On a cold winter night in 1980, a London bobby was walking his beat in Kensington Gardens when he spotted a man sleeping on a park bench. The bobby recognized him immediately from his long, straight golden hair. “Mr. Wakeman,” the officer said, trying to rouse the man. “Rick—get home to your missus. You’re pissed.”
At age 30, Rick Wakeman was already one of rock’s greatest superstars. A classically trained keyboardist, he reached international stardom in the early 1970s with Yes, the influential and enduring band that pioneered progressive rock, and would go on to sell more than 50 million records as a solo artist. As a session player, he performed on an astonishing string of classics, from Cat Stevens’s “Morning Has Broken” to Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water.” At the height of his celebrity, Wakeman defined the age of rock excess: collecting a fleet of Rolls-Royces, building a pub in his country mansion, and, most infamously, performing in a long, flowing cape, encircled by electronic keyboards like a sorcerer of synths. “Rick’s mastery of electronic instruments,” Elton John once quipped, “was one of the reasons I stuck to the piano.”
Given Wakeman’s wealth and fame, it was understandable that the bobby assumed he was only suffering from a few too many pints. Shaken awake, Wakeman thanked the officer and ambled away, as if he were heading home. Then, after waiting for the coast to clear, he found another bench to sleep on. Wakeman wasn’t drunk. He was homeless.
“People say, ‘You don’t know what it’s like to be homeless,’” Wakeman tells me over lunch in London, making that chapter in his life public for the first time. “But I bloody do.”
At 71, Wakeman still wears his blond hair long, but his attire is more backyard barbecue than iconic rocker. Avuncular and self-effacing, he meets me wearing a short-sleeve plaid shirt and black pants. In the four decades since he hit bottom that night in Kensington Gardens, he has sold millions more records, been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and influenced generations of artists from the Flaming Lips to Radiohead. In 2020, he released his 122nd (!) solo album, The Red Planet.
But his crazy ride, incredibly, was crazier even than legend has it. It’s one of the great untold sagas in the history of rock, the tale of a man who bet his fortune to realize his wildest dream: a fantasy so overblown and outrageous that it makes the real-world excesses of Wakeman’s prog-rock days seem tame by comparison. That night, homeless and alone, it was his dream—of knights on horseback, a sold-out ice rink, and a band of friends rising from a humble pub to conquer the world—that kept him going. “If you believe it’s not the end,” Wakeman recalls, “then it isn’t.”
From the beginning, Wakeman believed in music. Growing up a poor, only child in a working-class home, he entertained himself for hours a day at the family’s piano. In 1965, at age 16, he auditioned for a big band that played community centers across the English countryside. The band’s singer, Ashley Holt, marveled at the sight of the lanky kid in a school uniform two sizes too small. “I thought, Wow, this one’s geeky,” Holt recalls. “And then I heard him play.” As Wakeman’s hands danced across the Hammond organ, Holt turned to Ronnie Smith, the stodgy, middle-aged conductor of the band. “He’s got to be in!” he told Smith. “Do not let this guy go.”
Holt, a wannabe rocker only a few years older than Wakeman, became his surrogate big brother, introducing him to the burgeoning world of rock and helping him find his musical voice. “Ash gave me a lot of confidence,” says Wakeman—so much so that he ended up being fired by the band for being too rock and roll. After a short stint at the Royal College of Music, which bored him, Wakeman felt like he needed a break.
One afternoon he dropped by a local recording studio, where he spotted an odd little keyboard in the corner. The manager of the studio, Tony Visconti, told him it was a Mellotron, the spooky-sounding, electro-mechanical instrument made famous by the Beatles on “Strawberry Fields Forever.” But it was so difficult to play that nobody in the studio could figure out how to use it. “Mind if I have a go?” asked Wakeman. Visconti and his recording crew watched in awe as the gawky kid made the Mellotron sing.
“How’d you do that?” an engineer asked.
“Don’t tell him,” Visconti told Wakeman. “It’ll make you a fortune!”
Visconti asked Wakeman if he could come back to play Mellotron for one of his artist’s recording sessions. After getting dropped off at the studio by his mother, Wakeman was greeted at the studio by a precocious young rocker whose eyes appeared to be two different colors. His name was David Bowie, and he wanted Wakeman to play Mellotron on “Space Oddity,” the title track of his second album. “This will be a piece of cake for you,” he reassured Wakeman.
