Rick Wakeman in 1984
An exclusive interview with Rick Wakeman plus music from '1984' for you to play.
Multi-keyboardist Rick Wakeman brought out his first solo recording in 1973. It was his impression of the characters of 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' and this was listed in Time Magazine's best recordings of 1973.
This turning point in his career was the culmination of years of gigs and recording sessions with such artists as Cat Stevens, T-Rex and David Bowie, playing in three and four-piece bands and his own trad jazz band. A lot of this was done as a means of supporting himself whilst he studied at the Royal College of Music, London in the 60's with the hope of becoming a concert pianist. Eventually Rick joined the Strawbs for just over a year, recording two albums with them before meeting vocalist Jon Anderson, bassist Chris Squire, guitarist Steve Howe, and drummer Bill Bruford in 1971 to complete the 'Yes' group.
Rick's solo career continued with his large scale interpretation of 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth', recorded on January 18th 1974. This was followed by 'The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table', 'No Earthly Connection', 'Criminal Records', 'Rhapsodies', plus the soundtracks to Ken Russell's film 'Lisztomania', the 1976 Winter Olympics film 'White Rock' and a new horror film 'The Burning'.
Recently he signed up with Charisma Records and although he has dropped many of his external company interests, he still retains a large flight case manufacturing company.
His latest achievement '1984' took nearly two and a half years to produce and is written in the Wakeman tradition of merging the rock band with symphony orchestra, choir and vocalist.
"'1984' was built up from an idea I'd had for a long time to get back to the old syndrome of working with other musicians and using electronics within orchestral musicians and instruments. I've always believed that an instrument, like a musician, should not get typecast.
"Looking at the history of the orchestra, you find that new sounding combinations of instruments often become accepted as 'the next step' and this is what I've tried to do by integrating electronics into the orchestra."
Rick studied orchestration with Philip Cannon at the Royal College of Music, London and is keen to write his music for any acoustic vocal or electronic instrument combination that he feels is suitable.
"'1984' also came about because I wanted to try to get into the future. I've done plenty of historical things before so I wanted to get into the 80's. The 1984 idea came from the George Orwell book, even though I first thought the book was lousy. Probably, its success was due to '1984' being of more symbolic significance than an actual year. George Orwell did get a lot of things right — people are becoming robots, there are deep recessions, there is the proletarian attitude, and there are race and religious problems.
"I naturally became much more interested in '1984'. Although it is basically a sort of love story, at the end they put together all the things right and wrong with society and decide that blowing themselves up is the only answer! But of course, if you can face up to these problems you're being optimistic and that's how I looked at my interpretation of '1984'. It's quite light-hearted in lots of places as a result.
"Tim Rice then took my literary ideas and got them right for the album lyrics (these are printed on the album cover sleeve along with all the instruments and performers for each piece). I do write a lot of words myself, but really could not get these right.
"The actual composition of '1984' took nearly two years from start to finish, not just in writing but in coordination as well. The recording was done at Morgan Studios during February and March of this year.
"I tried to use the best singers and musicians for the pieces and in fact I managed to get my first choice for all of them. To try and get together at any one time the choir, the orchestra, Chaka Khan (who lives in America), Steve Harley (who was in Brazil with his new wife), Tim Rice (in the Far East at the time), Kenny Lynch, Jon Anderson, plus the band was very difficult! At the beginning, I also had to get them interested by explaining what was in my mind without being able to physically play them anything. Most of the people I'd known previously, although it was the first time I had worked with Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel."
Rick spends a lot of time doing gigs and last year he did a UK tour for a month and prior to his latest undertaking, recently appeared at the Hammersmith Odeon, London where he performed '1984' pieces and selections from his other albums. The accompanying (and cover) photographs were taken from this concert.
In between the tours he has been composing music in his South of France home at Beaulieu near Monaco. He's been married twice and his present wife is Swiss/French with a young son.
Rick's performance image has changed with '1984'. Away goes the cloak and long hair — at his wife's suggestion.
"The theatrical image is very important because when you're listening to a record, you're concentrating on the music, and when you go to a concert, you still want to hear the music, but don't expect to see performers just standing or sitting there — you want some visual enhancement as well."
"People approach their composing in different ways — my best time for writing is when I am feeling very happy or have just had an absolute disaster. What happens in the latter case is I don't lose my temper but get really miserable. So I sit at the piano and it flows out like there's no tomorrow. I don't write it down right away but wait a day and if I can still remember what I played I then keep it on manuscript.
