Mixdown Monthly Beat Magazine


Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Return to the Centre of the Earth Part 1

With the upcoming Australian ‘Yes’ tour, Andrián Pertout speaks with legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman from the UK about his days at the Royal College of London, ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, and his longtime association with ‘Yes’.

After an early introduction to music via piano, clarinet and church organ lessons, as well as a healthy diet of classical, jazz and blues, Middlesex-born Rick Wakeman entered London’s highly esteemed Royal College of Music in 1968 to study piano, modern music, clarinet and orchestration. His brief encounter with academia was terminated that following year in dissatisfaction, yet Rick went on to forge a musical career that now spans over three decades, and initially begun by playing in bands such as the Spinning Wheel and the Strawbs, and working as a session player – up to eighteen a week at one time, and culminating in what is now over two thousand tracks for prominent music figures such as Black Sabbath, Cat Stevens, Mary Hopkins, Cilla Black, Clive Dunn, Elton John, Edison Lighthouse, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Dana, Des O'Connor, Magna Carta, Al Stewart, Ralph McTell, Butterscotch, Biddu and Harry Nilsson, among many. In 1971, Rick then joined Yes, recording classic albums ‘Fragile’ and ‘Close to the Edge’ and consequently establishing themselves as “one of the leaders in contemporary rock music.” At the same time releasing solo projects ‘The Six Wives of Henry VIII’ (1973) and the highly acclaimed ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ (1974) with the London Symphony Orchestra, which incidentally became a top ten hit worldwide, and perhaps the catalyst for his first departure from Yes in May of ‘74.

Tell me about the early music experience – the days of the Clementi sonatinas, and later, attending the Royal College of Music in London. How do you reflect today on your formal music education?

RW: “Well, it was a great time. I think I’m very lucky learning music in the year that I did, because there certainly weren’t the distractions that there are today. When I was a kid in the fifties – I was born in ’49 – I decided to learn to play. There were only I think two houses in our entire road that had a television for example. So there certainly weren’t computers, and all that sort of stuff around. Basically, there were Saturday morning pictures which you had, and you went out to play football, or you played cricket in the summer. That was all you did. And the rest of the time I practiced the piano, because I loved doing it. But there weren’t any other distractions. I mean, the only other distractions that came along was when I was about thirteen and noticed that the three little girls that lived next door weren’t quite so little any more. And that’s been a distraction for the rest of my flaming life (chuckles). But I think that it’s much more difficult for kids today because there’s so much else. You know what I mean? So it was a great period of time. And my father was a great musician as well. He encouraged me to play all sorts of music but said, ‘Stick to the classical’ because he said that that would give me the technique that was needed to really play what I liked. And he was dead on right. I will never forget that from him. He was spot on. And it was great times. I went to the Royal College of Music. I spent a couple of years there.’

What can you tell me about that experience?

RW: “At the time it was a nightmare, if you want the honest truth. I got a scholarship there. And I had passed all my various exams, got all my grades, won loads of festivals and all that sort of lark, and went there thinking that I’d got all these pieces of a jig-saw – of my musical life, that I’d done for the previous fourteen years – and that at the college, they would put the pieces of the jig-saw together for me. And they didn’t. I mean, basically at that particular time, the college was very anti any sort of music unless it was strictly classical music based. You weren’t allowed to do sessions, and if you mentioned rock, pop, jazz or folk, or anything like that, you were almost hung, drawn and quartered. It was all very strict at the time as well. You know, short back and sides – rule of the day – shirt and tie. And I had this huge argument with my piano professor one day, ‘cause she complained that she thought my hair was too long, and it was only touching my collar. And I said, ‘This has got absolutely nothing to do with how I play! You know, I’m passing my exams, I’m practicing, I’m doing my thing. This is absolutely ridiculous.’ So I said, ‘That’s it! I’m not having a haircut anymore.’ So I didn’t. And I’ve got a great deal of thanks to give to that particular lady because I started growing my hair, and so when the opportunity came, when I was in rock bands, I was already three or four years ahead of everybody with hair length. So that’s one major thing I took out of the college. The interesting thing now is that the Royal College of Music has one of the biggest electronic music departments, and all sorts of things go on there now. It’s changed completely. I was just there four years too early.”

Your interest for the blues and other popular genres led to your eventually association with the band ‘Yes’. How did this come about?

