Just say Yes: Rick Wakeman talks to CL about Bowie, holy trinities and Jon Anderson

ARW plays Ruth Eckerd Hall tomorrow

click to enlarge Key Player: Rick Wakeman (L) brings the iconic Yes catalog to Clearwater on Friday. - Photo © Lee Wilkinson 2016
Photo © Lee Wilkinson 2016
Key Player: Rick Wakeman (L) brings the iconic Yes catalog to Clearwater on Friday.

Any discussion that covers the rise of progressive rock in the early 1970’s is sure to include a nod to the key bands that launched that genre…as well as to some of the individual players that defined the era.


At the head of that class is Yes; undoubtedly one of the most popular and groundbreaking bands of that ilk who crossed over as much into orchestral rock as they did to radio-friendly pop-tinged rockers. And when dissecting what it was that made the group so distinct (apart from lead singer Jon Anderson’s unmistakable high-pitched voice), keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman’s handy work surely comes to mind. The mad scientist who, behind towering banks of keyboards and synthesizers, usually donned a cape to add to his mystique, has enjoyed a full career in the entertainment industry. Not only serving in various formations of different Yes lineups throughout the band’s nearly 45-year existence, Wakeman has also released his fair share of solo albums, spent time as a television and radio announcer in his native England, done some acting and has fit in time to write a few books too.

At 67, Wakeman shows no signs of slowing down.

He’s recently embarked as a member of an ensemble simply titled ARW which is a reunion of sorts with some Yes alumni. Named after members who are participating in this venture (Anderson, multi-instrumentalist Trevor Rabin and Wakeman), this departure from the brand known as Yes is more of a celebration of the long career the band has enjoyed and a tip of the hat to the vast catalog of music they’ve amassed through the decades.

From the early intricate, dramatic works through and through their mid-80’s pop radio and MTV splash, all eras of the band’s existence are promised to be covered for this new project and the massive tour on which they’re about to embark. Speaking to me from his hotel room in Orlando (where the band has set up camp to rehearse before their world tour kicks off), and after some pesky in-house phone connections almost plagued our chat, Wakeman, in his jovial, polite, English manner gladly filled me in on the inspiration for this project, for the tour and for his continued dedication to music…and he also had some charming things to say about David Bowie with whom he’d worked with many times and shared a longtime friendship.

CL: So you’re here in Orlando to rehearse for the kickoff of the ARW world tour?

Rick Wakeman: Yeah, that’s right…we did start rehearsing in Los Angeles back in July and early August and we got quite a lot done with (bassist) Lee Pomeroy and (drummer) Louis Molino and all things looking good but we always planned to have about two weeks of rehearsals down here in Orlando to get ready for the first show. Everybody flew in from various different places and this afternoon, it’ll be a matter of checking out all the different equipment and then tomorrow we’ll start in earnest with rehearsals.

Can you give some insight into what the fans can expect to see and hear with this particular tour?

Well we decided, obviously, that we wanted to do Yes music and we wanted the Yes music that we do to have all the ingredients that the original music had. But we wanted to try to play around with it a little bit and add a few things and take it to another level which seems to be working really well with the ideas and the things we’ve been doing. We wanted to get a bass player and a drummer in who we felt would actually be part of the band and not just additional musicians. Lee is just the most phenomenal bass player. Lee’s great hero was (late founding Yes member) Chris (Squire) and he literally plays the way Chris played. He’s says ‘I do this all because of Chris Squire’ so he was the natural choice and he has a reputation set in the UK and around Europe as being the number one bass player that there is. Lou is a friend of Trevor’s who we’ve got drumming. He’s a remarkable drummer and a lovely guy as well. So we wanted it to be a band; it’s not just the three of us and two other guys playing along. We decided that, pretty much the rule of the music would be that at least two of us had to have played on the original music that we’re doing…whether that was Jon and Trevor or Jon and me…and that would include live stuff as well…and it’s worked extremely well. Picking the music was difficult; we’re still not 100% on all the pieces we’re going to do because we have some choices and we’ll go ‘oh, that’s great..we’ve got everything’ and then somebody will say “well, what about such and such..oh that’s a good idea’ so there’s a lot of music to choose from.

