Rick Wakeman Caped Crusader as reviewed in Phantom Tollbooth. In the ‘70s Rick Wakeman never did things by half and nearly died doing them.

Gonzo Media Group
Paperback, 188pp.

“You must be mad” is the quote that opens this book about the legendary keyboards player and it sums up the reactions that Rick Wakeman got to several of his brave schemes. Wakeman has an extraordinary brain and the rest of his life seems keen to keep up with it.

This re-print of Dan Wooding’s engaging book, complete with foreword by Elton John, has been released to satisfy the curiosity of those who have come to hear of Wakeman in his later incarnations as a ‘grumpy old man’ and a radio host, not knowing how his story began.

Although subtitled ‘Rick Wakeman in the 1970s’, this account starts earlier and ends in 1978. Wooding was the first journalist to come across Wakeman. He had just taken up the job as a reporter covering South Ealing in London and was scouting the area for stories. His predecessor had apparently done more fishing for bream than fishing for stories, so Wooding had to start from scratch. In the same week that he had unearthed a zany new comedy show called Monty Python’s Flying Circus filming in Ealing Studios, he came across some startling keyboard sounds emanating from the back of a music shop. When they had finished, Wooding discovered that the man making them had recently played keyboards on Cat Stevens’ “Morning has Broken” and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” but had never been interviewed before.

Wooding was the son of missionary parents and when they met, Wakeman was a Sunday school teacher at a nearby Baptist church, so they had faith in common at the start and the friendship grew from there. So the book gets the real Wakeman story.

The title suggests lots of Yes background, but the Yes years only take up a quarter of the book. Most of it, liberally laced with stories of excess in both work and play, deals with beginnings and solo albums. It follows Wakeman’s evolution from Royal College of Music student, through session player and member of The Strawbs, to his career-making role as keyboard wizard with Yes – and then leaving them after the love-it-or-loathe-it Tales from Topographic Oceans (Wakeman loathed it). It tells how nearly he died from a heart condition and he trod a similar path with alcohol.

Wooding uses an unusual style for this book. It sometimes feels written by a local newspaper reporter and the couple’s friendship means that Wooding is not always objective – as seen in his overblown comment about the White Rock soundtrack (p. 161), “it surely must be one of the most original and powerful film scores ever written.” However, the vast majority of the text is quotations, which brings the reader directly into conversations between Wooding and Wakeman. Because Wakeman is such a gifted raconteur, the book takes on the storyteller’s fast pace. I read it in three easy sittings. Making it even easier is the layout. The wide-format work features large monochrome photographs on most pages. I do not remember these in the original paperback, so – despite a huge number of typos that seem to be from this edition – this reprint has gained in overall content.

A little revision would have been a useful polish, as some details are now dated: describing his equipment, Wakeman notes (p.179) that “there are now some polyphonic synthesizers on the market.” He must have been using these now for some three decades. Likewise, page 89 lists the footballers managed by Wakeman’s manager, Brian Lane as “George Best, Rodney Marsh, Bobby Moore, Stan Bowles and Gerry Francis.” Most of these have been dead for years.

But these are minor quibbles. Chapter fourteen is a litany of pranks and the book is carried along on a wave of stories, many about the musician’s indiscretions. We read how Wakeman upset the Liszt Society; how he forced an orchestral manager to go all the way back to his hotel dressed only in a grass skirt; and how he was not impressed by an old man taking a bow onstage at a gig in Paris: “Suddenly this old man with a moustache came on with a walking stick. He could have been a road sweeper for all I cared, so I shouted things like, ‘Kindly get off the stage’ and ‘What are you doing up there waving your stick?’… Dave [Cousins] knew who he was and said, ‘That’s Salvador Dali’.”

This is a down-to-Earth read, well-paced, full of anecdotes and informative about the music without being geeky. If you want to know about Wakeman in the ‘70s, this will probably tell you all that you want to know, and do so with Wakeman’s trademark wit.


Derek Walker

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