“Oh, okay,” Wakeman stammered.
“I take it you have played a piece of cake before?” Bowie replied. Wakeman, confused and nervous, offered no reply.
“Well,” Bowie went on, “maybe not then.”
The song launched a lifelong friendship with Bowie, and Wakeman’s career. He became rock’s go-to keyboardist, playing in countless sessions. In 1970, Melody Maker, at the time England’s most influential music publication, featured Wakeman on a cover story that anointed him “Tomorrow’s Superstar.” Bowie offered him a few key pieces of advice: get your own band, play with musicians who understand you, and, when it comes time to perform, “do what you want onstage, especially if you’re using your own money. Don’t let a promoter, agent, or manager tell you otherwise—they don’t have the imagination.”
Wakeman put the advice to use in the brashest of ways: He turned down Bowie’s offer to play in his sideband, the Spiders From Mars, and instead became the keyboardist for Yes. With its mystical lyrics, orchestral productions, Tolkienseque album art, and long, multipart songs, Yes exemplified progressive rock in all its technical breadth and portentous glory. Wakeman, who surrounded himself with keyboards and wore a cape to hide his arms after a critic said he moved like “a demented spider,” became prog rock’s most iconic star. “Here comes Rick, the caped crusader!” the band’s lead singer, Jon Anderson, recalls with a laugh. “He had a great sort of stance onstage, and very powerful energy. It really put him apart from any other keyboard player.” Or, as Wakeman deadpans, “I was Spinal Tap for real.”
By 1974, though just 24, Wakeman was already burning out. The recording of his third album with Yes, Tales From Topographic Oceans, had been, in his words, “poisonous,” and the band was barely speaking. Their fantastical songs, he felt, had become overindulgent and plodding. The problem was, there were too many yes-men yessing Yes. “If you said, ‘I want to do an album about elephants,’ they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic!’” he recalls. “You become very well aware quite quickly of the bullshit in this business.” When he confided in his old friend Ashley Holt, still a struggling singer and self-described “hick from the sticks,” Holt echoed Bowie’s advice from years before. “You’ve got to be happy,” Holt told him. “You’ve got to do what you want.”
Wakeman agreed. One Sunday night, as Holt and his band were setting up for their weekly gig at the Valiant Trooper, a pub in a hamlet about an hour northeast of London, a silver Rolls-Royce pulled up outside. Wakeman, who’d just come off a sold-out world tour with Yes, strode into the pub with his keyboard under his arm.
“Rick,” Holt said with surprise. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh, I’ve come to join in,” Wakeman said.
“You know,” Holt told him, “this isn’t a very big venue.”
Wakeman nodded at a spot by the fireplace, near Holt’s microphone. “Should I just set up over there, Captain?”
As the sparse crowd of bored geezers nursed their pints and played darts, Holt and Wakeman tore joyously through their old covers from the big band days. It felt like old times, but better, with the two of them pushing each other to the top of their game, Holt shrieking like a heavy metal monster, and the caped crusader wizarding the keys. “Every now and then you have to take stock,” Wakeman says. “You have to remember where your roots are. That, for me, was bringing me down to earth.”
The following Sunday night, Wakeman showed again. But this time, word got out: Hundreds of rockers and hippies crowded their way into the 100-person pub. Week after week, Wakeman’s stripped-down gigs at the Valiant Trooper became the place to be; neighbors complained about all the teens standing on their rooftops and peeing in their letterboxes. Then one day, Wakeman casually made Holt an offer. “I’d like to see you do vocals on this project I’m doing,” he told Holt. “You think the boys are up for it?”
“You mean Yes?” Holt asked.
“No,” Wakeman replied. “The boys from the pub.”
Wakeman had written his most ambitious piece of music yet—a concept album based on Jules Verne’s science-fiction novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. But even though he was still a member of one of rock’s biggest bands, he was offering the gig to Holt and his pub mates. “If anybody ever deserved a break,” Wakeman says, “it was Ash.”