The last tour you did with Yes was quite a while ago. How does it feel to be back in the fold?

I did the 2002-2005 tour. I left in 2005 with Jon as well because he was really quite ill at the time. But 1990 was the last time that I was in the band that Trevor was there and it was great. I loved playing with Trevor. The Union tour was fantastic. There was eight of us onstage and it worked extremely well and Trevor and I said we always wanted to work together and it’s taken us, what, 26 years to do it!

I’ve heard you refer to the three of you as being the “Holy Trinity of Yes”. Can you go into detail with that statement a little?

I can’t claim to have been the person who said that…I don’t know actually where that came from. I did see an article in the UK where somebody had called it the holy trinity and said the reason they’d picked that is because Jon being obviously the definitive singer with the band and with his astonishing input and they were very kind to me about being a keyboard player and they also made reference to, which I think is really important, the amount of work, albeit in a relatively short period, that Trevor did with the band. I believe quite strongly that had it not been for (1983 smash album) 90125 which I wasn’t on I don’t think there would be a Yes or Yes music around today. That album appeared at a time when anything to do with Progressive Rock or Orchestral Rock, whatever you like to call it, was at its lowest ebb and Yes was hanging by its fingertips. So when Trev came in to bring in all the music and along with Jon’s voice, it gave it that lift that I think kept the band alive. In fact I spoke to Chris about it a few years ago..we had a coffee and we were just chatting away in London and he agreed whole-heartedly how important that period of time was and Trev’s contribution.

It seemed like that era introduced the band to a whole new era of people

It did. No doubt about it. And it did it in a classy way. That album, although it was amazingly commercially successful, it can no way be considered a Pop record so what I think Yes did was it kept it’s integrity and it’s class.

So this US tour goes through November and then you’ll be heading over to Europe?

I think we finish on December 4th and then in March we play Israel and then back to the UK then I think it’s out to Europe and then I’ve heard Japan and South America and I’ve also heard rumors that next Summer we’ll be back in America to do some festivals. Suddenly, the next eighteen months of my life seems to be truly ARW!

Is that something you’re looking forward to?

Yeah, I am, I love playing and I think that this band is musically so good and everybody’s really up for it. Everybody’s excited and enjoying it. We have to be sensible; we have to realize that we’re not spring chickens anymore and that we have to sort of look after ourselves. We have a responsibility to each other to look after ourselves to make sure we’re fit and keep ourselves in good health for the tour. These tours can be grueling and the silly pitfalls you can get, for example, because we’ll be going from end of summer to when everything will sort of be freezing through November/December, things like, if one of us catches a cold, the last person you want to give it to is Jon. It sounds a bit silly but you really have to be really careful.

Will there be any solo material covered on this tour? Or will it be strictly from the Yes catalog?

The plan is strictly Yes catalog although there might be hints at some solo stuff in the semi-solo sections we’ll do but that will be decided because we haven’t really nailed down exactly what we’re gonna do.

How does it personally differ for you touring as a solo artist versus touring as part of this band?

The major difference is that you don’t have to answer all the questions yourself within the band. ‘What are we gonna do? When are we playing there? How are we doing that? What should we do with this piece?’. When it’s a band, it becomes any things that are thrown at you tends to end up as nice decisions and discussions. Playing with a band, it is different. There’s no doubt about it but I enjoy it as much as anything. I do one-man shows, I do comedy shows in the UK, I do all sorts of things. I’ve always said I love whatever I’m doing at the time, I’m just grateful to be able to be doing it. I do an awful lot of television in the UK and a lot of it is comedy TV. It’s weird really, I’m known in the UK as much for my TV and comedy stuff as I am for my music. It is strange.

On a personal level, what’s next for you outside of ARW? Any more solo material coming sometime down the road?

Yeah there’s some coming. We’ve just re-recorded the whole of the King Arthur album with extended music and some extended things…that’s just come out which we’re really, really pleased with. And I’ve got, in January, to cut a long story short, when my dear friend David Bowie died, I did for a cancer charity a recording of “Life on Mars”, a piano version, which was a massive hit in the UK. I was asked by Universal to do an album just of piano of different pieces that I like which they wanted. That’s finished and that comes out in January in the UK and it’s going to be a TV advertised album. I don’t know what their plans are with it around the world; they haven’t actually told me. But that’s lovely because it’s far removed from ARW.

