There are bands that simply play music. While some engage with their audiences, others are what are referred to as ‘shoegazers’. ‘SGs’ are bands that don’t make eye contact or go out of their way to make small talk with their fans – they just play. Rick Wakeman is a peg that does not exactly fit in either of these holes. Wakeman was always a somewhat flamboyant keyboard player when he was with the early line up of Yes. In spite of a successful run of albums (including Fragile (1971), Close to the Edge (1972), and Tales from Topographic Oceans (1973), Wakeman decided to leave the band in 1974 to pursue his own music. Never mind that he returned to the band five different times, he has kept himself busy right up to the present day making some outstanding albums and putting on some outlandish live performances.
When Prog Magazine asked Wakeman about the roots of his over the top shows, he said, “I just like grandiose. I loved the idea of telling stories with music since I was about eight, when my father introduced me to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, but over the years, I got bored going to concerts. The music was great, but I came to the conclusion that a concert should be a multi-purpose entertainment.” Wakeman wore flowing capes on stage with Yes and put a lot of body English into his bank of keyboards. The ‘grandiose’ didn’t stop at the edge of the stage. His bassist, Roger Newell said, “We used to travel in Clark Gable’s Cadillac, refurbished by Rolls Royce. We had a TV in there, and two bars, just for the band.” His son, Adam Wakeman, agrees whole-heartedly: “Dad doesn’t do things by halves.”
Yes, there were hints of what was to come before Wakeman left Yes the first time. Still, his first epic solo outing started small enough. He joined a group of musicians at a tavern in Buckinghamshire for a weekly jam. There the seeds were planted for an extravagant project that would be titled Journey to the Center of the Earth. The production, which included his band, a full orchestra, a choir, and a narrator, soon grew too large to record in an actual studio. Rick turned his attention to the Royal Festival Hall where it all came together during twin concerts held on January 18, 1974. The London Symphony Orchestra and English Chamber Choir recorded the epic Journey in front of a live audience of 3,000. It surprised no one that Wakeman had to refinance his home and sell some of his vintage cars to fund the project. It became a bit of a habit to self fund his ‘bigger and better’ musical challenges.
While recording Journey, Wakeman’s drummer Barney James realized they were into the big time when he looked out from the Festival Hall stage and started recognizing faces: “…and there’s Steve Howe in the audience, John Lennon with Yoko Ono, Ringo, McCartney with Linda, politicians, Peter Sellers with Britt Ekland, and God knows who else. Just faces everywhere. That is when we went, ‘Blimey, this is serious’. I think only then did it hit us. I did realize that I was into playing with the big boys, and the high budgets. We all had to follow Rick into his dreams.” Wakeman toured the entire program because, as he noted, “This is how we recorded it, so this is how we toured it.” These kinds of tours were always money losers but the albums sold after the tours made up for the expensive productions.
Rick Wakeman was only just getting started. According to Prog’s Henry Yates, “As vast as Journey was, it’s but a pub gig in an upstairs room next to Wakeman’s most opulent hour. Ask the average progger about 1975s The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and chances are, they’ll cite the shows before the album. Adam says, “My dad says people come up to him on the street, and they remember the show on ice, because it was just so ridiculous. Brilliantly ridiculous: that’s what I mean. You know, it was just such a bizarre thing to do.” Adam is referring to his father’s decision to not stage King Arthur at Royal Festival Hall, but to do it over three nights at Wembley Arena. There was one minor catch to this plan: the Ice Follies were scheduled to play Wenbley and the ice rink was in place. Wakeman, in his normal ‘can do’ style, said, “It won’t be a problem.”
Because Wakeman had put up the funds for yet another lavish production, the suits at A&M Records were fine with it. As long as the production sold albums, they were not in any hurry to tell him ‘no’. In this case, the 72 piece orchestra, six piece band, 64 member choir, and 16 more in the brass choir were enhanced by 60 plus skaters and a show crew of 50. Wakeman likens the choreographer’s job for a production so vast to that of putting a massive jigsaw puzzle together; it just meant one had to get the right people involved.
Adam again recalls (with a smile on his face), “Arthur was just this crazy show with loads of people dressed up as horses, and knights, and stuff like that, Back in the 70s, putting on a show and doing it on ice wasn’t practical and wasn’t really feasible, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, he wanted to do it – so they did it.” Newell adds, “The funniest thing is that Rick said, ‘Look, there’s gonna be a lot of girls skating round while we’re playing: What should they wear? Of course, we’re young guys so we say, ‘stockings and suspenders’. And that’s what they wore for one of the numbers! I don’t recall stockings and suspenders coming into Arthurian legend, but hey, it does now!”
Wakeman told Prog he was surprised everything worked as well as it did and he enjoyed the Wembley dates. Perhaps not the part where his cape got caught in an elevated synth and left him hanging in mid-air, but certainly the whole show was memorable. As drummer James puts it,
“Absolute chaos!” The sound in the arena was impossible with the walls bouncing back the sound from every angle, but Newell says, “We knew our stuff backwards and it’s just as well,” considering the acoustical challenges the arena presented. The reviews were mixed, but again the album sales covered the deficiencies. Of those critics who called Arthur ‘Wakeman’s grand folly’, he says: “Good for them. They remember it, though. I’d love a couple of pounds for everyone who’s claimed to have been at one of those three shows.”
