Rick Wakeman: The prog rock veteran on music and faith

Friday 1st April 1994

Any encyclopaedia of rock will include a lengthy entry on keyboards virtuoso RICK WAKEMAN. In recent years though his albums have begun to peep from the CD racks of Christian bookshops as well as the high street record stores. Tim Cockram spoke at length to the veteran 'prog rocker' about his life, music and Christian faith.

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"Nina and I got involved with the United Reformed Church at Camberley. The minister did a great thing for Nina and I - he married us! Now the reason that I say that's a great thing is that I've been divorced twice and Nina had been divorced once. Most churches are not keen on marrying divorced people; in fact some churches won't even entertain it. That's one area which I disagree with. If the Church made it as hard to get married as to get divorced then I think there would be a lot less mistakes made in the first place. I really feel that, from my own experiences and talking to many, many others both in and out of the Church, that if there was more counselling and realisation made available both by law and by churches to what the ins and outs and outcomes were then I think a lot of problems would be solved. Anyway, Nina desperately wanted to get married in the Church. I did but I said to Nina, 'Forget it, nobody will touch us with a bargepole!' We went to see Graham Long (the minister) at the UR church and Graham said, 'Look, the elders of the church decide within the UR church on individual cases, we'll look at the situation.' We talked to Graham for many hours and he became convinced that Nina and I were very genuine in our wish to get married in church. I told him all my early history, explained to him that I hadn't really been to church for 15 years but I told him openly I still believed in God but I hadn't lived a particularly good Christian life and Nina's the same. We didn't hold back anything, we told him the kitchen sink. I think at the end of it he didn't know whether to have a meeting with the elders or go to the Sunday Mirror but he was great and he married us. That was a very, very important step for both Nina and I because that was the first real time that I'd seen what I call compassion from a church. Graham and his elders had shown faith in a mere couple of human beings and that was something that really made me think. We became involved with the church but not in a big way, we didn't become regular church attenders although we did start going on a reasonably frequent basis. We got involved with some of the work that they were doing though again not in a big way. I was part of the organ appeal fund and did a couple of recitals there for them - in fact that was the start of writing The Gospels', that came through Graham Long. We then moved to the Isle Of Man where we attended - again not on a regular basis - the local parish church."

How did your involvement with music of a specifically Christian theme begin to develop?

"I became heavily involved again with an old friend of mine Dan Wooding. He's a journalist who now lives in America and runs a big Christian organisation called Assist which is quite fantastic - it twins poor churches with wealthy churches to put it bluntly. Totally non-profit-making - nothing is even taken out for administration. I met Dan in America when I toured with Yes (in the guise of Anderson Wakeman Bruford Howe). Dan and I were chatting away and he said, 'Look, I need some help. Will you help me?' I came back to the Isle of Man, thought about it at length for a long, long time and came up with the idea of making a CD that he could sell, but something that was what I would call accessible. So basically what I did was produce a record which was called 'In The Beginning' which was mood-evoking music and on top of all of that were Bible readings which I generally spent about four to five months selecting because I wanted to have a sort of round spectrum of having a mixture of things which people would know and feel comfortable, a few that they didn't know plus a few that they might know but had never thought about in great detail. Nina did the narrative and it worked really well. It was something that we enjoyed doing and the proceeds from the album went to Assist. The project sort of set my taste buds for looking more into Christian themes. I'd already done The Gospels' back in Camberley and we'd already performed that and still perform it - four times this year - we normally do it half a dozen times every year. 'In The Beginning' set me thinking again. When I was touring America with Yes I saw Dan again and went and visited his church. I also got involved with another friend of mine called Barry Taylor - an ex-roadie from AC/DC who then went away and did a pastoral course and now runs his own church in Los Angeles which is totally outrageous - fantastic it is! I found myself being surrounded more and more wherever I went by people who were Christians and less and less by people who weren't. Obviously not entirely - you cannot spend your whole life sort of going round saying, 'Hello, is this table free for breakfast? Excuse me, are you a Christian?' It was really very weird. I mean people in the film industry whom I have dealings with I discovered were Christians. It was quite astonishing -I was going to services over in America and meeting people saying, 'I had no idea you were...'. Suddenly I was being surrounded by believers and it all started then to make a little bit of sense. The so-called long journey starts - it's like I was being given lots of pieces for a jigsaw puzzle -suddenly they all started to slot in. The ironic thing was I went away on tour this year to America and again met up with Dan and spent a lot of time with him and started going round the churches, we were taking over the evening services and I was doing appeals on behalf of Assist - talking about it and all the work that it does with Dan and getting stronger involvement. Whereas at home, apart from our once or twice a month visits to the local church, we had no church involvement. So it was quite weird."

