Gary James' Interview With
Rick Wakeman

Rick Wakeman's "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" is one of the most successful albums of the 1970s, on both a critical and commercial level. It sold more than 15 million copies worldwide. In May, 2009, Rick Wakeman achieved a life-long dream of performing the entire album 'live' at Hampton Court Palace. It was the first time the whole album had ever been performed in concert and included the "Henry VIII" track "Defender Of The Faith", which had to be cut from the original album for space reasons. The album also includes new opening and closing pieces. Those two incredible sell-out concerts were a never to be repeated event, but you can now experience the excitement of Rick Wakeman's "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" (Eagle Rock Entertainment) on DVD and Blu-ray. "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII" features Rick Wakeman with The English Rock Ensemble accompanied by The Orchestra Europa and The English Chamber Choir with Brian Blessed as narrator.

Rick Wakeman spoke with us about "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII", his time with Yes and his early days in the music business.

Q - I would say it's fair to say that you're a musician's musician. What do you think of people who have little or no talent who go on to achieve great success in the music business? Does that bother you? Are you concerned about that?

A - No one has ever asked me that before. It doesn't concern me what anybody else does, to be brutally honest with you. What does concern me is when people think they're good and they're not, to put it bluntly. You can have success and not be very good, but how long that will really last, I don't know. You're gonna get called out yet because your limitations are gonna be what you can do. There's lots of bands you can't say are the most musical bands, or I should say aren't the most technically musically clever band in the world, but just produced the most phenomenal stuff. I think The Beatles are a classic example. Wrote some phenomenal tunes, but they were not the greatest musicians in the world. Ringo would be the first to say he's not the world's greatest drummer. Paul was not the world's greatest bass player. George was one of the most musical guitarists ever, but certainly technically he wasn't an outstanding player. But you put them with John, who in essence was a rhythm guitarist, and the sum of what those four put together was phenomenal. There are a few bands that's worked with. If you put four or five people together, what they produce is far greater than their numbers. Now, Zeppelin, who are actually great musicians, when Jon (Bonham) was alive, the four of them together created one, plus one, plus one, plus one equaled eleven. The Who is another classic example. But again, great, great musicians. I think at the end of the day what worries me, especially with young bands, is that they go around saying how good they are, they're better than that band. Nobody's better or worse than anybody else. That's the first sign of insecurity for me. What they should be able to say is I'm my own musician. I do what I do. I play to the very best of my ability, with what I've learned and I'm continuing to learn. It is the world's longest apprenticeship course. Anybody who thinks they've done it by the time they're 25 really needs to go into an old people's home.

Q - It's interesting that you would bring up The Beatles. I interviewed several people this year (2009), who worked with Ringo and did not think much of him as a drummer. What I said to them is, if you replaced Ringo with Ginger Baker in The Beatles, it would not have been the same band.

A - You're absolutely right. Did anybody ever listen to any tracks of The Beatles and go "I'm listening to the drummer. He's not very good." Or "I'm listening to Paul's bass playing. He's not very good." No, you didn't. You listened to the overall sound. That's what you listen to. You can pick on things afterwards and go that was a great guitar solo or drum riff or whatever, but you listen to the piece of music first. And it's the music that's important.

Q - Do you think the public appreciates all of the work that went into this DVD "The Six Wives Of Henry VIII"?

A - (laughs)

Q - Has anyone ever said "that must've been some project. How on earth did you do it?"

