The interview: Rick Wakeman

Prog rock legend Rick Wakeman is set for two nights at Lancaster Music Festival next month. MALCOLM WYATT tracked down the keyboard wizard to talk family values, grumpiness and healthy living

Thursday, 3rd September 2015, 9:00 pm
Rick Wakeman Photograph: LEE WILKINSON
Rick Wakeman Photograph: LEE WILKINSON

It’s half-past eight in the morning when I make contact with Rick Wakeman. And despite his memorable contributions to the BBC’s Grumpy Old Men, he’s bright and breezy.

So what time did this revered ivory-tinkler, who has sold 50 million records worldwide, get up this morning?

“Half past five, sir! I’ve been like that for years and years. I suppose it started when I was doing paper rounds.

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“Then when I started doing session work, the first ones in London were at nine in the morning. To beat the rush hour you had to leave at six.

“I mean… I’m in the wrong profession. I’m knackered by nine o’clock and want to go to bed far too early.

“The great thing is you get a load of stuff done before everything starts going nuts.

“If it wasn’t for my early starts I wouldn’t get anything else done. I love mornings. I get up, have a cup of tea, walk round the garden – regardless of if it’s raining, sunny, whatever.”

Home is East Anglia these days for this 66-year-old dad of six, married four times, who made his name as the keyboard player with Strawbs then Yes.

“I’m right on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. I’ve been here 11 years. It’s absolutely beautiful and very commutable, an hour and a half from London by train, 40 minutes from the seaside, with lots of forest around. We like all that.”

So is it just you and your beloved, Rachael at home these days?

“And three rescue cats. Rachael and I have been together… ooh, crikey, 13 years now, and all my kids are grown up. The eldest boy’s 43, the youngest 29, and there’s nine grandchildren.

“I don’t know what it is. It seems like whenever they’ve a free moment they decide, ‘Why don’t we breed?’ And they seem to do that quite well.”

Is that in the Wakeman genes then?

“It’s when they take the jeans off that the problem starts.”

My excuse for tracking Rick down is his two-night candle-lit stand as part at the Lancaster Music Festival (October 16/17).

He’s playing the Priory, the historic place of worship on Lancaster Castle’s doorstep, supported by acclaimed guitarist Gordon Giltrap and accompanied by Lancaster Priory Choir.

Rick’s religious faith has been important to him over the decades, so I’m guessing he’s played grade-one listed Anglican churches before.

“I’ve played loads of churches and priories over the years, and like them very much. The thing that made this show so very appealing was the choir.

“I’m in love with choirs, always have been, and do a lot with the English Chamber Choir, right back to 1970. I’ve also been involved with St Martin’s in the Fields’ Choir and quite a few others.”

Rick will perform on grand piano and the Priory organ, playing pieces from across his career, from early recordings with Cat Stevens and David Bowie to acclaimed solo work, including Jane Seymour from Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Due to limited capacity both concerts have VIP status, with opportunities to meet and be photographed with the artists. And this being Rick, there will be plenty of anecdotes from an eventful life and career.

“A lot of pieces have choir parts, and I’ll be doing a couple of Yes pieces, but we also have a young girl singing a couple of solos, a former Priory chorister, Lizee Weedy.

“She’ll sing Amazing Grace with me, something I’ve performed with my daughter Jemma. The choir will also join me on some of the Six Wives stuff and some of the other bits.”

The festival itself prides itself on reflecting Lancaster’s vast musical abundance, excellence and diversity. And you get all three with Rick.

Speaking of spectacular settings, which would he say were the most memorable places he’s played over the years?

“Amazingly, a lot involve churches, cathedrals and priories, although some are difficult to play because of problems with viewing.

“But I’ve been very lucky with places I’ve played, including open-air venues like the Hollywood Bowl.

“I remember doing Journey to the Centre of the Earth there, and as we came to an end with an orchestra, the sun was setting behind the venue. Unreal.

“I prefer older venues though, such as theatres. Without being unkind to the town and city halls, they’re just square boxes and have absolutely no atmosphere.’

Before Lancaster, there’s another gig with a difference, at Barrow Hill Roundhouse, an engine shed in Chesterfield. Right up Rick’s street as a steam railway buff.

“That was another weird one that came in. We turn down a lot, but when that came up I thought it sounded great and different.

“I really fancied that, not least as I did a steam driving course in Minehead, doing the whole stretch of the West Somerset Railway. Every schooboy’s dream!”

After a somewhat colourful rock past, Rick’s been off the booze for 30 years now, and quit the fags before that. So what does the Wakeman rider comprise these days?

“Oh, it’s a monster! It’s six bottles of sparkling water, six bottles of still water, tea, and coffee. And that’s it.”

So there’s not likely to be a shout-out for a curry mid-set (seeing as he once managed an entire spicy Indian meal during a Tales from Topographic Oceans date with Yes in Manchester in late 1973)?

“Actually, I was poorly in the New Year, with incredibly high blood pressure, and the specialist had a look and said, ‘One thing you’ve got to do is dump a lot of weight.

“I’m 66 now and one of the problems you get is you park the car nearer the house, spend a lot of time in the studio, sitting on planes, sitting in cars.

“I don’t eat junk food, I’m a healthy eater, but if you’re not burning it off it slowly piles on. I was told I had to lose five stone by the end of the year.

“I’ve lost half so far, and feel better for it, but still need to do that again. I’m allowed a treat every now and then, so it’s a curry or fish and chips once a month.

“The funny thing is, I’ll go for a large haddock and large chips now and find I can’t manage them. I’m down to small portions.”

