A suitably excessive collection of recordings from the very height of progressive rock’s ambition and pomposity.
It’s hard to imagine who could possibly dislike Rick Wakeman. Perhaps a few grizzled old punks who can’t let go of the manufactured animosities of the past, but in general Wakeman seems a jovial, self-effacing type who never takes things too seriously and has long moved beyond his musician persona to become a beloved celebrity, one who has appeal beyond his work as a member of ultra-proggers Yes and his own wildly ambitious – some would say pretentious – solo work.
The latter has always been a source of great fascination – a mix of film scores and conceptual works so ambitious in nature that they both sum up the ludicrousness of progressive rock’s rampant ambition and stand as oddly admirable pieces that transcend the limitations of rock music to become something else entirely. I’ve always felt that the objections to prog were misguided because people seemed obsessed with the idea that this was rock music as they knew it, mutated and stretched to levels of pretension and pomposity by musicians who were too talented for their own good. But prog, to me, existed outside a rock world that remained dominated by the three-minute single and swaggering rock gods throughout its peak. Prog was like the film score, the musical and the theatrical – connected to rock and pop, with a certain audience crossover, but not really a part of it. For fans of punk to rage against it seemed to make as much sense as comic book readers ranting about classical art. The two things were unconnected and could and should have been able to live side by side, neither having any impact on the other.
Wakeman’s solo work was often especially theatrical – designed to exist not simply as a record but as a live spectacular, with band, orchestra and actors. Often, it was dramatic and theatrical, sometimes it was ludicrously silly – King Arthur on ice being the most notoriously mad example. It was always madly ambitious and extravagant and so it seems only fitting that Wakeman’s new box set collecting this work is equally unrestrained, consisting of 32 discs that covers every possible aspect of his work from 1973 to 1977 – the albums Six Wives of Henry VIII, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, King Arthur and No Earthly Connection as well as the soundtracks to White Rock and Lizstomania and assorted live recordings, plus alternative versions, outtakes, radio sessions and the films that the soundtracks accompanied on DVD – plus a 60-page hardback book, replica tour programmes, posters and more. All this comes at a hefty price – £400 if you want the full thing including vinyl albums or £250 for the CD-only edition. Clearly, this isn’t for everyone – the casual fan or curious bystander might be better off looking elsewhere and the bare-bones albums are widely available. You need to be a pretty committed fan, and even then you might grumble that the two films are not on Blu-ray (sad fact: Ken Russell’s Lisztomania does not appear to be currently available on Blu-ray anywhere, though I’ll be glad to be corrected on that). If you believe Wakeman’s work to be the very definition of prog awfulness, this is not going to change your mind and others might reasonably think that these works are best experienced as live spectaculars and not in varying recordings.
Still, for those who enjoy no end of pomp and circumstance, this seems just the thing. I can’t really justify it existing but I’m glad it does. You can buy it here: https://www.musicglue.com/rick-wakeman-the-prog-years/
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