When Rick Wakeman Quit Yes for the First Time
Rick Wakeman's first – and, by far, most successful – stint with Yes was marked by dizzying commercial heights followed by a series of head-scratching creative choices. As much as he revelled in the first, he ultimately could not abide the second, and he officially announced his departure in June 1974.
The cape-wearing keyboard whiz's 1971 arrival, after all, had coincided with Yes' initial chart ascendency. They'd score a first-ever Top 15 hit with "Roundabout," and earn their first (and then second) Top 5 Billboard album ever with Fragile followed by Close to the Edge. The latter's title track, however, took up the entire length of a side, and the idea of continuing to expand the scope of their songwriting began to consume the group. Well, seemingly everyone except Wakeman, that is.
By 1973, Yes had released the deeply esoteric Tales From Topographic Oceans, which consisted of one single four-sided composition based on Paramahansa Yogananda’s Shastric scriptures, and then hit the road to play the project in its entirety. An obviously disenchanted Wakeman scarcely contributed to the sessions. He was also, quite literally, out to lunch during the resulting concerts.
"Our plan for American success was extremely well calculated – to a point," Wakeman told Rolling Stone's Cameron Crowe just after leaving Yes. “To play music, you have to understand it. I didn’t understand Topographic Oceans. That’s why I hardly played on it. It frustrated me no end and playing the whole thing on tour, I got farther and farther away from it."
Only in his 20s, Wakeman had already begun a tandem solo career, even as his reputation as one of the leading proponents of the then-new classically informed prog-rock genre became solidified as a member of Yes. In a symbol of just how bored he became as the inclination toward long-form musicmaking reached its eyeroll-inducing zenith, Wakeman actually had curry delivered on stage – then ate it while Yes dithered away on one of its endless flights of fancy during the 1973 tour for Tales.
“Half the audience were in narcotic rapture on some far-off planet,” Wakeman once surmised, “and the other half were asleep, bored shitess.”
On the strength of their earlier successes, Tales would ship as Yes' first No. 1 U.K. album, but as the tour in support of it dragged on, sales flattened. Soon, even the staunchest proponents of this new approach saw the writing on the wall. Yes began dropping sections of the album-length composition from their set list. But, for Wakeman, the damage was already done. "Tales From Topographic Oceans is like a woman’s padded bra," he groused to one interviewer. “The cover looks good but when you peel off the padding, there’s not a lot there.”
Quitting a band at the peak of its commercial – if not creative – powers seemed like the height of folly. Wakeman says several members of Yes tried in vain to change his mind. "I figured if I stayed it would be a series of rows that would produce nothing but grief for all parties," Wakeman told Crowe. "You know, it’s funny. I quickly found out where half my friends were at: ‘Hey man, fuck your ego, stick it out. You’ll be a millionaire before the year is through.’”
Not that Wakeman was done with the pomp associated with prog, only with Yes – for now. His second solo effort, a four-part adaptation of Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, went to No. 1 in the U.K. He'd recorded it in between shows on that listless tour in support of Tales.
Eventually, Yes returned to shorter song structures, and Wakeman returned, too. Then, he returned again, and again. In all, Wakeman would work with Yes over an amazing five stints – from 1971–74, 1976–80, 1990–92, 1995–96 and, then (perhaps, finally) from 2002–04.
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