A - I have actually had a few people who said "How on earth did this get together?" The truth is, I had the most wonderful team of people. There were over 300 people involved in putting it together. The simple answer is that everybody involved wanted to make it work. So everybody involved did far more than I ever asked or dreamed that I thought they could do to help make this work. It was one of those projects that had so much in a strange way going for it, in as much as it was the 500th anniversary of Henry's ascension to the throne. To get the use of Hampton Court Palace to do the concert, which incidentally wasn't where Henry lived, well he did spend quite a lot of time there but it wasn't his main home, it was his party house where he used to throw all his parties. He loved music. He loved art. So it was just the perfect place to do this. Everybody that got involved got involved because they wanted to be involved with it all. In fact, when the brown, smelly stuff hit the fan, as we say in England, which was back in December last year (2008), we got everything set up to do it, it was gonna cost an absolute fortune. We had sponsors lined up and then the recession hit really bad. The banks collapsed and our sponsors were banks. So we lost all sponsors. There was a big "do we go ahead?" And the answer is yes, 'cause there's only one chance of doing this for Henrys 500th anniversary ascension. We knew it would cost every single penny of ticket sales, merchandise money, DVD money, all that. Everything. If we threw everything at it we could actually make it work. So it was a very sweaty time. But everybody involved said "Oh, c'mon, we can make this work." My accountant, who is a great friend of mine, any normal accountant would say, no, this is suicidal. He just looked at me and said "You're only gonna have one chance at doing this. You gotta go for it. So we did. We threw everything at it and more. It was a year in the planning and the last five months from January down to the first of May was absolutely flat-out. From the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed, and for an awful lot of people as well, it was all that was on our minds, all we were working on.

Q - Your advisors probably told you if you film it and release it on a DVD, you can re-coup a substantial amount of money.

A - The advance from the DVD was thrown in the pot as well. Everything went into the pot to make this work. We knew if we were to film it, it had to be something very, very special. So we threw everything at it. I went almost back to how I used to think in the '70s, with a wish list of what I wanted. I went a symphony orchestra. I want a big choir. I want a great, great band. I want actresses playing the six wives. I want Brian Blessed, who's a very, very famous English actor, to do the narrative. I want more lights than anybody's ever, ever had on the stage, which we had. We lit the whole place in the back. I said "I want cathedral organs suspended in mid-air. I want a piano suspended in mid-air." I expected them to all sit around the table and just sort of look and go "He's completely barkin' mad." But it was like, yeah, we can do this. We can make this work. Suddenly, before I knew it, it had momentum all its own. It's a bit of a hackneyed expression, but it was a bit like getting on the roller coaster ride. But the moment it started there was only one place you could actually get off it and that's when it finished. And that's really what it was like. It had a momentum of its own that just carried itself through. It was phenomenal.

Q - Have you ever given thought of performing a variation of this show in a Las Vegas setting?

A - Yeah. I would love to. Basically you can take that production. It doesn't have to be if you took it away, in front of the Hampton Court. There's lots of things you could do. You could to it in front of castles. You could actually put it anywhere. Obviously you can't take Hampton Court everywhere you go but you could certainly still do that production. I'll be honest with you, I would love to do it in Vegas. I'm a huge Vegas fan, if it happens anywhere. But I would love to do it somewhere there. There were some beautiful settings all over the States that would suit it very, very well. But it needs a promoter with a vision. He'd have to look at the DVD and say "yeah, I can see what this is." There's no question that people ask me How much did you doctor the sound? How much did you cheat by doing extra filming or re-doing some of the music or some of the performances? And the answer is none. There was not one note changed from what was recorded on the night. There was not one note added. There was no additional footage added. What you see and hear is exactly what happened on the night. So we know that we can absolutely re-produce that anywhere in the world.

Q - What a lot of pressure it must have been on you that night!