"'Julia's Song' was interesting to do because of comparisons I made between my wife's situation and Julia within the book. We were going through a difficult period and I was very low, but the result was that I wrote 'Julia' straight off in just a few minutes. I really wrote it for my wife and for the recording I told Chaka what the song was all about; she sang it once on stage and the next day we tried another recording and that was it. It had to be sung with feeling and this seemed the only way to do it.
"The written music would be in a keyboard format, although I always have in mind what I am going to use for it — I can 'hear' the instruments and vocals as I write. The interesting thing out of all the pieces, in other words the test of the album for me, was to take chunks off the album and put them together as a final piece — would it sound just that or become a reasonable piece of music in its own right? If so, then that's '1985' (using all the ideas of '1984' to show the way for '1985'). I was pleased with the music, so this then became the last piece of the album and only a misprint gave it the title '1984' instead of '1985'."
We discussed how the '1984' pieces often contained jumps from one section to another without a more traditional development. Often the last bar before the change had an irregular beat count.
"This is not a tape splice error as you might think (only one edit took place, during the final piece of the album with a 4/4 sequence in tempo to insert a better take at the finish), but it's the result of me liking the surprise of switching prematurely into the new section. I don't think of doing gradual transitions for their own sake but like putting what is right at the time. The voicing is also important to carry the changeover in the right way.
"Writing at a piano is an advantage for me, for if it's sounding good at this stage, everything else from thereon is an absolute additive — in other words, you've painted your sketch 'by numbers' and now it's a question of looking round at various instruments and finding the right textures of 'red or blue' to complete the musical picture."
I asked Rick about his use of different tempos — from very slow speeds with heavy reverberating drum in the background to very fast driving 'growling' guitar tempos that jump almost unpredictably from one to another during a piece.
"Yes — I like extremes! It's probably a reaction to my college days when I found I liked consecutive 5ths and used them for my choir writing 'against the rules'! A good composer takes in his musical experiences and draws upon them in a way that makes all writers different. But of course he or she has to draw on the past and can't draw musically on what hasn't been discovered yet. Instruments have become increasingly important and it's the technology of the new instruments that enables people to expand the whole area of composition. The die hards will acknowledge this in 10 years time.
"There's a great need for the classical musician to be integrated into the developing electronic music scene to become part of 'today's music'."
Certain musical writing techniques are evident in Rick's music — the descending bass line, often used rhythms and cross rhythms. "The latter weren't from any particular jazz tuition in the past (even though my art teacher at school was Mike Westbrook, better known as a jazz musician), but really came from me experimenting with, say, 5 bars of 4/4 and then I'd put down another line over the top which was 4 bars of 5/4 and then possibly 6 bars of 3/4, making it blatently obvious with accents, and a bar of 2/4 at the end.
Several sequences show this effect in '1984', particularly in the Overture part 2, where a cymbal crash comes on different beats, against woodwind and drummer's cymbals.
"I like the way this makes a sort of crossroads that gives a lovely warm feeling when you get to the other side. What was amusing was the reaction of the orchestra with 'are you sure that's right — we're in 4 and the flutes are in 5?'. At the beginning of the Overture I had a few problems with the orchestra, where the clarinets and bassoons are theoretically playing in 3/8 with the oboes playing on 2nd and 3rd beats, whilst the horns and harp reinforced by timpani play in 4/4, all with sustained lower strings. Originally I wrote this in 3/8 because I thought it would be easier to follow, but in the end I had to put it as these 3/4 and 5/4 bars."
String parts are well spread out and Rick likes to give the inside parts something interesting to play (from his experience as 2nd clarinet at the ROM). "I like the bass to have melodic lines to play — not just bass notes. I don't write drum parts — Tony has been so long with me that we soon work out the sequences."
With the large number of key changes in the work, Rick always inserts signatures rather than add flats or sharps as the music progresses. He actually prefers to laboriously write out the full orchestral score himself! — an uncommon practice these days, usually left to professional orchestrator/arrangers — but obviously it results in a very 'personal' orchestration. "I get knocked quite a lot by the music press — they say I'm over indulgent, but I take this part of composing very seriously."
