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Rick Wakeman

With his waist-length platinum blonde hair locks and his mastery of the keyboard (and synths), composer extraordinaire RICK WAKEMAN was at the centre of most things of this earth in the self-indulgent showmanship 70s. From his days as a prolific session man and as an integral member of both STRAWBS and YES (the latter on a revolving door basis), Rick was literally more at home as a solo artist. Delivering a plethora of albums, most taking a neo-classical rock/pop or new-age stance, he will probably be remembered for his theatrical rock endeavours or for the retro-romanticism/classical style he helped revive. His best period was undeniably between 1973 and 1975 when taking themes of history, fiction and legend on a triumvirate of pomp-rock albums (see below). Many fans now will have witnessed his caustic sense of humour as a regular guest on TV shows such as Countdown (for C4) and Grumpy Old Men (for BBC2).
Born Richard Christopher Wakeman, 18th May 1949 in Perivale, London, child protégé Rick started performing at the piano at age 5, and through time acquired a place at the Royal College of Music; getting a regular cheque for in-demand session work curtailed his further musical education in 1969. Of his more renowned sit-ins, WAKEMAN played mellotron on DAVID BOWIE’s `Space Oddity’ single (for under a tenner!), while pop groups WHITE PLAINS and EDISON LIGHTHOUSE would exercise his immense talents. CAT STEVENS (on `Morning Has Broken’), BOWIE – again! (on his `Hunky Dory’ set) and even Cilla Black gave him subsequent work, while he composed the theme tune for TV’s popular `Ask Aspel’.
Meanwhile, from 1970-71, the man who would be keyboard king joined STRAWBS, taking them from arty folk-rock outfit to bona fide prog-rock act via two sets `Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios’ (1970) and `From The Witchwood’ (1971); he was only guest pianist on the band’s previous early 1970 effort, `Dragonfly’. It was at this stage that he also appeared (although uncredited sessioner at first) on Polydor’s/John Schroeder Orchestra’s “cheesy-pop” covers LP, PIANO VIBRATIONS (1971) {*3}.
Matching the same neo-classical and symphonic ambitions as the man himself, prog-rockers YES invited Wakeman to duly join them as replacement for BADGER-bound Tony Kaye. It was indeed a golden era for Messrs Jon Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Bill Bruford (superseded by Alan White in ’73) and of course, Wakeman, as they rattled off three top-selling studio sets, `Fragile’ (1971), `Close To The Edge’ (1972) and the double `Tales From Topographic Oceans’ (1973) before Rick took flight; the triple-live `Yessongs’ included material from WAKEMAN’s UK Top 10/US Top 30 debut album for A&M, THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII (1973) {*9}.
Taking his inspiration from historical book (The Private Life Of Henry VIII) he picked up at an airport bookstall while on tour in the States, and collating friends from both YES and STRAWBS, his concept project put together half a dozen instrumental themes based upon the doomed spouses of the 16th century King of England. That aside, each piece of music is complex, multi-layered and fractured, WAKEMAN’s wanderings of woe and power-led prowess at first too feisty and funky for some fans to get their heads around; the uncompromising `Anne Of Cleves’ (track 2) is a prime example. Dazzling and elaborate, the schizoid and subdued-versus-raucous overtones of `Catherine Of Howard’ showed the dexterity of the playful master of Moog. Serene and celebratory in equal measures, one could almost feel the passion of the ladies themselves, while Rick – transpired as Henry himself! – could be as cold and unyielding as the ruthless monarch. Although stunning throughout and meek as its characters, `Jane Seymour’ was another showstopper, while the frantic `Catherine Parr’ and `Anne Boleyn’ (interpolating an E.J. Hopkins extract “The Day Thou Gavest Lord Hath Ended”) maintained the sets high standards.
WAKEMAN first post-YES album, the live JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH (1974) {*8} – an adaptation of the Jules Verne classic novel – was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall on 18th January 1974, thus its inevitable top UK chart position on its release that May. With the London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir in tow, Rick performed it at an open-air Crystal Palace Garden Party, subsequently touring the show around major US venues. Augmenting his stack of keyboards with a band comprising of Mike Egan (electric guitar), Roger Newell (bass), Barney James (drums), both Ashley Holt and Gary Pickford-Hopkins (vocals) and the upper-crust narrative of actor David Hemmings, the record’s two side-long selections (split dually) displayed classical-rock at its most buoyant; tracks `The Journey’ – `Recollection’ and/or `The Battle’ – `The Forest’ brought to life the imaginings of Verne unlike any vintage movie adaptation could provide. WAKEMAN’s virtuoso, exhibitionist keyboard-playing and flash-rock front – aforementioned long blonde hair and ankle-length silver capes a prerequisite – was perfectly suited to the live arena, a comparison that could be made with the other famous keys-basher of the era, KEITH EMERSON. Nevertheless, this gruelling tour took its toll when Rick suffered a minor heart attack nearing the end of his pocket-draining extravaganza.
