Monday, 5 June 2017

THE ROCK STARS' ROCK STAR





I'm regularly asked the inevitable 'Who's your favourite rock star?' That's as easy to answer as 'Who's the best person you've ever interviewed?' Where do you start? So many stand out, for predictably compromising reasons. But 'best'! You'll get more out of me by asking after the 'worst' (Richard Gere in Philadelphia: but let's park him for a slow day.)
Back to the rockers. I've banged on for decades about the technical brilliance, sardonic humour and propensity for mischief of Who bassist John Entwistle, whose fifteenth anniversary approaches at the end of this month. About the gifts and gab of Glaswegian singer-songwriter Jim Diamond, almost two years gone, say it ain't so. About the unique Steve Harley who, thirty years ago, promised to sing 'Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)' at my funeral, and who asks me every time I see him if I've got a date. About the artists to whom I have devoted years of my life and about a million and a half words: David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Marc Bolan et al.
I've not banged on very much about Rick Wakeman. It is remiss of me. It is not that familiarity breeds contempt. It perhaps has more to do with the fact that Rick's disarming pragmatism and self-deprecating humour long ago felled the barriers between 'us' and 'them', to the point that he no longer projects, is hardly ever perceived, as a 'rock star' ... let alone a Grumpy Old one.
But he is one. 'Rock star' less in the sense of international hell-raiser and rebel-rouser, ground-breaker and heart-breaker, risk-taker and music-maker - though he has long been all these in spades. Watching him kill the keys last night at Canterbury's exquisite Marlowe Theatre, absorbing his titillating anecdotes (a few of which I knew by heart), I found myself floored again by his virtuosity and humility.
He'd never claim this himself, but Rick created the electronic symphonic album concept back in 1972, with his album 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII'. Having studied classical piano from the age of four, inspired by his dear father who also played, Rick made it to the Royal College of Music but became sidetracked by rock and pop. He sessioned for so many, including the obvious: David Bowie, Cat Stevens, T. Rex. In 1970 he joined the Strawbs for sixteen months, and replaced Tony Kaye in Yes a year later. This was when he metamorphosed into a keyboard wizard, embellishing the band's at times flatulent sound with flair, technique and classical influence. By 1974 he was out on his own, following up 'Six Wives' with further solo albums. 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth', with its magnificent stage interpretation, was a massive success. 'The Myths and Legends of King Arthur' was staged on ice at the Empire Pool, Wembley, with a forty-five-piece orchestra and a forty-eight-piece choir. It made a ton of money but left him skint. Hardly surprising when you tot the payroll. On with the solo recording, then, while rejoining Yes for three more years until the turn of the Eighties, when his fortunes took a turn. Health, women, finances, the usual. It was not until his visionary album '1984', for Charisma (when we first met) that Rick was off the rocky road and back on the yellow brick one. I adored him in 'Listzomania'. Fleet Street coined 'Baroque and Roll'. It was Rick to a 'T'. He was double-handedly responsible for bringing keyboards to the fore in rock. Yet we are yet to see a knighthood. Shabby.

The 'Piano Portraits' album is a perfect collection of favourite pieces, several of which he created the piano parts to. It was inspired by his live performances on Simon Mayo's BBC Radio 2 show last year in tribute to David Bowie. Such was the demand that the recordings were made available for purchase, with all profits donated to Macmillan Cancer Support. This in turn inspired the album, which led to the tour, which now segues into ... twenty more UK dates; back on the road with Yes; the band's upcoming fiftieth anniversary; the anniversary of Rick's own fifty years in rock. 'After which,' he swore blind last night, 'I'm gonna jack it all in.' Yeah, right. As you were, RW.

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