A - Yeah, there was. But again, as I mentioned before, everybody involved wanted to make it work. The band. The orchestra. The choir. My great friend Guy Protheroe, the conductor. Brian Blessed. Even the actresses who played the wives. Everybody was rooting to make this work. And I'll tell you something else that was really important. When I walked out with the Six Wives, the feedback from the audience was also, we want this to work. That played such an immense part because of the warmth that came back from the audience who wanted it to work. I think they had sort of sensed what had gone into putting this together and they were just willing everything to work. So it was tremendous. But there was one funny thing. Friday night was very much for the film crew. It was a rehearsal for the film crew. Not for us, but for them to just really get their positions right, everything they wanted to do. I think there were about 20-odd cameras scattered all over the place plus cranes and Heaven knows what else. But when I walked onstage with the Wives on Friday, I had three wives on either side of me. We walked down. One of the things we had to do was look reasonably somber because of the fact long distance cameras would be looking at us. As we walked past the band, who were on risers to my left, my son Adam who plays with Ozzy Osbourne but took a sabbatical to come and do this with me. He's on the top. Now, it's quite well known that also like Henry, I've also had a collection of wives as well. As we walk by, with my son at the top, he just leaned over the top, looked at the six wives and said "Which one's my Mum, Dad?" Which just cracked the entire band and orchestra up. I had to say to him afterwards, "Don't do that tomorrow because that's the filming bit for real." So we had a lot of fun doing it and as I say, everybody was willing it to work and you couldn't ask for anymore than that.

Q - You also host a regular radio show on Planet Rock.

A - Yeah.

Q - What do you play and talk about on that show?

A - Well, it's been running for nearly five years now. It's a Saturday morning show that runs from 10 until 1. It's a Classic Rock station, but I get a bit of freedom to play a few bits and pieces that I like. It's a really silly show because one of the things I'm known for in the UK, but obviously not in America or the rest of the world, is the comedy aspect of what I do. I've been involved with lots of comedy programs. I hosted a big comedy show on national television here for six years. Plus, as well as doing the music shows, I go 'round and do stand-up shows as well. So this program is a mixture of the Rock music with complete stupidity in between. It's very funny. We have a huge laugh making it. Thankfully he said, touching wood as I'm talking to you, we get very, very good ratings. So we just generally have a lot of fun.

Q - For a guy like yourself doing stand-up is certainly unique. I don't believe I've come across that before.

A - Yeah. I've been doing it for quite a few years. There was a big series on British television called Grumpy Old Men. That was a huge hit series here and Australia and New Zealand and a few other countries as well. Of course, if you have a hit series on national TV in the UK, it just changes your whole life in many respects. So I go out and do a lot of hosting, a lot of presenting, as well as the music and radio shows and an awful lot more television. And of course I've got two books out as well, which have both done well. A lot of the sales of the books shows the power of television. If you're on TV and your picture is on the front of a book... One is called Grumpy Old Rock Star and the other one is called Further Adventures Of A Grumpy Old Rock Star. They're purely the silly anecdotes that have happened to me throughout my life.

Q - You left college after only a year and a half. What would've happened to you had you graduated? You know what we say in the U.S.? To get a good job, get a good education.

A - Yeah, that's true. If you had asked me that question ten years ago I probably couldn't have answered it for you. But I can answer it now. I was at the college doing my final course. I suddenly started doing a lot of sessions and working for great producers like Tony Visconti, for people like David Bowie, Elton John, Cat Stevens. It started to clash with stuff I was doing at college, with the lectures and lessons. I just didn't know what to do really. My clarinet professor, a wonderful man called Basil Tchaikov, a fabulous player. I went to his lesson one day and he said "What's troubling you?" And I told him. I said "I don't know what to do. I've got a real problem. I'm doing all these sessions. I'm learning an awful lot. I'm playing with all sorts of different people. The doors are really opening for me in that area. But I'm now getting offered so many sessions that it's starting to interfere. I've been skipping a few lectures, things I haven't been able to get to. I just don't know what to do." I said "I'm frightened if I finish the course, which is another year and a bit, then those doors might close." He said to me, "What you need to do is go and empty your locker. Walk out of the Royal College Of Music. Walk across the road." Right opposite the Royal College Of Music is the Royal Albert Hall. He said "Walk up the stairs of the Royal Albert Hall. Do not look back. Walk around the Royal Albert Hall and go That's where I want to be. That's my next step." And I said "Yeah!" And he said "And don't come back." I felt this is really bizarre. I took his advice. That's exactly what I did do. And I never went back. I never really quite understood why a professor at the college would say to me "Leave. Go."

Q - I think I know why. That's what your professor probably always wanted to do a professional musician.

