Rick Wakeman – Cirque Surreal

This article, created by Jonathan Miller, appeared in Sound on Sound, November 1995. The original article can be found here. Please note that all (c) are with the Author and Sound on Sound magazine.

For his latest musical project, Rick Wakeman chose to work with a travelling state circus. Jonathan Miller discusses the keyboard virtuoso’s clowning glory, and delves into the man’s 27‑year recording career.

Rick Wakeman’s recording career now spans over 25 years, from the psychedelic ’60s to the turbulent ’90s. Along the way, he has adopted many musical styles, from session appearances on cutting‑edge pop songs like David Bowie’s 1969 epic ‘Space Oddity’, to his fusion of rock and classical music with progressive rockers Yes. Having also passed from ’70s ‘king of pomp‑rock’ status to ’80s new age piano ‘doodler’ and on into the ’90s with the revitalised Yes, Rick has outlived many a passing musical phase — most notably punk, the slayer of many of his less fortunate contemporaries. All in all, it would be fair to say that Rick has lived an archetypal rock star existence, complete with the the usual ingredients of alchoholism, divorce, heart attack and near‑bankruptcy. Now a teetotaller, Rick resides happily with his family on the Isle Of Man, choosing musical projects at leisure whilst pursuing an insatiable passion for golf.

That said, composition‑wise the man has been far from idle. Since setting up his own Bajanor Studios in a converted coach house next to his home in the late ’80s, Rick has made no fewer than 30 released recordings, both solo and in collaboration, the latest being the recently‑released Cirque Surreal album (see the ‘Bajanor Studios’ side panel). Those with at least a modicum of French might guess that there is a circus connection here — and they’d be right.

Circus Of The Imaginary State

Strangers to this magazine may have missed the item gracing the SOS news pages in the July ’95 issue, which outlined Rick’s involvement with Phillip Gandey’s Cirque Surreal — The State Circus Of Imagination. Just to recap, Rick composed and recorded a collection of exclusive musical pieces, specially written to enhance the characters in the show for this ‘brand new all‑human designer circus’. At the time, Cirque Surreal was enchanting thousands of visitors to the Brighton Festival with the aim of re‑establishing the circus concept as quality entertainment with mass appeal. As Rick is such a busy chap these days, I was lucky to catch him in a rare live Cirque Surreal performance with his band as part of the Cheltenham Festival. During a break between the matinee and evening shows, Rick amiably explained how the project came about. “I’ve started my own management company which we run from the Isle Of Man. Candy, the girl who’s in charge, used to work for Phillip and Carol Gandey before she came to me, so it was through her that we got together.

“With Cirque Surreal, the idea was to create a real family show that anybody could go to, with music that was timeless, so that Granny could tap her foot to it and not be offended whilst it would still appeal to rock and rollers. So the music’s from no particular genre. Phillip booked acts from all over the world, and explained all the routines to me. I then wrote a load of music to fit.”

High Fidelity

Grimly recalling his previous disastrous flirtation with a circus incorporating music (see the ‘Dali vs Wakeman’ box elsewhere in this article) Rick nevertheless felt that “the rock and roll circus that we did in France was quite a good idea, except that there was no way back then that modern music could technically work in a circus. In 1970, electronic keyboards were still very much in their infancy, and PAs were scarcely out of the maternity ward. People might raise their eyebrows at that, but the improvement that has gone into the technology of speakers over the last eight years or so is absolutely phenomenal.

“Cirque Surreal has been seriously thought out. My idea was that we had to build the world’s biggest hi‑fi system, because it’s got to be loud enough that young people can get off on it, but without it giving Granny grief. Everywhere we go, we always get people of all ages afterwards saying, ‘I really like the music’, but we’ve never had anyone complaining it’s too loud.

“I originally told Philip and Carol it had to be a lot more expensive than a couple of 4 x 10″ columns that normally go up in circuses with an old cassette recorder out the back. I had a lot of stuff already, and wanted to build an actual PA, so we went and talked to Celestion and Crest, because Crest had the only 40‑channel mixer that wasn’t an add‑on within our price bracket. We started off renting equipment, but when it became obvious that it was going to become a long run, I bought the whole PA system, because I was so thrilled with the sound. A tent like this is the worst possible advert for sound you could wish for, but when we brought the Celestion and Crest boys down to the opening night in Brighton, they couldn’t believe it. They’ve brought loads of potential customers to the show since then, and all the reviews we’ve had sound‑wise have been fantastic.”

