When Rick Wakeman was seven years old, a trip to Tintagel kindled a love affair with Arthurian legend. When this writer was a child, pulling the gatefold sleeve of King Arthur… from the record rack at home felt like releasing Excalibur from the stone. Its lavish design fired the young imagination even before the platter reached the turntable. And so began my own love affair with prog.
In the spirit of the original but with some surprises.
Forty years on, thanks to a Pledge campaign, Wakeman has revisited the work, almost doubling its length and rounding out the narrative with key characters who never got a voice due to a single LP’s time constraints. Tales of Morgan le Fay, Princess Elaine, Galahad and Percival now flesh out the mythos and smooth over the fractured telling of the 1975 version. Fresh arrangements by Journey To The Centre Of The Earth collaborators Guy and Ann Protheroe build on the original score, reuniting with the Orion Orchestra, the English Chamber Choir and those merrie rascals, the English Rock Ensemble. With new bass, guitar and drum parts (from Matt Pegg, Dave Colquhoun and Tony Fernandez) the result is in the same spirit as the original, delivering some surprises and laughs along the way. He’s even tapped up old chum Roger Dean for new sleeve art.
Following the exordium, delivered by Dad’s Army’s Ian Lavender, King Arthur bursts forth. Wakeman’s Moog looms over the orchestra and choir with plenty of his signature ballsy analogue synth to soften the sharp edges of modern recording. Morgan Le Fay adapts Arthur’s theme, smoothing the transition from the familiar to the new before a jarring chorus of ‘Temptress!’ veers towards Lloyd-Webber pastiche. Hayley Sanderson (Strictly Come Dancing Band, Think Floyd) is a fine vocalist but might be too West End for some. Similarly Camelot, with its chorus of ‘Camelot… Camelot… Mystical… Camelot,’ has a faint whiff of Pythonesque elderberries – very silly, but fun.
Sir Galahad – a variation on the erstwhile BBC Cricket theme, Booker T. & The M.G.’s Soul Limbo – is as anachronistic as a cow in a catapult but it’s hard not to admire the panache with which it’s executed. Merlin The Magician (now with the lyrics from the 70s live version) was always a slapstick knockabout with its jaunty Dixieland banjo and silent movie homage, so these less-than-regal diversions are in-keeping with Wakeman’s MO. Veteran Ensemble vocalist Ashley Holt reprises his role to temper the silliness with gravelly gravitas on an almost unbearably elegiac The Last Battle.
More Spamalot than Morte d’Arthur, it may be no Holy Grail for purists, but it’s a welcome escape from the new Dark Age.