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Rick Wakeman on the journey, Scots and getting drunk with Jim White

Things are never dull in the life of Rick Wakeman.

Photo: Lee Wilkinson
Photo: Lee Wilkinson

And 2014 will mark a particularly significant year, as the world-renowned keyboardist will tour once more with his seminal album Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Wakeman will return to Glasgow to play the Clyde Auditorium in May, marking 40 years since he last played the monolithic piece to a UK audience. "The decision to do another tour was down to combination of factors," Wakeman explains.

"In 1974 we did three London dates - two at the Royal Festival Hall and one in the Crystal Palace. After that we went on to do dates in America, Japan, New Zealand and Brazil, and then I rejoined Yes which took up the next four years of my life. But I was always aware we'd only done just those three dates in the UK."

But any chance of touring the album again were dashed after the loss of the original music score - vital to playing the 36-minute long work live. "These were pre-computer days, let's not forget. All the sheet music was just kept in our flight cases. I was travelling the world at the time but MAM Records kept a hold of all our music for us. After the company disbanded in '81, we went to where the music was supposed to be stored and it was all gone. And of course, I didn't have any copies."

Wakeman wasn't prepared to give up easily, though. "First off, I phoned the orchestra that originally performed the piece asking if it had kept any copies, and got a no. I asked if there was any chance of me copying from the main score, and again, the answer was no.

"The next person I contacted was David Meecham, the conductor. Now, he did have an original copy but it had also been lost in a case.

"I moved around a lot at that point, until I eventually settled in Norfolk about 9 years ago. Then, all the boxes, cases and cargo I'd accumulated over the years were slowly delivered to my house, one by one."

"About five years ago, this box arrived from Australia. It wasn't like the others - it was made of thick cardboard, and battered. It was full of sheet music, and at the very bottom were the original sheets from Journey to the Centre of the Earth."

In celebration, Wakeman did what any other legendary prog-rock star and reformed alcoholic would have done. "I called through to my wife, Rachel, that I'd found it. And then we had a cup of tea."

Travelling 10,000 miles in a cardboard box hadn't done wonders for the paperwork, though, leaving it water damaged with pages stuck together. Wakeman again phoned a friend for advice. "I was told to leave it - not to touch it at all, not even to take it out. I sent the whole box, sheets and all, to the friend and six months later got them back in great condition."

This feels like a good point to question how Journey to the Centre of Earth was even conceived in the first place - what prompted a piece of music so radically different that involved production on such a vast, layered - and indeed paper - scale?

"When I was 8 or 9, I first heard [Prokofiev's] Peter and the Wolf. It changed me - I loved it, and it stayed with me for years," Wakeman explains.

"Then, when I was 14 or 15 years old, I started getting into Jules Verne. He produced more than 70 of these exploratory adventure books, and I'd already read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. So I started on Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

"I remember to this day the feeling of starting that book, holding it and thinking: this is the one. This is it. I wanted it to be my first album, but it was too expensive to produce. It was even too expensive for the studio when we eventually did it, so it had to be live."

New technology - including transferring the music on to a computer - allowed for previously unexplored possibilities for the piece. Keen to explore these, but also conscious to ensure the album remained true to the original sound, Wakeman extended the piece to 55 minutes and rectified all the little mistakes that had occurred in the initial live recording. "It became better," he says simply. "Much better."

After playing the finished result to 30 friends and industry insiders, Wakeman was heartened that none could discern it as a particularly modern piece of music. "If they'd come back and said yes, they could tell it was a reworking, that would have been fine - I'd have dealt with it. But they didn't. They said they were dreading [the suspense of] hearing it, but they loved it. It was hugely important to be true to the original sound. We used old instruments, but we also put in new songs, so we had to be mindful to keep it sounding authentic."

Journey to the Centre of the Earth was reborn. Wakeman put out a 'fan pack' at first - producing just 12,500 copies - and was taken aback at the reception and demand it received.

It was then he began to consider touring again with the album, always conscious of having played only those three UK dates in the 70s. "People said to me 'we weren't born! You only played three dates - we missed them!' and I listened to that."

The tour totals 14 dates around the UK, including the Clyde Auditorium. What can fans expect from the shows?

"In a word: chaos. This is only going to happen once - not to put too fine a point on it but it's not exactly cost-effective to have so many people on the stage every night. We have a full symphony concert, a band, and two singers - Hayley Sanderson and Ashley Holt.

"We decided to run the show in two halves, with the first half consisting of about 35-40 minutes, while the second will finish at around 80 including an encore - though, fingers crossed, we get one.

"Apparently I'm well-known for my stories, my raconteur tales, that sort of thing. So, we thought - let's have me playing the piano, doing these Spinal Tap stories over the top with two screens behind me which will have stills from the olden days projected on to them. We've got some amazing shots. The tales will set the scene for the second half, which will be the album played in its entirety."