Like Father Like Son

The Cirque Surreal album’s sleeve notes credit Rick’s son, Adam, as Musical Director. Like his father, Adam is no slouch when it comes to finding his way around a keyboard. After all, on the morning of the interview he had just been voted ‘Best Newcomer’ in US Keyboard magazine’s annual poll, an accolade of which Rick was justifiably proud as he defined Adam’s role in the Cirque Surreal project.

“I had a major problem about three weeks before the circus opened. I was doing the music for the new Michael Caine and Jason Connery movie, Bullet To Bejing, and the film had arrived with me a month late, so I was trying to catch up by working stupid hours. The rehearsals for the circus were then brought forward by a couple of weeks, and I was in the dreadful position of having no time to do them both. Adam and myself have worked together musically for three years now, so he knows how I work and rehearse. The music for the circus was all written, but I needed someone to rehearse the band, so I phoned Adam up and asked him to do it.

“Fortunately, he was used to reading Cubase Score, which I find bloody terrible! Even so, for the circus people’s original rehearsals I did everything on Cubase, as it’s easy to alter things. Whoever wrote it obviously never had any feet — it doesn’t understand or read pedal information on printout! If some bright spark could write something into scorewriting software that’s intelligent enough to understand pedal information, whereby if you’re holding a note on with the pedal it’ll actually read the note for the length you’re holding it for, instead of just lobbing odd crotchets and things all over the place, they’d be onto a serious winner. Surely it’s not that difficult?

“Anyway, I left Ad to it. I said, ‘Good luck — and don’t call me and say you’ve got problems, because there’s nothing I can do’. I arrived at the circus the day before opening, and I have to own up — I thought I was going to walk into a nightmare. In the event, I walked into a room just as the band were in the middle of one of the pieces. They’d learnt everything and were brilliant, so I told them to go down the pub!”

Top Gear

Whilst Rick’s popularity in terms of album sales is now a far cry from his million‑selling ’70s heyday, he can comfort himself with the knowledge that he helped to bring the synthesizer to its dominant position in rock music. Through his long and mutually beneficial association with the synthesizer as a performance instrument in its own right, Rick has amassed a few classics along the way. In his heyday, and like Tangerine Dream, Rick was heavily involved with notable synth manufacters, endorsing Moog, for example. Equally, Rick’s professional relationship with Japanese synth giants Korg dates back many years, although, as he was at pains to point out, the company weren’t exactly scaling the dizzy heights of leading electronic instrument design at the time he first met with them.

“I was in a studio in 1980, and a guy came in who’d just taken on Korg, whose products Woolworths probably couldn’t even sell at that time! He told me that Korg were doing some new stuff, and showed me a picture of the Trident. I looked at the spec, thought it was half‑decent, and asked when I could see one. He said I could see one any time I liked, but I’d have to go to Japan! I told him I wasn’t due to go to Japan for an awfully long time, and off he went.

“The following day, he came back and said Korg would fly me over to Japan. I went, but I wasn’t expecting much, because they really were making Mickey Mouse stuff then. I arrived at the Korg factory and met the big boss, who is now a very close friend. I sat in his office, and through the translator he said, ‘At the moment, Korg are number 14 in the world in keyboard sales.’ At this point, I was struggling to think of 14 keyboard manufacturers — basically, it meant they were bottom! He said, ‘We want to make professional keyboards for professional musicians that can be used by aspiring professional musicians, at a price they can all afford, and I want to be number one!’ I thought, ‘I like your attitude’.

“He then showed me the new Korg range — the Lambda, the Sigma, the Trident, and the CX3 organ. The CX3 was the first time that anyone had got even remotely close to a Hammond. The new range were light years ahead of everything they’d ever done before; the Trident was a wonderfully clever machine — three instruments in one. He asked me if I’d like to use them, and ended up giving me three of everything to take on a Brazilian tour! I have to say, it was one of the most enjoyable tours I’d ever done at that time, because nothing broke down. We take reliability for granted now, but back in 1980 it was unheard of!

