If you were one of The Lurkers and still think prog is Satan’s armpit sweat, you’ve stopped reading this already and gone off to gob at tourists. For those who embrace ambition and pomp, it makes perfect sense that this 14-million-selling monolith, one of progressive rock’s landmarks, is now revisited and expanded, complete with the missing-presumed-lost elements of the score.
Wakeman, having just left Yes, recorded the original live at the Royal Festival Hall in January 1974, with the London Symphony Orchestra and the late David Hemmings narrating. It was a costly venture – Wakeman “sold a few cars” to make it happen. By May it was No.1 here and No.3 in America, proving that nothing succeeds like excess.
While some dubbed it “appalling classical pastiche”, many others evidently thrilled to its scale, its strange fusion of synthesiser wizardry and orchestral flourishes. A&M insisted that Wakeman’s score be compressed to single-album length (sub-40 minutes). Later, the only paper copies of the orchestral parts were stolen, but four years ago the conductor’s score turned up and was restored by conductor/musicologist Guy Protheroe.
Now Rick could piece together his template. This Abbey Road recording adds two new songs along with extra narrative and instrumental passages, bringing it to 55 minutes. With Peter Egan taking over narration, it features the Orion Symphony Orchestra, English Chamber Choir and Wakeman’s English Rock Ensemble. “We’ve added all the corrections, but it was desperately important it kept the same 70s-flavour sounds,” Wakeman says.
It isn’t a remake, but Rick’s vision of how an ideal studio original would have played. To judge its aesthetic by ‘contemporary’ values would be to moan at Casablanca for not being in colour 3D. Yet its loftiness, so infuriating to the subsequent generation, is exhilarating. Magic crystals, gothic cathedrals, worlds within worlds, mastodons and cumulus clouds: this isn’t me being florid, this is what occurs.
Breaking up symphonic prog with narration every few minutes seems counter-intuitive, but you acclimatise to its weirdness, and this journey is as much Tubular Bells as Grieg (credited); as much a moving picture as a grandstanding musical entity.
In the current age of play-safe English dullness, everything that was labelled pretentious and over-the-top about it seems impressively up-in-your-grill. Cast the new conservatism to the winds and dream a little!