Getting to Yes

Rick Wakeman, keyboard maestro, relives the magic of the past, the tension of the Hall of Fame and explains what’s up with those capes

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Rick Wakeman
Stephanie Cabral

For those prog fans who may not have known, Rick Wakeman, arguably the most accomplished of the classic generation of prog keyboardists (still drawing breath, anyway), moonlights as a standup comedian and comedy TV show host in his native England. His bits, while not necessarily steeped in modern hipster irony and trending a bit toward old-guy physical infirmity and divorce jokes, are typically self-effacing and, for those accustomed only to hearing him scaling the dizzying arc of amped-up, Bach-infused organ solos, can be a bit disarming.

Seldom has that been more evident than last spring, when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame finally relented and gave one of its lifetime achievement awards to Yes.

In the middle of the second decade of the 21st century, the progressive-rock-standard bearer is a bit diffuse. Lineup changes have rendered the branded Yes, headed by guitar icon Steve Howe, an ongoing franchise producing new music every few years but touring largely against its landmark records from the ’70s and ’80s. Two of its founding members are deceased, one is happily retired, and the last, keyboardist Tony Kaye, is sadly a mere footnote for all but the most committed Yes archivists.

As Wakeman and Jon Anderson, both long ago excised from the continuing franchise, set up shop as their own Yes project last year, to Howe’s none-too-secret dismay, the simmering discomfort between the two camps played out onstage in Cleveland. Howe read a somewhat lengthy tribute to the band’s legacy and commitment to musical excellence and integrity, a faintly detectable broadside to anyone else pretending to be Yes, along with a perfunctory celebration of spreading Yes music to new audiences around the world.

When it was Wakeman’s turn, he ad-libbed a bit about strip joints, prostate exams and the unreliability of body parts still sadly attached to aging male bodies.

“I was listening to some of the earlier speeches,” he told BW a few weeks ago, “and, yeah, they were all fine, y’know. I loved Joan Baez’ speech, I think she’s wonderful. And I’ve seen [a lot] of induction speeches before, and you know, they’re much like the Oscar speeches. Why do people do this? Do they think people want to hear him thank their grandma and aunts and uncles and their newspaper delivery man who brings the news every Thursday? And do I really want to know about their careers and how it happened? No — the fact is, everybody there already knows that stuff anyway.

“Jon and Trev… they know that I’m well known for comedy in the U.K., and literally as we were walking up the stage, Trev said, ‘Go on, go for it.’ It wasn’t meant to be detrimental to the music or the Hall of Fame or anything, it was just meant to have a little bit of fun.”

Still, we observed, Howe seemed to keep his distance and there was a detectable vibe of tension between the camps on stage.

“I was very proud to be inducted, and really for the music to be inducted, because really it was about the music. I was very proud of that. But you’re right, the tensions and all that, just really silly. I’m too old for that. I would like to have had a big neon sign to hold up that said ‘Lighten Up.’ I mean, we are so fortunate to be in the position we’re in.”   

For the record, “Trev” refers to guitarist Trevor Rabin, briefly the band’s guitarist (and source of the mantle-crushing opening guitar riff of “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” the band’s pop hit from the 1980s). Rabin retired from the band not long after and has since pursued a successful soundtrack career in Hollywood, only coaxed out of performance retirement recently to join Anderson and Wakeman in this Yes spinoff enterprise.

For many of the most cynical reviewers, Wakeman and Anderson’s franchise (which is dubbed this year “Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin and Rick Wakeman”) belies the idea that old warhorses reliving their triumphs are a predictable bore. Wakeman and Anderson have breathed fresh life into the material. “Yes, these guys still have it: Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, and Rick Wakeman faithfully delivered the spirit and the essence of the music of the band from which they derived … and they did so in grand style,” crowed a reviewer from Tampa Bay. Plaudits have even come from the notoriously prog-skeptical British press:  “There were multiple ‘pinch me’ moments throughout the show,” yelped the U.K.’s Daily Express.

The band’s fiery early days yielded highly kinetic material; heavily arched classical flourishes, maddeningly precise instrumental interplay and seamless time changes. Nevermind that much of this material is a challenge for guys in their 60s to render convincingly, it wasn’t particularly easy 45 years ago.

