When Yes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, the surviving members of the band lined up behind a podium at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and delivered the sorts of speeches you’d expect from veteran musicians who had waited decades for this moment of validation. Frontman Jon Anderson thanked departed Yes members Chris Squire and Peter Banks, 1980s-era guitarist Trevor Rabin thanked his wife and son, drummer Alan White paid tribute to the fans, and guitarist Steve Howe read prepared remarks about how the band’s followers have the ability to “distinguish the textures and the harmonies and the discords and the dynamics of the dramatic and the humble or the soft and the love of the choir.”
Then Rick Wakeman stepped up to the podium. “Does this thing go up?” The keyboardist asked, pointing to a mic not nearly high enough for his 6’3” frame. “Story of my life.” After the not-so-subtle dick jokes, he spent the next four minutes delivering the filthiest and funniest speech in the long history of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, never once stopping to thank anybody or to say anything even remotely serious.
It ended with a tale of his supposed recent trip to a doctor to get his prostate examined. “Whilst I was having my examination, the doctor said to me, he said, ‘Mr. Wakeman, there’s no need to be embarrassed,’” he said. “‘It’s not unusual to get an erection with this kind of procedure.’ I said, ‘I haven’t got an erection.’ He said, ‘I know, but I have.’”
The uproarious speech — which was typical of the comedy routines Wakeman has been doing around England for years — came as a shock to many Americans that knew him merely as a sort of prog-rock wizard who wears golden capes while delivering jaw-dropping solos. Others know him for his studio work with the likes of David Bowie, Black Sabbath, and Cat Stevens, or his epic 1970s solo albums like The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Wakeman is currently in the middle of a U.S. solo tour called Grumpy Old Rick where he plays songs from throughout his career like David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” and “Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” pausing between each one to tell funny stories about his life.
During a visit to New York a couple of weeks ago, the keyboardist sat down to talk about his long career, focusing on his tumultuous tenure in Yes, his plans for a 2020 Anderson Rabin Wakeman farewell tour, and continuing to play and record despite being diagnosed with arthritis in his hands a few years back.
I want to start by saying that I’ve been to nearly every Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony during the past 12 years and I laughed harder at your speech than any other one I’ve ever seen by a huge margin.
Thank you very much. It was interesting because I was extremely proud that Yes got inducted. I thought it was long overdue. I thought we should have been in long ago because there’s a few bands that have since come in very late and I think, personally, it’s too late, especially when an important member of the band has passed away. You look at Chris [Squire] with Yes and Jon Lord with Deep Purple and you think, “These guys deserved to be here. They deserved to receive that accolade, especially since many are founding members of those bands.” That was the only slight disappointment, but I was thrilled that the band got in.
I have this thing — and I need to be brutally honest with you: I like watching award ceremonies. Like everyone in the U.K., we’re glued to the Golden Globes and the Oscars and to the Emmys and all that kind of thing. But the speeches! Give me strength. How many times can you thank “my mother and my father for buying my first guitar and my Uncle Henry who got my first guitar strings and helped tune them up for me and then my friend down the road …” Who gives a toss?!
Then it goes into, “Well, we formed the band back in 1897 and we had our first rehearsal …” The truth of the matter is that there’s 17,000 people there and they know all the history. That’s why they are there. They don’t need to be told that. It’s all very obvious because people around the tables are talking, and quite rightly so because they know all that. And so it becomes, “What are you doing this Christmas?” You can hear this hum that goes around the room.
I’m standing up there and very, very proud and a bit sad that Chris isn’t there. And then it was, “I’d like to thank my father and my brother who helped me tune …” I was going, “Oh, please!” and I heard the hum getting louder. I got Trev [Rabin] and Jon [Anderson] next to me and they know I do a lot of standup in the U.K. I’m known for it. Trev nudged me and said, “Go for it.” I went, “What?” He went, “Go for it! Liven it up!” I said, “Trev, I’m not known for doing comedy over here.” He said, “Now is a good time to start!”
As I’m walking up I’m thinking that I had a lot of routines that I do, but they’re long. So I started with a couple of one-liners that I use at some of the standup shows and see what happens. I did the, “Behind this building was the first place I ever had sex” joke. The place went quiet at first and people laughed and I thought, “Oh, wow!” I felt, “This could be interesting.” But I didn’t want to go into one of the routines and things that I do because they’re very long, so I’m hastily thinking “I could do a chunk of this and a chunk of that …”
That’s what I did. It wasn’t meant to be irreverent. It wasn’t meant to be anything bad against the Hall of Fame. It was just my personal statement of, “Doesn’t everyone get that speeches are boring.“
I think people in this country have a very wrong idea about you. You’re seen as this deeply serious man and it’s actually quite the opposite.
When I play, I take playing seriously. But I don’t take myself serious. I’ve had so many bizarre things happen to me in my life and I tell the stories onstage. The moment you start to take yourself seriously, you’re in trouble.
I want to go through some key moments in your career. When you started out as a musician, what were you trying to achieve? Did you want to wind up in a rock band or did you have something else in mind?
I know this sounds stupid, but I wanted to be the best at piano I could be no matter how hard I had to practice. I wanted to learn everything about the history of music. It was a wonderful period. I was born in 1949. My father was a piano player. He didn’t do it professionally, but he was great and he encouraged me. I had my classical piano lessons, but he said to me, “Listen to as many kinds of music as you can. Play as many different kinds of music as you can.”
By the time I was a young teenager I had been in jazz bands, blues bands, country & western bands, rock bands, folk bands … everything. I played everywhere and anywhere I could, sitting in for no money but just to get experience. It was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be the dreaded thing that X Factor contestants say: “I want to be famous!” None of my friends who were musicians at the time ever said that. We wanted to be the best we could and do the best we could. If you had a bit of success, great.