On the score the choir, band, vocals and synthesiser parts are not shown. The choir is written out separately in four parts SATB with two alto parts but no words (most of it is 'aah'). Choir crescendos are actually done at mix stage on the faders. Vocals and group basic parts are virtually learnt on the spot and Rick's synthesiser parts are all learnt from memory. "I do have some early sketches written out but I don't use them now."
"In the backing group, Steve Barnacle makes his own (Fender) bass lines from the material I give him, along with Tim Stone on (Gibson) guitar and Frank Ricotti on (Ludwig) drums. In 'Proles', Gary Barnacle plays an interesting line on (Selmer) sax."
I asked Rick why he had chosen a live choir for 1984'. "I often use a real choir when finance is available. There's a big difference between the electronic Vocoder and Novatron (Mellotron) type of voice and the real thing."
Repeated notes are a popular part of Rick's orchestrating, often using well known sequences like A-G-F-E, and we considered what his typically scored passage often contains: a string backing (tremulando) with the choir singing 'aah', the piano playing arpeggios, the solo or polysynth playing the lead line with drums beating heavily at centre stereo with full reverb depth, and probably a very strong bass guitar line using overdrive and sustain. "Yes, you've pretty well summed it up there, in full flight!"
The music wasn't written in any particular order and although the music appears to jump from one idea to the next, it's interesting to find that they're often variations on the main themes.
"There is one tape reversal effect used on 'Robot Man', which is actually augmented 4th piano arpeggios plus my 3-year-old son banging things over the piano. I'll tell you something about tape reversals — if you don't play the right notes they can sound horrible — you can't just put in anything!"
"In 'Proles', there is a Bb/F# enharmonic change — I love all that when I'm considering key changes. I don't have true perfect pitch but I can hear certain keys very clearly — warm keys like Db, Gb, Ab and extremities like B and E. I don't bother about using flat keys for brass and sharp keys for strings. D major and Am, Gm, Cm, F# major are all used in '1984'. 'Journey' was also a lot of D, 'Arthur' was a lot of Cm and E, 'Henry' was Cm and Am, but when I sit down at the piano and start putting melodies together, I do find that the key comes along with it — I don't think, now I'll use Cm and so on."
Rick has listed all the '1984' musicians and instruments on the record cover, along with Tim Rice's lyrics and the names of the players and the studio people.
"I was having terrible trouble because I wanted to replace a lot of my instruments — I knew some of the sounds I wanted and I'd ordered a lot of new stuff from Korg, but it didn't come in time for the album.
"I do use new gear on stage now with a lot of Korg instruments. These are two Sigma Performing Synthesisers, two Lambda Polyphonic Ensembles, two LP-10 Electric Pianos, the BX-3 Organ, the 3200 Programmable Polysynth, the Trident Polysynth, plus SE-500 echo and other effects along with a Yamaha CP80B Electric Grand.
"For the album I had to use some of my own instruments and we borrowed and hired some as well. I like the Prophet 5 and 10 and helped in the early days with the panel-board design of these. 'The Room' used a Hammond organ solo with Leslie mechanical rotor. The flute solo was done on the Prophet. I had been using my Moogs and Prophets for donkeys years before the change, but it came to the crunch a few months ago when I sold the lot. So I went out and bought the new stuff and set up the gear differently at the same time. I went to Japan to visit Korg's manufacturer, Keio Electronic Laboratory Corp. in May, during which I chose some' instruments. We had a celebration party and a good session with Japanese musicians to coincide with my 32nd birthday on May 18th.
"It's been great to have a change and even the band have commented 'you're playing better than ever before'. Of course, you eventually get to the stage where you don't want to carry and use any more instruments than are absolutely necessary. I love using the MiniMoogs — but Moog don't even make them any more. Please don't take this egotistically, but I don't think even Bob Moog could teach me any more about the MiniMoog. I know the instrument inside out and backwards. There is nothing left for me to do with it anymore even though I've got nothing against it. Coming back to piano, in the studio I used a Steinway Grand, and I used the CP80B on stage. I've used the Yamaha string machine and I've also made up my own strings using a Prophet.
"To get my electronic string sound, I put down a basic string machine track on tape. I then add Harmoniser treatment to detune and chorus it further. I then use the Yamaha electric piano with all the attacks on full and all its sustain off and put this on the front for the attack. I put a strong echo on as it's mixed on to another track. Finally, I bring the echo of the string machine up front, cutting off the echo at the end so it's a more natural sound.
