100 Essential Albums of All Time – Rick Wakeman, Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1974)

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Arguably one of the most creative and influential bands in the history of rock music was Yes. Formed in 1968 as the “Age of Aquarius” was being born, it wasn’t until the 1970s that they began to garner some success. In 1971, keyboardist Rick Wakeman replaced the original keyboardist, Tony Kaye, who had issues with guitarist Steve Howe and who didn’t want to play anything that organs and pianos. Wakeman’s joining the band seemed to be the catalyst to even greater success for Yes. Wakeman’s work on Fragile and Close to the Edge brought the band critical and commercial success, with classics like “Roundabout” and “And You and I” etched into the history of classic rock. After the 1974 album Tales from Topographic Oceans – and at the apex of the success of Yes (pre-1980s) – Wakeman felt the desire to move into new artistic directions and left the band, however.

A classically trained pianist, Wakeman often would play piano, organ and synthesizer all in the same song with the complex compositions that Yes brought to the music world. But Wakeman wanted to do even more. His thoughts had moved towards the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth and a musical adaptation that was utterly immense on the scale he wanted in 1974 and still would be considered a major production today.

The project actually took two years to write, with Wakeman collaborating with conductor David Measham and arrangers Will Malone and Danny Beckerman to tell the science fiction story with music that the legendary Verne penned in 1864. When it came to who would play the rock opera with him, Wakeman did not go for well-known musicians through his connections in the music world (what his label wanted him to do). He instead tapped people he played with at a local bar to perform, with the London Symphony Orchestra and the English Chamber Choir providing support on the project. Through it all, Wakeman stayed dedicated to his dream, even selling several cars he owned and mortgaging his home to fund the passion play. In the end, the writing alone cost Wakeman, by his estimates, £40,000.

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Journey to the Centre of the Earth was a live recording, with two concerts schedule on January 18, 1974 at the Royal Festival Hall in London at 6PM and 9PM. Initially Wakeman wanted both concerts to be recorded, but the musicians for the London Symphony demanded that they be paid for both performances of Wakeman’s opus if they were recorded. A chastised Wakeman thus used the first performance as a kind of “dress rehearsal,” then taped the second performance for what would eventually become Journey.

Once the concerts were completed, Wakeman and sound engineer Paul Tregurtha, who had to overcome several problems that came up with the master tapes. A mike cable coming unconnected and a tape change – which lost some of the narration by actor David Hemmings (original choice was Richard Harris) – had to be fixed, with Wakeman and Tregurtha bringing up the levels of other mikes to overcome the lack of a mic and Hemmings rerecording his narration in the studio. Once the masters were complete, however, the true struggle began.

Wakeman’s label, A&M Records, absolutely hated what they were presented with. As luck would have it, it was the U. S. branch of the label and its co-founder Jerry Moss, that actually brought the album to the masses. Moss thoroughly embraced the album and chided his underlings for lacking the vision to put the record out. The British arm of A&M changed their minds and released the album on May 3, 1974.

The success of Journey was immediate. One week after its release, the album reached the top of the British album charts and was the first album from A&M Records to achieve that feat. It went to #3 in the U. S. for two weeks and spent 27 weeks in the Top 200. Wakeman was nominated for a Grammy Award the next year for Best Pop Instrumental Performance (which went to Marvin Hamlisch for “The Entertainer”). Flying high with his success, Wakeman left Yes and went on to a highly successful solo career that allowed him to dance back and forth over the years between his solo pursuits and runs with other bands (rejoining Yes off and on from 1978 through today and a memorable stint as a part of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe in 1988).

What was it that made Journey such an essential album?

Wakeman was a perfectionist when it came to his music and Journey captured every bit of his passion. Not only was his work on the keyboards (which surrounded him on the stage in the Royal Festival Hall and included synthesizers, organs, pianos, clavinet and three Mellotrons (among other keyboard instruments) outstanding, he made sure that everything was mastered with state of the art equipment. The way to especially hear the quality of this recording is through the vinyl release of the album and the usage of special stereo equipment.

One of the things that are known in the music industry – but not by the general listener or fan – is that music is “condensed” when it is recorded. That basically means that the highs are brought down and the lows brought up because, through the radio equipment of the day, nobody could tell the difference (and it is further condensed on the air). It is with the usage of a particular piece of stereo equipment that the true sounds of music – brought back to their original highs and lows – can be heard.

It was a critical piece of stereo equipment – called a stereo expander – which allowed for the true sound of the music to come through when played back. In the 1970s, this was an expensive piece of equipment, but it was a critical one to enjoy Journey in all its glory. The vocals were crisp, the symphonic pieces were solidly backing the performance (you could literally almost pick out each instrument in the orchestra) and Wakeman’s virtuoso work on the myriad of keyboards all came out when played back through the expander. It all adds up to a priceless musical experience, one that can be somewhat achieved through the CDs that have been issued, but the original vinyl was the best way to hear it.

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Arguably Journey to the Centre of the Earth was the apex of Wakeman’s career. It was also arguable that it was the apex of his creativity, although he did go on after that to produce another dozen solo albums along with his work with Yes and ABWH. With its technical superiority, Wakeman’s mastery of his craft and his dedication to the product, Journey to the Centre of the Earth is without doubt an essential album for anyone’s collection.

We’re going to continue on with this, but they won’t be numbered. With such a collection (100 albums), it would be impossible to rank one above another. This is the first in that series and hopefully we’ll be able to complete this over the next year…or so!

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