Holt agreed to sing on the record—but Wakeman, ever the prankster, had another surprise in store. The album, he told Holt, would be recorded live. At the Royal Festival Hall. With the London Symphony Orchestra. And the English Chamber Choir. In front of 2,700 people. Oh, and it was too late to back out. Wakeman showed Holt and his bandmates the new issue of Melody Maker, where the recording session had already been announced.
“We were just gobsmacked,” Holt recalls. Brian Lane, the manager of Yes, thought Wakeman was “out of his fucking mind” for gambling his fame and fortune on these unproven barflies. But Wakeman, still taking a page from Bowie’s playbook, told Lane that it was his money, and he could do as he liked. “In that period of Rick’s life, you had two choices,” Lane recalls. “You agree with Rick, or you’re wrong.”
Pacing backstage at the Festival Hall before the sold-out concert in January 1974, Lane urged Wakeman to check on the band. “They’ve been playing pubs to a few people who are drinking at the bar!” Lane barked. “They are going to be shitting themselves. Go on in there and say something, for God’s sake!” But when Wakeman checked up on his mates, he found them playing darts and drinking beers, as if it were just another night at the Valiant Trooper.
As the show began, smoky mist covered the stage. David Hemmings, who had starred in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup, sat on a throne, bellowing the opening narration: “The story begins on the 24th of May 1863 in Hamburg, when Professor Lidenbrock and his nephew Axel discover an old parchment in a 12th-century book called ‘Heimskringla.’”
Wakeman, surrounded by Holt and the pub band, presided over the proceedings from within his tower of keyboards, his long, straight blond hair spilling over his silver-and-white cape. To his right were the London Symphony Orchestra in their tuxedos; to his left, the English Chamber Choir. On the wall behind them flashed a psychedelic montage of fantastical landscapes, reminiscent of Wakeman’s album covers. Though billed as a rock show, Wakeman had fashioned what looked and sounded more like a musical, in all its operatically hammy ambition.
The show, and Wakeman’s gamble, was a triumph. When the curtain fell, it received a standing ovation. Melody Maker declared the Holt and his pub band “sensational,” reporting that they “overcame their awe at the proceedings, and performed their duties with power and sincerity.” In May, when the recording of the show was released, it went straight to number one on the British charts. “I guess we weren’t that bad,” Holt says with a laugh.
But Wakeman had another trick up his cape. When the group reunited at the Valiant Trooper to celebrate his 25th birthday, he told his friends that he had an announcement to make. “I’ve quit Yes,” he said.
Holt’s head spun. Why would anyone in their right mind leave one of the top acts in the world? The pub guys, Wakeman continued, were now his one and only band. He was betting everything he had on them. “It’s like blackjack,” he says. “I thought: I’ll just keep going until I lose.” They called themselves the English Rock Ensemble, and Wakeman immediately booked them for an outdoor performance of Journey to the Center of the Earth, at the renowned Crystal Palace Bowl.
In the mid-’70s, bands like Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes were all competing to outdo each other with the latest theatrics: lasers, dry ice, pyrotechnics. But while prog rock was taking itself more and more seriously, Wakeman, who’d grown up on vaudeville and relished the comedy of it all, didn’t care what people thought. “I’m permanently reading 9.8 on the I-don’t-give-a-fuck meter,” he says.
Now, as he stared at the small lake in front of the Crystal Palace stage, his imagination sprang to life. He’d have inflatable monsters. Like Godzilla. In the lake. They would rise up during the climax of the show, when the legions arrive at the center of the Earth and engage in a final battle with treacherous beasts. Lane, still Wakeman’s manager, once again tried to stop him, but Wakeman plotted every overblown detail of the sold-out show, from the design of the waterborne creatures to the score for the symphony and choir. Despite his levity, he could be an exacting leader, cutting a rehearsal short if a violinist in the 50-piece orchestra played a wrong note. “It was pretty zany,” recalls Guy Protheroe, the orchestra’s conductor at the time. “But it was great being involved in the rock stuff, which was far from how I was trained.”
But the stress was taking a toll on Wakeman. On the morning of the show, he was headed to his kitchen for a cup of tea when he felt his knees buckle and the world go dark. He woke on the floor, bruised and confused, but chalked it up to fatigue.