RW: “Well, I had done loads of sessions for loads of people, loads of bands, and that was quite good because I started putting myself, without realizing it, in a sort of a shop window. Because you know, you play on a few records that are successful and people get to know what you’re doing. And then I joined the band ‘Strawbs’, which was great fun, and they were sort of like a folk/rock band. And I had great times with those guys. We’re still great friends now. I did an album with Dave Cousins recently, who was the leader of the Strawbs. And like most folk bands at the time, they were heavy drinkers, and then when you stopped drinking, you’d play for a bit. And that suited me tremendously, with my life (laughs). And then Yes – who were a prog rock band – they’d read an article that I’d written. I was about to leave Strawbs because I just felt that keyboards needed to have a different role in a rock band that they were previously having. You had to play the piano, and play it like Jerry Lee Lewis, or you had a Hammond organ and just played the organ. And I just felt that keyboards needed to play a bigger part in band, and become more orchestral, in a rock sense. And I wrote this in an article, and the guys in Yes saw it. And they came back from an American tour and Chris Squire called me up and said, ‘Hey listen, we’ve read your article and that’s the sort of route that we want to go down. Do you fancy joining?’ And I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘Why not?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to go back to sessions, because you can’t make much money on the road.’ They said, ‘Just come down and have a rehearsal anyway.’ So I went down and had a rehearsal and intended to stay for half an hour and go home, and got there at about ten o’clock in the morning and left after eight in the evening. And that’s it, I was there, happy as a sad boy.”

Albums such as ‘Close to the Edge’ solidified the band’s status within the progressive rock scene? What can you tell me about the studio sessions, the live performances, and the general approach to the music at the time?

RW: “Well, funny enough that you mention ‘Close to the Edge’ ‘cause Jon (Anderson) and I – you know, we’ve been travelling a lot together – we were just talking about ‘Close to the Edge’, because we play ‘Close to the Edge’; we’ve put it back in for this tour. And we were saying how it’s now so much easier to play and perform than it was back then, and it’s really because back then musicians were ahead of technology. So everything that we had to do, we had to sit down and work out, ‘How the hell can we do this?’ Like the sparkle tape at the beginning of ‘Close to the Edge’, it took more than two weeks to produce. And I put it together for this tour and took me about an hour and a half. Also, the sounds that you want to create on stage now, are so much easier to do. You know, we are a band, we don’t cheat, there’re no tapes, there’re a no things that go on with us, everything you hear we play live, but the great thing is that the sounds are now all there for us to be able to do, which weren’t there back then. And so I think the difference is that back then we were ahead of technology; now technology is way ahead of everybody. But I think that we were brought up in a lucky era where we were used to making the technology work for us rather than having the technology rule what we do.”

In 1974 you released your spectacular musical portrayal of Jules Vernes’ ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and a narration by actor David Hemmings…

RW: “Yeah, that was good fun. I brought that out to Australia too. That was fantastic. In fact the only surviving film footage of the original ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ is in fact an Australian performance, which is out on DVD. We just found it, and it’s out. And when I look at the footage, when I look at the film, it’s so seventies, it’s wonderful. When I got hold of it we sat down and looked at it in the studios down at Shepperton and made this huge long list of things to what I called ‘bring it up to date’. And my partner in the whole thing said, ‘Do you know what I think you should do?’ And I said, What?’ He said, ‘Apart from digitally enhancing the quality,’ so that the quality becomes fantastic, he said, ‘Nothing! Because this is a record of what it was in 1975, and this is how it should stand.’ And we though, ‘Oh, oh, oh, OK, if that’s what you think.’ And he’s been absolutely right, because everybody that’s got it so far has said, ‘Thank you for not doing lots of digital flashy work with it, and leaving it as it is.’ So it’s a real record of the time.”

And your keyboard set up is still memorable in my mind. Can you describe it for me?

RW: “Huge (laughs). Well, back then it was all things like Mellotrons, a couple of pianos, lots of electric pianos, a Hammond organ, a Fender Rhodes, all those. But they were a nightmare. The Mellotron, which would run on a series of tapes, and invariably spew the tapes out most nights. Instruments were a nightmare to keep in tune. In general, if I finished with fifty percent of the stuff working, it was a pretty good night. It was a bit like being a mechanic as you went around. But I look at some of the film footage, and look at some of the instruments, and I go, ‘How on earth did I do that? Why did I do that?’ And you realize of course that back then that was state-of-the-art. That was the state-of-the-art stuff, and that’s how it was. And I wouldn’t change it for the world. You would get used to making individual sounds out of keyboards. There were no such things as presets on keyboards, so you made your own sounds. I had dinner with my good friend Keith Emerson a little while back, and we were talking about it, and we said that what was great for us was that we had to produce sounds of our own. Now people buy instruments, press a preset and it’s there. And the silly thing is that we’re not realizing it but a lot of keyboard players are all sounding the same, because they’re all using the same presets. The first thing I do when I get a new keyboard is to wipe the presets, and put my own sounds in. And nowadays I’ve still got a big rig. The rig is in fact bigger than it was back then. I’ve got a huge keyboard rig, and it still produces a lot of the same wonderful old sounds.”