One of the bands I played in was called the Atlantic Blues. If I’m going to be honest, we were dreadful. We were bad. We were really bad, but we had great fun. We were a blues band and we went to a pub that had four bands playing and said, “Can we play?” And they’d go, “Yeah, you can do 15 minutes at the beginning.” If you did half-decent and people liked it the manger might say, “Come back next Wednesday and I’ll move you to third.” If you work your way up to a headliner he’ll say, “Come back next week and we’ll give you a few bucks.” Then you walk away with five dollars and you feel like you made it.
All you wanted to do was play and I was playing all sorts of music. My dad always said, “It’s not important to like all the music you play, but it’s important to understand it because you might understand why other people like it.” At that time I couldn’t stand country & western. I like country-rock, but the old country & western like the Jim Reeves stuff where the dog dies and everything, I couldn’t handle it. But my dad said, “Go play with a country & western band.” I said, “Oh, no, not that.”
But I did. It was in a town near me called Hayes. There was a Sunday lunchtime country & western day. So I went along and I sat in and played along. I still don’t particularly like the music, I’ll be brutally honest, but I started to understand why the people who came really did. In most cases, it was very personal to them. I learned to accept that just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean that a lot of people didn’t. And my dad used to say, “There will be a lot of people that don’t like what you do, son.” And he was dead right!
Jumping forward a bit, tell me your first memory of ever meeting David Bowie.
I saw him in 1968 in Regal Zonophone, which was the offices of Denny Cordell in Oxford Street in London. He was there with the great producers Tony Visconti and Gus Dudgeon. I was 18. It literally was Gus Dudgeon who said, “David, this is Rick Wakeman.” “Oh, nice to meet you.” That was the first meeting.
The next meeting was interesting because it was when we did “Space Oddity.” I was doing a lot of sessions. I did some for a band called Junior’s Eyes. They were really great and deserved a lot more recognition than they got. They did an album called Battersea Power Station. It was an album that was a little ahead of its time. And in the studio where I was doing the Hammond Organ for them, there was a Mellotron. That’s an instrument that created phony string sounds and things, very difficult to keep in tune. I was playing around with it while they were doing other things. Tony Visconti said to me, “How do you keep that in tune?” I said, “There’s a way you can fiddle with the pitch wheel.” He said, “Oh, that’s useful.”
In early 1969, I got a phone call from Gus. He was in the studio and they were doing “Space Oddity.” They wanted Mellotron on it and nobody could keep it in tune. I went up there and did “Space Oddity” with a Mellotron. David said to me, “Come have a talk. I’ve heard some of your piano playing. I like your piano playing. Do you want to do some stuff with me?” I said, “I’d be honored to.”
He was doing the David Bowie album. We did “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” and a couple of other things. Then it was after that he said, “Come around to my house and I’m going to play you some songs for an album of mine I’m going to call Hunky Dory.”
He asked you to play with him on the Ziggy Stardust tour, right?
He did. It was the day I sort of joined Yes. We were rehearsing. I’d put in two rehearsals with Yes putting together the Fragile album. At the second rehearsal Jon, Bill [Bruford], Chris, and Steve said, “Do you want to join?” And I said, “Yes, sounds good to me, yeah.”
A message had come through that David was with Mick Ronson at a club in Hampstead in North London and really wanted to see me. I left the rehearsal and drove to Hampstead and saw David and Mick [Ronson] and sat down. I’d already done a track for Ziggy Stardust. David said, “I’m putting Ziggy on the road.” I said, “That’s brilliant. That’s great.” He said, “I’m forming the band Spiders From Mars and I want you and Mick on it and we’ll have Trevor [Bolder] and Woody [Woodmansey]. Are you up for it?” I said, “Oh, I’ve just been asked to join Yes.” He said, “Well, you have a bit of thinking, don’t you?”
I drove home and I was trying to weigh it up because David was miles bigger than Yes were at the time. I thought, “What do I do? David is my biggest influence ever. I love playing his music. The only problem is if I I’m playing his music all the time, there will be a ceiling with how much I can participate and contribute. There will be a top line, whereas with Yes, the band is growing. It has new ideas about how it wants to do music and I love the idea of that. I can grow more with them.”
I called David the next day and I told him and he said, “Right decision. Absolutely right.” It did worry me a little if I upset him because I love the man so much. But then years later, in 1977, we were both living in Switzerland. We used to go to this little club called the Museum Club. We were in there one night and I said, “I’ve got to ask you about that time with Spiders and the Yes thing.” He said, “You made absolutely the right decision. You can grow with that band and there would have been a limit to what you could do with me. As you probably noticed, every time I start a whole new venture I use new musicians. I use musicians I want that I think are going to be best for that job. Chances are, you’d be out of a job now.”
How well did you know Yes before you joined?
I didn’t know the original Yes album or Time and a Word. I knew The Yes Album when it came out. That became quite a cult album when it came out. I was with a band called Strawbs and we supported Yes at a show in northeastern England. And after we’d done our set, I stayed to listen to Yes because I’d never heard them live. It was bizarre because back then in early 1971, in a rock band your lead singer was six feet tall with long, black, greasy hair. Your guitarist had a Marshall stack and a Fender Strat and the bass player had a Fender Jazz Bass and another Marshall stack and the drummer would have a massive kit and the keyboard player would have an organ.
They came on and Tony Kaye was probably the only one I’d say was standard rock band material when he sat at his Hammond organ. And then on came Steve and Steve didn’t have a Marshall stack. He had a little Fender Twin amp on the floor and played a Gibson semi-acoustic guitar. I went, “What’s this? Nobody does this.”
