Keyboard player Rick Wakeman occupies an enviable niche in the pantheon of British rock music. I’d hate to saddle him with ‘national treasure’ status but – despite his well-documented professional and personal excesses – he attracts a grudging respect even in those like me who have hated the Progressive Rock genre for over 40 years.
Wakeman began his professional career by playing with semi-pro bands at the age of fourteen and, after managing a year at the Royal College of Music, became a session musician at the age of nineteen in 1968. Within a year, amongst other things, he had played the mellotron on the David Bowie hit Space Oddity (for a session fee of £9) and joined the Strawbs. He later had two stints with progressive rock combo Yes and became famous, and infamous, for his extended works entitled The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table – the last even becoming a much-derided ‘live’ show on ice in the style of It’s A Knockout – produced between 1973 and 1975.
Although Wakeman was pigeon-holed (in the perception of the public) as a stereotypical Progressive Rocker of the type that eventually caused the Punk Rock backlash of the late 1970s – not least because of his penchant for showing off his outstanding but sometimes overblow and self-indulgent keyboard skills – in private he was actually quite ‘down to earth’, humble and self-aware.
After a prolonged period of alcohol abuse – I well remember him appearing in a television documentary in the 1980s in which, sitting at a pub bar, he was asked “Do you consider you have a drinking problem?”, to which he replied deadpan, whilst sipping on a beer: “No – I don’t have a problem at all with drinking …” – and three heart attacks in his twenties, Wakeman made a conscious decision to ‘grow up’ and pull his life together. He’s been married three times and is a lifelong football fan – formerly of Brentford FC, of which he was a board director for a period – and now Manchester City.
Although, as I indicated above, I had not previously been a particular fan, in 2010 I took the trouble to buy tickets to an event entitled An Evening With Rick Wakeman at Chichester Cathedral, part of the annual Chichester Festivities cultural festival (now defunct).
The evening concerned was something of a revelation. Wakeman strolled on stage, in jeans and a smock, to perform a mesmerising show in which – in his characteristically droll, relaxed, manner – he alternated fascinating and often hilarious tales from different periods of his life with impressive sections of piano-playing (ranging in style from pop, blues and devotional to classical), including many of his own compositions.
The highlight was the final piece he played, recently commissioned by some organisation involved with Remembrance Day and wounded servicemen. It was both brilliant and intensely moving.
The evening turned me into a Wakeman convert.
Which is why I am taking the trouble to provide National Rust readers with a link to this interview, appearing today on the website of THE GUARDIAN