A - Well, you're close. He was actually a very successful musician. We have a program here, it's not running anymore and I believe you used to have it America called This Is Your Life. Well, I was a target on This Is Your Life about ten years ago. He was one of the surprise guests who came on. I hadn't seen him for thirty plus years then. I said to him afterwards, "Mr. Tchaikov, I have to ask you, why on earth would you ask a student to leave when there's still a year and a half to go to his graduation" He said "Well, quite simply, I had students that came to me, and it's not just for music, it's for everything. I have people that came to me during their three year course and quite honestly the first time I heard them play, they'd already done the course. They knew everything. They were just gonna go through the motions for three years to get their piece of paper. I've had other students come in who, to be honest with you, I wouldn't have said deserve to get a degree, but they'd work hard for three years, struggle through and they'd get their piece of paper. But it's what you want to do in life. The doors were opening for you and they were dead right. Basically what I'm saying to you is that you didn't have to finish the course to finish your course. You'd finished your course. You'd done everything you needed to do. There wasn't anything more you could learn. And the doors have opened for you, so you go through it. The trouble is, we put all courses into time periods. Oh, it's a three year course, oh, it's a four year course, it's a two year course, it's a six year course. It's rubbish. It's what the course is for the individual person." I said "Why did you say that to me?" He said "Because I did exactly the same. When I was a student. I got the chance of joining a major symphony orchestra and those doors didn't open very often. So I left college. So always remember, you don't have to finish the course to finish the course."

Q - Sounds like a great teacher

A - Oh, he was a great man. I have so much respect for him for that.

Q - Is he still around?

A - He's still around, yeah. I get the odd message from him 'cause I'm an honorary professor of music at another college, wishing me well. I always reciprocate.

Q - So, you obviously did enjoy the session work you did with people like David Bowie and Cat Stevens.

A - Yeah. Over a period of about four years I did about two thousand sessions with different people. It was a wonderful apprenticeship course because I learned something from every single session I did. Even the bad ones you learn, because you learn when you get the chance, I won't do it like that. Playing with great producers, working with great engineers. A lot of 'em were really good to me. They knew that I was genuinely very interested. Normally the session musicians stayed in the main room, while only the hierarchy were in the control room listening to things. I used to get invited in. Some of the engineers and producers would point things out to me...what they were doing, how they would set things up. In fact, in the day of tape editing, Gus Dudgeon, who's sadly no longer with us, a great, great producer, he spent hours with me teaching me all of the tricks of the trade of tape editing on the two inch and quarter inch. It was a wonderful apprenticeship course. I remember my father sort of saying, 'cause he was a musician as well, "Just remember son, music is the longest apprenticeship course. When the moment comes when you pass on, you still won't have learned everything."

Q - And when you pass on, your work lives on after you. Not many people can say that. They get a little obituary in the paper. Your music lives on in CDs, DVDs and whatever new technology comes along.

A - That's a weird one, but it is interesting. Musicians are in an incredibly privileged position. We're able to actually make the music that we would like to sit in an audience to hear. It's like artists who can paint the pictures that they would like to hang on their wall. It's a gift of love really. I just feel so grateful in many ways. It's hard to put into words really.

Q - Wikipedia says that many people consider you to be one of the best Rock keyboardist of all time. How do you feel about that?

A - It is weird. To be brutally honest with you, I don't think we're able to see ourselves as other people see us sometimes. My father, who was a great mentor to me, sadly he's been dead for thirty plus years, my father had a massive influence on me and still does to this day. He taught me a valuable lesson when I first joined The Strawbs in fact. He said "Make sure there's two of you." I said "What do you mean, two of me?" "You're Rick Wakeman that goes onstage and there's got to be the one that's not onstage. Don't ever mix two up. You are just like everybody else when you're offstage. You've got a gift and that's the one to use onstage." I think the person who had that absolutely sussed out more than anybody else was my great friend David Bowie, who I've got so much respect and time for. David took it to another genre because he actually created other characters for himself onstage, which was brilliant. He created Ziggy Stardust and could still be David Bowie when he was offstage. One of the most normal, intelligent people you could ever hope to meet. He goes onstage and he was somebody completely different. He had that great advantage that when he had enough of Ziggy Stardust, he could kill him off. It was fantastic. I look at myself in concert, for example when I look at Hampton Court, and in a strange way I don't see me. I know that might sound a bit daft, the me that I know is the one that I look at in the mirror every morning and go "My God, are you still alive?" and the one I go out on the golf course with my mates. That's the one that I see and I like it like that. I like the fact that I can go onstage and suddenly become something different.