Bill mic’d his drums up, which was unheard of back then, which was phenomenal. And Chris came on with a Rickenbacker [bass] and Rickenbackers were so out of fashion. No one touched a Rickenbacker and he had these amps called Sunn amps in cabinets and, basically, all of the treble was wound on full and the bass on full with the middle turned off. It created an incredible sound. Then on came the singer who was five feet nothing and had an alto voice. I went, “What is going on here?
But it was fantastic. The harmonies were good. The musicianship was good, which I really enjoyed. One of the things you can’t help thinking when you look at a band is, “If I was in that band, what would I do?” Not trying to get anyone out of a job or anything, but I thought they were tailor-made for orchestral sounds and keyboard sounds.
How did you get into the band?
It was July of 1971 I got a phone call from Chris at 2 a.m. He said, “Hello, Chris Squire here.” I said, “It’s two in the morning. Do you want to call me later?” He said, “No. I’ve called you now. Look, we’re having some changes in the band. We want to go more down the keyboard-orchestral route with lots of more keyboards besides the organ. We think you’d be the right fit for the job. What do you think?” I said, “I love what you do. I think that could work really well.”
I was half asleep, but I arranged a meeting, which we had. We had tryouts, rehearsals, and it was on the day I had the David Bowie offer as well.
A lot of Yes fans see Close to the Edge as the single best Yes album. Do you agree?
Yes. That’s absolutely right. I think it was one of the first moments we sort of understood what we were doing. When we were doing Fragile and we did “Heart of the Sunrise” and tracks like that, Yes always liked to record in what I call a jigsaw fashion. There would be lots of little bits and we’d stick it all together with glue. If it was in different keys, it was my job to find a way to get it from there to there. That was great fun. It was a lot of experimentation.
By the time we put Close to the Edge together, we knew pretty much how we worked and how it could be done. Close to the Edge, there was nothing contrived in that. It was exactly how we set out to be. It was wonderful, also, because it was that period in time where musicians were ahead of technology. There were no keyboards with presets, 10,000 different choices of things. You created your own sounds.
I remember talking to Keith Emerson about when you got a new Moog or a new instrument, there was no presets. You took it in your hotel room with a pair of headphones trying to get it to make a noise. When you got it to make a noise you were like, “I’ll make a note of that.” And that was what you did. That’s what we used to lovingly call the “sparkle tape” at the beginning of Close to the Edge. That took more than two weeks to make. We went out and recorded birds, recorded rivers, water, wind, trees, and rustling and put it all together to create this tape at the beginning of the album.
You can do that now in 20 seconds on the keyboard. It was a great period of time where the musician was ahead of the technology, where if you heard it, you had to do it.
The Close to the Edge tour was, I think, also your peak as a live band.
Yeah. It was phenomenal. Ironically, we do pieces now like “Awaken” that are twice the length of “Close to the Edge,” but “Close to the Edge” did seem like an epic. It was wonderful to play on stage, but I could remember being onstage when we almost took a deep breath and went, “Right, it’s time for the rollercoaster ride.” It was a wonderful piece to play live. We haven’t played it live for years, which is a shame since it’s a great piece.
There are three pieces where if people say to me, “What’s prog rock?” and I can say … Prog rock has so many different avenues. You have Mars Volta and Dream Theater, but if you go back to the original Seventies prog, you are looking at tracks like “Close to the Edge,” “Awaken,” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” That’s what it was back then.
You famously dislike Tales From Topographic Oceans. Why is that?
Tales from Toby’s Graphic Go-Cart, I used to call it. Well, I suppose it was in that era, like all bands — there’s no grey area with Yes. It’s all black and white in every respect. It got off with a bad start because Jon and I wanted to record in the country. It was that period of time where people were like, “Let’s go record in the country on a farm.” That’s what Jon and I fancied. Steve and Chris wanted to record in London because they both lived in the heart of London. Alan, bless him, was like, “I don’t mind where we record.” It was always two-two with Alan sitting on the fence.
There were quite heated arguments about it. The compromise was we recorded in London, but turned the studio into a farmyard. It was unbelievable. We had bales of hay in there. We had a cow with an electric utter that lit up and went backwards and forward. We had a white picket fencing going. It was hilarious. I had the only keyboard that had to be cleaned out of insects when we finished working.
Up until then, we always rehearsed the music and put together the pieces. We put together the pieces for Tales From Topographic Oceans and they were all different lengths. One was about eight minutes. One was 15. One was 19 and one was 12. That’s too much for a single album. You couldn’t get it on vinyl. But it wasn’t enough for a double album, so we had the choice of either editing to make it a single album, which nobody was even keen on, not even myself, or writing new material and turning it into a double album of four sides.
I said, “I’m OK with that, providing the music is good.” But we didn’t have anything written. So we spent time in the studio, almost busking, free-form thinking. “Oh, yeah, that’ll work. We’ll use that.” That, to me, wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough at all. I said, “You can’t do that.” They were like, “Yes we can. It sounds good.” It’s the old thing. If you listen to something long enough, familiarity breeds acceptance. You go, “That’s really good!” And it wasn’t.
The trouble is Tales had a lot of good melodies and a lot of good songs. “Ritual (Nous Sommes du Soleil)” is pretty good. There are a lot of good themes. But then you’ve got all the padding bits. I know where the padding is and I know how it was put in, and that offended me. Rather than say in interviews and things, “Well, there’s some padding and bits of things I really don’t like and I’d rather weren’t there” I said, “I hate it.” I went to extremes. Likewise, Chris and the other guys went, “We love it!” I was like, “Fuck you, I hate it.”
Playing it live, it was not a crowd-pleaser. Even the lads admitted that. Onstage it was not a crowd-pleaser at all. We did the tour, and coming towards the end of the tour, I thought, “I can’t go on playing this.” We’d played America and then were back out in Europe and things again. I called a meeting, which anyone was entitled to do in the band, and said, “I’m really sorry, guys, but if this is the direction we’re going in, I can’t be a part of this.”