“From that moment on, with the exception of one period where they lost control of the company in the mid‑’80s, I’ve always had a tremendous relationship with Korg, and they still epitomise a company that give the musician what they want. They put class in the hands of the masses — the equivalent of giving someone who wants to be a racing driver a McLaren or Williams to play with.”

The Prog Rock Prophet

In asking Rick if his relationship with Korg extended into the realms of instrument design, I was surprised to learn of his involvement with another revolutionary instrument, namely the legendary Sequential Circuits Prophet 5.

“To an extent I was involved in how certain Korgs looked — certainly the PolySix was heavily Minimoog‑oriented. Korg were bright enough to know that if they were aiming at a particular market then it had to be aesthetically pleasing. This was the same principle when I helped to design the front panel of the Prophet 5. The original facia that Dave Smith [of Sequential Circuits, who designed the Prophet 5 — Ed] came up with was all sliders. He was aiming to do what Moog never did, that to is make a polyphonic Minimoog. I said, ‘If you’re trying to aim at that market, the last thing you want to do is make it look like an old Yamaha, with sliders everywhere, because people just don’t like them.’ I sat down by the side of a swimming pool at the Holiday Inn in Oakland, California, where Sequential Circuits were based, and designed the entire front panel with knobs on a piece of paper, so that it looked like an elongated Minimoog, and it worked.”

Indeed it did, with a lengthy lifespan to boot, unlike the increasingly short‑term shelf lives of many current electronic musical instruments. But Rick is philosophical; “That means there are the most wonderful bargains to be had on the second‑hand market. It’s interesting that a recent series in Sound On Sound was all about buying older synths, which is brilliant for young aspiring players [see ‘The Bargain Basement’, SOS July/August ’95 — Ed]. You can now put yourself a very nice setup together without buying new.

“However, I think the manufacturers are going to have to be careful. They’re making a little bit of a mistake by bringing the Mark II out before Mark I’s even hit the streets. People aren’t falling for this anymore, especially if it’s a brand new machine — they know if they wait for six months, it will come down in price.”

The Show Must Go On

Rick has a well‑documented love of analogue equipment — see the ‘Wot, No Moogs?’ box for more evidence of this. During our interview he said, “you have to play analogue synths differently. All keyboards have a different feel to them. It’s like if you’ve got three different cars. They’re all a different design, so you drive them differently”. Perhaps this helps to explain his continuing penchant for surrounding himself on stage with banks of keyboards as in days of yore, despite the advent of master keyboards, sound modules and multitimbrality, and no doubt to the dismay of roadies the world over. I could not resist playing devil’s advocate and asking Rick if this is simply a case of showmanship or genuinely necessary.

“The joke is that when I first went out with Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe and toured America, I only had four keyboards with a lot of rackmounted gear for the first few shows — and I got crucified by the press. So I replaced a lot of the racked stuff with the keyboard versions. From then on, everybody, including the keyboard manufacturers, were very happy!

“It goes back to what I said earlier about the feel of keyboards. I like the JD800, which I know was regarded as a bit of a failure for Roland, but if, like me, you were brought up on the Minimoog, it’s a wonderful instrument to solo with because you can fiddle and play, and to be honest, that’s all I use it for. People might ask why I don’t just use a JD990 module for that sound and play it from another keyboard, but I’ve got used to the JD800’s feel whilst soloing. I’m not a great advocator of master keyboards and don’t see the point in them, because you can use any good keyboard as a master keyboard if you want to anyway. It’s a no‑win situation for me really, because there is an element of showmanship, but there is also the fact that I tend to like physically playing the instrument on which a sound was made.”

“I Have A Dream…”

Despite his lengthy and admittedly varied career, Rick remains inextricably associated with his mid‑’70s epic recordings and performances. No Earthly Connections, his 1976 follow‑up to The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table, was originally intended as a “musical plan for the epic to end all epics”. Whilst still hitting the British Top 10, record company objections in light of the punk invasion prevented Rick from presenting the album in a live setting as he saw fit. Given that he was arguably the forerunner of Jean‑Michel Jarre’s live extravaganzas, I could not help but wonder if the heady days of the epic are now long gone for the former caped wonder.

