Monday, April 10, 2023

Quote of the Day (Rick Wakeman, on an Unusual Inspiration for His ‘Six Wives of Henry VIII’)

“That night I couldn’t sleep. It was in the early hours that I finally dropped off, and the track [“Anne Boleyn”] was running through my head. And suddenly there I was, at the Tower of London. It was as vivid as a dream could be. The crowd was gathered by the gallows—I was right with them. I can’t say that I saw Anne’s head go into the basket, but after what had happened everyone started singing the hymn ‘The Day Thou Goest, Lord, Is Ended.’ I woke up with a start and said to my then-wife: ‘I’ve got the ending of the song.’ She replied [sounding bored], ‘Oh, good.’”—Rock ‘n’ roll keyboardist and composer Rick Wakeman on a seminal moment in creating The Six Wives of Henry VIII, quoted by Dave Ling, “Off With Their Heads!”, Prog Magazine, February 2023

I confess to skepticism when I read the above quote from Rick Wakeman. The dream that the on-and-off longtime keyboardist of Yes credits for spurring the creation of his first solo LP, The Six Wives of Henry VIII, released 50 years ago, sounded to me more like the product of mind-altering substances. We live in such a cynical age that many people will still believe that drugs were behind it.

Under normal circumstances, I’d take with a very, very large grain of salt Wakeman’s contention from a February 2017 interview with the UK’s Daily Mail that he’s never taken a joint or cocaine, or even popped up a pill. 

But his explanation (“That was just booze and adrenaline. And it nearly killed me anyway”) makes sense: when you smoke and drink so heavily and get so little sleep that you have three heart attacks by age 25, you don’t need more vices than you have already.

I’m not sure why I never got around to listening to this LP when I came out, or in all the years since. I had eagerly watched the British mini-series of the same name a couple of years earlier when it made a splash on US television.

Moreover, when Wakeman’s follow-ups to this epic LP, Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, came out in the next two years, I had eagerly snatched them up. But somehow, I never heard what started it all for him. 

In retrospect, I can’t believe how weird that was.

These days, it’s a bit hard for youngsters to imagine the hold that progressive rock (or, as it’s been rudely abbreviated, “prog rock”) held for those my age back in the early 70s. It was everywhere. The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” you could say, started it all, but before long all the cool kids were listening to the cool "free-form" rock stations like New York's WNEW-FM that played it, featuring groups like Procol Harum, The Moody Blues, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Renaissance, and Yes.

Even if you didn’t exactly embrace this music, you absorbed it. It was simply inescapable.

Even so, musicians of the time who played in this style must have felt at points that they were going deeply against the grain in the industry. You can’t help but come away with that impression after reading Wakeman tell Dave Ling about his presentation of the finished record to the A&M brass:

“At the end, the lawyer from America said, ‘Can I hear it with the vocals on it?’

“I replied, ‘There are no vocals, it’s an instrumental keyboard album.’

“They said, ‘Nobody makes instrumental keyboard albums,’ to which I replied, ‘I’ve just done it.’ They couldn’t get their heads around it. ‘So we’ve just paid for an instrumental keyboard album?’ ‘Yep.’ And somebody said, ‘God help us.’”

This exchange made me laugh almost as hard as Wakeman’s explanation for his inspiration. But even that didn’t make me guffaw as much as his response to the question of whether any record company execs admitted their mistake when the LP climbed to #7 on the UK charts:

“Record companies never admit they are wrong. Are you mad?!”

I had quite a few chuckles while reading Wakeman’s remarks, but even I have to admit the obvious: After you listen to this live performance of “Anne Boleyn,” I think you’ll agree that Wakeman is a marvelous musician indeed. 

King Henry may have demanded that his suspects kneel before him, but some of Wakeman's more ardent fans would gladly pay him similar homage without the threat, in tribute to his mastery of his instrument.

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