I left. It was interesting, because moving way ahead to 2002, I rejoined the band for four years to do some shows, mainly in America. When we got together we all said what we would like to play. I said, “You know what? I’d be very happy to play some of Tales if we edited it. If CDs had been invented when we did that album, it never would have been a problem because you can do your eight minutes, your 12, your 15, and 14.” Chris said, “You really want to play some of Tales? It dies onstage.” I said, “Maybe we can do some of the one with all the percussion and have some fun and shorten it.” We did it for a bit. It was interesting because they eventually voted they didn’t want to do it anymore. It was interesting. It went a full-circle.
You did pretty well as a solo artist in the mid-1970s. What drew you back to Yes later in the decade?
It was interesting. When we were out on tour doing Tales, there was already talk of what became the Relayer record. We put together tapes in hotel room and things. I was listening to it and I thought, “This isn’t how I personally see Yes. It’s getting a bit jazzy. It isn’t how I see Yes. It’s maybe trying to be clever for clever’s sake. Where are the nice melodies and the songs I really like? If this is the route it’s going down, I have really made the right decision to leave.”
I then was asked on a live BBC radio program to review the Relayer album. I actually said, “I can’t win here. If I say ‘I love it,’ I’m still friends with the guys and so I’m supporting them. If I say I don’t like it, it’s sour grapes because I’m not on it. The truth of the matter is, I think it’s a perfect album for Yes because it’s what they wanted to do. I couldn’t offer anything to this music, so therefore I’m glad I’m not there.
Then in October 1976, a cassette was delivered to me at my house with a little note from Jon Anderson. It said, “We’re in Switzerland. We’re starting on our new record. Here’s a couple of ideas for the songs we’re doing.” One was “Going for the One” and the other was “Wondrous Stories.” It said, “Call Me.” I called him in Switzerland and said, “This is great! This is what should have happened after Close to the Edge if we’d done a proper follow-up.”
Jon and I used to have fearsome arguments, but he said, “Come over and play with us. We have a lot more to write.” I said, “Brilliant!” I flew to Switzerland on November 5th, 1976, and there I stayed until 2001. It was amazing. I sat down with Jon and thought the most important thing was for Jon and I to clear the air because we did argue. We sat down and it was probably one of the best conversations we ever had. He said, “I’m sorry if I go over the top sometimes with things.” I said, “Look, I’m the same and I apologize.”
We started talking about what we both wanted from Yes and from music. We came to the conclusion, because Jon had a completely different musical upbringing from me in every respect, that it was a bit like we’re both in London and we want to go to Tokyo. There’s two ways of getting there: You can either go via Moscow or via Anchorage and go from there. At one point, if I’m going the Moscow route and he’s going the Anchorage route, there will be a point where we are as far apart as humanly possible, but we’re both aiming for the same place. We agreed that we somehow wound up at the same place with Close to the Edge because we argued fiercely over it, but we got there. We agreed to agree that we were both aiming for the same thing, but had different ways of getting there. If we understood that, we’d both be OK because we knew we’d get there. And we never had a cross word after that day.
How did you feel in 1980 when you both left and the Buggles came in?
That was funny. That was really funny. It was a strange time because prog rock was so wonderfully out of fashion. It was hilarious when I look back at it. We always knew it was going to happen, but it was so out of fashion. It was the equivalent of turning up at the Vatican and being like, “Can we put up some condom machines?” Atlantic didn’t know what to do with us. We were sent to Paris to make an album. Jon and I had written a load of songs, and Chris and Steve had written a load of songs. Jon and I weren’t particular keen on their songs, and Steve and Chris weren’t particularly keen on our songs.
It wasn’t going too well. It was actually pretty disastrous. We spent a lot of time in the studio not really doing much, just sort of getting nowhere fast. Alan solved the problem just before Christmas since we were all living in Paris. He went out nightclubbing and fell over and broke his ankle, which wasn’t great for a drummer. Suddenly we were all going home. On the day we were all going home, Jon and I went out for a drink in a little cafe in Paris. I bought a bottle of calvados. Jon isn’t a great drinker and we both got, shall we say, very emotional because calvados will do that. If you want to get really emotional, drink calvados.
So we’re both in tears saying, “This is not what should be happening with Yes.” Jon is going, “This isn’t the Yes I dream about. This is heartbreaking. I’m leaving.” I said, “Jon, if you’re leaving I’m leaving because I can’t take this either.” So Jon left and I left. We handed in our notices at the beginning of January and said, “We’re not coming back. That’s it.”
Brian [Lane], our manager, he’d got on his books the Buggles, which is Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes. They’d had a big hit with “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which is a great track, a great thing. They did an album called The Age of Plastic, which is really ahead of its time. I like that album a lot.
Brian now had a dilemma. He’s got an American tour booked for a band that no longer exists. He’s got a bass player, a guitarist and a drummer, but no Jon and no me. He’s got the shows all booked. Here with the Buggles, he’s got a keyboard player and a singer. There’s no time to do rehearsals and put things together, so it became BugglesYes.
The only mistake they made on the tour, and I don’t know whose idea this was because it wasn’t me — it could have been one of the agents or the promoter or management — they decided, “This isn’t going to go down too well with the Yes hardcore fans. It won’t go down well at all. Perhaps the easiest thing to do is we won’t mention anything.” [Laughs]
Chris told me later it was a nightmare. He said, “We’d walk onstage and people would cheer and be like, “Hey, Steve! Hey, Chris! Hey, Alan! Who the hell is that?” They had this fat, dumpy guy at the front singing and Geoff Downes. They’d be like, “That’s not Jon! That’s not Rick!” In retrospect, perhaps if they warned people. But it was a nightmare. Chris said it was an absolute nightmare from start to finish.
