On a rainy day in 1974 one of my crowd’s older friends came down to our hangout with two records that would come to shape my musical tastes forever. One was Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”, and the second was Rick Wakeman’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. We sat transfixed by these exhilarating albums and in particular Rick’s “Journey” sounded fantastic, mystical, as a perfect blend of rock and classical music. My record collection began when I ran out and acquired these two releases along with the Yes masterpiece Close to the Edge & Rick’s first release, The Six Wives of Henry the VIII, which were recommended by the aloof older teen at our local “Licorice Pizza” record store.
I confess it took many years for me to really appreciate all of the “Six Wives” works. Though attracted by the easy grace of “Catherine of Aragon” and “Catherine Howard” there are other pieces which were decidedly more avant garde and difficult for my young ears. For instance, the massive Hammond C-3 organ attack of the second track, “Anne of Cleaves”, was shocking enough to drive me away from the platter, and the brooding church organ fugue of the “Jane Seymour” cut is probably what prompted one reviewer to compare the record to “Italian horror music” (a comment I later realized was inadvertently a compliment).
It wasn’t until I started getting deeper into more aggressive, even atonal works by the likes of Gentle Giant and King Crimson that I returned to the “Six Wives” record and realized what an astonishing musical masterpiece it was. Most of Rick’s work just after “Six Wives” up through 1977’s “Criminal Record” had a very melodic appeal weaving storytelling with classical rock. The original vocalists of the “English Rock Ensemble” sound like the singers in Broadway musicals such as “Hair”, lending an air of theatricality to the his 1970’s recordings. But the instrumental “Six Wives” stands as arguably the best display of Rick’s amazing skills as a performer and composer. On top of that, it is a showcase of just about every available keyboard of the time, including analogue synthesizers not properly replicated by today’s digital counterparts.
I’ve seen Rick perform over the years as a solo artist, with Yes and with his son Adam, but never were any of those performances staged with all the musicians required to really represent his early work. So it was with great excitement that I noticed a small advertisement for the special engagements at Hampton Court in celebration of King Henry the 8ths 500th anniversary, where Rick presented “Six Wives” in it’s entirely to small audiences of 5,000 patrons on May 1st and 2nd. This was to be my first and possibly last chance to finally see Rick with full orchestra and choir, and though I have never traveled overseas specifically to attend a concert, this seemed like the right time to do it, particularly since it appears that Rick will not be traveling to the US again.
On the day of the show we took a train from London to Hampton Court and were able to gain access via our concert tickets to tour the castle and adjacent maze, which set the mood nicely. The huge stage was erected directly in front of the castle, with a canopy ceiling so that the full width of the castle was visible behind the players. The orchestra would be seated on the left with choir behind on risers and Rick’s band to the right, with him occupying the whole first level and the rest of the band on two levels above.
The proceedings began with a brief set by the “English Chamber Choir” performing work written by King Henry himself, and other composers of the Tudor period. This was followed by a nice acoustic set by three reunited members of Rick’s first band, the Strawbs. After these sets and a short break, the “Orchestra Europa” symphony members, the chamber choir, and Rick’s five member rock band, the “English Rock Ensemble” took their places, including Rick’s son Adam Wakeman on additional keyboards.
Finally, four trumpeters heralded Rick’s entrance flanked by actresses playing each of Henry’s six wives and all decked out in traditional costume of the period. They opened the set with “Tudorture”, one of three pieces composed for the occasion. This piece was representative of the work to come as a bit of a warm-up. It set the stage for Brian Blessed, a popular British Shakespearean actor and personality to burst forth, welcome one and all, and enthusiastically deliver the first of seven narrative sections for the pieces to follow, covering a summary of each of the six wives and the second new piece “Defender of the Faith” conveying King Henry’s life story.
The first track from the original “The Six Wives of Henry the VIII” recording, “Catherine of Aragon” summed up most of the styles, arrangements and thrilling dynamics to follow that evening. The combination of musicians, original analog, acoustic, and digital instruments, and the many vocalists, being led by Rick clearly in top form assured that the original work was presented in the best possible light, transcending the original recordings and making for a truly remarkable concert. The castle provided the perfect backdrop – really an integral part of the show, bathed in crimson red, bright pink, deep blues and natural lighting at times with projections of the wife being celebrated. At one point, for the track “Jane Seymour”, a massive church organ on a tall podium was moved into center stage on which Rick played as if possessed, performing the amazing “Bachish” modal theme with a power that shook the audience to the core evoking the most enthusiastic applause of the evening. Later for the last of the “Six Wives” tracks a beautiful grand piano was brought out and added to the majesty of “Anne Boleyn”. The encore, “Tudor Rock” reprised themes from the evening and gave Rick a chance to play out a “dual” on portable keyboards with Adam. It was beyond my expectations that Rick so perfectly performed these works after so many years, how effectively orchestra and choir were arranged to enhance the pieces, and how really amazing it all was. Rick and all involved in the show deserve the highest critical praise for achieving such an ambitious undertaking.
Many rock music critics over the years have scorned Rick’s work, and that of his “progressive rock” counterparts as indulgent and pompous. To be fair, the ambitions of these artists to create increasingly complex variations on classical, rock, and jazz forms have resulted at times in difficult listening experiences, or over-produced theater. But I can’t agree with the derision of rock purists for those who spent the effort to learn their craft at the level of classical and jazz masters and who fuse that work with powerful electric instruments, breaking away from simple love songs or anti-establishment anthems and exploring deeper themes in literature and history. To be sure, the rawest punk can excite and incite the listener, but so can the most challenging of the progressive rock musicians. On this night, Rick and his crew steered clear of these “dark side” of progressive rock and while Brian in particular was a bit exuberant, there was also a solemnity or gravity to the occasion, possibly urged on by the setting and anniversary to prove the merit of these early compositions, and maybe of an entire career.
Rick has grown over the years into a very effective, very funny orator, peppering his shows with lengthy stories from his many days performing all over the world. More recently, he has added to his popularity in Britain by appearing in a series of television shows called “Grumpy Old Men”. On this night, he let the similarly witty, boisterous Brian Blessed do the talking for him, until right at the end, when Rick came out to thank the organizers and his fans. Rick explained how he originally wanted to present the album at Hampton Court and how he had dreamed of doing so for more than 35 years, adding that “it just goes to prove, whatever age you are, it’s worth having your dreams, ’cause sometimes they do come true”. For me, and many of the dedicated fans in the crowd, truer words were never spoken.