"A large amount of orchestral percussion was used for '1984' with bells, glocks, timps, tamborine, xylophone, cymbals, marimba, vibes and shakers.
"In the score I use the normal range of orchestral instruments including strings, brass (no tuba except in 'No Name'), woodwind (except Cor Anglais). The kettledrums give extra drive and are certainly a prominent feature in my music. The harp makes a significant contribution, too, but I like it to be heard clearly otherwise I won't use it. The banjo in 'Forgotten Memories' was just added on the spur of the moment, and the sax on 'Proles' was used through the Roland SPV-355 pitch to voltage converter which has got a 3 VCO synthesiser built in.
"I haven't used a Novatron for nearly six years — on stage I used the Korg Vocoder for the choir. I really like the sound I get from this — it's done with chorus effect on the vocoder along with heavy fast vibrato to give an extremely thick choral sound. I also let through a little of my voice for extra sibilance on the too.
"The effects I use on stage are the Moog 12-Stage Phaser and two Korg SD-200 Analogue Delays — that's really all I use although I've got ten foot pedals for volume control of the various machines and, of course, reverberation is added for the PA reproduction plus some echo. On stage the foldback is not very loud — around 400 watts (!), compared with a thunderous 4000 watts out front. Our PA at the London concert was done by Concert Sound. If you put this show on with full orchestra and choir, you're talking about £20,000 for one performance and all the rehearsals."
'1984' cost just under £100,000 to complete. Rick got an advance from the record company to produce an album with no deadlines, since they were confident he'd come up eventually with something good.
Rick has just embarked on a series of tours that will last some 7½ months covering Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Uruguay, Brazil, Canada, America, England, Europe, Japan, Australia, South Africa, China, Puerto Rico, Phillipines, Bankok and Thailand.
Part 1 opens with full orchestra playing in true overture style. The syncopation leads to a climax of fast repeating notes on strings, with trombones echoed by horns and trumpet flourishes hinting a new theme.
Flutes and woodwind continue this rhythmic syncopation with harp and strings until the trumpets burst forth again with the main theme. Now Rick's solo synth emerges with quaver/semiquaver runs against full sustained strings.
A lyrical theme on oboe in 6/4 contrasts well at this point and is picked up briefly by clarinet and flute, before tremolo lower strings make the background for electric grand and synthesiser arpeggios.
Another change follows in Gb, with a strong rhythmic pattern on strings, then with added woodwind, brass (including piccolo trumpets), marimbas and harp.
Part two begins after two beats rest with the group playing a primitive style sequence that leads to a strongly syncopated synth/ bass/drums passage that's 4, offbeat 2 and 3 effectively accented. There's a nice gutsy organ added before the main theme returns. A synth solo against strings links to an orchestral version of the syncopated passage (held together by the drums).
Sweeping piano notes announce briefly Julia's theme before the group returns in a powerful rock beat entry to 'War Games'.
A great feel to this song — well executed by Chaka Khan, who stretches the melody with her clear voice. There's plenty of swirling fast phase treatment to the sound. A flute-like Prophet adds the theme to the singer's counter harmony and a short polysynth transition modulates to B minor for the lyrical theme first heard in the overture on oboe. Here it's on synth backed by sustained choir voices and the group, including Rick's electric grand.
An abrupt downward run takes us back to a faster tempo in A minor on a [triplet] motive. Then the opening 'War Games' returns with vocals, all based on A-G-F-E sequences. The Hammond organ solos into a reminder of the overture main theme over some fast cymbal patter and off-beat piano note clusters. Choir once again appears for the closing bars as piano and synth reflect the lyrical theme. It ends with an upward portamento on synth over sustained Yamaha string machine sound.
This song was written very quickly by Rick on the spur of the moment and is effective because of its simplicity and natural warmth. Starting off gently, it adds a tinkling semiacoustic flanged guitar as it gains momentum. A drum fill announces the synthesiser repeat of the theme with rhythm, piano arpeggios and strings. Brass comes in for the middle 8 over tremolo strings, while the solo synth continues. The vocals lines are reinforced by violins and oboes against repeated viola/cello quavers as the music builds up to a rhythmic climax. A subtle reverberation on the words 'take that away' does just that.
Jon Anderson sings this as if it could only be for him against the simple 3-chord harmony of the choir, piano and bass. An interrupted cadence throws in the band who break into a set improvisation and a hint of 'Journey' on the Mini Moog solo line. At first the abruptness unsettles you, but then you almost wait in anticipation of the next change!