“The most amazing thing for me is that I managed to do it all without any sponsorship, because it didn’t exist at that time. Now there’s sponsorship and I can’t bloody get it! Having said that, it’s not been helped by a couple of remakes of concept‑style albums that have copped very large advances but not been presented or put together very well, in my opinion. Subsequently, it’s been very difficult for me — on two occasions, I’ve been stunningly close to getting a major record company involved in a Return To The Journey To The Centre Of The Earth‑style album.

“I’m 46 now. It may be a dream, but you’ve still got to aim for things you want to do, and I want to do another epic — very, very badly — because I love them. I know that a lot of the press and music critics will already be vomiting as they read this, but I don’t care, because I just love a good evening’s entertainment of music and drama.

“I know exactly what I want to do visually, because there isn’t really much more you can do with lightshows. It’s now a case of who’s got more Varilites than the next man — apart from Pink Floyd, who are absolutely brilliant — but you don’t have to spend millions to make something look good. Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity again before I’m 50, which is my retirement age.”

Lest fans throw their hands up in horror, Rick was quick to put his ‘retirement’ into perspective: “When I say ‘retirement’, I’m still going to carry on doing the odd concert, and I’d still like to record and do films, but what I don’t want to do is what I call scratching around”.

I, for one, look forward to an evening’s entertainment of epic proportions in the not‑too‑distant future courtesy of Mr Wakeman. As Rick and I parted company, he joked that I was the only interviewer who failed to bring up the inevitable question of his proposed rejoining of Yes for the umpteenth time, with another grandiose worldwide tour on the cards. But that’s another story…

Dali VS Wakeman, 1970

It turns out that Cirque Surreal is not the first time Rick has worked in a circus in a musical capacity. Whilst a member of folk rock outfit The Strawbs, in 1970, he found himself in the centre of a Parisian circus scandal. At a poorly promoted circus event in the French capital, artistes and animals were required to perform alongside live rock bands, instead of having normal run‑of‑the‑mill music with a circus band.

Rick recalls in his autobiography Say Yes!, released this year, how one of his solos was interrupted by an apparently deranged old man banging a walking stick on top of the trusty Wakeman electric piano. Naturally, Rick proceeded to throw the man off stage, only to discover later that the man was none other than renowned Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, whom the circus promoter, in a desperate bid to attract some press attention, had cajoled into appearing. Suffice to say, Cirque Surreal is a tame experience by comparison!

Cirque Surreal: An Overview

Cirque Surreal is the latest development in the long history of the circus, and has been designed with the aim of raising the standard of live entertainment by presenting world‑class speciality circus acts in combination with the best in music and technical innovation. The show has been produced by Phillip Gandey, whose family has a long tradition in circus entertainment. Phillip successfully introduced the Chinese State Circus to Britain in recent years in response to a demand for spectacular shows that do not employ animals.

Cirque Surreal’s all‑human production presents performers from the Cuban State Circus, the Russian State Circus and the French State Circus of Paris and Challons. To take an example, the ‘Elastics’ are one of the brand new speciality acts presented in Cirque Surreal. Three gymnasts, trained at the Cuban State Circus School, perform an aerial routine suspended by elastic cords. The act opens under ultraviolet light with a gymnast’s body floating in mid‑air and their disembodied hands and feet flying nearby. In a flash, the hands and feet find the body and it begins to fly. The lights lift and the other performers join in the routine. The end result is original and highly entertaining. As Rick himself said during our interview, “In a circus, every night is totally and utterly different”.

Bajanor Studios: A Recorded History

“My studio came about for financial reasons. I was losing work — particularly films — because I couldn’t afford to go and record in big studios anymore. What happens with a lot of films is that they run over budget, and it’s the music that suffers. It’s a case of, ‘We’ll use him, because he’s a good musician and he can do it for five grand.’ I found there were so many films like this being churned out that I couldn’t compete. The budgets I was being offered to do scores wouldn’t even cover the cost of one day at somewhere like CTS Studios in Wembley, or Air Studios.

“I know you can put together an extremely nice little home studio for four or five grand and get great sounds, but at the end of the day, if you’ve got a serious feature film coming out and compare the end musical product from somewhere like CTS against something done in a £5,000 home studio, there’s no comparison. Listen to it on its own and the home studio stuff’s great, but get into the world of comparisons and it really doesn’t stand up.