Rick’s had a few health run-ins over the years…

“I don’t have basic things like in-grown toenails! If I’m going to be ill, I’ll go for the works.”

After one memorable solo show at Crystal Palace Bowl in 1974, Rick suffered a suspected minor heart attack, but enforced recuperation led to work on The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table while in hospital.

“I’d had three minor heart attacks, although I was only 26 or so. And 40 years ago they didn’t really look on the heart as a muscle that needed exercise.

“They worked on the principle that you should stay still. Bypasses weren’t so successful then, and took forever. Now, you can have a quadruple bypass and be out in two days.

“When I came out they advised I didn’t work, and although it may have been a bit selfish as I had a young family, I decided I couldn’t do that.

“I love what I do. I couldn’t just sit back and write a few songs, so went on tour around America.

“When I came back I had to go for tests, and the specialist said things were looking really good, so obviously these special tablets were working and the rest was doing me the world of good.

“I said, ‘Actually, I’ve just done a nine-week tour of America, which has been fairly strenuous, and after one week I ran out of those tablets’.

“They didn’t do them there, so I haven’t had any since. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re joking, right?’ He then said, “Look, if you start to feel ill again, come back and see me. If not, it’s been nice to know you.’

“Months later the tablets that I was on to stabilise the heartbeat had been taken off the market, as it caused blindness! I think my guardian angel was looking over me.”

While Rick’s still with us, he’s lost many good friends over the years, including Yes bassist Chris Squire to leukemia two months ago.

“Chris was just a few months older. I’ve lost 24 friends this year, from those in the 40s upwards, mostly in the 50s and 60s.

“That makes you think, but you can’t dwell on all that. I certainly don’t think of myself being in my twilight years. I’m in the early afternoon.”

Perhaps it helped to voice his grumpiness on camera, for Grumpy Old Men.

“Yeah, but I’m still grumpy, and can still moan as well as the next person. That’s just part of my make-up.”

It must be pretty good to see your family following your lead, including established keyboard players Adam and Oliver Wakeman.

“Adam’s been with Ozzy Osbourne now for 12 or so years, while Oliver did Yes for a couple of years and a tour with Gordon Giltrap, who’s also doing Lancaster.

“Jemma’s got a young girl so the music career is on more of a backburner, although she still plays in a really good band with her fiance. She’s a stunning piano player and writes beautiful songs.”

Rick’s certainly lived the dream in many respects, despite many lows en route.

This year has marked another accolade he wears proudly, as King Rat of the Grand Order of the Water Rats.

“I’ve been with the Water Rats for donkey’s years. The highest accolade is to become King Rat. I got elected last year and was then asked to do a second year.

“It’s wonderful, and a charity that helps kids, widows, all sorts, but doesn’t wave a flag and say, ‘Aren’t we lovely people?’ They just get on and do it.”

It’s now 20 years since Rick wrote his autobiography, Say Yes. He was in his mid-40s then. Was that a midlife crisis?

“My midlife crisis started when I came out of the womb and will finish when they hammer the last nail in. I think to some extent a midlife crisis is actually chosen by audiences and media.

Thinking back to his very first band, are there any recordings out there of Brother Wakeman and the Clergyman?

“I wish there were!”

Or the next outfit, The Atlantic Blues, by which time he was still only a young teen?

“Funnily enough, although none of The Atlantic Blues are around any more, next year I’m set to record an album featuring all of the pieces I did with them.

“All a bit of fun, with part of the profits going to the Down’s Syndrome Association, as it was at a club for people with Down’s that we used to play.

“I have fantastic memories of that, and that’s on my tick-list of things I want to do.

I have The Earl Grey Band lined up, a great rock’n’roll band.”

After time with The Concords then Curdled Milk, success finally came Rick’s way with Strawbs and then Yes.

But before that there was time with a dance band at Watford’s Top Rank Ballroom, studies at the Royal College of Music, and an eventual break as a session musician, appearing on many well-known tracks.

Those included T-Rex’s Get It On, Cat Stevens’ Morning Has Broken and several David Bowie hits, from Space Oddity onwards.

Can Rick, who soon featured on tracks by Black Sabbath, Elton John and Lou Reed, recall what he did with the £9 earned from playing mellotron on Bowie’s first real hit?

“I was working at the Top Rank, so I should imagine most of it went on light and bitter.”

I tell him how I recall his piano on Morning has Broken from primary school assemblies.

“Funnily enough, my wife was only born in 1974, and when we met she knew nothing of what I did.

“Around three years in, Morning was Broken was played on the radio and it was mentioned that I played piano on that.

“She said, “You did that? That’s one of my favourite records of all time!’

“About an hour later they played Life on Mars, and she found out I was on that too. She said, ‘Hunky Dory’s one of my favourite albums ever!

“Rachael said, ‘I think you and I better sit down and you can tell me whatever else you’ve played on.’”

While Rick left his most successful band, Yes, after four years in 1974 to concentrate on his solo career, he returned several times. Is he still in regular contact with US-based 70-year-old Accrington lad Jon Anderson?

“Yeah! Jon and I email probably once a week. He’s all over with his one-man show and doing different things, but we keep in touch a lot.”

Trying to summarise Rick’s career and amazing story in two pages isn’t easy, so can he tell us at least one astounding fact I might have missed?

“Actually, having the website and various other media now, it’s amazing what other people come up with.

“They’ll ask, ‘Do you remember doing this?’ I don’t at first, but then think, ‘Yeah, I did do that!’”

Tickets for Rick Wakeman at Lancaster Priory (October 16/17) various prices can be purchased via