HE was the one of the inventors of prog rock and the composer of some of the most lyrical and mellifluous piano music to grace a pop record in the past 50 years. But at the grand age of 64, Rick Wakeman has reinvented himself as... a Grumpy Old Man.
Not only is he a regular guest on the TV show, his Twitter address is @GrumpyOldRick and his blog is called Grumpy Old Rick’s Ramblings. But the fact is that in real life, he’s anything but grumpy.
When I call him at 9am on a Tuesday morning, a time you would expect most rock musicians to be sleeping off the night before or stumbling about in search of the first caffeine and nicotine hit of the day, he is chirpy and chatty and chipper, and it soon becomes obvious that his “grumpy” persona is just a typically British tongue-in-cheek way of dealing with his advancing years.
“There’s a very fine line between grumpy and angry and if you are angry people back off. I think I’m well on the grumpy side,” he says.
“You can moan about things but you know it isn’t going to change anything at all. I know from MP friends on both sides of the House that one of the things they like is people marching and having a moan because it gets it out of their system. But it rarely produces anything. They hand in petitions with millions of signatures and everyone goes away and says, ‘that was good’ but it never changes anything.”
One of the things he likes to grumble about is the paucity of the rail service from his home in Norfolk to London. At one point, he says, he used to take an exercise book on his travels to jot down the ridiculous excuses meted out over the megaphone for late or cancelled trains.
“My favourite one was an announcement that said a train was delayed because the guard had dropped his whistle on the track,” he says. “That got a round of applause.”
In truth Wakeman has little to be grumpy about. He is married (for the fourth time) to Rachel, a woman 25 years his junior. He has sold 50 million albums in his lifetime, and he has rubbed shoulders with the great and the good of the rock world.
Tonight (Friday) he is playing alongside Micky Moody, Joe Brown and Paul Weller at the Royal Albert Hall in a tribute to his late great friend, Deep Purple keyboard player Jon Lord, who lived in Fawley. Lord died of pancreatic cancer last July and his funeral took place in Hambleden. Wakeman revealed that before he died, the pair were working on a new album of piano music that they were both incredibly excited about.
The pair only became friends about five years ago, when they met at the house of Ian Paice, the Deep Purple drummer, in Shiplake.
“Ian and Jon married twins, Vickie and Jacky,” he said. “I’d known Ian for years, he is a very close friend of mine, and my wife and I were round at Ian’s house and Jon was there. Ian went off somewhere, and we started chatting, and we talked for hours. We had so much in common. That was the start of a really good friendship.
“We were working on an a joint album together and we were very excited about it. Then he was diagnosed. I know it would have been one hell of an album. We found it so easy to write together. I said to a couple of people, ‘I know it sounds daft, but it would have been the greatest keyboard album that was ever made.’”
In fact the only trace of their joint music making to survive is a YouTube clip of their Sunflower Jam in 2011.
Wakeman was born into a working class family in Perivale and started playing piano at a young age, but in the Sixties he dropped out of the Royal College of Music after a year to become a session musician.
He soon found himself playing alongside some of the most accomplished and famous rock stars of the era, arranging and playing the piano part for Cat Stevens’ hit Morning Has Broken, playing the haunting mellotron sounds on David Bowie’s Space Oddity and the piano part for Life On Mars. His fee for Space Oddity was a mere £9. Even though he didn’t make a lot of money from some of those early and memorable compositions, he says: “It was great fun and a wonderful apprenticeship. David Bowie always had brilliant ideas.”
He joined Strawbs in 1970 and his first album with them Just A Collection of Antiques and Curios paved the way for the new wave of folk rock. Then a year later he left to join Yes. This was a successful but rocky relationship as Wakeman left and went back so many times they were likened to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Among his other notable successes were writing the film scores for Ken Russell’s Lisztomania and Crimes of Passion.
Not only has his career and his love life been varied, he has also moved house so many times he has trouble remembering them all.
“I have lived everywhere,” he says. “I was brought up in Harrow — well, Perivale. Harrow is the posh part. We used to walk around the posh part and make out we lived there. I’ve lived in Essex, Buckinghamshire, Devon, Switzerland, a short period in New York, the Isle of Man and Surrey. Then when I met my wife Rachel 12 years ago we decided it might be quite nice to live in Norfolk. Ian Lavender, who was in Dad’s Army, an old friend of mine, found us the house.
“My late father said I inherited my wanderlust from my grandmother. She was a German Romany gypsy in the 19th century. Wherever I put my case down, that’s home.”
Even though he jokes about his age — that officially he reaches retiring age next month — his live music career is still going strong. At the end of this month he starts the Journey to the Centre of the Earth tour with the New World Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir and the English Rock Ensemble, a vast performing troupe which he thoroughly enjoys working with. “There’s so many of us on stage there’s hardly room for any audience,” he says.
He derives equal satisfaction from his regular one-man shows, and this year his only outing as a solo artiste will be in the intimate setting of the Salon at the Henley Festival on Friday, July 11.
He said: “I do a one-man show maybe two or three times a year, a mixture of music I have been involved with over the years intermingled with the most ludicrous anecdotal stories which are unbelievably believable. My kids say that nothing normal ever happens to me. So I tell some of those stories, and it’s great fun.
“Because of the big grand concert tour I wasn’t planning to do any one-man shows, then the Henley Festival came along. I’m fond of Henley. At least half a dozen times a year I go to see Ian Paice and we hang out in Henley. We go to the regatta every year. I did the Henley Festival a few years ago when I’d just published my book, Grumpy Old Rockstar, and it was great fun. It’s one of the most organised festivals I’ve ever been to, so when the opportunity came I thought if I’m going to do one show I will do that one.”
• For Henley Festival tickets go to www.henley-festival.co.uk
PROG rock pioneer and master of the pop anecdote Rick Wakeman comes to the Henley Festival this year. He spoke to LESLEY POTTER about his love for music, his illustrious career and his close connection to our town and its rich musical heritage.