Playing to Scottish fans in Glasgow also feels like something of a homecoming.

"I'm hugely fond of Scotland. My daughter, Jemma, was born in the Simpson Memorial Maternity Hospital in Edinburgh, and it always tickled me that she was so vexed she didn't have a Scottish accent even though she was brought up down south.

"Glasgow, in particular, is an incredible place - one of my favourite memories is playing the legendary Apollo on the night of a big snooker tournament between Dennis Taylor and Steven Davis. We all came back from the show - this was gone midnight - and the match was still going. Everyone piled into my room and we stayed up watching it and got ratted.

"Another time, I was being interviewed by the sports presenter Jim White in Aberlady. We spent five minutes interviewing, and because it was so cold, the next four hours in the Old Aberlady Inn. When we got back to the studio to do a live piece, Jim was turning on this drunken soporific grin to everyone which had me in fits of giggles throughout the whole show."

It's not just carrying-on in Scotland's pubs that Wakeman finds interesting, though he's been tee-total for almost 30 years. When asked about the indyref views of one of his contemporaries, he's reflective. "David Bowie's a great friend. I've got lots of Scottish connections so I try to look at the arguments on both sides.

"The point is that whatever is chosen, it will have been chosen by the people of Scotland and it will be a decision that works. There's no right or wrong with it - whatever happens in September we'll all still be part of the British Isles and we'll all come together and make it work."

As an Englishman, though, does he feel an element of nostalgia for Scotland after seeing his daughter born in Edinburgh - a nostalgia that would prompt him to want to keep the two countries' links strong?

"Nostalgia's not quite the right word I don't think. The honest truth is that if I was asked to make a decision, I don't think I could. And I'm not a 'sit on the fence' kind of person - I think everyone knows that!"

It's clear that Wakeman has a story or two to tell about his time in Scotland, but what else does he love about the place? We set him our Tartan Test to find out.

Salt and vinegar or salt and sauce? Salt and vinegar on a chippie; salt and sauce on anything else.

Irn Bru or whisky? Well, I've not drunk since 1985, but before that... let's just say I liked a dram. I used to have a house called Glencairn and once I actually found a bottle of Glencairn whisky - it was great. I had quite the collection of Scottish malts and before you ask - neat. Every time.

Rugby or football? Football.

Kilt: traditional Scotsman or underwear? I'll go with a traditional Scotsman.

Haggis: Vegetarian or meat? Both! Love the stuff. I'm a Freemason and we love to celebrate Burns' night: piping in the haggis, the whole lot.

Tablet or shortbread? Shortbread.

Highlands or Lowlands? That's a good one. I like them both, but if I was pushed, then I'd go for the Highlands. Just make sure I've got a translator, please!

Edinburgh or Glasgow? I'm happy in both. Truly.

Sir Walter Scott or Ian Rankin? Ian Rankin's a great friend, so I'd go with him.

Trainspotting or Whisky Galore? Whisky Galore.

Robert the Bruce or William Wallace? Another good one... let's go for Bruce.

Robert Burns or Liz Lochhead? Burns.

The Proclaimers or The Fratellis? The Proclaimers.

Billy Connolly or Kevin Bridges? Billy. He's a pal.

Sean Connery or Ewan McGregor? Connery. Back in the 80s... in fact, it would have been '83, because Jemma [his daughter] was still very young, I went on a clay pigeon shoot. Picture the scene - it was me, Sean Connery, Nigel Mansell and... my mum. My mum was a huge Connery fan and was staring at him the whole time.

After the shoot we're all sitting having a cup of tea and Sean says to me: "is that your mum, Rick, looking at me?" I said "Sean, I'm so sorry but yes, it is. Do you think you could give her your autograph?" So Sean got up, and made his way over to my mum and he said to her completely unprompted: "My dear lady, would you do me the honour of allowing me to have my photo taken with you?" And I just thought that was so humble, so gentlemanly.

Of course, my mum just loved it. Right up to when she passed away she carried around the photos in her purse and allowed them to conveniently slip out when paying for her shopping at the super market: "Oh! That's just me and Sean..."

Bread: plain or pan? Pan.

Deep-fried Mars bar or marmalade? Oh God - marmalade. Definitely marmalade. And thick cut. None of this smooth nonsense.

Golf or curling? Golf, but I must say was glued to the curling this year. An immense amount of precision involved in it, I believe.

Paolo Nutini or Calvin Harris? Calvin Harris.

Dave Moyes or Sir Alex Ferguson? Sir Alex, for sure. He has this incredible reputation - he's a proven manager of all these mad footballers.

Photos: Lee Wilkinson

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