Rick Wakeman Interview: YES, He is a “Grumpy Old Rock Star”

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“I think it’s great when music inspires people to do things. 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! Rick Wakeman gets it and; why wouldn’t he? With more than five decades of experience under his trademark cape, the respect of fans, peers and band mates; this “Grumpy Old Man” of the UK has influenced generations of keyboard players worldwide. 

He’s been called, “Wickedly Irreverent”and “Legendary” and has just completed a 25 city “Grumpy Old Rock Star” U.S. tour; his first solo tour in 13 years with two recent shows in New Jersey which included, “Solo material, YES and British humor.” Wakeman had much to say on a wide range of topics prior to those aforementioned shows as he reflected on his “Grumpy” status, music today, ARW, YES and more.

“I do a lot of comedy in the UK and one of the programs I follow and have been involved with is, “Grumpy Old Men” which is a massive program in the UK that has run for quite a few years; 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, OK. 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 mixed in and my agent from in 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? Then he said, “Oh they will trust me” and that’s what we called it and that’s fine by me.” 

“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; if you can’t do that then you don’t see yourself properly.”

Very few people with the exception of possibly musicians have the ability to stay at their profession for more than 50 years. Wakeman couldn’t help but chuckle a bit when he recanted a favorite question from “Melody Maker” entertainment journalists during the early days of his career; and beyond. 

“I can remember being in my 20’s just before joining YES in 1971 and I remember getting asked by music journalists; what do you think you’ll be doing when your 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; many are accurate and all impassioned. 

“Now you’ve got me started,” he said with a laugh. “When I and a lot of bands started out, you played live, 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 and their also the ones who told you whether they liked it or not; at the same time you kept working and record companies would have their reps out on the road looking at different bands and they’d say, “OK we might look at that and 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 with them; it wasn’t just a one year project to make a record, it was like a five year project where you signed for five years and 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. 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 UK 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 UK 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 their 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 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; we had a system that worked, it worked for the artist, the public and everybody and it got mucked up. Once it got mucked up it is very hard to put it all back together again and I think it can be fixed but it will take a very brave record company to do it. Record shops were social places, you’d browse and discover new music and you’d wind up going in for one record and coming out with three and you’d always meet somebody and say; have you heard this album? Have you heard this band? That’s how it used to work, everything including the music industry was word of mouth and we’ve destroyed that. OK, I’m 70 years old and people may say; why should I care? Well, I do care because I care about young musicians. I’ve got six kids and three of them are professional musicians and I do care; I’m too old now but put me in charge of a record company and I’ll start it (laughs).”

Wakeman finally saw a desire come true when in 2017 YES was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; an induction which saw him give an acceptance speech that brought the house down. The induction meant much to him and not for the reasons one might think; he described the importance as he elaborated on the honor. 

“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 80’s and I wasn’t even in the band. I felt that they deserved it and they were still surviving in the 80’s 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 it didn’t accept prog-rock in any way and what it 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) 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 member that was there for the whole time so not having him there was disappointing. So that got me thinking about the number of other musicians that really deserved to be inducted with their bands but it was long after that their bands got in. I think it’s a shame that sometimes it’s too late when bands get in and I think it should be looked at more closely. I was very proud to be a part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because I feel that YES made a contribution to music and I say the same thing about The Moody Blues, The Who, Deep Purple and so many acts like that; why are they so late to be inducted in?”

With the tour wrapped up and other irons in his fire; where will he go next? Will there be a YES reunion? ARW? What’s the next page in his storied career?

“Great time that last ARW tour was, 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.”

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