Interview: Rick Wakeman on David Bowie, Black Sabbath, John Lennon and more...
He's played piano with Jack Lemmon and spent nights on the town with Keith Moon. Black Sabbath wanted him to join the band but Basil Brush doesn't like him one bit. He's Rick Wakeman.
Even before he achieved worldwide fame and notoriety with prog rock legends Yes, Rick Wakeman was already rubbing shoulders with the soon-to-be rich and famous thanks to his job as in-house keyboard player at Trident Studios in central London. Before long he passed through folk proggers the Strawbs and was playing massive arenas with Yes. He also hit the headlines for his excessive solo shows in the 70s, not least his grand attempt to present his 1975 solo album The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table on ice at Wembley Arena! Along the way there was his well-documented battle with booze which ended in the mid-80s, since when he’s performed with Yes and as a solo artist, as well as becoming something of a media celebrity in his own right. And, as Classic Rock discovers, not only is he great mates with Sooty, but he’s also been given the, er, brush-off by foul-mouthed fox Basil Brush.
I first met David back in the late 60s, back when word-of-mouth and the Melody Maker were still how you found out about what was still then called the ‘underground’.
I’d been doing a session for Tony Visconti with this band Junior’s Eyes in Willesden in 1969. I walked into the studio and there was a Mellotron there. They were really new at the time and no one actually knew how to play them, so I asked if I could mess around with it. And I managed to get it working. Because of that I got a call while I was at Reading Top Rank club – I used to play in the house band on a Thursday, playing 60s soul tunes – and it was Tony asking me if I could play on the Space Oddity session at Trident Studios in Soho, because David was recording a single and wanted strings and Mellotron featured on there.
The session only took half an hour. David turned up with a Stylophone, because he’d popped into a shop on his way to the studio and Rolf Harris had been in there promoting them – he featured in all the TV adverts for them at the time. David loved using anything new. We all said that it wouldn’t work, but when the single came out, there it was and it worked fine.
I remember David arguing with this guy from his label, Philips, insisting that the record had to come out as a stereo single, and the record company wanted mono. He got his way. He always struck me as a very dedicated artist.
He also helped me out when I ran a small folk club called Booze Droop at the White Hart pub in North Acton. We owed the landlord a bit of money and he was hassling us. I was having dinner with David and mentioned this, and he offered to play a gig there for us to help out. So we took these ads out plugging Bowie. And about four people turned up. Everyone thought it was a wind-up. He played the gig, though. The next week the place was packed. We covered our debts, and I announced that was the last Booze Droop ever.
I loved Black Sabbath. I loved them musically and loved them as people as well. I knew them pretty well because Yes had supported Sabbath in America on a few tours in the early 70s and they all liked a drink, like I did. Socially Sabbath were much more my cup of tea than Yes were – drinkers and hell-raisers who really loved their rock’n’roll. I used to travel with Sabbath on their plane because we got on so well. In fact Tony Iommi, who I have remained great friends with over the years, once told me the band were seriously considering asking me to join them at one point, because we got on so well and they were looking to expand their sound. But Ozzy was worried, probably quite rightly, about how the metal fans would react.
I first worked with them in the early 70s when they were recording Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and they needed a Mini-Moog on one track. Yes were in the studio next door, and I told them I’d pop in after we’d finished. When I got there, they were all… ‘asleep’ is the politest way of describing it. Except for one frightened young tape op, who put the track in question on. I tried a few things out, and after the third thing I played, Ozzy lifted his head up, said: “Fucking great,” and passed out again.
As a rocker gets older there are things that seem to creep into one’s life. Like gardening. Cooking. Walking. And golf. I’d taken up golf when I stopped drinking in the 80s, and through that I used to get invited to the Howard Keel Golf Classic, a pro-celebrity event held in Manchester.
The highlight of this used to be a showbiz gala that Howard would put on at the Piccadilly Theatre in Manchester, which would normally feature a lot of his celeb mates from America. Anyway, this one year he asked me if I’d like to play because “Jack is going to play and he likes your piano playing. So you come on, play some stuff, introduce Jack, and then he’ll play and then he’ll introduce me.”
