Did you really get a school report saying you’d ‘end up in one of three places – Parliament, prison or on the stage at the London Palladium’?
Yes, that’s what it said! I was a bit offended about the prison bit as I was always a law-abiding citizen – though, to be fair, at the end of one school concert I piled all six of my band into my dad’s Standard Ensign, gear in the back, electric piano on the roof, and charged through the school gates. I tried to do a ‘doughnut’, skidded, careered across the headmaster’s lawn right in front of his study and we ended up right in the middle of his rose bed. It didn’t go down too well.
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What do you remember about your life as a session pianist, particularly playing on David Bowie’s Life On Mars?
'Norman Wisdom – a very naughty boy. He’d say anything to shock people.'
I did a Marc Bolan session – incredibly kind guy, really thoughtful and caring. And Cilla Black – I needed a translator! Norman Wisdom – a very naughty boy. He’d say anything to shock people. I remember Bowie playing me Life On Mars? on his battered acoustic guitar and I was bowled over. He just said ‘Imagine this was a piano piece and play it any way you want’. And I remember him playing me all the songs from Hunky Dory in this minstrels’ gallery he had in the house where he lived and I thought they were amazing. We did all the backing tracks in a week at Trident Studios in London, no-one trying to outshine each other. We just wanted to make sure the end result was exactly what he wanted.
You became good friends with Bowie. Didn’t you live on the same mountain as him in Switzerland for a while?
Well, I say ‘mountain’, it was the bit up the back of Montreux – and we used to go to a place called the Museum Club and put the world to rights, talking about politics, management, bands, music. Charlie Chaplin lived down the road and I got invited over for afternoon tea once. Unbelievable! He was very quiet actually, and talked a bit about music, which he knew a lot about. I was so overawed I could barely focus on what he was saying as I was thinking, ‘I’m sitting here talking to Charlie Chaplin!’
Is it true that when your band The Strawbs played a concert in Paris in 1970 you pushed Salvador Dali off the stage?
I did indeed. God knows what he was doing. He was on stage, shouting and waving his stick, and he ruined my little keyboard solo, so he had to go! But to be honest, from behind, I had no idea who he was. If I’d known who he was I would have said, in my terrible Spanish, ‘I don’t mind you ruining my solo, but can I have a free painting?’
Any other memorable on-stage moments?
There were many. I was at the Glasgow Apollo when I was in Yes. I changed into a kilt for the encore – this blue kilt I’d just bought – and decided to do the proper thing and ‘go commando’, forgetting how high the stage was. There were quite a few shocked-looking women in the front row. Instead of ending with Roundabout from the Fragile album, we should have done Nellie the Elephant.
We were at the Manchester Free Trade Hall once and there were these long periods where I didn’t have much to play and got thoroughly bored. So my roadie brought me a take-away curry, which I started eating behind the keyboards. [Singer] Jon Anderson smelt it, wandered over and helped himself to a poppadum.
Back in 1975 you put on a spectacularly over-the-top musical production of the King Arthur legend, performed on ice, and nearly bankrupted yourself in the process. What made you take the risk?
My excessive personality! And David Bowie again, who gave me some great advice – ‘Be your own man and trust in what you believe in.’ I wanted to do King Arthur on ice and the record company said I was nuts. No one even liked ice-skating back then! There was no Torvill and Dean, it was mainly Eastern Europeans, but I wanted to put in on and I’m glad I did. If I had a tenner for everyone who said they’d seen one of those shows, I’d be a multi-millionaire.
Who would you most like to be stuck next to on a long-haul flight?
Stephen Fry. He seems to have that incredible knack of being able to converse with anybody regardless of their status, and that’s an art form.
You moan on Twitter about everything from trapped wind to roadworks. Which is more irritating – litter, graffiti, kids permanently looking at phone screens, or Martin Roberts on Homes Under the Hammer?
Actually I’m a bit of a fan of Homes Under the Hammer, though I don’t watch it now they’ve taken Lucy Alexander off! But the other three drive me nuts. As do the little earpieces people have got in their phones and all you hear is that ‘tsk tsk tsk’. I’d love to carry a pair of scissors round and just snip their wires. ‘Grumpy’ is just the other side of the line to ‘angry’.
You have a home gym, apparently. Have you ever been in there?
I’ve opened the door twice in ten years. Been in once. It’s quite frightening. It’s like going to the dentist or your annual prostate test. The time I did go in, I got on the treadmill for a bit. My wife said this was a tremendous start and next time I should turn it on. I’ll have to get her to show me how it works.
Your latest album features interpretations of a whole range of music – The Beatles, Bowie as well as I Vow To Thee My Country. What were you looking for in the songs?
Melody. Doing variations of other people’s stuff has been around for centuries. I didn’t care if it was five years old or 500 years old, if it had a great melody I had a chance of doing some interesting variations.
You’ve got six children and ten grandchildren. Any useful grandparenting tips?
I love my grandkids to bits but you have to keep your distance. Some grandparents have to phone up every day to find out how they got on at school or whatever, but I put myself in the place of the grandkid. Do you want Grandma – or Grandpa Grumpy, as I’m called – on the phone all the time? Do they really want to talk about how they drew a map of Africa in geography? I remember ringing one of my granddaughters once and I could hear her in the background. ‘Do you want to talk to Grandpa Grumpy?’ ‘Nooo!’
What’s the best thing about getting older?
'It’s a relief not to be chasing girls, as you’re now incapable of chasing girls.'
It’s a relief not to be chasing girls, as you’re now incapable of chasing girls. I’d like to be younger while still having had all the experience of my 68 years. It’s funny how everyone starts looking so young to you – that old cliché about policemen.
I got stopped by a policeman the other day. He pulled me in, the old blue light flashing, and said, ‘When did you have your last drink, sir?’ And I looked at him and said, ‘August the second, 1985.’ So he said, ‘Well, it should have cleared your system by now.’
Piano Portraits is out now. For Rick Wakeman’s tour dates, go to rwcc.com. Follow Rick on Twitter @GrumpyOldRick - or see his Twitter feed on the right hand side of this page.
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