Rick Wakeman: the soundtrack of my life

Rick Wakeman
(Image credit: Kilamanjaro)

Rick Wakeman has played keyboards on far more than his fair share of bona fide rock classics, as a solo performer, a member of Yes and The Strawbs, and alongside David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elton John, Black Sabbath, Cat Stevens, T. Rex and more as one of the glam epoch’s most prolific session stalwarts. 

But prog’s self-described Grumpy Old Man is also blessed with a disarming honesty. “I’ve played on a lot of unbelievably crap records,” he readily admits, before telling yet another world-class anecdote.

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The first record I remember hearing

My dad playing the piano. Before the war my mum and dad used to have a concert party: mum sang, dad played and Uncle Stan played ukulele banjo and on a Sunday evening in our little house, they’d play. When I was about three I got out of bed, climbed down the stairs, sat at the bottom really quietly and listened, and I thought it was the most wonderful thing ever. I decided there and then, sat at the bottom of the stairs, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make music.

The first song I performed live

Buy A Broom, the first piece in the Della Quale Here We Go First Book For Children’s Piano. I performed it live in front of about forty parents. My music teacher used to run concerts every month for her pupils’ parents. I’d been with her for about two weeks, so I was the youngest there. 

At the end the parents politely applauded, which I thought was amazing. So I played it again. I played it about six times before my mother had to get up and embarrassingly take me out. That was it for me, my first concert, in 1954. I was five years old.

The songwriter

Pete Townshend. Because he doesn’t just churn them out. A lot of thought goes into what he does. When he gets an idea, he works on it and perfects it. So Pete’s right up there on my list.

The guitar hero

Brian May. He’s such a unique player. There are very few guitarists that the moment you hear them you know who it is. Brian is one of those. Eric Clapton’s another. When Cream’s Strange Brew came out, everybody went: “What’s that?” Every band were playing like The Shadows, then along comes Eric and changes the whole face of guitar work.

The singer

Freddie Mercury I like because of his operatics, and Bruce Dickinson has got a lot of class. I like voices that are instantly recognisable. Roger Daltrey is another one, and Robert Plant. If you take Robert out of Led Zeppelin you haven’t got Led Zeppelin any more.

The most underrated band ever

The original Tubes. There must have been about ten of them originally – they had backing vocalists, dancers – and they had the most amazing stage sets. [Singer] Fee Waybill was light years ahead of the game. I remember seeing them for the very first time in a small club in San Francisco, and I was dumbstruck by how good they were. Jaw-dropping, slick, incredible.

The best live band I've seen

Probably for a mixture of excitement, music and everything else, I would have to go for Led Zeppelin at Madison Square Garden, which was just electric.

The best record I've made

Hunky Dory by David Bowie. It’s faultless, such great musicians, there wasn’t anything that wasn’t right about that album.

The worst record I've made

I played on the follow-up to Clive Dunn’s Grandad, called Grandma, I Love You. We recorded at Air Studios in London, and Clive came over and said:“What do you think of the record,then?” 

I must have paused a bit too long, and he went: “It’s crap, innit?” I tried to be positive, so I said: “Well, after you’ve had a massive hit with a novelty record like Grandad it’s really hard to follow up with something that’s going to be as good.” 

And he went: “Yeah, it’s crap, innit?” 

And I said: “Yeah, it is, really.” I saw Clive many years later, just before he died, and he said: “Hello, Rick… It’s still crap.”

The song that makes me cry

Jesu, Lover Of My Soul, because it was the hymn played at both my parents’ funerals. I had to record it recently for a new film about Lawrence Of Arabia, and I have to admit that it did bring a tear to my eye because I couldn’t help thinking about my parents.

My 'in the mood for love' song

Probably Bad Company’s Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, or Hot Legs by Rod Stewart.

My Saturday night party song

Sweet Georgia Brown on the piano. My dad taught it to me when I was very young, and I love it to bits.

The song I want played at my funeral

I’d have the same hymn that my parents had at theirs, Jesu, Lover Of My Soul. And while I’ve got no intentions of leaving this mortal coil at this moment in time, I might write a choral piece that I’ll hide away that will only be brought out when I’m gone. I could have it sung live, a sort of last farewell. It’ll go very well with what I’ve got in my will to have put on my tombstone: ‘It’s not fair, I haven’t finished yet’.

Rick Wakeman & The English Rock Ensemble’s album The Red Planet is out now via Madfish.

Ian Fortnam

Classic Rock’s Reviews Editor for the last 20 years, Ian stapled his first fanzine in 1977. Since misspending his youth by way of ‘research’ his work has also appeared in such publications as Metal Hammer, Prog, NME, Uncut, Kerrang!, VOX, The Face, The Guardian, Total Guitar, Guitarist, Electronic Sound, Record Collector and across the internet. Permanently buried under mountains of recorded media, ears ringing from a lifetime of gigs, he enjoys nothing more than recreationally throttling a guitar and following a baptism of punk fire has played in bands for 45 years, releasing recordings via Esoteric Antenna and Cleopatra Records.