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How Rick Wakeman put his epic concept album on repeat

By WMNjackieb  |  Posted: April 12, 2014

By Jackie Butler @QueenJackieB

  • Rick Wakeman at his bank of keyboards

  • A billboard for Rick Wakeman's original Journey to the Centre of the Earth album at Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles in 1974

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He was 24 years old, with immaculate curtains of strawberry blonde hair framing a fresh, intelligent face, flamboyant white satin cloak sweeping the ground, and fingers commanding a bank of keyboards and new-fangled electronic gadgetry – all confirming his status as a 1970s prog rock icon.

On stage with Rick Wakeman at London’s Royal Festival Hall, were the London Symphony Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir, plus assorted rock musicians and actors, performing his epic composition Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, for a record that went on to sell 15 million copies around the world.

Such an ambitious gathering was only repeated three times in the UK after the release of the chart-topping LP in 1974, and a few more occasions overseas in Australia and Japan.

The odds of the whole shebang turfing up on stage at Plymouth Pavilions 40 years later for a repeat performance were, at best, pretty slim. But never underestimate a chancer with a maverick streak, an enduring passion, a gung-ho spirit and, possibly, a death wish...

“Suicidal is probably the word I’m looking for, and definitely the one my accountant would use,” laughs Rick, as rehearsals get under way for a 14-date nationwide tour, which hits the Westcountry on Saturday, April 26, two nights after opening in Newcastle.

Apart from the huge costs involved in putting on a show of this scale, one of the major hurdles that prevented an earlier revival was the vanishing act of the vital original conductor’s score.

“In 1980 I was all set to take it out on the road again and went to the place where the score was supposed to be stored, and it was gone,” recalls Rick.

But out of the blue four years ago a box of random stuff arrived from Australia and at the bottom he found the score.

“It was in terrible condition. The pages were all stuck together with water damage,” he says.

Conductor Guy Protheroe, from the English Chamber Choir, helped him to piece it back together and get it onto the computer in a workable form to re-record.

“He also reminded me that when I wrote it in 1973 it was nearly an hour in length. Because you used to be restricted to 36 minutes on an LP we ditched 20 minutes of it,” adds Rick.

He embarked on the extended new recording at the legendary Abbey Road studios with the Orion Symphony Orchestra, The English Chamber Choir, and actor Peter Egan.

The new album was released in November 2012 as a limited edition project for his “12,500 hardcore supporters”, with a copy of the 1974 Royal Festival Hall concert programme included in a fan-pack.

“These people are always very honest and at the beginning of the project we got a lot of negative comments to start with; people saying ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’,” admits Rick.

“But when we did put it out the response was phenomenal. We had 11,000 emails to the website saying ‘you’ve got to play this live’.

“I thought why not? You’ve got to do what you feel. I like doers – I’m not fond of ‘coulders’. There’s a wonderful saying – ‘success is buried in the garden of failure’; I have that printed out in my music room and studio.

“It’s normally 20 years after you have done something that you can look back and know whether you’ve done the right thing or not. I think sometimes we are too frightened of failure to keep digging for the successful bits.

“And, anyway, I’m not a very good relaxer. I probably won’t be able to hear the nails being banged in,” he adds.

So, the live version began to take shape and as well as marking the four decades since the delivery of the boundary-breaking concept album, this concert resurrection coincides with the 150th anniversary of the classic science fiction book that inspired it – Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

“It’s been a long old haul – we’ve been working solidly on it for the past nine months,” adds Rick, who will this time be accompanied by The New World Symphony Orchestra, The English Chamber Choir and the English Rock Ensemble, with actor Philip Franks as his narrator.

“It’s never going to happen again; it’s just these 14 shows with around 80 of us on stage, plus my huge keyboard rig. It’s a logistical nightmare, but we won’t let that stop us,” says Rick.

“The easiest thing would be to plonk myself in somewhere like Birmingham and do it there for a few days but I think that’s cheating... and it’s not very exciting. I’ve always been a wandering minstrel. Driving around from place to place – that’s exciting.

“My manager now is actually the one I had back then when the album first came out. His reaction was ‘Oh, no, not again’.”

The touring show is in two parts, which won’t surprise anyone who is familiar with Rick in his “Grumpy Old Man” guise on TV or the one man and his piano show he took to the Edinburgh Festival last year.

He’s a witty chap who enjoys musing about life and indulging in a bit of banter.

On this occasion, the first section of the show will see him sharing the hilarious and unlikely tale of the original album, one of several solo efforts he managed to shoehorn alongside his duties as keyboard player with the prog rock band Yes, and high-profile session work with artists like David Bowie.

“There’s a lot of silly Journey anecdotes and many are like something out of Spinal Tap – like inflatable monsters with flatulence,” he laughs.

Rick will trace the endeavour from the thunderbolt idea that struck him as a teenager, through the trials and tribulations that made the record and world tour almost as challenging as the great adventure the story depicts.

He still has clear memories of the day he found Jules Verne’s book on the shelves of the school library in the London suburb of Hanwell.

“When I was eight or nine my dad took me to see a performance of Peter and the Wolf by Prokofiev and I remember thinking even back then that I wanted to do that – combine music with a story,” he says.

“When I was 15 or 16 I was in the library, meant to be revising for German. I pulled off the shelf a Jules Verne anthology, found Journey to the Centre of the Earth and started to read it. I spent the whole afternoon reading and as I read I knew that this was the story I wanted to set to music.”

That quest remained with him, even though The Six Wives of Henry the Eight became his first concept album, released to huge acclaim in 1973. “I used all the money I made from that to make Journey to the Centre of the Earth,” reveals the tireless Rick, who has produced more than 100 solo albums and sold more than 50 million records.

The second half of the show is, of course, the performance of the piece, which Rick hopes will replicate the thrill for the millions who grew up with the original album and, like him, all the film and TV adaptations of the novel. His aim is not only to satisfy loyal fans, but also to introduce his work to a new generation of concert-goers who might garner their own inspirations from it.

There may be a special day-long live recording of the show at a later date, but the project has been film from the outset for a “rockumentary” by Stuart Prebble executive producer of the Grumpy Old Men TV series.

Rick would have loved to bring the show to Truro: “But we’ve had to pick venues that have a stage big enough to squeeze us all on.”

London born and bred, he’s long had a soft spot for the Westcountry, especially since his stint in panto at Hall for Cornwall a few years back – “one of my most enjoyable three months ever” – and a period living at Woodbury Salterton in Devon. A father of six and now grandfather of eight, Rick loves to visit the magnificent gardens down here with his fourth wife Rachel.

“We’re gardening fanatics and we come down at least once or twice a year,” he says. “One of our favourites is Trebah near Falmouth. It has the stand-out wow factor for us.”

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