Q&A: Rick Wakeman

This May [2008], Rick Wakeman unveils the live show of his regal rock symphony The Six Wives Of Henry VIII at Hampton Court Palace, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the accession to the throne of Henry VIII. That 1973 debut solo album from the former Yes keyboard maestro is also being re-released with some new material he is adding especially for the concerts. Wakeman, who recently appeared on the BBC's Prog Britannia TV programme, is proof of the continuing resurgence of prog rock and is currently riding his own wave of popularity.

The Hampton Court shows will be one of the biggest events you’ve undertaken of late. How did it come about?

Even though some of the …Henry… pieces have been played at shows over the years, the thought of doing them as a standalone concert hadn’t really occurred to me. A few people had asked me over the years but I didn’t really have the right reason for doing them. And then I got a phone call from a chap called Trevor Dunsford from Hampton Court Palaces. He said: “Do you know what next year is?” And obviously it was the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession to the throne. And he says: “We’ve got a lot of events coming up. How would you like to put on The Six Wives Of Henry VIII at Hampton Court?” So there I am on the other end of the phone with a huge grin on my face, and I said: “I first put in a request in 1973. I’ve had some late replies to things but this takes some beating.”

In true Rick Wakeman style, it seems you’re not going to be holding anything back in terms of presentation.

When I met up with Trevor he basically asked me what I wanted to do; size no object. So I put it all together in my head, we had a meeting and I said: “Well, the stage will have to be huge, at least 50 metres wide, minimum. A 70-odd piece orchestra, a 40-piece choir, a seven-piece band; various guests, actors, actresses, narrators; three new pieces of music, adding a further 30 minutes to the piece in total, new arrangements keeping the original flavour; jugglers and hog roasts and things all around.” So I said all this, then I sat back and waited for the response. And they said: “Brilliant.” I walked out of there walking on air.

**The sheer scale of it brings to mind your illustrious The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur on ice at Wembley. **

People say to me: “You lost a lot of money” on that. Yes and no. Yes I did lose money on it. I sold out three nights at Wembley but it still cost me a fortune. But worldwide that album had sold four million when we played the show, and about 12.5 million to date. I classed it as advertising. It always gets voted biggest spectacular – and also biggest folly. I take that as a compliment, really.

**Progressive rock in general seems to be undergoing some sort of cultural renaissance right now. There was Prog Britannia on the BBC, there’s this huge show of yours coming up… **

Well it’s almost as if the mainstream have said: “Oh sod it, it’s never gone away, we might as well accept it.”

**You returned to Journey To The Centre Of The Earth in 1999 with Return To… but that appeared to get overlooked. Bad timing? The genre experiencing something of a dip in form? **

I agree 100 per cent. I also got it totally wrong. I call it the ‘anniversary effect’. If the timing’s right then it can be great. If it’s not, forget it. That was the 25th anniversary but the timing was absolutely wrong. We don’t play that live very much, but when we do, mostly abroad, we get monster crowds for it. And there’s talk of Universal releasing the original Journey… and Return…, the extended version, together in one package.

**According to Wikipedia – not always the most reliable source – you got your first ever keyboard from the late Jack Wild, the actor who played the Artful Dodger in the film Oliver! **

Not my first keyboard, that was a Woolworth’s reed organ, which cost £4. I got my first MiniMoog from Jack. I wanted one when,I joined Yes but they cost a fortune. I was on £18 a week in The Strawbs, and got £50 a week when I joined Yes. Brian Lane [Yes’s then manager] also managed Jack Wild, and he had one for sale. They cost over £1,000 but he only wanted £35 for it because he didn’t think it worked. There was nothing wrong with it. Jack wanted it to play two notes at a time, but it was a monophonic instrument.

You were fingered as one of the protagonists who got the Sex Pistols kicked off A&M Records.

No. Nothing to do with it whatsoever. It was a publicity thing dreamed up by A&M in London as an excuse for wanting them off the label. I went mad and the head of A&M was sent on a six-month sabbatical. It was allegedly the likes of me and Richard Carpenter saying we’d leave. But we were artists signed to the label, we had no say on who they had on the label. And to say I don’t like punk…

I was the one who signed The Tubes to A&M – probably the original US punk band. I did a documentary about punk recently, and there was a press officer from A&M concurring with everything I said. The only reason they used me and Richard Carpenter was because he lived in America and I lived in Switzerland.

But you were responsible for the cover of Yes’s 1979 album Tormato, were you not?

Yes. We’d moved away from Roger Dean to Hipgnosis for artwork. It was all based around this Tor in Devon called Yes Tor, where we’d had our photo taken. They brought the full artwork into RAK Studio to present to us. We all looked at it and said: “This is shit.” It was horrendous. Steve [Howe] said: “I could have taken this photo with a Brownie camera and splodged some blue paint on it.” There was always a bowl of veggie food around at the time, and there were some squidgy tomatoes in the salad and I picked one up and slung it at it. They said: “That’s the actual artwork.” Brian Lane picked it up with tomato running down it, laid it flat and said: “Photo that. That’s your artwork.” And they said: “But the album’s called Yes Tor.” And Brian said: “Yes Tormato.”



On May 9, 1974, Rick Wakeman released the Journey To The Centre Of The Earth album. It went to number one in the UK chart, and number three in America.

Jerry Ewing

Writer and broadcaster Jerry Ewing is the Editor of Prog Magazine which he founded for Future Publishing in 2009. He grew up in Sydney and began his writing career in London for Metal Forces magazine in 1989. He has since written for Metal Hammer, Maxim, Vox, Stuff and Bizarre magazines, among others. He created and edited Classic Rock Magazine for Dennis Publishing in 1998 and is the author of a variety of books on both music and sport, including Wonderous Stories; A Journey Through The Landscape Of Progressive Rock.