Throughout the concert that night, he felt woozy and strange. “I can remember feeling incredibly light,” he says, “as if I couldn’t feel my feet touching the ground.” The wild props only added to Wakeman’s disorientation. During the climactic song, when the monsters began to inflate from beneath the lake, the crowd roared in glee. Just as Wakeman had planned, a pulley underneath the water dragged the creatures toward each other, as if they were preparing to fight. But suddenly, like a scene from Spinal Tap, the monsters got stuck right in front of the band, blocking the musicians from the audience. As technicians scrambled to fix the problem, the band dutifully kept playing. But the inflatables only drooped over each other, as if making monster love. Audience members, many of them zonked out of their minds on psychedelics of one variety or another, dove into the lake.
The next morning, the band convened at Wakeman’s mansion to discuss their impending world tour. Brian Lane had arranged accommodations befitting rock royalty: private jets, five-star hotels, sold-out shows from Los Angeles to Madison Square Garden. Wakeman took a call in his kitchen: It was Melody Maker, eager to interview him about the tour. But as he was speaking to the reporter, Wakeman suddenly felt too sick to go on. “I put the phone down and crawled upstairs,” he recalls.
He was rushed to the hospital, where a doctor told him he’d had a heart attack. “This isn’t possible,” Wakeman said—he was only 25. In fact, the doctor suspected he had suffered as many as three heart attacks in recent days. Though he didn’t use drugs, —to this day, he says he has never even smoked a joint—his lifestyle was destroying him: the drinking, the touring, the smoking, the lack of sleep. He was lucky to be alive, the doctor said. Heart disease had decimated Wakeman’s family—his grandfather and both uncles died of heart attacks, and his father was at high risk. The doctor told Wakeman he’d be staying in the hospital for nine months. Then she turned to Lane and asked, “Does he have enough money to retire?”
Ever since Wakeman was a boy, he had dreamed of being King Arthur. He made annual trips to Tintagel Castle, where, according to legend, Arthur was conceived. Every time he walked the rocky ruins, watching the waves smash against the cliffs, he imagined setting off on adventures with his faithful knights, fighting battles, and winning hearts. As a creative kid with little money and few distractions, he poured himself into his fantasy world. “It was just total magic,” he recalls. “It wasn’t mythical for me—it was real.”
Now, as he lay alone in his hospital bed, he thought of Arthur again. There was no way Wakeman could end his journey now. “I can’t do it,” he thought. “Music has been my life. It’s what I do. It’s what I love.” Despite the pleas from his doctor, family, and friends, he refused to give up. “I gotta carry on,” he decided. And if what the doctor told him was true—that he’d be risking a fatal heart attack if he ever performed again—then so be it.
“You were willing to die for rock and roll?” I ask him.
“I suppose if you want to put it like that, yes,” he says.
Several weeks after Wakeman’s heart attack, Holt was at the Valiant Trooper when his friend lumbered through the front door. Holt had heard what the doctor said, and figured his days of partying and rocking with Wakeman were over. But the moment Wakeman ordered up shots of whisky for both of them, Holt could see that old twinkle in the caped crusader’s eyes. “I’ve written our next album,” Wakeman told him.
It was a prog-rock opera called The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Wakeman had composed it in his hospital bed, including parts for symphony and choir. Writing about the clashes and conquests of medieval England was his most personal project yet; he’d always wanted to be a hero like Arthur, saving the day with his fellowship. But now that he was confronting his own mortality, the sagas of old felt more like his than ever before. “It was as much about me as it was about King Arthur,” he says. “I was on a quest to save my musical kingdom.”
There was only one place to have the show, Wakeman insisted: the Empire Pool Wembley, which had hosted the biggest bands of the era, from the Beatles to the Stones. There was just one problem, as Brian Lane reported back to him: the Ice Follies was booked at the Empire Pool for the next several months. The entire venue was covered in ice, making it impossible to stage a rock concert.
“All right,” Wakeman said.
Lane was startled. At last, he thought, the rock star who never took no for an answer was finally prepared to see reason.
But Wakeman wasn’t finished. “Then we’ll do it on ice!” he told Lane.
“On ice?” the manager said, trying to steady himself.