On his release from Wexham Park Hospital, the pianist delivered his third of his trilogy of epic ventures, THE MYTHS AND LEGENDS OF KING ARTHUR AND THE KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE (1975) {*7}. Exhaustive as its title suggests, and regarded by many as mostly overblown pomp-rock, it did have its redeeming moments, i.e. `Merlin The Magician’, `Sir Lancelot And The Black Knight’ and `Arthur’; the dour `Guinevere’ (with Ashley and Gary still on vox) and the OTT `The Last Battle’ stretched the death-in-the-water prog-rock scene to its limits.
WAKEMAN made his first proper foray into the world of movies, with 1975’s Franz Liszt bio-pic LISZTOMANIA {*3}, a Ken Russell movie extravaganza released in the same year as his “Tommy” musical and also starring ROGER DALTREY of The WHO in the lead part-singing role. Prog-meister Rick (who also starred as Thor in the movie) provided the classically-slanted score for the film, while DALTREY was co-credited on the single, `Orpheus’ Song’ (complete with diabolical lyrics); re-interpretive tracks such as the goddam awful `Rape, Pillage & Clap’ and the Nazi-fixated `Master Race’ gave WAKEMAN his first turkey; he later denounced the album following the unwelcome interference of his record label and the film’s production company (in a presumably unrelated incident he was forced, while in full Thor body makeup, to rebuff the amorous attentions of several men in a pub toilet). A lovely anecdote for Countdown viewers.
Rick’s follow-up set, NO EARTHLY CONNECTION (1976) {*4} – although still managing to reach a UK Top 10 placing – was his introspective look at the fate of man through its ancestral pre-earth origins to afterlife and its futuristic preconceptions – phew! Where it failed was his listeners preconceptions of grandiose expectations; its stripped-down, soul-less dramas were a turn off for many of his loyal fans; but for `The Prisoner’ and a few pieces of excellent performances, it left Rick with another musical hangover, although not as costly as its predecessors.
His score for the cinematic WHITE ROCK (1977) {*6} – a moving documentary about the 1976 Winter Olympics – was well received in some quarters, its assortment of brooding arrangements found piano-player WAKEMAN (along with trusty drummer Tony Fernandez, and a little choir!) back to basics for this mood-setting UK Top 20 OST. Highlights were undoubtedly the rock-fuelled title track, and others such as `Lax’x’, `After The Ball’ and the Romany-esque, `Montezuma’s Revenge’.
On something of a moonlighting sojourn while the man took up his rightful position in the re-united YES (on `Going For The One’), RICK WAKEMAN’S CRIMINAL RECORD (1977) {*5} was a rebound into the concept album. Presenting shades of dark and light depicting six musical sketches of various villains, conspicuous crimes and a few of his own misdemeanours (`Birdman Of Alcatraz’ to `The Breathalyser’), the Top 30 album fell short of expectations, although helped by YES men Chris Squire and Alan White.
Life too, was beginning to catch up with wizard WAKEMAN, and no spell could stop his marriage of seven years (to Ros Woolford) falling apart; they were divorced in 1977 having had two sons Oliver and Adam plus a mansion-driveway of Roll’s Royce automobiles. In 1980, he wed Danielle Corminboeuf having had another son, Benjamin a year or so earlier. For twenty years (from 1984-2004) new-born Christian/Conservative Rick was happily married to former Page 3 model Nina Carter; children Jemma and Oscar were the product of this relationship; he strayed in 1986 when he and his fashion designer mistress, Denise Gandrup (famous for his capes and other attire) had a love-child, Manda.
His personal life aside, Rick was indeed dedicated to his music, and without the need of YES (whom he left intermittently on a handful of occasions), WAKEMAN’s subsequent supply of albums was relentless and emphatic, to say the least. A farewell to A&M Records (and indeed any chance of any further advances on the charts), by way of RHAPSODIES (1979) {*6} was as strong as he’d ever been; highlights deriving from his version of George Gershwin’s `Summertime’ and Tchaikovsky-meets-reggae dirge `Swan Lager’.