What should have happened is the tour should have been cancelled, but they did it and they did an album called Drama, which summed it all up perfectly. That was just another tale … talk about Tales From Topographic Oceans. It’s another tale of Yes woes and Yes history.
How did you feel in the early 1980s when you’re going through the radio and you hear “Heat of the Moment” by Asia and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes. Your former bandmates had these huge pop hits. What was your reaction to that since you weren’t involved with any of it?
John Wetton [from Asia] was a very close friend of mine. I liked John a lot. The Yes situation, I’ll be brutally honest with you, and I’ve said it a lot of times and it upsets a few people because there’s various Yes camps of people who like the band. There’s a lot that say that 90125 and the Big Generator period was not Yes, nothing to do with Yes, a disgrace, horrible.
I argue that 90125 was the most important album that Yes ever made. I’m not saying it was the best because I’m a Close to the Edge and “Awaken” man, but the most important because I think if it hadn’t been for that album, Yes could never have carried on. In fact, it had sort of finished and 90125 had been put together by Trevor [Rabin] under the name of the band Cinema. The record company said, “No, no. We aren’t doing it under Cinema. Get Jon back. Get him to sing it and we’ll put it out as a Yes album,” which is basically what happened.
Trevor Rabin is more responsible for that album than anyone else and I know that as a fact. Quite astonishing, a prog-rock band called Yes in the midst of the heavy punk era puts out an album that’s a monster hit with a monster single hit with “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and a massive sold-out stadium tour. That’s amazing. I’ve told Trevor, that was the most incredible album Yes ever did since it broke all the rules and got away with it.
How did you feel in the 1980s when everything was drum machines and synthesizers. Did you feel like a man out of time?
Yeah. I think the thing is when you’re not misunderstood, but just not understood … I was slated by a lot of the press that I hated punk, but I’d say things that got ignored. I remember saying to one journalist, “You tell me that I hate punk. I’m the guy that found the Tubes. I’m the guy that took the Tubes to A&M. I loved the Tubes. I love bands like the Jam. What’s your problem? Where did you get this from? Just because I do prog rock doesn’t mean I hate everything else.” And people like Fee Waybill [of the Tubes] stuck up for me like there was no tomorrow and guys from the Jam and Hugh Cornwell [from the Stranglers]. But it didn’t matter. The die was cast.
Musically, I’ve got to be honest, it was really tough. I did something that my dad had always said is likely to happen. He said, “There will come a time you’ll have to make some music and do some things that perhaps isn’t what you want to do, but you’ve got bills to pay. You either do that or you go out and get a job.” And so I did all sorts of albums, New Age albums and things that different counties would buy; Japan would buy a lot of those, Eastern Europe, not for a lot of money, but it was enough.
Also, I was in a midst of a very bad hobby called “Keep Getting Married,” which was incredibly expensive. It was a tough time, but I kept going. I kept playing. I thought, “I have to do what I believe in.” You’ll have people saying, “This is what you should be doing.” I had to be honest with myself and go, “I know what I’m good at. If people don’t like it, that’s not very helpful, but there’s not much I can do about it.”
I stuck with it and, I suppose, things started to change a bit in the 1980s when I started doing a lot of television and a lot of comedy stuff on the TV. That got me a different audience. I got a lot of young people, a lot of students. It was really weird. Also, there was another show in England called Countdown that was mainly watched by senior citizens, Suddenly, the concerts that I still managed to do had a lot of students and a lot of really elderly people. You had kids running in and elderly people who could hardly walk in.
It was really interesting how things started to change. I carried on doing what I did. And then in 1989 we put ABWH [Anderson Bruford Wakeman Howe] together and came out and that was a really good time since it was Jon, myself, Steve, and Bill Bruford. It was four fifths of the lineup that hadn’t been seen since way back in the Fragile and Close to the Edge days. We came to America, Clive Davis of Arista signed us, and we came over and played a lot of Yes stuff. We were stunned by the receptions we got. It was phenomenal.
There were two versions of Yes in that time. It got weird.
There was. We called the other one Yes West since they were on the West Coast. It was interesting because we started doing a second album, again in France. It almost seems like anything we do in France is disastrous. We were halfway through it and our manager Brian came and said, “Look, it’s going to get a mess. We’re having talks about putting the two bands together and doing a tour with the eight of you, the Union tour.” I said, “How did you pick the eight?” He said, “There are eight of you that have done at least two albums and at least two tours.” We went, “OK.”
The problem was that we were three quarters of a way through an album. They were three quarters of a way through an album. So the album was given to a guy who shouldn’t even be allowed a food mixer, let alone an album. He did the most dreadful job on the Union album. When I heard it, I couldn’t believe it. It was early days of sequencers and I was like, “I never played that.” He just sorted through everyone’s parts and did what he wanted. I was furious. He invited all his mates on. I think the Pope was the only person who wasn’t on that album.
That has always baffled me. There were basically two bands for one album, but there’s also all these session guys as if you needed more guitarists and keyboardists.
It was nuts! We went nuts. I called it the Onion album because it made me cry. When I heard it, I thought, “This isn’t Yes. We didn’t play that. We didn’t do that.” I spoke to him and he … oh, God … I discovered later his so-called CV where he claimed to do lots of stuff he hadn’t [done] at all. And he just got all his mates on it. The tour was great fun, but the album was a disgrace.
Was it hard to work out sharing the keyboard duties with Tony Kaye on the tour?
No, it wasn’t. Tony was great. He said to me, “Look, you do whatever you want to do and I’ll just play along whenever.” He was great. We didn’t have a lot of problems at all. He did a lot of the sampling stuff because he liked doing that. It was no problem at all. Obviously, one bass player with Chris, that was fine. There were two drummers and Bill basically said to Alan, “You’ve been in the band for obviously a long time. You do what you usually do.” And he had a completely different kit built, an electronic kit. He said, “I’ll work within you.” Bill worked brilliantly around what Alan did. That was fantastic. And Jon was the only singer, so that was fine.
