It can’t be easy having been the interesting member of Yes. While the rest of that most hilariously pompous prog-rock act had their heads firmly jammed up their own derrieres, keyboard twiddling cape fancier Rick Wakeman alone was responsible for ‘keeping it real’. Or as real as things can be when your vocalist sounds like he has a rather delicate part of his anatomy jammed in a slowly tightening vice. While it’s not strictly true that Wakeman didn’t indulge in the Yes ethos of ‘forget the quality, listen to how many notes we can play!’, or even that he was the best musician in the band (Ridiculously self important he may be, but Steve Howe could genuinely play the guitar with a considerable amount of skill), he at least managed to keep his feet on the ground and realised how overblown and pompous Yes had become, even going to the point of eating a takeaway curry mid-gig as the rest of the band interminably soloed their way through another formless epic.
Grounded and earthy everyman he may be, but Wakeman’s career is dotted with concept albums such as Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where his banks of analogue synthesisers wibble and squiggle over the top of ostentatious orchestral backing with occasional equally pretentious vocals. This was the zenith of all this preposterousness and remains Wakeman’s best known solo work, as well as one of the most ridiculous progressive rock releases. This is Wakeman and the London Symphony Orchestra does Jules Verne. Live. Seriously, how bonkers does that sound? Bonkers enough for Mike Batt to mercilessly lampoon it disguised as a Womble.
Regardless (or perhaps because) of the insanity such an undertaking, I get the feeling that Wakeman was characteristically tongue in cheek about the whole thing. While he took his music very seriously indeed and held great faith in his own abilities, as well as those of his collaborators, I get the impression that much of his joy in creating such music was down to his ambition and ideas dwarfing those of his contemporaries and (more importantly) his band-mates. He effectively went bigger, better and more ambitious primarily because he knew it would get up everyone else’s collective nostrils.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth is not an album for the feint hearted. It’s a heavily orchestrated and dense album with an intermittent narrative and far too many synthesiser solos. For a prog-rock fan it’s an example of just how far the genre could cross-over into orchestral music. If you’re a fan of orchestral music, you’ll find much to admire and much to baffle you in equal measure. Despite all it’s indulgence and pomp Journey to the Centre of the Earth is an album I would encourage anyone to listen to at least once, as it could lead you into fantastic musical worlds you never dreamed existed, or alternatively, you may never want to hear it ever again after that.