Rick Wakeman

Rick Wakeman on the Marylebone Music Festival

Words: Jude Rogers
Images: Lee Wilkinson

A quick bus ride from Marylebone, in grandiose Victorian music studios in Islington, an orchestra are getting ready for their afternoon’s labours. The man whose music they will be performing is somewhere in these corridors too, and one can only imagine the extravagant manner of his arrival.

After all, he’s known for his big musical ideas, grand conceptual gestures, and the fabulous donning of gold sequinned capes. But out of the kitchen he bumbles, as humble as anything. “Ah, hello there!” he beams, hands outstretched in a greeting. Hello there, Rick Wakeman.

There is no cape today, only a cream suit and an open-collared shirt, but the flowing locks and fuzzy beard remind us that we are in the presence of a proper rock legend, one we’re lucky to have as the curator of this June’s Marylebone Music Festival.

This 67-year-old Londoner’s CV well and truly speaks volumes (pun intended). A Royal College of Music student who got there from a working-class background, he dropped out to become an in-demand session musician, playing on T-Rex’s Get It On, Elton John’s early albums, and some of David Bowie’s best-known early hits (that’s his Mellotron all over Space Oddity, and his piano through Changes and Life On Mars).

Then he became part of the classic line-up of prog rock behemoths Yes, at which point he also picked up his love of outré stagewear. A solo artist in his own right from the early 1970s, he released number one concept albums on historical subjects including Henry VIII’s wives and King Arthur’s Round Table. Indeed, Wakeman presented BBC4’s recent documentary on the grandiose artform.

On paper, this man is more Spinal Tap than Spinal Tap. But Wakeman is a constantly surprising soul, too. Sift through his life and you’ll find all kinds of anomalies: he loved punk rock, for instance, and after being one of the popular faces on the BBC’s Grumpy Old Men, he’s done one-man standup tours.

At the Marylebone festival, he’s premiering a new composition, Symphony for the Spectrum, composed and arranged especially for children and adults with autism, where he’ll be accompanied by The Orion Orchestra and a children’s choir. The event is being held at the Regent Street Cinema, where the audience can move around to enjoy the music.

At 67, that drive’s still alive. He meets up with us today to talk about why this subject is so close to his heart, how Marylebone moves him, and the many lessons that half a century of making music has taught him. 

Rick Wakeman

Firstly, a simple one: what’s your relationship with Marylebone?
Well, I’m a Londoner born and bred. I was born up in Perivale opposite the Hoover building, then I travelled inwards, and now I’ve lived in London much of my life. Marylebone I know very well, and I’ve always wanted to live there.

Funnily enough, my wife [Wakeman’s third wife, children’s author, Rachel Kaufman) and I were talking the other day, and I said, “That’s the sort of area I’d really like to be in.” And she said, “Well, if you hadn’t got divorced so many times, you might have been able to afford one!”

Secondly, a more serious one: what motivated you to write music for people with autism?
My business partner in my record company has a son with autism who has asperger’s syndrome, and I’d always wanted to put together a concert of music to help, but it’s difficult, because there are so many different forms. You can’t put everyone with it into one basket.

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, I was also involved in making what people call meditation music, which I did in collaboration with a psychology professor at Manchester University. To cut a long story short, I did an experiment, and gave some specific compositions to six very different people.

The same two pieces made all of them relax, and they all had similarities: the spacing between the notes, the styles, the rhythms. It made me think: there really are formulas that can work to help people feel better.

So that interest continued for you?
It really did. There was a hospital in Germany that used one of my albums as part of relaxation therapy for their cancer patients, and there was a whole study done, and their remission rate went up substantially. They wrote a paper about it! When they took the music away and replaced it with whatever they’d had before, the remission rate went down again. I find that extraordinary.

Has music always affected you emotionally?
Absolutely it has. I was taught from the age of five, when I started my piano lessons, that you’re a painter when you play. You paint pictures. With me, that feeling’s never gone away. You’ve never felt, “Hey, I’ve had a good innings doing this—time to rest, only tinkle the ivories occasionally...” Oh good god, no!

Somebody asked me at one of the one-man shows I play, a few weeks ago, “If you weren’t on stage playing the piano, what would you be doing?” I didn’t even think. “Well, I’d be at home playing the piano,” I said. And she went, “Oh”. Even at my age, for heaven’s sake! If I’d known I’d be doing all this sort of lark as a pensioner back in my youth, I’d have thought, bloody hell, why? But I am who I am. I wouldn’t change anything for the world.