How did you get more involved with the church in the UK?

"I'd applied to try and get my mortgage increased because we needed to pay some bills (we're no different from anybody else!). We met the manager of the bank we were dealing with and his wife while we were on a golfing trip, Nina stayed in touch with his wife. Now interestingly enough it turned out his wife was a Christian but he's not. One nice thing and one not so nice thing happened!. The not so nice thing was I didn't get my mortgage increased. The good thing was that while I was away in America, the bank manager's wife invited Nina to her church, Broadway Baptist. I got this most remarkable fax through in America from Nina saying that she'd had the most wonderful time and within two weeks was like heavily ensconced in Broadway Baptist. Nina's fax said, 'You've got to come up here when you come back.' Nina nearly oversold it to the point where it could have turned me off going! But I went to Broadway Baptist and as it happened I had a great time. It was really weird sitting there because everything seemed so familiar. It's a great church with a wonderful, wonderful minister David Gordon who's a great talker - his sermons are more like rollickings - he's quite brilliant to listen to. But there were a few changes from the Baptist church I remembered. There were people there in tracksuits, jeans, T-shirts and of all ages, of all sorts. And it's jam-packed every morning and every evening. So as far as church I've done a full circle. It is really weird where it has taken me. I'm 44 now and I first went to South Harrow Baptist when I was four. It had taken forty years to do a complete circle to end up where I'd started. I'm away a lot still but every Sunday that I'm home we go there. Also, Nina's involved with the prayer group, I get involved with the functions when I'm home. It's a little difficult sometimes because you get asked to get involved in lots of things that you can't because of the fact that I'm away a lot. Sometimes it's hard to explain that to a lot of people, I don't have five evenings a week free. If I'm lucky I might have one and sometimes you know I do need to spend that with the kids. It's very hard sometimes to try and explain to people you're not being stand-offish but you can't actually go to this particular meeting or you can't go to that particular meeting because you've really got work to do."

What are your views on the Christian music scene?

"I've done lots and lots of secular albums both with bands and on my own and I will continue to do so. But one of the things that I became very aware of over the last year was how I would like to present my Christian music. I've struggled because of the way that Christian music has changed. There's some excellent stuff and there's some rubbish. I've thought, prayed hard and talked to Nina, Ian Hamilton (British Christian music executive) and also going round and doing some pretty strong research this year in America and the UK. Also, just cross-referencing a few things with texts in the Bible. I believe I've now got some perspective. Just because you're a Christian with a strong faith and you can play a few chords on the guitar and sing a few songs does not entitle you to go out and play at Wembley stadium or make a record. It's always been said in the Bible that God demanded the highest quality when there's been music within the Church. If you look at any passage relating to that in the Bible it wasn't, 'Oh well, anybody who can just play a few notes on the lute come along please,' it was, 'I want the finest lute players, I want the finest singers, the finest harpists.' I know the Americans do a lot of things that are very brash. But they have got that attitude right, the quality of their recordings and the quality of their productions and writing is light years ahead of us. You have to give people the quality they expect, you can't just sell any more run-off sheets of suggested prayer-readings on a cassette now. Because people want something that they can take home and keep, that's done with quality. Now I'm not saying that all Christian music that's available on record is of bad quality, but there is certainly not the choice available and the quality available that people would like. And I'm talking of people again of all ages. So Nina and I have just set up Hope Records. This is initially for 18 months. We will be putting out Christian music of all different sorts plus the sheet music - so that people can actually play the stuff. That will be everything from rock type albums, CDs or cassettes of new hymns, new children's stuff. We have a shortlist of the first 12 that we want to produce. I've spoken to my publisher and they are, even though they are not a Christian publisher, very keen. I said, 'Look, one of the most important things is with worship music and anything to do with Christianity is that people say, "Oh, I'd like to play that! We'd like to sing that in church," that it's available for them to do that.

