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Just Say Yes to Progressive Rock : Pop: Keyboardist Rick Wakeman, on a career-reaffirming tour that stops at the Coach House, pines for the old days.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

They were technical masters of their instruments, and they never let you forget it. Yes was perhaps the preeminent progressive rock group of the ‘60s and ‘70s, a self-indulgent, bombastic and tremendously popular behemoth of a band, which set out to overwhelm the senses with layer upon layer of harmonic sound, classical-derived compositions and look-at-me licks.

A large measure of Yes’ success was due to keyboardist Rick Wakeman, who performs tonight and Sunday night at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.

Wakeman, fresh off a stint in the Strawbs, joined the London-based group in 1971--just in time to cut the ambitious “Fragile” album, which included the breakout single “Roundabout.” He performed with the group on and off throughout its troubled existence, which saw numerous personnel changes, breakups and reunions. Yes’ most recent and perhaps final reunion in 1991 culminated in an album that Wakeman is wholly embarrassed by.

“The album was called ‘Union,’ but I call it the ‘Onion’ album, because every time I hear it, it makes me cry,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a classic example of a corporate CD. It was a mistake.”

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Throughout his tenure with Yes, Wakeman waxed a number of grandiloquent, thematic solo projects, which sold well but are largely viewed now as prime examples of progressive rock’s signature bloat. Wakeman, 44, has continued to record solo albums, although none has been distributed in the United States since “Rhapsodies” in 1980.

Performers of Wakeman’s ilk were all but swept away by the explosion of punk in the late ‘70s, as the tenets of the progressive scene--stellar musicianship, untamed ambition and grandiose production--underwent a critical re-evaluation and became tagged by many as pompous and anachronistic.

“In all fairness, looking back, a lot of that was brought on by myself and I accept it,” Wakeman said. “Certainly, a lot of the things I did were excessive--deliberately so. It went way over the top.”

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Still, Wakeman asserted that his albums remain available and popular throughout the rest of the world, and that the American leg of his current world tour has been particularly well-received. He must be doing something right; the tour began last October and is booked well into next year.

Wakeman said his current music has a more contemporary cast. He’s even utilizing the services of his 19-year-old son, Adam--also a keyboardist, with a U.K. record deal of his own--to help modernize the sound.

“This tour really started as an accident,” Wakeman said. “I decided I wanted to tour with another keyboard player to free me up to do more things. Adam was in the studio at the time, recording his own album, and I jokingly said, ‘I don’t suppose you’d fancy coming out with your dad?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. I’ve got to have some of that.’

“We’ve put this together very much as a club show, so it’s very rock-oriented. It draws from my ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII,’ ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ and ‘Myths and Legends of King Arthur’ albums, but we also do some new stuff which goes down real well.”

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But if Wakeman’s tour has been career-reaffirming, he nonetheless pines for the old days. He believes that the bottom-line sensibility of the music industry has all but destroyed the essential creative freedom that artists must have to thrive.

“I think (the period of the ‘60s and ‘70s) was the finest time recorded and live music will ever see, because we were allowed to do what we wanted,” he said. “Radio wasn’t formatted, music industry newspapers weren’t formatted, and record companies didn’t understand what bands like Yes or Pink Floyd were doing, but they looked forward to getting and marketing the records.

“Of course, that all changed within a few years, and the record companies started saying, ‘We want this, and this is what you must give us.’ It’s as if a great author went to their publisher, and the publisher said, ‘Do what you like, as long as there are four murders, six rapes, a political assassination, three boats sinking, four people with AIDS and a huge inferno.’ If a band like Yes suddenly appeared today, what chance have they got? They’ve got none at all, I’m afraid.”

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Wakeman remains enthusiastic about his music, but seemed disillusioned by the lack of American record company support. With no American distribution, financial restraints have prevented him from taking on the larger projects he hears in his head. In his frustration, Wakeman even mused about retirement.

“To be honest, I don’t know what I’ll do after this tour ends,” he said. “I’ve come to sort of a crossroads and decided that if by next birthday in May I can’t find some way around these restrictions, that I really will have to rethink whether or not I’m going to do any more. I’m thinking of knocking it on the head.”


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