You come from very ordinary beginnings—and found out later in life that your father poured most of his earnings working at a building supplies company into your piano lessons.
Virtually all of it, yeah. They were great supporters of my music, him and my mum. I also found out that my music teacher had told them that she thought I would get a scholarship to one of the five music colleges, so they just ploughed every penny they had into me.

And then you dropped out of the Royal College of Music at 21 to become a session musician. Were they disappointed?
Mum was initially upset, but she didn’t throw a wobbler or anything. The thing was, I left on the recommendation of one of my professors, anyway. I was getting all these sessions, and I had started turning down things I didn’t want to turn down, so I went to him for advice. He said, “This is what we’re trained to do, isn’t it? If I were you, I’d walk out the door and not come back.”

I met him 35 years later and asked him why he’d said that: he said that university puts everybody in the same boat, and if you’re doing well, you don’t have to finish the course to finish the course. I liked that. If I’d stayed for one more exam, somebody else might have gone through the doors that were open, and I thank him forever for it.

And in 2012, you got a fellowship of the Royal College of Music anyway!
I did! That was really nice.

Prince Charles gave it to you, we understand...
Yes, he did. Oddly enough, I know him quite well now—I keep bumping into him at the Albert Hall, or at charity balls. When he gave me the scroll, he actually said, “We really have to stop meeting like this!” 

Rick Wakeman

Why do you think the early 1970s was such a fertile time for music?
Different sounds were just starting to merge together, and new technology was coming out, so it was a great time, a good experimental time.

In which mainstream record labels took risks on artists as experimental as you!
Well, there weren’t any record labels as we know them now. There’s not many record shops either. I mean, if you sell 20,000 albums now, you’re going to be number one everywhere. Back in the 70s, anything less than five million was considered a disaster.

Record companies have got it incredibly wrong today. They haven’t got a clue. You’d think that they’d sit there and go, “Hold on a minute, we were selling a hundred times more of music much more interesting than this once... we did something wrong somewhere along the line.” But, hey, you can’t tell them.

The best thing was that you were left alone to make the music that you wanted to do. Not any more: record companies will tell young artists what they’ve got to do, which is nuts. It’s like telling Monet how to paint a garden. “Could you put a few more daisies in there?”

You famously worked early on with David Bowie—and even turned down a place in his Spiders from Mars band to be in Yes. You said after his death that’s he remained one of your main inspirations.
God, he was. He’s exactly what I’m talking about too: he knew what he wanted, and was very forthright, and clever, but nice with it. I always got on fantastically with him, and he was a mate for a long time. I knew he was ill, but I didn’t know how much.

Also, when somebody dies, and people eulogise a lot, I sometimes question people eulogising who never actually met the person who died. But with David, he genuinely did have a huge effect on people, and he had a major effect on me. More than anybody else I ever worked with, without question.

In terms of how you worked?
In terms of everything. Everything. How I worked, how to work in a studio, how to write, how to do things. I learnt more from him than from anybody and will forever be grateful for that.

There was a man who devoured many different kinds of music too, as did you. You were also a champion of early punk, signing influential American band the Tubes.
One of my proudest things! I discovered them in San Francisco, and almost every record label was terrified of them, but A&M took them, and I knew that they’d be fantastic.

I loved the Clash and the Jam too, and that surprised people then. But that’s music to me: I don’t care what it is, you either like it or you don’t like it. I only draw the line at techno—it’s fine for other people, just not for me—and bloody boy bands. Do you play anything? No? Then you’re a singing group, not a band. God, that really pisses me off!

Proper music is where it’s at for you then—and it’s everywhere for you this summer.
Yes, indeed. Just before the Marylebone Music Festival, I’m doing The Myths and Legends of King Arthur’s Round Table live at the O2—I’ve been doing 18-hour days all year for that. I’ll admit that I’m tired!

Then there’s the symphony, which will be wonderful, then after that, I’m doing Antiques Roadtrip for the BBC for a break! That should be fun. I mean, I’m happy as long as I’m doing something, because I don’t like doing nothing. My wife and I haven’t had a holiday for nearly nine years—in fact we haven’t had a honeymoon; she’s not too keen on that!

But honestly, genuinely, I just can’t sit down. ‘Variety is the spice of life’ is a terrible old expression, but, well, it is for me.