Classic-rock keyboardist Rick Wakeman enjoying life as Grumpy Old Rock Star

Rick Wakeman interview

Lee Wilkinson

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Rick Wakeman.

“I think it’s great when music inspires people to do things,” says Rick Wakeman. “I find that absolutely fascinating and I think it’s an important part of how the people who are listening to music and get into music can actually relate to the people making it and also how the people who are making it can relate to those who are listening to it.”

Exactly! Wakeman gets it, and why wouldn’t he? With more than five decades of experience under his trademark cape, plus the respect of fans, peers and bandmates, he has influenced generations of keyboard players worldwide.

RICK WAKEMAN

He’s been called “wickedly irreverent” and “legendary” and has just completed a 25-city U.S. leg of his Grumpy Old Rock Star Tour. His first solo tour in 13 years, it featured “solo material, Yes and British humor,” he said; its two New Jersey stops were at BergenPAC in Englewood and the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood.

“I do a lot of comedy in the U.K. and one of the programs I follow and have been involved with is (the BBC reality show) ‘Grumpy Old Men,’ which is a massive program … that has run for quite a few years,” he said.

“So I became known by people as Grumpy Old Man,” he elaborated, with a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

“Then a book publicist said, ‘Look, all of your silly stories … why don’t you put them in a book and call it ‘Grumpy Old Rock Star.’ And I thought, ‘Okay.’ So I did the book, which was really successful, to my amazement. So they said to do another one. So I did another one, which was equally successful, and I became known as that on TV and with the radio stations, and then I had been doing different shows in England every couple of years that mingled in different stories and other things and my agent from America was over in England and he saw one of the shows and said, ‘You have to bring this to America,’ and I said, ‘Well you’re my agent, bring it!’

“He took me at my word and said, ‘Look, I want you to tour as The Grumpy Old Rock Star,’ and I said, ‘I don’t mind it, but will the people get “Grumpy Old Rock Star”?’ He said, ‘Oh they will, trust me,’ and that’s what we called it.

“In my show, I tell lots of stories about Yes and David Bowie, Cat Stevens and other people that I’ve worked with. I just tell lots of ludicrous stories about people, it’s a lot of fun. It’s an interesting thing: The guy who produces the ‘Grumpy Old Men’ TV show is a great friend of mine and a very clever guy and he’s produced many, many hit TV programs, and we were talking about it over lunch not that long ago, and he said, ‘There’s an interesting thing about “grumpy.” If you’re grumpy it’s also funny, and if it’s funny, that’s fine. But if you take it slightly the wrong way, it becomes angry, and angry isn’t funny. So as long as you keep it on the grumpy side of things — self-deprecating or whatever — then it’s funny.’ And I think he’s right. I know people who claim to be grumpy but they’re actually quite angry, and that’s not nice. If you can’t look at yourself and sort of go, ‘hold on a minute,’ and poke at yourself … then you don’t see yourself properly.”

Wakeman, 70, couldn’t help but chuckle a bit when he thought about a favorite question from the early days of his career.

Yes in the ’70s (from left, Rick Wakeman, Jon Anderson, Alan White, Steve Howe and Chris Squire).

“I can remember being in my Twenties, just before joining Yes in 1971, and … getting asked by music journalists, ‘What do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 30?’ There were no 30-year-old rock musicians to look at, so I said, ‘I don’t know, I guess I’ll keep doing this as long as I can.’ Then when I got to 30, I was asked, ‘What do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 40?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. I’m surprised that I’m still doing it at 30, but you never know, I might still be doing it at 40.’ Then when I got to 40, they asked, ‘What will you be doing when you’re 50?’ I said, ‘I figured I’d be dead by now but I guess I’ll continue,’ and it’s true, really: None of us knew what was going to happen, we were just incredibly happy that we were able to carry on. It wasn’t always a garden of roses, there was a time that our music was about as popular as a condom machine at The Vatican, but you just carry on, anyway, and play what you believe.”

It is no secret that today’s music industry, from the record companies on down, is in disarray, and Wakeman has distinct opinions as to why this is. Many are accurate and all impassioned.

