I.M. caught Rick Wakeman after Arthur and before Liszt
Regarded by many as a musical genius; regarded by some as a plagiarising charlatan, Rick Wakeman at least evokes strong feeling. He is undoubtedly one of the most musical rock and roll stars and with a little care he will succeed in lifting that particular genre out of the image-ridden trough in which it has wallowed since its inception. Above all, he is conscientious and careful and though some may be dubious about the end result, the means he uses are unique in an essentially inconsequential industry.
These days you're arranging, writing and playing — how much of your life is spent just being a keyboard player?
Not very much. I only play really when I'm actually performing on stage, which is very rare now. I do about 90 concerts a year, but the English concerts this year have been almost nil. That's not a comment on the English people, it's due to English venues — not the promoters, but the venues themselves. English venues just don't know how to cater for big concerts. They go out of their way to make life very difficult for artists. There's little point in trying to arrange things here when venues are so bad.
For example, with lights, the only people who have got Super Troopers — which are the best lights — are the Rolling Stones. So if you want to use Super Troopers, you've got to hire them from the Rolling Stones. If you can't get them and you play at a big venue, no one can see you. That's why there are so many complaints from English audiences about not being able to see people at Earl's Court and so on, it's the lights. The P.A. systems are the same. There isn't a good P.A. system available in this country — there is not one that is the equivalent of the Claire Brothers system in the States. With the money you make in America, you can afford to bring the Claire Brothers over once a year so people can hear you.
Has your keyboard technique suffered because you're playing so little?
No, because I still do all my practicing every day, three hours or so.
I know you haven't had time for three hours' practice today. Do you still get to play every day?
No, today's been busy, but I still did an hour. I always sit down and seriously play each day.
Pressure is being put on you from all sides. How do you discipline yourself to allocate time in a particular direction?
Time is very difficult. Starting with the beginning of next year, I want to phase certain things out and do a cross thing. I'm getting very disillusioned with the whole rock and roll business. There's so much more to music than just electric guitar and electric keyboards. There are so many beautiful instruments in orchestras and there's so many beautiful choirs. I'm sure people don't realise that if you take a single piece of music, there's hundreds of different ways of singing it and playing it. I thought it would be really nice if all these different elements came together, not together musically, but together part and parcel. But it costs a lot of money.
I just tried and I thought I'd make enough money to break even, but I didn't. I was presenting many different sorts of music which I thought were so good that they ought to be put before people. People in the business said 'You can't do it, it costs too much money.' But it's just not viable financially. I know by losing 250,000 dollars on one American tour, playing to an average of 12,000 people a night. How can you play to an average of 12,000 people a night, paying around six dollars a head, on a 25 day tour — how can you be 250,000 dollars down?
Well, the expenses are phenomenal. Orchestras are expensive — there were 118 of them - and it cost a fortune. I thought I could pretty well break even.
You're speaking as though you were the only financier.
Well, I was. Eventually, it all comes out of one pocket. To do the 'Journey' concert at the Festival Hall, I hocked everything I had. I was broke when I went in there and it was pretty much the same for the American tour and for Wembley. It came to a point where I had no money left. I'd made a lot of money, and I hadn't frittered it away on daft things, and I suddenly found I had no money left, I was absolutely broke. I had to sit down and I'd decided I can't do the big thing any more. I'm going out now with a small band - we've had a few changes already in the band — and we'll play really well and it will all be very good and it will all be very economic, but it's not what I want to do.
What I want to do... I've found a niche in a strange way. A lot of people have said 'Your music always sounds like film music', so having done this film (Russell's Liszt), I've suddenly realised that writing not only for visuals but for things that actually exist could be the niche for me.
The thing I want to do is to gradually phase across — do a cross fade — and get the English Rock Ensemble to a stage where they can carry on, on their own... I enjoy the rock'n'roll thing, I really love it, I'll always want to play on stage and I'll always want to record, but I want to cut it down, because there's so many outside people who are absolute bloody sharks.
Are you saying that you've suffered at the hands of these people? If I remember rightly, your early days in the music business were unusually free from rip off artists.
