Rick Wakeman is largely regarded as the greatest keyboardist in history, a rock legend who stormed the charts with a series of landmark solo LPs in the 1970s, like The Six Wives of Henry XIII and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. He was also a member of Yes, one of the biggest groups of the 1970s. Beginning as a session musician for the likes of David Bowie, Cat Stevens and Lou Reed, Wakeman has also done everything from live one man shows and documentaries, to autobiographies, TV reports and film scores. He also worked with Ken Russell, firstly when doing the music and playing the part of Thor in Lisztomania, then as composer for the soundtrack of Crimes of Passion. Here, on his way to Japan for some live dates, he answers some questions about his times with that great British eccentric, Ken Russell.
What did you think of Ken Russell's films before you worked with him?
I was a great admirer of Ken going right back to his documentary work which is still the benchmark for documentary makers to this day. I loved Tommy of course, and The Music Lovers and The Devils were exceptional. Must see films.
How did he end up getting you involved in Lisztomania?
I had known about him of course when I played at the Rainbow theatre with the LSO performing the orchestral version of Tommy. He also shortly after that heard my Journey to the Centre of the Earth and had heard the Six Wives. Ken kept his finger firmly on the current musical pulse throughout his life. He was extremely knowledgeable.
Do you remember your first meeting with him?
It was at Shepperton Studios where the filming of Listztomania had just started. I was very much a rookie at doing films then and Ken knew that and I think quite liked that. I learned everything from him. He was very generous. You could make a mistake once through ignorance and he would correct you, but the key to Ken was never making the same mistake twice .
The scenes with you as Thor are brilliant. What are your memories of filming them?
Wonderful times. I had gone into his office one morning for a briefing on the day's music and he told me he was introducing Thor as a character, portrayed as a monster and created by Wagner. Knowing Ken as I did by then, this was not a surprise at all. What was a surprise was when he looked up and said, 'You're being sprayed in ten minutes!'
I absolutely loved it. As he shot the scene, my part seemed to grow from simply lying flat on a slab to that of speaking and eventually urinating. And I relished every second!
Ken got you back on board for Crimes of Passion. What instructions did he give you for what he had in mind for the music?
Ken always knew what he wanted. We met for a day to discuss it initially and he wanted it all based around the themes of the New World Symphony. Ken had been living abroad for some years and was quite shocked when I told him that one of the main themes he wanted to use was actually known as the music for the Hovis advert on the television. He thought that was disgusting. I had to adapt the theme quite considerably.
Did you watch the scenes and fit the music to them or was it a different process?
That's the process. Tried and tested for many years. I never think trying to fit pre-existing music for a film that wasn't written for it rarely, if ever, works.
Do you feel you and Ken's styles fit well together on screen? I think it was a perfect marriage on that film...
Ken loved quirky and so do I. We met regularly in the studio to discuss what I was doing and if Ken wanted some changes I did them of course. He was always spot on with his musical observations.
What are your memories of shooting the scene in Crimes of Passion where you are the wedding photographer?
I had finished the music when he suddenly said, 'You're not in it. You should be! You were in Listztomania, so you must be in this. You can be a photographer!' Ken said it would be a sort of Hitchcock idea where his composer was hidden in the film in the same way that Hitchcock used to hide himself in his films. It was great fun for the day.
How do you look back on working with Ken?
With great fondness. He was wonderful to work with, brutally honest at times and loved his art. I am convinced he didn't see real life as the rest of us. And his vision was 3D Panavision. I saw him a few weeks before he died and couldn't help but think that the film industry never used his talents to the maximum. He had so much to offer. He said nice things about me and terrible ones too. When we met for the last time I asked him with a grin on my face why he liked what I did one minute and not the next, and he laughed and said, 'Well it depended on how I felt on the day someone asked me.' Then he said 'I enjoyed working with you. You were different'. Coming from him, that was quite a compliment.
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