When he embarked up on his career as a musician, he said, “you went out and played live, anywhere you could. You played at pubs, clubs, little village balls, tiny places … anywhere you could play, you played, and you started to build up supporters who told you they liked what you did. At the same time … record companies would have their reps out on the road looking at different bands and they’d say, ‘Okay, we might … sign you in a year’s time if you carry on like this,’ and that’s what happened. Then they would do long-term investment. It wasn’t just a one-year project to make a record, it was like a five-year project where … you’d do four, maybe five, albums and you’d tour and they’d invest in the band. You would go out and your supporters would go with you and you also had radio stations where you had DJs that actually had a choice of what they played. It wasn’t formatted radio, so they could discover an album and they played it.

“Yes is a classic example. Ed Sciaky, who is sadly no longer with us in Philadelphia, discovered The Yes Album and Fragile and played it to death on his program and that got picked up by the people of Philadelphia and other radio stations and that was because he had the freedom to actually play what he liked.

A vintage photo of Rick Wakeman.

“I remember when I first went to America, what was fantastic was getting in the car, putting on the FM radio and no matter what town you were in, hearing a lot of different music. Then it all became formatted and once it became formatted it was ruled by the advertisers and then the record companies were dictated to: You must have a lot of three-minute or four-minute songs. So bands like Yes, who didn’t like four-minute songs, were told you better start liking them or you won’t be getting radio time. So that started that.

“A lot of those bands were saved because those bands could go out and play live, because that’s what they were brought up on. You had record sales and record shops and record companies who believed in the bands and you had audiences that were as much interested in how good the musicians were and how they performed live. It was fantastic! Then it slowly started to die because the record shops started to die, and my argument over all of that is that we don’t have any mainstream record stores in the U.K. anymore. I’ve got no objections to downloading or streaming, but my big objection is that when something new came in, it was … ‘Oh, CDs: Let’s replace vinyl, then mini discs will replace CDs and then downloading will replace CDs because nobody will want those anyway.’ My objection is it shouldn’t be a replacement: Those things should be an additional way to having music.

“Today vinyl is outselling CDs in the U.K. and so many young people are discovering it. Everyone wants vinyl because of the wonderful artwork and everything that comes with it. The record companies were the ones who said, ‘We don’t want addition, we want replacement,’ and now they’re discovering that people do want it. If a new brand of coffee came out, all of the supermarkets wouldn’t clear out all of the other brands of coffee on their shelf. It would just be there with the others, as an additional coffee.

“So that’s why there aren’t any bands. You’ve got all of these reality shows, which I can’t stand, which are always geared at singers and not musicians, and there are some fantastic young musicians who don’t get a look because record companies are not interested. You’re not going to get a record company to sign a young player with the talent of Steve Vai because they don’t know how to market it. Luckily, Steve made it earlier: He’s a phenomenal player who made a great name for himself.”

Wakeman finally saw a desire come true when, in 2017, Yes was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His acceptance speech brought the house down.

The induction meant a lot to him, and not for the reasons one might think.

ARW (from left, Trevor Rabin, Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman).

“It was more important than people might think. I pushed for Yes to get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the late ’80s and I wasn’t even in the band (at that point). I felt that they deserved it and they were still surviving in the ’80s, when progressive rock was far from Flavor of the Year.

“It took a long period of time before they were recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because (the Hall) didn’t accept prog-rock in any way, and what (prog-rock) had given to music. One of the main things prog-rock did was give credence that there was no rules on how you had write and play all of the chords. When Yes was finally inducted, I was pleased for the music, because as far as I’m concerned, it’s the music getting inducted and not the individuals.

“I was really upset because we lost Chris (Squire in 2015) and I was dreadfully upset when Chris died because I hadn’t seen him in about a year. His contribution to music was incredible, and he was a founding (Yes) member that was there for the whole time, so not having him there was disappointing.”

With the tour wrapped up and other irons in his fire; where will he go next? Will there be a Yes reunion? ARW (his band with fellow ex-Yes members Jon Anderson and Trevor Rabin)? What’s the next page in his storied career?

“Great time that last ARW tour was,” he said. “We’re getting ready to start a farewell tour in 2020. We set out to achieve what we wanted to achieve, and that was to play the songs that we wanted played.

“We had a great time doing it, so we’re going to do one last sort of farewell. It will be a lot of fun.”

For information on Wakeman, visit rwcc.com.

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