Q&A: Rick Wakeman

The day Prog and Rick Wakeman hook up, over a couple of tarts (of the edible kind) and coffee at the spacious Festival Hall canteen on London’s Southbank, overlooking a wintry grey Thames River, Wakeman is due to play at next door’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. It’s a low-key charity event in aid of the Orion Orchestra, a youth outfit he’s worked with before, who rely on sponsorship to carry out their good work.

If last year wasn’t busy enough, what with its Prog Award-winning 40th anniversary tour of Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, 2015 looks like it will be equally hectic for the man who was voted keyboard player of the year by Prog readers. He’s got shows lined up in places like Japan and the Canary Islands, and has continued work on new music, alongside the reissues of his classic albums of the 70s. The first of these, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table, have just been released.

You’re performing at the Queen Elizabeth Hall tonight. Have you ever played there before?

Oh yes, but only once. It was when I recorded Just A Collection Of Antiques And Curios with the Strawbs, on July 11, 1970. So it’s only taken me 45 years to get back here. Forty-five years and six stone…

Tonight’s show is a charity gig?

Yes, to help out the Orion Orchestra. They’re a youth orchestra and I’ve worked with them before. They’re tremendous, so I thought I’d do a bit to help them out. We’ve also got Guy Protheroe, who conducted the Journey… shows, and The Old Palace School Choir. And I’ve got these two classical singers – Sarbel, a baritone, and Katerina Mina, a soprano – who’ll be tackling things like Merlin The Magician, which will be interesting.

We’ve just seen the release of two of your classic-era solo albums, The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and …King Arthur…, with more of the A&M albums to come. It’s been a major bugbear of your fans for a while that these haven’t been available for so long. Why?

That’s labels and the way they work these days. I moved off A&M after the Rhapsodies album in 1979. When labels get bought out by other labels, they just get stuff lock stock and don’t realise what they really own. Stuff gets deleted, various deals get done. I know the last deal that was done with the A&M albums pretty much shafted me financially so I got nothing anyway. And these things end up lying dormant somewhere. It’s ridiculous, because they come out as bootlegs on import and fans moan at me, even though it’s got nothing to do with me. I’m a big advocate of a ‘use it or lose it’ policy with the big record companies.

So why has it happened now?

Someone at Universal realised what they were sitting on after the latest shift around of who now owns what part of what company. And this guy, Steve Hammonds, calls me up from Universal and says they’re interested in doing something with my back catalogue. But what impresses me is that not only did they say they really wanted to go to town on them as far as the sound goes – and boy, they really have – but they also said they knew I’d been ripped off previously and wanted to see me right this time. What a breath of fresh air.

Esoteric have been reissuing more recent material too. Thus far we’ve had 1991’s Softsword, 1996’s Fields Of Green, 2001’s Out Of The Blue and 2003’s In The Nick Of Time.

Yes, they’ve been doing just as good a job with remastering those records as well. In fact, I was listening to Softsword just the other day, with a view to maybe bringing one or two pieces back into the live show.

Is there any chance some of those 80s albums might get the reissue treatment? We’re thinking of things like 1984, Rock’n’Roll Prophet, Cost Of Living and Silent Nights. There have been plenty of cheap reissues on all manner of labels, but no one’s ever really gone to town on them.

The problem there was that after leaving A&M, I signed to Charisma for a bit and then I was on all sorts of different labels and it’s difficult trying to find out who owns what these days. When I did 1984 with Tim Rice, we had trouble with George Orwell’s estate, and then the film came out. I remember when I signed to Charisma to do that album, Tony Stratton-Smith said he wanted to sign me, and I wasn’t really in a good place. I think I said, “Why would you want to sign me? I’m old hat,” and he said, “I want you to make a prog rock concept record.” I said, “Why on earth would you want me to do that? It’s hardly what people want at the moment.” And he said, “It’s what you’re good at.” The industry really needs more people like Strat around. Anyway, I’d like to see it happen with those albums. I know there are some plans underway. The Orwell estate is much easier to deal with these days as well.

You performed with your sons Oliver and Adam on Cost Of Living’s Bedtime Stories. Might we ever see Wakeman, Wakeman and Wakeman on stage together?

Ah, recently there was a Wakeman, Wakeman, Wakeman and Wakeman on stage together. It was myself with Adam, Oliver and my daughter Jemma. I was playing this cathedral gig – the usual: me, piano, some stories – and had asked them to come along and help out. They said they’d do it, but only if they had a microphone each. Jemma’s got a lovely voice but these weren’t really for the singing. I got totally roasted by the lot of them. It was hilarious. I really do wish someone had recorded it. My kids, ripping it out of the old man. The audience was crying with laughter. We all were…”

The Six Wives Of Henry VIII and The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And His Knights Of The Round Table are available now via Universal. See www.rwcc.com for more information.

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.