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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GASP! The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Gets It (Somewhat) Right!

 

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Normally this time of year has everyone in some state of aggravation. Mostly it comes from the holiday preparations (every year I’ve said I plan to start things earlier and instead it seems to be later), but it also comes from the yearly announcement of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees (OK, maybe not everyone). For a change, however, the Class of 2017 isn’t that bad, meaning that the voters, writers, and fans (yes, the fans get a vote)…GASP!…got it (somewhat) right this year.

After years of inducting some clearly questionable candidates (in 2016, the induction of N.W.A. drew the ire of rock fans; in 2015, it was Bill Withers; in 2014, Cat Stevens…you can go back each year and pick at least one), the bands and individuals that were voted in were either a solid lock for entry or a great argument to get in. For example, Pearl Jam was as close to a lock as you could get from the list of nominees as one of the originators of the “grunge” sound of the late 80s/early 90s rock scene. They were on the ballot for the first time and, yes, were worthy of that induction.

The 80s rock generation (and part of the 70s) was represented first by Journey. I wouldn’t have called this one – I believe it is the Rock & Roll Hall of FAME, not the Hall of PRETTY GOOD – but I also am not bent out of shape about their induction. If they are to be inducted, they must be inducted with singer Steve Perry; any other incarnation of the group would be an insult to the legend of the band.

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Joining Journey is straddling that 70s/80s line is another inductee for the 2017 class, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO). Why they hadn’t been inducted previously is anyone’s guess, so it is far overdue for the Rock Hall to recognize the greatness of the band. It is also arguable that Jeff Lynne, the mastermind behind the ELO sound (and producer of some other great artists like Tom Petty, George Harrison, Roy Orbison, and Brian Wilson), deserves an induction as a solo artist or contributor.

The band Yes…yes, they weren’t in the Hall yet…is a correction of one of the grossest errors of the Hall of Fame. Stretching from their early work in the late 60s to their powerful work in the 80s, Yes deserves the induction arguably more than even ELO did. The question is what lineup do you go with? If you go with the early 80s lineup, you’re leaving out Rick Wakeman, arguably one of the finest keyboardists of the rock era. If you go with the original lineup, then you leave out Trevor Horn and keyboardist Geoff Downes (AND Wakeman), who were key to helping in the creation of the 80s sound of the group that led to their resurrection. I don’t envy the job of the Rock Hall staff in determining which people will be honored with induction as a member of Yes.

The singer/songwriters weren’t ignored this year either. Joan Baez, who was a part of the Vietnam protest era of the 1960s and continued to have an outstanding career in the early to mid-70s, wasn’t probably some people’s choice for that genre, but you cannot ignore her impact on rock music having a social impact. Baez inspired such women as Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell to their activism and entrance into the rock arena.

Even one of the longest “problem” spots for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame got covered this year. Nile Rodgers, the legendary producer and leader of the funk/disco group Chic, will enter the Hall for “Musical Excellence.” This should, in the future, remove the attempts to put Chic into the Hall as a performer because, in all honesty, it was Rodgers and the late drummer Tony Thompson who were basically Chic (they had a rotating roster of female vocalists, never a defined female lead). Thompson, in his own right, should be looked at for this award in the future.

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The ONLY question mark about this year’s inductees would be the inclusion of rapper Tupac Shakur on the roster. Shakur was a tremendously influential part of the “West Coast” sound of gangsta rap, even taking it to the point where the “East Coast/West Coast” rap wars began. Because of this standoff, Shakur was brutally shot to death on the streets of Las Vegas 20 years ago and probably brought about the death of ChristopherThe Notorious B.I.G.” (“Biggie Smalls”) Wallace six months later, possibly adding to the legend.

Tupac is a question mark because he didn’t have a wealth of material before his premature death. He’s released more albums since his passing than when he was alive and, to be honest, nobody is claiming that the posthumous work is the reason he’s being inducted. It also leaves the question open that, if you’re inducting Tupac, you’ve got to put Biggie in also (and Biggie’s repertoire is even less than Shakur’s). If you’re going strictly as an influence, I might be swayed on Tupac; if it is on his body of work, then I’m not as solidly behind his induction.

Even with these inductions, there’s still a wealth of artists out there that are more than deserving of entry. Out of the 2017 nominees, I’m slowly coming around to The Cars being inducted. As a purveyor of the synth sound of the 1980s (and their early work in the late 70s), I’ve always been a bit on the fence with the band. Now, I believe there is a place in the Hall for the group, just as there should be for another synthesizer-based band and 2017 nominee, Kraftwerk.

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I’ve also discussed ad nauseam about who deserves to get into the Hall. I’ve seen others believe in my choices of Pat Benatar, The Runaways and Judas Priest, and some have even given credence to Thin Lizzy, an outstanding choice if there is one. I’ve also been a longtime proponent of inducting Warren Zevon and Jimmy Buffett, but will now add Motörhead onto that list alongside a host of others.

Whatever the list of inductees is for this year, the concert that honors those inductees promises to be a bit calmer than the 2016 induction ceremonies. Bringing back the original Cheap Trick – with their estranged original drummer Bun E. Carlos – was tricky, but they pulled it off. 2016 inductee Steve Miller was perhaps the most vocal about his displeasure about the ceremonies AND the induction, points that he made long and loud both pre- and post-induction. If they can figure out the Yes conundrum, then they should be able to get through the awards ceremony without problems.

As to when that show will be, we’ll just have to wait and see. But for one magical year, it appears things are right with the world and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame made the appropriate selections.