Wakeman, oblivious, began riffing on his vision. They’d have a big inflatable castle in the middle of the stage, next to the band. Then there’d be the symphony, two choirs, and skaters—dressed as knights and maidens—swirling around them.
Lane begged Wakeman to reconsider. At best, he said, “You’re going to lose a fistful of money.” At worst, it would cost Wakeman his life.
Wakeman responded by leaking his plans to Melody Maker, which put the story on the cover. “Everyone knows about it,” Wakeman told Lane, “so now there’s no choice.”
Determined to shoot a promotional film for King Arthur on Ice, Wakeman piled Holt and the rest of the pub band into one of his Rolls and road-tripped up to the Tintagel Castle. “You shall be the Black Knight,” Wakeman told Holt, handing him a suit of armor. Wakeman donned a long black cloak and tall hat to become Merlin the Magician. “We were chasing each other with swords around a paddock,” Holt recalls. “He made it into a comedy show.”
To make matters worse, Wakeman defied his doctor’s orders by taking Journey to the Center of the Earth on a sold-out American tour. It was sex, booze, and inflatable dinosaurs from the Hollywood Bowl to Madison Square Garden. The band flew on private jets, partied in stretch limos, stayed in five-star hotels, and seduced the choir. “There was quite a lot of social interaction between the choir and the pub band,” recalls Ann Manly, the choir’s manager.
By the time the band returned to London, Wakeman’s legions of fans were eagerly anticipating the premiere of King Arthur. Rock’s most extravagant ringmaster was promising rock’s most ambitious musical yet: a 50-piece orchestra, 48 singers in two choirs, a 50-person crew, a seven-piece band featuring two drummers, and more than 60 skaters dressed as knights and maidens, including Australian champion Reg Park and two-time national champion Patricia Pauley. “If you’re going to do something,” Wakeman says, “do it as you dream it.”
But trouble began before Sir Galahad even donned his skates. In an interview with Melody Maker, Wakeman made an offhand comment that the knights would be riding horses on the ice. Outraged, animal rights activists demanded that the show be canceled. To quiet the storm, Wakeman held a press conference at the arena. “I will now give you a demonstration of the knights on horses,” he told the assembled reporters.
On cue, the lights dimmed. Dry ice flooded the arena. Out from the shadows, a skater, dressed as a knight, came gliding out on horseback. Between his legs was a wooden hobby horse, which wobbled suggestively between his knees.
“You weren’t thinking there would be real horses, were you?” Wakeman said, as the reporters roared with laughter.
On May 30, 1975, the lights lowered inside the Empire Pool for the first of three sold-out shows. Wakeman strode across a red carpet and on to the stage, which was bordered by an icy moat. He was a prog-rock apparition—long blond hair flowing over his floor-length, sky blue cape, sequined in silver lining. As dry ice flooded the stage, Hemmings appeared on a spot-lit throne, intoning lines from The Once and Future King: “Whoso pulleth out this sword of this stone and anvil,” he bellowed, “is rightwise king born of all England.” A skater dressed in cardboard armor glided over to the sword. But when he attempted to pull it free, it took the anvil with it. “No one had thought to anchor the anvil,” Holt recalls.
That wasn’t the only mishap. As Guinevere skated out during her namesake song, she accidentally skated over her veil, ripping her hat from her wig. At another time, the chain mail under Wakeman’s cape caught as he was descending his perch, leaving him swaying awkwardly above the ice. The skating, and playing, only became more difficult as the dry ice filled the arena: No one in the crew had realized that using dry ice over real ice creates a mist that floats higher and higher. At one point the haze was so thick that the band members couldn’t even see each other. “It basically covered everybody,” recalls bassist Roger Newell, who could barely make out the frets of his three-neck bass, let alone his pedals.
As the show came to the final number, “The Last Battle,” pairs of skaters took to the ice, pretending to sword fight as the band thundered along. The plan had been that the knights would all kill each other, leaving no one spared. But, strangely, a single knight survived the battle, and was now skating cluelessly around the rink. Suddenly it hit Wakeman: Before the show, one of the skaters had called in sick, which left an odd number of knights in the final scene. There had been no one to kill the surviving knight. He just skated around and around until he decided there was only way to fulfill his destiny and end the show: by falling on his sword, and fading into the dry ice of legend.
