Rick Wakeman made a name for himself in the late-1960s as a virtuoso pianist and session musician. His early work was highlighted by his collaboration with the up and coming star David Bowie, first working with him on Space Oddity and later Hunky Dory. Despite having several notable collaborations to his name by the early 1970s, Wakeman struggled to make ends meet with the low going rate for session musicians at the time.
Wakeman was a sociable man and would frequent the musician hangouts of London, where he might rub shoulders with the musical elite. While working with Bowie, he became close with the Starman’s legendary bassist and producer, Tony Visconti. Through his connection with Visconti and Gus Dudgeon, Wakeman managed to secure session work with the likes of Cat Stevens, Elton John and Lou Reed, who was in London recording his seminal solo album Transformer with Bowie and Mick Ronson.
One day in 1971, Wakeman found himself in a financial quandary as he was £8 short of meeting his rent. Upon taking the train from East London to a Southern Music recording studio in Tin Pan Ally, he found no luck in getting any session work. He then walked to the Regal Zonophone studios on Oxford Street, where usually there was something for him to get involved in, but on this day, luck wasn’t on his side.
As any young man down on his luck might do, he headed to a Wimpy Bar on the corner of Oxford Street to drown his sorrows with what little money he had left. While in the bar, he bumped into his friend Tony Visconti. “Rick, session tonight in Trident Studios, midnight, for Marc Bolan’s new single,” Visconti said, “He wants you to play piano.” Wakeman, who had been friends with Marc Bolan, asked how much he’d get for the session. “Nine quid,” Visconti responded. To which Wakeman replied, “I love you!”. Not only would he have enough to cover his rent, but he had a pound left over for a drink.
Later that evening, Wakeman dropped by Soho’s Trident Studios to meet Bolan and T. Rex. The group were rehearsing the future hit, ‘Bang a Gong (Get It On)’. After hearing them run through the track in its entirety, Wakeman noticed that there wasn’t any need for piano in the track.
Wakeman once recalled the conversation, “Marc, there is no piano on this. I can’t hear a piano part at all. Anything I add will take away from the rawness you are trying to achieve.” Bolan said, “All I want you to do is this”, and he slid his hand across the piano keys in a glissando – as heard most clearly at the beginning of the song. “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.” To which Bolan responded bluntly, “Do you want your nine quid or not?”. He continued, “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 ‘til 3am doing glisses.”
‘Bang a Gong (Get It On)’ was released a few months later in July 1971, rapidly shooting to the top of the charts and becoming the second of T. Rex’s four number one hits. Listen to the classic glam hit below and see if you can make out Wakeman’s all-important glissandos.