Keyboardist icon Rick Wakeman demonstrated a breathtaking versatility playing with rock force or graceful beauty with Yes, and as a prolific solo artist, but few knew he was also the missing link between glam and the progressive rock era, to pay the rent.
Having made his name in the late-60s as a session musician, playing on David Bowie’s Space Oddity among others, Wakeman rose to prominence during a brief tenure with the British progressive folk outfit The Strawbs; flooding Britain’s halls with extended classical-style organ solos and some of the best harpsichord-rock ever heard, to standing ovations, even making the cover of Melody Maker as “tomorrow’s superstar” in 1970. The pay wasn’t enough though, so Wakeman left after two albums and resumed his session work.
Through his connections with record producers Tony Visconti and Gus Dudgeon, Wakeman had secured session work with the likes of Cat Stevens, Lou Reed and Elton John, but one day in 1971 the recently married Wakeman found himself £8 short on his rent.
Desperate for work, he took the train from Gants Hill in East London to Tottenham Court Road station and walked to Denmark Street looking for a session in a Southern Music recording studios in Tin Pan Ally, and then onto the studios of Regal Zonophone on Oxford Street, where he could always earn a couple of quid playing a demo session. But there was nothing going on.
He was in a Wimpy Bar on the corner of Rathbone Place and Oxford Street drowning his sorrows with a coke when he bumped into producer Tony Visconti, an old acquaintance. Visconti said:
“Rick, session tonight in Trident Studios, midnight, for Marc Bolan’s new single. He wants you to play piano.”
Wakeman asked how much. “Nine quid” was Visconti’s response. “I love you!” said Rick. Not only has he got the £8 for the rent but he’s got a drink on top of that as well.
Later that night he went to Soho’s Trident Studios and there was Marc Bolan and the T. Rex band playing the soon-to-be hit Get It On. Marc ran through the formidable Chuck Berry-styled riff on the guitar, and the band joined in with King Crimson’s Ian MacDonald providing baritone and alto saxophones.
The pianist-extraordinaire listened to the track and eventually said: “Marc, there is no piano on this. I can’t hear a piano part at all. Anything I add will take away of the rawness you are trying to achieve.” Bolan said, “All I want you to do is this”, and he ran his hand down the piano keys in a glissando. “I want you to do that every time I nod at you”. Wakeman said, “That’s very kind of you, but you could do that.”
“Do you want your nine quid or not?
I could give you the nine quid or loan it to you, but you wouldn’t take it would you? So you can earn it. You can sit here ’till 3am doing gliss’s.”
Released on 2 July as a taster for Electric Warrior, considered the first glam rock album, it only took three weeks for Get It On to become the second of four T. Rex number 1 hits. Steeped in sexuality and with some brilliant lyrics, Get It On is the sound of an artist at the top of his game. Wakeman earned his £9 for those little touches of sparkle that really lift the track.
With the T. Rex track and the piano glissandos mastered, Rick went home and paid his rent. It’s well known he would go on to play on Bowie’s Hunky Dory masterpiece later that year. It’s less well known that he was offered a place in the Spiders From Mars line up, and the job with Yes, on the same day. Wakeman would turn Bowie down, join Yes, and go on to make some of the best progressive rock music of all time on albums such as Fragile, Close to the Edge and later Going for the One, occasionally leaving Yes to pursue an expansive solo career while continuing to sport a multitude of famous on-stage capes.
♥ Cat Stevens – Morning Has Broken (1971)
♥ Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971)
♥ David Bowie – It Ain’t Easy (1972)