In possible aforethought or anticipation of a movie in the pipeline (although highly improbable, giving the timespan between the two projects), WAKEMAN presented yet another take on the concept album via his musical re-imagining of George Orwell’s 1984 (1981) {*6}. Crediting Evita composer Tim Rice on the record’s theatrical lyrics (STEVE HARLEY sang `No Name’ and CHAKA KHAN on `Julia’), the delicate despair and doom-laden dirges were spontaneous and elaborate on occasion.
WAKEMAN returned to dramatic scoring in style with 1982’s THE BURNING {*5}, a slasher movie that launched the careers of the Weinstein brothers, and still represents for many the creative pinnacle of the music man’s scoring career. The record has side one (or CD first half) sub-titled as `The Wakeman Variations’, while other tracks such as `Campfire Story’ serve as a narration for star of the film, Brian Matthews. At times eerie and atmospheric-like most conventional scores such as Rocky and Terminator, Rick manages to pull off a mix’n’match set that probably reflects the man’s own eclectic personal tastes.
The keyboard wizard followed this with another oddity saved from the can, ROCK N’ ROLL PROPHET (1982) {*3}, its plinky-plonky meanderings exampled by DEVO-like novelty 45, `I’m So Straight I’m A Weirdo’ (recorded in ’79), were not what we’d come to expect. Rick’s theatrical diversions continued through COST OF LIVING (1983) {*5}, another eclectic Rice/Wakeman creation that had its moments; check out `Pandemonia’, `Gone But Not Forgotten’ and a reading of Thomas Gray’s `Elegy – Written In A Country Churchyard’ by actor Robert “Jesus Of Nazareth” Powell.
To a score a G’OLE (1983) {*3} – the official film of the 1982 World Cup – might well’ve been an ambition of football-mad Rick, but the reality was something of a hit and miss, the overplay of staccato synths and percussion shied the album into touch. One of the only highlights came via the opening couple of minutes, `International Flag’, while the own-“g’ole” was flop theme single, `Latin Reel’; no extra-time will be necessary on this, Rick Wakeman’s ultimate Criminal Record.
The year 1984 brought about a second project collaboration with Ken Russell, and the opportunity for WAKEMAN to briefly stretch his bit-acting muscles once more in the erotic CRIMES OF PASSION {*4}. Recruiting seasoned session men and friends of old, such as Fernandez, fellow STRAWBS man Charlie Cronk (on bass), guitarist Rick Fenn and saxophonist Bimbo Acock, WAKEMAN and his symphonic synths – and keyboards! – got down to some no thrills basic numbers. Assisted by Scottish Blues-rock diva, MAGGIE BELL (formerly of STONE THE CROWS), the album kicked off well enough with `It’s A Lovely Life’, probably the best tune on the set; she is also featured on finale, `Dangerous Woman’. Whether it’s the album – with its Dvorak “9th Symphony” overtones – or the film itself that sort of sticks in the throat, the jury was certainly out on this one.
During a time best forgotten by Rick and his long-suffering fanbase (yes, a little unfair), the mid-80s onwards produced some humungous humdingers; shifting gears as such to counteract and interfuse genres such as new age/classical, christian/religious records – too numerous and self-indulgent to mention; example 1987’s appropriately-titled THE FAMILY ALBUM {*3}.
Above the parapet was his collaboration with tenor Ramon Remedios, A SUITE OF GODS (1988) {*6}, a blend of both classical-opera and new age attempting to expand the myths and legends of both Roman and Greek ancients. PHANTOM POWER (1991) {*4} was an ill-advised challenge to Lloyd Webber’s rock opera throne, and was written for a re-release of the 1925 silent film Phantom Of The Opera; WAKEMAN had already taken an indefinite break from celluloid antiquities to set up his own record label, Ambient. The first of his “Suntrilogy” CDs ASPIRANT SUNSET (1991) {*4} was rather relaxing and therapeutic if not dull and cerebral, but Rick just ploughed on regardless. There was nothing to prove; he just loved making records, whether plucked from obscurity, like 1991’s TIME MACHINE {*4} – from 1987 and featuring guests ROY WOOD, Ashley Holt, John Parr and Tracey Ackerman – or to his homage to his newfound land in the Isle Of Man on HERITAGE SUITE (1993) {*6}.
