It’s one of the pinnacles of prog: an unapologetic, bells-and-whistles concept classic which was so emblematic of its era that, when three or four journalists decided punk was Stalinist Year Zero, it drew a zealous bucketful of flak and was tossed in the bin marked “unfashionable”.
Yet now the decades have passed and Rick Wakeman’s 1974 multi-million seller can be appreciated again in all its florid majesty, madness and musicality. While those who still believe rock should never extend itself beyond Sham 69’s Hersham Boys may struggle to embrace it, anyone else should de-wax their ears and hear it for what it is: an achingly ambitious and multi-faceted symphonic work by a 25-year-old musician/composer reaching for the stars.
It’s safe to say Journey To The Centre Of The Earth will outlive Wakeman’s fart jokes. Back then, the keyboard wizard was obsessed with adapting Jules Verne’s novel, and moved heaven and earth to do so. He recorded his January ’74 Royal Festival Hall shows with The London Symphony Orchestra and actor David Hemmings narrating, but was aghast to find his UK label wasn’t interested. Fortunately, over in the States, Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) took to it, and the album went to No.1 in Blighty and No.3 in the US.
An ambitious work by a 25-year-old reaching for the stars.
It’s now sold 14 million copies: a figure most contemporary chart-toppers can only dream of. Success came at a cost though: Wakeman re-mortgaged his house and sold his cars to make it happen, and the tour climaxed with him in hospital after a heart attack. He suffered for his art: it’s only fair that, if you’re a newcomer to this journey, you give it a fair chance.
Most Prog readers will of course know Journey… like the back of their hand, and this four-disc edition offers what you know you want and some of what you might. Disc One is the original: its of-the-period recording techniques haven’t been painted over, but the new mastering does feel like there’s fresh petrol in the tank. Then there’s a live version from Boston in 1974: in truth this isn’t massively different, but the quirks are charming. We then leap forward to 1993 and Buenos Aires for Disc Three. This drops the vocals and narration, and while you might imagine that’s Morecambe without Wise, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, sounding plush and polished without sacrificing power. Finally there’s a DVD with Quad and Hi-Res mixes.
One wishes the superb 2012 re-recording with the complete score (released in collaboration with Classic Rock) were here, but the core values are present and there’s plenty to get lost in again. Go underground!