"I want to work on some modern hymns, we sing some great new hymns and great new songs at Broadway Baptist. But 20 per cent of them are junk to be brutally honest. There's too much being written by people who are just sitting in rooms churning it out. In a secular setting this stuff wouldn't see the light of day. I'm not saying that all of that should be totally reversed but I think that it needs a good kick in the pants and we're hoping that Hope will do that. I spoke to my accountant about it and said, 'Look, the fact of life is that I've got to run it as a business the same way that, on a much larger scale of course, that Word Records is run as a business. But it's got to be self-funding. I shall keep it completely separate from my secular work so the object will be in that what comes in I can then fund the next project. And then the hope is of course - no pun intended - after about a year and a half, we're looking at about mid 1995, we can analyse the situation see what the strength of the company is both here and abroad because obviously I'm looking to export. At this present moment in time it's been very difficult for British Christian acts to hit other markets, because we don't have either the finished production or the finished quality to compete. The songs and the stuff that are good enough (because as I said there is some good stuff out there but it's hard to find) don't have the outlets to reach further.

"Basically, the Christian music scene I feel is pretty insular here. I feel very strongly that I've been given the chance to spread our music further. I feel very strongly that's what I'm meant to be doing. As I say, the next 18 months will be serious proof of the pudding. So it's an exciting time but it's also a period where I've got to be very careful on how I put the music together. It's not cheap to run a label in any way - I've been down that path before, you're reliant heavily upon lots of third parties - everything from pressing to distribution. We're going to do our own distribution initially and work round all the shops and churches. We're just going to talk to them first of all. We're literally going to spend a week first of all driving round England going to see these people. It's something quite exciting, something that I'm meant to do. But I'm still obviously going to have to spend some time doing the secular shows, the rock shows because otherwise I wouldn't have a house to live in."

Why is British Christian music currently so under-financed?

We have a funny attitude in Britain. It's an exaggeration but the theory goes, 'It's no good spending a million pounds on a record if you're only going to sell 800 copies!' Now maybe one of the reasons it only sells 800 copies is because it only cost 800 pounds to make. The American attitude is very much that if it costs, I dunno, a hundred thousand dollars to make this particular CD and because the quality is so high it appeals to Christians all across the board it sells a million copies. Having said that I realise there's got to be a compromise somewhere for the UK because of the size of the potential market. But we must develop sensible budgets. I own my own studio so that is a tremendous advantage, in fact that of course is the major key to a lot of it."

Will Hope be taking in outside projects?

"It'll be at least a year before we can be looking at outside material because basically what I intend to do over the next year to 18 months is set the foundation, so that people know what Hope Records stands for and what it can do. Then if we do bring people on board, which obviously we want to do, then people already know of the standard that we have set for the people who come on board. It's a little bit frustrating in a strange way because without wanting to wish any time away you almost wish you could be 18 months ahead and up and running, but I've got to take Hope at this pace. We know we're going to have setbacks because we are going to be very dependant on overseas sales to keep things above water. We know that. I'm involved with people who are supporting me all the way, my manager's letting me do this out of contract because it's something that I need to do that he can't help me with so I've got a lot of people saying, 'Yeah, okay Rick, we see where you're at, we'll support you,' but on the other hand I know jolly well that if after 18 months I've not proven to them that it can work they will be the first to sit me down and say, 'You can't do this!' I'm aware of that and to a certain extent I think that's a good thing because perhaps if I was surrounded entirely by Christians on the project maybe a bit of apathy would set in, because I know that I would have the Christian support.

True originality is clearly very important to you.