Q - I thought KISS did the same thing you're talking about.

A - Oh, absolutely. They did it absolutely brilliantly. In fact, I think it was quite a shock to people when suddenly all the make-up disappeared. That was a huge shock. And I have to say for me as well. I said, oh, aah, right. Not sure about this. But they made it work. But certainly in the early days, you're spot on right.

Q - Since you've been a part of the Rock world for some time, does it really matter how old you are? Comics like Jay Leno will crack jokes about the ages of The Rolling Stones, but if we compare them to Bach and Beethoven, the best is yet to come.

A - I think the thing that's interesting is, it's hard to put a date on when Rock 'n' Roll really started. If you wanted to say for the sake of an argument, mid-'50s, '55, Bill Haley. That's when Rock 'n' Roll sort of came into being. It's not actually that old. What's that make it? Fifty-five years old. When it first started, there were no old Rock 'n' Roll musicians. They didn't exist because it was a new genre of music, in the same way when you go back to the early days of Jazz, the early days of Dixieland, the early days of New Orleans, the guys were young. There were only young Folk musicians when Folk music was around at the turn of the century. They didn't have any people to look at and go "What happens when you're old?" By the time Rock 'n' Roll started, there were old Jazz musicians and it was perfectly acceptable. There were 60 and 70 year old crooners and it was acceptable. But there were no old rock 'n' rollers. So, none of us knew what was likely to happen to us, how long the music was going to last. We had no idea. Now you've got the young bands coming through and they can look at 70 year old rock 'n' rollers and go "Hey, this is what happens. We can still be around. We can still be playing. We can still be making music." Now there is a whole age group all the way through. Now you have people being born since the '60s who were born into an era were Rock 'n' Roll always existed. I was born in 1949, so in essence I saw it from the start. So I tend sometimes to fall into the mistake of dating things. If you know when something started up, you can date something, and that's a very dangerous thing to do. I was in Argentina quite a few years ago. I go to South America a lot. I love going down there. I was in Argentina and a young kid, and I know how old he was 'cause he told me. He was 17. He came to the hotel and he had my original "Six Wives" album. I said "How old are you?" and in good English he said "I'm 17." I said "I made this album not only before you were born, but before your parents probably met." He said "Well, sign it please," and I did. I said "What is it that you like about this old music?" He looked at me and said "It may be old music to you Mr. Wakeman, but it is new to me. I only heard it for the first time last week. Please don't forget that in your audience there will always be somebody there who will be hearing it for the first time. So it is new. It will always be new." I never forgot that, from this 17 year old kid. He's absolutely right. Somebody listening to a Beethoven symphony for the first time, that is new to them. So you can't put a date on something. Sometimes when you hear "this is old, this is old music," to somebody it's new. It's refreshing. It doesn't matter what year it was made in.

Q - Are there any musical goals you've yet to achieve?

A - Oh, loads and loads, but they change all the time. I want to re-visit more of the earlier stuff. I want to re-visit "Journey To The Center Of The Earth". I want to re-visit "King Arthur". I've got lots of new music, new projects and ideas about what to do. I think it's dangerous if you think you're running out of ideas. I think of ideas and want to do (them) every single day. We talked about when you pass, leaving music behind. If they're ever gonna write anything on my tombstone, it'll be something like "It's Not Fair. I Haven't Finished Yet."

© Gary James. All rights reserved.