finding good ways of doing it too.
Yeah, a lot of room for rediscovery. I think it’s interesting that you mentioned the resurgence of vinyl as well because I completely agree with it. I think another big attraction to vinyl, at least for the 21st century and a lot of the fans that have come along with it, is that it’s such a completely immersive experience on every level. Whether it’s the combination of the lyrics with the artwork on the gatefold, as well as the fact you have to sit down and listen to a whole album, you can’t skip around, it’s a real experience. And it’s a powerful storytelling opportunity as well.
Wakeman: Absolutely! The other thing I always found interesting is the number of people, I’ll talk to them and they might have a vinyl under their arm. I’ll say, “Oh you’ve got the vinyl.” They’ll say, “We’ve got the vinyl, we bought the CD and we’ve downloaded it as well. Because depending on where we are, we find it really useful.” I think we’re in a very healthy era. I think the manufacturers, well, I think record companies… Let me be honest with you, I think they got it terribly wrong in the ‘80s and ‘90s by keep telling us, “It’s replacement, replacement, replacement.” Rather than, “Hey, here’s another way you can do that.”
Wakeman: I think it’s taken time, but they’ve suddenly caught up now.
Yeah, and at the same time too, in the age of the internet that we’re in right now there is so much material out there right now. Not just throughout history, but with independent acts being able to release their own music online etc… It’s almost overwhelming to the point where I have to agree with what your kid said about, “I don’t care what year it’s from or what genre you want to call it.” It’s just whether it attracts you to it or not, right? Because you don’t necessarily have time to filter it in all of those different ways rather than focusing on what it really has to offer.
Wakeman: Yeah, and I think the other thing as well is that I think it’s enabled. You know, I’ve often said that every musician aspires to be international. But the way you can make music now and the way you can produce music, there is no reason why you can’t find musicians. And they’re doing it, finding their level, it might be a local level, it might be a county level, and it might break out a little bit more. And it might be able to let their music reach a bigger (audience) or something like that. So there’s a wonderful pyramid that you can work your way up through.
Yeah, and kind of just to the point you mentioned earlier about for the listeners, for the audience, having that amount of options at your disposal as a musician as well. So it’s a two-way street, rather than it being a one-way conversation, right?
Wakeman: Yeah, absolutely.
Ready for some more piano? Watch this video for “Space Oddity” also off of Piano Portraits.
Yeah, well, the next big question I really had for you was not just how you managed to arrive on selecting the songs as well as which arrangements you chose to focus on for the new album… But the one thing I really wanted to try to dig at and get your thoughts on were as your chops and songwriting abilities as a musician have evolved, especially as a live performer over the years. How did you really approach every new album? Especially this one, not just as a process of rediscovery, but as a storytelling opportunity? As a chance to let your writing, your composing, and your lyricism evolve as well as the musicianship itself? And kind of reflect each other, and the growth within that?
Wakeman: I’m quite good at focusing. When I start on a project, I can bring the blinkers in, I can focus solely on it, I can not get detracted and I spend a lot of time preparing before I do an album. I can see how it’s going to look, almost like creating a storyboard.
Wakeman: One of the things for this album, the tunes had to be, the melodies had to be really important. And melodies to me… The sign of a good melody, if it’s taken from a song, without the words, you know what the song is. That to me is the sign of a real strong melody. Of course, there are some instrumental pieces in that as well, but if you’ve got a good melody, you can do variations on that melody, which is what I really like doing. I don’t particularly care if it’s five years old, five minutes old or 500 years old, if it’s a good melody, it’s what we were talking about earlier. It’s good, it shouldn’t have a date stamped on it.
Wakeman: I have a short list of about 42, which we got down to twelve eventually, and we tried to get a nice mixture of music, but with a similar style. I wanted every one to be a centerpiece with little splashes of color here and there just to enhance the piano. I worked on the principle of the track “Morning Has Broken” which I did with Cat Stevens.
It’s interesting when people say about the piano on “Morning Has Broken,” there’s the impression that the piano plays all the way through. It doesn’t. It just plays the little interludes between the verses and just one or two little flourishes. That’s all. That’s all it does, but the impression is there that it’s all the way through. And I wanted to give that impression with this album. That the string orchestra and the choir were always there all the time, but they’re not. They’re only there in little splashes. But the impression is that it’s a piano and an orchestra.
I didn’t want it to be where I recorded the piano pieces and then did orchestration, where I’d just play all the way through over the top, with arrangements. I didn’t want that, I wanted the orchestra, piano, and choir all to be one. So I wrote out all the parts out as well, so I could see, I could pattern, how it would work. I actually recorded it in a slightly strange way. I did a demo for my own benefit of how I wanted the pieces and mapped it all out. I then wrote the orchestrations in the little places that I wanted all of the orchestrations.
I then went into the studio and recorded the piano. So I recorded the piano knowing full well where the orchestrations were going to be. For example, as I was playing in some places where I knew the orchestral part or the choir part would going to be important. It was like a jigsaw where all the pieces where I knew what all the parts were going to do when I recorded the piano. Then I went into the studio, recorded the strings and then did the choir. The only other additive that came in was on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” After I recorded it, I sent it to (Queen guitarist) Brian May, because Brian is one of my closest friends.
Probably the biggest radio hit from Yes, listen to a remastered version of “Roundabout” from the 1971 album Fragile.
Oh for sure.
Wakeman: I just wanted to know what he thought of it because we’re very close mates. He was lovely, he came back about half an hour later, and he said, “Rick, I absolutely love this. If Freddie (Mercury) was alive, he would’ve absolutely adored this.”
Wakeman: The only thing he said is that it needs a bit of classical flamenco guitar right towards the end, I said, “Where do you mean?” and he pointed it out. I looked it up on the computer and I said, “I’ll get that done.” And he said, “No, no, no, send it to me. I want to do it.”
Wakeman: He did this wonderful little cameo bit at the end of “Bohemian Rhapsody” which is absolutely perfect.
Yeah, you can’t ask for higher praise than that.
Just to wrap things up, the final question I had was, with all of the amazing artists you’ve collaborated with over the years, like Cat Stevens, like Brian May or with some artists that have either retired recently like Black Sabbath or artists that have unfortunately passed away like David Bowie…
What really inspires you to continue to push on as an artist yourself while being able to reflect on all of the experience you have as a way to push yourself forward after your friends go their own separate way, one way or another?
Wakeman: I think the answer to that is that I’m just totally in love with music, and I feel seriously blessed that I have the opportunity or some small talent that enables me to do it and create something that’s inside of me, in my heart and my head. I suppose I’m also very aware that as the years go by, you wonder, “Gosh, how much longer have I got to do this?” I had the honor and also the sadness of doing (Deep Purple keyboardist) Jon Lord’s eulogy.
Wakeman: And I stood by his coffin and delivered the eulogy, I couldn’t help think, “I wonder what music Jon has taken with him.” Because I’ve actually got written in my will that on my tombstone it’s going to be written, “It’s not fair, I haven’t finished yet.” And you know what? I think that goes for every artist, every person, every musician because you never finish. That is the joy of music.
And I think that is the perfect note to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time Rick.