But there was friction between Trevor and Steve. To be fair, nothing detrimental to Steve, Trev openly wanted everyone to play on everything. He did actually suggest that on “Owner of a Lonely Heart” in the middle, how about Steve, you do the guitar solo because the crowd would love it. Steve wouldn’t even be onstage when we did it. I thought that was a shame since it could have done a lot of good. I could see where Steve was coming from, but I thought he was wrong.
The tour became known as East/West Berlin. On a couple of occasions, I got in trouble for taking some white gaffer tape and putting it down the middle and writing “East” on one side and “West” on the other. I had fun. I mean, I really enjoyed it. After I was tipped the wink by somebody in the Yes office in California that at the end of the tour, Bill, myself, and Steve were being superfluous for needs and would basically be gone.
I went, “Oh, OK.” That’s because basically all they wanted to do was keep the four Yes [members] they had, which was Trev, Alan, Chris, and Tony and have Jon back as the singer. That was their plan how to do it. I knew that it was happening and it didn’t worry me in the least. I was like, “I’m just going to enjoy this. I’m going to have great fun.” And that’s what I did.
At the end of the tour, the management did make a mistake. They thought the Yes fans would run along with it. They were not happy at all. The album they did [Talk] didn’t do that great. They started to go a bit pear-shaped. They sort of did it wrong, which was a great shame. But obviously you couldn’t keep going with an eight-piece Yes band. It was a great period of time. I loved doing the tour. I had a wonderful time and I suppose the fact I knew at the end of it, that was it, I enjoyed it even more.
To jump forward a bit, I spoke to Jon a little while ago and he told me the last few tours in the mid-2000s weren’t a lot of fun for him. Did you feel the same way?
I’ll admit that I enjoyed playing. I do enjoy playing. I always enjoy playing. If I didn’t enjoy playing, I wouldn’t get onstage and play. The tour was 2002 to 2004. The first two years were pretty good. They really were. The band was playing really, really well. Come 2004, it started to go wrong. I won’t point fingers, but there was a lot of excesses going on in certain areas outside of the music. It was really affecting the playing of some of the band. That was difficult for Jon because Jon, basically, was reliant on what happened onstage with the instruments signaling what was happening and it was all over the place.
The last two years I didn’t enjoy because I was mainly spending the set listening for who was going off on a tangent because of, shall we say, over-indulgences in something and trying to salvage the situation. That was no fun. It was no fun at all. Jon was quite right. The last two years were extraordinary difficult. In fact, there was an ultimatum issued at the end of that to certain people: “Straighten yourself out because this can’t happen again.”
How did you feel in 2008 when they brought in a new singer?
What happened was, Jon was very ill. He actually died. He was brought back to life. He was extraordinarily ill. And there was a conference call which was Steve, Chris, and Alan. They said, “Look, Jon is obviously not well, but we’re going to go out without him.” I said, “Look, you can’t go out without Jon. Zeppelin can’t go out without Robert Plant. The Who can’t go out without [Roger] Daltrey. When you have a distinguishable voice, you can’t go out without it.” They said, “Well, we are. We’re going out without Jon. Are you in?” I went, “No. I think it’s wrong, especially when you have Jon who is really, really ill. I don’t think it’s right in any respect. Let the guy get better, then we’ll go out.” “No, we’re going out now.” I said, “OK, good luck. But I can’t do this.”
There was nothing nasty said. Chris spoke to me a little while later and said, “If you’re not going out, who would you recommend to do some keyboards with us?” I said, “There’s lots of people that can do it, but if you want to save yourself money on T-shirts, getting a new name on, both my boys, Oliver and Adam, are very capable of doing the job. But you won’t get Adam because he’s with Ozzy Osbourne, as happy as you like and he’s not going to leave Ozzy. But you can get Oliver and he’s done an album with Steve. Steve knows him very well. So that would be fine.”
I take it Oliver didn’t leave on his own free will.
No. I don’t know the full story. I know a little bit. Basically, it was all down to when Trevor Horn came in to finish the album [Fly From Here] they did. Trevor Horn said to Chris and Alan and Steve, “I want Geoff Downes in. So you have to sack Oliver because I want Geoff in.” Basically, Oliver got told in an e-mail in the day he was due to fly out and record with them. They said, “Don’t come.”
That did surprise me. I’d warned him. He’s a good lad and a good player, too. He did say, “Thanks for giving me the heads-up when I first joined.” I said, “Just go along. Play. Keep your nose clean and keep out of arguments.” That’s what he did and I was proud of him for doing it. It was a great experience for him. He learned a lot. I think he saw some things that he perhaps wished he hadn’t seen. He’s been a good boy, kept his mouth shut and hasn’t said anything. He’s said nothing but how much pleasure he had when he played.
I’ve heard you didn’t want ARW to be called Yes.
No. I didn’t. I’m a funny old fellow. I have quite moralistic views. When Chris died, he was the only founding member still left in the band. He’s the only guy that had been in every incarnation of Yes, through thick and thin. I felt with so many different band members in and out that when Chris passed away, the decent thing to do would be to say, “OK, we’re putting the name Yes on the shelf. That’s it.”
We can still play Yes music. Steve, if you want to have a band, play Yes music. Jon, you can too. Anyone that has been in the band is fully entitled to play Yes music, but do it under a different name. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it degraded the name and the word and the music by what happened after Chris died. We did end up going out because promoters wanted it as Yes Featuring ARW, but it just confused people. They had no idea who they were going to see and what was going on.
