Pearl Jam were the clear audience favorites at Friday’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, but no speech elicited a bigger response than that given by Rick Wakeman. The Yes keyboardist – on tour this year with bandmates Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin – passed up the chance to run down the usual laundry list of thank-yous and instead opted for a mini stand-up routine, in which he cracked wise about losing his virginity, encountering his dad at a strip club and his recent prostate exam. We caught up with Wakeman backstage following the hilarious speech to discuss his background in comedy, the true meaning of prog and why he’ll never again take the stage with former Yes bandmate Steve Howe.
How long did it take you to write that speech? What made you take that angle?
Well I’ve got loads of stuff because I do a lot of corporate … I do a lot of TV stuff in England. I do a lot of comedy stuff. So I’ve got a huge pool of one-liners and general stories and you can just weave them into what you want. I don’t like self-gratification so I didn’t want to go “Oh, how great the band has been” and all that kind [of thing] because people are very kind. People have said that anyway, which is really very nice. So I just wanted to have a bit of fun, really.
So this was like the greatest-hits of your speeches?
Far from it. That’s just … I was part of a huge comedy show in England called Grumpy Old Men. I was in every one for seven years plus. … I do a lot of comedy [appearances] – half stand-up and half music and I’ve enjoyed doing it. For an event like this I thought long and hard: Do I go on and thank all the different guys in the band that I’ve played with? Everyone is going to say that. A lot of it is understood so I thought I’d just have a bit a fun, but I’m never blue. I never do that.
Did the other guys know your speech beforehand?
No, they didn’t know what I was going to say, but they know what I do. We had one breakdown on the ARW tour, so Jon just threw me the mic, so I did a 15-minute standup. So they know what I do.
So how does it feel to be inducted into the Hall of Fame?
It’s wonderful. It’s really, really nice. I mean it’s for the music. It’s Yes’ music that’s been inducted. I mean I know for a fact that, thankfully, Yes music has influenced lots of bands and lots of people, which is lovely. I was influenced by lots of bands and people, and if other people have created their own music and we’ve helped a little bit along the way by influencing them then that’s what it’s all about. That’s how music moves forward. So it’s lovely to be inducted in. I have a daughter who lives in Cleveland so it gives me another excuse to go and see.
So Rush got into the Hall of Fame, now you guys. Do you think prog is finally getting its due?
You know the thing I’ve said for years, all prog is, is knowing the rules and breaking them. It’s breaking the format. I mean, when prog started, 90 percent of records were made to a format. You know, intro, verse, chorus, chorus, solo, intro out, verse out, whatever. What prog did was break that mold and said, “No, it doesn’t have to happen like that.” The interesting thing that I think is absolutely wonderful is you can pretty much tune to any station in any city and hear the records that run through and none of them have got a format; they’ve all got a style of their own and that’s thanks to prog breaking the mold and saying, “You don’t have to do that. Do what’s in your heart and your musical brain. Don’t do it because it’s a format.” So I think there’s hardly a record that you hear on the radio or hear playing that hasn’t got a small percentage – even if it’s two or three percent – of prog in it.
“All prog is, is breaking the format.”
Absolutely. It’s become a big influence.
Yeah. I think it’s settled down now and sort of sorted out the wheat [from the chaff]. I mean all of us in prog bands got accused of overblowing or getting too pompous or too much, which we all did, but that’s only because we’re trying to explore to see how far we could go. And I think when [it], I don’t want to say comes to an end but reaches the end of that race like, “OK, we’ve taken prog in this level and this technology as far as we can go,” then I think you can look back and go, “OK, these are the pivotal moments musically within the career of a band.” But you can’t find that out until you’ve been there and done it.
What was it like playing with all those guys again tonight?
Well, I play with Trevor and Jon all the time so …
When was the last time you played with Steve?
Oh, I haven’t played with Steven for 12 years. I was just up there playing music. We didn’t rehearse too much.
I was going to ask, was there any rehearsal?
No, there was a little bit of a rehearsal but not a lot. But because the way Jon, Trevor and I play with Lou [Molino, drums] and Lee [Pomeroy], we played a lot different than the other guys did. … So we didn’t really want to take too much notice on that. It was a one-off. Never to happen again.
One last question: What is the state of your album with Trevor and Jon?
Oh, we’re doing well. We’ve got three pieces that are well down the line that we’re really pleased with and which we’re working on. Hopefully by summer we should have them there. But we’re not going to rush – we want them to be as good as we possibly can make them. That’s the crucial thing.