In the wake of the shows, it seemed that Wakeman’s epic gamble had once again paid off. King Arthur spawned another hit record, and Holt was in high spirits as the band assembled once more at the Valiant Trooper. But the moment he saw Wakeman’s face, he knew something was wrong.
“I’m sorry guys,” Wakeman told them. “I’ve run out of money. It’s all gone on our adventures. They’ve all made money, but they’ve all cost more than the money they made.” He’d lost everything: his house, his cars, his savings. As much as he wanted to stay with the band, he couldn’t afford to anymore. “I’ve got to go back to Yes,” he told them. The kings of prog rock had been struggling ever since Wakeman left the band, and they were pleading with him to come back.
“I was a bit gutted,” Holt says. But as disappointed as he felt, he had nothing but love for his friend, who had taken him on such an incredible ride. “Well, it looks like it’s the end,” he told Wakeman. “Let’s not hope it’s forever.”
“No,” Wakeman promised, “it won’t be.” He pledged to his friend that, one day, they would once again perform King Arthur together.
As time went on, though, it didn’t seem like Wakeman would be able to deliver on that vow. Years of gambling his fortune on his musical fantasies, along with two costly divorces, had caught up with him. Yes, which was past its glory days, proved unable to provide him a financial lifeline. Six years after King Arthur first skated onto the ice at the Empire Pool, Wakeman’s millions were gone. His few remaining possessions, including his instruments, were put away in a storage locker he’d paid for in advance. Too proud to ask his friends or family for help, Wakeman lived in Kensington Park, sleeping on benches. One day, exhausted by the months of struggle, he finally confided in an old roadie friend, who let him sleep on his floor.
As low as he fell, though, Wakeman didn’t lose hope. “My father once said to me that I have the gypsy spirit in me that his mother had,” Wakeman recalls. “That whatever you do, wherever you put your case down, that’s where you are.” But if the real Rick Wakeman had anything in common with the Caped Crusader he played onstage, it was the silver lining he always saw. No matter what he lost, he always had his music. He wanted to play again—and he wanted to keep his promise to his boyhood friend, to revisit the world of knights and maidens they had created together. Little by little, the music brought him back. “You go where the music takes you,” he says.
It didn’t take Wakeman long to get back on his feet. A year after he was sleeping on park benches, he hit the Top 40 with a concept album he wrote and recorded based on George Orwell’s novel 1984. Tim Rice wrote the lyrics, and vocals were provided by Jon Anderson. Wakeman went on to tour the world, release more than 50 records, and inspire another generation of admirers. “I try and keep everything I own that could be considered musical in some way at arm’s reach, like a spaceship cockpit,” says Kevin Parker, the multi-instrumentalist behind the psychedelic music project Tame Impala. “It’s very Rick Wakeman.”
But Wakeman wasn’t satisfied with his return to musical prominence. Over the years, as he continued to tour and record, he felt like something was missing. He had a promise to keep to an old friend. On June 19, 2016, Wakeman took the stage at the O2 arena in London, where he was headlining a prog-music festival. At 66, his face was fleshier, his beard grayer. But his hair was still long and blond, and his cape, black and silver-lined, waved proudly from his shoulders. Suddenly, the crowd cheered as Ash Holt, the man who had given Wakeman his first job as a musician, walked onstage with the other members of the pub band. They were reuniting with Wakeman for the first time since 1975 to perform King Arthur again. There was no ice, but there were tears. Wakeman had promised them long ago that one day they’d perform their epic again, and here they were, back in their musical kingdom together. “It was lump-in-the-throat time to see it happen again,” Wakeman says.
But throughout all he’s experienced over the years—the wealth and fame, the world tours, the homelessness—Wakeman hasn’t given up on bringing back King Arthur as it was meant to be staged: with ice skates. “Before I depart this mortal coil, I must do King Arthur on Ice again,” he tells me. “Think about what you can do on ice now! The technology has advanced so much.” A faraway look comes into his eyes, and for a moment he’s no longer an aging rocker—he’s the boy who walked the ruins at Tintagel, dreaming of another boy who pulled a sword from a stone and became a king. “We can build shapes out of ice,” he says, the vision shimmering before his eyes, as real as the music he brought forth from nothing. “We can build a castle!”