Since the 1970s, Rick Wakeman has taken listeners on journeys to the center of the Earth and the courts of legendary kings. Now, the keyboardist who came to prominence for his virtuoso work with Yes during the progressive rock band’s most groundbreaking period has his sights set even farther afield: Mars.
Late last month, Wakeman and his English Rock Ensemble released “The Red Planet,” an instrumental, prog-rock opus that harkens back to his most well-known and grandiose epic solo albums: “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (1973), “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” (1974) and “The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table” (1975). It’s also a sharp pivot from his most recent work, the solo piano records “Piano Portraits,” “Piano Odyssey” and “Christmas Portraits.”
“I love making music, full stop, really,” Wakeman says from his home in London. “I love playing, I love writing, I mean I play the piano every day. I went through a period where I spent so much time sitting at the piano and coming up with ideas for albums and different things. The whole prog rock concept thing had never left me, it was just that I didn’t have the right concept. A lot of people would ask, ‘Why aren’t you doing a prog rock album, an instrumental keyboard one?’ And I always would answer the same: Look, I can’t just write a piece of music and then slap a name on it. I have to have a concept that inspires me, so it was a matter of when finally the idea for ‘The Red Planet’ came from a good friend of mine called Garek Israelian, who I was introduced to by Brian May.”
Israelian, an astrophysicist “who discovered the first evidence that supernova explosions make black holes,” according to his TED Talk speaker profile, runs the Starmus Festival, a space exploration festival that has featured the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk as well as musicians including Brian Eno, May (the Queen guitarist) and Wakeman. The biennial event closes with a concert.
“Last year it was Hans Zimmer and myself, Brian May and Steve Vai with a big symphony orchestra and a choir for the 50th anniversary of man’s walking on the moon, and we did it in Zurich. And we had every surviving astronaut who walked on the moon there. Absolutely amazing. And while I was there, Garek actually said to me, ‘Rick, 2021’s another big year because it’s 50 years then from when we arrived up on Mars.’ ”
The scientist went on to tell Wakeman that much more is being learned about Mars from year to year — he said we already know it used to be a blue planet, with water, which he said “means pretty much that your friend David Bowie was right: There was life on Mars.” The musician responded: “You just gave me the concept I’ve been searching for for ages and ages.”
Wakeman says he “did loads of research,” as he does for all of his concept albums.
“I sat at the piano and thankfully the music flowed out, and it was all due to looking at these inspirational photos of Mars.” One piece of research noted that it rains on Mars, but Wakeman said that can’t be. “But it said it rains the equivalent of dry ice,” he recalls. “It doesn’t get much more ’70s rock and roll than dry ice, this is the concept for me.
“It was just wonderful fun to do with the guys in the band and my producer Erik [Jordan]. It’s one of the most fulfilling and exciting pieces of recording I’ve done for as long as I can remember.” He’s joined on “The Red Planet” by Dave Colquhoun on guitar, Lee Pomeroy on bass and Ash Sloan on drums.
Before joining Yes in 1971, where he was part of the lineup that created the classic albums “Fragile” and “Close to the Edge” and the controversial “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (he famously hated it), a barely out-of-his-teens Wakeman had already worked as a session musician, playing the haunting Mellotron part on Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” kicking off a lifelong partnership and friendship. He played on the “Hunky Dory” tracks “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Life On Mars?” and was invited to join Bowie’s Spiders on Mars, but he turned that down to join Yes. Other major recordings Wakeman played on include Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” T. Rex’s “Get it On” (aka “Bang a Gong”) and Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water” album.
“David was passionate. He was the most passionate man about everything he did, more than anybody I ever knew. I first met him in 1969 when we did ‘Space Oddity,’ then we were neighbors in Switzerland in Montreaux, where we put the world to rights,” he said with a laugh, recalling his since-abandoned love for a drink. “I never knew someone who was so passionate about music, art, fashion, the whole spectrum of things. He just loved it. And he was a fashion icon. I said to someone, if he wanted to know what it would be like to walk down Fifth Avenue in a women’s ballgown, he did it. He didn’t like ‘could’ves.’ If someone said I wish I could’ve done this or that, he’d say, ‘Why didn’t you?'”
He also became buddies with Ozzy Osbourne and company in Black Sabbath and contributed to their “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” album when Yes was recording “Tales” in the neighboring studio. The two bands also toured together.
“When we supported Black Sabbath, I had more in common in Sabbath than I did with Yes,” says Wakeman. “Alan [White, Yes drummer] liked to drink and the other guys didn’t at the time, and I liked to drink and so did Sabbath. So I spent a lot of time drinking and partying with them. Now I haven’t drunk since 1985 and all the Yes guys drink, it’s amazing.”
In 2016, Wakeman and fellow ex-Yes men Jon Anderson (vocals) and Trevor Rabin (guitar, vocals) formed ARW (later known as Yes Featuring ARW) for two well-received tours, which featured Wakeman and Rabin playing together for the first time since Yes’ “Union” tour in 1991. While it was reported that ARW called it quits — Rabin told Prog magazine “it’s definitely over” earlier this year — Wakeman said the project might still have life.
“No, it’s not officially done,” he said. “I loved it, I love working with the lads, with Jon and Trevor and Lou [Molino III on drums] and Lee [Pomeroy again, bass], and if I say so myself, it was a great band. There was great musical understanding, and it was a joy to be a part of. There were a few things that happened over the last two, two and a half years, that made things a little difficult. Jon’s wife, during two tours ago, was diagnosed with breast cancer and a major operation. Thankfully, Janie, bless her heart, is well again. Just before the last tour, the day I was to fly out to America for ARW, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. After one and a half years, she has the all-clear. Trevor, myself and Jon, we’re family men, and family comes first. That’s the most important thing, and the guys were great and said the same to me.
“We were looking at this year, 2020, to see what we can do, then the dreaded pandemic hit. To me, it’s made me a little more determined to do it.”
In the meantime, Wakeman hopes to bring his “Red Planet” to life on stages once concert tours come back. He’s already planning to play at the next Starmus festival, and like his massive ’70s shows, any shows to support the album will likely be larger than life.
“It would have to be sort of spectacular in its own way,” said Wakeman, who is known to sport a spangly cape on stage and added expensive elements like orchestras, choruses and extras like jousting knights on horseback to his ’70s shows. Promoters tell him if the album sells well enough, he might be able to bring a “Red Planet” show to the U.S.
“David Bowie always said, ‘Rise or fall by what you want to do, not with what someone else wants you to do.’ People have told me, ‘You’re crazy,’ and a lot of the time they’re right,” he says. “For ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth,’ I was told people have tried it before, and it’s a moneymaking loss, and I said I don’t care. It sold out every venue, 18 shows, in America in 1975. And it lost a quarter of a million dollars, which was an absolute fortune back then, it was every penny I had, but I didn’t care. It was something that had to be done.”