I like the 'Haydn' woodwind section — it's hard to tell the piccolo synth from a piccolo, and the dynamics would have given even Haydn a surprise! Back comes the 'Hymn' with strings in full strength and rather out of place drums. Brass band sounds fill in and if you listen hard you'll pick out some nice clarinet runs in 3rds. Choir and vocalist round the piece off sympathetically.
After the dramatic start over repeated quavers in C minor the organ (Yamaha CS80) improvises for 16 bars before the opening theme returns. The tempo slows into a heavy sequence over 'chorale' Leslie. Once again we hear the theme, in Eb this time, which gives a chance for solo synth melodies and clear bass lines.
A repeat of the C minor version in, shortened form leads to another change, with a beautiful 'pan-pipe' solo from the Prophet (heavily reverbed) over bass broken chords, and exquisite washes of synthesiser in the background echoing in the distance. Choir 'aah's' crescendo and fade and one ominous synth sliding note adds the final comment as the background notes echo away.
The rather choppy opening beat has a hidden melody which was followed by a tape reversal splice introducing Chaka Khan's vocals. The funky beat continues with the Dirtetts vocal group complimenting well. It's a good sound (listen to the drum 'Skulls') and Kenny Lynch continues the dialogue, sometimes with flanging on his voice. Exciting synthesiser, organ tremolo and vocal shouts drive it all along. Definitely good rock musical stuff!
Piano starts the piece in true Wakeman style (or is it Elton John?) with choir 'aah's' filtering in. Strings with drums back the synthesiser lead and a standard chromatic sequence in the bass over Bb minor/G7/A7/Dm, with vibes and horns adding depth to the harp arpeggios. The section is repeated and piano, bass and choir finish off quietly. It's a short lyrical piece that is a pleasant contrast.
A bright introduction in pop style, for Steve Harley's singing. The synthesiser solos with Wakeman triplets/semiquavers and the music picks up as the vocal group echoes 'No Name' from Steve's vocals. There is a rather muddy sequence that follows which eventually echoes away.
Synth and Piccolos bandy a melody around to start and the L/R stereo panned side drum (with snare off) gives that medieval feel again (King Arthur?). Hornpipe flourishes switch to strings and polysynth harmonies over piano, before a repeat of the start again. Orchestral bassoons, bass trombone and tuba drive ever downward for another repeat. Although Rick's score specifies full orchestra, it is in fact played on the Prophet 5 and 10 with banjo (yes, banjo!) and string machine. Not particularly inspired, this one.
This is a group number that gives Tim Rice a chance to make one of his rare singing appearances. A fast driving number that has the vaudeville atmosphere with a menacing undertone from the words and treated voice passage. The middle section is real operatic comedy with vocal shrieks (in tune, of course!), over fairground organ style accompaniment. Back comes the shouting, singing Tim Rice and the 'underlings', leading to a poly solo and suitable comments from the sax throughout that gives it all a real brashness. It has a typical ending — you'll know it when you hear it! Good fun.
Written by Rick away from the keyboard, it begins with a retrospective piano/synth and soft maraca shakes. Bass enters and the slow heavy reverberating drum beat moves it along. There's pleasant harmonies as the orchestral part begins with strings reaching a climax. Piccolo trumpets state the main overture theme with full orchestra and choir. It's the big sound once again that shows Rick's writing skill and has the feel of an expansive film music score.
The triplet theme returns and a very polished synthesiser run leads to another new theme with interesting bass accompaniment. Next follows a synth passage with rhythm guitar and orchestra and a short theme on oboes ends with effective horn sweeps and a change of tempo to the Robot Man sequence that builds up with vocal '1984's' and a bouncy organ solo. War Games music plays its part behind a synth lead and vocals — now the build up to the end seems to be on the way, but suddenly a Sullivan interlude on woodwind, bass, side drum and glockenspiel appears. There are more reminiscences to 'War Games' which shows Rick's determination to throw in the tunes, but we are brought back to earth with vocal mutterings of 1984 - four - four! What must be the coda plays the overture main theme until the piano with drums and timpani rolls brings in the whole orchestra on the 'Hymn' theme to end. It's difficult to imagine the work without an ending like this — somehow this particular movement does not seem to round everything off quite as well as it should. Certainly, there's enough happening to keep it all moving to its full orchestral climax.
Interview by Mike Beecher
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