I never actually got ripped off, or when I did it's been my own fault. I was the only guy going around using orchestras, that get good money, all this sort of thing. While you've got money in your pocket to pay for it, nobody ever says anything. When it runs out, people rush up and say 'Oh look, I'm sure we can sort something out here', and I sense some sort of financial thing coming up, like 40 per cent loans, which I don't want to know about. I like having fun when I go out with my small band. I enjoy it just as much.
Are you saying you're worse off now than you were a couple of years ago?
Well, asset wise, I'm all right, but in terms of cash flow it's diabolical.
You're an exacting technician in your music, you must have found it very hard to get the right band.
Yes, I'm just having a change round now actually. It's not a question of the people in the band not being able to play, it's just that it always takes a little while to see how people fit together and what they really want to play.
When I started the band, I went to a lot of faces first of all, really well known names, and they just couldn't play. I went round pubs and local clubs and that's where I got the band from. The standard of playing of rock'n'roll stars is appallingly low, fucking dreadful. I'm sure the really talented musicians are stuck away in little pubs or playing in Palais bands, and that's where I found my guys.
Because you're going out with a small band for the first time, are you going to have to write a completely new set of material?
I'm going to alter the whole set round, there's lots of stuff that we're going to have to lose, which is a shame, but there you go, and I'm writing some stuff to fill in.
How does that writing task appeal to you?
It doesn't appeal to me too greatly, actually, but I did miss that while I was writing for orchestras. Tbe beauty of the situation is that as I'm going to be writing some film scores, I can get my orchestra frustrations out in that way and I can also lose the small group frustrations with the band.
Before you joined the Strawbs, you were earning your living from session work. It almost sounds like the wheel has turned full circle.
It has, but the advantage this time is that I've proved myself. I've learned two things. I like working with people, but I like having my own way, I do like having that. I like having not only the last word but all the words that go before it as well. But I've also learned, through playing with the Strawbs, Yes, and the English Rock Ensemble, that in theory you can't always have all the say, but you can if you get to know the other people's frustrations and find an outlet for them to get their ideas over. For example, in the English Rock Ensemble, they've got their own deal. They're writing their own stuff — and it's bloody good as well — they're doing their own album, they've got all the facilities of the factory to get their thing together and all of my organisation is behind them. When I ask them to do something, they'll do it, and sometimes they get little ideas and offer them and they're not frustrated because they can do whatever they want. That works really well.
I suppose I am virtually returning to session work, but this time I'm a chief and not an Indian.
You're obviously working very hard now. Do you envisage a time soon when you'll not be working quite as hard?
I said I was going to slow up about two years ago, but I didn't. Music is a really strange thing, it must be the same with a paper.
Yes, but without the emotional strain of stepping in front of 12,000 people after all the hassles.
No, stepping out there isn't emotional strain, that is lovely. People can like our music or hate our music — it's usually one or the other — but people generally seem to like us as individuals. That helps us when we go on stage. Lots of people don't like my music, but I still seem to get on OK with those people and that makes things a lot easier. I think we've got one thing over everybody else. When you come to our concerts, whether or not you enjoy the music, there's a warmth of feeling of everybody being involved and no feeling of 'Hey man we're one better than you'.
That's something that applies to all the band. Before they came to me, the biggest audience they'd played to was 50 people in a pub. The first gig we did was the Festival Hall, the next Crystal Palace - 15,000 people. It didn't worry them in the least, because they treated it exactly like a pub gig.
When it comes to a reception, we don't have it in a Park Lane Hotel, we have it in a pub round the corner. It's not deliberate, it's the way we are. On the other hand, I'd hate it if we couldn't have a reception in Park Lane. Unfortunately, the one sad disaster in the music industry at the moment is that success is gauged on chart success and financial reward. If you don't reach the charts and you don't make any money, then you know that your album hasn't been a success and that's the only gauge there is. I don't know any other way to go about it. I mean, I like all the frills, all the money, all the houses, and so on, bloody great. The thing that pisses me off is that I've earned a tremendous amount of money and I've pushed a hell of a lot of it out to support something I think is really great, music that I feel should be presented to people, and it's fallen flat on its arse.
