Rick Wakeman is legendarily cranky. That's in part how the busy former Yes keyboardist became lovably known as Grumpy Old Rick.

It's also provided a title for his first concerts since 2019, as the Even Grumpier Old Rock Star tour promises "an evening of music and mirth." Additional dates are set for early 2022, and he's continuing work on a forthcoming solo album.

We spoke with Wakeman about the recent Commander of the British Empire designation he received from the Queen of England – an honor which places the keyboardist in fine royal company with his longtime friend Brian May – and, yes, his curmudgeonly moods.

 

I think for a lot of folks who have known you for all of these years, it’s hard to imagine the concept of an even grumpier rock star, as this tour is being billed. You’re already Grumpy Old Rick. How much more grumpy can Rick get? 
It’s an interesting word, grumpy. Because it’s a fine line between grumpy and angry. The guy who actually developed and produced the original Grumpy Old Men show on television, a great friend of mine called Stuart Prebble, he always said there was a fine line between grumpy and angry.

You walk along the line. If you say something to somebody and it’s funny and they laugh but they go, “Yeah, but that’s absolutely true,” then that’s grumpy. If they don’t laugh and it’s sort of not nice, it becomes angry and it’s not funny anymore. So “grumpy” actually has a big funny element to it – which is why the TV program was such a success. Really, what it is, it’s just a lot of stories and a lot of things where people can laugh and then go, “That’s really stupid” and then go, “But you know what? That’s absolutely true.”

My friend Stuart, he was in a wine bar in a place called Kingston, which is in South West London. He was just sitting there having a glass of wine and there were two businessmen talking and one was saying, “I’ll tell you what, the train service from Asker gets worse everyday.” He said, “Yeah, I know. You pay full price and you can’t get a seat and it’s always late and you miss your connection. It’s an absolute joke.”

He said, “I know. And they’re dirty. They’re not clean. And they’re incredibly expensive.” He went, “Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know why I do it.” Then he said, “Look, I’ve got to get home now. See you on the platform tomorrow morning.” He said, that summed it all up. You know, we have a good moan about things and then just get on with it. If you can’t change it, you just live with it – and that’s grumpy. And I’m very grumpy, yeah.

Congrats on the recent honor from the Queen. How do we properly address you now? Is it Commander? What do we do here?
[Laughs.] Oh, Rick will do. In theory, I suppose, Commander of the British Empire. But no, very few people, unless you go to the next stage – which is a knighthood, which is a Sir – very few people actually use Commander.

I mean, it came as a massive shock, I must admit. I had no idea. In fact, it was quite funny. What happened was, I got a phone call from a guy who said, “I need a private email address from you, please.” And I said, “Who are you?” He said, “It doesn’t matter. I need a private email address. You need to get an email from the Cabinet office in Downing Street.” I thought, “This is one of my friends. This is one of the band playing up, having a joke.” So I went, “Okay.” I’ve got an email address that I use for things that are private. “Here you go.” They went, “Great, okay, thank you,” and put the phone down.

I did a thing called 1471, which is a callback to find out what the number was. It just came up as no number. I thought, “This is weird.” A few days later, I got this long email pertaining to be from the Cabinet office, to say that I had been recommended to the Queen for a CBE. I read all of this and thought, “This is a joke.” But then I thought, “This is really well written, whoever has done this!” There was a number to call, so I sat back and I called the number. Of course, it was Downing Street. And as I say, it was a complete shock. But it’s nice.

They do OBEs and MBEs and CBES. The MBEs tend to be people who have worked in the service sector, national health or whatever, and done some great things. OBEs tend to be for charity work and the CBEs are for recognition of the work you do. It was just a really nice thing. I’m a big royalist anyway, a supporter of the royal family. I think they do a great job. It was really nice to get it, I must admit. My band, when I got this, they said, “If you think we’re going to call you Commander, you’ve got another thing coming.” I went, “Okay, fair enough.”

That's funny. I mean, you've already been well prepared for this day for a lot of years now, it seems. You've got the cape, so you're hooked up there.
Yeah, that’s very true. [Laughs.] Normally, what you would do to actually go and collect your medal [is dressed up and wear a] top hat. But, because of all of the lockdowns and COVID, they are miles behind with all of the actual investitures. They’re asking people if they would have the investiture done locally. Normally, it’s done by Prince Charles, the Queen or Princess Ann. But they’re asking if people would be happy to collect their honor in the county that they’re in. Mine is the lower left end of Suffolk, you go along and collect it [from someone] who gives it on behalf of Her Majesty, the Queen.

Now, to be honest, it would be lovely to go to Buckingham Palace and get it. But I do appreciate that they are so far behind. They’re about a year behind with stuff. So I said, “Look, I’m very happy to go to the lower left end.” I mean, I’ve been extremely fortunate in my life. I’ve met the Queen on numerous occasions, and Prince Charles and Princess Anne. For a lot of people who have never had the chance to meet them, that’s fine, I’ve been lucky enough to do it, so I’m quite happy to go to wherever they send me. But it is lovely.

You know, I have to say, I got a very nice phone call from my good friend Brian May – because they gave Brian a CBE years ago. He says, “It’s good news that there’s two of us.” That was nice.

Brian seems like just one of the best guys in this business to know. He's just such a good guy.
Brian is phenomenal. We’re both heavily involved in animal-welfare charities, so we talk a lot about that. Also, we’re both involved with a big festival called Starmus, which is a mixture of music and really, astronauts, who all get together and meet. There’s big concerts, which we normally hold every year. Obviously, we didn’t do it this year. Brian introduced me to that, because he’s actually a qualified astrophysicist.

It’s quite funny when I’m sitting with him and some of the astronauts, and they start talking all of their astrophysics. I just sort of sit there and look completely stupid, because I haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about! But it’s great fun. Thanks to Brian, I got to meet people like Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin and all sorts of people. Brian, you’re quite right: In so many respects, Brian is one of the really good guys. The old expression, I would wade through boiling oil for Brian. He’s a lovely man.

How did you and Brian first meet? Because it seems like you two would have found common ground pretty quickly once you did.
We first met in 1976 in Montreux in Switzerland. I was working with Yes on the Going for the One album at Mountain Studios in Montreux. At that particular time, Queen were looking to take over the studios and buy it, which they did in the end. They were spending a lot of time in Montreux and there was a wonderful pub there called the White Horse, which sadly, recently closed down. It was a wonderful, wonderful pub. We all used to meet in there.

I first met Brian in there and we struck up a kindred spirit – because you know, I’m a massive fan of Brian. He’s so musically knowledgeable and such a unique and clever player. The friendship grew and I suppose in the last 10 years, it’s grown even more, really, because of the animal welfare and other things as well. He’s a good man, Brian.

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