I was introduced to Rick Wakeman's music in 1981 by my best friend at Music College (see my bio page for the full story). From the first album of his that I bought ('1984') I was hooked! Here was a man who could play the piano faster than anyone I had ever heard!
But Rick Wakeman is far from being all about speed! Melody, harmony, humour and history are some of the diverse ingredients that go into making Rick Wakeman a very special musician and entertainer.
Rick was born in Middlesex in 1949 (25 days before John Wetton) and had piano lessons (with the Mrs Symes he still talks about fondly today) from the age of 6. He progressed quickly, passed all his grades and eventually earned a place at the prestigious Royal College of Music in London. He soon discovered, however, that his talent for playing the piano had a greater earning potential in the world of pop music than it would have if he became a concert pianist! He would take time off from college to play as a session musician at various recording studios in the London area. So, eventually, he left the college and became a full-time musician.
He joined folk-rock group 'The Strawbs' where his playing came to the attention of Chris Squire from 'Yes' and Rick joined the progressive rock giants in 1971. Rick has left and joined 'Yes' several times since. (I tried explaining the 'Yes' membership to a friend recently...it went like this...) Rick's first solo venture was a sign of things to come...an epic production based on English Tudor History and titled 'The 6 Wives of Henry VIII'. This purely instrumental album featured other members of Yes as well and has gone down in pop history now as one of the best examples of early progressive rock. Early reviews were indifferent but that did not stop the album becoming a massive worldwide hit. (I was recently privileged to play Henry VIII in a production of the play 'Kings & Queens' (left - click to enlarge) - I simply had to play this album before the show!)
Having left 'Yes' behind (for now) Rick 'invested' his earnings from 6 Wives into his next solo venture, hiring The Royal Festival Hall, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, The English Chamber Choir, actor David Hemmings...and the band from his local pub to perform his own musical interpretation of a favourite book from childhood - Jules Verne's 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'. There were two sell-out shows on the same day - Rick could only afford to record one of them - and the live album was due for release soon afterwards. Things went wrong, as they would...a drum skin split at a most inappropriate moment, a microphone stopped working, the trumpet section refused to hit any high notes cleanly...but despite all this the concerts received a rapturous reception, the album became a top 10 success all round the world and Rick spent his profits by taking the whole thing on a world tour - complete with orchestras, choirs...and the band from the pub! He also bought 24 Rolls-Royce cars for a reason even he forgets these days!
Following a performance of 'Journey' early in 1975 Rick collapsed with a heart attack and was hospitalized for some time. While there he wrote part of his next album 'Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table'. Although the historic angle was obvious Rick also drew on his own recent experiences while compiling the lyrics for the new record. He has said since that he wondered if 'The Last Battle' was inspired by his own struggle with illness. Recovered, he was allowed home, warned by the doctors to stop smoking (he didn't!) and he prepared to record both his own new album and the soundtrack for Ken Russell's movie (very loosely) based on the life of composer Franz Liszt - 'Lisztomania'. Another orchestra, another choir...another expensive tour??? No, Rick could top that: this time it was going to be ON ICE with a whole team of skaters added to the payroll! Despite selling out the massive Wembley Empire Pool (now Wembley Arena) for three nights such an extravagant production simply HAD to make a loss! It did! But what a great show! Rick sold some of his Rolls-Royces!
'No Earthly Connection' came next with its 'out of this world' theme. By this time Rick had extended his 'band from the pub' into 'The English Rock Ensemble' - a band of many players, all of whom Rick took on tour with him. He also wrote the music for a film of the 1976 Winter Olympics called 'White Rock'. This was Rick's 2nd completely instrumental album and is still a favourite with many fans.
In 1977 Rick rejoined 'Yes' and also recorded 'Rick Wakeman's Criminal Record', which is my own all time Wakeman favourite album. Using 'crime' as its theme Rick put together an extremely varied record with exciting rock, beautiful melodies, the haunting 'Birdman of Alcatraz', humour with Bill Oddie (The Goodies) in a song about breathalysers and then finishes it all with 'Judas Iscariot'. This last instrumental is epic in every way. The music itself is almost symphonic (actually, in musical terms it is a Tone Poem) and also very spiritual. Rick has never hidden his Christian beliefs and the use of the hymn tune 'Horbury' (There is a Green Hill Far Away) in this piece is deeply moving. The ending, which I believe to symbolise the glory of Christ's resurrection is a highlight of my Easter every year. (I fully acknowledge that Rick's original intention may have been for this to represent Judas hanging himself in the 'field of blood' but I prefer my interpretation!)
After this great album Rick seemed to cast off the 'epic' mantle for a time. It was an era when progressive rock, and Rick and Yes in particular, went seriously out of fashion. His next solo album was the very light (and almost throw-away) double LP 'Rhapsodies'. Rick changed his keyboard line-up of (if I remember correctly he used a lot of Korgs) and certainly created lots of new synthesizer voices - some of which sounded a bit silly even then! Rick even sang (albeit through a Vocoder) on one track! I remember 'Animal Showdown' getting soundly panned on 'Juke Box Jury'. (That single was released as a picture disc, a copy of which I now have autographed on my studio wall.) →
The official Rick Wakeman Website
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