‘In a Word: Yes (1969 - )’ and the 96/24k 5.1 surround and 96/24k stereo version ‘Fragile’ DVD out on Rhino/Atco Records. YesWorld: The Yes Online Service; The RWCC (Rick Wakeman’s Communication Centre) Site; The Jon Anderson Online Web Site; Steve Howe Guitar Rondo; Chris Squire Home Page; Alan White Home Page.


'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #105, January 4, 2003


All rights reserved. All text, graphics and sound files on this page are copyrighted.
Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 2003 by Andrián Pertout.

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Rick Wakeman: Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Return to the Centre of the Earth Part 2

With the upcoming Australian ‘Yes’ tour, Andrián Pertout speaks with legendary keyboardist Rick Wakeman from the UK about his bygone collection of classic synthesizers, his film music career, as well as his ‘Return to the Centre of the Earth’ and ‘Yes’.

Projects such as ‘The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table’, and Ken Russell's ‘Lisztomania’ were to follow Wakeman’s highly acclaimed ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ of 1974, as well as personal tours breaking every indoor attendance record. In 1976, he then rejoins Yes, recording ‘Going for the One’ and the top ten single ‘Wondrous Stories’, but leaving once again in 1979 together with Jon Anderson. In the eighties, highlights include the music for the horror film ‘The Burning’ in New York and ‘1984’, featuring Iyrics by Tim Rice and vocals by Chaka Khan, Steve Harley and Jon Anderson, not to mention a string of solo albums. A million selling CD worldwide in 1989 then revitalizes the Yes partnership yet again, with tours throughout America and Europe undertaken, while in 1995, after the completion of soundtracks for two Michael Caine films, ‘Bullet to Beijing’ and ‘Midnight in St Petersburg’, Rick is back for another Yes episode. In 1998, EMI then signs Wakeman to compose and record ‘Return to Centre of the Earth’, the sequel to his spectacular musical portrayal of Jules Vernes’ ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and a narration by actor David Hemmings. Now in 2002, he is back with the Yes team, Jon Anderson (vocals), Steve Howe (guitar), Chris Squire (bass), and Alan White (drums), scheduled for world wide tour that will take them through to September of 2003.

How highly do you regard the old classic synthesizers today? What have you kept and what new technologies have you adopted since?

RW: “I’ve still got a minimoog up there that is thirty years old, which is priceless and irreplaceable. But I haven’t got anything that was produced earlier than the eighties. I’ve got a Korg 01W ProX, which is a wonderful machine. That was made in the late eighties, about ’88, ‘89. That’s a great machine. Then I’ve got a few keyboards up there that were from the early nineties, and I’ve got a other few bits and pieces up there, including some prototype of stuff. I’ve got a wonderful Italian keyboard called the Pro Mega, it’s made by a company called General Music. It is astonishing! It’s just ‘the’ best piano sounds ever. The best cathedral-type organ sounds. The best Wurlitzer piano sound. It’s just an amazing machine. There’re some people making some great stuff out there now. So most of rig is made up of Korg, General Music and Roland basically.”

What about at home? Have you kept all your pre-eighties stuff?

RW: “No, a lot of my stuff got nicked…”


RW: “Yeah, it got nicked out of a warehouse a few years back, which I suppose was a pre-emptive, because I got divorced again – for the third time, a couple of years ago – so I don’t have a house anymore (laughs). ‘Cause it’s one of those things that seems to happen in divorces. You sort of donate your house and worldly goods, which is just as well because I’m on the road all the time. So I’m living in hotels. But it’s a good thing that I haven’t got it all because I haven’t got a house to put it in at the moment.”

So what sort of stuff did you lose?

RW: “I lost about six minimoogs, a couple of Mellotrons, a Fender Rhodes, a huge long list of stuff. And some of it’s resurfaced. One of the Mellotrons, the famous double Mellotron resurfaced. And a guy got hold of it and rebuilt it, and that’s in a museum somewhere in America. And he contacted me to verify that it used to be mine, and I wrote back to him and said, ‘Yeah, it was stolen in nineteen whatever it was.’ And it completely freaked him out. He called up and said, ‘I didn’t steal it.’ And I said, ‘I know you didn’t, ‘because you’re hardly likely to have stolen it and then ring me up.’ And he said, ‘Do you want it back?’ And I said, ‘No, if you’ve rebuilt it, good for you. I’m glad that it’s got a good home, and I’m glad that it’s in a museum.’ So there you go.”

You also began a notable film music career that following year with Ken Russel’s ‘Lisztomania’. How did this aspect of your musical career evolve over the years?

