Too many notes

In my progressive youth which involved being into prog-rock bands like Yes, Genesis, Supertramp, 10CC, Pink Floyd and ELP, there was a joker in the pack in the form of Rick Wakeman. Rick was a classically trained pianist who produced several thematic albums during the early 70s, notably the six wives of Henry Eighth, Journey to the centre of the earth and The myths & legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. (Apparently an over the top tour of the latter bankrupted him).

To my mind, the albums above have a common style- brilliant playing of keyboards, dire vocals. (Rick doesn’t actually sing and the albums all featured session musicians that to my ear just didn’t fit). Now several of my friends regarded RW as a demi-god (second only to Keith Emerson) but reluctantly accepted that the voices let down the albums.

I can remember Rick coming to Newcastle City Hall and being a very friendly bloke offstage, indeed he is probably the only turn I recall coming up the stairs from the dressing rooms, surveying us all hanging round by the stage door and saying “Alright lads, howya doing?” in is bloke-ish west london accent which was totally at odds with his sparkly wizard-like stage garb which included a red velvet cape! I don’t recall very much about the gig, other than being impressed at him being able to move seamlessly from instrument to instrument arranged all around him at different heights like a keyboard mission control.

Wakeman was at his best on the piano playing thoughtful pieces and his style was very twiddly and embellished in a way that would have had Emperor Joseph II (Of fictional Amadeus fame) declaring “too many notes“. Whilst the playing would be rich and layered, it rarely degenerated into that syrupy over the top twiddlyness much loved by the likes of Liberace. You wouldn’t expect to find a Candelabra on Wakeman’s piano, or if you did it would be in the shape of a raven and have black candles. (These ones are ironic I’m sure)

Back in ’74 an anthology of the Strawbs was released which included a track called “Song of a sad little girl“. This became my favourite of the album due to the incredible piano playing on the track and I later discovered that it was our Rick who had spent a short time in the Strawbs before he joined Yes. Something else I wasn’t aware of until recently was that Rick was the pianist on the Cat Stevens single “Morning has broken“.

Rick’s name resurfaced a few years ago when he became heavily involved in the campaign to save a Cinema Organ in Plymouth, having developed a fascination for the possibilities of the instrument. Then, a few weeks ago, I heard him on the radio talking about his life, including eating a Curry whilst playing keyboards during a Yes Concert (all of the other band members were vegan) due to a misunderstanding with his Roadie.

Reading the Wikipedia entry, it seems that Rick has reinvented himself several times, most of which simply passed me by. One thing did, however, touch a chord. He did an album (& DVD) exploring and inerpreting sacred music entitled “Amazing Grace”, performing each piece richly and powerfully at the piano, sometimes accompanied by synthesiser to round out the sound and give it fullness. The title track is sung simply and refreshingly by his daughter Jemma and a choir, although I personally slightly prefer the Judy Collins gospel-ish voice version for the vocals, despite it being hammered to death in the charts back in ’71 and my loathing it then. Most of the songs on the video have some visuals that tie in with the track (such as views of forests, streams & mountains) and Rick briefly introduces each track with some background to the composition and era. For “Ode to Joy” he comments that Beethoven is probably turning in his grave now that the EU has adopted it as the theme!

The DVD/CD album isn’t widely available and you do need to make sure you get a PAL version rather than an NTSC one (unless you live in the Americas, of course!)

Here is a Youtube of Rick and Jemma performing Amazing Grace, I haven’t found any other of the tracks there, although there is an interesting documentary about the history of Amazing Grace, hosted by Rick himself. (In several parts though, due to the ten minute limit).