It was wrong and I was very against it, I will admit. But we’re going to do some farewell shows next year and they are going to be ARW. It may be “ARW Performing an Evening of Yes Music.” That’s fine. But not Yes in the name of the band.
I spoke to Jon and he said there were disagreements about recording new music with ARW. Where did you stand on that?
I always supported new music if it was really special. We started sending music backwards and forwards to each other and there were some pieces that started to come together that had big possibilities. I felt very much that it was time, not just to do songs, but we needed a couple of real epic things, like 21st-century “Awaken.” And Jon liked that idea, so did Trev. We started putting a couple of things together that were really coming together well.
But there was two problems. One, which is finance. There are no major record companies these days who would pay the money that would be needed to do a project like this properly. The only way we could do that is if we’re all together in the same room working like we used to. We have to work together and put things together like a jigsaw. We would need two months, minimum, in a room somewhere. You’ve got the difficulty that Jon lives up in San Luis Obispo and Trev lives down 1,000 miles away in Los Angeles and I’m in 7,000 miles away in the East Coast of England. The bass player, Lee Pomeroy, is in Southern England. And the drummer, Lou Molino, is also in England. It’s not like, “Let’s all meet up for coffee and have a chat about this.”
It needed to be properly financed for all us to get together. Also, we needed to choose somewhere where we could all work together, whether it be on the West Coast or in England or whether it be somewhere neutral. We never got around to agreeing on where that could be. There is certainly the basics of music that could possibly well be a very good album, but I personally, and I don’t think Trevor and Jon did, don’t want to put out an album just because we could. There was a sort of single put out, “Fragile Touch,” which, not for me … it was a nice song. But people forget I’m a Yes fan too. I was a member of a band I was a fan of, so I’m entitled to say “I like this” or “I’d like to hear this.”
“Fragile Touch” was a nice enough song, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear from Yes. I wanted to hear some great playing and what I call some surprises. You go back to “Close to the Edge” and it’s full of surprises. You’ve got no idea where it’s going to go once it starts. That, to me, is what Yes music is.
You guys all played together at the Hall of Fame. What’s stopping you, Steve, Alan, Jon, and Trevor from touring all together?
That’s a real good point. I think it’s because it wouldn’t work.
First of all, there would be … I would give the first rehearsal half an hour before somebody walked out. It would happen before we even decided what to play or how to play. I think it would be difficult. My view is we did the Union tour and it worked, though it was awful as an album. It was brilliant. A reunion, another one? Would that work? I don’t think so. What would you do? What would you play? There’s no new, great material since that time. There is nothing that has been recorded from any of the Yes camps where you can go, “Great! We can introduce that now.” It will be the same classic stuff, really. If you were going to to write something, how on earth would you do it with so many people? It would be really, really difficult.
I look upon it like I’ve had a wonderful time with Yes. I still enjoy it with Trevor and Jon. I love playing. The Hall of Fame was great and it was wonderful to see Alan and Steve, but what would be achieved by everyone getting together and trying to do a reunion? We wouldn’t achieve anything. I’ve got very, very happy memories of everything I’ve done with Yes. Yeah, I’ve got a few moments which were not happy within Yes, but everyone has that within a band. The Tales From Topographic Oceans tour I really did not enjoy as well. But you do it and I did it to the best of my ability.
Ninety percent of everything I did with Yes, live and in the studio, I loved. I absolutely loved doing it and it was a joy. Do I want to tempt fate and do something that could end up a nightmare? Of course, back then there were big record companies like Warner, Arista, and Atlantic that wanted to back the band. Those companies don’t exist anymore. There isn’t a major company out there that would back a project like that.
Why are ARW going on a farewell tour?
Ummm … OK … a mixture of honesty and then you can read into it what you will. None of us are getting any younger health-wise and things. It’s not the playing, though that does get a bit difficult at times. There’s the traveling and everything that goes with it. Jon is 74 now and he hasn’t had the greatest of health, though he’s been brilliant at looking after himself to keep himself going. But there’s a limit to what you can do.
I have been diagnosed with arthritis in both my hands. It’s controllable at the moment. I don’t take anything for it, pills or drugs, but I do exercises. I have creams and special gloves and things that keep me going. I know I have to practice really hard to keep my fingers supple. I always said that I never want to walk onstage and not play to the standard I want to. I don’t want anyone to applaud anything I do because of what I used to do, so there comes a time to stop.
Keith Emerson had terrible trouble with his hands and it just destroyed him. Keith and I were great friends and I know how difficult it was he couldn’t play. I think … I might be wrong. I might have a few more days than I think. I do have some days where they seize up quite a lot, but at the moment I can still play. The dexterity is still there. When I do the right exercises I am fine.
I reckon I have until probably the beginning to the end of 2022 and then I think I won’t be able to do it anymore. I’ll still be able to play, but not [up to] the standard live that I do now. I’ll still be able to record and do music and the odd concert, but they will be different concerts. That’s my reason why I voted along with everyone, actually, that we’ll do a farewell/thank-you tour to the fans when you can still do the best you do while you still can.
Might the set list be different from the previous ARW tours?
I’ll be brutally honest with you, we haven’t discussed that at all. I think there are certainly pieces and things I’d like to bring in. It depends which era you pick from. There are lots of things we haven’t touched and I liked the way we took some of the old ones and changed them — like “Awaken,” we changed beyond belief. Trev did some brilliant things to do that which changed it quite a lot. I’d like to see pieces from Going for the One or “Arriving UFO” [from Tormato]. I’d say to Trev, “What can you do with this? Play around with it.” Maybe we could do “Siberian Khatru” or even “Close to the Edge.”
I didn’t think we could improve on “Awaken,” but we really did. There’s a lot of things we can do, but we haven’t discussed it yet. I’ve got to be brutally honest with you. We have not discussed it.
Tell me about Grumpy Old Rick piano tour.