Speaking of, I know you worked a lot with Bowie and you played on a lot of his records. Looking back now, we’ve had several months to reflect on his passing. What does it mean to you and to the music world to lose someone of that magnitude?

I’ve thought about it a lot. And, in fact, I was in Switzerland just a few days ago which is where David and I were neighbors for a long time, and talked to a few people who knew him out there. I think nobody expected him to go so young but I think that I’m just personally so grateful as to the music he left, the influence he had on me and the influence he had on so many people. I mean he was so influential to so many people in everything he did. He was a leader in everything he touched and also just a really nice guy. David and I used to meet in a little club called the Museum Club in Montreux in Switzerland and we’d just ramble away for hours. He had a good sense of humor and was good fun and I’m just grateful for the amount of music he left and the legacy that he’s left which will live on long after we’ve all departed this mortal coil which is great.

Talking again about the material you’ll cover on this tour and figuring out the set list, as far at the depths of it, can we expect some rarities? Or some material that hasn’t been played very often?

I think there will be undoubtedly one or two things that people will go ‘Oh wow! I didn’t expect that!’ as far as some of the choices. One of the other things that we all felt very strongly about is that, for example, on pieces that I didn’t play the keyboards on, I’m looking at the pieces I didn’t play on and saying ‘ok, if I’d have been in the band at that time, what would I have played?’ and Trev’s doing exactly the same with the pieces that he wasn’t on. It doesn’t affect Jon of course because he will have sung all of the pieces. And that’s proving very interesting! We’re not being critical and going ‘oh no…this was done like this...this has to be done like that’. We’ve decided that’s not the route we want to take.  So we want all the ingredients to be in there but literally to treat it as if all five of us were in the band at the same time if you know what I mean.

So you’re taking some liberties and going back and adding your own flavor to the material?

Absolutely! I mean composers for centuries and centuries revisited their stuff and did things...that’s nothing new. And bands are always revisiting and putting in new ideas and different little bits and pieces. We’re just doing it in a slightly different way and I think it’s gonna be exciting for us and hopefully exciting for the people who come and listen to it.

click to enlarge Rick Wakeman, who plays with ARW at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday. - © Lee Wilkinson 2016
© Lee Wilkinson 2016
Rick Wakeman, who plays with ARW at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday.

Is there some new material you all are working on as well?

Yeah, we are working on some new material. But we decided that, we’ve had lots of offers to make an album, we thought that’s wrong. We haven’t played together for 26 years, the three of us and with this band, so let’s go out and play, let’s learn more about each other. And we’ve got lots of music which we’ve been throwing back and forth to each other so give it a chance to develop so that when we do come to do some recording next year, we’ll be so knowledgeable about each other musically and what we want to do with the music, that will produce a far better body of material than if we were doing it now.

What can fans look forward to in terms of hearing Jon Anderson sing? Lots of people haven’t heard him sing or seen him live in quite a while.

He’s singing so well. He is singing really, really well. The first time back in July when we were in Los Angeles when Trevor and I were working with Lou and Lee and then Jon came down to join the rehearsal and just to see what we were putting together, he came on and starting singing. And it put a smile on everybody’s face including Jon’s. And I said to Lee ‘You know what…when Jon starting singing there, and the look on his face, as far as I’m concerned, Jon’s come home’. 

The ARW tour stops at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater (1111 N McMullen Booth Rd.) this Friday, October 7. The show starts at 8:00 p.m. Tickets range from $74 to $189 in advance and can be purchased by phone (727-791-7400) or online here.


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Gabe Echazabal

I was born on a Sunday Morning.I soon received The Gift of loving music.Through music, I Found A Reason for living.It was when I discovered rock and roll that I Was Beginning To See The Light.Because through music, I'm Set Free.It's always helped me keep my Head Held High.When I started dancing to that fine, fine...
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