“It’s interesting: I listen back sometime to tracks like ‘Close to the Edge,’ and truly, I think, how the hell did we do that? … I mean, we were limited to 16 tracks. Nowadays you can have 400 tracks, or as many as you want.

“For example, the ‘sparkle tape’ as we called it, the opening to ‘Close to the Edge,’ that section took us a couple of weeks. Wind, bells, all of that. I mean, now you could knock that up on a synthesizer sampler in a matter of minutes.

“It was a unique period of time when musicians were ahead of technology. You had ideas of what you wanted to do and had to try to find a way of doing it. By the end of the ’70s and early ’80s technology had started to take over and was starting to run the musicians.

“The truth is we knew where we wanted to go — we had no satnav, no roadmap. We worked incredibly long hours in the studio, long hours in rehearsal, and every now and then something would absolutely click, and it would take us on to the next thing, and the next. … We were definitely punching above our weight.”

For his part, Wakemen has had a hugely productive career outside of Yes, with soundtracks and huge, symphonic projects like “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “Six Wives of Henry VIII,” as well as a professorship at the London College of Music. Some classic moments came early, when Wakeman was still a session player in London: The lovely piano intro to Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” the atmospheric melotron behind Bowie’s first hit, “A Space Oddity.”

One such collaboration was some astonishing piano work Wakeman did with folk singer (later pop hit author of “Year of the Cat”) Al Stewart.

“I absolutely loved working with Al. My most memorable session I did with Al was on the Orange album. I loved that album. We spent a week or two at Trident Studio in London. He came in on the last day of recording and said he had a new song, called ‘News from Spain.’ He played through on the guitar and I wrote out the piano part for it. And he said, ‘What I’d like you to do, Rick, is at the end, think Rachmaninoff. And just keep going.’

“I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ And that’s what I did — oh, I had a field day. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

“And I remember the day the record came out, I remember going out that morning to buy it. And when it came to the track ‘News from Spain,’ I thought, I know what’s going to happen here, there’ll be about 20 seconds of the piano part. I played for almost three minutes … and they kept a lot of it in. And for a young session player, I was just so made up. I was thrilled.”

Unlike many musicians of lengthy tenure, Wakeman is happy to go on and on with stories of the past (and Wakeman has a lot of them), but his press minder came on to cut us off for one last question. We wanted to ask about his place in Norfolk, and ask about Keith, and that dreadful Union album, and his Piano Portraits projects, and his sons’ careers in music… but faced with the end of the interview, we had to ask about one thing.

The capes. What is up with the capes?

“It was in ’71, someone did a review of a Yes show, very complimentary of the band, and when it got around to my playing, with all the keyboards I had around me, reaching for pedals with my legs and arms and so forth, the reviewer said I looked something like a demented spider. And I laughed, but after the next couple of shows, I realized he was right, doing all this reaching around, which I’m not sure I could even do these days anymore.

“So we played Hartford, Connecticut, open air festival, and we were introduced by a local DJ onstage, and he was wearing a cape. Three-quarter length cape. And he was quite a big bloke. Fat. He was quite fat. And I thought, well, the cape covers a multitude of things. I thought, hold on, that’s exactly what I need.

“So we came offstage, we’d just been paid. We got $200 a week back then. Covered all our costs, for everything. I had 10 $20 bills in my back pocket. As he came off the stage, I said, ‘I’ll give you $200 for the cape.’ And he said… no. I took the money out and waved it in front of him, and he went… yeah, OK.

“And I came off and Michael Tait, who was our lighting guy at the time, he said, ‘Rick, that’s the answer, but that cape’s wrong. It’s the wrong color, and it’s too short. I know a lady who can make you a great cape.’ And she went on to create all of what I call the ‘classic capes.’

“And that was it.”   

On the Bill: Yes featuring Jon Anderson, Trevor Rabin, Rick Wakeman. 7:30 p.m. Hudson Gardens and Events Center, Littleton. Tickets $48 for adults, $38 for children.