“So I decided the best way around this was to hit a compromise, by building something in between — not a demo studio and not a home studio. Obviously, I couldn’t afford a CTS setup, but I needed something that could adaquately cope with what I wanted to do. Fortunately, I owned the building already, and I was very lucky because it turned out to have wonderful acoustics and didn’t really need to have anything done to it.

“I put all the facts and figures together for what it would cost — Doug Hopkins, who used to own Advision, was a great help to me in this respect. He told me not to waste my time getting people in to deal with acoustics: the thing to do is choose the gear you want and get to know that, and then decide what you’re going to do with the building. There’s so many people who make the fatal mistake of spending money designing what it’s going to be like before they even put the gear in! We eventually added some curtaining around the sides for some areas that I wanted deadened, which can be opened when needed.

“There’s a good film setup in there, with all the necessary synchronisation equipment, and it’s pretty much covered in terms of mastering — I’ve got a Fostex open‑reel recorder which still occasionally gets used, and a Tascam timecoded DAT recorder. I’ve also got the first professional Sony DAT ‑‑ they were about four grand when they came out, and they’re still that price now. It’s interesting that when I recently went to do some editing at CTS, they’ve got banks of them and wouldn’t hear of changing them.

“I’ve got an Otari 24‑track, 24 tracks of ADAT and six tracks of hard disk recording with the Vestax HDR6 — I did an advert for them, which came about because I saw them at Frankfurt and was absolutely delighted to become involved. I’m no technician, and that was the first hard disk recorder that I could actually understand and use straight away!

I still tend to put guitars and live drums onto analogue, where, to my ears, they sound better. The best example I can give is that I recently flew over to New York to play on the new Ozzy Osbourne album. They had a two‑inch 8‑track machine, and were also running a 24‑track Otari, plus a big Sony DASdigital machine. They played back the drums from all three machines with everything flat and, just to prove a point, with everything coming back through the same channels of the desk. A newt could have heard the difference — it was phenomenal! I was quite pleased with that, because I’ve always instinctively thrown the drums back onto 24‑track to create a better live sound.”

“I’ve got the last Trident T24 desk ever made, plus a special patchbay. It’s a lovely desk, and has just had its first overhaul in six years. With 52 inputs, I’m more than covered, because I don’t use all the recorders at once. I used the ADATs recently when we went away to Scotland to record a choir, and they’re tremendous. We did initially have problems with them cutting out, but it turned out that this was nothing to do with the machines themselves — we have a problem with power on the Isle Of Man. The electricity is poor and fluctuates badly, and the ADAT controller certainly doesn’t like it. I must say the Sound Technology helpline was fantastic in sorting this out — and not because it was me either, since my engineer did all the talking.

“The studio I’ve got now is capable of producing most of the things I want to do, but I don’t take it for granted. I was taught by Tony Visconti, Gus Dudgeon and David Bowie that studio time is precious, and you don’t waste it. When you go into a studio, it should be something special. I don’t like what I call ‘studio writing’ — you hear about so many bands wasting money writing their next album in the studio. One day, they’ll wish they had an extra day of studio time, and they’ll have no‑one to blame but themselves.”

Wot, No Moogs? Rick Wakeman On The Analogue Revival

Rick is currently sourcing another Minimoog to supplement the two remaining in his possession.

“I spent an evening with my good friend Bob Moog in Frankfurt, and told him I’m desperately in the market for another Minimoog. I thought he must have some stashed away, but apparently he’s got the last one off the assembly line and that’s it! I’ve looked at loads and only seen two worth having, but people are asking silly money for them.”

“When digital came along, people made the fatal mistake of putting everything else in a cupboard and shutting the door when it should still be visible and usable. What’s happened now is that a whole new breed of players have emerged who are suddenly discovering analogue for the first time. Now, hardly a month goes by without some article telling you how to sample analogue synths. Well, let me tell you something: You can’t. You can make an approximation, but there’s only one thing that sounds like a Minimoog, for example, and that’s a Minimoog! I think people have discovered that the only way to get an analogue sound is to have the genuine article, and since these are few and far between, people are paying through the nose for good quality ones. People are also paying ludicrous prices to have them repaired.”