During the 90s, Rick worked with his son Adam on a raft of original sets; 1992’s WAKEMAN WITH WAKEMAN {*5} was bookended by an atmospheric instrumental in `Lure Of The Wild’ and a rare cover rendition via The ROLLING STONES’ `Paint It Black’; the pair would subsequently reunite on the tasteful ROMANCE OF THE VICTORIAN AGE (1994) {*5}, TAPESTRIES (1996) {*5} and VIGNETTES (1996) {*4} – all three produced for the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Reuniting once more to record with YES in 1996 (it’d been several years since the ANDERSON BRUFORD WAKEMAN HOWE live/studio combination), Rick combined his extracurricular activities with ease, though his successes were few and far between; PRELUDE TO A CENTURY (2000) {*6} contrasted deeply with his tiring decade-closing triple-set PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE (2009) {*5}.
Reunited on a handful of occasions with STRAWBS legend DAVE COUSINS, they’ve since worked together on HUMMINGBIRD (2002) {*6}, which also drew in folk violinist Ric Sanders. Further post-millennium sets (among many) have culminated with his best work since the 70s, OUT THERE (2003) {*7}, a much-improved take on the space/“No Earthly Connection” theme, and featuring an all-New English Rock Ensemble comprising Damian Wilson (vocals), Ant Glynne (guitar), Tony Fernandez (of course, on drums) and Lee Pomeroy (bass). Further joint efforts alongside GORDON GILTRAP (`From Brush & Stone’ in 2009) and closer to the edge, JON ANDERSON (with `The Living Tree’ 2010) have the kept the wolf from the WAKEMAN door.
A revisit to old stamping grounds by way of RETURN TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH (1999) {*3} – utilizing Patrick Stewart as narrator and guest singers OZZY OSBOURNE, BONNIE TYLER, JUSTIN HAYWARD and YES man TREVOR RABIN – proved fruitful for Rick as he re-entered the UK Top 40, but retracing his old masters on the same path was rather futile and indulgent. WHITE ROCK II (1999) {*5}, THE REAL LISZTOMANIA (2003) {*5} and THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII: Live At Hampton Palace Court (2009) {*6} more or less revived old interests and fans, although ruining the best parts of the originals. WAKEMAN continues to amaze and exasperate his disciples in equal measures, but his genius is such one can forgive the odd indiscretion; his versions of `Stairway To Heaven’ (on 2010’s traditional and sentimental ALWAYS WITH YOU {*4}) and `The Great Gig In The Sky’ (with C.C. White via Various Artists CD `Return To The Dark Side Of The Moon’) included.
The classical element to WAKEMAN’s symphonic rock ethos had never waned from his time way back at the turn of the prog-rock 70s, so, with a little exposure via his piano work on a re-vamp of the late BOWIE’s posthumous version of `Life On Mars’, the stage was set for a dramatic chart comeback. Featuring the aforesaid track and several ivory-tinklers (including past haunts `Stairway To Heaven’, `Space Oddity’, `Morning Has Broken’ and `Wondrous Stories’), PIANO PORTRAITS (2017) {*8} resided in the UK Top 10 for weeks on end. Split between pop-to-classical entrees (including a handful from The BEATLES canon), or indeed, classical-to-pop (i.e. `Swan Lake’ and `Clair De Lune’), or even showtunes from the odd musical, WAKEMAN explored just enough to roll his chair back under the rock spotlight.
October 2018’s PIANO ODYSSEY {*6} was more of the same – at least in orchestral arrangements for strings and piano – for the YES man; the Top 10 set revealed further classical crossovers for `And You And I’, `Roundabout’ and his own `Jane Seymour’. Among Messrs Handel and Liszt (no Brahms = no pun), WAKEMAN worked his wizardry around the once-celebrated works of The BEATLES (`While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and `Strawberry Fields Forever’), SIMON & GARFUNKEL (`The Boxer’), QUEEN (`Bohemian Rhapsody’) and his old mucker BOWIE (`The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud’).
With the festive time upon us mere mortals once again (WAKEMAN’s favourite time of year), he decided to let his fingers do the talking on classical snooze-fest, CHRISTMAS PORTRAITS (2019) {*2}. All the usual suspects were lined up; some in medley form such as `I Saw Three Ships’ & `When A Child Is Born’, however one would have to be a man (or woman) of the cloth to appreciate this colourless conservative cash-in.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-MCS/SW-LCS // rev-up MCS Apr2012-Dec2019

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