RW: “One of the great things – and again, I go right back to how we started, when I mentioned my dad – is that because he gave me an incredible music education, with everything from piano lessons, church organ lessons, clarinet lessons, and orchestration lessons with one of the greatest orchestrators. All those great things meant that in any genre of music that I got asked to do something, I felt I could do it, which was great. And I think that it’s one of the things that’s made my life so entertaining in many ways, because really no two days are the same – a slight exaggeration – but certainly no two months are the same. And I could be doing a film one month, out on tour with Yes on the other, doing a thing with a choir on the next one, or doing some jingles. That’s what makes it so great. I suppose the best way I can put it is that regardless of whatever my marital status is, or wherever I am, I love waking up in the morning.”

What led to the revisiting of ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ with the sequel launched in 1999? In what way would you say that this episode differed to the opening one?

RW: “I’d been asked to do it for ages and ages. And it’s completely different. It’s a completely different piece of music, it’s a sequel. It’ basically a whole set of explorers who decide to follow the same footsteps as the original people did. So they set off, and in the original book when they get down into the base of the caverns, they’ve got a choice of two ways to go. In my version they come down, and even though originally planned to take exactly the same route, then decide to take the other one. So they have a whole new set of adventures, and come back out again. And I always knew how I wanted to do it, but knew that it would be phenomenally expensive. Unbelievably expensive. And then out of the blue, one day Sir Richard Littleton, the head of EMI Classics, came to me and said, ‘I’ve seen your synopsis for this Return to the Centre of the Earth. Have you got a budget?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah. You won’t like it (chuckles). That’s why it has not been done.’ And he said, ‘Show me the budget.’ So I showed him the budget and he called me for dinner, and said, ‘I really want to do this Return to the Centre of the Earth, but…’ And I said, ‘God, you’re going to hit me with the budget.’ He said, ‘Yeah. I’ve looked at it, and I’ve been through it time and time again, and it doesn’t add up.’ And I said, ‘I knew you were going to say this, and it can’t be done any cheaper.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, I wasn’t going to say that. I’ve done the budget and I think that you’re a hundred grand short. I’ve worked it out and you’re going to need this extra time with the London Symphony Orchestra, and I don’t know where you got your budget for Patrick Stewart, but you can triple that figure for a start. I want to do it, so we’ll put another hundred in the budget.’ And I walked out stunned, absolutely stunned. And it took me nine solid months to produce that, and I’m really pleased with it. We did one live performance in Canada, which was a huge success, and I’d love to do it again. What I’d really want to do is to insert the first half, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, and then do a second half, which is Return to the Centre of the Earth.”

There have also been several returns to the Yes project over the years with this particular one marking the 30th anniversary. What do you consider has been the effect of the past thirty years on the way that you do the music today?

RW: “Technologically, we can do certain things with the music that we couldn’t do before. I mean, certain sounds that we had to almost bluff our way round, or get close to, we can now reproduce pretty well. Certainly, the technology makes life less fraught on stage, as I said earlier on; trying to keep things in tune, trying to keep things going was half the battle in the early days. Now I walk on stage with a very high tech rig knowing that everything’s going to work, and that all I’ve got to worry about is playing. So I think that there’s been a lot of pressure taken off when we’re on stage. The band certainly has matured, it’s playing better. There’s no doubt about it. The band’s playing technically better and musically better than it’s ever done. And the thing that’s really nice is that this band loves to play, and that’s a great bonus. The first question we ask when we arrive somewhere is, ‘What’s the earliest time we can start?’ They say, ‘Eight o’clock.’ ‘Is there a curfew?’ Yeah, eleven o’clock.’ So we time the set to finish literally, I mean seconds up to eleven o’clock. So we just like to play. And we’re doing some pieces we’ve never done before, like ‘South Side of the Sky’ from the ‘Fragile’ album. And that never had an ending, so it was great fun writing an ending for it. There are quite a few things that have actually changed, but I think that the most important thing is that you must never lose the character of what the piece originally was. If you can retain the character, then you can do anything you like with it.”

What do you intend doing after this world tour is over?

RW: “The actual tour finishes around about the end of September next year (chuckles), so there’s a long way to go there. So I’ve really got no idea. At the end of the tour I’ll probably look for somewhere to live (laughs).”

‘In a Word: Yes (1969 - )’ and the 96/24k 5.1 surround and 96/24k stereo version ‘Fragile’ DVD out on Rhino/Atco Records. YesWorld: The Yes Online Service; The RWCC (Rick Wakeman’s Communication Centre) Site; The Jon Anderson Online Web Site; Steve Howe Guitar Rondo; Chris Squire Home Page; Alan White Home Page.


'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #106, February 5, 2003


All rights reserved. All text, graphics and sound files on this page are copyrighted.
Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 2003 by Andrián Pertout.

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