I can not say that I have been to a live performance quite as involved as either of Rick Wakeman’s. My version of a great show is one where the music carries the day, like Chicago in their glory days with bassist Peter Cetera and drummer Daniel Seraphine still in the band. With that said, there are always interesting visual things that can elevate a show. One of these events took place at NMU’s Hedgecock Fieldhouse when the headline band was the Detroit based group, Catfish Hodge. They were a solid band, but the interesting visual stuff on this night happened during their opening act.
Keyboardist Michael Quatro and his drummer (sorry, I never got his name) put on a serviceable two man band opening set. Quatro was dressed in a white jumpsuit (think latter day Elvis) and the backstage was lined with a literal wall of white speaker boxes and amps. Each appeared to be about three foot square and they were stacked at least four high and 12 across (if my math skills are still intact, that would be at least 48 speaker cabinets). It might have been more or less, but I can’t find a clear photo showing his stage set up from the early 1970s. It was impressive and the show he put on was awesome, right up until one of the speakers began to make an ungodly squealing sound. The longer it went on, the more annoyed Quatro appeared until he finally yelled backstage, “Russell! Could you PLEASE unplug that one?” It took him a bit to get back into his groove, but I still see him center stage, arms extended to each side as he played two keyboards at once with the wall of white speaker cabs behind him.
Foghat brought a different look when I saw them perform at Lakeview Arena in Marquette.
They were perhaps the first group I saw who took the concept of ‘stage clothes’ up a notch. Each band member was sporting silky looking duds, each in a different color. I always liked their good time boogie music, but never pictured them wearing threads similar to what The Beatles wore during their Sgt. Pepper era – minus the braids and military frills.
All I knew of the Canadian trio Triumph was the ‘Rock and Roll Machine’ tagline that every poster and radio ad used to promote their show in Marquette. They also had quite an impressive wall of equipment behind them, not to mention drummer Gil Moore’s massive drum set. They employed a bank of backlights that surely caused the power to dim across Marquette County when they lit up the arena. Had I been following the band from show to show like a Deadhead, I probably would have invested in some good sunglasses. They used a bit of pyro but their go to stage set was lights, lights, and more lights. For a time they also used a large ‘TRIUMPH’ sign set with motion lights that went forward, backward, and in enough random patterns to make you dizzy. The music and the lightshow made me think, “Wow – that was fun!”
The two most interesting shows I saw were by the same band – Blue Oyster Cult. Both took place at Lakeview but they weren’t carbon copies. This was another case of seeing a band before I knew anything about them and then playing catch up by finding their albums. At the time of the first show, they had just released their Agents of Fortune album. They brought a fair share of pyro to the party and it was tastefully used to highlight certain songs. Singer Eric Bloom (who also played guitar and keyboards) pulled out what looked to be a Roman candle at one point and fired it over the audience. Their signature trick was getting all five band members arrayed across the stage as they traded guitar riffs – and yes, one of them was drummer Albert Bouchard.
The second show was supposed to be a dual headlining show with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow. I was disappointed when they announced Rainbow had reluctantly had to cancel (the mercurial Blackmore was known for doing his own thing but I don’t really know why they canceled in this case). The groans that greeted this announcement turned to cheers when the MC informed the nearly packed house that BOC would be playing an extended two set show. Sure, I wanted to see Rainbow, but the previous Blue Oyster Cult show was still in the back of my mind – it had been one of my top five concerts.
The music was solid but the pyro and lightshow seemed to be more tamed down. Perhaps spreading their set over two hours had something to do with it. I also wondered if they were still recycling the same light/pyro script but it turned out they were not. Their most recent album (Spectres) featured the massive hit Godzilla and drummer Bouchard turned in one of the most dazzling drum solos I can remember. The solo was set in the middle of Godzilla and as he neared the end of his set piece, the stage went dark and he stopped playing completely. This caught the audience by surprise because a general hush fell over the crowd. Suddenly, strobe lights lit up the drum riser and there was Albert Bouchard wearing a very large Godzilla head bashing away at his kit. The strobes gave the whole scene a jittery vibe like an old time movie. It may not have been the greatest drum solo on record, but the combination of the strobes, Godzilla head, and Bouchard’s theatrical playing made it memorable.
Does a band have to put on a show to give an audience a good experience? No, but there is something about ‘spectacle’ that sells tickets. Would Alice Cooper’s music still stand up live without the cane, guillotine, and top hat? Having watched him perform some of his hits with the Hollywood Vampires minus all the stage props, I would have to say yes. In other cases, one can listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall and get the story, but something tells me the live version without the props wouldn’t be as well received. I loved Peter Frampton’s show at NMU during his Frampton Comes Alive era but that was in a fieldhouse. I watched the video of him performing in the much larger Oakland A’s baseball stadium later in that tour and it just seemed like the music got lost. He spent a lot of time running around, changing places with the drummer, and trying hard to reach the people in the cheap seats, but it wasn’t a very good concert.
When DJ centered concerts like deadmau5 became the rage, I tried to keep an open mind. Loud techno pop, a lot of lights, and an enthusiastic crowd were all elements found in his show. Even with his enormous mouse head with the light up eyes on, I didn’t find it interesting. As an old band guy, I guess my preference is still people playing live music on stage, even if they are gazing at their shoes when they perform. That is fine – every generation is entitled to their own version of ‘putting on a show’.
Top Piece Video: The Rock and Roll Machine in action! A good look at their light propelled version of Hold On!