Rick Wakeman (2)
(left - me and Rick in Marlborough)
After 'Rhapsodies' Rick found himself drawing near to the end of his contract with A&M. With his style of music so out of fashion and meeting with less critical and commercial success the future seemed unclear. His last A&M record was '1984', based on the book by George Orwell and with lyrics by Tim Rice. The album also featured guest vocalists as diverse as Chaka Khan, Jon Anderson, Kenny Lynch and Tim Rice himself! The album was supposed to spawn a musical but Orwell's estate killed the idea. '1984' contains some great music and is often overlooked by both fans and media alike for some reason.
The 1980's saw Rick as prolific as ever, though the vast commercial success was, sadly, a thing of the past. 'Cost of Living' came next; an album which ranges from some of the best to worst work Rick has produced. After the beautiful 'Gone But Not Forgotten', the appalling 'Bedtime Stories' and several forgettable numbers the album ends with a most beautiful rendition of Thomas Gray's 'Elegy' read by actor Robert Powell. (This number was also a highlight of a BBC special 'Night Music' which I recently dug out on VHS and transferred to DVD.)
Rick began to release albums on smaller labels, hosted his own Channel 4 music show, 'Gastank' and continued to tour as hard as ever. He even had a minor hit single with 'Glory Boys' from 1984's 'Silent Nights' album. It was on this tour that I first saw Rick play live. It was the last night of the tour in Aldershot and the gig was great fun but rather chaotic! There was and end of party 'strippergram', the singer mimed a saxophone solo on a sex toy and Rick had brandy glasses stretched the full width of his keyboards (and yet still played a blinder!). Shortly afterwards, after taking ill in Australia Rick gave up drinking alcohol completely. I have seen Rick play many, many times since but this was one of my favourite shows. Confession: I hid a tape recorder in a briefcase and made a very rough recording of the gig which I listened to rarely until I cleaned it up a few years ago - it's a nice reminder for me now!
Rick admits he was somewhat confused over what direction he should take his music at this point - he still had a loyal fanbase who wanted the pomp and splendour of 'King Arthur' but the mass market for that type of thing was gone...the New Age market was fresh though, and Rick recorded an album of simple piano pieces for this new genre - it topped the New Age chart for nearly half the year. (This album 'Country Airs' is widely regarded as one of the two 'all-time best' New Age records - the other is the remarkable 'Voices' by Claire Hamill. Claire was the support act for Rick's 'Silent Nights' tour)
In the next decade Rick released well over 30 albums - keeping up was expensive! Rick continued to tour widely and also focussed on his Christian faith with works such as 'The Gospels' (later 'The New Gospels') featuring tenor Ramon Remedios, the Eton College Chapel Choir and Robert Powell (again). This 'epic' work was aired in several forms on TV - once as a remarkable live concert from the Middle East. A few years later the whole double album was re-recorded as 'The New Gospels' - this is a better recording with some new pieces complimenting the best of the old - unfortunately I find the singing of the 'New Gospels Choir' consistently flat throughout, making virtually the whole thing unlistenable. (Surely this could be remedied with modern studio techniques - I believe it would be well worth it...)
During the 1990's Rick also built himself a second career as a 'professional TV celebrity', popping up everywhere from 'Countdown' to 'Can't Cook, Won't Cook', pop quiz 'Never Mind the Buzzcocks' to 'How to Make a Barbecue' with chef Kevin Woodford! His face was so well known he began to joke about old ladies who knew him from 'the telly' being surprised he could play the piano as well!
Rick began to alternate his rock tours with more acoustic church tours and the albums continue to flow - some rock, some acoustic, some classical interpretations, some New Age.
In 1999 it seemed as if Rick was about to be launched right back into the forefront of Progressive Rock. EMI Classics released 'Return to the Centre of the Earth'. Rick nearly died of pneumonia during its production but saw its completion as God-ordained. I believe that; for as well as the narration telling the story Rick wrote for the project the songs tell (in my interpretation) a very different story about man's struggle to exist without - then find - God. With all the EMI resources behind it the album featured orchestras and choirs (again!), Patrick 'Star Trek' Stewart as narrator and Rock icons Ozzy Osbourne and Justin Hayward amongst the vocalists. Rumours abounded about great live shows...but they never happened. For the want of a decent advertising campaign the album sank without trace...EMI worldwide behaved disgracefully in ignoring it. This is what Rick himself says:
"EMI refused to release it in South America and so an Eastern European bootleg company decided to bridge the gap for irate fans and sold 250,000 copies for which neither myself nor EMI received a penny. When I mentioned this to EMI in Brazil they basically said they couldn't care less!!!! - and you wonder why the music industry is in such a mess!!!"
Rick had intended that the solo tours would end in 2001 with a farewell trek around the UK but Rick returned to Prog again with a new album 'Out There' in 2002 and toured it with the 'NEW English Rock Ensemble' featuring Ant Glynne on guitar, Lee Pomeroy on bass and Tony Fernandez (of course) on drums. Original singer Damian Wilson pulled out of the tour due to a 'crisis of confidence' and was replaced (to many fans delight - and the opposite reaction from some others!) by old side-kick Ashley Holt who I thought sang better than ever throughout the excellent tour. Despite fans begging for a live DVD the tour remains unseen except for a few snippets on the 'Out There' DVD - which itself is one of the strangest Wakeman releases ever...it is basically the album in surround sound with 'spaceship graphics'. I tend to turn the picture off and just listen...hope that doesn't offend anyone! The solo toured restarted despite Rick's previous announcement and he also toured with Jon Anderson in 2006 in a successful series of concerts around the UK where they performed a variety of music including Yes classics like 'Awaken' (with just 2 people!!!) and solo favourites like 'Nursery Rhyme Concerto'.
In 2003 Rick finally rejoined Yes and the band soared through a highly successful world tour. Another tour in 2004 followed - Rick's presence allowed the group to incorporate an 'acoustic' set in the gigs (and release a DVD of an acoustic set) and the group are finally playing live tracks from the 1996 'Keys to Ascension' studio sessions. Hopefully, a new studio album will not be far away.
Apart from getting an autograph in 1993, I first met Rick (to speak to) at a church concert in Portsmouth about 8 years ago. I had with me my son, Morgan, who a few weeks earlier had been diagnosed with diabetes. He was only 7 years old and very down about the prospect of not eating sweets etc. for the rest of his life. Rick made a big fuss of him, signed pictures etc and Morgan joined me in having a 'hero' in Rick. What I find amazing is that, despite travelling and playing all over the world (and, no doubt, meeting thousands of fans) Rick still remembers us. If he sees Morgan today (he's nearly 16 now) he still knows who he is. When Morgan went back into hospital a couple of years ago Rick was kind enough to send him a lengthy get well soon e-mail. Not just a fabulous musician but a fellow Christian and all-round 'good bloke'.
(left - Rick with Morgan in Guildford, 2001)
The official Rick Wakeman Website
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