I didn’t really think any more of it. I turned up on the night, and Howard comes over and keeps talking about Jack, indicating this bloke stood to the side of the stage, when the penny dropped that it was Jack Lemmon. I stood there dumbstruck when he came over and said hello. Howard had given him some of my records, and he liked them and asked if we could play something together. He was a pretty jazzy pianist, if memory serves me right. I just remember being so embarrassed sitting next to this massive film legend.
I knew Ringo very well, and I’d met Paul and George a few times, but I’d never met John.
I was living in Switzerland at the time, and was in New York to promote a Yes tour. I always like to eat at the Tavern On The Green by Central Park. They had this room, the Crystal Room, where you could eat without being pestered, although people did like to have a look around at who was dining. I was in there with my then-wife, and looked around and there were John and Yoko sat at a nearby table. I didn’t think he’d know who I was, but he came over and introduced himself and we had a chat. He seemed very nice. He was telling me about the problems he was experiencing with his new album [Double Fantasy], and he struck me as being very much like David Bowie in that he was clearly an inspirational and dedicated artist. I went over and said hello to Yoko.
When I returned to Switzerland I remember getting a phone call from a journalist asking me for a quote about Lennon. Given this was pre-internet, and communications were nowhere near what they are today, I didn’t really know what she was going on about, until she told me that he’d been murdered. Apparently I was one of the last musicians to be seen talking to him. She then asked me the most stupid question I’ve ever been asked: did John mention anything that suggested he’d had a premonition about his death? Some people!
Keith Moon and Vivian Stanshall
If you were going out with Keith, then you always knew that the police would very likely be involved at some point during the evening. And they most definitely would if [Bonzo Dog Band’s] Vivian Stanshall was along for the ride as well. The two of them were such lovely people, and there was never any malice behind what they did. They really were arch pranksters. But the thing about the many nights I spent in their company was that all their high jinks were the by-product of drink and good, harmless spirits and a childish enthusiasm. I had my wildest nights out with these two. Keith really was like a naughty little boy.
I’ve known Jim for a long time. He’s a huge prog rock fan and we’ve become very good friends over the years. Jim’s another one of those who you know that if you go out with him, then there’s likely to be trouble. He still drinks a bit, although he’s nowhere near as bad as he was. But, again, he’s like Moony in that no one ever gets hurt, nobody’s ever done any damage and no one’s ever felt threatened when we’ve been out on our benders. Even at our worst it was always about being funny.
Yes, Sooty’s a friend! I never knew the original [puppeteer], Harry Corbett, but I did know his son, Matthew. Anyway, Matthew had sold Sooty on, and the bloke who owned him also lived, like me, on the Isle of Wight.
I was playing a gig in Barnstaple, and my tour manager at the time also lived on the Isle of Wight, and this guy came along to the gig and I got introduced to him. I asked him where Sooty was, and he told me he was in the manager’s office. So he went and got him and I had my photo taken with him. When I was leaving, I was outside the stage door signing autographs for about 200 people. Then this bloke left, and I mentioned that he had Sooty, and ten seconds later there’s no one in front of me and this bloke’s surrounded with all these people wanting their photo taken with Sooty!
I was at the BBC doing [erstwhile TV arts show] Omnibus, and I accidentally walked into the wrong studio. And there in front of me was Basil Brush, sat at his desk just like you see him on the TV. Obviously the puppeteers were at work. But as I’m stood there not knowing what to do, he says in that Basil Brush voice: “I say, it’s Rick Wakeman!” As there’s an audience, I mumbled: “Hello, Basil. Very nice to meet you.” And he just says: “Right. We’re in the middle of rehearsal and ever so behind, so if you could just fuck off, there’s a good chap.”
I walked out in a bit of a daze and bumped into Barry Norman, who looked after Omnibus at the time. He directed me to the proper studio, and asked me if I was okay. I could only tell him: “Basil Brush just told me to fuck off!”