It’s something I’ve been doing onstage in the U.K. for about 30 years in different forms. I do a lot of comedy in the U.K., as I mentioned before. I’m just as known for comedy in the U.K. as I am for music, which is ridiculous, really. It’s a piano show and I’ve always liked piano shows because everything I write is on the piano. It’s always great to take pieces of music you’ve been involved with with different artists and play them on the piano because that is how they started. All the stuff I did with Bowie started on the piano. The Yes stuff I play, I wrote on the piano. The same with Cat Stevens and other people. It’s great to be able to do those pieces. I love variations of things I do on the piano.
I’ve been doing that for quite a bit, but it really all came about when David Bowie died and I did “Life on Mars” on the piano on the BBC and they webcammed it and in two days it had something ridiculous like two-and-a-half-million hits. People said, “You should record that.” I said, “No.” They said, “Record it and do it as a charity single.”
I don’t like charity singles. I hate charity singles. There are warehouses around the world full of charity singles. It’s absolutely ridiculous. “Let’s make a charity single!” “No!” I’d rather write a check. But it was my wife that said, “You could do ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Space Oddity’ as a charity single, but the thing you have to ask yourself is, you were good friends with Bowie. You knew him well. What would he have said?” I said, “If it were for a good cancer charity, he’d probably say, ‘Yeah.’ That’s doing some good for the music.”
And so I did “Life on Mars” and “Space Oddity” as a single for a big cancer charity in England. The single did really well. It was Number One for about eight weeks. Then people said, “Why don’t you do an album of songs you like on the piano and do variations of them?” I put it off for a minute, but so many people asked that I went, “Oh, alright. It won’t sell, but I’ll do it.” But I did it and it sold unbelievably well. It’s called Piano Portraits and it was Top Five for 11 weeks or something.
Then I did a very successful tour with it and then Sony asked me to do a Christmas one, Christmas Portraits. I said, “That’s too soon after Piano Portraits. How about something in between?” So I did Piano Odyssey, which was another Top 10 album where I added a few strings to it and a choir in bits and pieces. That was really successful as well. I did tracks I love with great melodies, everything from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “The Boxer” and all sorts of things. And I did a couple of Yes track sas well, which was a lot of fun.
I’ve just done the last one, Christmas Portraits, which comes out November 29th. It’s good fun to sit down at the piano. It’s much harder than people think because you’re so exposed. You’ve got no other instruments to hide behind or go, “You take a solo.” It’s all you and so you have to really concentrate. I love doing it. I go into a little bubble. I had a music teacher that taught me to see music as pictures, as colors. I still do to this day. Ninety percent of the time when I play with my eyes closed, I see pictures. I paint pictures to the music.
It’s the same thing when I do “Life on Mars.” I don’t know where the pictures are going to take me. Sometimes it’s a picture of things I remember from the Hubble Telescope. Other times it’s times I spent with David when we were neighbors. The pictures are almost like a hypnotic state. That’s the only way I can play. Occasionally if something happens and I come out of that hypnotic state and I look down on my fingers, I tend to go, “Ah, shit, what am I doing?” That’s where you go wrong.
The show is music on the piano from all different people I’ve worked with through the years, no singing because my singing is awful. In between I tell ludicrous stories of things that have happened to me over the years in my life. Somebody once said to me on a chat show in England on the TV, they said, “Nothing normal ever happens to you.” I said, “No, you’re right. It doesn’t.” Whatever it will be, it’s not straight-forward. Some of the stories are hilarious, I have to say.
To wrap up here, do you think it’s wrong that Steve and Alan are on tour and they call the band Yes?
Umm … there are guys like Geoff Downes in that band that were in Yes …
Briefly. Alan does a few bits on stage. As they would say in court, I refer you to the answer I gave earlier, counselor. I think when Chris passed away the name should have been retired and put on a shelf. Steve can carry on playing Yes music same as we did. We were just as guilty calling it Yes Featuring ARW, which I objected to vehemently. There’s no reason we can’t go out and play the music, but I really feel that the name should have been retired. I think it was disrespectful to Chris. There were all sorts of stories going around that “Oh, Chris wanted it to continue.” I know for a fact people that spoke to Chris and that isn’t true.
There’s a lot of things … Life is too short. I’m not interesting in getting into arguments or creating bad feelings and things. I don’t care what other people do unless it affects me. If it affects me, I’ll come in like a rocket. If they are happy and they feel justified by that, than that is fine. It’s like when we were Yes Featuring ARW. It didn’t feel comfortable because I couldn’t justify that’s what we should be doing.
If you want my real honest answer, the whole Yes thing is a mess since Chris died. It’s a total and utter mess for the fans and the people because nobody knows what the hell is going on. Nobody knows who is in what, who is doing what. It’s just one hilarious mess. It would make a great cartoon series.
You have left the band six different times, which could be a world record for the most times anyone has ever left a single band.
[Big laugh] I can tell you all the reasons that I left! I can tell you when they were as well. The first one was May 1974. I can tell you the date. It was May 18th, my birthday, also the day that Journey [to the Centre of the Earth] went to Number One. I officially rejoined November 5th, 1976. Jon and I left officially in the first week of January,1980. That’s three. Then there was a short period with the Union thing. That’s four. And then another period the Keys to Ascension period, another fiasco, which was 1996. That’s five. Then in 2002 I rejoined again and left. That is six. If you call ARW, we’re getting on for seven!
It seems to me the fans need to let go of this fantasy you’re all going to sing “Kumbaya” and come together again for another reunion tour. It’s just never going to happen.
I can’t see it happening, although I’ve learned in rock & roll the word “never” doesn’t exist. You’ve got to be very careful. Let’s put it this way, it’s highly unlikely. You’ve got more chance of Donald Trump getting divorced and marrying Hillary Clinton.