"I think one of the reasons that I liked Yes for example in the early days was the odd time signatures that were occasionally used and it was just different and refreshing. Music to a lot of extent if you're a musician should be treated in the same way that you should treat your Christianity - you should do it in your heart. And if it feels right then nine times out of ten it is right. And a lot of the time I never analyse the music as to what it is until I look at it afterwards. When I did the 'Prayers' album, there's a few weird signatures in there floating around. There's a track called 'Can You Hear Me' which is full of some really quite weird bits but they were never intended, I didn't sit down and say, 'Right, we're now going to be jolly clever.' It's the same with the lyrical content of that album and the same with the lyrical content of The Gospels'. I didn't sit down and say, 'Today it's lyric day.' You can't do that. On some occasions the words came first and I would sit down - and I know that I'm not writing them, they just flow away and that's the way to do it. I've been building up stuff over the last few years which we'll be putting together to use in Hope but you can actually see sometimes when you sing some of the modern hymns and modern songs that you've got some, in a lot of cases, third rate musician who's just sat down and churned out another one. I mean I could do that. I could sit here all day - I could write you 50 hymns today with the greatest of ease and then maybe one that has a semblance of quality about it. I could churn out a book tomorrow with the greatest of ease. And I know at least another dozen musicians who could do the same. And that's what's got to change."

Tell us a bit about the 'Prayers' album.

"There was a lot of self-investment in that album. If we'd have had to pay proper money for what it cost, that album would actually have cost around about the 60,000 pound mark. The total outlay I had from Word towards the cost of that album was 5,000 pounds. In the mainstream market you can't make a single, you can't make a demo for 5,000 pounds! So 'Prayers' needed a heavy commitment from our side of things and also from people who were involved. Now that kind of crazy budgeting has got to stop. Quite honestly I would have liked another week, I mean we could only literally have one day with the choir. I would have liked three days with the choir. I would have liked an extra week to do a few little things. But for what we had at our disposal to work with and to play with I was very pleased on tracks like 'Can You Hear Me'. We pulled a lot of favours to get it recorded. There were problems - America said they weren't going to release it because they didn't like the Bible readings. They said, 'We'll release it if you cut the readings out.' I said, 'Well in that case we don't put it out.' They said, 'Well, there's enough music on there, if they take the readings out that'll still leave 46 minutes worth of music' I said, 'Why not leave them in there, it's all on CD and let people take their choice. If they don't want to listen to the readings they don't have to, just programme them out.' 'Prayers' is almost like a service. That's what it's really intended to be. It's intended to take you through a series of Christian emotions from start to finish and answer some questions at the end of it. I tried to pick on things that would be relevant whether you're four or forty-four. Over your life, however short or long there will be questions posed that within your prayers the answers were given. So really the questions are being asked in the songs and the answers are given in the prayers. One day I want to try and put it all together as a service that you could actually take into churches and do 'Prayers' as a one hour service. So that was the whole thinking behind 'Prayers'. But trying to get that through to the Americans is like trying to get an England footballer to face the right way." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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Reader Comments

Posted by Brian Keon in Escondido California USA @ 00:25 on Oct 27 2014

Would like to know where in the US I could get a copy of Rick's Christian CD's?

Posted by Ron Rhodes in Paris, France @ 11:39 on Apr 26 2014

I've always been an admirer of Rick Wakeman. But now, after hearing his revival story, I'm even a bigger fan! God bless you sir, and I'm glad that you are now working for the kingdom!

Posted by Brian Keon in San Diego California @ 02:38 on Aug 16 2013

First and foremost I praise God for Mr. Wakeman coming to a saving knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Next I would like to ask if Mr. Wakeman ever performed a concert in SD at Horizon Christian Fellowship? I believe I saw him and his son at a concert there. If I am not mistaken his son wore his fathers glitter cape and long hair. It was amazing to see the transformation of Mr Wake man from Rock Star to man of faith in Jesus Christ. Just one question did he record a Christian Album that appeared to be all symphonic? If so is it still in circulation? And where may I obtain a copy of the album?

Posted by michael andrews in buffalo ny @ 05:24 on Sep 4 2012

thanks for an excellent article. i heard that rick had returned to the faith of his youth; glad to read his testimony

The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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