My real big beef is that this music — the music of the sixties and seventies — should be remembered in 40, 50 or 100 years time and I'm not sure it will be. It should be remembered the same way that Beethoven and Mozart, the big composers of their day, are remembered.
People remember musicians' images today, rather than their music, and that's very sad. In 50 or 100 years time, I would like to think that my music will still be played. There's a lot of good music come out of the sixties and seventies, and I wonder in 100 years time which will be more important — the artist or the music.
The final decision hangs on the quality of the music, so shouldn't that be the way to judge it in the first place? Why is it that every band writes their own music? You couldn't find one concert in the world tonight which is a concert of Moody Blues music, unless it's being played by the Moody Blues. This is sad, and bad. It worries me, because bands have been conned into the idea that they have to write for themselves. Music isn't being given to other people to play and interpret, and, for that reason, it is never improved or broadened. It's almost impossible today to write music for other people and that's very sad. In this music for the Liszt film, for example, there's a song that Andy Williams could do, Jack Jones could do and a pub band could do, and film music seems to be one of the few areas which throws up tunes and songs that other people aren't afraid to perform. But in general, people are ashamed to perform other people's music, and that's criminal.
When a manager or a record company calls a band in, one of their first questions is 'Is all your stuff original?' It drives me mad, that's the part of the business that makes me really sick. Take writers like Pete Sully and Colin Graves, they write nice songs, but what chance have they got? If they were great performers, they'd get monster hits, but you try and place their work elsewhere and you've got no chance, and it really pisses me off. I've now got a chance of doing some songs I really like on my own album, but it does seem to be a disgrace to do other people songs. I think that's why there's been a kind of reversal, and you have a lot of highly talented musicians in pubs and clubs because they aren't necessarily good writers, and mediocre musicians make it because they can write.
You mentioned earlier about allowing the English Rock Ensemble to use your factory. I believe you're involved in a new business venture.
Yes, I've started a new company called Complex Seven. Really, it's seven companies rolled into one which is where we get the name. It came about really because I couldn't get the service I needed. Even if I went to three or four different places, I still couldn't get all the services I needed, so I decided to start my own organisation. Originally, it started off when I thought I'd buy myself a small factory where I could store my equipment and save some money. Then I realised that I was paying out £300 a week for rehearsal facilities, so I decided to find a place, a slightly bigger place, with room for rehearsal as well. Then I realised that my road crew needed a workshop to work on the electronics, so I decided to get a place just a little bit bigger and then because I was a bit disillusioned with a particular keyboard instrument, and I had met this guy in America who had designed an incredible keyboard machine, I decided to put the whole lot together and get into a company that offers all the services I mentioned and is also manufacturing a new keyboard instrument.
The instrument is called The Birotron, after the guy who designed it. I'm always meeting inventors who have built an organ or a synthesiser and want me to hear it and so on, but when I met this guy it was a bit different. I was playing in New York State and this guy walked into the dressing room and said 'I've built this machine'. I said 'Great.' He said I've got it with me, I've driven 400 miles to show you it.' He dragged it in and although there were lots of faults with it, I just knew he had a good idea.
The machine is basically a keyboard that offers the player sounds from pre-recorded tapes so that by selection, you can be playing violins, or trumpets or what have you. That's not new. What is new is that you can hold a particular note indefinitely, unlike other instruments which use recorded tapes, and you can play as fast as you like.
The action of the keyboard is not mechanical but electronic, so we've essentially got a piano feel to the keyboard. The pre-recorded sounds are stored on endless loop cartridges, so that a particular sound will go on for as long as you want it and there's no delay before you can repeat a note. This is coupled with some other incredible advances in design on this sort of keyboard and for that reason, I was sufficiently impressed to want to be involved in producing them. It was at the time I was getting all the factory ideas together, so it seemed logical to use the facilities in this way.
I persuaded the guy to come to England and we started ironing out all the little faults. I put my electronic staff at his disposal and very quickly the problems disappeared.
Today I think the Birotron's an amazing instrument. The sound quality is superb and because we're using a cartridge system for the tapes, you can virtually have as many sounds as you like available. You just change the cartridges.
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